NEBO – The history of Marion Lake Club spans nearly a century, and in that time, Rick Condrey has won as many golf tournaments there as just about anybody.

Condrey, 67, is one of only two five-time winners (Jim Johnson is the other) of the Annual Al Farley Memorial Open, the county’s longest-running and most prestigious event. Earlier this month, Condrey captured the venerable club’s championship for a record eighth time.

With the Open in the offing (see related story), I rode along with Condrey for 18 holes to see just exactly how the veteran golfer attacks his home course in a typical round.

Included in the foursome were local ace Brandon Godfrey, himself a former county and club champion with a swing as smooth as spun honey; big-hitter Frank Lee, a Lake Club employee with a walk-up-and-hit-it approach that works well for him; and Danny Patnode, a steady senior golfer coming off some low-scoring rounds the previous weekend.

The result was an insightful and thoroughly entertaining afternoon with a swell bunch of guys, all of them outstanding players in their own rights. Since all four were taking part in the club’s weekly dogfight, Condrey and Godfrey played from the white tees (although both will play from the championship tees in the county open) while Patnode played from the silver.

Here’s how it went:

No. 1, 433 yards, dog-leg right, par-5: With a spacious landing area, No. 1 invites players to grip it and rip it off the tee. Condrey’s driver leaves him 173 yards to the pin, into the wind. He picks a 5-iron, “because I’m not loose yet.” That becomes painfully obvious when he chunks his second shot way right and well short of where he was aiming.

But, as I was to learn, Condrey is adept at taking those kinds of setbacks in stride; in fact, his whole philosophy of the game revolves around the ability to compensate for the occasional poor shot. Condrey proceeds to chip onto the green from a tough lie in the rough and bury a 10-footer for birdie.

No. 2, 316 yards, par-4: Condrey tries to stay to the right off the tee, but hits the ball off the heel of his club and misses – right down the middle. A 54-degree gap wedge from 37 yards gets him on the dance floor, and he barely misses a 30-footer for birdie. “That’s just one of those things you learn as you get older,” he says of his recovery after the errant tee shot. “When I was younger, I’d have been ready to bite the club in half because I know I can hit it better.”

No. 3, 375 yards, par-4: Condrey hits a hybrid off the tee. It’s enough club to get over the low hill and onto the gentle downward slope without rolling too far and ending up in the creek that runs all the way across the fairway, perpendicular to the hole. He hits an 8-iron from 145 yards out and ends up short of the green on the right side. Condrey’s chip lips out and he makes a 3-footer for par.

No. 4, 140 yards, par-3: The hole is all downhill, so Condrey hits a punch 9-iron in an attempt to stay underneath the wind that sometimes blows over the tops of the trees lining the back side of the green. He rolls a 20-foot birdie try past the hole and then drops a 4-foot comebacker for par.

No. 5, 353 yards, dog-leg right, par-4: Condrey hits an easy 3-iron off the tee. It goes about 200 yards, with a slight draw at the end that keeps it left, which is right where you want to be. As Godfrey gets ready to uncork his drive, Lee whispers, “God, I love to watch those two men hit the ball.”

Condrey’s 7-iron from 157 yards – the shot plays 165 since it’s dead uphill – ends up rolling off the back of the green. He chips to within 2 feet and makes par.

No. 6, 304 yards, par-4: Condrey tries to hit a low draw with his driver, but hooks it. “This is a game of misses,” he says on the ride to the ball. “It’s what you do with your misses that matters. Nobody hits them all good.”

I’m starting to get the picture.

Condrey lofts a 54-degree wedge 75 yards onto the green, narrowly misses a 25-foot putt, and taps in for par.

No. 7, 475 yards, par-5: It’s a long, straight par-5 with a big pond right in front of the tee box. The pond is usually where my tee shot goes.

It’s a sweltering day, and if I were playing, this would be the point in my round where the serious drinking would kick in, but I’m on the clock today, so it’s water for me. Disgusting.

Condrey’s drive sails left, close to the adjoining fairway (No. 3) and he’s 165 from the pin. He chokes up on a 7-iron but doesn’t hit it cleanly, eventually settling for par after missing a short birdie putt. Condrey squanders a scoring chance, but he doesn’t give back a stroke. A guy could win a lot of tournaments playing like this.

No. 8, 133 yards, par-3: The pin is cut back and to the left, a tough placement since the green slopes steeply into a pond on that side; too far left and you’re wet. Condrey punches a pitching wedge, lands safely on the right fringe and makes par.

No. 9, dog-leg left, 336 yards, par-4: Condrey hits hybrid off the tee, eschewing the chance to try and blast one over the trees and take the dog-leg out of play. “Get it in the fairway and it’s fine,” he says. “I might hit driver in a captain’s choice, but if you’re playing your own ball, it’s not worth it.”

As the players are getting ready to hit their second shots, Lee takes a look at an ominous bank of black clouds rolling in behind us. “We’re fixing to get hammered,” he remarks.

It’s 140 yards to the middle of the green. Condrey hits an 8-iron too long and needs to make a tricky 6-footer for par. He buries it and makes the turn at 1-under.

No. 10, 384 yards, par-4: The sky is rapidly darkening as we cross N.C. 126 and begin the back nine. Condrey’s drive sails left and into the rough. He’s on the downhill side of a giant oak tree. A 10-foot gap between two limbs is the only play. Condrey steers the ball right through the middle of the opening.

It’s just short of the green, but we’ve got bigger problems. The wind has suddenly turned ferocious, bending the flag stick parallel to the ground. The rain is seconds away, and Godfrey suggests we head for the pro shop. I fight the urge to go all “Caddyshack” and tell them I don’t think the heavy stuff is going to come down for quite some time.

By the time we reach the pro shop, the storm has already knocked out the electricity and metallic-gray sheets of rain are galloping across the course.

We wait out the weather and eventually head back out to No. 10, where Condrey nearly holes a chip shot before settling for a tap-in par.

No. 11, 115 yards, par-3: Condrey hits pitching wedge and leaves himself a 14-footer, which he misses by a fraction of an inch.

Lee scorches a short chip shot from the opposite side of the green and I lean out of the way as it soars past my head. He covers the intervening 30 yards in about 10 seconds and immediately chips in for par as if he meant to do that all along.

No. 12, 293 yards, par-4: Condrey’s drive goes farther left than he wanted, but he likes his lie; it will enable him to play straight onto the upper level of the two-tiered green – where the pin is located – from 50 yards.

He hits the 54-degree again, and then makes a nifty 8-footer to go 2-under.

No. 13, 379 yards, par-4: Heading to the elevated tee box on 13, we are forced to drive around a good-sized pine tree which has been uprooted by the fierce wind and has toppled onto the cart path.

Condrey opts for a 3-wood. “There’s a big, wide landing area with the 3-wood,” he explains. “I can push it or pull it, and I can still stay out of trouble. The landing area gets a lot narrower if I hit driver there.”

He leaves himself about 180 yards, all carry, and goes with the hybrid. We lose sight of the ball as it flies uphill. “That should be on the green,” he remarks.

But it isn’t. It’s 20 yards beyond the green on the hardscrabble red clay beside a maintenance shed. Condrey can’t recover. He bogeys the hole and slides back to minus-1.

No 14, 319 yards, par-4: A lone golfer is racing up behind us, so we let him play through. He’s an out-of-towner, playing the course for the first time. Condrey offers him some tips on the tee shot. He skulls it and the ball rolls about 15 feet. Embarrassed, he tees up another, tries to crush it and yanks it right and into the jungle. I feel so bad for this guy; his game looks like mine. Disgusted, he quits the hole and heads to 15.

“A little performance anxiety,” Godfrey quips. Godfrey quips with some regularity.

Number 14 is one of the course’s more unusual holes, topographically speaking. The tee box sits on a hill, there’s another rise at the midway point, and the green is positioned atop a third knoll. Laying up – Condrey uses a 5-iron – is the prudent option.

On his second shot, Condrey is 107 yards from the pin, but it’s straight uphill. “It plays 115,” he remarks. He then knocks a three-quarter pitching wedge 114.3 yards, and rolls in an easy 2-footer for birdie.

On the green, we discuss a tourney Condrey and Godfrey played in as a team a few years ago. Some of the younger players in the event took exception to getting schooled by the older Lake Club duo. “Age and treachery overcome youth and enthusiasm every time,” Godfrey says. Another quip, and it’s a dandy.

Lost among the quipping, Patnode quietly plays 14 and 15 brilliantly, making birdie on each hole.

No. 15, 327 yards, par-4: The elevated tee box and ample landing area make for a friendly tee shot, but Condrey pushes his hybrid right, to the edge of the woodline on a steep hill. We look for the ball in the woods, but it has rolled back down the slope and Condrey faces a tough side-hill lie.

His subsequent 9-iron shot is short of the green and rests midway down a steep incline. It’s a tough up-and-down, and Condrey can’t pull it off; He goes back to 1-under with a bogey.

No. 16, 325 yards, par-4: Condrey smashes the ball off the tee. “Best one of the day,” he grins. “It went straight and right where I aimed it.”

On the way to ball, Condrey tells me he and Godfrey will be teaming up for the Carolina’s Golf Association Senior two-man tourney in Waynesville in a couple of weeks. The two have battled each other down to the wire in countless tournaments over the years, but they remain good friends and genuinely enjoy playing together.

There’s a lot to love about this game.

Condrey next chooses the 54-degree wedge. He faces a 12-footer for birdie. Not a problem. Back to 2-under.

No. 17, 171 yards, par-3: The scenic 17th has been the subject of countless photos over the years, with its ridiculously majestic backdrop of the Linville Range and Lake James. It is, however, a bugger of a golf hole.

Condrey hits 6-iron here. He ends up with a 16-footer for birdie, which he misses, but not by much.

No. 18, 363 yards, par-4: Condrey’s choice here is the 3-wood. His reasoning is the same as on 13; there is a wider expanse of landing area as opposed to the driver.

With about 120 yards left to the hole, Condrey uses a pitching wedge. He doesn’t like the effort at all, but the ball still ends up on the green. He scoffs in mild disgust and calls it a “good miss.”

“How many ugly shots have I hit today?” he queries as he wipes off his club face and returns it to the bag. “A bunch. But look at my score.

“It’s not what you do with your good shots that matters. It’s what you do with the bad ones.”

I half expect him to call me “grasshopper.”

Condrey nearly holes a 20-footer for birdie, but settles for par and a 2-under round of 68. Everybody shakes hands. Condrey calls his performance ‘boring.’ 

I laugh and shake my head.

Godfrey, snake-bitten, missed at least a half-dozen putts that were dead in the hole and ended up with a 73; never stopped quipping the whole day. Big Frank pounded his way to a 74. Danny recovered from a shaky start to the back nine and shot a solid 78.

The pro shop finished minus-electricity; the course came in at plus-one downed tree.

I walked away with a story I hope you find readable, if not slightly amusing, and a fresh perspective on this often confounding, endlessly challenging game that some folks, like Condrey, spend a lifetime joyously trying to master.

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