The 444-yard hole-in-one
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Golf Digest began keeping records for longest, oldest, youngest, fastest feats in golf in the 1950s. The most voluminous were for holes-in-one, which have also been the most disputed. I remember in the early 1980s being dispatched to a club in Texas to investigate a golfer who claimed to have made more than a dozen aces in a year—something you can’t definitively prove, but you sure can cast a reasonable doubt on its veracity. We came away not denying the record, but just not recognizing it, either. One of the oldest and most contentious records that we attest is described in this story published in March 2001, more than two decades after it occurred.
The investigative reporter here, Ron Whitten, took up golf as a 13-year-old in Omaha—where the hole-in-one happened. Between his junior and senior years of high school, Whitten attended the Summer Engineering Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago, where his roommate’s father belonged to the venerable Chicago Golf Club. Ron became enthralled with its C.B. Macdonald design and set his sights on a career in golf-course architecture. He ended up taking a wrong turn and going to law school and working as a state prosecutor in Topeka, Kan. As a sideline, he researched and wrote the definitive encyclopedia of golf courses and architects and eventually came to work for Golf Digest as our architecture editor in the mid-1980s. He has been the embodiment of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses ever since. With this article, Ron returned to his prosecutorial roots and to the golf course of his youth, the one with the unlikely name, Miracle Hill. —Jerry Tarde
On Oct. 7, 1965, Bob Mitera teed up a ball on a downhill par 4, holed his tee shot and made national headlines. It has been all downhill from there. Or so it seems.
His was no ordinary hole-in-one. It was the longest ever achieved on a straightaway golf hole. It happened on the 444-yard 10th hole at Miracle Hill Golf Course in Omaha. It was the first ace for Mitera, the only one he has ever made.
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I was an Omaha boy at the time, a high school sophomore who played much of my golf at Miracle Hill, a wind-swept cornfield of a course on the edge of the Papio Creek. I didn’t know Mitera back then; I just knew of his accomplishments. I was a beginner, a hacker. Mitera was a star. From 1956-’58, he won three consecutive Omaha junior golf championships. As a 17-year-old student at Creighton Prep High School, he won the city’s public links tournament. When he made that hole-in-one, he was a 21-year-old junior at Creighton University in Omaha, a member of the golf team and a 2-handicapper. At 5-6 and 165 pounds, he reminded local sportswriters of Ben Hogan. One even dubbed him Bantam Bobby Mitera.
In 2001, his ace remains the longest in Golf Digest’s record book. Having stood for more than 35 years, it’s one of the oldest records in the game. A record that even Tiger Woods might never break.
“Tiger Woods can have the record,” Mitera told me recently before abruptly ending our telephone conversation. That was the first of several attempts I made to get Mitera to talk about his ace. I called him back several times, never getting more than a few minutes’ conversation. Mostly he’d berate me for pestering him, then hang up. He’d be angry, but he never used a word of profanity.
So I went to his home, a nondescript beige duplex in northwest Omaha, less than two miles from Miracle Hill. Once, he shouted at me through a closed door to leave him alone. Another time, he opened it and spoke with me for a minute, then firmly shut the door in my face.
The man I traced and finally tracked down might be the most reluctant figure in the history of golf, the Bobby Fischer of the game’s record book. It took me six years of on-again, off-again research to determine that Bob Mitera still lives in Omaha. Since he lives with his mother, his name doesn’t appear in phone books or city directories.
At 57 [in 2001], Mitera doesn’t have a job but apparently isn’t lacking for income. He had joined his father’s grain-commodities business after graduating from Creighton, then liquidated the company after his father’s death. He still wears dark horn-rimmed glasses, just as he did in college, but now has a full beard, mostly white, and a noticeable paunch. But he looks as if he could be a 2-handicapper, if he still played golf. But Bob Mitera gave up the game a few years ago.
In one of my phone calls, I asked him why he quit playing.
“You don’t think I know why you’re asking these questions?” he said. “I’m no dummy. I’m a college graduate.” He then hung up on me. Why was I asking those questions?
Because for decades there have been rumors that Mitera’s hole-in-one had been a fraud, a prank perpetrated either by Mitera or by the foursome ahead of him—or worse yet, a publicity stunt. Some guess that shame made him quit the game. Others speculate that the nagging rumors made him quit.
There’s no question he has shunned the spotlight for nearly 20 years. Was he simply modest, tired of defending himself or frustrated over others cashing in on his achievement?
I’d always believed he’d made that ace. But skeptics had some powerful arguments. I just wanted to know, was his a legitimate ace?
THE LAY OF THE LAND
To understand the skepticism of some, you have to see the 10th hole at Miracle Hill. The fairway extends along a plateau for about 270 yards, then drops at least 50 feet downhill from there, to a slightly domed oval green positioned, in the words of one Miracle Hill regular, “like an egg sunny side up.” The terrain of the 10th resembles the 15th at Augusta National, which, of course, is a 500-yard par 5. But to put it in perspective, imagine someone standing on the 15th tee at Augusta and driving a ball into the pond in front of that green. Or, more precisely, into a paper cup floating in that pond. That’s how incredible Mitera’s shot was.
You can’t see the green from the tee. So Mitera didn’t see his ball go into the hole that day. Or even see it reach the green. Nor did his friend Benny Houlihan, a fellow Creighton golf-team member who was playing with Mitera that day. Houlihan still lives in Omaha but hasn’t seen Mitera in 20 years.
Mitera wasn’t particularly excited about the ace at the time, Houlihan told me. “Bob’s reaction was somewhat indifferent. He was a pretty good player,” Houlihan says. “It wasn’t an unbelievable shot. After all, I hit it over the green that day.”
I tracked down Jerry Dugan, who was the pro in the clubhouse when it happened. He remembers the boisterous Houlihan coming in after the round.
“He told me Bob Mitera made a hole-in-one on the 10th. My answer was kind of vulgar,” Dugan says. “So I grabbed their scorecard. Sure enough, they had a ‘1’ down for the 10th hole.”
Mitera’s score for the round was 74.
“Bob Mitera was kind of a laid-back person,” Dugan adds. “He wasn’t jumping up and down or anything like that. But he was all smiles. Of course, at that point in time, nobody knew it was a record. Everybody was just impressed about the fact that he could make a hole-in-one on a par 4.”
It was soon recognized as a national record. The March 1966 issue of Golf Digest proclaimed it the longest ever (but with an erroneous headline that called Mitera an Oklahoman). That year, Golf Digest flew Mitera to New York City, where at a press conference, he was presented a trophy, cosponsored by the magazine and Beech-Nut/Life Savers Inc.
Speaking to New York sportswriters, Mitera first expressed his frustration. “Nobody believes me,” he said. “Sometimes I feel more like I’ve committed a crime than made a hole-in-one.
“The people who saw it believe it happened—that is, those who were playing with me and the group just ahead,” Mitera said. “But everybody else just laughs and says, ‘Don’t kid us—it’s impossible.’ So I’ve just stopped telling people about it. … It was mostly luck and circumstance.”
Years later, in a 1982 interview with Omaha World-Herald sports editor Michael Kelly, Mitera again voiced his frustration, saying he wasn’t proud of the shot.
“Why should I be?” he told Kelly. “It’s just something that happened. It was an accident. I hit a ball and it went in the hole.
“There are people who have done a lot better things in golf than that.”
AN UNDERSTANDABLE RETICENCE
I’ve found reasons for Mitera’s lack of enthusiasm. First, his shot was definitely aided by the wind. Winds from the northwest that day were gusting between 40 and 50 miles per hour. The 10th was playing straight downwind in addition to that 50-foot drop. As mentioned, Houlihan, playing with Mitera, hit his tee shot to the back collar of the green. Virgil Milford, playing with them, found his ball just short of the green.
Miracle Hill was in its fourth season, but its sprinkler system hadn’t worked properly for weeks. Its bluegrass fairways were dry and hard. There was hardly any grass on the hillside of the 10th, says Kenny Fritz, who played a few groups behind Mitera that day.
Combine a rock-hard fairway with a 50-mile-per-hour wind at your back, and a 444-yard shot doesn’t sound quite so monumental.
It looked especially suspicious that this enormously long act happened on a downhill par 4 at a course called Miracle Hill. So it wasn’t until 1968 that the *Guinness Book of Records* finally listed Mitera’s hole-in-one as a world record. Herb Davis, who with his father and brother John founded Miracle Hill in 1961, recalls that his father was irritated with the delay.
“Dad asked the Guinness people, ‘How come it’s taking you so long to certify this?’ They said, ‘Well, we have no question at all in our minds that the boys think they had a hole-in-one. The concern we have is that the people who were on the green did it as a joke.’
“But,” Davis says today, “the guys who were in front were all executives with some gas company and consistently stayed with their story. Because they were responsible people, after a period of time, the Guinness people accepted them, and finally certified it.”
THE SURVIVING WITNESS
Two witnesses saw Mitera’s shot go in the hole. One, Chester Hopper, died more than a decade ago. The other, Richard (Bugs) Keckler, is now 68 years old [in 2001], retired and living in Weeping Water, Neb., after operating service stations and a heating-oil business.
“Chet Hopper and I were just leaving the green when it rolled into the cup,” he recalls. “It hit probably 75 yards short of the green, ran down the slope through a swale, up onto the green and into the hole. We went on over to the 11th hole [a par 3], and pretty soon a guy came down over the hill and we said, ‘Hey, fella, your ball went into the hole.’
“I’m telling you, I saw it go in. Now, I didn’t see him hit it. Whether he had somebody who saw him hit it off the tee, I don’t know. And we didn’t say it was a hole-in-one. But I swear to God, we saw the ball go into the hole. That’s the way she happened.”
After 35 years, memories fade. Keckler doesn’t recall seeing anyone but Mitera come down the hill that day, insists he invited him to join his group and says Mitera declined. Back in 1966, Mitera reported that he found the ball in the cup after a lengthy search, and said nothing about Keckler telling him it was there. More recently, Houlihan told me that he, not Mitera, found the ball in the hole. Sadly, Houlihan now experiences some memory lapses as a complication of diabetes. But in my conversations with him, I found nearly all his recollections were consistent with those of others.
Part of Mitera’s antagonism is his feeling that everyone, including this magazine, has capitalized on his accomplishment at his expense.
“What did I get out of that?” he asked me during one of our terse phone conversations. “You guys [Golf Digest] flew me to New York. A 21-year-old college student. Stuck me in a hotel, trotted me out to a luncheon. You probably sold a million magazines from that. What did I get out of that?”
What did you want out of it? I asked.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” he replied sarcastically.
In truth, he received a trip, a trophy and national publicity. But publicity was obviously a sore point with him because, while he was still a teenager, Mitera lost his amateur status after the World-Herald reported that he had accepted a $30 cash prize at a golf tournament. His amateur standing was later reinstated, and he played on the Creighton golf team, but decades later Mitera still resented the paper.
“That completely ruined my golf career,” he told the World-Herald in 1982. “It was blown out of proportion.”
REVISITING THE SCENE
I visited Miracle Hill recently and came away appreciating Mitera’s frustration a bit more. A plaque commemorating the shot is imbedded in the back tee on the 10th. Behind the tee box is a small rain shelter with a long sign declaring the hole as the site of the world’s longest hole-in-one. The club’s scorecard and advertising brochure prominently herald that fact. Shirts on sale in the clubhouse have logos that read, “World’s Longest Hole-in-One, Miracle Hill.” The shirts don’t mention Mitera by name.
“I had that logo made when I got there,” Wes Melnack told me. Melnack became the pro at Miracle Hill in 1979 and remained there until 1988. “I sold one of those shirts to every out-of-towner passing through,” he says. “I don’t know how many I sold. Thousands. But that was my idea.”
Bob Mitera has never received anything from the sale of any of that merchandise. Indeed, Miracle Hill’s owners and employees had no idea what became of him.
When Miracle Hill first opened, the 10th was the first hole. But a year later, the nines were switched, mainly because the first faced east, into the morning sun, a poor direction for an opening hole. In the 1980s, the course adopted a policy that reversed the nines every week, to allow evening leagues to play a different nine each week. So some weeks Mitera’s hole is the 10th, other weeks it’s the first.
In 1976, the hole was remeasured and found to be 447 yards. Golf Digest’s record book now uses that figure as the official measurement. But Miracle Hill retains the original 444 yards on all its advertising.
A few years ago, the tee on the hole was extended, so it’s now a 460-yard par 4 on the scorecard. Back in my youth, from the regular tees, I was never able to carry the hill with my drives. But to look at the 10th today, even from the back tee, it doesn’t seem nearly that long. So I measured it using a laser range finder. From the plaque noting the location where Mitera teed off, it was 242 yards to the center of the fairway at a 200-yard stake. From that spot to the flag (on the front half of the green) it was 202 yards, a total of 444 yards exactly.
The hole is now treelined, with two fairway bunkers on the left added a decade after Mitera’s feat. A far better irrigation system has the hole lush with ryegrass. Even with a helping wind, there’s little likelihood that someone could bounce a drive all the way to the green these days.
The more I researched, the more I found justification for Bob Mitera’s attitude. Some people just don’t believe him, or refuse to give him credit. In 1998, the United States Golf Association’s Golf Journal ran a 50th-anniversary timeline, detailing various obscure golf facts. It credited the world’s longest ace to Lou Kretlow (a former major-league pitcher) on March 26, 1961, on the 427-yard, par-4 16th at Lake Hefner Golf Course in Oklahoma City. It failed to mention that Mitera shattered that record four years later.
The 1996 edition of the Guinness Book of Records seemingly replaced Mitera’s ace with a 1995 hole-in-one by Shaun Lynch, done on the 496-yard, par-5 17th at Teign Valley Golf Club in Christow, England. That’s a dogleg-left hole, downhill from the turn, and Lynch cut across the dogleg. In fact, he used a 3-iron off the tee. His shot actually traveled less distance than Mitera’s, but his ace occurred on a longer hole. The 2000 edition of the same book now lists both aces: Mitera’s as the longest on a straightaway hole. Lynch’s as the longest on a dogleg.
Golf Digest, however, continues to list Mitera’s shot as the world’s longest hole-in-one, period. No qualifier. No asterisk.
Having talked to two eyewitnesses, I’m still convinced he made it.
And Bob Mitera couldn’t care less.