Southern Golf Trip: Part 1
When the trip was initially planned, it was to be for a cousin’s wedding in Columbus, GA followed by a week in Kiawah Island, SC to lie around on the beach or take jaunts into Charleston to explore the old city. Four, well, five golf courses later, it became as much about the golf and what I reaped from those 72 played holes… 90 if you count the 18 I played in my head.
COURSE 1(A) – Green Island Country Club – Columbus, GA
The trip began in Columbus, Georgia, the home of my favorite golf course, largely for sentimental reasons, at the Green Island Country Club. My grandfather Joe – general socialite, former club champion, and preeminent scotch drinker (the saying goes that Joe could beat Tiger Woods on Tiger’s best day, if only Tiger drank as much scotch as Joe before and during the round) – has been a member for several decades.
The PGA Tour used to play the old Southern Open at Green Island from 1970-1990 before the tournament moved to Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, and finally dissolved after the 2002 competition. Johnny Miller won at Green Island in ’71. Gary Player in ’73. Jerry Pate in ’77 and ’78. Nicklaus played there. Palmer played there. I used to watch Larry Mize practice on the range in the summers I spent with my grandparents in the 80’s. In a closet in my parents’ home there still exists a VHS tape of me driving around in a golf cart with Mr. Mize. We stopped in front of the camera and sang my great grandmother happy birthday. He was my first glimpse of a pro, and I can still recall Mr. Mize setting up a makeshift hitting area adjacent to the range where he hit 100-yard wedge shots within inches of a green bag from the range he’d randomly placed in an open area. A caddie or cart-man would be there to gather the balls, trot 100 yards back to Mr. Mize, dump the balls before him, and march 100 yards back the other way. Maybe it was Red Joe (not to be confused with my grandfather “Just” Joe).
Red Joe was the old cart-hand who, despite my infrequent visits to Columbus, knew exactly who I was when my mother or grandmother would let me out at the bag drop and into the awaiting passenger seat of his golf cart. We would always stop by the men’s grill first where I’d run in to see Mr. Wilbur who likewise always remembered me.
“Mr. Twin, Mr. Twin how are ya’ suh?” Wilbur would still say if he saw me now, some 10 years since the last time I saw him and 20 years before that. It was such a thrill to be called mister or sir (or “suh” in his deep accent) as a 10-year-old kid. He called me Mr. Twin because he knew I had a twin sister.
Wilbur, who the men’s grill is now named after and features an oil painting of the old man in his green jacket and signature jheri curl, would put an RC Cola on ice for me and I’d return to Red Joe who would drive me out to meet-up with my father and grandfather. I drove the cart for them, tended the flag for them, and watched them finish their round. Over the years, I committed every hole to heart that way. When their rounds ended, we’d always go back to Wilbur’s for another RC Cola (or scotch) and my grandfather would remind me how to play gin in between glad-handing his fellow members and exchanging way, way off-color jokes.
I have not played Green Island in years. Not since I was a freshman at Auburn and well before my since acquired golf addiction. What I looked forward to the most when I daydreamed about playing the course leading up to this trip, besides seeing the same people, the swans, and the southern iconography of its tall pines, rolling hills, smiles and manners, and names like Wilbur, Red Joe, and Doright (the head pro), was Hole #10.
I recall reading in an old Golf Digest (or some other publication left around the house) that the PGA pros voted #10, which was flipped and used as the starting hole for the Southern Open, as the most difficult opening hole on Tour. Four hundred yards from the tips, the tee shot required a carry over a lake and up a hill. The lake had always been the devil for me playing as a junior, but I knew it would be the hill that got me this time around. Miss right and the hill funnels into the tall Georgia pines and down into a creek. If the ball stayed in the trees, it required a punch back into the fairway and absolutely no shot at the green. Miss left off the tee, and due to the winding nature of the hole, there would be absolutely no look at the green. This too would require a frustrating, short punch back to the middle of the fairway by now in a desperate attempt to save par. Just don’t punch it too far because that hill slopes toward the green as well and into another ravine of deep rough, rock, and treachery.
But as I had done in my mind as preparation, get the tee shot right – to the crest of the hill – and the green, perched on another hill and protected by bunkers and slopes, could be reached for a memorable and well-earned birdie attempt or likely par.
It wasn’t until we reached Columbus on a Friday night, the night before my cousin’s wedding, that we found out Green Island would be closed for member play. An international tournament for the blind was being held all day Saturday. You read that correctly. Joe didn’t know.
Joe has been through a lot in the last several months. Cancer. Chemo. A mild stroke. Old age. He doesn’t make it out to Green Island much anymore. He can manage a few swings on the range before his legs and balance give out, and the old man is so frustrated, so goddamned pissed off at his body, as he might say, that he quits and never wants to come back. He always does come back, though, to visit his buddies. He has a drink. Says hello. But he misses the game and he misses his golf course for those were his friends, too. I know his heart aches when he’s out there, when he must forsake his old pal. So he doesn’t go as much anymore. And he’s not up to date on what’s going on around the club. So he didn’t know a group of international blind people would occupy the entire course. And he didn’t know we wouldn’t be allowed to play that day.
Like Joe, I didn’t want to stop by for a quick visit. Seeing it and not being able to play it would only further break my own heart that’s racked with sentimentality for the place. For selfish reasons one, because I was determined to birdie #10, but also because, in many ways, the golf course and Green Island will always be synonymous with when Joe was at his best.
…. To be continued