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PUTTING AROUND

Valley Golfers enjoy bonds first, birdies second

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PUTTING AROUND

Valley Golfer Russ Whitcomb warms up on the driving range before the start of Monday’s round at the Manteca Park Golf Course.

JAMES BURNS/The Bulletin


POSTED January 2, 2014 1:09 a.m.

Norm Willis doesn’t care too much if his drives sail straight or his putts stay on line.

He turns up at the Manteca Park Golf Course every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning for the camaraderie and coffee, those familiar blue hats and the forever bonds.

Golf, he says, is a bonus.

Willis is president of Valley Golfers, a playing group more than a half-decade in the making. The group was formed in the 1960s to give the serious amateur a chance to compete in various formats. Over time, though, Valley Golfers has evolved to become an all-exclusive social group, welcoming all abilities and ages.

A member since 1979, Jack Glenn has been a part of the group’s transformation.

“In the beginning it was a way to play competitive golf. About the mid-1980s it started to change over,” said Jack Glenn, the club’s public relations officer and an 8-handicap. “We started getting guys with higher handicaps and started playing with guys that just wanted to have fun, tell jokes and share stories about their grandkids.”

On Monday, members, each wearing a cap or jacket emblazoned with the group’s logo, huddled around tables, golf carts and cups of coffee as they waited out the morning freeze.

That their round was delayed by nearly an hour was of little consequence. Out here, amongst this group of mostly retired men, birdies run a close second to a good laugh.

And there are plenty to be had.

Deaf member Jerry Castagnolia’s comedic timing is impeccable. On a crowded driving range, he clears his throat – each grunt growing louder than the last – as if to say, “Everyone, look at me ... backswing be damned.”

For Willis, the club has given him more than the bonds of today and a position of responsibility. Valley Golfers has also helped him stay connected with the memory of his father Jim Willis, who passed away in the early 1990s.

Jim Willis was a longtime Valley Golfer. He played alongside Glenn, who feels privileged to have known both Willis men. Glenn counts each as a dear friend, even if he didn’t recognize the father-and-son connection right away.

“When (Norm) first came out, I didn’t know who he was. I went up to him and told him ‘I used to play with a guy named Jim. Any relation?’ His face got this big ol’ smile. He told me that was his dad and from then on we’ve been good friends.”

Norm was 25 or so the last time he played a round of golf with his dad. Still, the 65-year-old has thought of him often during his six-year membership with the Valley Golfers.

“The one benefit is meeting some really great people. For me, it’s like ‘Wow, I’m playing with guys that played with my dad,’ ” Norm said. “I’ll never be as good as him but I’ll try.”

Like a troublesome bunker or water hazard, death is a nagging reality for a group whose membership has dipped by nearly 50 percent in the last two decades. In the late 1990s, Valley Golfers membership hovered in the 90s. Nowadays, the books show 48 members, 42 of which are active participants.

Glenn says Valley Golfers averages 2-3 deaths a year, and in May the group helped bury its last founding member, Doug Tomison.

In time, the group would like to establish a memorial bench at the first tee, honoring those that have moved on. Until then, their memories are preserved on a plaque in the clubhouse and in the laughter erupting from foursomes scattered about the course.

“It’s one of the pitfalls of our group,” said Russ Whitcomb, secretary and treasurer.

They hope to replenish the ranks.

The first step is clarifying a misnomer.

Though their average age is in the 60s and their youngest member (John Franscella) is 50, age isn’t a requirement.  Neither is ability or participation. “We got guys that pay the membership and don’t play,” Glenn said. “They’ll come and eat breakfast, have coffee and hangout with us.”

All that the Valley Golfers ask is that you enjoy the game and good company.

“Camaraderie is the No. 1 thing,” said Whitcomb.

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