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By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If Richard Gregus were a pessimist, he might have cringed at the outlook for the Piner boys golf team this spring. Seven boys showed up to the first meeting, barely enough for a team. (One would later quit because of family issues.) Just two of them owned their own sets of clubs. Four had played football at Piner, but only one of the seven had played high school golf before. The rest could somewhat charitably be described as beginners.
“When I first started, I was probably the worst golfer out there,” junior Andrew Winter said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. This was my first year on a team. Like actually keeping score and stuff. It was just fundamentals — swinging, grip, which club to use.”
Fortunately, Gregus and his assistant, Jeff Goering, are not pessimists. And neither, as it turns out, are their athletes. The Prospectors aren’t exactly a threat to win the Sonoma County League tournament on Monday. But they have made remarkable strides in what easily could have been a demoralizing season.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Gregus, who has coached at Piner for 16 years (adding the girls team in 2001).
“Some of the juniors are saying, ‘Why didn’t I start doing this when I was a freshman? This is so much fun.’”
Most of the kids who came out for the team had golfed with their parents before, but had never been schooled on the finer points of the game. And it showed.
“That one time at Healdsburg, I was so nervous my hands were shaking,” Winter confided. “I whiffed the ball off the tee twice.”
Asked what his biggest deficiency was early on, freshman Jordan Caldwell said: “Not being able to hit the ball straight. It was pretty bad.”
In their first tournament, at Healdsburg Golf Club at Tayman Park on March 4, the Prospectors shot a total of 346 — an aggregate of the team’s top five scores. The SCL plays nine-hole events. Par at Tayman over nine holes is 35. Five times 35 is 175. So the Piner boys were a collective 171 over par that first time out.
And here’s the shocking part: They had a great time doing it. The Healdsburg kids were good-natured about it. Gregus and Goering gently offered tips, and the Piner golfers shrugged their shoulders and laughed off the result.
In other words, they took the perfect approach to this maddening sport. Gregus likes to quote a line from the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” about golf being a game that can be played, but not won.
“That’s the overriding concern of how we coach,” said Gregus, a retired teacher who taught for 32 years in Santa Rosa City Schools.
He and Goering keep their practices loose, and creative. They might ask the golfers to use their wedges to pitch and chip and hit out of sand, or to vary shots with their 7-irons. During one session at Fairgrounds Golf Course a couple weeks ago — they split practices between the fairgrounds and the Links at Bodega Harbour — the Prospectors shot the whole course with wedges. Another time, Gregus told them they could play with any four clubs they chose from their bags — but only those four clubs. They went out and beat their low scores.
“They’re the nicest and calmest people you’ll ever meet,” junior Mark Ainger said of Gregus and Goering.
They also happen to be highly respected coaches. Gregus didn’t just loan the boys clubs from his garage. He and Goering set out to teach them the game, starting with the basics.
In his first three games, Ainger was driving the ball maybe 140, 150 yards off the tee. “Then I kind of fessed up and said, ‘Coach, how do I hit my driver?’” the junior said.
Gregus worked on his stance and mechanics, and last week Ainger drove a ball 305 yards. Gregus has taught him to draw and fade off the tee, too. Ainger has emerged as one of the two best players on the team.
Along the way, without ever feeling pressured to do so, the Prospectors became much more competitive. Gregus’ goal for the team was to break 300. They shattered that with a 280 at Bodega Harbour about three weeks ago. Then they shot 271 there, then 266. Last week they hit 249 at Rooster Run Golf Club in Petaluma.
They went from an average individual round of 69.2 to an average of 49.8 in five weeks. One kid, senior Stephan George, dropped 46 strokes (from 105 to 59) in that span.
The Prospectors improved so much, in fact, that Gregus had to re-evaluate them. He lives across the street from Bennett Valley Golf Course, and Derrick Feliciano, one of the pros there, had asked him early in the season if he wanted to enter the Piner boys in a multi-school tournament Feliciano was organizing. Gregus said no. His team wasn’t ready for that level of competition.
Recently, Feliciano asked Gregus again. This time he said yes. Piner played the Bennett Valley tournament Monday.
Golf has been a rewarding experience for the Prospectors this year, teaching them how to relax and persevere.
Now they, in turn, can help boost Piner golf. When Gregus started coaching there, he had 21 boys on his team. That number dwindled through the years until 2013, when he started with five boys and lost a couple to grades. The Prospectors had to forfeit much of their schedule.
With five of the current Piner kids returning next year, this team should be ready to compete for some victories. Not that Gregus will approach things any differently.
“Once you get too serious about golf,” he said, “you’re in trouble.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.