It was a Sunday in April in Johnstown, Ohio. We had a tee time at noon. I don’t know the name of the course.
When you imagine a small, farming town in central Ohio, Johnstown leads a crowded pack. The cookie cutter central courthouse built by the Public Works Administration during the Depression dominates the town square. Route 37 turns by the courthouse and is then wedged in by three story dilapidated brick buildings with sad retail on the ground floor. Not much goes on there. As my family lives in neighboring Granville, I’ve driven route 37 multiple times. Never considered stopping.
Oddly, a new world class restaurant called Ghostwriter opened up recently in Johnstown. The general manager at Muirfield Village told me it was bucket list good. My daughters and I ate there the next day. I try not to delay bucket list items. Once inside, close your eyes and you could be at a top place in NYC or Los Angeles. Then pay the very reasonable bill and step outside. A banged up white Ford F-250 with at least 100,000 miles on it rolls by, followed by a green and yellow John Deere tractor. Then another white Ford F-250.
One of my favorite golf partners is my brother-in-law, John Wallace. Everyone calls him Walli (pronounced like the fish caught in Minnesota lakes). On two successive years, Walli and I played in a 72 hole event at a challenging links course called Littlestone in the southeast of England. 72 holes in one day. Carry your bag. Hole every putt.
We both played as five handicaps. In year one, the match came to the 72nd hole. All square. Exhausted. Famished. Cold. Wet. Both of us still grinding like 10th graders trying to make a high school basketball team. It certainly seemed important at the time. The next year, same result. All square. 144 holes. Despite our match play intensity, we laughed and amused each other for almost the entire time...except when I five putted from fifteen feet in the fourth round. He kept his distance for a while.
On this day in Johnstown, Walli put together the foursome. I couldn’t wait! I drove a bit too fast though the country roads from one small town to another hoping not to get pulled over. Michigan plates on my rental car. I am not sure the 10-year war has ever ended—at least in Ohio (rumor has it that Michigan is now a basketball school). The Golf Club, Muirfield Village, Double Eagle, and Scioto are all within thirty miles. At some time, they have all been ranked in the top 100 in the world by Golf Magazine. This course in Johnstown does not attract course raters. Just regular golfers and the ones I really wanted to play with today.
As I pulled up into the unpaved parking lot, I peered through the slightly misted up windshield. Walli, in his signature Cubs blue KJUS jacket over two other layers, stood on the first tee as a strong wind whipped the 50-degree air. He looked lovingly at our playing partners.
With their carry bags balanced on their tiny backs, and grins from my ear to ear, his two grandsons came into view. Their mom had asked me as I left, “Please make sure they are dressed warmly enough.” Yeah right. They both have the body fat of a greyhound. Of course, they didn’t have enough clothes to keep them warm. As we all know, ten-year-old's love to be told by their mom to wear an extra jacket. And don’t forget your mittens.
A word about each of them. Will, the elder, is smart, dutiful and a future tax or trust and estates lawyer. If I had to name some child to count on to be fair and impartial, it would be Will. He is the embodiment of the “reasonable man” at age 11. Will was recently paid a handsome reward for finding his aunt’s lost wedding ring. With no prompting, he shared it with his younger brother because both of them had spent time searching together. You read that correctly. He would be Walli’s partner today.
Now Ev. This kid came out of the womb with adult intuition. I know of two sub-teens who could walk into a room filled with hedge fund traders and come out wealthier. Ev is one of them. He will run something big someday. I would invest in any company he ran...just want to make sure that our interests were exactly aligned. He’s smarter than I am.
Both kids look you in the eye when they talk. They have firm handshakes. They are nice. They are honest. They are hardworking and ambitious. Any parent would be thrilled to have these two. Quick witted, they talk trash, but in a respectful and humorous manner…and at the right place and time.
On the first tee, we set the terms of the match. To keep it fun, we played a Chapman format. All of us would hit drives and then switch balls and hit our partner’s ball to the green. After that we would take turns putting the better of the two balls. Their swings look like a cross between John Daly and an Olympic gymnast. A full 355-degree arc on every swing. The club head almost touches their ankles on the backswing and the follow through. Their bodies are like wet rubber bands with muscles. Will and Ev ripped their opening drives. Right down the middle.
Both teams bogeyed the first. Not bad with pre-teens taking half the shots.
As my partner Ev hopped up on the second tee, Will remarked, “Ev, be careful of that pond in front of us...you probably don’t want to use your good red golf ball.” Ev looked at the water. And continued with his routine. Then he looked down at his ball. He really liked the red one he had teed up. Huge Ohio State fan. I tossed him a scuffed-up ball. Freed up, he hit a 100-yard drive well over the water. A huge toothy smile burst from his small face.
On the next to last hole, I blocked my drive sticking Ev in some knarly rough. His tiny wrists didn't stand a chance. My fault. Meanwhile, our opponent, Will had hit his third good drive in a row. Walli struck a nice approach leaving Will on the edge of the green about 40 feet from the flag. Will then made a nice putt to about 12 feet. Bogey won the hole.
“What does that mean, Uncle Luke.” Ev asked. I explained that there was the original bet plus a new one just for this one last hole.
As we walked down the last fairway, they weren’t cold. They weren’t hungry. They weren’t wet. “Uncle Luke, you need to come back to Ohio so we can do this more.” Bitten by the match play bug. Nothing else mattered.
John and I both hit to the edge of the green. Their ball was puttable. Ours wasn’t. Will putted first to about 10 feet. Walli barely missed. Bogey. Now it was Ev’s turn. Our ball was sitting pretty well in the light rough. Ev and I consulted. I showed him the motion. He watched intently. Soaking it all in. Total concentration. He was all in. He forgot about the flubbed chips two holes earlier. His motion was a short back swing and a nice follow through. The Pro V1 came out with a bit of spin. As the ball tracked inexorably toward the hole he raised his arms and shimmed backwards, eyes never leaving the target. At that moment all I saw was a four foot Steph Curry with a toothy grin nailing an NBA three at the buzzer. Par. All square.
We took off our hats and shook hands. ‘Well played. nice half.” All around. Friendship. Manners. Respect.
Walli and I agreed to split the price of lunch at Day y Noche, their favorite Mexican restaurant in nearby Granville, their hometown.
Ev wanted to drive with me. As we got in the car, he turned and asked, “Can you explain to me exactly how a press works?” I told him that the main match was a draw but that his great chip had caused us to win the press, a separate bet. I smiled.
Nodding his tiny head, he contemplated for a moment. Then beamed knowingly. Ev plays a long game. This would come up at some time...just not today.
Luke Reese is the author of the critically acclaimed One for the Memory Banks.
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