There was a time not so long ago that David Passerell ruled the roost in local golf.
From 1996 through 2000, he won a record five consecutive Battle Trophy championships, several local tournaments and captured the Virginia State Amateur title in 2000. His list of golf achievements is too long to mention here, but you get the picture.
Watching Passerell’s game rise from the ashes after an eight-year absence from the winner’s circle and battling eventual runner-up Philip Mahone in a match between 40-somethings in Sunday’s 11th annual Jefferson Cup tournament at Birdwood was kind of a throwback event. The pair have competed against one another for longer than either care to remember.
The entire weekend during Passerell’s 67-67-70_204 championship run, the winner kept a secret.
Having served as director of The First Tee of Charlottesville Foundation, which not only teaches area kids the game of golf but important life skills, Passerell himself learned something along the way.
“With The First Tee, we tell the kids about ‘Personal Par,’” Passerell said. “They can make a hole any par that they want. It might be a par 4, but they can make it a par 8. Well, what I did this weekend, I said 2-over [Birdwood’s 71] par is my par. 73 was my par all week.”
The great American singer Willie Nelson has a similar philosophy on the golf course that sits on his ranch down in Texas. A writer once visiting Willie, who had just finished a round, how he played that day.
Willie said he shot par.
“What’s par here?” the writer queried.
“Anything I want it to be,” Nelson smiled.
You can do that when you own your own golf course. For Passerell, this weekend was a little more demanding. While his own personal par may have been 73, he never really approached it with three straight rounds under the real par to defeat Mahone by seven shots.
The entire weekend, Passerell will explain, was about expectations. He had played in only one other individual golf tournament this year, so other than some captain’s choice deals and a two-man here and there, Passerell wasn’t as battle tested as he used to be.
“The whole time I was out there, I kept thinking, ‘I’m under par, I’m under my expectations,’” Passerell said. “Sometimes maybe lowering your expectations and being realistic about where you are is the best thing.”
Which might explain why actress Elizabeth Hurley and Fox network correspondent Kimberly Guilfoyle never return my phone calls, but that’s another story.
“If I had played all spring and all summer, I might not have made [his personal par] 73,” Passerell pointed out. “I really wanted to be realistic about where my game was.”
In hindsight after Passerell had fought off an early threat by Mahone and settled into a rhythm and strolled to the ninth victory of his career, the personal par strategy paid big dividends. He knew Mahone, who has a superb short game, would challenge him at some point and hoped he could weather the storm.
“Winning golf tournaments is really hard,” Passerell said. “Playing well is one thing, but winning is so hard. Until you’ve been there and had to wait around until the last tee time of the tournament or woke up in the middle of the night wondering how you’re going to handle the final round, unless you’ve been there it’s really hard to explain. That’s why I have so much respect for anyone that has won a golf tournament because I know what they’ve felt standing on the 17th and 18th tees with the lead and what it’s like on No. 2 when you’ve three-putt for bogey and are ready to give the tournament away.”
Passerell has pretty much seen it all, and that’s why he wasn’t going to celebrate until he knew for sure he had won even though his lead over Mahone and UVa golfer Nick Tremps swelled on the back nine. A few years ago in this very tournament, Passerell finished thinking he had won by four or five strokes only to find out that a collegiate golfer several groups ahead of him had beaten him by one.
He sensed himself playing more conservative down the home stretch, which he admitted kind of scared him. On the par-5, 15th, for instance, he was in position to go for the green in two as did Tremps, but figured why risk it.
Some call that smart golf.
“Yeah, and that’s kind of hard for me sometimes,” Passerell chuckled. “From that aspect, I was really proud of myself that I could do that. No one remembers what you shoot, just how many titles you won.”
With an eight-year gap between titles, Sunday at Birdwood is a day that Passerell won’t soon forget.
“Sometimes you wonder if it’s going to happen again,” said a man who backed off the competitive schedule to spend more time raising his kids and being with his family. “It has been by my choice not to play as much golf as I have in the past, but sometimes you sit there and wonder if you still have it.”
It was thinking about his family, his wife, the little girls over to the side admiring their daddy, that choked up the champ.
“I’ve got such a good family,” Passerell said, his voice cracking, eyes watering. “They love when I play…”
He didn’t finish his thought. He couldn’t. Didn’t have to.
One thing is certain. When Passerell returns to work with The First Tee of Charlottesville kids this week, he will get a lot of smiles from the students.
“The majority of them probably don’t even know that I play like this,” he smiled. “There’s nothing better than to hear, ‘Coach Dave, we watched you Coach Dave, and you did good.’”
To Passerell, those kids are the future of local golf and the reason he became involved in the The First Tee several years ago.
“I want to make sure there’s a Jefferson Cup champion from Charlottesville somewhere in the making,” Passerell said. “If I can motivate those kids to practice, then I feel like I’ve accomplished my job.”