Junior Champ Tests Hickory Golf Mettle

A Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie Challenge

From left, Durel Billy, Matt Marrese, and Grayson Giboney.

The Golfer: Matt Marrese, Two-time State Golf Champion, Pacific Northwest
PGA Junior Champion, the No. 1-Ranked Washington State Junior (per Junior Golf
Scoreboard), and recipient of a golf scholarship to the University of Washington.
The Venue: Fairwood Country Club, Renton, Wash.
The Hickory Clubs: Original clubs courtesy of Play Hickory
The Golf Ball: The Ouimet, by McIntyre Golf Co.
The Rest of the Foursome: Durel Billy, president of AP National Hickory Players and Washington State Golf Association director; Grayson Giboney, reigning state of Washington hickory champion; and this writer.

   How does a hickory golf fanatic entice a 17-year-old superstar to put down his custom set of Ping clubs for an afternoon and challenge his raw talent?
He offers something of value and wagers the star as follows: “Hey Matty, bet you can’t break 40 on the front nine of your home course with a set of hickories!”
   Having played many rounds of golf with Matt Marrese, my son, Grayson, and I know him to be not only the local legend who won the high school state championship by 11 shots at Chambers Bay with rounds of 65-68, but a sports fan who likes a good test of skill – especially with something on the line. So the allure of winning a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card was just enough for the No. 1-ranked junior to take a break from 300-yard drives and hit 200-yard drives with a 90-year-old wood brassie. It was game on and off to the first tee.
   Fairwood Country Club is not long, but very tree-lined as you see in the above photo. The greens are brutal, very sloped and extremely fast, running about 12-13 on the stimp meter. We teed off at 3 p.m. on a Friday that was mostly sunny save for a brief shower during the middle holes. In fact, we had a rainbow on No. 5 (photo below).
   Matt found the fairway on No. 1 with the brassie and the green with the niblick but, unaccustomed to a hickory putter, he opened with a three-putt bogey. On No. 2 Matt hit his tee shot into the left rough and then miscalculated on his niblick approach sending his ball over the green into no man’s land – beyond a bunker and near the out-of-bounds stakes some 25 yards beyond the flagstick. From there Matt produced a dramatic recovery shot. Had he been using his favorite Titleist ProV1x he might have been left with a tap-in par. As it was, the replica Ouimet ball checked up and he was forced to two-putt for bogey from the front fringe.
   Already two over par after two holes, the Ken Griffey rookie card was looking perfectly safe, but Matt rallied. “I am still going to break 40,” he said. The confidence of a gamer, but on his shoulder was a canvas bag with six wood sticks he had never seen before in his life. Perhaps he had bitten off more than he could chew.
   On the par 3 third – 172 from the back, we played it at 156 – confident Matt hit a beautiful mashie hole high where he would stop the bleeding with a two-putt par. With that par now on the scorecard, Matt began to warm up to the hickory game. He split the fairway on the difficult 4th hole with a beautiful brassie and was again hole high after a solidly struck mid-iron that set up another two-putt par.
   No. 5 at Fairwood is a lengthy par 3 (216, we played it at 180) that is well guarded by bunkers on either side. Matt selected the mid-iron and hit it well, but missed the green to the left, just over the bunker and in the rough. He went with a bump-and-run chip to 12 feet and just missed the par. (See the photo at right.) Now standing 3 over par with four holes to play it was a toss up as to whether he would break 40.
   However, the future U.W. Husky was strong off the 6th tee box with a brassie right on the screws and down the left center of the fairway. From 130 yards Matt hit a mashie niblick a little strong and a little right of the flag, but still on the green. He would manage another two-putt par to remain +3 with three holes to play in the challenge.
   No. 7 at Fairwood Country Club is the birdie hole on the front 9 for modern play, uphill and 261 from the tips. We played it a 240. Long hitters can reach the surface with a mighty blast. However, with hickory it is a Ted Ray blast with a helping gust from the golf gods. Matt gave it his best effort and nailed the drive slightly left of the green and in the rough 30 yards from the pin. From there he pitched to 10 feet below the hole for his first real look at birdie. The putt would somehow stay out of the cup and slide right by – tap in par with two holes to play.
   At the 8th Matt struck another solid brassie to the fairway and a 100-yard niblick onto the green to set up yet another clutch two-putt par. By now, we all knew Matt was going to win the challenge. Kids don’t simply show up at Chambers Bay (this year’s U.S. Open venue) and shoot 65-68 for a two day score -11 under par. (Worth noting – Matt’s 65 included a hole-in-one at Chambers 15th.) There is some serious skill involved in putting up those kinds of numbers and through eight holes it was apparent Matt’s golf skills work as well with pre-1935 clubs as well as 2015 modern marvels.
   However, there was one hole to play and this is golf where anything can happen. The 9th at Fairwood is an uphill par 5 and on this day it was playing into the wind. Matt popped up the brassie and the ball ballooned into the wind before dropping to the fairway only 150 yards from the tee box. The Ken Griffey rookie card was not his just yet. With some acreage to cover, Matt hit an aggressive brassie off the deck – but caught it heavy to leave him an uphill, into the wind 190-yard approach. He could have played safe – two niblicks and two putts for the Ken Griffey Jr. collectible. But this is Mr. 65 at Chambers Bay and he played yet another brassie – a very bold play – for the win. No hesitation, pure confidence, on the screws, piercing shot into the wind that landed on the front edge and settled 20 feet from the cup. Two putts later, Matt had won the Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie challenge.
   “It was different than I expected,” he said. “I knew it was going to be weird, but I didn’t know it was going to be that weird. If you misshit it just a little bit it is multiplied by 100. Hickory is all about tempo. Without a smooth tempo your ball has almost no chance of going straight – sure helps the modern game in that aspect. It was a blast and a great experience.”
   Most hickory golfers see their first nine holes in the 50s and then begin to figure out the world of hickory, slowly working their scores down from there. Matt’s three-over 38 in his inaugural hickory journey was quite impressive. As for the other three in the group… Grayson showed why he is the state hickory champ by shooting an even par 35 with 7 pars, one birdie and one bogey. Durel Billy shot a workable 42 and as for me, I was hitting it sideways and witnessed Matt’s round from the trees, coming in with a 44. But, as I always tell people, “Because it is hickory golf, I still had fun no matter the score and my modern game is better for it.”

   If you are a hickory rookie who lives in the Seattle area and are interested in your own Hickory Rookie Challenge, contact SoHG member Brian Giboney at briangiboney@yahoo.com. He will come to your club with an additional set of hickories and introduce you to hickory golf. If you are not in the Seattle area, click on “Groups & Mentors” on the SoHG website and reach out to someone in your area who might be willing to do the same.

Brian Giboney, left, and Grayson Giboney, right, congratulate Matt Marrese
on his first hickory round and his challenge win of the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie baseball card.