Ventura swings for the fences

On course he's California cool, with a dry sense of humor

We reached Crystal Tree's par-5 seventh tee, and Robin Ventura faced this dilemma: Should he hit driver in hopes of reaching in two?

In other words, swing for the fences — or try to line a single up the middle?

"I'm not here to lay up," the White Sox manager said. "That doesn't work well for winning the World Series either."

So you're saying you're "all in"?

"I'm not into slogans," he replied.

After all these years in the Midwest, not to mention stints with the Mets and Yankees, Ventura remains the epitome of California cool. He's understated. And his humor is so dry, everywhere he plays instantly becomes a desert course.

I hit the shot of my life on the second hole. A hooked tee ball left me in the rough with a sidehill lie and a tree impeding my backswing. I closed my eyes and hit the middle of the green with an 8-iron.

"You didn't check it up, though," Ventura joked.

His best golf day came when he and former Mets infielder Todd Zeile played Cypress Point in the morning and Pebble Beach in the afternoon. Even better, it rained midday, so Pebble wasn't crowded.

They played several holes both left- and right-handed, swapping clubs, and Stephanie Ventura greeted her husband on the 18th green with a beer.

"You do love me," he told her.

Ventura learned the game from his brother, Rick, now the head pro at San Luis Obispo Country Club in central California. They grew up in nearby Santa Maria, and their mother, Darlene, would drop them off at a course called Rancho Maria, where the two played for milkshakes.

"A built-in babysitter," Robin said.

Ventura played off and on over 16 years in the big leagues, depending on the "golfiness" of his team.

The late-'90s Sox were golf-friendly, with manager Jerry Manuel sometimes playing at Crystal Tree, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout in Orland Park where no two holes are alike and the greens are immaculate.

Now when he tees it up in season, it's almost always on the road, where he has fewer demands on his time. Playing partners include coaches Mark Parent, Joe McEwing, Mark Salas and Harold Baines (the best of the bunch, a 7-handicap) and Sox communications VP Scott Reifert.

Two exceptions to the informal "road" rule: Ventura shot a 79 last month at Cog Hill's "Dubsdread" course, and he played nine for this column on June 8, hours before his team took on the Astros.

Still, Ventura was not about to lollygag. After he arrived and was asked whether he wanted to hit the driving range, he sounded like Allen Iverson: "Practice? Practice? Nah, I'll know within a few shots whether I'm playing a cut or a hook."

Ventura got a bad yardage into the first green and dumped his approach into a bunker. Rather than complain, he hit the pin with his sand shot to save par. "Yeah, I was trying to make that one," he said.