BY JIM RAFTUS
Surprisingly, my hand was steady as I teed up my ball on the first hole at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, in Fife, Scotland. Or, as the locals would say, “Stuck my peg in the sod.” I had heard stories of golfers so overwhelmed, or intimidated, by the lore of The Old Course that they couldn’t control their shakes enough to balance the 1.68-inch diameter ball on the small wooden tee. Of course, having a crowd of skeptical St. Andrew’s natives and assorted tourists watching you from behind the low white fence near the first tee adds to the pressure.
Later, at dinner, all the golfers received the most magnificent “take away” present imaginable. Unbeknownst to us, a camera had recorded our play on the first and eighteenth holes. A Scottish announcer narrated our efforts with great humor and mirth. My video begins: “Here’s Mr. Jim Raftus. He’s a tall man with a swing reminiscent of a young Tiger Woods.”
After my foursome hit our drives, the camera followed us down the wide first fairway. My face is split by a wide grin and I am swinging my arms in a gleeful X pattern across my chest.
At that moment my thoughts turned to my dad, the man who had introduced me to this wonderfully perplexing sport. He had passed away a couple of years prior. As I strolled down the first fairway of the “Home of Golf,” I thought, “Well, we made it, Dad.”
My father, Leo, was, like me, a mediocre golfer. He introduced me to the game at a very young age. If I tagged along, the more likely Mom would be to allow one more round of golf that particular week.
Dad would meet his cronies at one of the several public courses he favored in Rhode Island. When the course was not too busy, he would give me one ball and a cut-down putter. I’d play the entire course behind Dad’s group with a putter, being extra careful to never get in anyone’s way. I’d keep an eye out for his long, lean silhouette to make sure I was keeping pace.
I also knew I was in range if I could hear him whistling a song between shots. I recall that at his last job, a shipping clerk at a manufacturing plant, his fellow workers nicknamed him “The Whistler.”
Invariably after every round Dad played, he’d say to me, “Jimmy, I found the secret.” He’d then describe the subtle change in his grip or the slower backswing or some other newly discovered panacea. Every week it was a new secret, and every week the secret seemed to last about seven holes before the golf demons took notice and the usual slices and three-putt greens would derail Dad’s game. With the exception of a few soft scowls, he usually bore the rapidly rising score with good humor.
Two years before my Scotland/Ireland golf pilgrimage, I took my dad to a driving range near his home. He was wheelchair-bound and, despite the warmth, I wrapped him in an afghan. He sat behind the mat I was using to hit my shots. After I had hit half a bucket he called me to him. I figured he’d had enough and wanted to leave. Instead he said, “Your grip is too weak. Gimme the club.”
Still seated, he took the driver in his hands. He had long tapered fingers. The back of his hands always featured prominent blue veins rising from almost translucent skin. His hand looked to me like a topographic map of the Appalachian Mountains drawn on parchment.
“Here’s the secret,” he said, still teaching at the age of 86. “Move your left hand over.”
He passed away a few months after this final lesson.
So, Dad was definitely on my mind as I stood on the famous Swilken Bridge for the obligatory photo-op on the 18th hole at St. Andrew’s. I then flew my approach shot over the final green and the ball came to rest on a steep berm.
Our Scottish video narrator picked up the action, intoning, “A very difficult shot from that lie. If he gets it within 15 feet of the hole, he’s done a good job.”
I deftly chipped the ball and it came to rest 2 inches away from the hole. The spectators watching from behind the white fence awarded me a fine ovation. I was so overjoyed I literally slid down the slope on my backside in celebration, club held aloft in triumph.
As I slid down I realized that my Dad’s real secret was not the grip, the stance or any golf tip. It was to always treasure family, good friends and life itself. Tapping in my “gimme” putt, I may have even whistled.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
Jim Raftus (firstname.lastname@example.org), an occasional contributor, is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland.
BY JIM RAFTUS