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Will the game be sunk? A vision of fright and delight

Photo: Photo Illustration By digitalretouch.net: Bob Martin (water, St. Andrews); Getty Images (boats)

"And this," I said to my five-year-old granddaughter Maddie, "is for you to hang on the tree." I handed her a small crystal disk, upon which was engraved ST. FRANCIS XAVIER 2008 GOLF TOURNAMENT — MEN'S 1ST PLACE. Holding it by the red ribbon, she scampered around the tree in our living room, looking for a vacant branch. "Here we go," she chirped, looping the ribbon over a north-pointing twig. She hopped and clapped her hands. "Perfect!"

"Well," I said modestly, "the field wasn't as deep as last year's, and my partner, Jim Carney, bailed me out a couple of times." I turned to the mantel and picked up the pewter drinking cup from my U.S. team's lopsided victory over Europe in the biennial Rolex Media Cup. "But if you'd been in Louisville on the 16th of September, you'd have seen your Papa in a flattering light. There was one par-4 where you had to carry the ball 230 yards over water. . . ."

Maddie squealed and ran for the kitchen.

Chuckling, I polished the cup with my sleeve and returned it to its place of honor. But later, as I sat by the fire, I reflected on the events of the year: Ochoa's first-half brilliance . . . Tiger's one-legged mastery of Torrey Pines . . . Norman's thrilling charge at Royal Birkdale . . . Harrington's back-to-back majors . . . the U.S. Ryder Cup team's redemption at Valhalla.

If not perfect, I was thinking as my eyelids grew heavy, the year 2008 was as close to perfect as a golf season can be. I hooked a toe under the ottoman and dragged it closer. "What a game," I mumbled, putting my feet up. "It just keeps getting better and better." Sighing contentedly, I settled back in the chair and closed my eyes.

A cold draft woke me. The room was dark but for a flickering candle in the corner, which cast formless shadows on the ceiling. I rubbed my eyes and yawned. I was taking my feet off the ottoman when a looming shadow caused me to look up and gasp. A Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded in a hooded rain jacket that concealed its face and left nothing of it visible save for one outstretched hand.

Although well accustomed to ghostly company by this time, I was terrified. The spirits I had written about over the years had been loquacious spooks wanting nothing more than to correct the historical record (or, in the case of Paul Runyan, to give me a chipping lesson). But this Phantom neither spoke nor moved.

"Am I in the presence of the Angel of Death?" I asked in a shaky voice.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed toward the ceiling, which suddenly presented as a starry vault. A great wind lifted me as easily as a child picks up a toy and drew me up above the rooftops and higher still, until the Spirit and I were flying through clouds and over moonlit seas. In a matter of seconds night turned to day and I found myself suspended above a tree-lined golf course. Looking down, I saw a tented village, a network of canals and thousands of milling spectators. Looking up, I saw a blimp with the words CHEVY VOLT pulsating on its diaphanous skin.

"Is heaven a golf tournament?" I asked the Phantom, which hovered behind me.

"I couldn't say," the Spirit murmured, "but I seriously doubt it."

I yanked my head around but saw only his bony hand and a zippered sleeve. "Then you aren't. . . ."

"I am the Ghost of Golf's Future," he continued in a weary, British-accented voice. "I will show you shadows of things that have not happened but will happen in the times before us."

He pointed a finger downward, and we dropped to tree level, where I had an unobstructed view of a golfer who was about to tee off. A white-haired, dark-skinned man with washboard abs and bulging biceps, he moved in a familiar way.

"It's Tiger!" I said. "It's Tiger Woods!"

The greatest golfer of all time held his arm out at shoulder height and dropped a ball on the grass. The spectators around the tee clapped politely. Woods then addressed his ball with a metal club that resembled an old-fashioned brassie. When he swung, the ball shot out on a low trajectory and drew nicely into the center of the fairway. The crowd cheered.

"What the heck was that?" I asked. "A penalty drop on the tee?"

The Spirit responded with a sepulchral cackle. "The rules have changed. It is now forbidden to drive the ball from a wooden tee. It must be played from the ground."

"But why? Has wood become so dear?"

"The tee was banished," the Spirit intoned, "when the Tour driving average reached 340 yards. Thus ended the Age of Bomb and Gouge."

The Spirit raised his hand, and we drifted to another hole. A bearded golfer, wearing a turban with the words FISKER KARMA on it, stood by his caddie in the fairway. He threw up a few blades of grass to test the wind.

He pulled a sparkly-faced iron that had the number 5 on its sole, only to change his mind and exchange it for an iron with an even brighter finish that bore the same numeral 5.

"He carries only six lofts," the Spirit said. "The club faces are coated with diamond dust to maximize or minimize spin."

The turbaned golfer aimed left toward the trees — had he lost his mind? — and smacked a low slice that swept along the tree line and just kept curving. It carried a packed grandstand and a Weetabix billboard and boomeranged back, entering the green from behind. His ball landed on the lower tier and rolled up to a flagstick tucked behind a cavernous sand bunker.

"Unbelievable!" I said.

The Phantom pointed his spectral hand at a holographic leader board. It had T. Woods leading at 28 under and V. Singh in second at 26 1/2 under.

"Vijay?" I asked. "He's still around?"

Then I noticed another Singh in fourth place and two more in eighth and ninth. The rest of the leaders were named Kim, Lee, Chen and Zhao.

"And what's with the 1/2?"

"Vishnu," said the Spirit. It sounded like a muffled sneeze, but it was his answer to my first question. He answered the second by pointing to an old-fashioned pole sign: 16th hole, 502 yards, par-4 1/2.

"Ghost of Golf's Future!" I blurted. "I don't know what to make of these wonders. Where is this strange land? What tournament is this?"

The Phantom said naught, but extended a ghostly digit toward the tented village. A sign over an arched gate proclaimed: open championship.

"You mock me," I scoffed. "Trees? Bluegrass rough? This is no British Open course."

I felt the Spirit's breath, cold as an arctic breeze, on my ear. The wind swirled again and yanked us aloft so violently that I had to squeeze my eyes shut. I did not open them until the turbulence had abated, and when I did I was both beguiled and mystified. Below us, frothy breakers rolled across a rocky island upon which an old lighthouse stood like a candle embedded in wax. The island was just a few hundred yards from a shoreline of broken dunes and sand beaches. A solitary structure stood on a cliff above the waves; as wide as a parade ground, it had a red roof, numerous gables and at least a dozen white chimneys. The scene struck me as lovely until the Phantom uttered — or rather moaned — a single, dismal word: "Turnberry."

Horrified, I clapped a hand over my mouth. Before I could gather my thoughts, the Spirit gripped my shoulder and spun me like a top. I uttered a strangled cry and covered my eyes with a forearm. When the spinning stopped, I lowered my arm and beheld a row of Edwardian houses steeping in a brackish lagoon. There were gaping holes in the roofs, and water flowed unimpeded over the rotted sills of the ground-floor windows.

"Oh, Ghost!" I wailed. "I fear you more than any specter I have seen. What is this terrible place?"

The answer came as a single, resonant peal of doom: "Trooooooon."

My dismay was so great that I turned away. "Spirit, do I dare ask the fate of golf in America?"

With a grunt of either boredom or annoyance, the Phantom swept his arm in a grand arc. The sky darkened, stars appeared and clouds raced by at supersonic speed. Without warning, we plunged toward Earth as if dropped from a plane, and suddenly we were standing in an office behind a little knot of businessmen. A man with chin whiskers was holding up a flexible canvas for comment.

"Is it too green?" asked a fat man with a monstrous chin. "Will anybody believe a golf course can be that green?"

"They've seen the Masters on Archaicgolf.edu," said another. "What they won't believe is spectator mounds covered with people."

I craned my neck to view the canvas. It showed thousands of fans sitting on a curving berm above a small, round green upon which two players and two caddies were lining up putts. The green was supported by mossy timbers and encircled by an ugly moat of mud, cattails and marsh grass.

I turned to the Phantom. "That looks like" — I felt my chin begin to quiver —" but surely that is not. . . ."

The folds of the Phantom's hood moved as if he had inclined his head. I finished in a whisper, saying, ". . . the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass?" As if on cue, the fat man touched the canvas and text appeared: the players: rich enough to matter. Down at the bottom were the familiar PGA Tour logo and five more words: the european tour's developmental tour.

"Spirit!" I said, shuddering from head to foot. "I know your purpose is to do me good, but surely this is not Time's portent. Is there no sustainable golf in the World Yet to Come?"

The phantom passed his icy hand over my eyes.

In an instant we were transported to a treeless tract under a flawless blue sky. Three teenage boys in jeans and T-shirts watched a girl in shorts and a halter top chip from weedy fringe grass onto a small, flat circle of oiled sand that had a flagstick at its precise center.

"Sand greens!" I exclaimed, my spirits soaring. "Back to the Future! Minimal cost, easy maintenance, zero demand for water, and for a pittance you can put one in every small town in America. That's how we'll grow the game!"

The Ghost of Golf's Future seemed to have exhausted his store of small talk. He simply pointed down the hill to a tangle of brush and cactus. Amid the desert growth stood a cockeyed cornerstone of crumbling stucco, upon which was affixed a tarnished plaque.

"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point," I said with trepidation, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?"

The Spirit made a wobbling gesture with his hand, as if to say it could go either way. "Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends," he intoned. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change."

Still fearful, I leaned forward and squinted. In the sun's glare I could just make out the words on the blackened metal: TPC SCOTTSDALE.

I moaned, but in that instant, the scene began to burn from the center out, like a leaf ignited under a magnifying glass.

I awakened to find myself sitting bolt upright in my chair and gasping for breath. Seeing sunlight pouring through the plantation shutters, I fell back and heaved a sigh of relief. "A dream is all it was," I said to myself, fighting an impulse to run across the room and throw open a window.

It wasn't until the following evening that I noticed the second pewter cup on the mantel. The inscription read: ROLEX MEDIA CUP TEAM WINNER, NEWPORT, SOUTH WALES, SEPTEMBER 28, 2010.

It was then, and only then, that I made my vow: that the shadows of the things that would have been shall be dispelled.

They will be. I know they will.

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