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|Vern Burns has competed on the Tight Lies Tour and is ready to play full time on the Nationwide Tour. (Courtesy IRM Productions)|
At age 37, Vern Burns went through a breakup that left him depressed and disjointed. When a friend came over and convinced him to go golfing at Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Beach, Calif., things just got worse.
"I must have shot a 135," Burns said of that day 11 years ago. "It was the most humiliating day of my life.
"I decided I never wanted to do that poorly again."
So Burns went out and did what any normal, slightly depressed father of two who had never practiced at golf might do: He hit 500 balls a day, every day, and played 36 holes each weekend. Within seven months, he had cut 60 strokes off his game - and found his focus in life.
"I think it was the total balance that I needed, physically, mentally and even off the course," Burns said. "What I found over the years is it didn't matter what your swing looks like, but it's like Bobby Jones said: It's the six inches between your ears."
The inner-city Los Angeles native began to dream of playing professionally, a goal that accelerated after he met another African-American man who'd set out to turn the golfing world on its ear -- Earl Woods.
One day at Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena -- where Burns practiced so much that management eventually hired him as a part-time course marshal -- he was invited to fill out a foursome. He noticed people congregating around one of his new playing partners.
"Someone told me, 'That's Earl Woods, Tiger's dad,'" Burns recalled. "I had no idea who that was."
Hungry for more golf knowledge, Burns hung around the elder Woods, and the two made a deal.
"He told me he'd work with me if I paid for the balls and promised [that] if anyone else asked me for golf help, I'd help," Burns said. The student and the teacher became friends. "We would talk once a day. He was the reason for my $1,000 cell-phone bill."
Not long afterward, Tiger Woods' professional career took off, and Burns and Earl Woods lost touch. Still, Burns remains grateful for the help the elder Woods gave him, and the confidence he helped instill.
"Sometimes you look at someone and see their eyes and you know they know something. Some call it steely-eyed. Sometimes you're put in places because you belong there."
Now, at 48, the former telecommunications worker has dedicated himself fully to golf. He left the 9-to-5 world in December; working in front of a computer was impossible when golf was the only thing on his mind.
Currently coached by PGA Professional Herb Triplett, Burns said he understands that making a run at the Champions Tour would be tough; the former Seniors Tour is on the lookout more for former PGA champions than for 50-year-old newcomers. But then, he is aiming at bigger prey.
Burns has some experience on the Tight Lies Tour and other mini-tours, and he is working toward playing full time on the Nationwide Tour. From there he believes the sky is the limit.
"My goal is to stick a tee in the ground between the ropes of the PGA Tour," said Burns, who now lives near Orlando and also harbors hopes of becoming a motivational speaker. "That's when the history I'll make is on the map. That's where I'm going."
Golf came into his life when he most needed it, Burns said. He knows it's a lifetime commitment.
"I married it," he said with a laugh. "And I know golf will be there for me. Because that feeling of abandonment, I can't take that again."
In 2001, Burns was the Charlie Pelham Memorial Champion, the Marriott Partners Tournament Champion, and the Disney MBE Golf Classic Champion. In 2005, he won the Florida A&M/Bethune-Cookman Classic.
August 14, 2006
William K. Wolfrum keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation. You can follow him on Twitter @Wolfrum.
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