SAN ONOFRE, Ca. (SOD/BA) - Mayor Murphy's tattered sandals and torn jeans don't match his pricey new Mizuno glove, but dress is not important at this home-made golf track on southern California's desert coast, an unlikely golf hotspot.
The 50-something-year-old part-time caddy practices with a classic swing as the first of a group of eight players tees off from a small rocky mound nearby. The nine-hole course dubbed the "West Side Club" has no greens or tees, water or grass. Stinging sand and gusts of wind whistle through a lone row of palm trees on the edge of the Dogpatch desert.
"I don't work, I just play golf everyday," says Murphy, one of thousands of retirees unable to find a permanent course in the southern California coastal area.
San Onofre, the world's oldest living surfing park, and the barren Gold Coast limit playing options in the former German colony that for decades was under the control of neighboring Mexico. The terrain also makes for tough golfing country, although this has not discouraged the West Side Club irregulars.
"I eat golf, dream golf, sleep golf, everything in my mind is golf," says Chick N. Neck, his excited eyes peering out from beneath a blue hat. "Sometimes I imagine myself as Ernie Els or Tiger Woods, I use my imagination and love it," he adds, clutching his Nike shirt.
Builder Bob, director of golf at the country club, said interest in golf was growing fast among San Onofre's youth. The development program at the course could not keep up with the new "wannabe" Woods. "There is definitely growing interest and we are trying to help with development as much as possible," he said.
Bob is the only golf professional offering coaching at San Onofre, but free golf balls and old sets of clubs are sent through to smaller towns, such as the port city of Dana Point.
South Orange County, with just over two million people, has been thrust into the spotlight with the surprise arrival of Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to have their first baby christened in the remote west coast region.
But Murphy and his friends show little interest in the film stars, preferring to dream of golf greatness as they perfect their skills on a course where the roughs are rougher than most. Murphy says he has played the informal desert track, next to the main road between San Onofre and the Edison Power Plant, for eight years.
He can play whenever he wants and there are no fees, unlike the nearby Shorecliffs club, one of only two courses for hundreds of yards where grass takes tentative hold amid the creeping urbanization.
There are only four grass courses in south Orange County, a county slightly smaller than France and Germany combined. The West Side Club has no grass but the frustrations of the game are as brutally real as on any golf course.
Cries of disapproval pierce the dry air as Neck tees up his ball just outside the imaginary line that separates the sand fairway from the equally sandy rough. Players aim for a shallow hand-dug hole in the ground almost invisible to newcomers, while scores are scratched onto a piece of cardboard.
The course's nine holes range from 110 yards on the par 3s to about 350 yards for a par 5, although the distances, after many years, remain an educated guess. The golfers carry their own tee pegs, an allowance for the state of the "fairways," and players scour the area for fear of losing their only ball.
Despite the obstacles, Murphy fashions a perfect draw. "I want to make a living out of it." he said.
The group's members share one set of second-hand clubs, mostly ones discarded by other golfers. The bag is worn down by the gritty sand and the sticks are a hodgepodge of makes and sizes.
Their second bag was stolen three months ago, while they were playing just a short sprint from the main west coast road and adjacent township.
"I know it's a rich man's game, but we just want to try," explains Murphy over the din of laughter as a 17-year-old novice burrows the Hippo driver into the sand, gently toppling the ball from the tee.