Not long ago, the host of a popular golf radio show asked me who I most enjoy playing golf with these days. We were discussing the various golfers and assorted eccentrics I’ve met, interviewed and written about over a long and winding journalism career. I was surprised by the question, and he seemed surprised by my answer.
“These days, I like to play golf with old guys,” I said without hesitation. “Like my friend Harry.”
He laughed. “So, who is Harry?”
“The old guy I hope to be someday on the golf course.”
Harry, I explained, is a gifted artist and nationally known cartoonist I’ve known for many years. He has a wry sense of humor, a beautiful tempo in his golf swing, and a refreshing take on life. Harry is 76 years old, deaf in at least one ear, losing bits of his eyesight, and battling a rogue sciatic nerve in his left leg that sometimes makes swinging a club difficult. “Nothing ails me that a birdie or two won’t fix,” Harry likes to say with a smile. “Hell, I’ll even settle for pars.”
He was once a splendid single-digit player who now aims for bogey golf, and never gets too rattled by whatever the game at this stage of life gives him. Like many older golfers, he accepts that bad breaks happen and are simply part of this maddening Presbyterian game, not worth fretting about. So are aging body parts that can’t propel the ball the way they once did.
Instead, Harry plays for the occasional fine shot, the rare good break, and the fellowship of his companions that includes a good bit of affectionate needling and laughter.
He’s never had an ace – frankly doesn’t want one at this point – but holds out hope of someday shooting his age, the proverbial goal of every aging golfer.
To me, Harry is living proof that golf is the Esperanto of sport, a game that speaks a universal language of competitive fun and enduring friendship, something that means even more as we chase the game into our dotage.
Though I’m almost a decade younger than Harry – he jokes that I am a pre-geezer in training – I love playing with him because he is a model of what I hope to be like in the rapidly shrinking years ahead: a man who has loved the game since he was a boy and loves it just as much, though in different ways, as an old man. He is living proof that the game can actually grow sweeter as the clock runs down – a lovely message to us all.
In other words, I hope to be just like Harry when I officially achieve full geezer status.
The game has been part of his life since he was 10 or 11 years old and a golfing uncle allowed him to pick a club from a barrel of used irons. He chose a battle-scarred 7-iron and the set that went with it.
“It was a set of Dalton Hague clubs, really beautiful. I played with them for years bragging to other kids that I owned real Dalton Hague signature golf clubs.” He pauses and chuckles at the memory. “They turned out to be Walter Hagen clubs that had just been beaten to death. But oh, how I loved those clubs and learned to play golf with them.”
Harry loves to tell stories like this, and I love to hear them.
We often meet late in the afternoon for nine holes at a beautiful municipal course set on a wide lake well out of town, surrounded by mature hardwood forests with no houses, streets or power lines visible anywhere. We often pause to watch the action as shadows lengthen and nature reawakens – deer crossing fairways, waterfowl in flight, red foxes and their cubs at play.
We rarely if ever bother to keep a score. We just play, talk, be.
Harry’s favorite hole is a short four-par seventh that angles down toward the lake, with an approach over a wooded cove to an elevated green backdropped by a breathtaking view of the water, a photographer’s dream shot. Not surprisingly, he’s sketched and painted it several times, aiming to get it just right, never failing to mention how its beauty moves him. “Isn’t this something?” he’ll say with a note of quiet wonder, pausing before his approach shot that sometimes lands in the water of the cove, sometimes just feet from the pin. “It never gets old,” he adds.
Harry clearly sees the world through a lens of wonder. “You have to stop and look and expect wonder in order to experience it,” he once said to me, which may explain why he is such a marvelous artist and engaging cartoonist.
To me, Harry is living proof that golf is – as the late Henry Longhurst declared it to be – the Esperanto of sport, a game that speaks a universal language of competitive fun and enduring friendship, something that means even more as we chase the game into our dotage.
When he was a reclusive pre-geezer in his early sixties, the great Ben Hogan commented to his regular lunch companion of nearly 30 years at Shady Oaks – a Fort Worth insurance man named Gene Smyers – that he actually enjoyed hitting golf shots more than ever, practicing in private to his heart’s content and occasionally playing with his older friends. His greatest satisfaction came from the simple pleasure of sculpting a beautiful golf shot, no longer held prisoner to a pathological need to win a major championship or somehow gain acceptance from a world where he forever felt like an outsider – the cold gray loner, the runtish caddie forever looking through the window at the club Christmas party, the eternal underdog.
In other words, golf’s greatest shot-maker’s lifelong war against unachievable perfection and Old Man Par had finally drawn to a close – allowing Ben Hogan to finally claim a measure of peace and solitude in the narrowly circumscribed world he’d built for himself. “I really think that was Hennie Bogan finally coming out in Ben,” Smyers told this writer, using the poignant nickname Hogan gave to his alter ego, the genial, fun-loving, easy-going fellow the Hawk dearly wished he could somehow become. “Since Ben had nothing more to prove to anyone – especially himself – he could finally relax and almost just be Hennie.”
Getting older, of course, will do that to you. For many who play the game into their 70s and even 80s, though the edges soften, the embers still glow somewhere within.
Hogan’s greatest rival, Samuel Jackson Snead, wrote a bestselling book about the pleasures of playing golf after 40, having claimed his 82nd tour victory at 52 years, 10 months and 8 days old – still the record for professional golf – and only hung up his Senior Tour spikes at age 77, wryly joking: “It’s a grind trying to beat the 60-year-old kids out there.”
What hopeless hacker among us pushing 50 or 60 didn’t feel both hope and heartbreak watching dear old Tom Watson, 59, just miss claiming his sixth Open Championship and the chance to become the oldest player in history to win a major championship at Turnberry back in 2009, one missed-putt shy of eclipsing Old Tom Morris’ record set 142 years ahead of him at the unheard-of age of 46 years.
Of more recent vintage, even aging Phil Haters had to feel a tug of grudging admiration and inspiration when Mickelson, 50, became the oldest to capture a major championship at the PGA Championship last May.
If nothing else, getting older also makes it easier to laugh in the face of Father Time. “That’s the easiest 69 I ever made,” Walter Hagen – aka Dalton Hague – playfully quipped upon turning 69. Debonaire Roberto de Vincenzo compared playing golf in one’s senior years to falling in love again. “One day you think you are too old,” he summed up the allure, “and the next day you want to do it again.”
Leave it to the Sage of Austin Country Club, wise old Harvey Penick, to artfully sum up the advantages of growing old with the game. “Seasoned citizens – a term I much prefer to ‘Senior’ – may get even more enjoyment out of the game than they did when they were young, because the deeper you get into golf, the more you learn to value the freedom, the companionship, and the profound mysteries of the game itself.”
Which brings me back to Harry.
One afternoon not long ago, as we were watching a spectacular chevron of geese heading south for the winter over the lake from his favorite spot on the course, he told me a little golf story that speaks of wonder and mystery.
Many years ago, Harry’s mom passed away. Her final wish was that Harry and his younger sister take her ashes and those of Harry’s father down to a lake in a park at Carolina Beach, where the couple first met and later married. Harry promised he would do that.
His sister was a busy surgical nurse. Unfortunately, her unpredictable schedule repeatedly delayed their planned journey to the coast. “This maddeningly happened month after month. Suddenly it was spring, and we still hadn’t fulfilled our parents’ wishes. I was feeling very bad about that. These little rituals of life are important. I needed something to get things moving.”
One afternoon he was playing golf with a partner who was particularly wild off the tee.
“I was helping him look for his lost ball deep in the woods, when I stepped over a downed tree and saw a golf ball sitting on top of a rotting log – almost like someone had placed it there. I picked it up and tossed it over to my companion. But it wasn’t his ball. He tossed it back. It was a very old ball. When I looked at it, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
The ball’s colorful logo read Carolina Beach.
One word was printed on the opposite side – Mom.
“It sent chills down my spine. A day later, I drove my folks’ ashes down to Carolina Beach – four hours away – and spread them in the lake at a spot that meant so much to their life together. I felt real peace at that moment.”
As he told me this, he pulled the ball out of his bag and handed it to me.
“I’ve carried it with me everywhere ever since,” he explained with a very Harry-like smile. “This game, this life, is wonderfully unexplainable, isn’t it?”
Simple coincidence or a gentle nudge from the golfing universe?
Harry’s still not sure. And neither am I. But that’s part of the wonder of this game.
As we played on, hitting occasional nice shots and miss-hits that will never be recorded, it struck me that there was, as usual, a nice little message in Harry’s seventh-hole homily, perfectly timed for a couple “old” friends on a golden afternoon at the end of another golf season, yet another reason to be thankful for a game I aim to play just like Harry until I either shoot my age or simply fly away like geese in the autumn.
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