I often ponder how strange life can be. You know, the twists and turns of fate that shape our voyages through life and cause us to be, well, wherever we happen to find ourselves at any given moment. At this given moment, I find myself at home, flicking through a book that arrived in the mail some time ago, and right now, I’m wishing I’d looked at it earlier.
The year 2003 marks the 100th birthday of my home club in Bangor, County Down, Northern Ireland, and this collection of words and pictures documents its history, of which I consider myself a very small part.
A chapter on the post-war years has hooked me. As I write, American children are returning home after fighting and dying for a country thousands of miles from their own, and not for the first time. I have just applied for American citizenship, not because I want it, but because I need it.
My little 6,200-yard parkland course bears to this day the scars of a conflict that, for most people my age, brings back memories of nothing but a John Wayne film or scarred and flickering Movietone News propaganda. Yet, some of the men and women of that greatest generation are still around. Because of them, I will be an American.
For instance, Yogi Berra was a gunner’s mate on a World War II battleship that provided cover for the men who forced their way onto the beaches of Normandy. The Nazis learned that day what a Yankee was and it wasn’t a baseball player. I’m hoping that somewhere, maybe one of those old soldiers remembers my Uncle Weston or Uncle Jack, two Royal Air Force pilots who, along with Dad, taught me how to play golf and live life.
I was born in Bangor Cottage Hospital, a few hundred yards from the 1st green of the Bangor Golf Club. For the first 11 years of my life I lived at 22 Hazledene Avenue, a semi-detached house within duffing distance of the 10th tee. Even before I was interested in golf, I spent most afternoons after school looking for balls, tramping with my dog around the bases of little staked pine trees and rooting through the hawthorn hedges that formed most of the boundaries of the club.
Nine holes were established in 1903, with the addition of the second nine and subsequent redesign by professional golf course architect Willie Fernie of Troon in June 1904.
I’m sharing this with you, dear reader, because later this year I will be making a journey home—to the place where I fell in love with golf—to give a speech after our centenary dinner. I do a lot of these gigs, and none of them has seemed like a big deal. But for some reason, I’m already starting to get a little bent out of shape at the thought of having to speak to a group of people who know me so well. I’ve spoken to heads of state, royalty, Irish cops, and even a terrifying group of sherried-up elderly ladies, but nothing has made me feel as apprehensive as I feel right now.
A few more pages into the book, an image of a member who used to chase me off the practice ground and write letters about me to the secretary leers off the glossy paper with a watery, fish-eyed stare. Damn, he’s still scary! What the hell am I going to say to these people? (I need to read on; I’ll be back in an hour or so….)
I remember a raggedy-kneed, big-nosed 10-year-old, dragging rubber golf shoes over the gentle furrows in the 9th fairway, a sinister reminder of World War II, when most of the course that was flat and open enough to land a Messerschmitt was put to the plough, both for security and food.
For Ulster folk, the Second World War was different from the Great War of 1914-1918; by then, the Germans had long-range bombers capable of reaching the province; on Easter 1941, they did. Hundreds of bombs, intended for the great Harland & Wolff shipyard and the surrounding Belfast docklands, fell some 10 miles short, all over Bangor.
A stick of them fell diagonally across Hazledene Avenue and the 1st, 2nd, and 18th fairways. A land mine also fell on the 1st fairway and ticked for four days before exploding at 4 a.m. The book reads, “The soft ground meant that it did little damage. The course was closed, however.” Imagine that!
For years, with a half set of Patty Berg irons, a Sam Snead Blue Ridge 2-wood laminated rusty red, and the hole-in-one putter my dad had won from the Sunday Post, I tramped through “McConnell’s Folly,” a perfectly symmetrical saucer-like depression—thinking the crater was a nice wee feature, dug by some long dead greenskeeper.
Bangor Golf Club and others in the area created Local Rules to deal with situations caused by the war. (Hey, golf must go on.) For example, “a player whose stroke is disturbed by machine-gun fire or explosion may play again without penalty.”
If the Nazis had captured a copy of the Local Rules at Bangor Golf Club in 1941, it would have been a fair indication that they were goose-stepping up the wrong alley. The Armed Forces were given the use of the course, and by 1943 the courtesy had been extended to American servicemen posted to Belfast and the surrounding areas. Damn right, too. We knew who our friends were then and we still do.
When I was growing up, people didn’t talk much about the war. The concrete antiaircraft bunker behind the 16th tee was reminder enough, and anyway, we had our own war going on around us that was enough to be going on with, thank you.
The 1970s and 1980s were strange periods in my home club’s and indeed, every Ulster golf club’s history. There was a spate of terrorist bombings aimed at golf clubs. Belfast clubs such as Shandon Park, Malone, and the wonderful Balmoral, where I was assistant pro for two great years, were particularly hard hit. Security gates went up, fences got higher, and members needed to memorize codes and carry special keys to get into their clubhouses. Apparently, though, none of the terrorists had majored in history. Like I said, nothing keeps Ulster folk off their courses.
By the time I was 14, nothing was in my head but golf. I was a fixture at the club, loafing around the pro shop, helping club pro Ernie Jones in the workshop, and caddieing for him in local events. I was also a frequent visitor to the snooker and card rooms, learning bad habits and language from a cast of characters who called my dad their friend.
I had one real uncle, my dad’s brother, Jack, a RAF fighter pilot, and several pretend uncles who were my dad’s best mates. I loved them all, but especially my sweet uncle Weston Wells, another old WWII fighter pilot with mischievous, sparkling eyes, a pocket full of sweets, and a thundering, contagious laugh like a golden waterfall of single malt from heaven. I remember the smell of the whiskey on his breath, the warm roughness of his handshake, and the bristle of his chin against my face when I was small.
Most of all, the day I left home as a 17-year-old 5-handicapper to go to England and become a professional golfer, I recall the look in his eyes that said in no uncertain terms he believed in me.
I would give anything to see that old barfly one more time and it breaks my heart that he won’t be there to hear me thank him. My dad, my Uncle Weston, and a couple of other old fools are the men on whom the character of Uncle Dickie—the kindest man in the world—is based in my novel, A Nasty Bit of Rough.
It’s not like there weren’t a few at Bangor Golf Club who laughed at me behind my father’s back. But Weston Wells, big Norman Pope, Jack McCloskey at the one-armed bandit, my dad, of course, and many others snuffed out the doubters with the hardest looks of all. You can make fun of any Ulsterman, the way he is, or who he is—self-deprecation is our bag, baby—but poke fun at his child, pal, and you’re liable to get “a dig in the bake.”
These people love me, care about me, are proud of me, and in October I am going home to say thank you, for without them and their pride and love and support, I would not be here. I would never have had the courage to take the wild journey that led me to the New World.
The most terrifying part is this: They really, really know me, and so, for the first time in years, I’m not going to be able to make up anything! It’ll be a tough crowd, and I’ll have to remember not to act like a returning hero, because that’s what Uncle Weston was and Jessica Lynch is.
Me? I’m just another lucky immigrant, living the turf cutter’s dream because of those soldiers, old and new.