Friday, June 12, 2009

The year was 1972. I was 14 years old and infected beyond belief by the golf bug. One day I was reading the newspaper and saw a headline: "New York State Open to be Played at The Black Course at Bethpage State Park. Caddies Needed." Now, I had just won the Long Island Boys Championship and fancied myself quite the golfer. Surely one of the professionals in the event would welcome my depth of golf knowledge. Had I ever laid foot on the Black Course? No. Did I think this would matter? Of course not. I had years and years and years of competitive golf experience (three), had played in hundreds of tournaments (12), and had tons of Tour-proven caddie experience (none).When the day finally came, hoards of caddie-hopefuls lined up around the first tee of the Black hoping to snag the next state PGA champion. Suddenly the caddie master's stern voice shouted out, "Patri!" I jumped to my feet. "Yeah, you, shorty—grab this trunk."I had never seen a golf bag this big before. For those of you old enough to remember, it was a red-white-and-blue PGA Victor golf bag, and it belonged to Bill Collins. “Bill who?” I thought. I would learn much later that Bill had won four times on the PGA Tour, once defeating the great Arnold Palmer in a playoff to win the 1960 Houston Classic. He was also a member of the victorious 1961 Ryder Cup team. Bill later took a club job at the Brae Burn Club in Westchester County (which is why he was playing in the state PGA), and later he would win on the Senior Tour.As I wrestled his bag onto my back and staggered toward the first tee only a few yards away, Bill said, "Son, do you need any help?""No, sir. My name is Tommy Patri, and I will be your caddie."Bill and his group had to be howling inside. They also had to be taking bets on when I would collapse. Bill asked me how many times I had played the Black course. I lied. "A few, sir." We got started, and I didn’t see much through the third green. Head down, I was sweating buckets, trying my best to stay upright. Around the third hole I started to get my legs under me, balanced the bag a bit better, and at least felt that I could look up and watch some of the action. I remember walking down the path to the fourth tee and looking up and seeing that magnificent hole and its incredible bunker complex for the first time. Bill must have seen my jaw drop. He chuckled and said, "Son, are you OK?" I mumbled something in response. Bill then proceeded to hit a bomb that split the fairway. I was watching golf being played at a level I had never been exposed to before on a magical course. Heady stuff to a golf-crazy 14-year-old.As the day went on, I got stronger. I was excited to see every hole and watch Bill hit shot after shot that left me amazed. His drives flew long and straight. The thing I remember best was the thump the balata balls made coming off the wooden clubheads. I had never heard that sound before. That day turned out to be one of several days in my early teens that would cement my desire to live a life in this game.Bill died in 2006. I never got to speak to him as an adult. I wish I had. Next week, when I walk the wonderful grounds of the Black Course with my wife and our 8-year-old son, I will tell him about Bill. I will patiently entertain my son's each and every question. Eight-year-olds have many. And I will remember how, 37 years ago, Bill Collins displayed enormous patience with me when we walked the Black together. Thank you, Bill.

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