Things To Do In Golf

Several years ago I made a nice discovery while going through an old footlocker from my mother’s attic that contained various objects from my teenage years. Beneath camping gear and a well worn Wilson fielder’s glove autographed by Orioles Hall of Farner Brooks Robinson, I found a trio of golf books and a small green spiral notebook marked “Things to Do in Golf” in large adolescent block letters.

The golf books — gifts from my father — were the first I ever owned. They included an autographed 1962 first-edition hardcover copy of Sam Snead’s folksy The Education of a Golfer, written with Al Stump; a 1967 paperback biography of Arnold Palmer by the editors of Golf Digest magazine (“An inside look at the most fabulous player in golf history!”); and a well-worn, water-stained edition of Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, the bestselling golf instruction book of all time.

As you might expect, it was a pleasure to sit and leaf through my first golf books, noting passages I found important enough to underline in pencil, remembering what it was like to be a skinny Carolina kid falling in love with his old man’s game. My first sports heroes were indeed Arnold Palmer and Brooks Robinson. I’d tagged after Arnold many times at my hometown Greater Greensboro Open (now the Wyndham Championship), and though I would never see Ben Hogan play golf in person, my father believed his instruction book, written in collaboration with the great Herbert Warren Wind, to be the best and simplest analysis of a golf swing in print. As for Brooks Robinson, the finest third baseman in Major League history, the Human Vacuum Cleaner was the person I hoped to be like in the unlikely event that my plan to be the next Arnold Palmer failed to bear fruit.

The pocket-sized notebook marked “Things to Do in Golf,” however, was really what brought those memories rushing back. It was a Range Bucket List 35 years before I coined the phrase, begun because I’d read somewhere that as a kid, Arnold Palmer recorded his golf goals in a small notebook he kept in his golf bag. Decades later, when I was working with Arnold on his memoirs, I actually confirmed this with him during an early-morning chat in his Latrobe workshop. “Oh, for sure,” he said with a warm chuckle, “I had plenty of big golf dreams in those days. And, come to think of it, I did write them down. I wanted to get good enough at golf, first of all, to impress Pap [Deacon, his father]. Then I wanted to win the state amateur championship. I was probably 12 or 13 at the time. Frankly, I never thought about turning pro in those days — there was no real money in it — though I did secretly dream about somehow winning the Masters or a U.S. Open. I never could have imagined . . .”

His voice trailed off. Arnold was 68 years old then and stood in the before-hours quiet of his modest Latrobe office workshop regripping a favorite driver as he revealed this, sounding almost as dreamy as a Pennsylvania teenager. We’d just begun collaborating on A Golfer’s Life, a two-year partnership that would reveal his incomparable life and transform mine — a writer’s version, if you like, of playing in the Masters or the U.S. Open. Arnold had recently undergone surgery for prostate cancer. His wife, Winnie, had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The dimensions of his world were suddenly much narrower and more precious than ever.

He stared off into the ether and more than six decades of memories, then took a moment to compose himself. He glanced over at me, eyes wet with emotion, cleared his voice, and smiled. “Of course, every kid has those kind of golf dreams, Shakespeare. I just never imagined mine would come true the way they did — or go so quickly.”

I knew exactly what he meant, but didn’t know what to say — and couldn’t have found my voice regardless. Suffice it to say, discovering my “Things to Do in Golf” list in an attic trunk a decade or so later brought on my own rush of memory and emotion. The game of golf will do that.

Here’s the list, such as it is:

Things to Do in Golf

1. Meet Arnold Palmer and Mr. Bobby Jones

2. Play the Old Course at St Andrews, Scotland

3. Make a hole-in-one

4. Play on the PGA Tour

5. Get new clubs

6. Break 80 (soon!)

7. Live in Pinehurst

8. Find golf buddies like Bill, Alex, and Richard

[my dad’s Saturday-morning regulars]

9. Caddie at the GGO

10. Have a girlfriend who plays golf

11. Play golf in Brazil

That’s it: eleven items, short and sweet. It’s obvious why Palmer and Jones top the list. They were the reigning gods of American golf, both of whom had a strong connection to my hometown. Jones’s daughter lived in Greensboro, and one of Arnold’s early college buddies, Charlie Teague, was my dad’s best friend’s younger brother and ran the Gate City’s best sporting goods store, where I purchased my Brooks Robinson fielder’s glove with my lawn-mowing earnings shortly before I got it autographed by the Human Vacuum Cleaner himself at my first Orioles game. Our voyage, Henry Thoreau said, is only great-circle sailing.

The other items on the list were the kinds of things any 12-year-old boy in Palmer’s 1960s America might have placed high on his golf to-do list — the forerunner of what, nearly four decades later, I would come to call my Range Bucket List of things I still wanted to do in golf. To this day, however, I have no clue why I was so eager to play golf in Brazil. Might have just been the pretty, dark-haired exchange student in my eighth-grade earth science class. Her name was Juliana. But I can’t be sure.

In any case, had· a magical genie appeared to me when I recorded this beginner’s short list — I place it anywhere from late 1965 to early 1967 — and informed me that I would in time accomplish, in one form or another, almost every item on that list and a great deal more, growing up to know many of the great players, golf writers, teachers, design pioneers, and architects of the game’s modern era — not to mention be recruited to help the most charismatic player in the game’s history produce his bestselling memoir — I probably would have laughed out loud at such a crazy notion, or simply passed out from pure, glandular teenage joy.

But such is the transformative power of golf. For me, this extraordinary ancient game has not only been an unexpected career shaper but also introduced me to my best friends, and has even been something of a spiritual lifesaver over many years.

Just after I started that first list, you see, I was banished from my father’s course in Greensboro for half the summer by a profane and terrifying club professional named Aubrey Apple for losing my cool and burying my new Bulls Eye putter in the flesh of the 14th green after missing a 2-foot birdie putt. This happened during my first-ever round on a regulation 18-hole golf course. I was playing with my father and his buddies Bill Mims and Alex Roberts. Visibly disappointed at my behavior, my father calmly showed me how to repair the green, then insisted that I walk all the way back to the clubhouse and report my crime to Mr. Apple, who unplugged the smoldering stogie that anchored the southwest corner of his mouth long enough to issue a stream of profanity that raised the hair on my skinny chicken neck. He pointed me to the door, warning that I’d better not show my bleeping face around the club until “after the God-damned Fourth of Joo-lie!”

Which explains item number 7: “Live in Pinehurst.”

The day after this unfortunate incident, I was moping around in the backyard after church, smacking Wiffle golf balls over the roof of our house with my father’s old Spalding Bobby Jones pitching wedge, when my dad suddenly appeared wearing golf clothes and instructed me to grab my clubs from the garage and follow him.

We drove 90 minutes due south from the rolling Piedmont into the lonesome longleaf pines of the Carolina Sandhills. As I recall, my father didn’t say much during the ride on that beautiful May afternoon. My (not entirely kind) nickname for my relentlessly cheerful and incorruptibly upbeat father was Opti the Mystic. He was an adman with a poet’s heart who always seemed to have some nugget of wisdom reserved for any occasion and who viewed one’s transgressions against man or nature as timely opportunities to teach lessons about character and personal growth. Opti possessed an unsinkable belief in the power of human optimism and gratitude that shaped his life and, ultimately, mine, a belief perhaps most tellingly revealed through the life lessons of his favorite game: golf.

It was Opti who taught me the protocols of the ancient game and patiently endured my early eruptions of teenage angst as I struggled to control my hot temper and learn to play proficiently. It was Opti who placed those iconic golf books in my hands and gracefully spoke about the game’s “higher properties,” explaining how it is both an ever-changing journey into the unknown and a wonderful test of skill, character, and imagination that reveals who you really are and what you aspire to be.

This was pure Opti-speak, a few almost fairy-tale words that my older brother, Dicky, and I heard many versions of while growing up in North Carolina, the code by which our funny, philosophical, straight-arrow old man lived his life. Back then, neither my brother nor I could fully divine the deeper meanings of such lofty phrasings, and especially how they applied to a seemingly simple game like golf.

Our father, for instance, was the first person I heard say that golf is a metaphor for life, with its unexpected ups and downs, unfair breaks, and sudden breakthroughs, a game played by uniform rules of conduct that “apply to all” and that are older (and even more commendably democratic) than the U.S. Constitution. Above all else, it was a “gentleman’s game” that offered challenges that tested, shaped, and ultimately “revealed one’s grit under fire.” The stories he loved to tell about taking up the game in England and Scotland during the Second World War, highlighted by his pilgrimage to the “Birthplace of Golf” at St. Andrews just before D-Day, were magical to me.

Opti even told us how golf was something of “a mental anchor and lifesaver” during those years of war and uncertainty, a game he discovered as a homesick Carolina boy stationed on England’s Lancashire coast not far from the entrance gates of Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club, where Bobby Jones captured the 1926 British Open title. The club had a civilized wartime policy that allowed American servicemen to borrow the clubs of absent members and play the course for a few shillings. Shortly before he shipped out in the second wave of Operation Overlord, Opti and a second lieutenant buddy from South Carolina hopped a train to St. Andrews just to play the Old Course. I still have a faded photograph of them posing on the first tee, the solemn façade of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse rising in the background. Befitting the occasion, Opti and his pal are both dressed in their Eighth Army uniforms, neckties tucked into shirts, grinning like excited teenagers. Afterward, young tech sergeant Braxton Dodson mailed this photograph home to my mother, his war bride, a former Maryland beauty queen who was doing her part to save democracy by being chased around a desk by an admiral in Annapolis. At the bottom of the photo Opti jotted in ink: “A couple good eggs at the Home of Golf.”

Weeks later, a terrible tragedy occurred at the air base where my father was stationed that prevented him from piloting a troop glider into Normandy, an event he never spoke of until he and I took a trip to England and Scotland during the summer of the 50th anniversary of D-Day to play the courses where he fell hard for the game. It was then and there that I unwittingly exhumed an unspeakable event that had dramatically changed his life and that explained so much about his unsinkable optimism and passion for living, his determination never to waste a day. “Life promises us sorrow,” he said to me one evening as we walked together across the Old Course at dusk, repeating something I’d heard him say many times but never before understood. “It’s up to us to provide the joy. The game ends far too soon, Bo. But if you’re lucky, the journey will bring you safely home.”

In a manner of speaking, my own long journey to such opti-mystic awareness began the day after I got booted from Green Valley Golf Club in May of 1966, a golf awakening that began on the beautiful Sunday afternoon we rolled into sleepy Pinehurst, the so-called Home of American Golf.

We drove past a magnificent white hotel with a copper roof drowsing in the longleaf pines, and I saw, out the window of the Oldsmobile, golfers and caddies dressed all in white moving along a baize green fairway while a church somewhere chimed a familiar hymn.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Opti remarked. “That’s Pinehurst No. 2, Donald Ross’s masterpiece. One of the most famous golf courses in the world. It’s right up there with the Old Course at St. Andrews. Every legend of the modern game has played it, including Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, and Sam Snead. Unfortunately, unless you learn to control your temper on the golf course, you’ll never get to play there.”

With that, he fell silent as we rolled on past the course, leaving me both dazzled and crestfallen.

A few minutes later, though, we wheeled into a charming smaller hotel called the Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club, and my father suggested we step inside to say hello to an old friend named Ernie Boros. He explained that Ernie was the younger brother of recent U.S. Open winner Julius Boros. Julius was Mid Pine’s touring professional and my father’s favorite golfer. Barely a month before, Opti and I had followed Boros at the Greater Greensboro Open, amazed by his buttermilk-smooth golf swing.

In the pro shop, Ernie Boros greeted us warmly and chatted with my dad about mutual friends from Greensboro. When the subject of his famous brother came up, Boros mentioned that Julius just happened to be on the property that afternoon, and was presently having lunch alone in the inn dining room. Ernie Boros offered me a Mid Pines visor and wondered if I wished to meet his brother and maybe get his autograph. Looking back, I remember how he glanced at my old man, smiled, and winked.

The encounter was brief. Julius Boros couldn’t have been nicer. He asked me a few questions about my game and offered to autograph my new visor. He thanked us for coming and observed, as we departed, “You know, son, golf is a game for gentlemen and ladies. It’ll teach you a great deal about life and can take you a lot of great places.”

Had I been in less of a daze, I might have heard the echoes of Opti’s own words coming from the great man’s lips. As it was, we then strolled out to take a look at the spectacular final hole of Mid Pines, and Opti pleasantly remarked, “Wasn’t that something? You just never know who you’ll meet in golf. That alone is a good reason to calm down and behave on the golf course.”

He let that soak in for a moment. “Tell you what,” he added, as if undergoing a change of heart, “if you think you can knock off the temper tantrums, maybe we can play the golf course here today. It’s also a fine Donald Ross course, by the way. One of his best.”

With that, we fetched our clubs and played Mid Pines, my first full 18 holes on a championship golf course. To this day, though nearby Pinehurst No. 2 rightfully calls itself the Home of American Golf and is every bit Ross’s masterpiece, Mid Pines still holds a special place in my heart, second only to Greensboro, the birthplace of my love affair with golf.

For the record, it took many years (and my mother finally spilling the beans) for me to learn that the unexpected meeting with Julius Boros was a prearranged deal, an artful teaching moment designed by my father to have maximum impact on his hardheaded son.

I never tossed a club or buried a putter in anger again.

At least, not with Opti the Mystic — or, worse, Aubrey Apple — anywhere in view.

The first time I heard the phrase “bucket list” was in the fall of 1999, almost a decade before it gained popular currency from the 2007 Morgan Freeman film of the same name. It came from the lips of my friend and mentor John Derr, the former head of CBS Sports who was instrumental in bringing the Masters to television and who broadcasted the action from Augusta for decades.

We were dining with the great Carolina amateur Harvie Ward at the homey Pine Crest Inn in Pinehurst. I was making one of my occasional passes through my boyhood stomping grounds, ostensibly to sign copies of Final Rounds — a surprise bestseller that evolved from that final golf trip to Britain with my dying father — and to give a speech at the Art of Golf convention put on by the Tufts Archives and the Old Sport Gallery in Pinehurst at Pine Needles Resort. The other reason I was there was to interview Harvie Ward for my monthly Golf Life column in Golf magazine.

Long before Tiger Woods captured three U.S. Amateur titles, Harvie Ward won two National Amateurs in a row and likely would have secured a record third had he not been singled out and sanctioned by the USGA for accepting outside financial support to play in the Masters, a scandal that sent perhaps the most promising amateur player of his time into a long tailspin of booze and failed marriages and nearly drove him from the game. Marriage to the right woman and a return to Pinehurst, where his amateur career began with an upset victory over the volatile Frank Stranahan at the 1948 North and South Amateur, was, as he’d told me just that morning, “like finding my way ·home. It was the cure I needed.”

Now sober and teaching some of the state’s most promising young players at Pine Needles Resort, Harvie was regarded by many — myself among them — as the greatest player who never was, the man whose painful fall from grace heralded the end of the golden age of amateurs and sent a flood of young, collegiate talents into the professional ranks, lest they suffer a similar fate. This included Harvie’s greatest college rival, a fellow named Arnold Daniel Palmer.

On the heels of cowriting Arnold’s A Golfer’s Life, I’d been approached by the heirs of Ben Hogan to write an authorized biography of golf’s most elusive superstar. In every conceivable way, dark and introverted Ben Hogan was as different as could be from sunny and smiling Arnold Palmer. Yet both men unmistakably fueled my early love affair with golf. And on the plus side of the equation, Hogan’s heirs promised complete access to his personal papers, closest friends, and surviving family members, all of whom up till then had kept up a code of silence equivalent to a mafia omerta.

For additional insight on this opportunity, I’d come to Pinehurst from my longtime home in Maine to seek the counsel of the ageless John Derr, then 80 years old, a newsman who’d been a close friend to both Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. Derr had accompanied the ailing Hogan on every step of his historic fortnight at Carnoustie in 1953, for instance, which was the Hawk’s final triumph before disappearing from public view to start his golf equipment company. Derr, I’d been reliably informed by his friend Sam Snead, was a walking encyclopedia on the postwar era of American golf.

Also dining with us that night was Tom Stewart, a former head professional at several leading clubs, Michigan PGA section chief, and a cheerful Scots-Irishman who owned the Old Sport Gallery in the heart of Pinehurst Village. In time I would come to think of Tom’s shop as the golf world’s version of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, and of genial Tom Stewart as the de facto Lord Mayor of Pinehurst. That very morning, as if to illustrate the point, he’d put another beguiling idea into my head by proposing that after I completed my Hogan project, Harvie and I should collaborate on a book about his rags-to-riches-to-rags golf career and call it The Last Amateur. I’d even gone so far as to broach the idea to Harvie and his wife, Joanne, that afternoon, and both thought it was indeed time for Harvie to finally tell his side of the biggest scandal of golf’s modern era.

“If you’re going to write books about Hogan and Harvie,” Tom said that evening at the Pine Crest, after learning that I hailed from just 70 miles up the road in Greensboro, “you ought to think of actually moving home to the Sandhills.”

Harvie smiled and said he agreed. “You should come take the Pinehurst cure the way I did,” he added, explaining that in the early days of Pinehurst, the longleaf pines were believed to emit a mysterious healing “ozone” capable of curing anything from plantar warts to ailing golf swings. He was convinced of the phenomenon’s authenticity.

“Haven’t you heard?” said the redoubtable Derr in his best broadcaster’s voice. “Old golf writers never die. They just move to Pinehurst and lose their balls!” He ticked off a list of famous golf scribes who’d spent some of their best years living and working in the Home of American Golf: Bob Harlow, Dick Taylor, Charles Price, Bob Drum, and even Herb Wind, who returned on a regular basis to see his pal Dick Tufts at his cottage off Pinehurst No. 2.

I admitted that the idea was awfully tempting and briefly recounted my teenage epiphany in the Pines and an old desire to call Pinehurst home.

“I’ll bet your father would tell you it’s time to do that,” Derr said. I was more than a little surprised to hear my father brought into the discussion. Opti had been gone for four years at that point, a loss I still felt keenly almost every day of my life; I missed his voice, his humor, his good-hearted wisdom, and his upbeat take on every bump and hurdle of life.

“You knew him?” I asked John.

Derr smiled. “We started our careers together on the newspaper in Greensboro. That was either 1937 or ‘38. I was an assistant sports editor, totally wet behind the ears, and he was a local boy selling advertising and writing an aviation column. The war took us our separate ways. But I always liked your dad very much.” A roguish smile appeared. “We were both Golden Glove boxers and snappy dressers who had an eye for the ladies. My ring name was ‘Dirty Derr.’ Don’t remember your dad’s” — it was “Bomber Brax” — “but I know he moved to Maryland and married a beauty queen: your mother, I presume. Which reminds me, I’ve just started dating a lovely widow in her late 70s who cooks like a Michelin chef, sings opera, plays golf, and likes to take midnight swims in the nude. Best of all, she can drive at night! She keeps me so young that I’ve added a dozen new things to my bucket list.’’

“What’s a bucket list?” I asked.

“That’s a list of things you have to do before you kick the bucket,” John explained. “Everyone should have one, dear boy — especially golfers. “

“I have one,” quipped Harvie. “I plan to go back and win the Masters someday. I need a green jacket to complete my wardrobe.”

Tom said, “Mine is to convince you to move home to North Carolina so I’ll have a regular golf buddy before I get too old to play. Best remember what I tell visitors to my shop — that life and golf are both subject to change without notice.’’

“That’s so true,” Harvie agreed, striking a wistful tone. “Better come on home, son, before you reach the final clubhouse turn.”

For the rest of the evening, I simply sat and soaked up this trio’s delightful stories from their long journeys through an ancient game, thinking about my own bucket list. On the long drive home to Maine, in the spirit of Opti and John Derr, I decided I would call mine a “Range Bucket List” and populate it with things I hoped to do in golf — maybe even including figuring out a way to eventually return to the place where my golfing life began.

Every golfer’s Range Bucket List is different, of course — as individual as one’s thumbprint or golf swing. That’s part of an RBL’s endless attraction. As one item is checked off the list, another may take its place. Some dream of playing the planet’s top 100 golf courses or participating in a pro-am with their favorite PGA Tour star. Others merely hope to someday shoot their age or win their club championship. Some — like me — to paraphrase Bobby Jones, simply wish to chase Old Man Par until our legs give out.

Since I’m the son of an incurable optimist who believed that golf provides the best opportunities for competitive fun and friendship in a complex world, I’ve always felt the game to be about its remarkable people, places, and traditions far more than a good score on the card. I have an abiding passion for old clubhouses and vintage courses, as well as the deep friendships and diverse landscapes that have enriched my own peculiar golf IQ along with the game’s incomparable history of colorful characters and assorted heroes and rogues, all linked by an incurable addiction to chasing a tiny ball all over God’s green earth, discovering whatever adventure lies just around the next dogleg.

At the end of the day, when I look back on a deeply rewarding life in golf that I never expected to have, I can think of no other activity that has provided me more fun and friendship. Maybe it has for you, too. This book is about that, and maybe something more — the highlights of a grateful everyman’s Range Bucket Lists past and present, peak experiences and favorite bits of golf lore, unforgettable characters and moments that made my travels through the game so fun and enriching, and even a few remaining “Things to Do in Golf” before reaching Harvie Ward’s final clubhouse turn. In some ways, it’s simply a universal tale about a kid whose wildest golf dreams, jotted down long ago in a small notebook, somehow came true, and a grown man’s love letter to the finest game of all.

Above all, dear old John Derr was on to something when he declared that every true son or daughter of the game should keep a Range Bucket List, regardless of age, because such a list will keep its owner young in spirit and forever “on the right side of the sod,” as he liked to say.

And Opti the Mystic was surely right when he pointed out that this splendid game ends far too soon but that it can take you far and bring you safely home again. 

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