THE nine-hole, 5-iron course out by the ocean is never crowded. The Harding Park crowd over on the other side of the city say it's no challenge. So the long-off-the-tee's never play there. But it draws singles before work, couples with a morning to enjoy, and sometimes a whole class full of learners from the nearby senior center. Not that its layout isn't tricky. It has slanting-up fairways, deep-dip short holes, more crowding-in wooded areas than you ever need, and tall trees overhanging nice greens well tended by ocean fog and mist year round. And there's a starter who lets you go out alone, if you like, part of the time.
Sometimes there's that single waiting to join up, too.
That's how I ran into Mr. Three Clubs again. I remembered him as the one who shows up with just a five, seven, and a putter hanging out of a light canvas shoulder bag.
``Funny day,'' he said, gently limbering up his swing. ``Your honor.''
I have trouble with the first hole. Any first hole. I say to myself concentrate and swing easy. But it's like starting over again each round. Mostly I guess I look up. That guarantees a shank, a slice, a hozzle, or a hook. My drive ended up over on the parallel number four fairway.
His five iron shot moved off low and straight. On the green probably at the top of the hill. At least three sea gulls took the air as the ball hit.
``Birds bother you?'' he asked.
``Birds?'' I never thought about it.
``Well, this is a peninsula, you know. Water all around and a big chunk is park. And it's kind of a way point on an unofficial flyway. At migration times there are always lots of birds stopping off. Some on the course - right here. But lots more around the edges of the park.''
He teed his ball high and cracked a seven iron 4 feet from the pin. ``You know, don't you, that the park's got a string of small lakes and some marshes over there behind the 4th green and beyond. Water birds like that.''
Then I remembered. I remembered seeing a solitary long-legged bird just standing, waiting beside the edge of Stow Lake. ``I guess you're right,'' I told him. ``We came upon a something - long legs, funny looking body, long bill. Looked like a stork.''
He laughed and sank a 30-foot putt, no effort. ``Could have been a crane. But we get lots of herons, too. You can tell the difference the way they fly. Cranes' necks are always extended. Great silhouette. Looks like an old P-38 with the legs stretched back. Herons on migration like to roost in those trees bordering the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina. Gray herons mostly. They hunt aquatic food and like out-of-the-way shelter.''
I was waggling for a power swing.
``You have glasses?'' He was waiting, leaning on a club.
``If not, they don't cost a lot, you know. Great to carry in the car around here. Like right now - when you go through the Presidio, you could watch all those hawks soaring up miles high at this end of the bridge.''
By now I was hunting for my ball. He was helping, talking. ``Redtails,'' he went on. ``Maybe with spreads as wide as five feet. They just hang up there motionless on the wind for hours. Terrific sight, on their way south from Canada. Then when the winter rains set in, they're gone.''
Several sharp hacks with a nine didn't do my ball any good. I lifted, took a stroke, and did a sky-high shot from the fairway. He was on the green, an easy three.
``But I like the redwing blackbirds.'' He was reaching for his ball in the cup. ``You know, ones with red epaulets with a yellow edge - and the female all brown? They like water edges, tules, deep grass - stuff you find around here. Always after my ripe pyracantha berries, too. Peterson calls them gregarious.''
Now that he reminded me, I remembered them - flitting around our backyard's old apple tree. But only for a short while. And then they were gone.
``They like to winter in a southern climate,'' he ventured, ``that's why.''
``Like people. In San Diego.''
He hit a five iron off the tee again in a lovely half-parabolic arc right to the green's edge.
``Not San Diego,'' he said gently. ``Maybe Arizona, New Mexico. At least that's what Peterson says. You know Peterson?''
From Boy Scouts I knew he was the definitive reference on bird watching. I tried for a chip-and-run. It didn't.
Walking along beside me as if to maybe bolster the morale, he kept talking. ``His `Field Guide to Birds' really changed nature studies. Made it fun, birds easier to identify. His first book was turned down by five publishers.''
I three-putted again, something good golfers abhor. ``Maybe I'm holding you up.'' I was really apologizing. ``Why don't you play through?''
He didn't hear me. He had picked his ball neatly off bunker sand with a clean seven iron.
``Ever get cardinals?'' he asked. But without waiting, he went on, ``We had a pair in our yard last fall. The male, you know, is the only all-red bird with a pointed crest. But they like a warmer setting, too. Didn't stay.''
We walked together going down number nine fairway. I tried laying up with an eight iron. Anything to try to be accurate. He was on in one - pin high.
``Cardinals are very unique,'' he continued. ``They have quite a few song variations. Sometimes like WHAT-CHEER, WHAT-CHEER, WHAT-CHEER and then BIRDY, BIRDY, BIRDY.'' He was giving a pretty good imitation.
I took a very deep breath and started a slow short backswing. The hit was solid. But the ball rolled about 40 feet beyond the hole.
``Well,'' he said as we left the green, ``I enjoyed this very much. We should try it again. Maybe soon. And say - why not come along with our group on the next bird walk?'' He paused to write down a phone number on the side of his score card. ``You'd like it. Gets you outdoors. Takes your mind off everything else.''
It was nice of him. ``Maybe, OK. Let me think about it and call you. Sounds like I might enjoy that.''
Especially - it occurred to me - if I could get as good at birds as he was at golf.