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SHORT & SWEET; GOLFERS AT ALL LEVELS BENEFIT FROM PAR-3 COURSES.

Byline: Dave Shelburne Staff Writer

Dick Saatzer hunkered down in front of a television near the massive and ancient fireplace at Verdugo Hills Golf Course last week and watched the leaders in the best major field of the year substantiate his theory.

In less than an hour, he saw Tiger Woods putt from the fairway for birdie, Mike Weir pitch over a bunker for eagle and Sergio Garcia hack out of wretched greenside rough to salvage par in the 81st PGA Championship.

It was as if the playing pros were contributing visual aids to what Saatzer has been voicing for much of his 44-year teaching career:

``The game of golf is played from 80 yards in,'' said the Verdugo Hills head pro, who believes par-3 courses - such as his own and six others in the area - are the best place to learn and hone those vital short-game skills.

Par-3 courses are sometimes dismissed as a sort of stepchild to ``real golf'' by those who would rather test themselves on regulation courses, which emphasize par-4 and par-5 holes and give players the opportunity to hit woods or long irons.

But Saatzer and other proponents of par-3 play - managers and instructors at those courses as well as players there - call it not only a great way to start but also a great way to stay sharp.

Par-3 golf, they contend, is an invaluable resource for beginners, who can learn scoring skills as well as course safety and etiquette in an environment generally a lot more tolerant of slow play than might be expected on larger courses.

It's as if even the scratch players at par-3 courses realize everyone has to start somewhere, while golfers playing at regulation courses are expected to have a certain skill level and understand the pace of play.

The amount of grumbling routinely heard at larger courses over slow play would seem to indicate par-3 golf is something more players could use to their own and others' advantage.

Judy Thompson of the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Fla., said studies her organization has done indicate par-3 courses - which comprise 846 of the nation's 16,365 golf courses - can help smooth the transition:

``People still want to play regulation courses, and that's just the truth of it all, even if they are unable to execute the shots or lack the experience,'' Thompson said. ``That's the job of par-3 courses - to give them a lesson, as it were, on how to play a regulation course.''

``They fit in great for learning,'' said Saatzer of the role 3-par courses play in golf's pecking order. ``It's like a minor-league to a major-league golf course. When you get to a major (regulation) course, you find 60-70 percent of it is short-game play. Those are the shots you learn on a pitch-and-putt course.''

Chick Epstein, who operates the San Fernando Valley-based Fairways Golf Camp for juniors, has utilized area par-3 courses in his playing program for 13 years.

``People who hit wedges and 9-irons and learn those shots are going to be well ahead of the game,'' Epstein said. ``If you were to ask any successful golfer, you'd find that's where the game needs to be learned.''

The opinion is echoed at Van Nuys Golf Course, where manager Paul Tanner calls the par-3 game ``necessary to the future of golf,'' and at Vista Valencia, where general manager Warren Leary describes pitch-and-putt play as ``a stepping stone'' in the learning process.

Cal State Northridge men's coach Jim Bracken agrees but says par-3 golf can be more than a primer for beginners. He believes it can help his team challenge for the Big Sky Conference title in the upcoming school year.

Bracken, who in January took over as general manager of the Mission Hills Little League par-3 course, plans to have his Matadors tune their pitching, chipping and putting skills regularly there as part of a game plan to reverse last year's last-place conference finish.

``It's just great for your short game,'' said Bracken, who especially likes the fact that Mission Hills' ball-grabbing kikuyu grass fairways force players to follow missed greens with well-aimed lob shots if they are to save par.

``With the kikuyu, you can't bump-and-run the ball up onto the green,'' Bracken said. ``You've got to work on your touch and flop shots.''

But as important as par-3 courses are to advanced players, they traditionally have played a bigger role in the recruitment and education of new generations of golfers - several of whom have gone on to success beyond a single-digit handicap.

At Van Nuys, where Tanner's clientele includes a large number of junior golfers, many from Epstein's Fairways program, the list of accomplished alumni is headed by 1996 U.S. Public Links champion and current state amateur champion Tim Hogarth.

Four-time SCGA champion Craig Steinberg got his start in the game at Studio City par-3, while current PGA Tour player Bob Burns - winner of the 1998 Nike Tour Championship - played as a youngster at the Mission Hills Little League par-3 course.

Jason Gore, the 1997 state amateur and state open champion now playing on the Nike Tour, was introduced to golf at Vista Valencia's par-3 Chica course. Chica also has been a home away from home for current Santa Clarita Valley wunderkind Brandon Christianson, 13, who had three holes-in-one in 24 hours during the 1997 Junior World Championship.

At Verdugo Hills, the clubhouse wall of fame includes a photo of youngster J.T. Kohut, posing with two-time Senior PGA Tour Player of the Year Jim Colbert after Kohut, then known as Jerome, set a still-standing Verdugo Hills record of 11-under-par 43.

``Nine birdies and a hole-in-one,'' recalls Kohut, a nationally ranked junior who spent countless hours chipping and putting at Verdugo Hills and credits his par-3 roots for helping him earn a golf scholarship to UCLA this year.

Par-3 golf has paid less spectacular but no less satisfying dividends for many others.

Jeff Knott, 39, never played on a regulation course before he tried out for the Crescenta Valley High team in 1976 but wound up a starter, he believes, because of par-3 golf at Verdugo Hills.

``Put it this way,'' Knott said. ``When I started playing at a regulation course, I already knew how to play fast, how to get along with other golfers and how to putt. It might have taken me five shots to get to the green, but when I got there I got down in two putts.''

For every par-3 course that contributed to the nationwide total of 26.5 million golfers who played in 1998, Knott's words must sound like ``mission accomplished.''

PAR 3 COURSES

DE BELL

Address: 1500 E. Walnut, Burbank

Telephone: (818) 843-9762

Vital stats: 9 holes, 725 yards, no lights, (18-hole regulation course and lighted driving range also on site)

Cost: Weekdays $2, weekends $3 ($1.50 for juniors and seniors)

The skinny: Beginner-friendly hillside course has no bunkers, no hole longer than 110 yards and most inexpensive greens fees in area.

CHICA

Address: 24700 W. Trevino Drive, Valencia

Telephone: (805) 253-1870

Vital stats: 9 holes, 1,000 yards, no lights, (18-hole executive course and lighted driving range also on site)

Cost: Weekdays $10; weekends $13

The skinny: A challenge and a bargain, hillside Chica tests golfers with bunkers, water and OB but rewards with day-long play for one greens fee.

MISSION HILLS LITTLE LEAGUE

Address: On grounds of Veterans Administration Hospital, corner of Haskell Avenue and Plummer Street in Mission Hills

Telephone: (818) 892-3019

Vital stats: 9 holes, 1,150 yards, no lights, no driving range (putting green in plans and expected to be ready in three months)

Cost: Weekdays $5, weekends $6, replays $2.50 (senior rate $4.50 Monday-Friday; junior rate $3.50 daily)

The skinny: Flat but challenging layout with raised greens and kikuyu-grass fairways, course is operated as a non-profit fund-raiser for Mission Hills Little League baseball.

STUDIO CITY

Address: 4141 Whitsett Avenue, Studio City

Telephone: (818) 761-3250

Vital stats: 9 holes, 1,000 yards, no lights (lighted driving range on facility)

Cost: Weekdays $7, weekends $9

The skinny: Part of a golf-and-tennis complex, this course challenges players with large trees and some extremely narrow fairways.

SINALOA

Address: 980 Madera Road, Simi Valley

Telephone: (805) 581-4599

Vital stats: 9 holes, 1,088 yards, no lights (driving range on site)

Cost: $7 weekdays, $9 weekends

The skinny: Sinaloa GM Lynn Shackelford, a former UCLA basketball star, lets everyone play free the Monday after UCLA beats USC in football.

VERDUGO HILLS

Address: 6433 La Tuna Canyon Road, Tujunga

Telephone: (818) 352-3161

Vital stats: 18 holes, 1,805 yards, lights (lighted driving range also on facility)

Cost: Weekdays $7 for 9 holes, $8 for 18 holes; weekends $9 for 9 holes, $10 for 18 holes

The skinny: Course has elevation changes, well-defined kikuyu-grass fairways, distinct rough and challenging greens that are sloped and fast.

VAN NUYS

Address: 6550 Odessa Ave., Van Nuys

Telephone: (818) 785-8871

Vital stats: 18 holes, 2,181 yards, lights (lighted driving range and lighted 9-hole executive course also on site)

Cost: Weekdays $6 for 9 holes, $10 for 18 holes; weekends $7 for 9 holes, $12 for 18 holes (senior rate $5 for 9 holes, $9 for 18 holes Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays; junior rate $4 for 9 holes, $7 for 18 holes weekdays until 4:30 p.m.)

The skinny: Longest par-3 course in the area puts a premium on good middle-iron play as well as short-iron accuracy and putting skills.

CAPTION(S):

4 Photos, Box

PHOTO (1--2--Color) Top right, Andrew Breitman, 12, who has played for four years, chips at the Van Nuys Golf Course. Above, Benji Davis, 12, in his second effort at playing, also likes the Van Nuys course. Beginners can learn and advanced players can hone their games on local par-3s.

(3) Matthew Jaffe, 13, practices putting at Van Nuys Golf Course. A number of tour players got their starts at par-3s.

(4) Paul Tanner manages the 18-hole, 2,181-yard Van Nuys Golf Course, where golfers can play nine holes for $6.

David Sprague/Staff Photographer

BOX: PAR 3 COURSES (see text)
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 18, 1999
Words:1690
Previous Article:FAIR BEGINNINGS; WORK UNDER WAY IN EARNEST AS EVENT NEARS.
Next Article:FROM THE FRINGE : HOLE OF THE WEEK.


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