by Jim Hight

On the first tee at Beau Pre Golf Course in McKinleyville, 16-year-old Kenny Cole bends his knees, grips his Titleist driver with both hands and points the face of the clubhead at a golf ball teed an inch off the grass.

Keeping his gaze on the ball, he pulls the driver to his right and winds it back around his torso until the head pauses near his left shoulder. Like a spring he uncoils and smacks the ball with the center of the clubhead. It's launched like a missile toward the Mad River before gravity brings it to rest two-thirds of the way down the 367-yard fairway.

"About 230 yards," estimated Bob Spaletta, who sat at a picnic table behind the tee. "I wish I'd started playing younger, but with three kids..."

"We didn't have time," said Bob's wife Arlene.

Bob, 63, and Arlene, 58, found golf about six years ago, after he'd retired and their children were off on their own. It wouldn't be too much to say that today they live for golf.

"Before I started playing," said Arlene, "I had a friend who just loved golf. She used to tell me, 'If my grandchildren want to see me they have to come on up to hole number nine.'

"At the time I thought that was just horrible. Now I say that to my own grandkids."

But the Spalettas don't mind mixing kids and golf.

They told me proudly about their 17-year-old grandson Randy Knight Jr. who has played for Arcata High's golf team. And on this day they'd come to Beau Pre not to play golf but to coach children, some as young as 8, who were entering their first tournament.

We ended our conversation as Bob and Arlene wandered over toward the putting green, where about 35 kids -- including three girls -- were practicing putts and waiting for the tournament.

Team captains were chosen by another volunteer, then came the ego-bruising ritual of picking teams: the first chosen celebrated, the last picked waited quietly for the process of elimination to reach them.

Arlene and Bob were each assigned a team, and as they walked off toward the first tee, Beau Pre employee Brent Stone watched and thought back to his own start in golf.

"My brother took me out to hit some balls at the driving range," said the athletic looking 19-year-old. "I caught one solid. What a nice feeling." Since then he's become one of the top golfers in the county. At the Times-Standard Humboldt County Amateur Tournament in August, he came in second, four strokes behind Tim Crowley Jr. (see Cover Story).

Stone, Crowley, Kenny Cole and the troop of youngsters that hacked and putted their way around the course that day are all part of a wave of young golfers playing on Humboldt County's seven golf courses. Tiger Woods' phenomenal success may have inspired some young newcomers to the game, but junior golf has been a fixture in Humboldt County for years.

Our home-grown golf prodigy Chris Johnson, a touring pro since 1980, started at age 5. She was determined to keep up with her older siblings at Baywood Golf and Country Club. "If they took the clinic, I was taking the clinic. If they were hitting balls I was hitting balls."

In Humboldt County, dedicated golfers play through the wet season. But the game's popularity peaks during the dry months, when morning starting times are usually booked up in advance by locals and visitors. "We get a lot of players who are staying here for the summer," said Ryan Choate, a pro-shop staffer at Beau Pre. "Some of the RV parks sponsor their own mini-tournaments."

Beau Pre owner Don Harling estimates that his business has doubled in the last 12 years. "There's a lot of new golfers, a lot of juniors and women. And we're seeing growth among the baby-boomers. They're getting older and not playing baseball and other sports so much but getting more into golf."

Golf's increasing popularity hasn't made it any cheaper.

A weekend 18-hole game costs from $14 at Eureka Municipal Golf Course to $25 at Beau Pre. (At Arcata's private Baywood and Fortuna's Redwood Empire clubs, members pay initiation fees and dues instead of greens fees).

Nor is weekday golf cheap. A pair of golfers will need $51 to play 18 holes ($17 each) and rent a cart ($17) at Beau Pre. If they'd rather walk but need to rent a set of clubs ($8), they're still looking at $42.

People new to the sport can spend as little as $130 for a set of entry-level clubs at Pro Sport Center. But serious players spend $500 or more at local pro shops. A titanium driver with an extra large clubhead can cost up to $500.

But many golfers manage to keep their costs down.

When Bob and Arlene Spaletta first took lessons from Harling, the couple shared one set of used clubs. "Don (Harling) said, 'Don't invest in good clubs until you're sure you like the game,'" Bob recalled. He spent $600 last year for a high-quality set that he expects to last at least 10 years.

By their own count, the Spalettas had played more than 300 rounds of golf between them since the first of the year. That much golf would have cost well over $5,000 if they hadn't become Beau Pre members. They paid $75 to join five years ago (now it's $250) and $800 a year for unlimited golf.

Most golf courses offer "twilight" rates in the late afternoon. Beau Pre's rates drop at 3 p.m. Benbow Valley Golf Course charges $8 to play its nine-hole course after 5 p.m. on weekdays. Eureka Municipal Golf Course discounts its green fees to $6 for weekday twilight golf. Discounts for youth and seniors are also common.

Charities like Hospice of Humboldt raise thousands through tournaments which golfers pay from $50 to $125 to enter. "Some play because we've serviced someone in their family, some play because they know someone on the board, and others just do it for the fun and prizes," said Marge Custis, Hospice president.

For the 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds who played three holes with the Spalettas and other volunteer coaches, it was a chance just to learn and enjoy.

"They had cake and soda at the end, but no prizes," said Bob. "It was really just the last day of their summer practice clinic.

"For some of them it was the first time they'd ever played on the course. Hopefully they'll go back and do it again next year, and after two or three years they'll get up with the older kids. The more they play the better they're going to get."

Public courses and courses for members only.

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