Hidden Gems — 19 June 2012 by Kirby Arnold
Chasing golf balls and memories

VERSAILLES, Mo. — Rolling Hills Country Club, I’ll always love you. But I just don’t know you anymore.

Your trees are so big now, squeezing fairways into narrow funnels and guarding greens in ways I never remembered. Those greens, they’re made of grass and not the sand where I rolled a putt for the first time in my life.  And your layout is a full 18 holes, not the nine that I played so long ago.

I took a step back in my life last week, returning to the course where I played golf for the first time when I was 10-years old.  That was 48 years ago and Rolling Hills Country Club, in my birthplace of Versailles, Mo., has changed with age.

But haven’t we all?

Both my parents grew up in Versailles, a charming community in central Missouri just north of Lake of the Ozarks.  We moved away a few years after I was born, but when I was 10 I spent much of the summer of 1964 in Versailles with my grandmother. She had taken up golf and joined the country club, and she took me there several times that summer. I was hooked from the first stroke.

I don’t remember a lot about the golf I played that summer, other than I loved hitting the ball, chasing it and hitting it again.  I have no idea what I shot that first round.

I do remember those sand greens – perfect circles with a cup and flag in the center and a heavy rake-like device that you’d drag across the sand to create a smooth lane to roll your putt.  I also remember shooting my first birdie that summer. It was on the par-3 third hole, where I bounced my tee shot about halfway to the green before stroking a 9-iron into the cup on the fly.  As happy as I was, my grandmother was happier for me.

That was the best part about golf that summer.  I got to play with my grandmother, who encouraged me on every shot no matter how straight or wayward and, I’m sure, showed amazing patience with a 10-year-old.

It’s why last week was so special to me.

On a vacation to visit family in Missouri, I took a side trip to Versailles (pronounced, as it’s spelled – Vur-sails — and not like that city in France) and spent a few hours re-visiting the earliest years of my life.

Well-preserved Morgan County Courthouse, built in 1889, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Versailles could serve as a movie set if Hollywood ever needed the perfect Heartland setting. It’s got a true town square around a phenomenally preserved courthouse that was built in 1889 and is on the national historic register. Throughout the community are old homes that have been restored and landscaped with such perfection that people drive past them slowly in order to marvel.

A half-block away from the square is a small brick two-story building that’s home to an attorney’s office.  Fifty-eight years ago, it was a doctor’s office, the place I was born.

The following year, construction began on a nine-hole sand-green golf course just north of downtown. On July 1, 1956, Dexter Slagle played the first round of golf ever there. (What happened to Dexter? He plays nearly every day in the spring, summer and fall, Rolling Hills head pro Steve Nolawski told me.)

Rolling Hills wasn’t – and still isn’t – a lavish facility with a circle driveway, dramatic entrance, fountains or mahogany clubhouse.  It’s a nice little club with a gravel road that leads to a modest new clubhouse, a small pro shop and a friendly head pro.

It’s an 18-hole layout that will eat your lunch if you tee off thinking you can handle this course with ease. It plays to a par-71 and is 6,590 yards from the back tees and 4,868 from the front, with two other tee boxes in between.

Those little saplings when I first played there have grown into trees that hover over some of the greens and make the doglegs something you don’t want to mess with. And those greens, converted to bent grass in 1966, won’t trick you with humps and bumps but my advice to anyone is to keep your ball below the hole.

This trip to Rolling Hills was never about trying to shoot a low round (I shot 82), although I plan to go back in July and see if I can better that score.  To me, this was about bringing my golf life full-circle.

I’ll never forget walking those original nine fairways with my grandmother, Lela Finley. When I played last week, my partner was her son – and my uncle – Jim Finley. We battled those trees, a little wind and our own swings to finish a day of golf we’ll never forget.

Rolling Hills became an 18-hole course in 1991 and, with the reconfiguration combined with my own fleeting memory, it’s not what I played when I was 10. The original nine holes are still there – now they comprise No. 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 18.

Rolling Hills' third hole par-3 that, 48 years ago during the summer when I stayed with my grandmother and began playing golf, I shot my first birdie.

The only hole I really remember is No. 3, a downhill par-3. It plays 161 yards from the back tee.

Last week, after hitting my tee shot, I got a weird feeling as we drove toward the green. I gave a long look as we passed the forward tee box because, 48 years ago, that’s where I played with my grandmother. Halfway to the hole is the spot where I hit my second shot into the cup for the first birdie of my life.

No birdies this time.  I missed the green off the tee but got up and down for par.

Later in the day, my mom joined my uncle and I, and we drove around Versailles to see how much the old town had changed.

We drove past my grandmother’s house. It needs a lot of repair, but I could easily look past the worn siding and missing boards to remember a stately old place that was the perfect setting for family Christmas gatherings and summers out back in the massive garden my grandmother kept.

We made our way to the old house where my other grandmother lived, a place with a roof so steep that I’d throw my baseball up there and it would take four or five seconds before it rolled back to me (I wondered for a moment if there might be any balls still stuck in the gutter, because  lost more than a few up there).

We drove by the Walton property, where I would ride horses as a kid with Nancy Walton. She is the niece of Sam Walton — yep, the Wal-Mart Sam Walton – and is worth billions.

Then we went to the cemetery in Versailles where my grandfather, Lloyd Finley, and grandmother, Lela Finley, are buried.

She was a spitfire of a woman who loved catching catfish at Lake of the Ozarks, watching Cardinals baseball and, of course, celebrating the golf shots of a 10-year-old grandson.

A few hours after playing 18 holes last week on the course where she introduced me to golf, I stood over her grave and silently thanked her.

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Kirby Arnold

Kirby was 10 years old when he played his first round of golf with his grandmother on the sand greens of the Versailles Country Club in Missouri, and his love of the game has never wavered. Only one thing stood between Kirby and a single-digit handicap: his job. Kirby worked 42 years as a sports writer and editor at newspapers in Missouri and Washington. He started while a high school sophomore at the Rolla Daily News in Missouri and covered a variety of events, including his own high school basketball games (he made sure his name was spelled right). He was a sports writer and editor for 10 years at the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, covering Southwest Missouri State University football and basketball, Missouri University football and basketball, and numerous motorsports events including the Indianapolis 500 during the 1970s and 1980s. He moved to the Seattle area in 1984, becoming assistant sports editor at The Herald in Everett, Wa., then executive sports editor from 1987-1998, a time when The Herald's sports coverage was recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as being among the best in the nation for newspapers its size. Kirby returned to the press box in 1999, taking over The Herald's coverage of the Seattle Mariners. He covered the Mariners/baseball beat the next 13 seasons and in 2007 wrote his first book, Tales from the Seattle Mariners Dugout. While Kirby pursued a rewarding newspaper career, one of his lifelong goals remained unfulfilled: breaking 80 on a consistent basis. Kirby left The Herald at the end of 2011, moved to Phoenix and immediately began spending more time at the golf course. His only excuse now is a 12 on the stimpmeter.

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