VETERAN golfer John Moller chuckled as he recounted the head-to-head match 12 months ago in which he became Fairway Hills Golf Course's club champion for a year - but only after gaining his first lead on the 17th hole.
"We were scheduled to start at 8 a.m., and Scott [Stoutenborough] was running late - didn't arrive till about 8:05 or so," said Moller, who lives in Marriottsville. "But I waited for him at the first tee. And you know, at the turn, he was 3-up on me. So much for sportsmanship."
You might read that as a knock, but when a reporter told Columbia resident Scott Stoutenborough about Moller's anecdote, he chuckled, too - saw it right away as just a little trash talk with a tournament coming up that could be pivotal for the two men.
Moller and Stoutenborough have split the past four Fairway Hills club titles; they've played one another for the past three. Depending on how each fares in early matches against others when this year's championship competition begins Saturday, they could play for the title again.
Club championships mean different things at different courses. At some clubs, winning one is a big deal; at others, such as Fairway Hills, some bragging rights accrue to the winner, no doubt. But then, the truth is that in a good year, maybe eight of Fairway Hills' regulars step up to compete.
Stoutenborough has it in perspective, saying, "It's less competitive than it might be."
Don Van Deusen, assistant general manager of the Columbia Association's two golf courses and a fixture at Fairway Hills, was waiting until the last minute for late sign-ups to align this weekend's opening-round matches. But he said it was safe to assume that because of their low scoring handicaps and past performances, Moller and Stoutenborough likely would start in opposite brackets, making possible another title face-off.
The two men make interesting competitors, and each in his own way typifies ardent golfers who frequent public or semi-public courses such as Fairway Hills. They only occasionally cross paths on or off the course, Moller preferring early-morning golf and Stoutenborough being a late-afternoon player.
But both share two loves - competitive golf and Fairway Hills.
And in this club competition, each has proven a fair match for the other. In two of their three title confrontations, the winning margin has been one hole out of the 18 played. In the third one, last June, Moller's winning margin was determined by having the better score on the final two holes.
Moller, 62, plays more golf, plain and simple - four and sometimes five times a week, at an array of courses within an hour or so of Howard County, but he plays Fairway Hills often, he said.
"What I really love about it are the greens," he said. "They've done a great job in maintaining them ever since I've played the course. I play a lot of places, and Fairway Hills' greens are as good as anyone else's."
Being retired and single, Moller has more time to play and a lower handicap ("about a three") than Stoutenborough. Moller is retired from information systems work for Verizon Corp., which transferred him from New Jersey to this part of Maryland nine years ago.
He has been a lifelong golfer, he said, having been introduced to the game by his father at about age 11. At 19, Moller said, what has been his lifelong avocation was clinched when a teaching pro near his northern New Jersey home indelibly taught him nuances of the golf swing and how to fix problems with it.
Moller also may be a bit better known at Fairway Hills. He set up a Tuesday afternoon league there several years ago that now has a dozen two-man teams.
Stoutenborough, 46, a mechanical engineer, moved to Howard County in 1988 from Ohio and plays golf two or three times a week. His handicap, he said, is "about a seven."
Though introduced to golf as a youngster, he said he didn't get serious about the game until after he finished college. But the father of three and grandfather of one plays regularly, even when it is cold during the winter. His main golf course is Fairway Hills, where he often plays nine holes one evening, returning the next to play the other nine.
"It's a shot-maker's golf course," Stoutenborough said. "That's what I like about it. If you're able to make accurate shots, you can do well there. And I agree with John about the greens - they do a great job at Fairway of keeping them in shape."
Asked his thoughts about possibly meeting Moller for the third straight year, Stoutenborough added his own needle to the low-profile rivalry.
"It's true, he won last year. I got a bit tired on those last two holes," he said. "But the way I look at it, in head-to-head play, I think I'm still 1-up on him."
Call the writer about anything related to amateur sports in Howard County at 410-332-6945, or lowell.sunder land@balt sun.com.