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Local man’s opportunity of a lifetime

Posted: March 16, 2009 1:08 a.m.
Updated: March 16, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Rich Contreras, left, and Gary Player, right, make their way to the 18th hole Sunday at the Valencia Country Club.

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For the Santa Clarita Valley, the lasting impression of what may be the final Champions Tour tournament at Valencia Country Club isn't necessarily Dan Forsman kissing an orbed crystal trophy.

It's not necessarily that this was the third consecutive playoff at the event.

It might be Rich Contreras.

The Valencia Country Club outside service manager, who was given a rare exemption to play in the 2009 AT&T Classic, played his final round in the event Sunday and was in the same pairing with legendary golfer Gary Player.

A gallery that numbered in triple digits followed him from hole to hole.

In that gallery was his father Thomas, who watched nervously from behind the crowd.

His wife of 25 years, Carrie, followed him on every hole.

The night before, he told her he didn't want this to end.

How many men who manage a cart barn at a country club get to participate in a professional tournament?

This wasn't lost on Contreras.

Asked to sum up the three rounds of the tournament in three words, he said, "Unbelievable. Just unbelievable."

His story has been told through the week.

A humble man who tried to qualify for the last three AT&T Champions Classics and came up short every time, his wish to play was granted by AT&T after Valencia Country Club golf professional Craig Cliver sent a letter to the presenting sponsor asking it to consider giving Contreras a shot.

A golf nut, Contreras has played the game since he was a boy.

He delayed his wedding date to participate in a golf tournament.

"We even honeymooned at Pebble Beach," Carrie says.

Though he shot 17-over par and finished 75th in the Classic, it didn't matter to him or anybody else.

As he walked the cart path after his round ended Sunday, he received congratulatory hugs.

Through the week, he received well wishes from Champions Tour members.

There was a note on his truck from tour golfer Andy Bean that read: "Hope you have a great week. Good luck. Andy Bean."

But Contreras struggled out of the gate, starting his first round with three bogeys.

He was at 7-over after one day.

Walking down the 10th fairway Friday, he chomped on an apple and admitted he was nervous.

That night, he just plopped on the couch and fell asleep for 12 hours.

He played better on Saturday, shooting 3-over.

On Sunday, the crowds followed.

As he made the transition from the 15th green to the tee box on 16, he chatted up Player briefly.

Contreras said he couldn't sleep the night before, knowing he would play with who many people consider the greatest international golfer of all time.

"I'm going to play with a pro," Player told him before Sunday's round.

Surrounding him on his tee shot at 16 was a throng of people that included co-workers, Cliver, Valencia Country Club general manager Jim Fitzsimmons, his 18-year-old daughter Kim, his 23-year-old daughter Kristin and 20-year-old son Russell.

Kim handed him a blue M&M candy after his tee shot.

She said the experience wasn't weird for her because Valencia Country Club was home.

"I think he wanted to play for the people who got him in (the tournament)," Kim said.

But Russell called the experience "surreal."

The most surreal part came on his final hole.

As the action on 18 simultaneously led to a championship, Contreras birdied No. 9 in front of Player and the crowd.

It was special.

Even he humbly acknowledged it, suppressing the emotion caught in his throat and tear ducts.

Contreras played with golf legends this weekend.

"I actually felt like I was one of them," he said.

For three days, he was.

Cary Osborne is The Signal's sports editor. He can be reached at cosborne@the-signal.com. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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