Friends enjoy the competition

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Two golfers - Charles Howell and Vaughn Taylor - competed in the area's Regions Cup golf tournaments before they played in the Masters Tournament.

Doug Ballenger (left) and friend Jeff Roberts will both play in the Regions Cup's Goshen Golf Classic, which begins today.  Chris Thelen/Staff
Chris Thelen/Staff
Doug Ballenger (left) and friend Jeff Roberts will both play in the Regions Cup's Goshen Golf Classic, which begins today.

Doug Ballenger is the only player who has ever done it the other way around.

Ballenger, a former Augusta resident (1986-1998) and future Aikenite, played in the 1973 Masters as a member of the U.S. Walker Cup team.

A lifelong amateur, Ballenger played in Regions Cup tournaments during his years in Augusta, finishing as a runner-up twice in the under 50 regular division.

Now, thanks to his friendship with Aiken's Jeff Roberts, Ballenger has bought a house at Woodside Plantation in Aiken and will be moving there once his house in Port St. Lucie, Fla., sells.

In the meantime, he has made weekend trips to play in Regions Cup events, hoping to earn enough points to make the season-ending Regions Cup Matches as a member of the South Carolina team.

Ballenger, who would make the team if the season ended today, makes his third appearance this season in the Goshen Golf Classic, which begins today at Goshen Plantation Golf Club.

Ballenger is still the scratch golfer he was when he left the area nine years ago. The difference is that he's now 58 and playing in the Regions Cup's senior division.

In his Regions Cup starts this season, Ballenger tied for second place at North Augusta Country Club and tied for 18th at Persimmon Hill Golf Club.

"I would anticipate being able to win an event before the end of the year if I play my normal game," Ballenger said. "But the competition is good. You've got to shoot par or better (to win)."

Ballenger shot 77-81-159 in the 1973 Masters, playing the first round with 1939 Masters champion Ralph Guldahl and the second one with Bobby Nichols. He also played a practice round with Lee Trevino.

"To be able to achieve that invite and to be able to walk the fairways and to have the gallery applaud for you every time you walk on a green, it's the pinnacle of any amateur golfer's career," Ballenger said of playing in the Masters.

Not that Ballenger ever tells someone about his accomplishments.

"I never would volunteer that," Ballenger said. "I don't tell people those things. I just let my golf clubs and putter do the talking."

Roberts, his friend in Aiken, can vouch for that.

Ballenger and Roberts met in south Florida, where Roberts, an Aiken native, had moved in 1998. Roberts didn't know Ballenger when they both lived in the Augusta area, but as luck would have it, they both became members at the same golf course in Florida - Willoughby Golf Club in Stuart.

One day, Ballenger and Roberts were paired together in one of the club's "dogfights."

"I think I'd only been there a few months and I was paired with this guy I don't know," Roberts said, referring to Ballenger. "It looked like he was kind of hacking the ball around, but at the end of the round he shot 72. I thought, 'what the hell? How'd he do that? This guy can play.' "

When Roberts found out Ballenger had lived in Evans and worked at Club Car, Inc., he asked Ballenger the question any golfer who has lived in Augusta gets: did he ever play Augusta National Golf Club?

Ballenger told him he had, and that it had been a "pretty special" experience. He left it at that.

"He's thinking I played with a member or something," Ballenger said. "A couple of weeks later he found out I actually played in the Masters."

Said Roberts: "That's something to drop on you. Wow, that was impressive."

At the time, Roberts had started playing golf again after a 17-year break.

Roberts asked Ballenger if he could help him with his game.

Ballenger agreed, but told him he would assist him with course management and the short game, not swing technique.

"I kind of gathered him a little bit and educated him about the short game and getting the ball in the hole and playing different shots," Ballenger said. "Now he's phenomenal around the greens. It's fun to watch because he's got a 120 mph clubhead speed so he can hit it a long way, but he didn't hone it in."

He has now. Roberts, 51, won in his first senior start, in 2006, and is one of the top players on the circuit. This season, he has three runner-up finishes in his five starts.

In Florida, Ballenger and Roberts started playing in team events and became regular golf partners at their club.

In 2001, Roberts and his wife moved back to Aiken and started trying to get Ballenger to join them there.

"He'd say, 'Nah, I'm not moving up there; I like south Florida too much,' " Roberts said. "Then the eye of three hurricanes went over his house in the space of two years and he started talking about, 'Well, I'll get up there some day' and that some day is starting to become now."

Roberts convinced Ballenger to buy a house and get a membership at Woodside Plantation.

"I'm bringing somebody up here who can beat me, but it's great competition and I'm looking forward to having him here," Roberts said. "Every golfer wants somebody who can beat him because that makes you better."

In the two events they both played in this season, Ballenger beat his friend at North Augusta Country Club, but Roberts clipped him at Persimmon Hill.

When they play friendly rounds of golf both agreed that they usually tie.

"That makes it fun," Ballenger said. "We have a great time together. That's what fellowship is all about. At this point in our lives, whether you shoot 72 or 74 or 68 isn't as important as who you play golf with,"

Roberts acknowledges that Ballenger has an advantage over him when it comes to tournament competition because of his experience.

"He's played at a higher level of pressure than I have," Roberts said. "But believe me, I look forward to beating him. I'd love for both of us to shoot 66 and have a playoff."

Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851 or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.


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