Golf’s greatest, most improbable thrill mirrors the odds of a big lottery hit. Most players never get one.
Yet the unbelievable occurred for Ron Kempe of Little Egg Harbor in late May at Hamilton Trails Golf Club.
The 68-year-old hoisted an 8-iron from the back tees, roughly 160 yards away on an elevated tee at the par-3 fifth hole. It cleared the water in front of the green, landed softly on the putting surface and rolled a few feet to destiny.
Thirty years into his playing career, Kempe gained the moment of a lifetime.
“I knew it had been hit well and it was straight, at first I was just pleased it made the green,” he recalles. “Then I saw it disappear, and that it did not roll off the green. And then I realized it was in! I could hardly believe it, this was such a great feeling. It was surreal.”
Kempe’s first-ever “ace” was promptly deposited in his bucket list. It also stirred a social-media blitz, congratulatory texts and questions about the ramifications. No, this did not occur on a tournament hole in which a car could be won. Yes, he recalled bizarre near-misses, like a friend hitting his tee shot out-of-bounds and sinking the next effort, but for a three, not a hole-in-one. No, he was not bound by golf tradition to purchase a drink for club members, as this is not a private facility.
“Would have been glad to anyway,” says the North Jersey native, who moved to Little Egg Harbor after retiring about three years ago. “It would have been fine with me to share this with people.”
As it is, he has wife Barbara, three children and four grandchildren. Not to mention Bob Rapp, his witness, 75-year-old buddy and traveling partner. The tandem drives 45 minutes to Hamilton Trails about three times a month, bypassing closer courses for this challenging, yet convenient, nine-hole layout. Hamilton Trails plays 3,265 yards from the back tees, offers several risk-reward options and became a favorite for these close friends.
So close in fact that Rapp played a hand in the shot. He gave Kempe the set of clubs that includes the now-famous 8-iron.
“Last summer, my wife calls me from a garage sale and tells me about these nice clubs,” Rapp recalls. “The lady only wanted $80 for these Pings (brand) that had been her late husband’s and were just gathering dust. So I bought them. But I couldn’t hit them. All I did was kill a lot of worms,” he laughs about hitting nothing but grounders. “I wanted to give up the game. I told Ron ‘if you can hit them, you can have them.’”
Well, he can hit them. And both believe the clubs may fit taller players. Rapp is 5-foot-8. Kempe is 6-foot-6. Besides the game, Kempe loves traveling with his friend, working golf into his retirement and assessing a milestone with modesty.
“You think of how many things have to go right for this to happen,” he says. “It was a calm day, no wind. We had experienced a lot of rain, that slowed the greens up and the ball did not roll as far. The pin was in the front edge, that worked the best that day.”
And he hit the shot. Club Owner Andrew Bucceri says the last hole-in-one here was in 2012, meaning that well over 100,000 rounds of golf unfolded between the two events.
Kempe’s perspective on the course: He loves the par-5 third hole, which requires three accurate shots and the tricky challenge of keeping the approach shot on the green when hit from about 200 yards away. The eighth hole has strategically placed ditches early in the hole and bunkers in front of the green that impact club selection. Many players will have to lay up on the second shot to avoid the traps and then they must clear them and reach the putting surface on the next shot. The first hole is a dogleg that will tempt players to cut off yardage and not go too straight, onto a road. The ninth is a difficult par-3, 190 yards from the back tees, with water on the left. Par is an achievement. Hamilton Trails also has an excellent teaching pro in Cheri Cottelli, available for lessons and summer clinics.