First Birthday–Chapter Five.

CHAPTER FIVE

I was sitting in the small room off the Member’s grille at The Lake Club where the employees ate their lunch.  Outfitted with a large wood table, leather chairs, and a couple flat screen televisions I occasionally thought about the logistics of bringing in a cot, and calling it home.  Even though there weren’t many employees at the club I always tried to find someone to eat with, and on this day I had Duke to keep me company.  He’d taken the opportunity, while we were waiting for our lunch, to open up to me about his sports gambling addiction.  Addiction is not the word he used, but the conclusion I came to after hearing the details.  Duke had a strong theory about betting the under in the NBA playoffs, told me home ice was worth exactly half a goal, and said he never, ever, under any circumstances bet on the Cubs. 

“Heard you got a little action the other night,” he said to me after completing his list of gambling rules. 

“You heard what?” 

“Out on the putting green,” Duke said casually. 

It still took me a moment to put it together.  Duke meant gambling, and I was thinking, well I was thinking of something else. 

“How’d you know about that?”  I asked. 

“Don’t get paranoid Davey.  It’s kind of a small world around here, especially when it comes to Freddie.  He’s here about 18 hours a day.  It’s hard not to run into him, and get hit over the head with a story or two.” 

“I felt bad taking his money,” I admitted.  “I thought we were only playing for a couple bucks.” 

“Don’t feel bad, believe me.  That’s just Freddie’s way.  He don’t know what to do with his money.   He’d never take a dime from you.  I think it’s his way of giving you a tip.  Probably thinks you’ll be more likely to take it if you win it from him.” 

“Well, I didn’t feel that bad.  He must have pulled five grand from his pocket.” 

“That sounds about right.  Freddie’s old school, and old money.  So old he probably forgot where it came from to begin with.  Freddie’s recession proof. Generous guy though, nicest guy in the World.” 

“You’re not going to get any arguments from me,” I said. 

Just then our lunch arrived, and Duke became a lot less talkative.  He was a fast-paced guy, talked fast, and I was learning he ate fast too.  I didn’t think I was being dainty, but he lapped me pretty easily, and I started to rush to finish up the meal.

“Take your time.  I’m not in any hurry.  As usual, ain’t shit going on.  I just eat fast.  Old habit,” Duke put his napkin on his plate, and pushed away from the table slightly.  If he didn’t like to talk so much, I might have thought he was going to grab a nap. 

“You want to play nine later?”  I asked.

“Sure, hell yeah.  I’m going to get you this time.  What do you think about five shots this time?” 

“How about three?”  I countered.

Duke laughed.  “All right.  All right.  Shit, you think a kid fresh off Q-School would give an old man as many as he wanted.” 

“Most old men miss fairways.” 

“Now you jinxed me.  Probably won’t hit one all day.” 

I had finished my lunch, and Duke grabbed both our plates, and headed back into the kitchen with them.  When he returned I was taking a last sip from a glass of water, getting ready to leave, but he sat back down in his chair. 

“Probably have fifteen minutes or so before anyone starts to wonder about us,” he said. 

“All right,” I said.  “I could stand to see the rest of Sportscenter.  I still don’t have T.V. over at the cabin.” 

“How do you live like that?”  Duke asked. 

I told him it was only going to be a few more days, and we sat for a minute in silence watching Sportscenter before Duke couldn’t take the silence.  He broke it by telling me he had looked me up on the internet the night before.  The first question he asked me was the one I heard often, especially from people that didn’t know me that well.  He wanted to hear about Oakmont. 

***

            It didn’t seem that remarkable then.  The fact that I’d somehow gotten myself into the match-play portion of the U.S. Amateur Championship at Oakmont was simply another sign of how I was playing.  I was playing great, and in the sectional qualifying that summer I’d gone out of my mind in the first eighteen, shooting 64, and then coasted through the afternoon finishing second overall, and easily making the 312 player field.  An accomplishment in itself, I’d arrived at Oakmont with low expectations.  I brought Chris withe me.  He had graduated from college, and was taking a year off.  He’d occupied a few of his spare hours by caddying for me in big tournaments, and he was there every step of the way at Oakmont. 

            Qualifying for match play took place over two days, and on two separate courses.  Along with Oakmont, we were playing the Pittsburgh Field Club in stroke play, and that is where I opened up my tournament.  Chris and I guessed that I’d need to shoot about 146 to qualify, and considering Oakmont is the hardest course I’ve ever seen, I knew I needed to get off to a good start on day one to give myself some breathing room.  Golf doesn’t always go as you plan, though, and despite hitting the ball great, I’d limped in with a five-over 75.  I took an incomprehensible 35 putts, and even got in a heated argument with Chris after the 17th hole.  His insistence on an incorrect read had cost me another shot, and all he could say after I missed was that I was the one who hit the putt. 

            After an extremely quiet night I arrived at Oakmont the next morning in a poor frame of mind.  It would take a slight variation on the round of my life to make match-play, and I had a caddy who was barely speaking to me.  The only thing going for me was that I was still hitting it well, and if I could figure out a way to get the ball in the hole I might have a shot.  I was playing with two guys who had shot themselves out of contention on day one, so I knew all focus and resolve was going to have to come from within.  I didn’t find any.  I was three over par through seven holes. 

            The eighth at Oakmont is a steroid riddled par 3 that was playing at 279 yards.  The best way to play the hole was to bring the ball in from the right, and chase it onto the putting surface.  This took the massive bunker on the left out of play, and allowed me to opt for a three wood.  The whole day I’d been getting my own yardages, and pulling my own clubs.  It was no different on the eighth tee.  I walked over to Chris, said nothing, and pulled my three wood from the bag.  I was a step away from the bag when Chris decided to speak. 

            “It’s the hybrid,” he said. 

            “What?” I turned in disbelief.  Part of me wanted to have a blowout argument with Chris right there on the tee box, just to seal my fate for an inevitable 78, and get the hell out of there. 

            “Hit the hybrid.  Look at it up there.  It’s dried out a lot since the practice round.  The damn thing’ll run 50 yards when it hits the ground.  You hit that 3-wood you might as well go drop it in the back bunker.” 

            I stood still for a second contemplating the choice, but it was my turn to hit, and my playing partners had started with the anxious looks.  I’m not sure what made me listen to Chris.  Perhaps I wanted to prove him wrong.  I’d leave the hybrid short, and that would be the last straw.  I’d tell him to grab a cab back to the hotel at the turn, and I’d carry my own bag the rest of the way.  I flipped the three wood back to him, and took the hybrid.  I looked over the hole, at the green way off in the distance, and wondered how the hell I could possibly get hybrid there.  I hit anyway. 

            “Good one,” Chris said when the ball was about a second off the clubface. 

            I still wasn’t sure.  The ball landed well short, but took an almost comically large first hop, and raced towards the putting surface.  It was just running out of steam when it reached the putting surface, and trickled to a stop twenty feet away from the pin.  I stayed on the tee box for an extra second, but then quickly caught up to Chris who was heading down the fairway. 

            “Chris.  Chris, you want to wait up a second?” 

            He stopped in his tracks, and turned to face me.  I caught up with him, and slid the hybrid back into my bag. 

            “Thanks,” I said. 

            He just shrugged, but then smiled quickly, and we walked to the green together. 

            “Might be a good time to make one,” Chris offered instead of a read on the putt. 

            I managed to drop the twenty-footer for birdie, and on the way off the green, Chris had some words of encouragement. 

            “Let’s qualify for this mother-fucker,” he said. 

            I agreed.  I managed to play the last ten holes in even par, and carded a good enough to kiss 72 on the beastly layout.  It was good for a 147 two-day total, and I slipped into the match-play field, even missing the playoff by a shot. 

            My comfort level with the tournament was given a boost the next day when I received a gift in the first round of match play.  The kid I was playing had plenty of talent, and deserved a better fate, but he hit his drive into the church pew bunkers left of the fourth fairway, and never recovered.  It took him three shots to get out, he eventually conceded the hole, and then threw up all over himself for the rest of the front nine.  My thirty-eight was good enough for a six hole lead, and an hour later I was on the range getting in some practice. 

            “Shit Althouse you keep drawing guys that can’t break 90, and you might win this thing,” Chris was bumping little nine-irons down the range.  It was nearly deserted in the late afternoon, and there wasn’t anyone around to cast judgment on the appropriateness of my caddy hitting balls. 

            “I felt bad for him.  He basically played out my worst nightmare.”

            “Don’t feel bad for the fucker.  The guy choked, he doesn’t have terminal cancer.”

            “He just got going bad, it can happen pretty quick.”  I stopped hitting balls for a second, and watched Chris take a swing.  He was still a good player, and watching him hit a nine-iron there was no reason to think he wasn’t playing the tournament. 

            “Are you trying to talk yourself into losing?” 

            “What are you talking about?” 

            “I’m talking about some swagger Althouse.  You’re in the final thirty-two of the U.S. Amateur.  This isn’t the fucking annual scramble at Shit Creek to benefit Timmy’s Little League squad.  No one is selling mulligans on the first tee.  This is the real shit.  The guy you play tomorrow?  He’s going to want to kick your ass.  If you’re not thinking the same, you’ll be toast.” 

            “There’s no mulligans?”  I asked.

            “I’m serious dude,” Chris stopped hitting balls, and wiped the blade clean with him thumb.  He slid the club back into my bag. 

            “I know, I know,” I said, putting my head down to take a few more swings.  “I just can’t believe there’s no mulligans.” 

            “Well , I guess sarcasm is almost as good as confidence,”  Chris said, and we both laughed. 

            The next day in the second round I drew a player who had his game together.  I rode my ball striking the entire day, hitting 14 of 17 greens, and eventually wearing my opponent out with an endless string of pars.  I tapped in on 17 for a 2 & 1 victory, and moved onto the round of sixteen. 

Chris and I were getting a better feel of the greens, and my confidence that Chris wanted to bring out of me was growing by the moment.  For his part, Chris was carrying himself with a borderline arrogance.  He charged down fairways, defied putts not to drop, and couldn’t hide his pleasure on seventeen when we got the win.  It set up a possibly busy Friday.  If I won in the morning, it would be right back around in the afternoon to try to make the final four on the weekend. 

Despite the early hour oppressive heat and humidity greeted us for the third round.  We had been spoiled at the beginning of the week with unseasonably cool temperatures, but with the mercury expected to nuzzle up to ninety degrees the tournament was going to turn into a war of attrition. 

I played my best golf of the week in the third round.  The hard and fast fairways allowed me to hit a lot of three woods off the tee, and with the ball in play I was giving myself a lot more birdie chances than my opposition.  I made five birdies in sixteen holes, and cruised relatively easily into the quarter finals with a 3 & 2 win.  There wasn’t a lot of time to celebrate.  Chris and I got some food, and chugged a few bottles of water before hitting the practice green for a few minutes before my next match.

With only eight players left in the field the galleries were getting bigger, and the stakes were getting higher.  Everyone knew a birth in the finals got you into the Masters, but thinking that far down the road was setting yourself up for disappointment.  I had all, if not more than I could handle in my 4th round opponent.  If a lot of people in the gallery were wondering who the hell Dave Althouse was, they certainly weren’t thinking that about Brendan Hughes. 

Brendan Hughes was a Scottish golf prodigy, which made him about the most famous person in Scotland, and after qualifying for the British Open a few weeks prior to our match, he had become one of the most popular sports figures in all of Europe.  He was delaying a move to the professional ranks to play the Amateur, a decision he said he made out of respect for the history of the game.  I would have liked the kid to be a little more money hungry, but how can you argue putting off the millions for a few weeks so you can come to Oakmont and play Dave Althouse?

“I hope this prick isn’t a talker,” Chris said on the first tee.  “I don’t want to listen to that fucking accent all the way around.” 

“Tell him you don’t speak Scottish,” I said. 

“Not a bad idea.  He can’t be used to this heat, though right?  It’s like fucking winter in Scotland right now or something?  Isn’t that how it works?” 

“Not exactly, he seems to be handling it fine,” I nodded towards Brendan who was making his way onto the tee box. 

After a quick introduction I got the impression that Brendan was feeling confident about his chances against me, and wasn’t likely to be too talkative.  He had the honor on the first tee, and calmly ripped a driver down the middle.  I took my time with my pre-shot routine, let out a big deep breath, and found the fairway myself.  The ball easily bounded past the enemy, and leaving the tee Chris decided to start talking trash. 

            “You could hit three wood past this short knocking, skirt wearing Irish prick,” Chris said when Brendan and his caddy were out of earshot. 

“Scottish,” I corrected. 

“Whatever.  He could be a fucking juiced up behind the wall East German, and you’d still be pissing on his drives all day.” 

It was true that I was a little longer than future tour star Brendan Hughes, but it wasn’t giving me much of an advantage.  He was plenty long, and had all the shots.  We traded a couple birdies on the front nine, but I got off to a slow start on the back, and was quickly two down.  I got one back on fourteen, but was still trailing when we got to the seventeenth tee. 

Seventeen at Oakmont is one of the World’s great short par fours, a genius stretch of only 320 yards.  All week I had been laying up, and hitting sand wedge into the green, but facing a one hole deficit and with the honor Chris and I decided that I should go for it, and take the opportunity to put some pressure on Mr. Hughes. 

“One good swing Althouse,” Chris said as he handed me my driver. 

I nodded, and teed the ball up.  I had to carry a series of bunkers that weren’t really in play, and then find the narrow gap that led to the putting surface.  A bad miss would leave me with little chance of making birdie, and could conceivably bring bogey into play.  Comfortable with the risk I addressed the ball, and fired away.  I caught the ball solidly, and it took off high and straight towards the left side of the green.  It carried the bunkers with no problem, and chased up to the fringe, barely off the front corner of the green.  From there, a birdie was almost a foregone conclusion. 

Brendan pulled driver after watching the success of my shot, and with the distance being a little out of his reach he over swung, and sent a quick hook into the left rough.  From there he could only manage to get the ball to a greenside bunker.  A poor bunker shot, and my lag putt were the only other shots the hole required.  Brendan conceded, and we went to eighteen all square. 

On the lengthy par four eighteenth we both found the first cut off the tee, but managed conservative seconds, and two-putt pars.  After I holed out Brendan showed his first real sign of graciousness, coming over to shake my hand, and congratulating me on a well-played eighteen holes before we started our sudden death playoff. 

The moment seemed to be getting to Chris.  As we waited to tee off again on the first hole he couldn’t stand still, and was filling the silence with anything that popped into his mind. 

“We got this, we got this,” he said.  “You want driver, right?  We’re killing driver.” 

I took the driver, and led us out with another good one that found a space between the fairway bunkers, and came to rest in the short grass.  With all the roll I was getting, it wouldn’t be more than a seven-iron into the 480 yard hole.  Brendan followed with a good drive of his own that started to leak towards a trap on the left, but came to rest in the fairway, a few yards short of disaster. 

Chris and I got to our ball, and looked back the twenty yards or so to where Brendan was hitting his second shot.  He surveyed the shot for a full minute, trying to find a breeze that wasn’t there, and finally pulling a club.  The resulting shot was a dagger, a beautiful, towering six iron that landed with an improbable softness, and stopped within a few feet of the hole.  Too stunned to give a compliment I turned to face Chris, who was biting his lower lip. 

“One seventy-one Althouse.  Put one in there on top of him,” he finally said. 

I took an eight iron, and tried to calm my nerves.  I backed away once, and then settled in, and sent my second shot towards the green.  The ball was flying on a beautiful line, but it carried too far.  It landed on a down slope, and raced through the green.  Holding my finish to watch the shot, I let the club fall to the ground behind me. 

“Great shot,” Chris said.  “If we’re going down, we’re going down firing at sticks.  Hit it too good.  Fuck it.  We’ll just chip it in.” 

As we approached the green it became obvious that a chip-in would be required.  Brendan’s shot was even closer than it appeared from the fairway.  I didn’t immediately concede the putt, but I knew in my heart that he had a birdie.  I went to the back of the green to look at my lie in the rough, and found it marginal at best. 

I’ve never spent more time on a chip shot in my life than I did on that one in the playoff at Oakmont.  I knew where I wanted to land the ball, and knew every inch of break it was going to take once it got on the green.  It was just a matter of execution.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to execute.  At the last moment I reminded myself not to leave the chip short, and hit it way too hard.  It was on a good line, but it raced over the left edge of the hole without even catching a lip.  From that point, the only thing left to do was take off my hat, and offer a handshake. 

Brendan Hughes was humble in victory, and went on to win the tournament on Sunday, a final amateur accolade before he joined the big guys on tour.  Walking off the first green it seemed the magnitude or maybe more than that the exhaustion of the day had set in.  I could barely put one foot in front of another, and Chris looked like he’d just spent a month caddying in the Sahara. 

“Thanks for the week,” I said as we walked alone back down the first fairway to the clubhouse. 

“Are you fucking kidding me, Althouse?  This is best thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I just carried a bag.  It was fucking awesome.  I just wish we had another shot at that mother fucker.” 

“He hit a great shot,” I said. 

“Big fucking deal,”  Chris answered.  “He still can’t hit the ball out of own shadow.  Faggy accent, can’t break an egg, dick suck.” 

Chris could barely finish his insult before he burst into laughter, and I couldn’t help but join in. 

***

“I knew you were going to lose, but I was still kind of surprised by that ending,” Duke said. 

We were walking off the eighteenth green.  I had saved the story of my final defeat for the end of our own nine holes. 

“Maybe I’ll start changing the story,” I said.  “Enough time has probably passed to take a little artistic license.” 

“Win or lose, it’s a great story.  Playing Oakmont in the Amateur, that’s elite shit, it’s not like coming home with the member/member trophy.”

I laughed at Duke’s comparison. 

“I guess you took some of that buried match-play frustration out on me huh?  Sweet Jesus was that an ass kicking.” 

I had beaten Duke fairly easily, playing well, but also benefitting from his off day.  Back at the cart he made a move for his wallet, but I brushed him off.

“We’ll just carry it over,” I said.  “Or how about we go get a beer?” 

“I’d love to, but I better get home tonight Davey.  You don’t know about such things, but I still have to cater to the wife every once in while.  If I don’t head home now I might find out she packed up and moved to Florida.” 

“I hear you,” I said.  “Next time.  And, next time maybe you’ll get those five shots.” 

“Like I’d take five from a hack like you, can’t even win the fucking U.S. Amateur.” 

Duke and I went our separate ways in the parking lot, and as I pulled out of the long drive my mind drifted to Cait as it was more often when I had a moment to think.  I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket, and for a second I thought it was going to be one of those moments where the person you are thinking of calls, but then I remembered that Cait didn’t have my number.  I looked at the display, and saw the last name I would have ever expected to see.  I let the call go to voicemail, but I drove right by Franco’s pizza on the way home, and went straight to the cabin.

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