When golf and life cross paths

Note: One of my mother’s favorite cousins passed away this week. He was 86. He had a great life. Like my mother, an artist who drew maps for fliers in World War II, he was a Navy veteran. As we said goodbye to another member of America’s Greatest Generation, it reminded me of a piece I wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times when my mom died in July of 2008, right after one of my greatest golf moments.

By Herb Gould
Everything really does happen for a reason. I was reminded of that when, after four decades of flailing at golf balls, I made my first hole-in-one last week.
It came at the 172-yard ninth hole at Hawthorn Woods, where the Illinois Open will be held Monday through Wednesday. It was witnessed by two Illinois PGA friends, communications director Mike Schoaf and photographer Nick Novelli, and Glen Ellyn pro Matt Slowinski, the 2008 Illinois PGA Match Play champion.
It was a good but not great shot, a low, running draw with a hybrid club that merely was designed to skirt the nasty stuff to the left of the green. I saw the ball bounce nicely onto the green but lost it at that point.
When Slowinski said, ”I think that went in the hole,” I couldn’t have been more surprised.
Pulse racing, I went up to the green. Sure enough, my ball was in the hole.
It was an exhilarating feeling, but it left me puzzled.
Why now? I wasn’t playing well that day. I hadn’t been playing well all summer. My mother had been in hospice, wasting away because her body had just worn out. The visits had become increasingly difficult — haunting, really. Because even if she was 86, even if she had had a great life, even if she was getting the best of care, seeing this once-vibrant woman succumbing — and being unable to do anything about it — is something that stays with you every minute of every day.
Those who play the game know golf often can be a barometer of what’s going on in your life and in your game. Every time that club goes back, it takes the worries and hopes of the day with it.
That’s why a hole-in-one was so surprising. And so welcome.
At the risk of sounding maudlin, when I say everything happens for a reason, what I mean in this case is that the hole-in-one couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s nice to have some hope in a dark moment.
I have holed out four or five shots from 100 to 170 yards before, but they were on par-4s or par-5s for eagles, not holes-in-one. For a 15-handicapper, I felt I was already ahead of the game.
I’ve had the thrill, after knocking in a 155-yard 7-iron at a charity scramble, of turning to my group and saying, ”You guys didn’t really want to putt, did you?”
I’ve had the fun, after holing out a 9-iron from 130 yards, of turning to a couple of friends and saying, ”Well, you have two chances to tie.”
But none of those was as pure as a hole-in-one. Or as unexpected in this restless summer.
Mom’s failing health had brought on the whole spectrum of emotions that comes with such a situation. The feeling of helplessness because you can’t do anything for her, can’t even communicate with her. The gamut of memories, what she did or didn’t do, what we did or didn’t do.
It also created a series of uncomfortable, unresolvable questions. Is she comfortable? What is she thinking? Is she thinking at all? Are we seeing her often enough? Is it OK to leave town? And on and on.
In the midst of all that, I have continued to trundle out to the golf course. It might seem far-flung to relate the death of a parent to a hole-in-one. But if you are a golfer or know golfers, you know golf is an escape for many of us. When we’re on the course, we’re not thinking about all of those off-the-course things — unless it’s something this big. And then you’re thinking about it, one way or another, every time the club goes back.
Even Slowinski is not immune to distractions. Hitting after me, he put his shot in the woods. That, by the way, is why I like his chances in the Illinois Open. Freed from watching my swing, he should have plenty of game.
When I next saw Mom, she was still lying there, looking tinier than ever. I gave her a hug and a kiss and filled her in on the latest. She was basically unresponsive. When I mentioned the hole-in-one, she might have opened her eyes a millimeter or two, though.
Having heard everything, she was free to join Dad. She passed away a few hours later.


ABOUT: Herb Gould

Herb Gould's historical novel, `The Run Don't Count: The Life and Times of Frank Chance and His 1908 Chicago Cubs,' was published recently. A longtime Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter, Herb is a co-founder of TMGcollegesports.com, an in-depth and off-beat national college football website, along with Chris Dufresne (LA Times), Mark Blaudschun (Boston Globe) and Tony Barnhart (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). He remains a contributor of golf and college-sports commentary at the Sun-Times. Herb also is the author of Victory March, an account of Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship, and has written for many sports outlets, including ESPN.com, Lindy’s football and basketball annuals, Chicagoland Golf and other golf publications.

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