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Simple Life

Farewell to Golf

But With Apologies to Sam Snead, Not Just Yet

By Jim Dodson

It began with a few simple questions on a beautiful October evening last year as my best friend — and oldest golf rival — and I were walking up the ninth fairway of the club where we grew up playing and still belong. As usual of late, Patrick Robert McDaid and I were all square in our friendly nine-hole match.

As we approached our tee shots in the fairway, he suddenly said: “Can you believe we both turn 70 next year?”

I laughed. “If I forget, my aching left knee reminds me every morning.”

Pat also laughed. “Isn’t that the truth.”

I could tell, however, that something else was on his mind, the benefit of more than 58 years of close friendship. We began playing golf with — and against — each other the year we turned 12.

“Do you think we’ll take one of those trips again?” he asked.

We both knew what he meant.

Over the 40 years I worked as a columnist and contributing editor for several major golf publications, my oldest pal and I had roamed the Holy Land of Golf, as we call it — Scotland, England and Ireland — more than half-a-dozen times in each other’s company, often on the spur of the moment with few, if any, arrangements made in advance, armed only with our golf clubs and hall passes from our wives.

Before I could reply, he chuckled and added, “Remember that time in Scotland when you locked the keys in our rental car and we had to stay another night at that guest house near Southerness?”

“How could I forget it? You’ve never let me live it down.”

“The owners invited their crazy neighbors over just to hear your golf stories.”

“Actually, it was your crazy fly-fishing stories they wanted to hear. You were more fun than a drunken bagpiper.”

“Good whisky helped.”

We hit our approach shots onto the green. I lagged my 20-footer to the edge of the cup and tapped in. As he stood over his 10-footer for birdie, he reflected, “I loved those trips. All those great old courses and golf on the fly.”

As I watched, he rolled his birdie putt dead into the cup, sealing my fate with a 1-up victory. It was an annoying trend of late. His short game had gotten markedly better from years of regular practice, while mine had declined from benign neglect. I sometimes joked that moving to Pinehurst — the Home of American Golf, as it’s rightly known —  was the worst thing I could have done to an aging golf game because I had no regular buddies to play with. I arrived there in 2005 a 2.5 index player and left a decade later a limping 10.5. All work and little play had left Jimmy one step closer to dufferdom.   

“I’m thinking we should do it one last time before the boneyard summons,” Pat declared.

“You’re probably saying it because, for the first time in half-a-century, you’re regularly beating me.”

“That’s true,” he admitted as we walked off for me to buy the beer. “But it would be even sweeter to finally beat you in some of the classic courses you love best.”

Pat is a persuasive fellow, probably the reason he’s such a successful industrial go-to guy for one of the nation’s leading home improvement chains. To begin with, he’s blessed to the marrow with “the craic,” a delightful Irish slang word derived from Old English that denotes a natural ability to charm and engage almost anyone in friendly conversation. I’d witnessed my old friend work his Celtic magic too many times to deny its validity. Some years back while chasing the ball around Ireland, a mutual friend with a wicked sense of humor bestowed Pat the perfect nickname of “The Irish Antichrist,” owing to his supernatural ability to disarm and coerce a smile from almost everyone we met. More than once, I must concede, we drank for free for the evening.   

Over his latest victory beer, I told Pat something Sam Snead said to me almost 30 years ago as we were playing the Greenbrier’s famous Old White course on a similar autumn afternoon. I was there to write about him for my “Departures” golf column. Sam liked me, in part because I was good friends with his best friend, Bill Campbell, the legendary amateur. Snead was almost an honorary son of Greensboro where he won the Greater Greensboro Open a record eight times, including six times at Starmount Forest, where Pat and I were soon sitting at the bar with our beers.

“How old are you now, son?” Slammin Sam asked me that faraway afternoon.

“Just turned 40, Mr. Snead.”

“What a great age. That’s the prime of life — makin’ good money, got a wife and kids, probably playin’ your best golf ever. I wrote a book about that called Golf Begins at Forty. You should read it.”

I promised to lay hands on a copy — when I got old.

“But here’s the thing,” he went ahead. “Someday you’ll blink your eyes and be 70 or 80 years old. It’ll happen that fast, you’ll hardly believe it. You’ll suddenly be saying farewell to golf. That’s when you better grab hold of as many golf memories as you possibly can. That’s the beauty of golf. If you keep after it, you can play till your last breath. No other game on Earth let’s a fella do that.”

I watched him tee up his ball. “Just so you know,” he added over his shoulder, “I got plans to play at least to 100.”

And with that, 81-year-old Samuel Jackson Snead striped a splendid drive to the heart of the 17th fairway.

“So, who won the match?” demanded the Irish Antichrist.

“That’s not the point,” I said as we sat at the bar. “Sam was just sharing a little golf wisdom about enjoying the game as one ages.”

“Good for him. I guess this means we’re off to the Holy Land next year. By the way, I get at least four strokes a side.”

“No way. Three for 18,” I said firmly, pointing out the three-stroke difference in our official handicap indexes. This was nothing new. Over five plus decades, we’d argued about everything from the prettiest Bond girl to the absurdity of orange golf balls.

A good friend, it’s said, knows all your best stories, but a best friend has lived them with you.

Over 10 days near summer’s end, in the 58th year of our friendship, we played eight classic British golf courses during the heaviest rains in England’s recorded history. It was a slog, almost impossible at times as gale force winds blew our handicaps to pieces. Between us, we easily lost a dozen golf balls.

But we had the time of our lives.

Somehow, unforgettably, we ended up in a tie.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.