The agony of defeat recalled

The fourth hole was a monster

It was a monster. A huge, sprawling soul-searing beast. Sure, it was mostly green with a beatific creek running through the middle of it, ringed with an assortment of flowering crepe myrtles, towering Spanish oaks and pine trees. But that's what the locals called it, so who was I to disagree? More specifically it was the par 6, 587-yard fourth hole of the city golf course near where I lived.

It was the summer of my 13th year, and to earn money I had taken up the time-honored profession of a caddie. My mother had lent me her folding pull cart, and I would hang out at a picnic table in front of the little office where golfers would come and sign in before starting their rounds. I charged 50 cents for my work, but my secret was after caddying 18 holes, my golfers would always treat me to an ice-cold Coke. At a nearby oak tree, the professional caddies sat and waited for clients. They were mostly older black men, all wearing starched white jumpsuits. I, at that age, was oblivious to the issues of race and poverty, unaware that these men were trying to make a living as best they could. They were kind to me, however, perhaps out of generosity, perhaps because they had no choice.

I soon learned why the fourth hole was called the monster. Off the tee, about 200 yards out, the fairway dipped dramatically down toward a creek that intersected it at about 250 yards. The design lent itself for many well-hit balls to race down into the water. The fairway then dog-legged sharply to the right, going up a steep slope ringed with thick trees that only leveled out on the green -- which was surrounded by four bunkers. What the creek and the woods didn't eat, the bunkers would finish off. Monster indeed.

That sunny July Sunday afternoon, I picked up a paying customer. He was playing alone, so our pace was brisk. He was a tall man, lean with broad shoulders. I could see the strength of his game was the driver. When he struck the ball, it would make a sharp whacking sound like a rifle shot.

When we got to the infamous fourth hole, he asked for his 1-driver and proceeded to hit a beauty. It cleared the creek and nestled beautifully in the middle of that up-sloping fairway. Keeping to his 1-driver, he blasted another powerful shot that seemed to disappear into the glaring sky above us. After hiking up the hill, I was astonished to see his ball on the green a mere 3 feet from the hole.

As a seasoned scorekeeper of one whole summer, I knew what this was. Short of the Valhalla of golf shots, the hole in one, this would be the almost as rare double-eagle. (2 under par, for you non-golfers). Fishing the putter out of his bag, I asked my golfer if he had ever made a double-eagle before. "No," he answered softly, "this would be my first." My heart pounded with excitement, I felt like I was witnessing history. He carefully lined up the putt, stroked the ball confidently; it pulled well left of the hole. He lined up again too quickly and this time pulled it right. He tapped in for a birdie and we wordlessly walked to the next hole. Even at age 13, I could see the stinging disappointment passing across his face. Greatness was seemingly deferred. He would play that hole again many more times.

Growing up, I became fascinated with history, devouring long books on the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Custer's last stand and the conquest of the Aztecs, perhaps with an eye on what to do when faced with my own defeats, with my own misses. But I learned too to stay in the game, to face the monsters.

And if I could only fly, perhaps I might go back to that July day on the fourth green. I would turn to that golfer as he lined up that first putt and whisper: "Dad, it pulls to the left."

NAN Our Town on 04/04/2019

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