Sadly, Ben Hogan and I have but one thing in common: We share a birthday on August 13. Ben is dearly departed and I am unfortunately turning 40, which is convincing me that my ambition of becoming Hogan is drawing ever nearer to reality.
Thanks to these pages, the southward migration of my gray hair is now well known and, dear reader, I must report that other things are deteriorating, as well. As I write, a dripping tap in the bathroom is causing an uncontrollable urge. The good news is that the repeated trips down the hall during the night are serving as my only decent exercise these days.
The cause was a minor swelling in the old wedding tackle, in a place that doesn’t normally swell. That sent me off to the doc faster than a Nick Price backswing, but thankfully the diagnosis was a case of inappropriate underwear combined with a 36-hole walk. (Thanks to medical science, I now realize I am infinitely better off with tennis elbow than golf ball.)
In a word, I have become increasingly aware of my own mortality and am trying to justify my existence on the planet, which is most unlike me.
But I appear to be in the minority, especially among some of the tournament winners in professional golf. I am hearing in more and more of players’ acceptance speeches that they could not have prevailed without divine intervention.
So, I figure, as one who was always more inclined to credit myself with my successes and blame the Almighty for any failures, that it is my bound duty as a course reporter to investigate further.
I am, of course, aware of the sensitive nature of this subject. Many of you will dismiss me as a blasphemous scoundrel, with no notion of matters of the soul.
You might be right, although I have experience to show otherwise. You might call me a lapsed Episcobuddatheist, but please take into account that I grew up in Northern Ireland where an idiot who doesn’t even go to church is liable to shoot you because he thinks his religion is better than yours. People have forgotten the message and worship the creed.
It seems to me that wherever in the world you find unrest, someone’s religion or philosophy is behind it. There is no more dangerous person in the world than one who thinks only he can be right.
Of course, I could be wrong.
The way I look at it, golf is like a decent religion. They are both based on honesty, love, tolerance, and respect — for one’s self and others. The only major difference is, in golf no groveling is involved. (With one exception, of course — when the ball teeters on the edge of the hole, groveling to the Almighty is compulsory.)
You can, if you want to stretch a bit, draw parallels between a church and a golf course, in that the Lord’s name is invoked frequently in both areas, albeit for entirely opposite reasons.
Which is why I am all in favor of every man of the cloth taking up his clubs and walking with us in the name of golf. (Smite the ball with thy rod or thy staff, verily I say unto thee.) They would all soon learn, with the greatest of reverence, that this is a holy game played by mortal men, which, at times, would make a bishop punch the nearest nun.
The finest example of this truth was shown to me by, of all people, a Catholic priest.
Father Francis Hogue was a sweet-natured man who embodied everything good and kind about his profession. He was a parish priest who had time for everyone, just so long as they didn’t mind meeting him down at the bookies’ or in the bar at the golf club.
I once asked him how he reconciled his drinking and gambling with the pastoral aspect of his life. “Davey, my boy,” he answered, “it’s never a sin, just as long as you don’t enjoy it!” Needless to say, I loved him from that moment on.
He had a darker side, though, which only manifested itself between the first tee and the 18th green. He normally shot between 110 and 130, but on one glorious Monday morning he hit a hot streak that was reminiscent of the scene with the bishop in Caddyshack.
Luigi Esdale, the club’s assistant pro, and I were along as witnesses and as the day unfolded, it looked as if he might break 90. But over the last few holes, he choked majestically, becoming angrier and angrier until he reached the last green with a 20-footer for a 98.
His first putt was a sniveling yip that finished some five feet short. Stonyfaced, he set up over the next one and as the tension mounted, I noticed that his jugular vein had become knotted and rope-like.
After what seemed like an eternity, he made an epileptic spasm with the putter and the ball wobbled to the edge of the hole, where it teetered insolently. He threw his hands in the air, his fingers slashing and clawing at the clouds as he dropped to his knees, turning his now purple face heavenward.
He drew a giant breath and, like a werewolf, howled at the top of his voice, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!!!!!” A few seconds passed and Luigi and I looked at each other, slack-jawed and silent, as Father Hogue turned his murderous gaze to the ball and then back upward.
Once again he filled his lungs and screamed, “And, the wee donkey, too!!!!!” Afterward he buried his face in his hands.
The ball crept agonizingly forward, then lurched into the hole. The sound of it rattling into the cup snapped Father Frank out of his funk and he knelt bolt upright, staring at the hole in disbelief.
I have never seen a man’s expression change from thunderous purple anger to chalk-faced guilt so fast in all my life. He had waited more than 10 seconds before the ball fell in, but call us old-fashioned, Luigi and I didn’t call a penalty on him and the good father had his 99.
The more astute of you may have determined by now that I am not exactly what you would call a devout anything. I do, however, have the greatest respect for anyone who can find peace of mind in the religion or philosophy of his choosing while still retaining the ability to tolerate and even embrace others who choose to be different.
I know I have plenty of things to be thankful for, not the least of which is the gift of my own personal guardian angel — my wife, Anita. She is a devout church member, so I go with her. Frankly, if she is going to insist on surrounding herself with sinners, I’d at least like to be the one standing next to her.
Just the other day, we went to hear the archbishop of Canterbury (who is Elvis as far as the Church of England is concerned) deliver the sermon in our church. There was something that appealed to me about having the opportunity to listen to a beautifully educated, highly intelligent man — wearing an extremely silly hat.
I was not disappointed. He was brilliant and said one thing in particular that stuck in my memory. “People with no sense of humor have no sense of proportion and shouldn’t be put in charge of anything,” he said.
I had no idea the old archbish knew anything about how golf’s major ruling bodies run the game, did you? Thank heaven we don’t have to listen to weekly sermons from them.
In closing, dearly beloved, let me say this: I am lucky enough to have friends of all denominations, all of whom are aware that I won’t take them, or myself, too seriously.
I’ll wear a yarmulke, sit in the lotus position (although I’ll need help to get out of it), get on my elbows and knees, and say the Lord’s Prayer — just to cover all the bases. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all just after-life insurance. And, that’s coming from a man who works outside with an aerial on his head. I’m still pretty quick to get inside when the sky turns purple.