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Dreams can come true

53-year-old Valencia Country Club employee to tee off Friday morning at the 2009 AT&T Champions Clas

Posted: March 11, 2009 1:29 a.m.
Updated: March 11, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Rich Contreras, of Sylmar, walks around hole 15 at the Valencia Country Club Tuesday afternoon. Contreras will be participating in this year's AT&T Champions Classic tournament at the club. Contreras, Valencia Country Club outside service manager, has been trying to get playing time in this tournament for about three years and his dream has fina...

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People are calling it a miracle.

A Disney movie.

Rich Contreras is living it.

The 53-year-old Sylmar resident will tee off Friday morning at the 2009 AT&T Champions Classic at Valencia Country Club.

The miracle was Contreras getting into the tournament.

"It's a one-in-a-million opportunity," Contreras says.

People like him don't get the opportunity to play in professional golf tournaments.

They have to watch from beyond the ropes that cordon off the fairways and greens from the regular people.

Contreras works as the outside service manager at Valencia Country Club.

Essentially, he manages the facility that houses the club's golf carts.

But the last three years, Contreras has tried to make the AT&T Champions Classic by winning open qualifiers.

Four golfers who win a play-in event can play in the AT&T Champions Classic.

Contreras had entered again this year.

Yet weeks prior, Craig Cliver, Valencia Country Club's golf professional, wrote a letter to Brian Fitzgerald, the tournament's executive director, asking him if he would consider giving one of the tournament's exemptions to Contreras.

Tournament sponsors gave out four exemptions for the tournament - three went to professionals with legitimate tour credentials.
But it's a rarity, says Champions Tour media official Phil Stambaugh, that an amateur is selected.

Stambaugh doesn't recall how many times it has happened in his 20 years working for the Champions Tour, but says he knows it has.

"I threw a snowball into hell and hoped it wouldn't melt," Cliver said of the letter.

That didn't stop the club's professional, though.

Cliver knew that golf was Contreras' passion.

He worked 60 hours a week for the club, but still made time to get on the course and play regularly.

Contreras is a zero-handicap on the golf course, working on his game everyday, so it wasn't as if he didn't belong playing alongside professionals.

But he slipped up when the opportunity came in front of him.

In 2006, he tried to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open but missed the cut by one stroke.

In Cliver's letter, he described Contreras' passion for the game and implored Fitzgerald to make a man's dream come true.

"He makes 30 grand a year and works in a cart barn," Cliver said of Contreras. "He's not a touring pro and I said, ‘He's the best guy in the world. What would this mean if he got in? It would mean a 53-year-old's dream came true and I witnessed a miracle.'"
Cliver didn't hear back from Fitzgerald until last Friday.

By that time, Contreras was already on the course at Robinson Ranch, trying to qualify for the tournament.

Contreras was playing well for 17 holes, then shot a disastrous nine on his final one.

He ended up shooting a less-than-stellar 77.

Afterward, Contreras teared up, knowing this was a last chance at making the tournament. AT&T has not renewed its sponsorship contract for the tournament, leaving the event's future is limbo.

But while Contreras was on the course, Fitzgerald granted the wish, telling Cliver that qualifying was no longer necessary.

With Valencia Country Club course superintendent Robert Hertzing in tow, Cliver made his way to Robinson Ranch.

He informed Contreras of the news, who walked over to a tree, knelt, then teared up again.

"You've got to be kidding," were the first words out of Contreras' mouth.

Contreras called his 78-year-old father, Thomas, to relay the news.

It's Thomas who passed on his love of the game to Contreras.

Now the son has been playing for 35 years.

"He's my idol," Contreras says, referring to his father while pushing back emotion. "The way he brought me up. ... It's for him."

For years, Contreras has been giving professionals advice going into the tournament because of his knowledge of the course.

Over that time, he has become friends with Denis Watson, last year's event winner.

Watson even thanked Contreras publicly after the victory.

The Champions Tour professional says Contreras' story is phenomenal.

"This is like the American dream," Watson says.

The two men crossed paths late Tuesday afternoon on the practice green at Valencia Country Club.

Watson had advice for him.

"Listen - really enjoy yourself," he said.

Contreras already is.

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