Members of the “Back-Niners,” from left, Kevin O’Neil, Dr. John Unterborn, Jim Murphy, Tom Ryan, Bob Morin, Dr. Paul Busse, John Harper, Drew Tripodi, Frank Sweeney and Jim Summers at The Meadow in Peabody. | Photo: Scott Eisen

By SANDI GOLDFARB

Many consider golf a test of skill and athleticism, while the uninitiated may view the game as nothing more than a “good walk spoiled.” For 12 North
Shore residents, a shared love of golf is what connects them. But it was Bob Morin, a Peabody resident, former Marblehead postman and lifelong golfer, who first brought them together.Jim Murphy, 69, of Marblehead, remembers chatting with Morin in August of 2007. “I think my monthly subscription to Golf Magazine prompted Bob to inquire if I’d be interested in a round of golf,” said Murphy. “We discussed getting a few guys together to play at The Meadow. So Bob began asking folks on his route if they would like to join us. That’s how the “Back Niners” were formed.”

Soon three other Marbleheaders, Paul Busse, a radiation oncologist, Kevin O’Neil, a software developer, and Frank Sweeney, a financial adviser, came on board. “Bob Morin is the common denominator for most if not all of the group,” said O’Neil.

Busse, 66, is another fan of Morin’s, both on and off the course.

“Bob was more than our mailman. For 30 years he cared to know about our families, our lives, our health, and was a bright spot in the day for everyone who came across him.”

Over time, Morin invited Tom Ryan, an insurance executive he met along his route, while the original members encouraged friends and neighbors to join: John Harper, a veteran of the mortgage industry, Art Pearce, a CPA, Jim Summers, who specializes in technology, physicians Myles Keroack and John Unterborn, and Drew Tripodi, an executive in software sales.

For Keroack, 55, “Sunday morning is more than just golf, more than the game; it’s the people you play with.” The intrepid “Back Niners” hit the links every Sunday morning, spring through fall, rain or shine, at The Meadow in Peabody, a place that Morin, 67, describes as “the finest public course on the North Shore.” An early tee time allows the players to enjoy nine holes and, more often than not, gets them home in time for a late breakfast with their families.

“Occasionally, golf competes with other activities of daily life, particularly on the weekend. But when I say, ‘I’m off to play nine holes with Bob, all I hear is, have a good time’,” said Busse.

Asked about the most unforgettable moments of their decade of play, several members recalled a singular achievement, Summer’s hole-in-one on the 12th.

Jim Summers celebrates after his hole in one at The Meadow on June 29, 2014.

“Watching a near-50-year-old-man call his dad from the green— to share his excitement with the guy that taught him to love the game—that was special,” said Ryan.

The golfers enjoy rhythms and rituals, such as the annual “Postal Cup,” a competition held over four weekends, which honors Morin’s 50-year career with the U.S. Postal Service. This event includes a system designed to level the playing field, with Morin, the official scorekeeper, calculating handicaps based on rounds played throughout the year. And each spring, the “Back Niners” compete in “Maria’s Match,” a mini-tournament that concludes with the losing teams treating the winners to breakfast at Maria’s Place in Salem.

Tripodi, who at 48 is the youngest in the tightknit troop, is credited with initiating a 36-hole outing at courses around the state.

Initially, the group played at The Pinehills in Plymouth. Last year, Tripodi and Sweeney—both members of Tedesco Country Club in Marblehead— and Busse, who belongs to Salem Country Club, arranged for the group to play 18-holes at each course, all in one day.

Unterborn, 54, appreciates the group, which offers company and continuity, from season to season, year in and year out.

“It is my ‘man cave’ every Sunday,” he said. In late March, Pearce, who battled cancer for the past 10 years, recalled the group’s “empathy, encouragement and unconditional friendship” and the special role the “Back Niners” played in celebrating his 50th birthday last winter.

“It’s been an incredibly uplifting few months for me (with) support coming from all corners. But this ‘Back Niners’ gesture still stands out as overwhelming.”

Before Pearce’s death in April, the group rallied around their friend, gathering at his home, and later at the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers, for wide-ranging conversations that Pearce said touched on “parenting ruminations, career lessons learned and mixed drink expertise.”

The “Back Niners” coordinated visits and encouraged special requests, with Pearce often asking for his favorite ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.

Art Pearce

“Sometimes we’d watch golf, but most of the time we just talked,” said Murphy.

The group kept in touch with Pearce between visits through phone calls, emails and texts. Harper, 60, has fond memories of Pearce, “a phenomenal player,” who would show up every Sunday, carrying his golf shoes. “At first, Art would put his shoes on at the 10th tee. Then, he started forgetting his shoes altogether.” Harper added that for Pearce, playing a round in sandals was not uncommon.

“One day he had on flip-flops. After teeing off, he removed them and played the entire round barefoot. He beat me handily that morning. I think he shot a 41 or 42—in bare feet!”

Despite his passing, Pearce will always be a part of the “Back Niners.” Each week, a member of the group carries in his bag one of Pearce’s clubs in a lasting tribute to their friend.

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