The Hole in One
When Louis was a very young boy, his father shot his first and only hole-in-one. Louis was five years old at the time, and one of his earliest memories was his beaming father, looking like an advertisement for suntan lotion and chinos, bursting through the front door to tell his family the joyous news.
The sunlight followed him in like a thousand golden darts, and his father scooped Louis up in his cigarette- and aftershave-scented embrace and danced him around the living room. The family all went out for dinner that night, which usually only happened once every three months, or when Louis’s father picked a winning horse at the track.
At five years old, Louis was too young to know what had happened on the golf course, but he wished it could happen every day. His father was not an emotional man.
Oh, he was kind enough. He’d help Louis with his homework and sometimes watch baseball games with him and teach Louis about things like “balks” and “double-play depth” and “bunting the runner over.” But he was a creature of extreme habit.
He’d come home from his job at the construction site, where he was something called the “four-man” (Louis liked to think that his father did the work of four men, and was praised for it). He’d kick off his dirty boots in the cramped front hall, shuck his clothes into the hamper, put on a pair of sweatpants and a dirty gray cutoff sweatshirt proclaiming St. Ignatius as the 1966 City Champs. Then he’d plop onto the couch with the day’s paper and bark at Louis’s mother to bring him two beers from the fridge. Louis thought that maybe one day, the second beer would be for him, but it never was.
Louis’s father played golf every Sunday morning at the municipal course just outside the city. He kept his clubs in his bedroom closet, and they seemed to be the only things in the small apartment that were always clean. His father had no use for wooden clubs, and played solely with his blade irons, one wedge, and a putter. Louis was given strict orders not to touch them, but on the rare occasions when his parents were both out and he returned home from school early, he’d pad silently into his parents’ room.
Louis never touched one of his father’s golf clubs, but opened the closet door and stared reverently at the gleaming shafts and heads tucked away in the folds of coveralls and blue jeans. If the sun was in the room just right, the heads of the irons would flash glints of reflected light back at Louis, and he could imagine he was looking at the half-lidded eyes of an exotic snake. Louis very much looked forward to the day when he could dress up like his father, with a collared shirt carefully tucked into his only pair of nice pants, and follow him out into the weak Sunday morning sunlight to play his first nine holes.
Louis never knew if his father was very good or very bad at golf, but he realized later that it didn’t much matter. Every Sunday afternoon, when his father returned from the course, he was changed. Louis didn’t know how to explain it, but he knew his father went through a transformation during his weekly nine holes that straightened his bent spine, lifted the corners of his cracked mouth, and gave his dull eyes a sparkle. Louis reasoned that golf must be the male version of the manicures his mother got every year before Easter Sunday. His father never told him very much about golf, but that was ok. He thought that his father obviously worked very hard during the week, and deserved to have his time on Sunday mornings to himself.
Louis never played golf with his father.
He died when Louis was seven years old.
Because things often work out this way, Louis became a professional golf instructor. Several years after his father died, he picked up weekend work as a caddy at his father’s favorite course.
Tips from caddying, odd jobs around town, and the occasional twenty bucks won from an overconfident club member left Louis with enough money after high school to enroll in a golf instruction academy. Used to fairways splotched with brittle yellow grass and sand traps with bare bedrock poking through the bottom, the academy’s home course was a paradise.
The fairways were like plush emerald carpets, the greens as smooth and crisp as the skin of an apple. The bunkers seemed to be sown with pulverized silk that gleamed white in the warm southern sun. Even the rough, thick and clutching, was a cool whisper around the ankles, and gave the ball up reluctantly with a slight schoomp after every stroke. Louis was in love.
A shy and reserved young man, Louis found himself unusually well suited to the art of golf instruction. His swing was long and fluid, the club circling his lean body like a satellite, taken away and returned to the point of contact in an easy and powerful rhythm, only to be swept up and over his left shoulder in a matador’s flourish. Oftentimes his students asked him how it was possible to make such a long motion seem so effortless, and whether he had ever tried to take his game to the professional level. Louis would always tell them that he had only two dreams in his life: to teach his students how to play and respect the game of golf, and to make a hole-in-one, just as his father had.
Louis worked patiently with young and old, skilled and unskilled alike, and brought joy and fulfillment to every student he chanced to encounter. He played thousands upon thousands of rounds on hundreds of beautiful courses, and in several different countries as well, but he never shot a hole-in-one.
As Louis neared the end of his career, a particularly wealthy student of his went on a business trip to Scotland, and took Louis along to play the most famous course in golf.
St. Andrews, Scotland is the home of golf, and the Old Course at St. Andrews is believed to be the first golf course in the world. Set over acres of rolling dunes and scrubland against the bitter North Sea, the Old Course is the Mecca for golfers all over the world. Louis, like everyone who makes golf their passion, had always yearned to play its famed links. As he stood on the first tee and looked out over the pinnacle of a life spent in service to the game of golf, a great balloon of joy swelled inside him and threatened to burst. Swallowing hard against this upwelling, Louis calmly took aim and played his first shot down the lefthand side of the fairway.
Then he and his wealthy partner had the best four hours of either of their lives, walking and hitting, measuring and putting, cursing and laughing over the bridges and berns of the dark green Old Course.
Louis played that round as he had every round of his life: with his father’s old blade irons and putter. When he returned from Scotland, he meticulously cleaned his irons and left them standing in his bedroom closet, tucked among the folds of his collared shirts and khaki pants.
Louis retired from teaching golf at the age of 70. It seemed a good, round number. He wanted to spend time with his wife, Tess, whom he had met while on a golf trip to Jamaica some years before. They had been married for just about forty years, and each had looked forward to the day of Louis’s retirement for a long time.
They were very much in love, but it was more than that. Each lived only for the other. They had had friends in their youth, and parties, and times when it felt that the earth would grind to a halt that very night and freeze a moment of bliss forever.
But, as it always does, life went on. Louis and Tess moved house several times, as new golf clubs sprang up and required a head teaching professional. To stay in touch was the promise, delivered upon for a while, years in some cases, only to eventually fall by the wayside in the march of decades.
Eventually, it was only the two, Louis and Tess, with their small dog Tugboat. Louis had always wanted a dog named Tugboat. As sometimes happens, the house in which they would live out their days sat only ten miles from the apartment where Louis grew up. The two would take walks through the city sometimes as the fall turned to winter, and stop into their favorite coffeeshop for two hot chocolates (and a biscuit for Tugboat). Then they would return to their small house, build a fire, and read together on the couch under a blanket while Tugboat slept on the rug at the foot of the hearth.
Springtime was the best of all, when the city hadn’t begun to give off the ripe smell of garbage, and the whine of the construction sites was a muted buzz. Tess loved taking walks, Louis loved golf, and Mark Twain once famously quipped that golf was “a good walk spoiled,” so on sunny mornings the two would make their way to Louis’s father’s old golf course.
The place had undergone some updates since Louis’s childhood, but the memories remained. Louis enjoyed himself immensely in those last few years, making leisurely laps of his childhood track with Tess, regaling her with stories of his youth.
He showed her the 7th hole, where his father made his only hole-in-one, the pond where his fellow caddy Tony Amato had gotten fed up with his golfers and pitched their clubs ten feet deep, and the equipment shed near the eighth green where he and the guys used to sneak cigarettes while their golfers were having lunch at the turn.
Tess knew that Louis’s life’s ambition was to shoot a hole-in-one, and she made an extra effort to discuss the cloud patterns, or the birds pecking seed along the fringe, or really anything to shift focus from the unfulfilled goal as they made their way to another par-3 hole.
Louis and Tess (and sometimes Tugboat) made several hundred trips around that course, Louis golfing and chatting and reminiscing, Tess laughing and listening and watching for birds and squirrels and rabbits. The days were long and green and gold for the two of them, and smiles flitted about their lined faces like dancing butterflies.
And still, through all these years, Louis never made a hole-in-one.
Tess died, slowly but peacefully, on a Saturday afternoon in early May. The birds sang through the warm panes of the windows, and the sun fell steady and gleaming into the bedroom, and Louis lay next to his beloved and held her while she slipped away. They had time enough to say all the things they had said thousands of times before, and by the time she looked into his eyes for the last time, he knew he had made her as happy as she had made him, and that gave him some peace. Their last words to each other were, “I love you.”
The next morning dawned gray and windy. Louis opened his eyes for the first time in almost five decades without the love of his life beside him. He arose, climbed into his finest khakis, tucked in a collared shirt, and donned a rain shell and cap. Then he opened the bedroom closet, shifted aside his golf slacks and shirts, and retrieved his gleaming blade irons.
He played very poorly. Drives were sliced wildly, chips skulled over the green, putts left short or sent long or badly misread. His long, smooth swing, warped by years and grief, was completely out of whack. And then he came to the 7th hole.
He stood on the tee, looking down over a small pond surrounded by cattails, at a green shaped like a lima bean some 150 yards away. He always had found it odd that the green was shaped this way, and remembered a day several years ago when Tess had decided, because of this very green, to make lima bean soup that night for dinner. Smiling through his grief, Louis remembered their joint reaction to the first bite of the soup – to spit it back into their bowls and sputter into fits of laughter. Revolting! she had cried. Torture! he proclaimed. They had ordered a pizza, and spent the intermittent time trying to bribe Tugboat to lap at the green non-dinner.
Louis smiled again, addressed the ball, and put a smooth swing down and through with his 7-iron. He turned to follow the flight of the ball as it rose and fell in a white arc against the gray-blue sky. It bounced once on the front fringe of the green, hopped again five yards from the hole, and followed a small undulation in the green up a slight slope, off the flagstick, and into the cup. “Thanks, Tess,” he said as he plucked his tee from the ground with shaking hands, an unrecognizable combination of relief, joy, grief, and love coursing through his eighty-year-old body, “I love you.”