The secret to a hole-in-one? She should know

Sandy Woodruff started playing golf at 5 but didn’t have a hole-in-one until she was 50. Now 69, she’s got 17 aces, and counting. What’s her secret?

Image of a hole-in-one

She won the Diaper Flight in San Mateo, California, at age 5, but not for many more years did Sandy Woodruff see the logic.

“I was playing in a tournament four or five years ago when a woman said, ‘Well, aren’t you something? Everything about you is golf: Sandy, you get a sandy. Wood, teeing off with a wood, and then you went in the Ruff!’ ” Woodruff said. “I’d had the name for more than 60 years before someone pointed that out.”

Everything about her indeed is golf. She had a 2 handicap before she ever had a lesson. She’s a 20-time champion at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, former winner of the California Women’s Amateur and 16-time qualifier for the match-play rounds in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur. She’s even owned a golf course, nine-hole Valley Gardens, which she’s now selling out to a developer.

So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that this spring Sandy Woodruff notched her 16th and 17th holes-in-one.

“Her knack for holes-in-one isn’t baffling because she is just plain accurate!” says Marianne Towersey, the friend who has witnessed several of them do damage to her wallet. “The baffling element is that she did not have her first one until she turned 50.”

That one came during the qualifying round of her first Senior Women’s Am, in September of 1999, on the Cochise Course of Desert Mountain GC (Scottsdale, Ariz.). “I’ll never forget it,” Woodruff said. “The first one is like your first love. It’s a special one. It was a short hole, about 115 yards, and I think I hit a 9-iron. It rolled in, easy to see, you knew it was in right away.”

A raucous celebration with her caddie ensued. “But I don’t think I drank anything. That night was the players’ dinner and I didn’t know anybody and no one really knew I got a hole-in-one. I kept it quiet because I didn’t know what to do. No libations on that one.”

Image of Sandy Woodruff and Marianne Towersley

Hole-in-one pals Marianne Towersey (left) and Sandy Woodruff.

Thus started a 10-year string of annual holes-in-one. In 2010, just as mysteriously as it began, the streak ended. And then on Oct. 27, 2011, came the miracle of all of her miracles, a feat estimated as a 17 million-to-one shot. Woodruff and Towersey were having their usual skins match at Pasatiempo, with Towersey’s husband, Brian, in on the action on a quiet, dreary afternoon.

At Pasatiempo’s downhill, 150-yard No. 8, Brian put his tee shot about 3 feet from the hole.

“We play for little bets, nothing big,” Woodruff said. “I think the most that ever changes hands is 10 bucks. We play greenies and sandies and birdies and all kinds of fun stuff. At this point there were lots of carryovers, and I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to get closer than that to get the greenie?’ And mine went in and I’m thinking, ‘OK, I got all these dots, all this junk!’ ”

By now, Towersey was hardly surprised to see another Woodruff ace. She asked her friend what she hit. The answer: 4-iron. So Towersey, a longer hitter, drew her 5 and fired. The ball landed short of the hole and rolled in.

Yes, poor Brian made his putt for the lone 2, and the thoroughly rattled trio hacked their way through the next 10 holes.

“We were laughing the whole time,” Woodruff recalled. “I remember neither of us were proud of our games but we said, oh, we have to turn these in to get validated.”

“Having a hole-in-one on top of her was just hysterical,” Marianne said. “We are SO competitive with one another in a good way. I wasn’t going to let her get away with a bunch of skins too easily.”

Towersey was also with Woodruff for her April ace, at spectacular and exclusive Cypress Point. This one even had a gallery, because the group in front of theirs arrived at the green and called up the trailing foursome. Her luck that day didn’t end with the hole-in-one; she had an easy out from the odd hole-in-one tradition of buying the house a round of drinks.

“I wanted to buy my group a drink, but Cypress doesn’t take any money,” Woodruff said. “You can’t charge it to your home club, you can’t do anything. I didn’t get to give people drinks.”

Wait a minute, said Towersey. “(Aces) come so often, there isn’t a lot of fanfare and she has to be needled into buying drinks. Tequila for me, thank you very much!”

Image of Pasatiempo scorecard

Woodruff has aced all of the par-3 holes at Pasatiempo except No. 5.

Woodruff’s 17th hole-in-one followed that one by a month and a day, on Pasatiempo’s 88-yard 18th, a rare closing shortie. She’s had several holes-in-one on her home course, including a memorable shot to the third green with her son and the town mayor in her foursome.

“That one’s a little uphill and you don’t get to see it,” she said. “(My son) got there a little before me and saw it was in the hole.”


“I don’t think it’s a secret,” she said. “How many times have people been close and the ball didn’t go in? Or just an inch away? I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and he said, well, you put your 6,000 hours into whatever you do… (but) I don’t practice. I don’t play that much. So it’s not like I’m gunning for a hole-in-one. It just happens.”

OK, that’s what she says. But I noticed a couple of things about Woodruff’s approach that might prove instructive for the rest of us.

One: While many of us set up to avoid the water or bunker, or simply to stay below the hole, she takes dead aim.

“Probably 90 percent of the time, I’m aiming at the hole,” she said. “I’m a pretty good aimer. I’ve been playing golf long enough and that’s what I was taught you were supposed to do, aim at the hole.”

And two: With experience has come an increasing conviction that something amazing might happen next.

“When I was 13, I’d get a double-bogey on the first hole and want to start all over again,” she said. “Now my mentality is, how do you know you’re not going to have a good round? How would you feel if you started with double-bogey but you knew in the end that you were going to shoot your best score? Would you care about the double-bogey? And that’s when you kind of loosen up a bit.

“It’s kind of like people trying to have babies, the story that the minute they think about adopting they get pregnant. I kind of think the more you wish for it, the less likely it is to happen. It’ll just happen naturally.”

So, there you have it: aim and believe. Try it, and be sure to let me know when you have your next hole-in-one.

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