March 2001


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Written by
Kris Mamula

Illustrations by
Michael Lotenero

42nd Floor

Not Keeping Score

Walter Hagen clubs?" I asked my son, looking over the ragtag collection of golf clubs that he handed me. "The Walter Hagen clubs," he answered, smiling wryly.

We were on the practice green at a public course in Cobb County, Georgia, in the hottest, driest summer in decades. Each of my swings coughed up puffs of earth that had been baked into powder. Here and there patches of red Georgia clay cracked open wide, pleading for mercy from a punishing sun. Huge fans churned the heavy morning air near one green in a losing battle to save the grass. We were spending the day golfing with my son’s future father-in-law and two future brothers-in-law. Tomorrow my son would be married.

I don’t know anything about golf, and it was too late to start pretending. By the second hole, I’d lost five balls. My drives skidded over loping green hills in ever-amazing directions. "Worm burners," my son called them. When I couldn’t get the distance I needed with a club, I simply picked up the ball and whaled it as hard as I could. After each hole, players tracked their strokes with little red pencils and scorecards. Not me. Golf wasn’t meant to be scored. It defeats the whole purpose of the game.

Golf was different for my son. We began hitting buckets of balls before he was in high school. Adolescence was a tough time for him, and hitting a few balls helped relieve stress—for both of us. He’d come home from school, frustrated almost to tears with his schoolwork. A thousand times he and I would craft careful plans for him to do better. Almost as often it seemed he was ready to give up again. I tried hard to find small victories, tiny accomplishments to build confidence for bigger tasks. Golf was perfect because it was so hard tolose at.

The difference between us was that he learned from our outings. With every swing, I watched him develop his own style, a fluid kind of grace that I’d first seen when he played soccer on a neighborhood team a few years earlier. He transformed the game into the graceful art that it was intended to be. Poetry, really. More important was what happened after we graduated from driving ranges to real golf courses. We’d see guys angrily kink clubs in half with their knees or throw clubs into the woods after missing a shot, and we’d laugh. They already lost, he’d say. He was right.

Golf was dewy greens at sunrise on Saturdays, unflappable geese to be shooed off fairways, and the feel of carefully manicured grass crushing underfoot. Golf was about companionship and solitude, encouragement to reach higher than you ever thought possible, and learning to accept—no, laugh out loud—at your mistakes. Clubs and balls—what did they ever have to do with golf?

I picked up our first clubs at a flea market—a putter and a couple woods and irons. We shared them, so there wasn’t any need for a second set. Besides, it didn’t seem to matter which club I used, so I began playing the whole game with just one, a seven iron. Later, we found the Walter Hagens at a garage sale. I liked the bag that came with them. The man selling the clubs took a long look at my son and me, then dropped the asking price 25 dollars. We were like kids on Christmas morning. A one-time taxidermist and son of a blacksmith, Hagen rose from humble New York farm beginnings to become a golf great in the 1920s. I loved the simple philosophy of the man whose name marked our new clubs: "I never hurry. I never worry. Always stop to smell the flowers along the way. It’s later than you think." I sometimes wish I could find the guy who sold us those Walter Hagens. I would tell him about the long trip that his clubs had made—from a child’s troubled adolescence to personal triumph to manhood to the start of his own business and now to marriage on the hottest of days in Cobb County, Georgia.

At the wedding rehearsal that night at the church, my fingers were badly blistered, and my face steamed with new sunburn. Only then did it dawn on me that my son had grown up. His wife-to-be was gracious and caring. They had met in Pittsburgh and planned to move to Atlanta, where her family lived. He called her his "best friend." The sky blackened, and the winds whipped tree boughs outside the church windows as the pastor bravely attempted a second trial run of the ceremony. The resulting storm was as severe as it was brief—the first rain on Cobb County in months. The real storm would come the next day. Having exchanged vows, the newlyweds walked slowly down the aisle and into the church foyer, where my son burst into tears, overwhelmed by how very far he’d come. —Kris Mamula

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