In a game with an older buddy, a surprising discovery seems a gentle nudge from beyond.
by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry O’Neill
Not long ago, the host of a popular golf radio show asked me who I most enjoy playing golf with these days. We were discussing the various golfers and assorted eccentrics I’ve met, interviewed, and written about over a long and winding career.
“These days, I like to play golf with old guys,” I said without hesitation, “like my friend Harry.”
“So, who is Harry?” he asked.
Harry, I explained, is a gifted artist and nationally known cartoonist I’ve known for many years. He has a wry sense of humor, a beautiful tempo in his golf swing, and a refreshing take on life. Harry is 76 years old, deaf in at least one ear, losing bits of his eyesight, and battling a rogue sciatic nerve in his left leg that sometimes makes swinging a club difficult.
He was once a splendid single-digit player who now aims for bogey golf, and never gets too rattled by whatever the game gives him. He accepts that bad breaks happen and are simply part of this maddening game, not worth fretting about. So are aging body parts that can’t propel the ball the way they once did.
Instead, Harry plays for the occasional fine shot, the rare good break, and the fellowship of his companions that includes a good bit of affectionate needling and laughter. He’s never had an ace, but holds out hope of someday shooting his age, the proverbial goal of every aging golfer.
Though I’m almost a decade younger than Harry — he jokes that I am in pre-geezer in training — I love playing with him because he’s a model of what I hope to be in the shrinking years ahead: a man who’s loved the game since he was a boy and loves it just as much, though differently, as an old man. He’s living proof that the game can grow sweeter as the clock runs down.
Golf has been part of his life since he was 10 or 11 years old and an uncle allowed him to pick a club from a barrel of used irons. He chose a battle-scarred 7-iron and the set that went with it.
“It was a set of Dalton Hague clubs, really beautiful. I played with them for years bragging that I owned real Dalton Hague signature golf clubs.” He pauses and chuckles. “They turned out to be Walter Hagen clubs that had just been beaten to death. But oh, how I loved those clubs.”
We often meet late in the afternoon for nine holes at a beautiful municipal course set on a wide lake well out of town, surrounded by mature hardwood forests with no houses, streets, or power lines visible anywhere. We often pause to watch the action as shadows lengthen and nature reawakens — deer crossing fairways, waterfowl in flight. We rarely bother to keep a score. We just play, talk, exist.
Harry’s favorite hole is the short par-4 seventh that angles down toward the lake, with an approach over a wooded cove to an elevated green backdropped by a breathtaking view of the water. He has sketched and painted it several times, aiming to get it just right. “Isn’t this something?” he’ll say with a note of quiet wonder, pausing before his approach shot that sometimes lands in the water of the cove, sometimes just feet from the pin.
If nothing else, getting older also makes it easier to laugh in the face of Father Time. “That’s the easiest 69 I ever made,” Walter Hagen – aka Dalton Hague – playfully quipped upon turning 69.
One afternoon not long ago, as we were watching a spectacular chevron of geese heading south for the winter over the lake from his favorite spot on the course, Harry told me a little golf story that speaks of wonder and mystery.
After Harry’s mom passed away, her final wish was that Harry and his younger sister take her ashes and those of Harry’s father down to a lake in a park at Carolina Beach, where the couple first met and later married. Harry promised he would do that. His sister was a busy surgical nurse. Her unpredictable schedule repeatedly delayed their planned journey to the coast. It happened month after month. One afternoon he was playing golf with a partner who was particularly wild off the tee.
“I was helping him look for his ball deep in the woods, when I stepped over a downed tree and saw a golf ball sitting on top of a rotting log — almost like someone had placed it there. I picked it up and tossed it over to my companion. But it wasn’t his ball so he tossed it back. It was a very old ball. When I looked at it, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
The ball’s colorful logo read Carolina Beach.
One word was printed on the opposite side: Mom.
“It sent chills down my spine. A day later, I drove my folks’ ashes down to Carolina Beach — four hours away — and spread them in the lake at a spot that meant so much to their life together. I felt real peace at that moment.” As he told me this, he pulled the ball out of his bag and handed it to me.
“I’ve carried it with me ever since,” he explained. “This game, this life, is wonderfully unexplainable, isn’t it?”
Simple coincidence or a gentle nudge from the golfing universe? Harry’s not sure. And neither am I. But that’s part of the wonder of this game.
As we played on, hitting occasional nice shots and mishits that will never be recorded, it struck me that there was, as usual, a nice little message in Harry’s seventh-hole homily, perfectly timed for a couple “old” friends on a golden afternoon at the end of their golf season. It’s yet another reason to be thankful for the game I aim to play, just like Harry, until I either shoot my age or simply fly away like geese in the autumn.
This article originally appeared in the January, 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine