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Friday, April 08, 2016

 

The Man From Odessa


Well, first of all, let me get a drink. Jumping Jeremiah, it's hot out there. What a round. I never -- well, I guess I have -- but I rarely have had an afternoon like this. I can see you all are curious about our playing partner and I want to tell you all about him.  I don't mind being the center of attention, but I like to pick my circumstances. Like the old pro from Springfield said when he was being rode out of town on a rail, "If it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd just as soon walk."

Thank you, bartender. J.D. is grabbing a quick shower, but I value a quick drink more, so here I am. When he gets here you can ask him if every word I'm telling you isn't true.

After years of playing dead even together, J.D. now must give me five or six strokes -- it was more for a while, but now he's backsliding into his old slicing ways, somehow he just can't seem to finish his swing the way he once did.

We were trading golf magazine tips on the first tee when the Man from Odessa joined us. We like to play in the heat of the day: we can always get a tee time and we usually play just as a twosome, so we get matched with a lot of other twosomes and singles, which is fine with us.

So this Harlan introduced himself and we all shook hands, and I have to say, he seemed like a sound enough person, a good old boy. Well dressed, too: a salmon colored golf shirt with a Golden Bear logo on it, cream colored slacks, two tone shoes and a hat of many colors emblazoned with "Permian Basin CC". Nice clubs, too. Ping irons, Taylor woods and a real-nice lightweight carrying bag.

We said we were planning to use the competition tees that day and Harlan said that was fine. We teed off without injuring anyone or damaging any property and rode off down the fairway, J.D and me in one cart and Harlan by himself in another.

That first hole is a relatively short par five, so even if you only hit every other shot with the meat of the club like I do, you can get a bogey, easy, and we all did.

Now it's hot at midday in Houston in late summer, but there was some breeze that day. The wind isn't much of a factor at that time; we don't ever pluck grass blades and toss them to the wind, but gusts occasionally hint of what habitable climates must be like. The main thing is the humidity, it just sucks the want-to out of you some days, so J.D. and I hardly ever drink beer anymore when we play, just some Gatorade, unless the game is so good or so bad that nothing else will do.

"Dang it's sticky out here," said Harlan as we walked up to the second tee, "It's a lot drier out in Odessa."

"Well, it's sort of an extra hazard down here," said J.D. "Do you want me tell you about this hole?" he asked, ever the compassionate host.

"Naw. Looks wide open to me," declared Harlan, "I'm not doing anything tricky, just trying to keep it on the short grass." J.D. shrugged indifferently. What we could tell him about this hole, he would have to find out himself: the usually dry creek bed that crosses the fairway 125 yards from the tee that gobbles up any skimmers; the hardpan on the right that keeps your slice rolling into the lake on Six; the desolate fairway bunkers on the left for any errant draw; the loblolly pines on the far left for any hook. Perhaps we worried unnecessarily, where familiarity with the terrors on Two had bred not contempt but craven apprehension. Trying to see it with the eyes of a man from Odessa, the second fairway does look wide open, even if the woods on the right and the bunkers on the left do pinch the landing area a little.

At any rate, J.D. hit a confidant Three wood to the cart path on the right, where it winds around the woods, and I hit a Driver short of the traps. Harlan stepped up to the ball and without much ado blasted his ball. He seemed to usually play what you call a Big Fade, and I guess ordinarily that would have been fine on Two. But he started it left, the wind gusted, the loblolly boughs swayed and a branch three-quarters of the way to the top reached for his ball like a right fielder going for a line drive at the foul pole. There was a sharp crack and the ball fell straight down.

"Hang it all," said Harlan, "What is this? We don't have trees like that in Odessa."

"Tough luck," said J.D. sincerely, for even we would not have thought to have warned him of that peril on this hole, "You really creamed it, too. At least you're across the creek."

That seemed small consolation to Harlan as he grumbled to his cart. The inconvenient part was that his ball had fallen inside the no-cart area, so we left our carts on the path and trudged over to the other side of the fairway to look for Harlan's ball. Tall, brown spear grass mixed with pine straw covered the ground where his ball fell, and it took a while to find it, nestled in a cluster of 100 foot tall pines.

"Shoot, you'll have to play a safety," quoted J.D. from some conservative golf magazine guru.

"Not likely," said Harlan, "If I can get a club on this ball, those trees are just 80 percent air.

Now maybe in Odessa among the live oak and mesquite that is true, but you all would hold an opinion to the contrary, I'm sure, being aware of the sturdy, unyielding nature of the average mature loblolly pine tree. But did you know that those trees were the preference of shipbuilders from all over the world for masts? I mention that only as a supporting argument that when surrounded with mast material, one ought to chip out of danger rather than blast away.

But the Man from Odessa knew none of that, and blast again he did. He couldn't pick it clean, but he hit it square. While it is true that the big sycamores on Five give a very satisfactory knock when a ball hits them, that really does not compare at all with the solid, resounding thock from a loblolly when squarely hit.

As we watched his ball disappear into the boulders in the dry creek bed behind us, I had to say, "Harlan, you're losing ground, boy," as a sort of tension breaker, and I think he realized I didn't mean anything by it, but for a second he gave me an extremely unfriendly, cross stare.

Fortunately, he had come equipped with an extra ball and a duffer's assortment of clubs, so it was short work for him to take a drop and lambaste a two iron over the bunkers.

"Finally!", he said, "Back in the saddle, now."

"You got all of that one," agreed J.D., "I guess you don't want me to mention the water on the other side of that bunker, now, though".

Harlan gave J.D. what I call a two-by-four-look, as if he had been clouted with a piece of lumber, and he never really lost that look the rest of the afternoon.

Although Harlan had managed to work up a sweat, J.D. and I were still well rested, so we scratched a couple of mid-irons up to the green and then watched Harlan drop another ball and fade it onto and over the green into a trap. From across the fairway, we could hear him clearly, "What is the deal with these greens, don't you water them at all? That was a great shot and the ball bounced like a superball on pavement."

"I figured you West Texas boys would play pitch and run rather than target golf anyway," I said. "This time of day, the greens are a little hard already."

"A Little Hard," cried Harlan, and it did seem to me he was getting a little goofy here, "I-10 in Odessa this time of year isn't that hard -- even asphalt starts to bubble after a certain temperature."

I admit that rubbed me the wrong way a little. Bear Creek is my home course, after all, and I can see you feel the same way. The differences in courses from place to place make the game more interesting and challenging. Though we all doff our hat in homage to the links at St. Andrews, if all courses were identical, surely our reverence would be diminished. Marvelous though Pebble Beach certainly is, think how bored with it all we would be if every course had that same finishing hole. So it was in a miffed silence that we putted out.

Things did not improve when Harlan looked at the challenge of the par three Third. "How am I supposed to pitch and run this S.O.B.?" he asked petulantly. "There's a creek in front and hair-lipped bunkers all across!"

This sort of confrontational denigration of my club chaffed me even more, so I told him the rest of what he did not know: "The green is shaped like a peanut, the pin is in the middle, there are deep bunkers behind the green and the wind's against us."

With caution grounded in experience, similar as on Two, J.D. and I both played conservatively, aiming well away from the hole, with the result that I lay pin-high off the green on the left and J.D. the same on the right.

"What'd you hit?" asked Harlan.

"I hit a smooth six iron teed up high," I replied.

"A seven," said J.D. "since we're against the wind."

"But it's only 135 yards," said Harlan.

"You really don't want to be in that front trap, at all," we said.

"Well, we got wind and sand in Odessa, too," said Harlan, "I'm gonna whale me a eight iron up there high enough to stick it."

We had to admire the pioneer character of the Man from Odessa, his courage to face an overwhelming challenge and the conviction that he could overcome it, sort of the Spirit of the Alamo, if you know what I mean. He mashed the ball, it soared in the air, the wind beat it down, it plugged in the front trap.

J.D. and I knew with foreboding what we would find when we got there, and our worst fears were gratified. Harlan did not react well.

"Where's my ball? Where's my ball?" he shouted from the edge of the bunker, waving his sandwedge like an Aggie brandishes his sabre. He didn't calm down when we showed him, either.

"Oh, for the love of Pete," he said, and grimly set forth to extricate himself. But one step into the trap raised new horrors.

"What is this CRAP?" he raged.

"It appears you are the first one in that trap today," said J.D. "They rake it up first thing in the morning, but when the sun burns off the dew, it tends to make it a little crusty."

"But, how'm I gonna. . .how'm I gonna?" sputtered Harlan as he surveyed his shot: his ball was not only buried, but also encapsulated.

Now you all have been there yourselves, and you know the only way to play that shot is to take a full swing, aim a quarter-inch behind where you think the ball is, keep your left heel down, your feet close together and make sure that you follow through so you can get the ball over the chest-high lip of the trap. Harlan's repertoire of sand shots probably did not include that technique; undoubtedly, he usually hit some sort of splash shot. What he tried to do was, spread his feet wide and hunch his shoulders, take a full swing, rock way back on his right foot and strike at the ball like he was splitting logs. Not even the sand made it over the lip.

"Aaargh, aaaargh, aaaaargh," punctuated each of his successive tries. The relief for all three of us was palpable when he finally got out.

J.D. and I both chipped up by the pin and tapped in for our pars, then we had to watch poor Harlan four-putt.

We had forgotten any ill-will caused by his previous brusqueness. Who among us has not had "one of those days" where every good shot falls short or goes long, or just left or right into trouble, and this was clearly such a day for Harlan. Even worse luck for him that it was on a strange course where his instincts and experience were of no use.

That is not to say that we were at ease on the fourth tee. Harlan's evident displeasure at the latest turn of events made him less than cheerful. He looked ready to explode. J.D. and I teed off with some small success; he wrapped his slice around the dogleg about 240 yards and I managed to skirt the big sycamores lining the creek on the right with my standard hook and wound up more or less in the fairway.

Harlan was still a little shell-shocked. On Two, every stroke had cost him another. On Three, it had taken him nine strokes to hole out from 135 yards. Sweat drenched his shirt, his hair hung in strands like a rastafarian, sand still clung to his clothes up to his chest. Rather than courageous or optimistic, I would have described his mood as grimly desperate. He waggled an unseemly long time, anxiously, wringing his club grips like a parson in a cat-house. He kept sneaking peeks down the fairway and changing his stance, then backing away from the ball in an attempt to gather himself. Finally, with a deep breath in and out, he addressed the ball and swung easily, when I fully expected him to lunge at the ball. It sounded good to me and Harlan's expression told me he thought so, too. But intent on swinging easy, Harlan had failed to follow through, which left the ball out right with his customary big fade on it. His face fell faster than the price of West Texas Intermediate when the Arabs agree on anything. His ball pinballed around a few sycamores and drained into the creek.

Harlan appeared to have an internal episode. His eyes were shut and he didn't say anything. Then he jumped into his cart and drove straight off towards his ball. Regretfully, I must confirm that he did not follow the cart path to the 50 yard marker, travel 90 degrees to his ball or keep his cart at the course level. It is also true that he drove over the red tee markers on the women's tee, unintentially, I am sure.

Showing a little valorous discretion, we said nothing about these infringements of course etiquette, but our mood as we looked back from our cart in the middle of the fairway to Harlan's position in the rough was a trifle anxious. We couldn't see him but we could hear him down in the creek bed under the sycamores amongst the Johnson grass. Reminded me of the time I went deer hunting in Arkansas -- I didn't know what was going to come bursting out of the brush up there, a deer or a razorback hog looking to put a zipper in my leg. After a while, a clump of tall grass and creek bottom came flying out, then almost as an afterthought, a ball trickled out into the fairway. The once dapper Harlan appeared shortly after, looking like John the Baptist after a locust dinner. He was wet to the knees and spattered from head to toe. Any commentary from us seemed entirely out of order, so we just clubbed a couple of beauties up on the green, took our seat back in the cart and watched Harlan.

His movements were measured now, as if every breath were a conscious effort. He selected his club like a duelist examining unfamiliar weapons. Desperation covered his features; white knuckles showed through the mud; I thought surely he would top. But Harlan hit a winner, a gorgeous parabola that landed softly 8 feet from the pin, inside J.D. and me. We even got out of the cart to examine the divot -- the best turf taken I have ever seen.

But Harlan was in a hurry. He had raced to the green and was pacing irritably while we moseyed up, measured our putts and tapped in for pars. You know, it hadn't gotten any cooler while we were out there, so we were still pacing ourselves. With deliberate haste, Harlan stepped up to his putt and rammed it at the hole. Had it gone in, had it hit the back of the cup and popped straight up and in the hole, I am sure things would have been different. What did happen, though, was that it rimmed the cup one and a half times and then lipped out behind the hole.

I've never seen such a shot, nor has J.D. or anyone else. I would like to give Harlan credit where I can: he calmly put in that little knee-knocker, THEN he helicoptered that putter off into the trees lining the creek, all in all, a rather astonishing throw.

I do not think it can be a coincidence that Celtic sports are so uniformly amenable to displays of emotion: throwing telephone poles, rolling boulders and flailing shileleighs, and these are all arguably antecedents to Golf. So although we were somewhat nonplussed by this violence on the course which always seems so out of place, in another way it seemed like the only proper response. Once again we trailed Harlan to the next hole.

At the Fifth, Harlan's enthusiasm, if you want to call it that, caused him to take just a little too much turf with his tee shot, causing his driver to snap off at the shank, even though the ball flew a respectable distance. He didn't get much roll, however. On the green our unspoken question was answered when Harlan two-putted with his 1-iron.

"I knew this thing would be some use some day," said Harlan. "Like the Merry Mex says, 'not even God can hit a 1-iron', but I can putt with it."

Such was our desperation that we looked on this humor as a good sign, that we had turned the corner. But that was before Harlan got a good look at the water hazard on Six. He stood on the tee dismally surveying the water carry like the Chosen People must of looked at the Red Sea.

"What ocean is this on your golf course?" he started, "Where do the freighters dock? How many fathoms deep is it?"

"Where are the small craft warnings?" he continued, "Shouldn't we be evacuating the low-lying areas? Judging by those whitecaps, the high-tide is going to cover us all!

"How'm I supposed to hit over this water onto that postage stamp? Do you have Iron Byron in your bag to hit your ball? or a howitzer?" he finished.

"What I usually do is lay up to the side," I offered.

"Lay up? Lay Up? LAY UP? On a par-three?" Harlan shrieked and we could tell, he was getting worked up again. "That's not golf, that's some sissy game played by . . . by sissies!"

"Suit yourself," I said and put my 5-wood 35 yards short of the greenside traps on the right.

"Looks good to me," said J.D. and put his 3-iron a couple of yards away from mine.

An ancient passion gripped Harlan, but he could still reason. He reached for his driver, and it was painful to watch as he realized it was not there, that he must settle for his 3-wood.

I suppose there are players who can reach that tiny green against a cross-wind with enough on the ball to hold it, young flatbellies in college, no doubt, who have no fear born of disappointment and disillusionment. However, Harlan would not be one of those; not today, when the greens were wind-blown and sun-baked, not with his big fade.

His first blow went too high, too much into the wind and never had a chance to reach the green; it plonked into the water short and left.

His second rode the wind too much, all the way across the target and into the water, short right, with a rather spectacular sploosh which was followed by the whirring of a club destined to join its ball.

"Dang," said J.D. and a look from Harlan told us that we were superfluous to the proceedings, and we retired to our cart, expecting that he would be awhile.

"Don't guess you want to drop a ball up there by us?" Which he did not dignify with an answer.

In short order, Harlan whistled a couple of line drives under the wind short of the green, followed by his 5-wood. Then the gusty wind died down long enough for him to drill a 3-iron into the bank just above the water line. It bounced straight up about 20 feet, then rolled up next to the hole. Harlan stood for the longest time contemplating this last mockery, and, in the end, decided to add the 3-iron to the lake.

This was all starting to wear on both J.D. and me. He chipped over the green and I chipped short, then we both two putted for double bogeys. Harlan had a gimme, but neither J.D. nor I felt like risking his wrath by mentioning it.

I have seen other players putt with an iron successfully before. I saw Gentle Ben in the Davis Cup one year break his putter in anger and putt out the round with a 1-iron. But there is a definite knack to it. I have been told that it's really easier to use a wedge as a putter than a 1-iron, because the face of the 1-iron is harder to square up for a putt than the blade of the wedge. I wouldn't know.

At any rate, Harlan pushed his gimme left. He dropped his 1-iron, clutched his head and bent over in agony. Silent wracking sobs shook his shoulders. Then with eyes wide as saucers, he straightened up and tapped in.

On Seven Harlan hit his 1-iron from the tee, with a big fade against the crosswind so that he wound up in the middle of the fairway. It would have been better if he had still possessed a 3-iron, since his 4-iron left him a little short. Still he was able to get up and down, more or less, for a bogey which moved him to say "You know, I think our courses in Odessa are a little longer than this." Which J.D. and I chose to accept as a sign of life.

On Eight, he enjoyed the same gracious treatment from the wind on a shorter hole for his drive. He rolled his second shot up on the green, pushed his first putt past the hole and rolled it in for a par.

"Now I'm getting the hang of this course," he said.

I've always thought it was a little too precious to have that plaque on the Ninth tee, proclaiming that the Texas Golfer Magazine has judged that hole the toughest ninth hole in Texas, but still, it IS a very challenging and attractive hole: a dogleg left with 75 yards of water to carry in front of the very narrow green.

Harlan beat us both to the tee box and with no ceremony, rifled a line drive down the fairway.

"I hope he decides we play too slow, or else quits to take a shower," J.D. said, "This is too much."

In our haste, we each put our drives in the woods; J.D. on the left, me on the right. But that's neither unusual for us, nor much of a worry on this hole, since we figured to lay up in front of the water anyway, when we're playing from the back tees. Harlan, on the other hand, reckoned on a birdie.

Call it a superstition of mine, if you like, but I never like to hit the same club twice on a hole, never have had any luck with it and, of course, Harlan to reach the green had to hit his 1-iron again. Call it superstition, if you like, also, but I think the ball doesn't carry as well over water as it does normally, either. I think in Houston there is heavy air over bodies of water caused by evaporation. The short of it is that Harlan was in the water, again.

The Mystery and Wonder of Golf come from those reverses of fortunes and expectations. It can be a means to know the deity within oneself. The Intellect plans, the Physique executes and the Spirit exults or despairs, according to the results. The degree to which the golfer can integrate these faculties defines the extent of his golfing enlightenment, which is the measure of his ability to confront the golfer's true opponent, Nature, in its manifestations: wind, water, turf and sand. In Houston, we add heat and humidity.

The unenlightened play against other men, or Par, which is essential to the game, but irrelevant to the deeper essence of Golf. Mastery of oneself and of the elements is a much more difficult and gratifying enterprise.

Bartender, may I have another. Thank you.

Sad to say, Harlan was lacking in these elevated concepts just at that point in time; he had mastered neither himself nor the elements. So that was when he drove his cart into the lake. He had played hastily for six holes with mixed results, and now, in his anxiousness to play another, he overshot the end of the runway, so to speak. His cart launched off the fairway bulkhead, carried further than some shots I have made over that lake and landed with a spectacular splash worthy of Evel Knevel. Fortunately, he still had his 1-iron with him, for everything else in his bag went down with the cart. He waded back onshore, dropped a ball and took a stance.

Now it's only 75 yards from that edge of the water to the front of the green, so you could say Harlan was severely overclubbed for that next shot; for certain, he didn't need a full swing with a 1-iron. But he spanked it, right through the picture window in the clubhouse overlooking the Ninth green. Without an undue amount of contemplation Harlan dropped another ball and pitched it onto the green.  He shouldered his club and strode off toward the bridge to the green. J.D. shrugged and wedged his ball onto the green and I got close. There wasn't too much more excitement to us holing out.

"I think maybe I'm going to need a beer to get through the back nine," J.D. said.

"Get me two," was all I could reply.

Now you might wonder that we would play on. And I can tell you wonder how Harlan could play on, what with the generalized havoc he had wreaked, including a cart in the water and a broken window. You might question why he had not been ejected from the course, if not placed under arrest. I don't know -- I got myself ejected from a course once for a whole lot less, but that's another story. All I can guess is that the proshop staff must have been engrossed in some ballgame on T.V. But to us, emotionally hardened by nine holes of Harlan's trials and tribulations, it just seemed like a really off day for Harlan.

He was a sight on the Tenth Tee. Where before he wore muted pastels, now he was a sodden solid lichen color, including his Quest for Fire Mud People hairdo, and, of course, he was down to one club and one ball.

"You'll have to keep score for me, now," he said, as he addressed his ball. Well, J.D. and me had to laugh out loud, we hadn't kept our own score since the fourth hole; we'd been playing double bogey golf and if we turned in that card, we'd be accused of sandbagging.

It never occurred to me to be offended that he kept taking honors on the tee, it just seemed irrelevant. But I did feel bad that I somewhat carelessly popped the top on my beercan in his backswing. That caused him to toe his drive off into the woods on the right.

"Wow, sorry, Harlan. We'll help you find that one," I said. And he didn't seem too upset, even though he headed right on off, instead of waiting for us to hit. Ten is pretty short, so J.D. and I just eased a couple down the middle. The green is guarded on the right and left in front by traps, so it helps to have a straight shot in.

It didn't take long to find Harlan's ball in the woods, among the roots of a leaning cypress tree.

"Give yourself some relief, there, Harlan," I said, "It was my fault."

"Play it where it lays," was all he said.

As a teenager, I broke my Daddy's 2-wood that way, so I'm a little skittish about impeded swings, but Harlan still had no fear. An amazing thing when you think about it.

He had a nice, easy swing, but it was like trying to pick your teeth with a sandwedge. The ball jumped away from the tree a few yards, but the tree roots wrenched the club from his hands. Harlan shook his  wrists a couple times, then picked up his 1-iron. The head was twisted on the shaft and bent back a little. He took one practice swing, then stepped up to the ball and whacked it again, perfect for this situation: low under the trees and cut back into the fairway. In fact, it rolled through the opening between the traps up onto the green.

J.D. and I managed to get our second shots over the traps, then onto the green, then two-putt for bogeys. Harlan got a par.

He had already broken one club and lost 12 others, not to mention a ball-retriever, umbrella, bag and cart; with one bent club and a ball with a smile like Jimmy Carter, I figured Harlan was done for the day, plus he had to be uncomfortable in his muddy, wet clothes. But he beat us to the next tee and drove down the middle without hesitating. Something I noticed, too. He wasn't hitting big fades anymore, just line drives with lots of roll.

Eleven is basically wide-open and long, which gave us free rein to hit big drives. We weren't keeping score, so this was basically a practice round, for experimentation. J.D. tried to hit his driver off the hardpan; I tried to fade a 2-iron around a willow tree. Harlan punched another bullet up towards the green that rolled into the trap. Even zigzagging across the fairway to our balls, J.D. and I beat Harlan walking to the green.

We gathered at the edge to watch Harlan study on how to get a ball out of a deep bunker with a 1-iron. He kept bending his knees more and more while laying the clubface more and more open till he looked more like he was cleaning out sewer pipes than hitting a golf ball. He swung the club like it was an axe. It was the most marvelous shot I ever saw: the ball popped straight up, bounced on the green-side lip and scooted over to the hole following the break like Foucault's Pendulum. It didn't even rattle the pin as it went in. J.D. and I hooted with delight, "Nice birdie, partner."

Harlan smiled for the first time since the second hole, but mindful of his ups and downs, he was not exuberant, "Just a tad lucky, I reckon."

Twelve presented another challenge to Harlan, a par three with an elevated green fronted by creek and bordered by traps, there is no way to run the ball up and, with the wind, it's real hard to hold the ball on the green with a 5-iron. Harlan crouched into another open stance, laid the club somewhat open and slashed the ball off the heel of the club to the right side. The ball seemed short off the tee, but then began to draw and ride the wind till it landed on the right side froghair. Deadened, the ball released and trickled for the longest time, four feet past the cup.

J.D. and I have both birdied that hole, when the wind was against us to hold the ball up and the green was still soft from rain, but never on a summer afternoon. "Good shot," we said reverently.

"I'll take it," he said. Where before he had been in a rush, he now seemed content to wait for us. Following his example, we crouched somewhat less than Harlan, laid mid-irons open just a little and used flat swings we had seen in golf magazines, without the same result. My second shot was from the Thirteenth tee. J.D. was able to lob a wedge up to the green from his drop by the creek. Harlan got his birdie, and we didn't.

"Two in a row!" J.D. exclaimed, "Keep it going!"

On Thirteen, Harlan's drive had too much draw and rolled out under the trees on the left. He stood upright, used a weak right hand grip and took a half-swing outside-in with a real strong hip turn. The ball started low under the trees along the left side of the fairway, then cut back towards the green and flew up as if it had hit an updraft. It landed past the hole, making a divot we could see from back there, and backed up down the slope, easing up to just inside the leather.

It was now clear. We were seeing the greatest trickshot exhibition of all time. "Un-forsaken-believable," said J.D.

I guess we have all seen those guys: hitting 250 yard drives with a taped-up coke bottle or knocking 150 yard approaches dead to the pin left-handed with the back side of a right-handed club, but that's always an exhibition of rehearsed shots, something between one-liners to entertain the crowd.

Harlan, on the other hand, had come through the fires of perdition on the front-nine and emerged with a character that enabled him to overcome adversity, impervious to the desolation of failure. He was in a groove now, in an ancient passion that led not to dissipation and destruction, but rather to accomplishment, like Robert Bruce when he saw the persistence of the spider. So you can see how he would not take kindly to someone interrupting his game.

But the Marshal had finally come. Zipping along from behind us, he screeched to a stop at the tee. "Where's your cart?" he demanded.

"Just walking today," Harlan replied mildly.

"Where's your receipt, then," the marshall insisted.

"Here," Harlan was only to pleased to oblige; the receipt had been in his pants pocket all this time. By carefully bulging his pocket he was able to get it out, but no one was ever going to read it. It was the same color has Harlan, pond-green and wholly illegible.

"Is that your cart in the lake on Nine? If it is, you have to come back with me. They want to talk to you in the office." The Marshall was fairly sure of his ground here. Although Harlan didn't act guilty, he looked guilty, sort of red-handed, in a manner of speaking.

But Harlan was having none of that. "Tell you what," he said with a look that would have chilled the blood of any man, "Let's play for it."

Trial by combat is as old as man himself, and it is no small achievement that mankind has elevated the concept to games where the contestants battle not to a mortal conclusion, but to something short of that, say humiliation or mere "agony of defeat". The stakes for Harlan were beyond the norms found on the golf course and nothing seemed more natural, I am sure, to someone from the territory once ruled by the six-gun.

The gunfighters had a way of presenting a challenge, non-verbally, that could not be denied, a cobra-like glare and body-language that seduced the victim into the confrontation with no retreat possible.

"What's the matter, Marshall?" cooed Harlan, " You Yellow?"

The Marshall had attempted to assert his authority. Harlan had not confronted it but used it against him, somehow, made the Marshall want the test. "All right, you're on."

"I'm just playing with one club," said Harlan, "J.D. will loan you his clubs, you're up first."

Marshalls play the course regularly, of course, in payment for their services; though he hadn't had any warm up, nor his own clubs, the Marshall got a serviceable drive off down the middle. Harlan stroked a smooth drive himself, a draw down the right side over the bunkers, just skipping by the corner of the water.

The Marshall was a golfer, and as such he recognized what a shot it had been. We were used to it and gave no more thought to Harlan's appearance nor his twisted stick nor his battered ball, but these had all weighed heavily with the Marshall in his decision to play. Now he realized that he had been out-driven by fifty yards; Harlan had wedge distance to the green and he had mid-iron. Regrettably, under the pressure, he wilted and sliced into the lake. With only a sideways glance, the Marshall jumped back into his cart and sped away.

"Y'all have one of those beers left?" Harlan asked.

Harlan finished his hole with aplomb and we proceeded to Fifteen,
a long par five. Harlan reached the green in two and missed his eagle by gnat's eyelash.

Just as we reached the Sixteenth, a cart came bouncing cross-country up to the tee; I recognized the driver as the assistant pro. He popped out of his cart with his Big Bertha in his hand. He strutted to the tee, poked his finger in Harlan's chest and said, "I'm going to show you a little golf, then I'm going to shake some change out of you to pay for a cart and a window." He stabbed a tee into the ground and made his backswing before Harlan said anything.

"Then I guess you won't mind if we raise the bet just a little?" Harlan asked in a voice you could pour over pancakes.

The assistant halted his swing with a strain that looked like it cost him a couple of rib ligaments. "I win, you pay; you win, you walk. How's that?" he asked in a voice you could use to chill martinis.

"Good enough," said Harlan.

The assistant stretched his glove. His neck popped as he rolled his head around his shoulders. He waggled like Babe Ruth in the World Series. He pounded the ball down the right hand side of the fairway.

Sixteen gives you plenty of fairway for a big drive, although water crosses the fairway in front of the green, angling left to right away from the tee. So the assistant's drive was perfect. Harlan duplicated it, but shorter.

Harlan's second from 125 yards away landed so softly, it didn't make a ballmark. The assistant seemed plainly amazed at the way Harlan had crouched and laid his club open to effect the shot. His 9-iron seemed to lack a certain confidence that you normally expect from the assistant pro, and it would be generous to say that his ball was on the green. He gave his putt a chance, but missed. Harlan curled-in his very tricky downhill putt.

What ever was said by way of concession was lost in the breeze as the assistant sped away in his cart. "Y'all sure do play a different game here than in Odessa," he said.

"I guess this is just a regular round for you," said J.D.

"Well, no, it's not. I figured this was normal for Houston, though," said Harlan, but he smiled while he said it.

"Have another beer," I said.

Seventeen is a pesky, par three with more water in front of a green with a narrow mouth guarded by steep bunkers with very heavy sand. Harlan seemed to use one smooth motion to put his beer down and glide a shot to the back of the green, like his follow-through always included chugalugging a beer.

Eighteen has got a plaque like Nine, identifying it as Texas Golf Magazine's favorite finishing hole, and like Nine, it is a long par four, dogleg left with water in front of the green. Waiting by the tee, insouciantly smoking a cigarette was the head pro himself. "Howdy," he said, "I just came out to ride in with you, maybe help you get cleaned up, get your checkbook out."

"That's real neighborly of you," said Harlan evenly, "a shower will be right nice. Though I hate to put these muddy things back on." The Pro nodded slightly to show he understood. "And even though I am playing well with this club, I was thinking I could use some new Pings, Harlan continued." The Pro hesitated only a beat before nodding again, and thus the wager was set: Harlan's previous victories counted for nothing, all the chips were on the table.

The Pro nonchalantly unbent out of the cart. He flicked his butt away and pulled his driver out. He strolled to the tee and casually powered the ball in a draw 300 yards down the fairway, in easy 7-iron distance from there. J.D. and I were impressed, but Harlan didn't register at all. He sidled to the tee indifferently and duplicated his last 7 drives, well down the fairway, but well short of the Pro's drive.

The Pro seemed confidant, but he had only the reports of his minions to go by, he had no way of judging the true capabilities of this stranger covered in mud playing with a bent club.

Since he was away, it took no longer than the time for him to walk to his ball and test the wind to show the Pro. He feathered the club as he had done on the back nine and hit it high. The ball bounced once, into the hole.

The last we saw of Harlan, he and the Pro had stopped the cart on the bridge so that last club could be offered up to the lake.


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