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Kearns Off Course in Southwest : Lakeside Champion, 71, Cuts Back on Golf, Returns to Operating Room


The monolithic block of stone rises hundreds of feet in the air and can be seen for miles. Some say the outline of the impervious rock resembles a passing ship on the sea, which accounts for its name.

Shiprock, the name of the landmark as well as the neighboring town of 7,687, dominates the topography of northwest New Mexico like a supertanker overmatches a Hobie Cat.

Find old U.S. Route 66 in the atlas, head east, and motorists would be hard-pressed to miss it. Thar she blows.

Shiprock is the new mailing address of Dr. Walter Kearns, late of the Lakeside Country Club in Toluca Lake. To be sure, he is a city boy in the boonies, dry docked in the desert, a duck out of water.

Wally's World has changed, no doubt about it.

"I always liked L.A.," said Kearns, who lived in Woodland Hills for the past 39 years. "I've always thought it was a great place to live. This is culture shock."

Shiprock is a bit of a misnomer. For an uptown guy like Kearns, Ship wreck is more like it. But he is marooned by choice.

Kearns, a 71-year-old general surgeon who turned Lakeside on its ear by winning the men's club championship in June, up and moved to New Mexico a week later.

He traded his shiny clubs for chrome surgical instruments and set up practice at the Shiprock Indian Hospital, where he will work for the U.S. Public Health Service in assisting the indigenous Navajo population.

He may be new to cowboy boots, pickup trucks and five-pound belt buckles, but make no mistake: Shiprock is Kearns' lighthouse, his beacon.

"I've always felt that working is excellent for your health," Kearns said. "I believe it helps keep you young."

For Kearns, life has become an interesting paradox. When he turned 65 a few years back, he began to play golf more regularly.

Kearns had always been a solid player--he competed in the U.S. Amateur in Omaha at age 19, played at Princeton in the early 1940s and won the Lakeside men's championship in 1967. But his practice in Woodland Hills took up most of his time and his game suffered from neglect.

As the years rolled by and the list of patients declined, he did what most guys do when they find themselves on life's back nine: Worked at play.

On June 27, it came full circle. Kearns defeated 31-year-old Mark McMurrey of Los Angeles, 3 and 2, in the 36-hole match-play final.

"I don't think I could have lost to a nicer guy," McMurrey said.

Just like that, though, Kearns rode off into the sunset, his golf bag again relegated to the garage.

"It's a great challenge," he said. "An adventure."

So was the club championship. After the qualifying rounds were complete, Kearns battled through four rounds of match play. Kearns spotted McMurrey 40 years and at least as many yards off the tee. Talk about a generation gap.

However, when it came to the short game, the doctor was in. And the doctor was on.

With a small gallery of their friends and family following the championship match, McMurrey was schooled by a septuagenarian. Had the afternoon round of match play continued for 18 holes, Kearns would have shot his age with pars on the final two holes.

Nothing new there. Kearns estimates he has shot his age or better six times in the past couple of years.

During the course of the championship match, the pair played through a foursome that included comedian Bob Hope. Celebrity sightings are nothing new at exclusive Lakeside, located near the Warner Bros. and Universal Studios movie lots.

Hope, a longtime Lakeside member, eyeballed the throng following Kearns and McMurrey and fired off a trademark one-liner: "All of you came out here just to watch me play?"

Not this time. All ovations were reserved for Kearns, who seemingly took the oldest of show-biz axioms to heart: Always leave 'em wanting more.

Kearns has no plans to defend his title next summer. Besides, because he's working full time, his game wouldn't be in great shape anyway.

"I guess I'm a once-a-week (player) again," he said.

This is definitely no golfing holiday. Kearns arrived in Shiprock on a Wednesday and started work the next morning. In his second week on the job, he performed surgery from 7:15 a.m. to 3 p.m. without so much as a break for lunch.

He is one of three surgeons at the 60-bed facility and will earn a salary of $75,000. Most of his Hippocratic brethren are considerably younger and some are fresh out of college, there to work off their government loans. There are 35 doctors on staff and Kearns is one of three surgeons. He is the oldest doctor at the facility.

"I still think I have something to offer," he said. "Hopefully, somebody can still learn something from me."

Kearns and his wife, Gail, are living within walking distance of the facility, renting a three-bedroom bungalow from the government.

The town is, well, rustic. The nearest burgh of significant size is Farmington, population 30,000. To describe small towns in medical terms, there are sleepy, comatose and flat line. Let's just say that Shiprock falls into one of the aforementioned categories.

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