Like most golfers, Bill Key walks up to every par 3 wondering if this might be the day.
The odds of an average player getting a hole-in-one — the holy grail of casual golf — are estimated at one in 12,500. They drop to near zero in the all-too-common event of a mishit. So Key plays the numbers game. The accountant logs about 200 rounds a year, providing more than 800 chances at a coveted ace.
The difference between Bill Key and most golfers, however, is he’s on a quest for his 10th.
It’s been more than 33 years since his first, and apparently the rush doesn’t fade one bit.
"No it does not. You still get super charged, elated and you just want to make more. It’s being greedy, I think, might be the right word for it," Key said following his 24th game of the young season at Shilo Country Club last week, with a reporter who has no idea what an ace feels like.
Key, 69, says there’s no special formula. He just aims for the green and hopes for the best. Now maybe he has a secret, but like the astonishing string of aces, I’ll take his word for it. He wouldn’t have gotten far with a lie anyway as four were witnessed by former Brandon police chief Dick Scott.
"In my mind, it’s a lucky shot. It really is. But on the other side of the coin, you had to get the ball onto the green in the first place," Key said. "Whether it’s wind, the right bounce, the right kick, it could be anything but God it’s still so exciting when it goes in."
Key didn’t pick up a club until age 18, getting his first swings in at Northern Pines, Sunnyside and Riverview — a nine-hole, sand-green track on the land now known as Glen Lea.
He really got into it five years later in 1975, when the Brandon Golf and Country Club — renamed Brandon Recreation Centre Golf Course and now Wheat City Golf Course — slashed its private status and opened to the public.
The first ace dropped 12 years later, July 25, 1987 on the 14th hole.
"I was playing with a fellow from work. I thought the ball had gone off the back of the green. He says ‘No, I’m pretty certain it’s in.’ I said ‘No way,’" Key recalled. "I walked over and sure enough, it was there. I was ecstatic."
Large numbers tend to follow aces on the scorecard due to the adrenalin rush. But Key was putting together quite the round and came within fractions of a 69. His birdie bid on the 18th lipped out.
"I felt a little bit deflated … but hey, I got a hole in one today, I’m ecstatic," Key said. "I never, ever thought I’d make another one after that. I really didn’t."
He kept the old orange ball to frame but sold the clubs, including the 8 iron he struck the shot with to a friend, who won’t reverse the deal.
Fortunately, the aces didn’t stop. On Aug. 6, 1994, Key knocked a Top Flite XL into the 16th hole at Shilo Country Club, his first of two on the downhill hole surrounded by bunkers. Eight days later, he notched his second at Wheat City’s 14th.
The last six came during a 10-year span between 2009 and 2019, including both the worst- and best-struck shots.
The worst was actually at the Tamarack tournament at Clear Lake in 2014.
"I hit the ball, didn’t hit it quite the way I wanted to, first bounce was just below the green on the right-hand side. It hit hard and went screaming across the green, hits the pin and drops," Key said.
"I was stunned, because I really never thought something like that would happen with that shot."
One par 3 had a two-year lease on a car up for grabs.
"My brother in law was working up there as a committee person and it wasn’t five minutes later he drives up and says ‘Too bad you weren’t on the other hole.’ I said ‘How could you possibly know already?" Key said with a laugh.
"Technology, eh? Everybody’s texting."
The next ace was much better, back at Shilo’s 16th in 2016.
"The greenskeeper was about to start cutting the green. He backed off, which was nice," Key said.
"I hit it and looked at Dick and said ‘That’s pretty good.’ The ball goes in, the greenskeeper is clapping, cheering, that was probably the best shot I’d ever hit."
All in all, the nine aces are spread over just five holes on three tracks. No. 9 came less than two years ago on Canada Day. Interestingly, only the last was with a "performance" ball. Most were with lower-spinning distance balls, which will typically roll out more on the green and therefore have a higher chance of finding the cup.
Key will still call them luck, but he’s certainly no slouch when it comes to the rest of the game. He’s fired rounds under par, reached the championship flight — top 16 — at the Tamarack and more. His handicap has dropped as low as seven, though it’s up to 14 and rising.
He admits the game doesn’t come quite so easily these days in his 52nd year, and it’s tough to know his best rounds are behind him. Early in our round I asked what’s next after the 10th ace and he said he’d give up the game.
"I did make that comment and people look at me and say ‘You’re nuts, why would you do that? You’ve been pretty successful.’ I said ‘It’s turning into work.’ It really is. I’ve played a lot of golf for a lot of years and I’m getting tired. I really am," Key said,
"… I used to be in the sub-80s almost 50 per cent of the time, not anymore. It makes me feel like I’m old, something’s gone awry."
Something about that comment didn’t quite add up though. While Key said it was one of his worst rounds of the year, if you’d joined up for the last few holes you wouldn’t know. He appears to genuinely enjoy every minute.
"The love of nature. I love being out here. If you tee off at the appropriate time, you’ve got a quiet solitude, you’re enjoying the animals and that’s what I love," Key said.
Pressed on the notion of walking away from golf if he cards one more "1," it’s highly unlikely he’d follow through. He got some inspiration from a senior men’s league match just last week.
"We played in the league and one of the fellas there was 91 years of age. I give him a lot of credit. I’m sitting there thinking if I live to that ripe age that I can still play as much as he can," Key said. "When I say it, it’s just because I’m angry with myself because it’s deteriorating to what it’s got to. But no, I won’t quit playing."
So what’s next if he gets the 10th?
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen