Friday, September 22, 2017

Golfing in the Moment

To build on the change from summer to fall I put a new set of discs into the CD changer here in the shack.  I looked at my music collection and found musicians I haven’t listened to in a long time.  I had one requirement.  No lyrics.  I have writing to do.  Words in my ear interfere with words in my head.

I turned to jazz:  Chet Baker, a couple of Miles Davis, two by Wynton Marsalis.  I have a two disc set on standby to replace the two CD’s I tire of first.  It’s the Riverside Recordings, a musical collaboration between Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane captured at New York’s Five Spot Café in 1957.  Chet Baker is playing “’Tis Autumn” in the background as I write.  Let’s get at it shall we?

For a couple years now I’ve been golfing with a good group of retired guys.  It’s an eclectic group, changes every week, goes to different courses, playing collectively or individually well one day and badly the next.  Some of us keep individual scores privately but we only note and report our group success.  We track the number of pars and par equivalents as a ratio of the number of holes played.  The number of holes played depends of course on the number of guys playing.  We aim to play 18.  Once in a while someone has to leave after 9.  At times (like now) someone goes past nine but doesn’t play a full round of 18 (that’s me, still getting my ankle back in playing shape.)  Anyway, using those numbers we do some math and rate the group’s performance.  I’ve decided to forgo that for last week’s round.  It was a different kind of day.

Five guys played 79 holes of golf.  Three played 18, one played 9, I cut out after 15.  But it was not a day for numbers.  That day was an experience, not a contest.  

It started when one of the guys on the list replied to the e mail announcing the place and time with an idea to bring an old friend known to most of us.  He’s a guy who no longer plays much.  Let’s call him Bob.

“Hey, I was thinking of bringing Bob.  It’s going to be a nice day.  He may want to get out of the house, or his wife may want a break.   He won’t play a lot.  Just hit some balls now and then.  Putt a little.  What do you think?”

When you’ve lived in one community for as long as we have you develop and keep friendships with guys important to you.  Bob was a mentor to many of us.  I worked with him for a very short time.  He was happy and expressive, said what he thought, and we realized he had good things on his mind.  He was well suited for his job.  I remember him as both sarcastic and good hearted.  Fun.

“Bring him.  I haven’t been with him in a long time.  I’d love to see him.”

I showed up late, last to arrive, and Bob was already in the cart.  He was wearing big orthopedic tennis shoes with Velcro straps extending down by the toe.  I check those things out these days.  Still recuperating from ankle surgery, I was wearing an Ankle Foot Orthotic (AFO), black leather over plastic covering my calf and laced up to my knee, in sensible black street shoes.  Hard telling when I’ll wear my golf shoes again.  Bob and I were both heavily shod.  When I shook hands with him he gave me a big smile.  You remember people’s smiles and how they make you feel.  At least I do.  His smile had always made me feel good.  It still does.

“You going to be our swing coach today Bob?  Our spiritual golf guru and advisor?”

“Nope.  Playing.”

“All right then, let’s go.”

We play at a fairly leisurely pace on the local courses, and playing on weekdays we find them rarely crowded.  For some reason that day everyone had the same idea.  It was a lovely morning.  There were lots of golfers.  We waited for the guys before us to hit and as we were teeing off another foursome was parked behind us.  That’s unusual for golf in the Illinois Valley.  As the last guy was teeing up his ball I saw Bob slowly step out of his cart.  Very slowly.

He was looking around intently.  When he finally reached the tee box he scanned the horizon all around. 

“That way Bob.”  I pointed down the fairway.  “Straight ahead.  See the flag?”

We were golfing at a course which was a country club that sold and went public.  Bob was a member there.  He knew the course well.  Or he did at one time.

He looked in that direction.  Slowly he bent to put a tee in the ground and once accomplished placed a ball on it.  Then he stood up.  A cart went by on the fairway next to us.  He followed it with his eyes as it disappeared over a little rise.  In the other direction a foursome cheered an apparent long par putt.  He turned and looked intently at them.

“C’mon Bob.  Hit the ball buddy.”

It was his cart mate gently urging him to hurry.  Another of his old friends called out.

“How long does it stay light out these days?”

That crack came from another supportive friend.  It’s what guys do.

Bob looked back and smiled.  Then pulled the club back, his back swing much reduced from the last time I saw him play.  He brought the club forward, all arms, and hit a soft liner about a foot and a half off the ground.  It travelled 80 yards.   But right down the middle and, you know, past the ladies tee. 

“OK.  We’re off.”

Four of us walked quickly back to our carts while Bob made a slow deliberate trip, one step at a time, back to his seat. 

Brilliant blue and plush green were the colors of the day.  A yellow sun moved across the sky.  White clouds came and went.  We played all through the September morning.  Sometimes when I come home from golfing my wife asks what we talk about.

“Golf.” I say.

People have tried to convince me that business gets done on the golf course.  Not in my lifetime.  We talk about turning slices and hooks into fades and draws.  We estimate distance, complain about sand traps, bemoan our bad shots silently (for the most part) and praise good ones openly.  We chide ourselves for bad habits.  We get serious about golf.

Golfing with Bob was different.  He was quiet and didn’t get out of his seat in the cart often.  At random times he would say

“Is it my turn?”

And when he did we would drop a ball twenty yards away from the pin for him to chip, or place one on the green ten feet from the hole to putt.  We kept him involved to some extent, but sometimes didn’t because the foursome behind us was waiting to hit.  He rarely initiated conversation so we took on that task.  Mistakes can be made unknowingly. 

“Bob do you remember that time in Berta’s when you …?”

At the word remember Bob looked in my eyes and replied firmly, but with a smile, “Nope.”

I was embarrassed but Bob wasn’t. 

I did see flashes of the guy I remember from the past.  I drove my ball off the tee first and pulled my cart next to his as the others of our foursome were getting ready to drive.

“How’s your wife Bob?”

Bob is married to a lovely woman, a nurse.  He looked at me for a long time.

“Compared to what?”

It was just the kind of smart ass thing Bob would have said thirty years ago.  Never a straight answer. 

“Oh, I don’t know.  How about compared to you.”

He smiled again, his biggest smile, very close to a laugh.

“Me?  Compared to me?  He paused.  “Fantastic.”

Bob changed our game.  He was living in the moment, enjoying each swing, while we were trying, like always, to figure out how few strokes we could manage at the finish.  He saw everything around him while we saw the flag on the green at the end of the fairway.  His life had changed.  At times we found that awkward to deal with.  But we also found ourselves changing to help our friend.  We pulled his cart to places on the cart path where he could walk more easily. We took his arm and helped him up and down the slopes.  We paid attention to him and each other more than normal.  We may have been good to Bob, but Bob made us a little better that day too.  The score was less important.   Kindness and enjoying the day ruled. 

Good to see you Bob. 

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