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    Off the course and stuck in a swamp trap

    An 89-year-old golfer, hunting for lost balls, gets tangled in muck. A day later, his waving club flags down a large search team.

    By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 9, 2002


    HOLIDAY -- Two or three times a week, Santo Bonventre follows up a morning round of golf at Forest Hills Golf and Country Club by looking for lost balls. On Saturday afternoon, he set off with a driver and a ball retriever in hand.

    Soon, he was lost.

    "I got off track," the 89-year-old said Monday afternoon from a hospital bed at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs. "It's a tricky woods. It's a tricky, rough woods back in there."

    Bonventre searched near the 550-yard par-5 sixth hole, a slicer's nightmare because of a swamp to the right that is a magnet for the misguided shot. It's fertile ground for ball hunters.

    The muddy swamp also is ringed with pockets of water deeper than a man is tall, and it is home to alligators and snakes.

    Before long, Bonventre got stuck.

    "I couldn't pull my feet out of there," he said of the mud. "When I got my feet out, I got so tired I couldn't move my legs.

    "I laid down and went to sleep."

    * * *

    Bonventre has been coming to Forest Hills as long as Steve and Dolly Koulias have run the course: 20 years.

    They said the widower, who lives alone, is like family; their sons, Bobby and Christian, have learned a lot about golf from him.

    No one thought much of it when Bonventre came into the clubhouse at 2:30 Saturday afternoon to say hello. Hours passed before anyone noticed his absence. His sister-in-law, Marie Bonventre, got no answer when she called him Saturday night. Friends saw his car in the course parking lot at 6 a.m. Sunday, far too early for him to be there.

    Bonventre goes to church and plays cards on Sunday with two women, who came to the course in the afternoon to say he didn't show. About the same time, Marie and a friend arrived and called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

    Bobby and Christian Koulias and their cousin Cameron Beady joined the search. Knowing Bonventre was always out looking for balls, Bobby Koulias guessed what might have happened.

    "I bet you he went out into the woods and got lost," he said.

    As darkness closed in, more and more deputies arrived. The search team grew to more than 30 deputies and firefighters. The sheriff's helicopter buzzed overhead.

    * * *

    Unable to move, Bonventre could only wave his driver in the air, hoping someone would see it. As the temperature dropped to the upper 50s overnight, he kept warm by rubbing his arms and stomach. He said he wasn't scared.

    About 7 p.m. Sunday, searchers heard a shout. Radios lit up with messages. It seemed the search was over. But it was Beady, deep in the swamp, clutching his hand. He had grabbed thorns.

    At 7:38 p.m., an hour and a half after the search began in earnest, a spotter on the helicopter saw Bonventre, lying on his back in the mud. He was about 200 yards from the edge of the sixth hole, a distance that surprised those who looked for him.

    He was waving his driver.

    A paramedic jumped out of the chopper. Deputies Matt Kadel, Jeremy Colhouer, Kristofor Wendel, Steven Henson and Sgt. Bill Lawless jumped into the black water surrounding the muddy area where Bonventre lay. They ignored warnings about a big alligator in the swamp.

    "If you thought about that, you wouldn't go," Wendel said.

    When word got out that Bonventre was found, people around the clubhouse cheered.

    But Bonventre wasn't out of the swamp yet.

    The water was too deep to carry him out, and the sheriff's helicopter isn't equipped to carry someone on a stretcher. So a Coast Guard helicopter was called in.

    Soon, Bonventre was on his way to the hospital. Other than being weak and dehydrated, he was in pretty good shape. He expects to go home today.

    * * *

    For a guy who plays every day, Bonventre is modest about his golf game. He doesn't keep score, "more keeping score of days.

    "How well can you play at 89?" he said.

    But golf keeps him moving, keeps him healthy. So does ball hunting.

    "It's a hobby more or less," he said.

    And Bonventre says his experience in the swamp will not end his ball hunting days.

    "I've got to do something," he said. "Got to keep active."

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