Left arm straight, right elbow bent slightly, both arms tucked in to my body. Perfect. Grip just right, ball lined up with left heel, head down and still. Loosen up. Now, waggle the club.
OK, what did Ben Hogan write about set-up in Chapter 3? You’re ready, you’re ready. Bring the club back slowly, slowly. Now keep your head still, eye on the ball. Follow through, follow through.
The ball sails straight and true for just a second or two before turning gracefully to the left and disappearing over the top of the trees. I hear a distant, muted thunk — or maybe it was a painful yip. I can’t really tell, but it’s from somewhere in the vicinity of the subdivision bordering the golf course.
“@##!&?!!!”, I spit out at the two mocking birds shamelessly celebrating each other in the blooming forsythia a few feet away from me at the driving range. How dare they interrupt my backswing? Stupid birds. I glare at them and they ignore me in their drive to procreate.
Alone, still, I start over.
OK. Left arm straight, right elbow bent slightly.
The tips of two pointy-toed cowboy boots appear in the upper fringes of my vision, bracketing the golf ball and ruining my set-up. I get a whiff of cigarette smoke and know it’s coming from an unfiltered Pall Mall.
“Hey,” I say, without looking up.
I know who’s there.
“Hey,” my old man replies.
“Do you mind?” I ask, and the tips of the boots disappear. I take a swing and hear that satisfying, solid schwaaak. Then I look up to see the ball, once again, sail straight and true before veering off on some geometrically impossible angle to the left followed by, maybe, I can’t really say, another thunk and then the sound of a car alarm.
My old man chuckles and I finally face. He’s grinning at me from behind a curtain of cigarette smoke. He’s wearing the same peach-colored sports jacket he was buried in more than 30 years ago, and the same jeans and boots and the same Tom T. Hall concert T-shirt. He looks good standing there in the warm sun backed by a cloudless blue sky and the hint of new green on the trees.
He shows up from time to time, but much less now than he used to.
“I suppose you’re here to give me one of those talks about how golf is a lot like life,” I say to him. “About how the outcome of everything I do all depends on preparation and set-up and follow through. You’re going to tell me that focus is the key to everything and that there’s a reason for all the rules. That’s what you’re here for, right?”
“Why, hell no,” he says, laughing. He flips his cigarette away and it disappears before hitting the ground. Another one, already lit, appears between his fingers and he takes a drag.
“Golf’s golf and life’s life. You play one and you live the other. Only a fool would get ’em confused. I’m just makin’ the rounds, checkin’ up on everybody and getting’ a look at all those grandbabies and great-grandbabies.”
My shoulders slump a little bit and I sigh.
“I know,” I tell him. “I just thought that maybe you’d show up one day to tell me something I could use; something the rest of us aren’t privy to, that all the secrets of the universe were revealed to you when, uh, well, you know.”
He peers at me from behind his black horn-rimmed glasses and shakes his head a bit. A warm breeze kicks up and his shoulders become dusted with petals from a crabapple tree.
“I’m pretty sure how to hit a little, white ball with a stick isn’t mentioned in the Big Book of Mysteries, kid,” he tells me. “I do think there might be a lesson somewhere in there on blaming a bad backswing on a bird, though. And, come to think of it, I actually do know who built the pyramids now and why everything tastes like chicken. You’d be amazed.
“So, then” I ask, “You can’t even give me any kind of pointers on hitting straight?”
“Look,” my old man tells me, “just play your games as if they were games and live your life as if it’s way the hell too short. Because it is and, believe me, I’m an expert on that.”
“OK,” I promise him, “I will. I’m playing later today, though, and I was wondering if maybe you could, you know, help me out a little bit?”
“Who do you think has been sending your ball into the trees every time?” he says, grinning at me again.
“Thanks a lot, old man,” I tell him, unable to keep from smiling myself.
I knew he was about to go, and I didn’t want him to. Three decades has done little to change how much I miss him still.
“I’ll see you, kid,” he says, and that warm breeze sends down another shower of crabapple petals, and when they’re gone, so is he.
“See you later, old man,” I whisper before approaching the ball to set up for that perfect shot.
The ball sails away, perfectly straight, toward the 150-yard marker, then it doubles back in mid-air before veering hard to the left and disappearing forever in a tangle of trees.
And I swear I hear him laughing.