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CLINE: Mill Creek principal comes up aces

Jim Markham is one of the deans of Gwinnett County principals, having served in that position for 20 years. I’ve known him pretty much for that entire tenure, going back to his time at Berkmar High School.

These days his school is Mill Creek, one of the largest in the state, and after 45 years in the field of education, he's still reaching new goals both at work and in his personal life. The 69-year-old Markham earned his doctorate degree last year (his dissertation is up for a national award), but if you really want to get the Vietnam veteran talking, ask him about the hole-in-one he recently recorded.

Markham has been playing golf about the same amount of time he's been a principal. Over those 20 years he readily admits his golf game hasn't progressed at the same pace as his educational career. Which made his exploits on Feb. 3 -- his 69th birthday -- all the more exciting.

He decided to celebrate by getting in nine holes at Chateau Elan that afternoon. Playing by himself at the Chateau course, he approached the sixth hole in a so-so state of mind. "I really was quasi-depressed," he said. "It hit me that there's less time ahead of me than there is behind."

A self-described "infinity" handicapper, Markham teed up his ball on the 136-yard, par-3 hole. He grabbed a 7-iron, took a swing and hit the best shot of his life.

"It felt good," he said. "I was thinking as it was flying: 'I'm going to get close to a birdie here.'"

It was much better than that. Markham's shot took one hop and settled directly into the hole. He was ecstatic. He jumped up and down. He screamed. And then he realized no one was there to witness his miraculous shot. To be certified by Golf Digest, an ace has to be witnessed by another golfer or bystander. With no one in the vicinity, this was problematic.

So Markham began searching. He asked golfers in a neighboring fairway if they had seen his shot. They had not. Then he asked some nearby landscapers. Strike two. "Then, as I was very dejectedly walking back to the green, a maintenance man drove up and said, 'Great shot.'" The hole-in-one was official, and Markham's day returned from dread to dream.

"I shot 39 for nine holes, which is incredible for me because I'm not very good," Markham said. "When my wife got home I told her. It's all I talked about for two days. I have the ball in my car and I look at it every day. It was a mega-thrill for me."

In a month or two Markham's name will appear in Golf Digest. He plans to get the ball (it's a Bridgestone 6, he'll tell you) bronzed and mounted on a plaque. When that happens, he might hang it on his office wall next to the diploma for his doctorate, the only diploma he's had framed.

Those are two very personal milestones, reached at an age when many start ratcheting things down or calling it quits altogether. But Markham's main source of pride continues to be his school.

It's hard to believe that Mill Creek has been around for eight years, that it's no longer the new kid on the block. Markham has been there every step of the way, shepherding the school's development and starting traditions, like on Tuesday when every female student, teacher and worker at Mill Creek received a flower for Valentine's Day.

There are many more good days ahead for the school, and Markham wants to be there to share them.

"We have good kids and I'm really proud of our school," Markham said. "I'll go as long as I can; as long as they'll have me. I'd probably pay them to let me come to school."

As a lifelong educator, Markham may get tired of having everything turned into a lesson. But it's easy to see the one that comes from that diploma on his wall and the prized golf ball in his car. No matter what your age, there are always more hills to climb, more goals to attain and more experiences to be had.

Email Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.