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ON THE GREEN

TIMING IS RIGHT : Things Come Together for Cunerty as He Prepares for Long Beach Open

July 21, 1999|STEVE KRESAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Cunerty, the golf coach at Saddleback College and a talented player as well, knows the importance of keeping pace on a golf course.

But one day in early June he was elated that his group had fallen behind.

Cunerty and the other members of the Southern California Golf Assn. committee in charge of establishing slope ratings were nearing the 16th hole at Ocean Trails in Rancho Palos Verdes when a major part of the 18th fairway collapsed and fell 150 feet to the beach.

Normally, his group would have been on the final hole when the hillside gave way. But because the course had so many obstacles that needed to be recorded, they were behind schedule.

"I looked down and saw a big chunk of earth give way," Cunerty said. "Then all of a sudden, it sounded like someone dropping watermelons on cement."

This spectacular occurrence has helped frame what has been an amazing stretch for Cunerty, 53.

This week, he is playing in the Long Beach Open, for which he qualified by winning the Long Beach Amateur championship by seven shots in June.

Cunerty is entered as an amateur, but the Long Beach Open is a $140,000 tournament that starts Thursday at El Dorado. The second round is at Recreation Park and the top 60 and ties from the field of about 270 play the final two rounds at El Dorado. First place is worth $26,000 and second is $15,000.

Cunerty is mostly looking forward to the tournament because close friend Tom Shine will be his caddie.

"[Shine] calls my house," Cunerty said, "and tells my wife Claudia that I'm not supposed to do any yard work or house work or lift anything heavy because of the big tournament coming up. But she tells him I don't do any of those things anyway."

Cunerty made the cut over the weekend at the SCGA Amateur championship and has also played in the Long Beach match play championships and missed by four shots qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open.

He will try to qualify for the U.S. Amateur on Monday at Mission Viejo Country Club.

Cunerty is confident about his chances to do well at U.S. Amateur qualifying because he has played the course so many times while coaching the Saddleback golf team.

But there's another reason.

"I feel really good," Cunerty said. "I went for some testing on some new kind of diabetes medicine and it seems to be working really well and the cancer stuff is in total remission as of this moment. I'm a happy guy."

It was health concerns caused by diabetes and abdominal cancer that helped convince Cunerty to finally take his doctor's advice and quit coaching football in January 1998 after 30 years. He had been at Saddleback as an assistant from 1980 to 1993, took a sabbatical, then was the head coach for the next three years. He had a 25-7 record, including 11-0 in 1996.

But he remained in charge of the Saddleback men's golf team and is also the head coach of the women's team that started last fall. The men's golf team at Saddleback has won 16 conference titles and five state championships in Cunerty's 18 years as head coach.

"You coach football for 30 years," Cunerty said, "and there's this switch that goes on in August and it's like 'OK, it's time.' Last year, the switch went on but there's nothing there.

"This has kind of filled that void for me because I just love to compete. It's one thing when you organize a football team and call plays but the kids compete. In this, if I screw it up, it's just me. But I kind of like that."

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