Just for fun, a few days after the latest dusting of snow melted away, with nary a soul around to take notice, I carried a quartet of 7-irons from four different sets of clubs to the practice range for an exercise that was more of a sentimental thought experiment than a preseason club test.
Memory and imagination are useful tools for the winter-starved golf brain, a time when “something waits beneath, the whole story doesn’t show,” as artist Andrew Wyeth once observed of his favorite – and most creative – season.
Speaking of favorites, the 7-iron is my go-to golf club, easily my favorite club in the bag, probably the one I’ve hit more good shots with than any other over five decades.
In this case, however, I’d never hit any of these 7-irons.
… for a few magical moments on a gray afternoon, these clubs made me feel the presence of three gentlemen who taught me a great deal about the game I love.
Three of them, you see, were from sets of clubs that hold special meaning to me, kept in a dusty place of honor in my garage home office, long considered too important to actually play with. They’d belonged to a trio of gentlemen who inspired me to take up the game and shaped my view of it.
The fourth was from my first new set of clubs in more than 15 years. I’d recently been fitted for – shall we say – clubs that would put a little more vigor and distance back into my game. I refuse to call them “senior” golf clubs.
First among these four “sevens” was an old Wilson Gear Effect “radius sole” iron from the mid-1980s, the legendary company’s first cavity-back iron. It belonged to my late father, an adman with a poet’s heart who learned to play the game as a glider pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps stationed just outside the gates of Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s Golf Club on the Lancashire coast, shortly before D-Day.
My nickname for him was “Opti the Mystic” because he never seemed to suffer a bad day on the golf course but had this annoying habit – at least early on to his hot-headed, club-tossing teenage son – of cheerfully quoting long-dead sages and Roman philosophers when you least expected it.
Opti was a wizard with this 7-iron, executing bump-and-run shots better than anyone I ever saw, a technique he learned using borrowed clubs at Lytham. He called his favorite club “Old Lucky No. 7.”
He liked to say that seven is the luckiest number on earth, noting that the Lord rested on the seventh day of creation, and Shakespeare declared there were seven ages of man. For what it’s worth, there are also seven major notes on the musical scale and seven primary colors in the rainbow. Even James Bond fancied seven his lucky number, putting 007 on his license to kill.
When Opti was approaching 80, I took him back to Royal Lytham where we met the former club secretary whose clubs he used during the year their owner was serving in Burma. Theirs was quite an old soldiers’ reunion. I just listened and savored their stories as we played, and later recalled the magic of this day in a book called Final Rounds.
In a local pub after the round, I also learned about a horrific tragedy at the air base that changed my old man’s life and possibly saved mine. While attempting an emergency landing during a regular maintenance test fight, a heavy bomber loaded with petrol crashed into a local school annex, setting the village center of Freckleton, England, on fire, claiming the lives of more than 30 townsfolk including a couple dozen children.
My old man was one of the first responders on the scene, ending up in a military hospital with burns that prevented him from flying a glider into the Liberation of France. The mortality rate among D-Day glider pilots was exceedingly high. Instead, he was sent in five days after the landing to oversee the restoration of telephone lines destroyed by the French underground.
After Royal Lytham, during the drive up to St. Andrews, my old man told me how this tragedy awakened something in him – a resolve to focus on the ordinary pleasures of life and believe in the power of human optimism. “Life promises us sorrow,” he told me as we headed for our finale at the Old Course. “It’s up to us to add the joy.”
This became his unwritten credo in life, even in golf – the reason he never complained about a bad break, an unfortunate shot or woeful score, just played for the joy of an occasional birdie and pleasure of beating his two best buddies out of a cold beer.
The second 7-iron was from a set of 50th anniversary replicas of the blades Arnold Palmer used during the years he dominated the game. After reading Final Rounds, he asked me to help him write his memoirs, a three-year collaboration that became a close friendship for the next two decades.
Once, early in our travels together, after a long day of watching him being besieged by adoring crowds and patiently signing autographs, he turned and asked me if anything surprised me about him.
I was surprised, given his fame, that he didn’t travel with security detail or at least a bodyguard.
The King of Golf gave a belly laugh. “That’s why I have you, Shakespeare!” he boomed at me. “Let me tell you something. If you think you need a bodyguard or security person, you probably do. On the other hand, if people know you care about them, they’ll care and respect you back. It’s that simple.”
“Let me tell you something about Arnie,” Winnie Palmer said to me one evening as the three of us sat around their kitchen table in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was late. We’d had a fine dinner and more than a few drinks. Arnold had dozed off pleasantly in his chair. She looked over at her husband and smiled.
“Arnold Palmer is an ordinary man to whom something extraordinary happened. He never forgets that. The game of golf gives him joy, and he genuinely loves people. The two go hand in hand. That’s why everyone he meets feels so close to him. Arnie is golf’s best friend.”
No one ever offered a better description of Arnold Palmer.
Who, by the way, won seven major championships.
Not long after A Golfer’s Life was published, a set of his “Original” Palmer irons showed up on my doorstep. I was tempted to take them straight to the golf course to see if I could hit them like a king. But I never had the courage to do it.
I met Bill Campbell via telephone in 1983 when I phoned to ask him about a campaign several of Bobby Jones’s friends in Atlanta were forming in hopes of saving East Lake Golf Club from the wrecking ball.
Their efforts were eventually successful, and Bill and I became good friends, fueled by a shared love of Pinehurst and amateur golf.
Like Jones, Campbell was an icon of the amateur game, having played in 37 U.S. Amateur Championships – which he won in 1964 – and on eight Walker Cup teams. He also won Pinehurst’s fabled North & South Amateur four times, qualified for six U.S. Opens and played in 18 Masters Tournaments. He went on to serve two stints as president of the USGA and was only the third American to be named Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the first person to head both of golf’s governing bodies.
Few this side of Bobby Jones enjoyed a more diverse and far-reaching life in golf, or played a more important role in preserving the high standards of the game than Bill Campbell, the game’s Cicero in golf spikes. For years I gently prodded Bill to write his own memoirs, which he began doing shortly before illness closed in. He sent me a couple chapters to read before the string ran out, along with a handwritten note that was impossible to read due to the most illegible handwriting in golf. I cherish those two small chapters – and the note, whatever it said – somewhere in my files.
A week or so before his death in 2013, Bill’s wife Joan invited me to come to say goodbye to the humble West Virginia insurance man who’d graciously served as first reader of my biography of Ben Hogan and several golf books that followed.
His service at the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg was a lovely affair, highlighted by his son Colin’s tender memory of playing golf in the evenings with his dad after work. As I listened, Opti came back and sat beside his son.
Weeks later, I came home after dark to find a box sitting on my doorstep. Inside were Bill Campbell’s golf clubs, a set of well-worn Hogan Apex blades taped up with half a mile of lead tape. In the backyard, I gave his 7-iron a swing. It was the stiffest, heaviest golf club I’d ever held.
I always meant to try to hit Bill’s formidable 7-iron. But I never tried until that winter afternoon a few weeks back.
In the spirit of the exercise, after warming up, I hit seven shots with each club at the range’s 150-yard green.
The biggest surprise was Opti’s Wilson Gear Effects. Six of the seven shots landed on or just off the green, two within a foot or so of the cup. Old Lucky No. 7 evidently still had some magic.
Not surprisingly, Arnold’s “Original” blade was a much stiffer challenge. Only three shots found the green. The King was probably having another good belly laugh.
Next up was Bill Campbell’s battle-scarred 7-iron. It felt like trying to hit a golf ball with a tire tool. Only two of seven shots managed to reach the green. My hand stung on three of the seven shots.
Last up was my fancy new 7-iron, custom-fit for an aging golf swing. As advertised, it proved so easy to hit. I managed to put five of seven shots on or close to the green. Bring on the new season, I thought.
So what did I learn from this little exercise of memory and imagination?
Not much, I suppose. And yet, for a few magical moments on a gray afternoon, these clubs made me feel the presence of three gentlemen who taught me a great deal about the game I love.
For this reason, Opti’s and Arnold’s clubs will go back to their honored spot in my garage office to gather dust. As for Bill Campbell’s gloriously unhittable sticks, I’ve decided to only be a temporary custodian of them until I can find a more worthy permanent home for them – a display case, perhaps, in a new USGA museum that’s being discussed for Pinehurst, the perfect place for his four North and South titles.
In the meantime, being no winter fool and his father’s son, I’m tucking Old Lucky No. 7 into my golf bag for the new season.
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