by the Night Writer
I’m going to Scottsdale, AZ the first week in March for a business conference that I’ve been organizing for my Division. I’ve lined up some big name speakers, including an economist who also happens to be the National Policy Director for the McCain campaign. At the time we booked him last fall that was merely an interesting curiosity on his résumé; now it appears the interest factor has appreciated. Of course, what’s a business conference without golf, and what’s also ratcheting up for me is the anticipation and anxiety of playing at Grayhawk and the two TPC courses out there as part of the event. Even when I’m playing regularly my game is better suited for some of the gentler courses (slope under 130) around here. Contending with the sand and saguaros of the Sonoran desert, not to mention scads of senior executives, stretches my stress capacity. Especially because I haven’t played since the MOB Millard Fillmore Classic (a tradition unlike any other) last August 24.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to play, it’s just that after that time things seemed to keep coming up, like an overdue (but non-golfing) family vacation, more work in making up for the days off from said vacation, and distractions, like, oh, my father dying. In fact, the last time I came close to playing was in September when I was down in Missouri to visit him. On one of those days things seemed to be pretty stable and the home nurse was on her way for a regular visit so my brother, my nephew and I decided to head up to nearby town of Sullivan to play 18. We were just finishing our brats in the clubhouse before starting out when my brother’s cellphone rang and my mom said she had called for an ambulance and they were on their way to Sullivan as well, but to the hospital. Back in the car went the clubs, and us, and we met the ambulance at the emergency room entrance and spent the rest of the afternoon there. That really upset the old man because there was hardly anything he hated to see more than a lost opportunity to golf.
With March and humiliation approaching, I set out this morning for Lake Elmo and the Country Aire golf park which features an outdoor driving range with covered, heated tee-boxes. I took my clubs, picked up a large basket of balls and secured a toasty stall directly under a heater right in front of the line of large orange yardage signs. Big flakes of snow were falling slowly as I stood on the green mat and stretched, swinging a couple of clubs together to loosen up. As I did I thought back to the Sullivan clubhouse and golf course. For the last ten years or so it had been the home of the annual fund-raiser my father ran for the Shriner’s hospital, and I had been down there several times to partner with my brother and hobnob with my dad’s friends; some who, like me, had come from distant states for the fellowship and as a show of support. Golf had long been a big part of my father’s life, and one of the things he passed on to me. He wasn’t a very big hitter, but knew how to aim his steady slice (excuse me, “fade”) effectively, especially on his home course. He was a master on and around the greens though, and a preferred partner in a two-man or scramble.
I scooped a dozen or so balls along side the mat and started hitting 8-irons to see if my swing was still buried somewhere inside me. Somewhat to my amazement it was, though it looked to me as if I was barely carrying the 125-yard marker. I chalked it up to stiffness, being out of practice, the cold air and the light snow that was falling. My father hadn’t been able to teach me much about the golf-swing itself because our styles were too different. Our golf lessons, in fact, were a lot like those other driving lessons back when I was 15: testy and frustrating for both of us. In the end he sent me to other people, both to learn how to drive a stick, and how to swing one. Nevertheless, I always looked forward to playing with him. I don’t know that I’ve ever played, or will ever play, without thinking of him.
This morning after a couple of dozen shots I put the 8-iron away and started working up through the longer clubs, first a 5-iron and then my hybrid club. The first couple of shots with each club would be pretty ugly but then I’d start to get the feel back and was launching some good ones. Over the years my game has ebbed and flowed. No matter how good my game might be at any particular time, however, it was guaranteed to desert me if I played in a foursome with my dad. Maybe I just wanted too much to do well and to please or impress him. I had had some good shots while with him, but more often I was out of rhythm and veering between over-thinking paralysis and total brain-dead execution. I think the last time he may have actually seen me tee-off was at one of his tournaments a few years back. He didn’t play in these himself, but would cruise the course on a cart, teasing his friends and stirring things up. I saw his cart approaching as I prepared to hit my tee-shot and, true to form, I topped the ball and dribbled it into the creek a short way in front of me.
Two years ago, I think — after his valve replacement — he tried to turn the golf tournament over to a couple of other guys in the Shrine Club. The club responded by naming the tournament after him, even adding the word “Memorial” to the name. “I’m not dead yet,” he said, and proved it by continuing to help out with the event. Even last summer as he fought his way through the chemo treatments the guys would come by the house, wanting to know where to order the hats, or who to contact to have sponsor signs made, or for his help in straightening out the hash they had made of all the details he used to know by heart. And now this fall it will well and truly be “The Memorial.”
I was down to a few more minutes in my stall rental this morning when I finally took out the driver my brother had made for me last year. I had hardly had a chance to break it in. I took some practice swings, getting used to the longer shaft and the huge head that looks as if it should weigh a pound or more, though the club itself feels like a feather. “Well, here goes,” I thought as I teed up a ball on the tallest rubber tee on the mat. I took dead aim up the line of orange signs and brought the club back straight and high, swinging through and then watching as the ball rose straight over the signs and through the falling snow, still in the air as it passed the 250 marker. “Did you see that, Dad?” I whispered, wiping the snowflakes off of my cheek.