Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Last Bob

- He only became "Last Bob" because one day the previous Bob just slipped into the trees and was never heard from again. But from the moment Last Bob became "Last", he was special. Now that he, too, is gone, the world is a sadder place.

- Don't get me wrong, I didn't always like Bob or understand him. His jaundiced skin, flippant manner, and relentless droll smile rankled me when my friend brought him along to play golf. I am a traditionalist. His presence denigrated the game. No real player would ever be seen with Bob on the course. Not that any of US ever broke ninety. After all, we're in Alaska. But we do all love and respect the game, and Bob's high visibility and doofey grin eliminated the sham that we are anything but hackers even before anyone witnessed the result of our stilted swings. I hated Bob because of what his just being there said about ME, until I got to know him, and where he was coming from.

- Bob, I'm sure you understand by now, was a golf ball. Not just any ball, of course. He was the cheapest chunk of junk plastic manufactured by the Wilson Staff company for abuse on a golf course. He was limey yellow, with a decal of the goofball kids cartoon character, Sponge Bob, smirking from his dimples. The sound and feel of a Sponge Bob ball off the club face is that of a chisel on granite. Bob is the ball that bad players pull out on the water holes, the lost ball you find while looking for your own but don't pick up, the odd one you find mixed in with range balls, the ball nobody wants. Bobs are reject balls, and I questioned him being brought into the cart.

- My friend, you see, is often an intense person when it comes to golf. He only learned to play as an adult, after his career was established, and his body had already begun to stiffen. But he attacked the game seriously when he chose it, buying the finest fitted hybrid clubs, a library of instruction manuals, and lessons from the best local pro. When his game progressed enough, he traveled to golf meccas in Florida, Hawaii, and the Monterrey Peninsula, to steep himself in golf tradition on it's finest courses. He came to know and accept the nature of the game as an allegory to life, a journey of growth, sometimes frustrating and occasionally magic. We never discussed it, but I've heard his preoccupation with golf began as a distraction from the pain of his disintegrating family. We have talked about his need, sometimes, to let a bad shot go and lighten up on the course. Usually though, after a couple of painless holes, a couple of painful jokes, and a couple of cans of swing lube (beer), he displays a mellower side. We share a special fellowship in our love of the game based on fun, integrity, and dignity; and he is the last person I'd expect to show up with Bob.

- The first time I saw Bob we were playing Anchor Point. My friend pulled a yellow sleeve from his bag, opened the box, and plunked them into the clip in the cart. I saw the googly eyes, took a closer look, and recognized the cartoon.

- I wrinkled my brow, rocked my head, and gave him a "What-the-hell?" look.

- He curled the corner of his mouth and shrugged an embarrassed "What-can-I-say" back.

- I turned away and shook my head in disapproval.

- He looked the opposite way, as if trying to go unnoticed.

- After two days sharing carts and a small car, words weren't necessary.

- Truth be told, Anchor Point was just the carnival course where Bobs fit. The greens are artificial and won't hold an approach shot anyway. The forest is thick and looking for lost golf balls is a futile exercise in bug spray effectiveness. All that was missing for the full adventure golf experience was a windmill. My friend actually played pretty well for early in the season, and lost two Bobs. I lost three Titleists, and I swear I saw him smile at the other Bob when he put it in his pocket.

- We played Birch Ridge at Soldotna on the same day. This is just a little nine hole course, but I knew I'd like it before my foot touched the grass. The pro's home was a perfect victorian gingerbreaded sweetheart that greeted you just inside the gate. There were guest houses out on the course. A fire pit and benches lined the tournament party tent. The staff dressed and acted professionally. The cart ran like a bat from hell (for a gold cart), the greens looked immaculate, and the practice facility was spacious. It was a player's course, and I was dismayed when the familiar yellow box emerged on the first tee.

- I looked at the ball tray and pleaded with my eyes.

- He crossed his arms in defiance and looked straight ahead.

- I pushed my supplicant hands toward Bob and then opened them as if to ask "Why?".

- He poofed a disgusted breath, pulled out a traditional white ball, teed it up, and sliced it completely over the trees bordering the property. One hundred yards up the fairway, nearly out of sight of the clubhouse, he plopped a yellow ball onto the short grass, hit a beautiful long approach shot onto the green, and bogeyed the hole.

- That was the first time I saw him speak to Bob. Now, all players encourage their golf balls. "Get up!, Run!, Bend a little!, STOP-RRIGHT--THERE!!" are common entreats. But my friend and Bob seemed to be having a private conversation between shots, even between holes. What I could overhear was gentle, confiding even. Sanity is not a requirement on the golf course, but I was beginning to worry. Two more Bobs were lost that round, but my buddy shot a reasonable score, and I knew I hadn't seen the last of Bob.

- A full month later, I got a call from my friend inviting me to participate in a scramble the next day, all expenses paid. I laughed because I was driving past the course we'd play (in Palmer) when he phoned, and it was drenched, a record breaking rainy summer leaving puddles and bogs in every low spot on the open fairways. I told him no, I had a house guest, and besides, the tournament would probably be canceled. He reminded me that summer was getting away, and that the course condition was not important because it was a scramble. He sounded as if he really wanted me to play. I glanced over at the lady who'd enjoyed our guest room for the past four days, and asked him what time to expect me for the shotgun start. "Will you be playing Bob?", I asked. He hung up on me.

- It rained all night. When I crossed the Knik River bridge, The fog was so heavy I couldn't see the water. My friend called and asked where I was. "I'll be there", I told him. "But I don't know why. It's pouring."

- "We'll play. It's Alaska.", he answered. Sure enough, it was only drizzling when we teed off, and the sun came out at the turn.

- When I met our team, I knew we wouldn't share the leaderboard. This was going to be a strictly-for-fun outing. Scrambles are usually a good time, but they devastate my game for days afterward. Once a ball is safely in the short grass, the rest of the team tries to blast a drive as far as they can, with the usual effect that half the time you play the original and spend time searching for lost mis-hits. For a week afterward, I always have to work at slowing my swing, regaining my tempo. My friend was placing Bob squarely in the center every drive, quietly cheering him on during every ball flight; "Go Bob.., Atta boy Bob."

- Palmer is fairly flat and wide, but there are a few holes where you can miss by a little and pay a lot. Next-to-last Bob disappeared in the birch forest next to a long par three that my friend tried to reach with a fairway wood. It seemed to me he searched for an inordinately long time and was visibly disturbed during the hunt. I helped look for a while but tired of the devils club and mud pretty quickly. When I returned to the cart, I took his putter from his bag and reached into the compartment where he usually keeps his green repairer and distinctive ball mark, a steel wheat penny made back in the war shortage days. There was an empty box in the pocket, and I removed it for easier access. Sure enough, it was the box the Bobs arrived in. Taped in the corner was a little ladybug gift card with squiggly print. It said, "Daddy, I heard you like golfing now. I hope you like Sponge Bob because I do too. I love you. Penny

- I gathered myself before he emerged soaking wet from the woods. I handed him his putter. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the now familiar yellow ball. "Last Bob", he said, mostly to himself.

- "Maybe you should hang onto that one", I suggested.

- "Nah."

- He hit his putt first, and drained it.

- With honors on the next hole, he produced a low draw that carried well down the fairway, caught the backside of a hard hummock and ran forever, at least 290 yards, no mean feat on a soggy fairway.

- "HOOYAH, BOB!!", I yelled. The guys on the green ahead looked back at the shot in disbelief, pumping their fists and thumbs upping us. The rest of the team wasted good shots thirty to fifty yards behind Bob, and we managed to birdie the hole, again with Bob falling first.

- "Since when can you hit a draw?", I asked my friend.

- "Since now, I guess."

- What followed is the most amazing thing I've ever seen on a golf course. My friend played a string of seven holes with Bob not missing a single fairway or green. Our playing partners were loudly singing the praises of Bob and his flight every shot, following our lead. While perhaps not professional quality, my friend's shots were by far the best I'd ever seen him produce, and we managed together to put a string of respectable pars and birdies together with our dismal earlier scores. It became a celebration, and the enthusiasm was spreading to the groups around us. At the post tournament scorer's table, the recorder said she heard we were having a great time. She tallied our unspectacular total and looked confused. "Today wasn't about a number", I told her. "Today was about Bob."

- The seventeenth hole of the day parallels a cliff along the braided Matanuska River. My friend decided to cut the blind corner just a bit. He didn't miss by much. Last Bob went over the edge and must have hit a rock. He was sitting up prettily on a sand bar hundreds of feet below us across a ripping torrent of milky water. The four of us gathered, staring at Bob from the cliffs edge. I took my hat off and put my hand on my friend's shoulder. The guys from the other cart followed suit. My friend tested his footing once, as if he meant to go after Bob. I wouldn't have stopped him.

- When we returned to play, my friend sat in the cart for while, took a deep breath, and removed a bright pink Top Flight from his shag bag. I started to protest, but he interrupted; "I'm calling him FLAMER."

- When flamer fluttered weakly into the deep grass on the next shot, I tried to lighten the mood by suggesting "Flame Out" as a more appropriate name. Starting the next hole, I put the thought in his head that he should do his best imitation Gay Pride parade dance if he didn't clear the ladies tee, never considering it might actually happen. Of course, he topped the shot and it dribbled about thirty feet. He immediately went into the most spasmodic episode of dainty twirling and flopping I've ever seen. When he finished, nobody smiled, or even moved. Four hundred yards away on the clubhouse deck, a man's mouth actually hung open. We finished the hole in stunned silence.

- "What, not good enough?", my friend asked as we returned the cart.

- "TOO good.", I answered.

- Several minutes later, he spoke again. "Thanks for understanding. You know. My being silly about Bob."

- "No sweat. Sometimes it's cool to be silly. But FLAMER! PLEASE... God I miss Bob."

1 comment:

GR said...

Correction per Rod: The cliff was at 'least' a thousand feet high. Ahem.