Note from CM: In honor of Arnold Palmer, my first golf hero.
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To begin with, as I say, my introduction to golf came when I started swinging myself out of my shoes with that old cut-down ladies’ club at age three and was taken by my father to the golf course, where I was permitted to ride on his lap while he was mowing fairways with gangmowers pulled by the club’s old Fordson steel-wheeled tractor.
• Arnold Palmer, A Golfer’s Life
My earliest memory of golf is a vague picture in my mind. I’m a little boy, four or five years old, running behind my dad who is pulling a golf cart on a flat stretch of green in Galesburg, Illinois. It seems to me he let me take a swing every now and then, and I recall chasing the occasional gopher and noticing their holes as we made our way around the course.
Several years later, when I was old enough to mow the lawn, I set the blades low and mowed a circle in our back yard, dug a hole and worked on it until I could fit a can in it for a cup. I can’t remember if I put together a makeshift flag on a stick or not, but at any rate, I had my own green, my own golf hole.
It was a dogleg left. I teed off from the front yard and tried to hook the little plastic golf ball through the narrow side yard around the house’s back corner to the hole. Those little plastic spheres didn’t putt too well on the rough surface, so I would replace them with a real dimpled ball from my father’s golf bag. Sometimes I got tired of hitting the plastic balls too — it really wasn’t very satisfying — so I’d tee up a real golf ball and take a whack at it. Until I broke my parents’ bedroom window a couple of times and real golf balls became verboten in the yard.
My father has always loved the game. When he wasn’t playing, he was watching it on TV. Wherever they’ve lived, he has belonged to a club or played in a league. When he retired early, he and mom ultimately found themselves relocating to a community in Tennessee noted for its golf courses. They still live there and he plays a few times a week.
At various times in my life, I have played too, but I’ve never become a “golfer.” My buddies and I used to play in high school, but I hardly ever played while I was in college. Where we lived in Vermont in our initial ministry, the local club let pastors play unlimited golf for $50.00 a year. (Honey, why did we leave Vermont again?)
Seminary years again found me preoccupied with studies and work and starting a family and pastoring a church. Guess what? Not too much time for golf, though I used to play with guys from church occasionally. It wasn’t until we moved to Indianapolis and I joined the staff of a church whose pastor was a golf fanatic that I started playing regularly. We had outings and trips and leagues, and I enjoyed every moment — though I’m sure I still owe my wife big time for all the time away while she was taking care of kids. When I left that church, I still played some, but not nearly as much. Too much time, and too much money — plain and simple. That was over ten years ago, and I’ve never gotten back on track with a regular golf game.
I still love to watch golf on TV, especially since having gone to watch some tournaments in person and realizing how amazingly good the pros are. I help with a charity golf tournament each year to raise money for a friend’s foundation that honors his late son.
And last week I had the treat of playing in that tournament with my dad.
With a couple of my friends from church, we made it ’round the course and did pretty well, enjoying the company, the brilliant blue skies, and knowing that we were supporting a good cause.
There we were, just a few guys who enjoy a game. Like baseball, the game I love best, golf is a pastoral activity that is as much about what happens between the action as it is about the action itself.
It’s also one of those games that is about fathers and sons.
Last week we took another one of those walks together — a little slower, stopping more often. Lots of other folks were swinging the clubs too, some of them focused and competitive. I didn’t see any gophers. But my dad and I were together on a stretch of green, chasing a little white ball together.
I can’t think of too many other places I’d rather be.