Serendipity At Pinehurst

April 26, 2013
My Aunt Ellen (c.), surrounded by Dupree dames: Regina (l.) and Diana.

My Aunt Ellen (c.), surrounded by Dupree dames: Regina (l.) and Diana.

My brother John and I, along with our brides, flew down to Seven Lakes, North Carolina last weekend to participate in the memorial for our beloved Aunt Ellen. She passed away two weeks ago, far too young, from unforeseen complications following stints in chemo for breast cancer. Her husband, our Uncle Buddy, has sort of defined the word “avuncular” all our lives (“Golf? I shoot in the low 80s.” Me: REALLY? “Yep, any hotter than that, I don’t even go out!”), but Ellen was everything to him, and we hated to have to help Buddy send her off.

The service on Saturday afternoon went fine, though my heart lurched as I saw my uncle, sitting right in front of me, just loose his shoulders and slump a little as the homilies began: he had busied himself for days by taking care of all the little details, and now there was nothing left to do but mourn. John and I had met Ellen’s grown daughter Tammy for the first time the night before. She looks and sounds exactly like her mom (they’ve even fooled Buddy once or twice on the phone), which turned out to be eerie and comforting at the same time, at least for me. The service hit Tammy the hardest (she was close enough to her mom to call her on the phone every day), and it broke our hearts to see it.

Ellen (l.), my brother Rick, and my Uncle Buddy, who looks like he's about to order a hit on somebody.

Ellen (l.), my brother Rick, and my Uncle Buddy, who looks like he’s about to order a hit on somebody.

I clambered up to offer a few words on behalf of our family. At the reception afterward I received a brand new kind of compliment. “That was a WONDERFUL speech,” a longtime parishioner told me. As I was gearing up to say how easy it had been to praise Ellen, she elaborated. “You spoke so SLOWLY and CLEARLY. I can’t UNDERSTAND most of the families at these services.” For English teachers: this lovely lady was a fan of form, not content, but I’ll still cherish those heartfelt props until it’s time for my memorial service.

We went back to Buddy’s for more food – provided by neighbors, the church, etc. – but we were just noshing. Our emotional fuel was spent. After a while, the group began to dissipate; some of them had five, six-hour drives back home. The four of us – John, his wife Regina, my wife Linda and me – decided to caravan back toward our hotel, stop at the nearby village of Pinehurst (yep, the storied golfing spot; next year Pinehurst’s fabled No. 2 course will become the first venue in history to host both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, back-to-back), and have a beer or something at a little pub to wind down.

The Carolina-Pinehurst Resort.

The Carolina-Pinehurst Resort.

We waited in the charming town square’s parking lot, but it took John & Reg a few minutes to pull up. They’d taken a wrong turn and found themselves driving by the magnificent Carolina Hotel at the Pinehurst Resort. You gotta see it, they said. The azaleas are out, this place is way Old South. So we paused for a second and said, let’s have our drinks there. After all, we’re already dressed for it. So we hopped into John’s car and drove over.

Inside the breathtaking lobby.

Inside the breathtaking lobby.

They weren’t kidding. We strolled down a spectacular azalea-studded pathway at dusk on a perfect late-spring evening. Everything, even the temperature, was gorgeous. Just being there lifted our spirits. We walked into the main house, grand enough to impress Scarlett O’Hara, and passed through a sumptuous lobby. It’s all about golf: memorabilia all over the place. The bar is the “Ryder Cup,” get it? I ambled up to the dining room entrance and caught a sidelong glance at the menu. I later confessed that I didn’t read the selections on the left, only the numbers on the right, just to make sure we weren’t out of our league. Then I said, let’s not blow this chance. Let’s have dinner here. (Like the Omega Mus in REVENGE OF THE NERDS, we were being spontaneous.) The maitre d’ stepped on a pet peeve of my brother’s by asking, “Do you have a reservation?” while crickets were chirping in the nearly deserted room over his shoulder. He allowed as how he might be able to squeeze us in. “When would you like to dine?” Um, let me think: how about right now?

Your humble obedient blogger (l.) and bride Linda in the dining room, seconds before I gave my brother the stink-eye and said "ut-pay the amera-cay OWN-DAY."

Your humble obedient blogger (l.) and bride Linda in the dining room, seconds before I gave my brother the stink-eye and said “ut-pay the amera-cay OWN-DAY.”

Turns out we were overdressed, which was a brand new sartorial experience for me, as any of my friends can assure you. See, we had neckties on. As the well-heeled golfers began to trudge in (they filled up many more tables, but, miraculously, ours was not needed!), the drill became evident: blazer, slacks, dress shirt, no tie. We ordered drinks and scanned the menu. Our server, a Wilford Brimley lookalike, was named Ted. The immense room was right out of GRAND HOTEL. John got us started properly after we told Ted why we were in town, we’d just wandered in serendipitously, etc. He expressed his sympathy, then John sprung the trap: “…so if you have a bereavement discount, that would make it perfect.” Funny guy, a real sit-down comic.

For the next two hours, the four of us had the most wonderful time together, talking about everything under the sun. GAME OF THRONES. John’s company, Sprint, and which suitor was more likely to win its hand. Texas politics (that’s where they live). Whazzup on Broadway. Cabbages. Kings. We have such chitchats at our annual family reunion, but generally in larger groups. This was different. The weight of Ellen’s passing was mitigated by the warmth of the company: gradually, organically. The only thing which would have really made it perfect would have been having my youngest brother Rick and his wife Diana there too, but he had a huge professional obligation he just couldn’t get out of.

A parting view.

A parting view.

It was still lovely outside as we walked back to the car. It had been really rewarding to do something we hadn’t planned on, just when we needed it most. If we hadn’t already been dressed for a memorial service, we might have spent a desultory hour in some pub instead. But that’s life. You never know what you’re missing. You just never know.

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Tiger And Eldrick

December 16, 2009

Although I miss her every single day, I’m glad my mom didn’t live to see the Tiger Woods scandal. It would have broken her heart. She always said he seemed like a “fine young man,” and of course that’s the PGA Tour’s intended judgment on all its players; a guy like John Daly is an anomaly (that’s part of what makes him so naughtily lovable, besides being able to hit it a mile). Pro golfers are supposed to be boring until the instant they tee it up. I’ve read recently that Tiger’s unearthly golfing ability, his beyond-belief powers of focus and concentration through adversity, made him the perfect corporate spokesman – not for Hooters, but for the faceless Accenture, marketed only to other big-shot businessmen who imagine themselves champions in their own pear-shaped ways. Well, that’s the sponsor which dropped him first.

Watching the O.J. trial, one had to wonder: weren’t you satisfied with your worldwide fame, your generous NFL pension, your Brentwood mansion and your hottie (ex-)wife? We can now ask the same questions about Tiger. All you had to do was to live normally. But those of us outside looking in can’t really fathom the culture of superciliousness that surrounds such fame and power. That’s why Bill Clinton thought he was bulletproof, too. Watch any episode of BEHIND THE MUSIC for more. “Tiger” is a stage name for a marketing persona. It was Eldrick Woods who revealed himself as a flawed human once he put away the tights and cape. Tiger’s brilliant caddie, Stevie Williams, says he had no idea, and I can maybe even buy that, since top pros don’t fraternize much off the course. (Though some players say it was an open secret that Eldrick was a horndog, at least with the eyes, almost from the day he arrived on tour. Did no other caddies talk to Stevie? Or Fluff, his first caddie?) But somebody knew. They had to. An international celebrity like Tiger Woods can’t travel without security. Not to excuse or downplay Eldrick’s transgressions, but there are some enablers lurking in the background, and maybe one day we’ll know their names.

The latest dish is that Tiger’s wife wants a divorce. I can’t really blame Elin. But the one and only thing he’s done right during this whole mess is to say, “I’m taking an indefinite break from golf.” His career’s not nearly as important as trying to patch up his marriage, if that’s even possible at this point: there are kids in the picture! Dodos may be thinking, he’s got all the money he needs, why not hang it up? But luxury isn’t the most important thing to a real champion. We’ll see how long the hiatus lasts, but if Tiger Woods isn’t standing in the teebox at Augusta in April for the season’s first major*, you’ll know this is bigger and sadder than anybody ever imagined. Then comes the ultimate test: playing four rounds of world-class golf with millions of eyes on him — but they’ll be squinting now. Only then can we really evaluate Tiger’s ability to focus.

*5/11/10: He did indeed stand there, and he finished fourth, not bad at all after such a long layoff. But very soon, his game showed signs of rust (he blamed neck problems caused by coming back before he was fully conditioned), and by May he was talking about missing the season’s second major.


A Yang Fine Golfer

August 16, 2009

Y.E. Yang of South Korea, not even ranked in the world top 100, today became the first Asian golfer to win a major championship, and he did it by staring Tiger Woods down. He is the winner of the PGA Championship and will instantly become a hero all over Asia, where they are already mad about golf. It was the first time since just after Tiger turned pro that he relinquished a 54-hole lead (golf tournaments are 72 holes unless there’s a tie). Mr. Yang kept his cool, tagged ball after ball straight down the fairway, and chipped in from off the green on a hole where it really counted.

Golf is very cruel, and there were at least seven Tiger putts that just barely missed; if only half of them had dropped, it wouldn’t even have been close. Padraig Harrington of Ireland, Tiger’s #1 rival right about now, had a disastrous quintuple bogey (that’s five over par!) on one hole. Yet through it all, Mr. Yang (who took up the game at age 19: Tiger took it up at maybe 19 months) had a fabulous time, smiling and mugging for the CBS cameras and then nailing golf shot after golf shot. For him, this was fun, and I think that’s a worthy attribute in a champion of what is, after all, nothing but a game. Congratulations, Mr. Yang, and please come back on future Sunday afternoons!


Flog

August 11, 2009

golf_ball-4843At the end of a tough, emotional day in Phoenix last week, my brother-in-law Cal idly flicked on the DVR to a pre-recorded golf tournament. The two of us became interested, but we were still able to talk to each other, like you can at a baseball game. My niece Stephanie, who was managing a five-week-old baby, happened to walk in front of us. I yelled, “Steph! Get out of the way! The ball’s about to drop!” She was startled for a nanosecond, then realized I was playing with her. But really: how could two grown men invest that much attention into golf, the most potentially boring of all televised sports?

Aside from the fact that it was the final round of the Buick Open and we were watching perhaps (though I’m perfectly willing to strike that qualifier) the greatest golfer who ever picked up a club, performing in the prime of his career, it’s a valid question indeed. I too once found tv golf the dumbest thing you could possibly broadcast. Then I started playing the game.

My friend Stanley Graham did it. He’s the kind of guy who lives to encourage; you could screech your way through Jack Benny’s violin scales and he’d say, “You’re getting much better.” It’s possible, but very difficult, to get Stanley mad. Over many weeks, he coaxed me onto a golf course, then he and Phil Allen patiently taught me the rudiments of the game. Keep your head down when you strike the ball (it’s counterintuitive: you want to watch your ball’s flight, but if you lift your head, you’re almost guaranteed to muff the shot. Watching your ball is what your partners are for). The ball farthest from the hole is played first (a moment’s reflection will reveal why). Bad luck is part of the game; you have to “play it as it lays,” though in non-competitive rounds (that is, no money on the line), I’ve witnessed the devilish use of a “foot wedge” to improve a lie. Foot wedges aside, you can’t touch your ball until it’s on the green. It’s rude, and potentially injurious to your fellow player’s putt, to walk across the line from his ball to the hole. The lowest score on a hole carries with it the “honor” of hitting first on the next tee. Stanley and Phil wisely refrained from cramming a lot of “swing thoughts” into my head; too many can paralyze you, even if you’re a seasoned pro. “Keep your head down” was plenty for me; it took several rounds to sink in.

Golf is a gentlemanly game, even if some of the world’s best players these days are women. Some of the rules seem Victorian, which is part of the charm. The thing I admire most is that a golfer is expected to police himself. Just last weekend at the Bridgestone Invitational, a pro moved his ball marker the length of his putter’s head to get it out of another player’s line, and failed to replace it (that’s a relatively rare occurrence which interrupted his routine) before it was his turn to putt. For this infraction, he was penalized two strokes, potentially representing many thousands of dollars. But get this: he called the penalty on himself. As performance-enhancing drugs fill sports with shameful asterisks, from football to cycling, pro golfers still respect the rules and, for the most part, each other.

As it is with most pursuits, the pros play a different game from you and me. They can all hit it a mile, on a trajectory that looks like a jetliner taking off. They don’t amble along in their electric golf carts to the next shot: they walk so fast that sometimes you have to do that little half-skip to keep up with them. They want to spend those precious seconds standing over the ball and figuring out what to do now. And when they squat down to read the twists and turns of a green, they’re actually evaluating it, instead of copying a pose they saw on TV.

Because of the leisurely pace and close proximity, you can learn a lot about people by playing a round of golf with them. The experience unerringly reveals character in everyone who tees it up. How competitive are they? Do they get angry when things don’t go their way (and they can’t always, not for four straight hours)? How many foot wedges do they use? Are they supportive of the other golfers? (As in friendly pool games, you usually hear sincere compliments on a good shot from the other players.) More than once, I’ve evaluated a club-thumper or –tosser by thinking, glad I don’t have to do business with this loser. I even declined one copywriting assignment, back when I made my living that way, for no other reason than my would-be client’s behavior on the course. Keep yer money, pal.

Stanley and Phil’s best efforts failed to produce a competent golfer in me. Phil used to call the sport “flog,” which is basically all I do. But I’ve never, ever, played a round that I didn’t enjoy, and I always can’t wait for the next one. The rap on golf among non-players is that you hit a little white ball as far as you can, then you go find it and hit it again. Haw haw haw. What you actually have to do is hit the little white ball toward a hole that you’re usually not close enough to see, being careful to avoid the sand, water and trees that are in your way, then develop a much softer touch as you get closer, and finally undergo a precise and nerve-wracking test of hand-eye coordination, on a surface that might resemble a pool table, provided that table had curves, ridges and undulations. You can’t put yourself in the professionals’ place unless you’ve tried it. Then, once you understand how truly difficult golf is, you enjoy watching a world-class player display his character. That’s why I’m going to be tuned in this coming weekend for the PGA Championship, golf’s final major tournament of the year. As in tennis, the majors really rev up the players – and, despite skeptical nieces, a revved-up golf pro is a beautiful sight to see.


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