In September 1963, Norman Manley, a 40-year-old electric designer with Hughes Aircraft in Culver City, Calif., had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hitting a seven-iron on the 168-yard par-3 16th hole at the Willowick Golf Course in Santa Ana, Calif., he did what he had only dreamed of doing in 15 years of near-scratch golf: He made a hole in one. Three men sitting on a railroad embankment to the left of the green saw the ball go in the hole and cheered in appreciation. But neither the admiring trio nor the exultant golfer had a clue that they had just witnessed the genesis of something truly special. Thrilled down to his spikes, Manley happily followed golf custom by buying beer for everyone in the clubhouse bar.
Over the ensuing years Manley has run up quite a bar bill. On April 8 he laid out about $80 at the bar after having made his 59th hole in one. That was on the par-3, 158-yard 11th hole at Indian Hills in Rubidoux, Calif., one of 40 courses on which Manley has shot aces.
Fifty-nine? Getouttahere! Yes, it is so, and Golf Digest, the magazine that traces the nation's aces, recognizes this as the greatest number by an individual. (For verification, Golf Digest requires that a hole in one be made on a regulation course—no more than six par 3s—and that the ace be witnessed by at least one other person. In addition, the golfer must have his scorecard signed by the club pro.)
The U.S. Golf Association does not keep records of holes in one but refers golfers to Golf Digest. "They are strict in their record keeping," said Rhonda Jenkins of the USGA. "You can't just claim to have made a hole in one; it has to be verified." Does the USGA accept Golf Digest's tally as fact? "Golf Digest is the only operation that keeps track. They are the correct source, and we don't try to check up on them," said the USGA's Wes Seeley. "They have been keeping track for 36 years, so I'm sure they have the best information out there."
Given that the odds of getting a hole in one are estimated at 15,000 to 1, some people might say that Manley has made more than his fair share of long shots. Some might want a piece of the action. Last year Manley's record of 58 prompted Snoopy to write him a letter in the comic strip Peanuts: "To Mr. Norman Manley, Long Beach, Calif. I read that you have made 58 holes-in-one. I have never made any. I am sure you don't need them all. Please send me one."
Dear beagle, if you knew how many times Manley has wished he could do just that. Believe it or not, his talent for making golf's most coveted shot has caused him a fair amount of grief and embarrassment over the years. Some people—club pros in particular—don't want to believe Manley and prefer to accuse him of lying and cheating. Manley reasons that pros "hate to see an amateur doing something better than they."
At least one pro apparently found the experience akin to torture. Some years ago the club pro at Industry Hills in City of Industry, Calif., initially refused to acknowledge a 310-yard Manley hole in one despite the testimony of witnesses. "A foursome on the green witnessed it, a marshal witnessed it and our group witnessed it," Manley says, "and it took that guy three months to get that card signed. And then he threw it at me."
As much as it may pain club pros to sign Manley's scorecard, they can be sure he doesn't relish handing them the card. "I've been called a liar," he says. "I've been told I'm full of baloney, that I've got a hole in my pocket, that I've trained my dog to go up and drop the ball in the hole, that my wife puts the ball in the hole—you wouldn't believe the ways people doubt me. It gets tiresome and embarrassing."
One club pro who would never doubt Manley is Claude Waymire of the Quail Ranch Country Club in Moreno, Calif., a course Manley frequents. "I might get a little jealous," says Waymire, "but I'll believe him. What people don't seem to realize about Norman is that he plays golf to a professional caliber. If he had decided to turn professional 25 years ago, I don't think people would make such a big deal about his aces."
Manley never became a pro primarily because he couldn't afford to join the Tour as a young man. And back then the payoffs were nothing like today's sizable purses. Even so, any bankable booty would have been more than Manley has garnered as a result of his accumulation of aces. His cash total so far? "Not a dime," he says. Indeed, Lady Luck, who at times seems to positively beam down on Manley, at other times seems bent on tormenting him. He recalls a pro-am tourney at Sahara-Nevada in Las Vegas six years ago that offered $50,000 to anyone who aced the 11th hole. Manley missed the tourney because of a broken-down car but played the course the next day and—talk about crummy kismet—holed out in one on the 11th. "My wife tells me that's the story of my life," Manley says, laughing.
"You're always a day late and a dollar short, Norm," agrees Marge Manley, his wife of 18 years and one of his regular golf companions.
"This is what you get when you're an amateur," says Manley, dumping a dozen Foot-Joy "Hole-in-One" key chains into an ashtray. They clatter but not quite like a jackpot. Digging through the ace memorabilia of plaques, medallions, certificates, photos and clippings stacked in a drawer in his home, Manley finds what is perhaps the most ironic memento in this still burgeoning collection—an invitation to join the National Hole-in-One Association's Ace-Maker Club. A $20 membership fee entitles him to, among other perks, an official membership card, auto decal and suede luggage tag with logo, and a chance to win a Las Vegas minivacation. The brochure features a picture of Mancil Davis, a Texas club pro credited with 48 aces. The photo is captioned "Mancil Davis, the King of Aces."
There is no reigning authority in this matter, but by way of qualifying things, Golf Digest considers Manley's 59 the amateur record and Davis's 48 (accumulated over 22 years) the professional record. The Guinness Book of World Records, which accepts aces made on non-regulation courses, recognizes neither but awards its ace crown to 29-year-old Scott Palmer of San Diego, who has 95.
Guinness does, however, recognize Manley for something that truly was a once-in-a-lifetime feat. While competing in the men's club championship at Del Valle in Saugus, Calif., on Aug. 30, 1964, Manley teed up on the 330-yard seventh, which has a sharp dogleg to the left with hills and rough guarding the green. Using a five-iron, he hit a high shot that cut over the hill, homed in on the green and rolled right into the cup. On the next hole, this one 290 yards and also a downhill par-4 with a dogleg to the left, Manley tested even his staunchest believers by holing out that tee shot, with his three-wood. These are considered by Guinness to be the greatest back-to-back aces ever.
Making history and keeping clubhouse bars crowded was not at all what Manley had in mind 40 years ago when he began his golf career with, ironically enough, a lie. Fresh out of the Navy and working for Boeing in Seattle, Manley had his romantic sights set on a coworker who spent all of her spare time on the golf course. Negotiating for a date with her, he claimed some ability with a golf club, when in fact he had never picked one up. (A natural athlete, Manley lettered in basketball, football, baseball, track and fencing at St. John's Military School in Salina, Kans.) With the help of a friend's father, a Ben Hogan book and some practice on a driving range, he learned as much about the game as he could in a week and joined the young woman's foursome in a tournament. Incredibly, he shot one over par on his first round and. completely enamored of the game if no longer of the young woman, began wearing out Seattle's public courses for 50 cents a day.
He eventually found the soggy weather too disruptive to his golf, so he migrated to Southern California and a job at Northrop. From there Manley moved on to Hughes, then back to school, again to Hughes, on to TRW and finally completed his tour of West Coast aviation plants at Douglas Aircraft, where in 1970 he met Les Elliott, a fellow golf fanatic who became a regular partner. Elliott figures he has seen about 20 of Manley's aces, including several that never made it into the official tally because there were no other witnesses. (Manley has never sent Golf Digest an ace card that wasn't witnessed by at least two people.) Although he has never made a hole in one himself, Elliott has become fairly blasè about Manley's. "The first one I saw was over the water, and I was so excited, I damn near fell in the lake," he says. "But after a while they became commonplace."
Manley himself is long past getting excited over every ace and sometimes finds the uproar he causes ridiculous because, he says, some of them resulted from "really lousy shots." In particular he remembers one at the Ojai (Calif.) Valley Inn and Country Club. The ball bounced across the street, hit a telephone pole, bounced back inbounds, rolled onto the green and into the cup. Another, at Del Valle, sailed through the air, hit the flag, got wrapped up in it and slid down the pole and into the hole. "Ninety-nine percent of it is luck," Manley concludes.
Elliott concludes differently. "Norm is a good golfer," he says. "He takes aim and has a very quick and powerful swing."
"I am straight," Manley concedes. "I used to be deadly. Hey!" he remembers suddenly, "last year I shot my age for the first time!"
To shoot Manley's age, which is now 65, is unthinkable for many golfers, including Elliott, who would be content to break 80. Now 77, Elliott figures he will be in his 90's before his age and his score match. "Norm says he hopes he never shoots my age," Elliott says, laughing.
In 1975, when he was 52, Manley seriously jeopardized his chances of ever shooting his age. One day he slipped into a gopher hole on a particularly forceful swing and tore everything in his left knee. Seven years, three knee operations and countless painful golf games later, Manley was fitted with a steel knee and a Lenox Hill Derotation brace.
With this arrangement he is able to play 27 holes a week with Marge, Les and other friends at such favorite courses as Industry Hills, Quail Ranch and Recreation Park in Long Beach. Manley walks with a limp, and the knee problems have caused a change in his swing, but his only complaint is that he "can't hit nearly as far." Don't believe it. He typically shoots in the 70s, but on a good day he can still break into the 60s. And he has made 18 aces since his last operation, in 1982.
Number 59 came after a dry spell of a year, and for Manley the thrill was back. "It's good to know I'm not dead yet," he said, chuckling. "I guess this will give them all one more thing to call me a liar about."
Kelli Anderson, a writer-researcher in New York City, makes her aces in miniature golf.