The year was 1975, and four friends had fallen in love with golf. They had one simple goal.
We just wanted that first tee time on Sunday.
You never know where you’re going to find your next story. My wife, Stephanie, and I were in our grocery store, and Dave Lamarre was behind us in line. You can't go anywhere in small towns without seeing someone you know. I knew Dave from seeing him at the Alpena Golf Club, affectionately known as the "City Course" to locals, back when I was a kid. His foursome, which included his brother and his two best friends, is a staple at the muni I grew up on. When I asked if the group was still playing, he nodded. I wondered how many years they had played together. Turns out that Dave and Mike LaMarre, along with Dick Seguin and Phil Milostan, have played more than 100 rounds a year for 47 consecutive years.
I had my next story.
To know the group that has played more than 5,000 rounds together, you have to understand Alpena. It is a hamlet in Northeast Michigan on the shores of Lake Huron, just 99 miles from the Mackinac Bridge and 250 miles north of Detroit.
In a world that is so easily connected, Alpena remains isolated. It is a four-hour drive to the closest major airport and more than two hours to a town with more than a few thousand people. My colleague Michael Bamberger, who has traveled worldwide, visited last year. When he stepped out of the car after his drive from the Detroit airport, he said, "The term middle of nowhere is overused, but not in this case." It is a blue-collar town. Many who grew up here never left.
The town isn't perfect. Far from it. There are too many vacant buildings and too many corner bars with too many regulars; more investment needs to be made, and the town needs to catch up to the times. Only recently did a movie theater open, and there are few constructive places for young people to meet at night. But it is also a place where you don't lock your doors at night, where townspeople wave to one another and a neighbor isn’t afraid to knock on the door at the house down the street and ask for a spare egg. Stephanie and I recently purchased a home here, and our 75-year-old neighbor insists on cutting our lawn because she has a riding mower and we don't. The bleachers are always packed for Friday night high school football games, even though the Wildcats haven’t had a winning record in years. It's small-town America defined. Honest, hard-working people.
Alpena Golf Club is a reflection of the town it sits on the edge of. It is rough around the edges, but the kind of course I was lucky to grow up on. Not surprising, the City Course is a little behind the times. Most people still call the clubhouse to make a tee time. The phone number remains ingrained in my memory after dialing it hundreds of times as a kid. The gas carts are noisy with tattered leather seats. A beer in the clubhouse will cost you $3. An 18-hole round is less than $50. It's a scruffy course, much like the town. It's a straightforward design that doesn't have fancy mowers or green-rolling machines, but it’s also a place we locals love to play. Everyone will know you are an outsider if you show up on the 1st tee in a nice golf shirt and pants. You meet the dress code if you’re wearing pants and a shirt.
In 1975, Dick Seguin and Dave Lamarre, along with Dave's brother, Mike, started to play golf. They had been friends since grade school and attended the same church. Dick and Dave had just graduated from Alpena High School, and Mike would graduate the following year. They were quickly bitten by the golf bug.
The City Course was just nine holes back then, and the budget only allowed for the tees and greens to be watered. "The ball would go forever," Dave recalls, describing the mostly dirt fairways. The trio didn't care; they didn't know any differently. They had a place to play.
They showed up in cut-off shorts, and when the weather turned hot in the summer, they shed their shirts, their leather bags with seven or eight hand-me-down clubs slung over their shoulders. Soon, the three settled into a routine of playing nine holes after work every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and 18 on Sunday. They had paid for their $325 yearly membership dues by halfway through the season. Golf was their life, and work was a means to play the game. And it wasn’t long before they set their sights on the first tee time on Sunday. They remember watching a group of older gentlemen who would claim the first tee time every Sunday. That’s when they discussed their goal: Secure the first tee time.
The shirtless rounds ended a few years later, after a woman we’ll call Mrs. Wilson (small-town gossip travels quickly), whom the threesome nicknamed “Squatty” because of her unique pre-shot address, complained to the pro. In the 45 years since, every round has been played in a shirt, although you could sense a hint of bitterness as the story was relayed.
A few years later, a fourth player joined the group. Phil Milostan, another childhood friend, had become obsessed with the game, and the foursome settled into a routine that has carried on for almost five decades.
I was excited to hear their story, so the five of us gathered in the clubhouse of the City Course. The building has come a long way from the cramped log cabin that I remembered as a kid. I was curious about how they had endured the tough times in life and if the golf course was their sanctuary. They couldn’t answer how four people had remained friends for so long and played 5,000 rounds together without ever having had a serious argument. We complicate everything, including golf; this group has done the opposite of that. The answer was that there wasn't an answer. It was simple in the most beautiful way.
The group lives by three rules. First, play fast. They always walk and use pull carts (aside from last year when Dick used a gas cart while recovering from knee surgery). They play the front nine in 75 minutes and the back (the second nine was added in 1988) in an hour and a half, assuming they aren't held up by anyone. Because they are well-known in Alpena golf circles, they often are waved through by slower twosomes and threesomes.
Second, they don't drink on the course. "Alcohol and competition can make for a bad mix," Mike says. However, the group does like to enjoy a beverage at the end of each round. For a long time, they headed to Seguin’s Bar, where Dick's dad was the owner, for a couple of drinks and maybe a burger. Oftentimes, the drink of choice was a soda.
Lastly, they don't gamble. Money exchanging hands complicates things. Just play golf.
Just play golf. And the group has done just that. They would all race to the course after work. Meeting on the tee around 5 o’clock in the summer, getting in their nine holes before sundown. They would sneak out of work early in the spring and fall to ensure they completed their round.
Why play anywhere else? In 1976, they made a trip to the Jack Nicklaus designed Grizzly and Bear, outside of Cincinnati. It is still the only time the group has played outside of Michigan. When they showed up for their tee time, they were informed they couldn't tee off because they didn't meet the dress code in their cut-off jeans and T-shirts. They scrambled back to the hotel to slip into nice shorts and shirts with a collar. They enjoyed the experience, but Alpena Golf Club was home. They didn’t make any more out-of-town golf trips until 1996.
Glen's Market was holding a raffle, and the phone rang at Mike's house informing him he had won a four-person, five-day ski trip to Boyne Highlands, a golf and ski resort 90 miles west of Alpena. Mike had no interest in skiing, so he asked if he could convert the prize to golf. The resort agreed, and a tradition was born.
Each year the group would make a trip to a course near Alpena and enjoy a week of golf—six days and five nights. They would play 36 holes four of the days and 18 twice. It was the one time a year they would have a competition; it was always the lefties (Dave and Phil) versus the righties. Mike kept meticulous notes: who won, the scores, the course and anything special that happened. As was their custom, no money changed hands.
The second time the five of us met, at a coffee shop, Mike nonchalantly pulled out some of the stats he has kept over the years. "Wait, you keep stats?" I said excitedly. Yes, he does. Dick always kept the scorecard. "He has the best handwriting," Dave says.
Along with the scores, Mike tracks putts, fairways hit, sand saves, and chip-ins, stats he would later transfer to a notebook. He keeps special scorecards with holes-in-one (everyone has had an ace except Phil, and the others aren’t shy about reminding him), albatrosses (Mike has two) and low scores. He compiles yearly stats, and each December the group, along with their wives, get together for dinner at Dave's house. (The group proudly boasts a combined 172 years of marriage.) They hand out the Player of the Year trophy. They stopped adding the name plates years ago; the last one shows that Mike was the POTY in 1997.
The stats are transferred to a white sheet of paper, neatly written despite the lack of lines. The leader in each category is highlighted. The first category listed (and the most important to the group) is the number of rounds played. Dick has often been the leader, with nearly 150 rounds in most years, as he and his wife play regularly on days the group don't. All of them play more than 100 rounds a year. Next is the scoring average. Dave is considered the group's best player despite not using a driver for most of his life. "I just struggle with it," he says. His average has hovered a couple of shots above par for the last 20 years. But all four are solid players, averaging around 40 for nine holes.
The stats and the Player of the Year trophy are inconsequential, except to have a reference to share the memories of another year. They needle each other about their shortcomings on the course, laugh about poor shots and celebrate the best rounds.
They are all retired now, except for Mike, who works part-time as a janitor at a church. Dave, a furniture salesman, retired six years ago. Dick did, too, after a long career as the parts manager at a car dealership. Phil retired after 41 years as an explosive engineer at a limestone quarry. “I turned big rocks into little rocks,” he says. Milostan was hardworking and humble, and his last day of work epitomizes the group. He worked 41 years for the same company and shared his retirement date with only a human resource employee at the company. He clocked out on a Friday. On the following Monday, his boss called to ask where he was. That’s when Phil shared the news of his retirement.
Phil, at 71, is the oldest of the group and, because of his seniority, is the group's commissioner. "If a Netflix deal comes from this story, just go through me," he says with a laugh.
Next spring, as opening day approaches, Dick will inform the group how the course looks, as he lives just down the road from the front gate. The anticipation will start, and the excitement will grow. Dave will leave his house and pick up the other three in his Ford Bronco. It has been that way since retirement. "I'm the farthest away. It's easy," Dave says matter-of-factly, not for a second, thinking this is out of the ordinary. Mike always claims the front seat as he gets picked up first. I reminded the group of the closing scene in Good Will Hunting, when Matt Damon doesn't show up. With a laugh, Phil says, "When Mike can't make it, I get excited that I get to sit in the front seat."
After opening day, they will settle into a routine that has become wonderfully therapeutic: Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and the opening tee time on Sunday. Nary a range ball will be hit, and not a foot will be set on the practice green; only a few stretches to get the aging bones limber before heading to the 1st tee. The group now plays the senior tees. "By the time we are 80, we might make our own set of tees," Dick says, but besides that, not much has changed. Uncomplicated. Just golf.
In the hours I spent with the group, I asked again and again what the secret was for remaining friends after all these years. None had answers. That itself is the answer.
A group of four has logged 5,000 rounds of golf over 47 years. Play fast, and don't make it bigger than it is. Hit the ball, walk quickly to the next shot, and hit it again. Four days a week for almost five decades, the game has been their escape from everyday challenges. Playing golf with friends. It is beautifully simple.
They’ve had that first tee time on Sunday morning for 20 years now. They don’t plan on giving it up anytime soon.