Memories endure for championship golf team

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Golf shots may be forgotten, but championships and friendships sear the memory for a lifetime.

That was the message as a former Central High School foursome assembled at Cape Girardeau Country Club on Saturday, commemorating a championship won 40 years ago and celebrating each other's company.

Mike Gray, Mike Long, Jim Reynolds and J. Fred Waltz fittingly stood on the practice green, where hours of practice paid off with the school's lone golf state championship in 1964.

On May 18 of that year, the Tigers foursome tied Mexico High School for the low total at A.L. Gustin Golf Course in Columbia, Mo. While the Tigers combined for 634 strokes, not one was spoken of as the men reminisced their high school days.

"I remember it was very hot that day," said Waltz, a lawyer in Cape Girardeau. "We were in the upper echelon but were like seventh after 18 holes. We made a big jump on the third nine. We had the low third nine of the tournament."

The Tigers did indeed come from behind in the 36-hole, one-day tournament. The Tigers, fresh off their fifth straight district championship, were one of the favorites heading in. Central had finished second at state two years earlier and seventh in 1963. They were in fifth place midway through the tournament but moved into a tie for second after a 158 on the third nine.

Reynolds, an attorney in Kennett, also had vague memories, recalling someone telling him he needed to par the final hole to secure the championship.

"We were all out there by ourselves, but at the very last word started getting around," Reynolds said. "I remember the last hole. That's all I remember."

Much more vivid were the memories of the personalities and odd happenings of their time at Central.

Standing on the green overlooking the course, which was nine holes during their high school days, and building on the memories of their former teammates, the stories flowed like the neighboring Mississippi River, visible in the distance.

There was lovable coach Payne Muir driving his team to meets in his yellow Rambler, veering out of his lane as he turned to talk to the passengers in the back.

"I can remember being in a wreck in it twice," Long said.

"He always wanted to give advice. He wanted to win so bad, and he wanted to help out," said Gray with a laugh. "And we all were good players and we all knew what we needed to do. We didn't need to change anything in the middle of a round. But he was always trying to support us there and do everything he could to help us be successful."

There were fond memories of an always eager Muir, making sure his team had fresh shirts and socks at the turn.

"It was kind of like a pit stop," Waltz said. "He was doing all that and making sure you were drinking water."

Other memories were a little more painful, like Reynolds walking into a Waltz practice swing and getting his forehead sliced open two weeks before the state tournament.

"I still have the scar, but it didn't hurt anything," Reynolds noted.

Also stirred in their minds was a string of dual victories they were caretakers of during their four years. The school ran off 49 straight dual victories that spanned from 1960 to 1966.

"Really, the streak was more impressive than winning state," Waltz said. "And that involved a whole lot of people."

The foursome represented Central at state, but the team included Larry McLaird, John David Finch, Jim Cochran, Tommy Spitzmiller, Mike Young, Robert Brinkhoff, Ronnie Bowers, Bob Spradling, Fred Springer and Skip Stiver.

"I don't know if we realized at the time what kind of accomplishment we were doing," Long said. "But we probably one of the most dominant teams for a five-year period."

The streak ended a year after the graduation of Gray, Long and Waltz. Reynolds graduated a year earlier, shortly after the state victory.

Gray, Reynolds and Waltz all gave Long his due, not hesitating when asked who was the best golfer in the group.

"When I came in, and before I'd ask what the other team did, I'd say, 'What'd Long shoot?'" Reynolds said.

Long turned his golf skills into a career. He played mini-tours early in his career and later traveled on the national senior tour. He made it to the finals of qualifying school for the Senior Tour. He's currently the golf professional at Kennett Country Club, where he helps the Kennett High School golf team.

"I just remember we were expected to win," said Long. "There was a confidence about us that we went into match play, we expected to win. I remember a match here we only won by a shot and it was like a total shock to the rest of us. We could hardly believe it."

Gray and Reynolds went on to play college golf at Southeast; Waltz played at Westminster College.

While Long, Reynolds and Waltz have remained in the area, Gray, a retired engineer from Monsanto, has been the missing ingredient in regard to reunions. He's lived in Alabama, Texas and England, and he currently resides in Chesterfield, Mo. In fact, their reunion was the first since high school.

They were tight friends in high school and remain that way today.

"I think this experience I had really had an influence on my management style, because the chemistry this group of people had, and the confidence we had and the accountability we had to the team," Gray said. "We had a good time in the process of doing it, but we all recognized there was a lot at stake, and I think we supported each other pretty well. If you look at a business environment, you get that same sort of situation."

The four are also testimony to the life-long satisfaction that golf can provide. All have been heavily involved with the sport throughout the past 40 years.

Gray is the president of St. Albans Country Club in St. Louis, while Waltz is the president of trustees at Cape Girardeau Country Club.

Reynolds, once the president of Kennett Country Club, has kept his state championship patch in his office for the past 33 years.

"I see it every day," Reynolds said. "It's something I don't ever forget about. It was a great day. I think about these guys all the time."

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