A time to grind

Mike Blair, of the host club, putts on the first hole Monday morning during the start of the State-Am at Bretwood Golf Course in Keene. Keeton Foster, of Pine Grove Springs Golf Course in Spofford, is in the background.

Mike Blair turns 62 next month. Keeton Foster is still a teen. Yet there they were together on the first tee Monday, the grass shimmering with dew, hitting the opening drives of the 114th N.H. Amateur Golf Championship at emerald green Bretwood Golf Course.

In most sports, they would be separated by age — you conceivably wouldn’t find Blair driving on Foster in the local basketball league. But in the State-Am, New Hampshire’s premier amateur golf tournament, everyone drives from the same tees, hits from the same fairways, and putts on the same greens.

Young and old alike, true handicaps in golf are wayward shots, and those are hardly age discriminatory. “The ball doesn’t know how old you are,” said 56-year-old Dave Larrivee of the Manchester Country Club.

If you listen to the golf sages hanging around the scoring tent, this year’s tournament is wide open, available for the taking by State-Am newbies or 30-year veterans. That’s because Bretwood’s relatively short length of 6,755 yards on the North Course will put a premium on shot-making.

The bombs-away approach goes only so far at Bretwood, says 21-year-old Matt Paradis of the Concord Country Club. Paradis made it to the championship match last year at the Laconia CC, dropping a 4 and 3 decision to Chris Houston in the 36-hole final. He says one of the “old guys” he edged in match play last year was Jim Cilley of Ridgewood CC.

Old, of course, is relative — Cilley is only 36.

“My hybrid, their drivers, we’re hitting them in the same spots,” said the affable Paradis, whose family is renting a house on Swanzey Lake this week.

A rising junior at Southern New Hampshire University, Paradis shot a solid 71 Monday, which should put him in match play barring an unlikely catastrophic collapse today. The top 64 golfers advance to match play, which starts Wednesday.

Paradis has the look of a favorite playing with confidence. Like most everyone coming off the course, he had high praise for Bretwood, saying balls are bouncing pure and fair, the greens are true and speeding up.

Proving Paradis’ point about efficiency over distance, 58-year-old Craig Steckowych checked in three groups later with a 68 and shares the lead with James Pleat, 32 years his junior, going into today’s second round.

One of Steckowych’s playing partners was Mike Martel, 23, of Nashua CC who shot a 71.

“Your golf clubs don’t know how old you are,” said Steckowych, a member of the Portsmouth CC. “On courses like this where it’s not terribly long, I can stay with him. Some courses, that may not be true.”

Steckowych, who won the 1990 and 1998 State Am, qualified for last year’s U.S. Senior Open. His round Monday featured six birdies and only two bogeys; not surprisingly he says he has good vibes about Bretwood. “I’ve been in so many of these over the years, really, the only goal is to stay calm and to stay in it,” he said. “I’m pleased with it.”

Nowadays, Steckowych finds himself competing against the children of good friends, and it adds to his enjoyment. “It brings generations together,” he said.

Blair, of Keene, has been teeing it up in the State-Am since 1985, when it was held at the Keene CC. He made it as far as the semifinals in match play 12 years ago at Laconia CC. Monday was the first time he and Foster, a member of Pine Grove Springs in Spofford, have played a round together.

Blair says conceding distance to age is part of the game, so it’s essential that he hit every shot precisely when playing with the young guns.

“The ball comes closer every year,” Blair said. “The big thing is you lose distance. You just can’t wind it up like you used to.”

Foster, a 19-year-old Keene High graduate from Chesterfield who recently completed his freshman year at Franklin Pierce University, outdrove Blair most of Monday, yet they shot similar opening rounds (Foster 75, Blair 77). Both were bedeviled by some sloppy play on the back nine.

Sam Natti was the middle man in their threesome, on the cusp of middle age at 34 years old. Natti left his house in Lisbon at 4:30 a.m. to make the 7:30 tee time, then returned immediately after the round to help out with the kids. You could say the group spanned three generations.

Blair and Foster let potentially superb rounds slip away coming in that had little to do with age. Blair bounced one off the rocks on the island green, the par-3 13th, for a double bogey, and Foster’s putter let him down a couple times. Both remain in contention for a spot in match play.

“The key is to stay away from big numbers. You’ve got to take your medicine when you make a mistake rather than let it get away from you. Dragging around bad shots isn’t going to help you,” Blair said.

“You play a little different (in medal play),” said Foster, who was 3-under-par through seven holes. “In my head I know that it’s probably going to be 78-78 (to reach match play).”

Closest in age had to be a seniors group of Bob Landry, 57, of the Loudon Country Club, Larrivee, 56, and Jim Jankowski, 57, of Baker Hill Golf Club. The difference between them and young guns like of Foster and Paradis?

“Advil,” Larrivee quipped.

But don’t be fooled. They are just as competitive and confident. “It’s not how far, it’s how many that counts,” Larrivee said.

“You still have to get it in the hole,” added Jankowski, admitting it took him far too many strokes (87) to do so than he would have liked. “They hit it plenty farther, but we can hit it far. We can compete.”

Steve Gilbert is a columnist for The Sentinel.