Just nice to get out

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WE play that 5-iron course at the west end of the park. Its gentle-hill fairways have been carved out of big-tree forests planted a long time ago; and it's so hidden that twosomes -- even singles -- can get on at almost any time. You could call it a nature walk, I guess, if you played for pleasure. From the tee at No. 7, you can look out through long-needle pines to see the Pacific surf. And all along the sides of other slightly curved fairways (where the ball should be) are beautifully matured trees and thick, ground-covering shrubbery. Nobody -- nobody, that is, but the early-morning groundskeepers -- ever finds lost balls, since the sideline vegetation is so formidable. Besides the aesthetically distracting scenery, on many days in spring and summer there's the close-in moan of the Golden Gate foghorns and the rising whine of reforestation crews' chain saws. The starter said to join up with that single on No. 6.

``Take the honor,'' he smiled, practice-swinging his 5-iron with the left hand. His shoulder bag was well worn, and had three other clubs (I looked) -- putter, a seven, and a wedge. I took the honor and my shot landed in the trap. His slow, smooth swing took his ball in a determined line right to the green's edge.

``Play here much?'' I asked him.

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``Yes.''

``Haven't I seen you with that big group?''

``The Thundering Herd?'' He meant the 13 retirees who owned the course (everybody said) and played 27 holes in tandem sixsomes and sevensomes five days a week. ``I used to be part of their group. Good players, fun to be with. But so competitive -- always talking golf.''

``Talking's bad,'' I said. He sank his 25-foot putt for an eagle.

``Oh, that doesn't bother the game. I call the way I play automatic -- with time to think about other things.''

He drove the green on 7. ``It's just that I like to enjoy the surroundings,'' he went on. ``Did you know this course is about 35 years old? And the park itself -- well, I guess, over 100. Look at that cypress, bent over, topped flat, twisted branches'' -- he sank another long, accurate putt.

``Do you know about the trees in the park?'' he asked.

``Well, not really.''

``These were all sand dunes.'' He cracked a high 7-iron that almost hit the pin on No. 8. ``So first they planted cypress and pine and blue gum to see if these would take hold in the soil.''

``And they did.'' I was helping him out. But I shanked an 8-iron shot into the sprinkler shed down the hill.

``It was a wonderful idea,'' he went on, as we both probed the underbrush for my ball. ``Because when the city fathers got around to it, they found that California had 54 species of native conifers -- and 13 of these don't grow anywhere else.'' I took a wedge, unearthed two small stones, and sailed my ball to the far side of the green. Against my three putts, he was down in one.

``From here you can see a good many of those trees, you know.'' He swept his putter along the horizon. ``Not all are here on the course. But it's got some great specimens. Look at that beauty overhanging the ninth green.''

I almost said I wished it didn't. He was on again in one. I was in the middle of the fairway, but short.

``You know you should go see the California family of trees where they're identified,'' he said as we walked down the fairway in the same direction for a change. ``Ever been to the Arboretum?''

I had to say no.

``It's at the other end of the park. Must be about 20 native trees planted there along a sort of walk, all with name tags -- Monterey cypress, giant cedar, dawn redwood, Sitka spruce, western yew, Torrey pine -- I can't remember them all.'' He was down for an effortless birdie. We shook hands to leave.

``You must have a low handicap,'' I said. ``Good to play with you.''

``Oh, for me,'' he said, ``it's just nice to get out.''

With him, it really was.

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