The sky was as high and blue as my hopes, and sunlight bathed Tenison Park golf course silvery white. Sweat stung my eyes as it rolled over my brow and trickled in at their corners. Texas summers are bearable for those who must be outside to earn a living, the foolish, and the young. I was fourteen and my dad was caddying for me.
He had rolled up his white shirtsleeves. An old bolo tie with a rough-cut turquoise stone hung from his neck. His Hush Puppy Earth Shoes were heavily scuffed. My thick shouldered, square headed dad with a flattop haircut owned only the one pair of work shoes. We couldn’t afford anything more.
It had rained hard the day before, making the air sticky and the mosquitoes impetuous. None of this mattered; I was intent on playing against Deg Mason. Every time I watched him swing a queasy feeling in my stomach told me what I already knew deep down. My opponent hit the ball better than me.READ MORE
He walked in a relaxed gait, loose jointed, and he was flat belly fit. Wearing a Tiger Woods red muscle shirt and black golf slacks, everything about this smooth skinned boy with a sharp nose and handsome, deep set eyes glimmering with confidence said he was country club bred.
I, Steve Clyde, lanky and round faced with a nice set of baby blues that make me not at all bad looking, had on a Muni-Course-Player yellow T-shirt and well worn faded denim shorts. I walked shoulder to shoulder with him on the seventeenth fairway tied in our match.
Then Dad and I veered off to the right. My drive was in the rough, or in the small creek just off the fairway.
What happened over the next few holes would years later be what I thought of while climbing onto the balcony railing of a seventeenth floor apartment to take a flying leap. Like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud, it became my last good memory of a childhood interrupted. What took place on the course was magical. No, it was divine. And it wasn’t enough. I could’ve stayed off the balcony entirely if only I’d known sometimes inside an oyster there is a second pearl that’s hard to find.
While Dad and I searched for my ball in the rough, I glanced toward Deg. He stood well ahead of us in the middle of the fairway looking right at me with his hands on his hips.
I looked along the creek for my ball, but didn’t see it. For a long moment I watched the water, feeling as though the current was carrying away my hopes of beating Deg¾and something more. A chance to prove the expense for my golf was worth being the thing that kept my family teetering on a financial razor’s edge.
Finally, I spotted a ball about a foot out in the creek. It was a Bridgestone S360 with three blue dots above the ball number one. The dots I’d put on this ball with a Sharpie pen before the match.
I shot a look at Dad who had his head down rummaging around in the rough fifteen yards ahead. Glancing over at Deg again, his eyes were now set with intense concentration on the green. Quickly, I reached in the water and slipped my ball out then dropped it beside the creek.
“Dad, I need a club,” I called out.
“Okay,” he said, and began walking back toward me. “I looked right where you are and didn’t see a ball.”
He can’t be sure he didn’t overlook my ball in this rough . . . or is he testing my honesty? “Just bring me a club.”
Dad smiled sadly.
Feeling Deg’s eyes on me, I looked that way. He was again looking right at me. Had he seen me get my ball out of the creek?
It would be cheating not to admit my ball had ended up in the water and take a penalty stroke. Would I want to live with that?
As Dad came beside me, I spiked with anger over him even being here. Over the next several seconds my anger became laced with shame. Partly, I didn’t consider myself worthy to win. Thoughts of why flooded my mind.
I pictured Mom with tears streaming down her face on one of the many times she took me along while kiting checks, cashing them at several grocery stores then depositing the money in the bank to cover the perpetual shortfall in our account. She did this every day the bank was open. I was convinced she hated my father for keeping her on this insane cycle, and loved him for having spent the money on my golf. I hadn’t understood why she kept kiting the checks until now. I loved and hated my father. I loved and hated golf.
Dad took the four metal out of my bag. “We’re about 220 yards from the flag,” he said, holding the club out toward me.
Why don’t you tell Mom to stop kiting checks? I almost blurted. Why didn’t I? Was it that I may have gotten the answer “Because we love you” and was unable to hear that without blowing up? No, not entirely. As I had often done, I replayed in my mind what I decided after Dad introduced me to golf, and Mom introduced me to check kiting.
Dad’s father disowned him over marrying Mom, and his mother died right after birthing him. Dad needed himself and Mom to be much better parents than his. There was no way Dad was going to stop Mom from kiting checks and keep me from doing what I enjoyed most. I had no choice. I had to win this tournament. Or everything bad about my family would be my fault.
Suddenly, it seemed that the four metal gleamed in the sunlight like Lancelot’s sword Excalibur. I knew too much to take the club with pride or confidence. Right now, I blamed myself for playing golf at all. But it was on this game I had built dreams of a better life. The life of a professional golfer with plenty of money to pay Mom and Dad back every cent they spent on me.
I reached out for the four metal, unable to look Dad in the eyes. Feeling I was cheating my family, Deg, and myself, I lined up my shot then swung.
When I struck the ball, the clubface met it out on the toe of the club, a sure bad hit. Butterflies swarmed my stomach while I watched the ball fly to the right over the stream, then it started looping toward the fairway. With a flicker of hope, I shot a look toward the green then back at the ball. It was still heading way right of the green.
My heart sank.
As if out of nowhere, I felt a gust of wind and the ball dived left. It landed in front of the green and rolled way past the pin. With a nervous chuckle I looked at Dad. “At least it stayed on the green,” I said.
His blue eyes were sparkling. Without a word he took my four metal and handed me my putter. Then we looked over at Deg just when he hit his shot.
The ball flew off his club and went at the pin. Never wavering, it landed about six feet past the pin and spun back toward it, stopping no more than three feet from the hole.
“He’s too good,” I said to Dad.
“He is good, but the wind helped you.” Dad smiled warmly. “Maybe it’s your time to win.”
“I hope you’re right.” I swallowed hard. “Sorry for being demanding about bringing me a club.”
With a wink from him, we started walking toward the green. By the time we stepped onto it I was once more glad Dad was with me.
As I lined up the putt from behind the ball while
he tended the pin, my eyes drifted up from the hole until we were looking right at each other. With Deg’s ball just three feet from the hole for birdie, I had to make my putt to have any chance of tying him. That is if he missed his putt, and I declared my penalty stroke.
And what were the chances of either one of those things happening?
I measured Dad’s expression for any indication he was aware of my dilemma. His eyes narrowed. But I couldn’t tell if it was from the sun’s glare, or out of concern over whether I would do the right thing. My hands started shaking, nerves every golfer has to tame from time to time. But it usually comes when performing under pressure down the home stretch of closing holes, not because they’re about to cheat.
As if wanting to size up the break of the green from both sides of the hole, I stood up and started walking toward Dad. I had to know whether he knew.
“You got a case of nerves?” he whispered, as I stopped beside him.
I nodded. “What should I do, Dad?” I said, also in an undertone.
“Whatever it takes to settle yourself down.”
“So I can have half a chance of making my putt?” I probed further.
“So you can enjoy the game.”
I smiled weakly, then walked to the other side of the hole from my ball and crouched down. Instead of reading the contour of the green, I looked down at my hands. They still shook. I tried taking three deep breaths. That didn’t help. Finally, I stood up and looked directly at my opponent, who stood just off the green looking over his putt. “Hey Deg,” I said and we locked eyes, “I need to call a penalty stroke on myself.”
His brow knitted.
“I found my ball in the creek and took a drop with it,” I went on. “I don’t think you saw me do it, so I’m clearing it up now.”
Deg’s expression relaxed and a wide grin spread across his face. He nodded, then looked away.
My hands stopped shaking.
“You’re going to make this putt,” Dad said, as I walked past him on the way back over to my ball.
This time I smiled, and meant it.
As I stood over the ball and looked down the fifty or so foot long curvy line of my putt, the hole looked as big as a washtub. When I took my stroke, the ball felt smooth as butter coming off my putter head. Suddenly, I couldn’t hear the cicadas’ “clack, clack, clack . . .”, or feel the heat beating down on me, or taste the salty sweat on my lips. My world, almost dreamlike, reduced to one thing. I was watching a little white ball rolling, rolling, rolling right along the sweeping curve going all the way to the hole just as I had imagined it would.
Then it disappeared into the cup.
“Never a doubt,” Dad said, beaming.
“Yeah, never a . . .” my voice tapered off.
As I walked over to the cup and retrieved my ball, Deg lined up his putt then approached his ball. I took a few steps backward and stopped, keeping my eyes set on him.
He made a practice stroke, and then slid his putter head behind the ball. But I was only interested in his hands.
For a moment everything was still and hushed, except for the cicadas.
Then his hands started shaking.
He’s going to miss this putt, I said to myself.
And he did.COLLAPSE