SPORTS  |  GOLF

PARRING WITH THE CHAMP

Amanda Blumenherst and I are on the first tee of the Washington Duke Golf Club, and I'm harboring an uncanny fear that my drive will careen left and kill the reigning National Player of the Year. After she rips a towering drive, I finally muster the courage to strike my ball, which immediately hooks left, ricochets backward off a tree and ends up 30 yards in front of me.

And that's when I think to myself: What the hell have I gotten myself into? Why in the name of Carl Spackler did I pitch a story about playing with one of the world's best female golfers?

I hadn't touched an iron since August. She hadn't rested for five consecutive days since she was 12 and had her wisdom teeth extracted.

But then Blumenherst, a rising junior, starts talking, and I realize that she doesn't mind so much. "Don't worry, you can't be worse than these two guys I played with last week," she says in response to my first-shot debacle. "Why don't you tee up another?" So I do, taking a first-ball-of-the-day mulligan, and I match her drive.

OK, she had me by about 10 yards. Maybe 15.

She out-hit me almost every time, but then again, Blumenherst isn't exactly some high school chick shooting 120s just to honor Title IX. She was the key cog of Duke's recent NCAA championship three-peat, has won seven tournaments over the last two years and placed tenth in the U.S. Women's Open last summer--. That's the professional Open-not the amateur.

In May, Blumenherst carded a NCAA record-tying 63 at the East Regional in Baton Rouge, La. I once put the finishing touches on a 63 on my local muni's ninth hole.

It's no surprise that after the opener, my pathetic excuse for a game falls apart in less time than it takes Blumenherst to complete her methodical swing. Indeed, her swing is slow-so slow that Duke head coach Dan Brooks has to manually record it on the team's video analyzer, which has a two-second shutter speed that accommodates most other golfers. The backswing is closer to choppy than languid. It's a relatively ugly swing for a world-class golfer, which is paradoxical considering the gorgeous trajectory the Pro V1 takes after her hands forcefully crash down. When Blumenherst whacks her irons, a divot of grass blades land 10 feet in front of her and the balata stops as if ordered on the green. It might as well ask if she wants fries and a Coke.

On the greens, she puts her putt within a few inches of the hole. Every time. She doesn't so much putt as guide. "Good putt," I continue to grumble. "Thanks!" she responds cheerfully.

Every time.

How do I match the shots of someone who made Michael Jordan blush on this same course just more than a year ago? By the walk to the third green, Blumenherst seems to have read my mind. "I'm sure you're pretty nervous," she says compassionately. "I mean, I would be so scared to play basketball with the basketball team!"

Before I know it, we're standing on the eighth tee box and the pin rests a tantalizing 156 yards away. She hits first, and her shot lands tight and sticks. The flag is on the left side of the horizontal green, and my attempt rests pin-high, 60 feet to the right. After I make my first good putt of the day, Blumenherst sinks her first birdie. I tap in for par.

"You're killing me!" I chide. "I make par, and you have to make birdie?" She laughs. Just days before on No. 8, Blumenherst's teammate Jennifer Pandolfi had topped her par with a birdie on the same hole.

No doubt, the karma of golf is demeaning. But in no other sport can a 25-handicap with a swing tailored for a Louisville Slugger compete on any given hole with a girl whose father, a club pro, put clubs in her hand at age four. It's the reason this great equalizing sport will always be played, whether on electric carts on the banks of the Pacific Ocean or alongside grazing sheep on the Scottish linksland.

There is one more hole, one last chance for me to best my opponent, who seems more intent on helping me than going for a course record. Blumenherst pops up her drive so high that my baseball pedigree tempts me to yell "I got it!" Potential friendship be damned: this was my opportunity.

I thought my nerves had disappeared after I took an "X" on two of the first three holes, but I'm as panicky as I was on No. 1. I manage to corral my worries and crush a drive down the right side of the fairway. I relish my best shot of the day for less than a second before Blumenherst compliments it.

She's too nice.

Channeling my inner Phil Mickelson, I go for the green-hey, it's for the story-but push my hybrid-shot to the rough bordering the short stuff. Blumenherst lays up to the apron of the green and then plops her third to within three feet. I had her after the tee shot, and now I'm standing over a 30-footer for par while she's eyeing a three-foot birdie try.

I recognize the big left-to-right break and quickly strike the ball, just hoping it stops close enough for an easy bogey. It rolls and rolls for what seems like ten of Blumenherst's swings combined. As it gets close, I raise my putter a la 1986 Nicklaus, and bask in the imagined applause of the Augusta gallery when my Pinnacle hits the cup and rattles home. Leaning over to retrieve the ball, I do my best to psych out my nemesis.

"Pressure's on you," I warn her. Blumenherst laughs again. I feel like an idiot, and I know I'm about to feel even worse when she inevitably jars the gimme.

She misses.

Even though my heart jumps a beat as her ball slides past the hole, Blumenherst isn't concerned. She has bigger things to worry about; that, or she knows that she just filed a 1-over 37. We shake hands, exchange final pleasantries, and walk our separate ways-she to the right, on her way to a second national championship; me to the left, on my way to the bar.

We only spent two hours together, but I wouldn't trade our round for her 3.8 GPA. The nation's premiere college golfer is just a normal Dukie, except for her ability to shape a shot like silly putty.

As she left, I told her we should play together in the fall, after I had endured a whole summer of missed putts and pulled drives. Just as she had all day, she gave me a conciliatory smile. In my mind, that's a challenge.

So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

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