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Back in the swing

Kirk Baxter took a shot at qualifying for the U.S. Open last week and came up just two strokes short of advancing to the next round.

Anyone who knows the Alta Sierra golfer might not exactly be amazed by the round he played at Valley Hi Country Club in Elk Grove. Shooting a 71 is something one might expect from a guy who’s been teeing it up for a living over the course of a 36-year career as a golf pro.

But in preparing for the qualifier, Baxter had a handicap other than his golf average with which to deal. It was a little more than three months ago that the 48-year-old suffered a heart attack.



Back on a Sunday afternoon in February, Baxter was kicked back watching the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a tournament in which he had played in the early ’80s, when it was known as the Bing Crosby Pro-Am.

Suddenly, he felt it coming on. And he knew exactly what it was, because this wasn’t going to be his first heart attack.




“I called my ex-wife (Tammy) and said ‘you’ve got to come here and take me in to the hospital,'” Baxter said. “When she got there, I told her I didn’t think I was going to make it. She said said ‘Oh yes, you are and she shoved me into backseat of her car and rushed me to the fire chief’s home, where an ambulance would meet us.”

Tammy was right, Kirk pulled through again. But, he said, he knows he’s living with heart disease that doesn’t offer him a lot of reason to be optimistic. His arteries are collapsing.

And that’s why he was back out at DarkHorse Golf Club two weeks after his latest attack, chipping and putting in preparation for the qualifier.

“You know what?” Baxter says, gazing off into the distance of the driving range at DarkHorse. “I don’t know how much time I have. I’ve had two heart attacks in two years.

“And I almost checked out on February 10.”

Even though he fell short of qualifying for the U.S. Open, Baxter said his performance marks the beginning of his comeback. He’s determined to run down a dream he’s had since he was just a young duffer.

After earning all-league and all-state honors throughout his days at St. Joseph’s High School in Santa Maria, Baxter was a standout at Allan Hancock College before transferring to play for Sacramento State in 1978-79.

Once he graduated he played on the National Golf Association’s tour and on the Space Coast tour, a PGA satellite tour in Florida. He competed in the Bing Crosby and the Tucson Open in the early ’80s, but eventually decided to focus on the operations end of being a golf pro.

He worked for the Northern California section of the PGA for 24 years, retiring in late 2004 after his first heart attack. During his time with the PGA, he ran golf clubs and taught the game. He first came to the western Nevada County area in 1990, when he signed on as an assistant pro at Lake of the Pines, where he left as head pro in 2001.

“My dream was actually to make one of the tours, even though I spent my career running clubs and running clubhouses,” he said. “Now it’s my opportunity. Now’s a good time to try to fulfill the dream again.

“This is kind of the beginning of my comeback. The goal is to go back out and qualify for the senior tour … I believe I can go out there and actually win.”

He won’t be eligible to compete on the Champions Tour until October of 2008, when he’ll celebrate his 50th birthday. But the preparations are underway and his performance at the May 14 U.S. Open qualifier makes things all the more promising.

A father of three children, the oldest being 20 and the youngest 10, Baxter was teeing off against a field of 78 golfers that included some of the area’s top young golfers.

He finished in a tie for ninth place, two strokes back of advancing to a 36-hole section qualifier and one stroke back of serving as an alternate.

“You’ve got to play them all,” he said. “Had I not made one mistake, I’d be going to Los Angeles.

“But that’s why I love this game, because of how difficult it is.”

He’s loved the game for most his life. In fact, he said while pointing to a young man picking up the driving range at DarkHorse, “That’s how I started, right there, and I stuck with it.”

Since he was 13 years old picking the range at Santa Maria Country Club, Baxter has known all along golf was the game for him.

“It’s the individual challenge,” he said. “The test against yourself.

“I’ve taught over 20,000 lessons and the big reason why so many people play this game is because of the test against yourself. And I love it.”

ooo

Another Grass Valley resident, Earl Cross Jr., shot a 78 to finish in a tie for 54th place in the qualifier played at Valley Hi Country Club. Shawn Kelly, head pro at The Ridge in Auburn, tied for first place with Lodi’s James Watt, shooting a 67.

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To contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton, e-mail brianh@theunion.com or call 477-4240.


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