Par Four: The Love of Pete
Sprinklers spray the lush fairways of Coto de Caza Golf Club as the sun begins to rise on a Friday morning. Seventeen days before his next tournament, Pete Fernandez arrives at 6:30 a.m., with his golf bag strapped like a backpack over each shoulder. Just as darkness begins to give way to light, Pete stares at the first pin in the distance on the South Course. With arms folded, he takes a sip of morning coffee as red flowers, green fairway and blue skies gain their pigment. He and his teammates on UC Irvine’s men’s golf team congregate on the course’s putting green in jackets.
Clean shaven, Pete fell asleep Thursday night at 11:30 p.m., woke up at 5 a.m. and drove from his home in Costa Mesa to the course in record time — 20 minutes. He hasn’t played since a practice round at his favorite course, Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, on Wednesday.
The previous morning, the team worked out together as part of their Tuesday and Thursday weight room sessions. Pete refers to it as Olympic-style training. He’s used to the cross-training, though. At Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, Pete swam, played golf and played the occasional game of pickup basketball. In Bakersfield there wasn’t much to do, except hang out at the park with friends, so he found plenty of time to work on his golf game.
Living with his parents, who moved from Bakersfield to Costa Mesa when their son began college prior to the fall of 2010, Pete doesn’t have time for much more than playing golf, working out and going to school. The criminology major began his college career studying biology. After making a few bogeys in the classroom, Pete — a redshirt freshman — became undecided, then switched to criminology. With his first class of the day beginning at 4 p.m., he has plenty of time to get a round in, go out to breakfast and make it back to campus to finish off his week in the classroom.
Paul Smolinski, in his 14th year as the Anteaters’ head coach, alerts Pete that he’s playing with sophomore Allan Jun and the two are the first group on the tee. Allan and Pete play together regularly. Averaging 73.73 strokes per 18 holes in competition this season, Pete is just barely ahead of Allan’s 73.75 shots per round. At today’s practice, no tournament championship is on the line, but bragging rights are. To make things interesting the loser pays for breakfast.
Without hitting balls at the range or getting a feel for the putting greens, the two head to the tee box in a cart.
“I’m predicting a three-hour round today,” Allan says as Pete places his ball on the tee, ready to join the grounds crew as the only souls on the course.
At 6:45, Pete takes a practice swing as the club grazes turf less than a foot from his Titleist Pro V1x golf ball that remains on the tee. His feet make a half-circle around the ball, giving him some perspective. Elbows cocked against his belly button, Pete’s clubface points through the ball and toward his target — a left bunker on a dogleg left — hoping to carry the sand and leave himself a nine-iron into the green on a 415 yard par 4.
He addresses the ball, waggling a couple of times and taking a look at the first fairway of the day. Just as he’s done thousands of times, Pete’s shoulders turn over his hips; the hips then uncoil as he thrusts his chest and belt buckle at the target. Along his swing path, the Titleist gets in the way of Pete’s 3-wood, launching skyward. It travels from right to left and settles in the middle of the fairway. Pete wouldn’t miss a single fairway all day.
His first swings came at the age of 5. Growing up in Downey, Pete was introduced to golf by his father (also named Pete). The little boy eventually passed up his father after years of practice, with the elder Pete regularly shooting in the low 80s, about 10 strokes more than his college boy collects on a typical day.
A tight-knit family, Pete was 12 when his father nonchalantly mentioned that the Fernandezes would be moving from Downey to Bakersfield. He had enough of dealing with Los Angeles traffic and it was time for a move. Just prior to junior high, Pete joined a new community in Bakersfield, but continued to craft his game. He eventually became Stockdale High School’s Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2008, a year in which he finished second in the CIF state championship.
As the cart pulls up to his ball, Pete waits for Allan, who he outdrove by 10 yards. He then cocks his elbows against his belly button, pointing the clubface at the target once again, habitually addressing the ball, before raising the club parallel to the turf over his left ear and thudding the ball and the fairway grass below it. The Titleist lands 5 feet past the pin and kicks forward another 15, much to Pete’s surprise.
“These greens are hard today,” Pete says to Allan, referring to his shot that rolled out rather than spinning backwards.
He towels off his clubface, placing it gently in his bag, before re-entering the passenger seat.
Pete places a half-dollar sized ball marker down, a token he took away from an American Junior Golf Association tournament, an organization that helped expose him to competitive golf. His best finish in an AJGA tournament came in 2009, when he placed fifth at Oak Valley Golf Course in Beaumont.
He cleans his Titleist, then replaces it and removes the AJGA mark. He squats down like a catcher and notices a line that his ball paved through a dewy green upon entry, indicating that he’d need to start his putt outside the left edge of the cup. After redshirting last season, Pete is regaining his form. He sat out with tendinitis in his right wrist, wearing a cast for most of last year.
Pete and his coach both know that if he wants to improve his game, his wrist and his putter need to cooperate. His Ping putter smoothly strokes back and forth and the Titleist limps its way toward the hole, stopping 2 feet to the right of the cup. Two putts for a par. Pete would make 13 pars on the day, including 13 two-putts.
Seven holes later, Pete lands a 4-iron just barely inside the front collar of the green of a 197 yard par 3. Having narrowly skirted the pond that separated him from the pin on the tee box, Pete now has a 25-foot putt for a chance to move to -3 with a birdie. Through seven holes, he’s made two birdies and not a single bogey thus far.
Approximately 100 ducks cover the eighth green between Pete’s cart and his ball. He charges downhill into the community of quackers, pulling the pin out and sending the orange-billed birds squirming for safety. Without the ducks on the green, Pete now has a clear path to the cup. He strokes a putt that hits its left edge and squirts 6 feet to the right. That distance has been routine for Pete all day. Just as he takes his putter back, the ducks flap their wings and fly off across the green, inches above Pete’s head. His putt hits the cup and darts off to the right.
Despite the poor etiquette shown by the ducks, a grin extends across Pete’s face, as he flips his putter around and taps it in left-handed.
“I guess they got back at me for that one,” he says laughing off his first bogey of the day. Pete would only make two bogeys in 18 holes.
Pete and Allan stand on the tee box at 18 tied at -1. Coach Smolinksi has been observing since he pulled up in his cart back on the 16th hole. With six tournaments ahead on the schedule, he needs Pete and Allan to step up. Pete’s strongest round of the year came in October, when he carded a 7-under-64, at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational in Fairfax, but lately he’s been flirting with par.
Coach has seen Pete at his finest, recently witnessing him make 15 birdies in 36 holes, a feat he hopes to witness again with the Big West Championship upcoming in April.
“I’ve never seen Pete hit his driver this good before,” Allan says to his coach, who is on-hand to watch his top scorers duke it out on the 18th and final hole.
Five-hundred and twenty nine yards away and three strokes later, Allan has a 6-foot putt to win. Pete had just chipped up to 3 feet and Allan conceded his partner’s par. With breakfast on the line, Allan burned the ball over the left edge and grunted. Pete stood smiling off the side of the green, leaning his left hip over his putter. The two made par on 18, both shooting 71 and ending up -1.
Pete checks his cellphone that he left in the cart, it’s 10:05 a.m., Allan was just minutes off of his three-hour prediction.
With the group behind them playing at a normal pace, Pete and Allan were a good 15 minutes ahead of everyone else.
The two join their coach in a chipping competition on the 18th green with the group behind them still putting on the 17th. Pete knocks his closest, beating his coach and Allan’s chips by a matter of feet.
After some small talk, Pete jumps in the passenger seat alongside Allan and heads up to the parking lot. After shooting 71s today, they go Dutch for breakfast.