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Saturday, Sep 20, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Clubbed by a bad golf lesson

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BAYONET POINT — Among the perks of working at either Beacon Woods or The Links — northwest Pasco County golf courses owned and meticulously overseen by Brooksville lawyer Matt Lowman — is the Monday afternoon tournament for employees and volunteers.

Players throw five bucks into a hat, draw cards to divide into foursomes, and head out for nine holes. Do well and you might win enough to take a date to Dunkin’ Donuts, if you share a cruller.

On the Monday after the Independence Day weekend, however, a lingering holiday mood at The Links prompted a surge in the turnout and, accordingly, the size of the purse. “We had 24 that day,” says Bill Sanzalone, about whom more in a moment, “so it was $120.” Not nearly enough, he adds, “to go crazy over.”

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That sounds about right. Still, what accounts for how anyone responds to competitive pressure? On the Monday after Independence Day, Wisconsin chemical company retiree John Keller, 75, a volunteer in The Links cart barn overseen by Sanzalone, was called out by several witnesses for sneaking a peek at the cards before he withdrew an ace.

In retrospect, Sanzalone’s misfortune was to be the clumsy card sharp’s first accuser, but he wasn’t alone. “A bunch of people, it must have been four or five, yelled,” he says. “Nobody was angry. We just said, ‘Hey, c’mon, you can’t do that!’ ”

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Another witness — who, fearing a lost job, asked not to be identified — confirmed Sanzalone’s account, down to his genial tone. “Bill said it in nice way,” says the witness, “and I said, ‘Yes, you did it. I saw you, too.’ Somebody else — not Bill — said, ‘Redeal.’

“So we did. We got new teams, we got in our carts, and we went and played, and everyone thought that was that.”

If only. Nearly three hours later, the fellow accused of chiseling still steamed as the players made their way to their cars. In the slanting daylight, Sanzalone was reaching for the seat belt in his white Toyota when from the vicinity of his trunk — wham! The car rocked, as though slammed by a baked ham dropped from a great height. It was Keller, slamming his fist.

Later, Sanzalone told a Pasco deputy, Keller screamed obscenities at him, denied he’d cheated, then demanded he get out of the car so he could “kick the crap out of me.”

But Sanzalone, inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter, stayed put. Keller “tried to pull me from the car,” Sanzalone wrote in a statement, “then he put his hands around my throat ... and was squeezing as hard as he could. ... (H)e continued to curse, then punched me in the mouth.”

Keller retreated to his car, spoke to another player parked nearby, the statement continues, then returned for another round, relenting only when Sanzalone announced he was calling 911.

Why he hadn’t locked the doors and sealed the windows is anybody’s guess. The heat of the moment, perhaps.

By nightfall, at any rate, Keller was arrested at his Hudson home on two counts of felony battery involving a person older than 65 and, for reaching inside the Toyota, burglary.

So far, then, just another one-sided golf-related parking-lot brawl. Not much to see, except for what happened next, all of it suggesting Sanzalone, whose name lacks only the letter T to have been ripped from a Dickens novel, indeed, stands alone.

The Links course manager, David Donald, told Sanzalone the owner had asked for a written statement. He complied, then was told to take some time off. A week later, meeting colleagues at Hudson Lanes, he learned he’d been axed. Word was, “I had provoked (Keller). I had continually provoked him.”

The witness who prefers anonymity says that’s nonsense.

Still, the guy authorities say was pummeled and choked was out, his alleged attacker is in, and nobody from the golf course hierarchy has explained how that adds up. “The owner, the manager, I never talked to either of them,” he says, “and they never talked to me.”

It’s not an exclusive club. Lowman did not return calls seeking clues to his calculus, nor did Keller’s Brooksville-based attorney, Kristie Ruppe, who got Keller’s two felony counts reduced to a single misdemeanor battery charge. Says Keller, “I’d like this to go away; I’d just like to put it behind me.”

Of course, we can’t say for sure Keller reached inside the Toyota, but Sanzalone’s injuries are documented and his age is covered by a statute then-Sen. Mike Fasano — whose Nature Coast district included the site of the incident — championed. Misdemeanor battery? Assistant State Attorney Ashley Donnell, who’s handling the case, also did not respond to a request for insight.

Not that Sanzalone wants to see Keller in prison. “But it’s not too late for him to learn you can’t go around doing this to people,” he says. Except, apparently, he can.

There’s not much glory in running the cart barn. You earn minimum wage, plus free golf and range balls. But you get to know the regulars, you make some friends, and you wonder why, after all those years you were running a trucking company in Pittsburgh, you waited until you were 67 to take up golf.

Then, unaccountably, it unravels. The guy the state says got mugged gets the heave-ho, and the guy who’s got a court date next month — the guy a fair number of his colleagues say was cheating — gets a pass, and none of the responsible parties want to talk about it.

And we wonder why people are reluctant to do the right thing.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

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