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Coming Up Aces

The hole in one is golf's version of the promised land, but only the lucky will ever feel the joy of holing out a tee shot
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

Whether you are Tiger Woods or Ernie Els or Annika Sorenstam, whether you are a scratch player or a 20-handicapper, whether you play at Augusta National or Augusta Municipal, one achievement in golf is within reach of everyone who plays the game—a hole in one.

You don't need $2,500 lessons from Butch Harmon, $1,500 clubs from Callaway or a $425 greens fee at Pebble Beach to make a hole in one. What you need is a club, a ball, a tee and a green and that one instant of luck, that one moment when the laws of physics and metaphysics converge. And there is your ball, flying, bouncing, rolling as if by magic into the hole to complete the most glorious of all golf shots, the ace.

Just ask the King of Aces how special holes in one are. "They never get old and are always thrilling," says Mancil Davis, the owner of Mancil Davis Enterprises in Houston and a member of the PGA of America. Davis is credited with 50 holes in one, the most by any professional. "The greatest thing about them is you don't have to be Tiger or Annika to make one. Most people who play this game will never shoot par, most of them will never break 80, and a lot of them will never even break 90. But no matter what your ability, you have a chance to make an ace. I think that's the neatest thing about it. It's not like everyone is equal in making an ace, but everyone has the chance."

The National Hole-in-One Association, a private company that provides insurance for holes in one and other event promotions, has calculated that the chances of an everyday player making a hole in one on a par 3 are 1 in 12,600 swings. The chances of a PGA Tour player are about 1 in 3,000 swings. Since 1980, when more accurate record keeping began, 735 holes in one have been attained in PGA Tour events, including Trevor Immelman's on the 16th hole in the Masters this past April.

While there is no way to determine how many aces are made by Americans each year, the Hole-in-One Association, which used to register aces, estimated that it would get between 12,000 and 15,000 registrations per year, and that was probably 10 percent of the holes in one made. If 150,000 aces are being made annually in America, then more than 400, on average, are being made every day. So just because you haven't made one yet, don't despair. When your 12,600th swing on a par 3 comes along, the odds will be on your side.

Some golfers seem to have shortened the odds beyond reason. Californian Norman Manley, an amateur player, has made 59 aces, including back-to-back aces on the short par-4 seventh and eighth holes of the Del Valle Country Club in Saugus, California, on August 30, 1964. Consider this incredible fact: Mike Hilyer, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound behemoth of a man, had 10 aces on par-4 holes in a six-year span beginning in 1994. During that time, he didn't record a single ace on a par 3 and was last known to be in search of his first one.

Mancil Davis knew his odds were short while he was still a kid. Growing up in the west Texas town of Odessa, famous for oil and its high school football team, Davis gave Odessans something else to talk about when, in a year's time over 1965 and 1966, he made eight aces. Three of them came in a week, five in a month. All this at ages 11 and 12, and his feats earned him an appearance on CBS television in New York. Not all of them were perfect shots. "I hit a 3-iron 30 yards to the right of the green, it hit a mesquite tree and bounced left, hit a sprinkler head and bounced on the green and went in the hole," recalls Davis. "Maybe the most unusual thing about it was hitting a tree with a golf ball in west Texas."

Paula Rohr had been playing golf for 10 years when she stepped to the tee of the 16th hole of the North Hills Country Club on suburban Long Island outside of New York City. The year before, she had won a golf trip to Ireland in a raffle at a non-tournament event. On this summer day in 2002, Rohr, a private banker, was playing in the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants' annual outing, and on the 16th hole she was rather more focused on buying raffle tickets. Her 3-wood shot to the elevated green seemed to be a good one and on line, but she couldn't see the ball on the green's surface. "I was so busy buying raffle tickets—where if you got the ball on the green, you got an extra raffle ticket—that I wasn't really aware what was going on," she said then. When her group got to the green, the teenager hired to monitor the shots nonchalantly told her that a ball had gone into the cup. Her ball. She didn't win the raffle, but she won $25,000 for the ace.

The hole in one elicited many high fives, hugs and congratulations, not to mention a large element of surprise. It's not surprising, however, that the emotional impact of a hole in one on an amateur differs from that of a professional. For the amateur, it's the fulfillment of a dream, a lifelong bragging right, the apex of what is otherwise a rather undistinguished career. "If you hit enough shots at the pin, you are going to make some," says Champions Tour player Gibby Gilbert, who has 21 aces in tournament play. "You hit balls at this level, you have a better chance at it. I mean, heck, we hit tons of good shots that don't go in. There's still a bunch of luck involved. I get more of a thrill out of holing a wedge shot from the fairway. There was one year where I holed out six out here. You are standing in the fairway, really trying to make that shot. I don't think you stand on a par-3 tee very often thinking you are going to make it."

Pro players love to tell the story of Claude Harmon and Ben Hogan playing together in the 1947 Masters.

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