Bill Key learned long ago to roll with golf’s ebbs and flows.
The retired Merced High School teacher got a late start to the game, taking it up after finishing his college baseball career at Sacramento State. While his love affair with the sport hasn’t been lifelong, it’s burned no less passionately, with four spinal surgeries to prove it.
The fact that the game can’t be mastered is part of the appeal that’s kept Key out on the links at least three times a week for the last 50-plus years. Because for every nightmare round where no ball finds a fairway or avoids a bunker, there are occasional afternoons of sheer brilliance.
The 76-year-old Livingston resident experienced one of those rounds at Stevinson Ranch during Fourth of July weekend, shooting a 3-under 69 from the senior tees and nailing his 19th career hole-in-one.
“All it means is I was a pretty good player at one point in time,” Key said. “I’ve been able to at least shoot my age every year since I turned 72, but I haven’t shot in the 60s since I had my first spinal surgery in 1990.
“I work out there and play the course at least four days a week, so I know it inside and out. I know exactly where to hit it and know precisely how far it is from point A to B. But a lot of bounces still had to go my way.”
One of those bounces was Key’s 19th career ace on Stevinson’s No. 7.
Key had already recorded holes-in-one on every par 3 Stevinson has to offer, but that didn’t make the accomplishment any less sweet.
“I used an 8-iron and drove the ball about 115-120 yards,” Key said. “It felt pretty good when I hit it.”
Key’s round is all the more impressive considering his ailing back has cost him quite a bit of distance off his drives. What used to be majestic shots of 250 to 260 yards in his prime have been whittled down to the 175 to 185 range. Key’s days start with 20 to 25 minutes worth of stretching at home just to get him loose enough to hit the links. He goes through another quicker round of limbering up before he ever tees off.
Knowing his game had to evolve as his body became less cooperative, Key has compensated with hours of practice dedicated to his short game.
“It’s definitely what’s allowed me to keep playing pretty well,” Key said. “I just can’t turn like I used to because of my back. So my short game is what I spend most of my time working on. Stevinson has a really great area to practice on it. Let’s just say I wish I had the short game that I have now back when I could turn and hit the ball pretty solid.”
Key’s continued success on the links comes as no surprise to former Livingston athletic director and basketball coach Angelo Naldi. Key served as an assistant coach in Naldi’s farewell season last winter and the head coach said his mantra and temperament were perfect for golf.
“He was always focused and really positive with the kids,” Naldi said. “He always believed if the effort is there, regardless of the outcome, you will always be successful at something later in life. It might not have been basketball, but if you routinely put in the effort, it was going to pay off in the long run.”
Key’s terrific round is proof of that.