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Early Birdies

Here's One Way to Beat the Crowds and Frustration of Public Golf: Hit the Course at Dawn and Play the Back Nine


Golf has enjoyed boom times in the 1990s. The PGA Tour has never been richer, the equipment keeps getting better, and new public courses keep springing up.

Now according to a recent study by the National Golf Foundation, the number of actual rounds being played on golf courses is declining. That doesn't make sense. They can't be talking about the courses I frequent.

Every time I have a chance to play (usually on the weekend) it seems everyone within an 85-mile radius of the course has the same idea. And wants to play at the same time. You know, a convenient time.

The group I play with--either my regular foursome or a group I have joined as a single--can be assured of a five- to six-hour round regularly interrupted by very slow play, cell phone conversations in the middle of fairways, playing behind the one guy who brings one ball and nearly loses it every shot or the group of gamblers who need 10 minutes to line up seven-inch bogey putts.

But since I must continue to work for a living, I have to take playing time when I can get it.

There is another way, however, to get your golf if you can get up early and don't mind restricting your round to nine holes.

Nearly every Orange County course opens its back nine for 1-2 hours after the course opens. And if you are in the first or second group out, you're playing the course in its best shape; fairways torn up from the previous day have been repaired and the grass on the fairways and greens has been cut or is getting the daily trim from the groundskeeping crew.

I recently played the back nine at Meadowlark in Huntington Beach. I was one of 18 people taking swings before going to work, or trying to beat the morning and afternoon fivesomes that would soon jam the course.

Lush and green, the par-70 18-hole course measures 5,609 yards from the blue tees with a 113 slope rating. Most of the holes are flat and wide; the only time I saw water come into play was on the 18th hole, a 484-yard, dogleg-right par five.

I left my Los Angeles home at 5 a.m., and wiggled my way through traffic to arrive at Meadowlark 45 minutes later and went up to the starter to put my name on the list. I didn't have to wait; the starter had just sent three players out to the 10th tee, and they needed a fourth. The green fee was $13; $15 if I wanted breakfast. I opted for the latter and was glad I did. The pancakes and sausage I had after the round were excellent.

The trio I joined--Joe Anello and Jeff Hurd of Huntington Beach and Chris Wozniak of Cypress--are friends and salesmen for the same Tustin-based company.

Anello has a special fondness for Meadowlark. He interviewed for his job with Hurd and Wozniak after a round of golf there in 1997. They have been playing Meadowlark's back nine on Tuesday for the past 2 1/2 years. "Always during daylight savings time when we can get out early," Wozniak said.

We were all of equal ability, which is to say we rarely made par. But from the first tee shot to the final putt, playing the nine holes only took two hours.

I thought I'd found nirvana.

It was good for the other guys, too.

"That's perfect for us," Anello said. "We don't start knocking on [customer's] doors until after 9."

Anello, who has been playing golf for 10 years, likes the early morning back nine for another reason. It's his chance to enjoy the game.

"When I was selling real estate I would play two or three times a week, and often 36 holes on Friday. That was too much. Now, there is no way I could go through a five- or six-hour round on the weekend. I would be completely frustrated after two holes."

For Wozniak and Hurd, who have been playing golf for more than 10 years, the weekly back-nine round with Anello keeps them in touch with the game while meeting the time demands of their jobs and families.

"I was playing four rounds a week until I got married, had a kid and bought a house," Wozniak said. "[Tuesday] is my chance to get out."

It was probably the quickest nine holes I have played. It was a pleasure to go right to the tee box and hit, and go out to your ball to hit it again without having to wait.

Not everything was perfect, though.

One definite drawback of early morning play: the rough was heavy with dew. If you didn't keep your ball in the fairway--and who does--it was difficult to hit the ball out without getting a shower.

Another drawback was after finishing the back nine, I was ready to play the front--even another 18. By then, of course, golfers with scheduled tee times had packed the course.

But I will be back.


Back-Nine Deals That Will Wake You Up

* Anaheim "Dad Miller", 430 N. Gilbert St., Anaheim. (714) 748-8900

Hours: Daybreak for 1 1/2 hours.

Cost: $13 on weekdays, $15 on the weekend.

* Anaheim Hills, 6501 Nohl Ranch Road, Anaheim. (714) 998-3041

Hours: Daybreak for 1 1/2 hours.

Cost: $22.50 on weekdays,, $24.50 on weekends.

* Birch Hills, 2250 E. Birch St., Brea. (714) 990-0201

Hours: Daybreak to 7 a.m.

Cost: $11 on weekdays, $13.50 on weekends.

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