The sweat was dripping from my chin as I stood over what would probably appear to most as a simple garden variety 4-footer on the 18th hole. My mind was racing back and forth, doing everything in its power to ignore the significance of what potentially was only a few seconds away from happening. I backed off and walked a few paces behind my ball, took a deep breath, and leaned on my putter as I squatted down to regain a clear focus on the task at hand once again. It was a gentle right-to-left breaker, which on any other day would’ve been an absolute no-brainer; the type you could stroke just a little firmer than normal to take out any guesswork with the break and drill it dead center without a second thought.
But this day was unlike any other.
It’s in these pressure-packed moments within any sport that an athlete is conditioned to reflect on the numerous successful instances in the past in which he executed the play just as planned, as a confident image plays out in highlight mini-reel fashion in his mind. I’d never been this close to doing anything remotely this significant in golf, however. The closest comparison I could think of is when I would play with “him.”
Russ and I began our friendship shortly after I moved to Western Kentucky back in the early 1990′s, and it wasn’t long after that when we decided to take up this crazy game of golf. Every week we’d play at least one round, some weeks we might even squeeze in two rounds, at this little municipal course in Paducah called Paxton Park. The greens at Paxton weren’t overly big but were notoriously fast and firm, two factors that played a significant role in both of us learning the value of a tidy short game early on in our golfing exploits. Over the next several years we would become better players and wouldn’t have to rely on our short games nearly as much as we did just starting out, but little did we know that those hot, humid summer days of grinding and sweating over difficult pitches, chips and putts would only add to the excitement and drama of our weekly battles against one another in the coming years ahead.
Russ was an exceptional athlete, having played in multiple sports in high school and college, but where he excelled most was on the basketball court. To this day I’ve never played with anyone who had as pure a jump shot from beyond the arc as he did, and although I didn’t have to ever remind him of this (like most good athletes – he seldom lacked confidence), but had he been just 4 inches taller – he most likely could’ve signed on with just about any Division I school in the country. Fortunately for me, however, he was only 6 feet tall and instead of chasing a life of fame and fortune in some big city beyond his college days, he ended up settling in this sleepy little town in Western Kentucky called Lone Oak, which is essentially where our friendship started. So even though he was obviously more athletically gifted than I was in most other sports, in golf I felt a lot closer to being his equal. At least in my own mind anyway, despite usually coming up on the short end of our weekly matches.
All of the significant accomplishments that both of us enjoyed early on in our golf experiences came in the company of the other. When he broke 80 for the first time, which was about a year before I accomplished the feat myself, we were playing together. I remember that day most vividly, because it was also the very same round that I joined the ranks of the exclusive hole-in-one club, courtesy of an 8iron from 145 yards. He would go on to break 80 several more times that season, and although I would get painstakingly close – my only consolation was that maybe he had no other choice but to break 80 if he expected to beat me. Well, that and the fact that within 6 weeks of carding my first career ace – I would card another one at the very course that he and I basically cut our golfing teeth on. Russ wasn’t with me that day, but another good friend of mine (and a pretty good golfer at that) Brian was with me when I got my 2nd hole-in-one. Having two good friends like Russ and Brian as witnesses to such a memorable time in my golf life made it all the sweeter, and although we don’t talk as much as we used to, we still try to keep in touch from time to time.
Playing with Russ over the years planted a competitive seed within me that wouldn’t bear fruit until many years later, long after we played our last full season together as regular golfing buddies. Not that I didn’t have the ability to be competitive, but winning certainly wasn’t a concept that drove my extracurricular ambitions to higher standards of excellence. At that time in my life, my golfing personality was much more reserved and laid back, which probably had as much to do with recognizing my novice level of skill as anything else. But I admired the passion that Russ played with, a passion that didn’t just extend to golf or sports in general, but even with something as trivial as a card game on a Saturday night. Looking back on what specifically made him such a good athlete, and even more importantly what enabled him to become very successful in his career over the years, it became apparent that his confident attitude and his desire to be the best at everything he did in life were the real catalysts of his enormous ambition.
So when those rare instances came when I did manage to beat him, whether it was in golf, tennis, or hoops – all of those qualities he possessed made the experience much more rewarding and memorable for me. In all of those years we played sports together, he taught me the value in having more confidence than your opponent, but more importantly – the importance of having more heart.
As life has a way of doing sometimes, and most of the time as it happens when we least expect it, the paths that bring two people together long enough to develop a close friendship eventually separate and head in totally different directions. Back in the summer of 1999, I’ll never forget the sadness and the awkwardness of having to tell my best friend in the world that in a matter of just a few months I would be moving 1000 miles away. Although the game of golf formed the foundation of our friendship early on, we’d become much more to each other than just regular golf buddies. Our families became close, our kids did things together on the weekends, we’d get babysitters and take our wives out for dinner dates and shopping trips to the malls. When one of us had a home project that needed an extra pair of hands – it was just expected that the other would be there when the need arose. All of the miles we drove together going on golf trips to Myrtle Beach, St. Louis, Tennessee, and elsewhere over the years – all of those memories became permanent fixtures of an important time in my life.
There are significant life events that one never forgets. December 27th, 1999 would mark one of the most significant for me, as two families stood in a driveway in the wee morning hours and shared a few memories, laughs, tears and hugs just moments before a 16-hour journey to the Northeast would officially begin a new chapter in life for one of them. As I pulled out of the driveway and drove down the street, I watched them continue to wave in my rearview mirror until I could see them no more. The empty feeling that came over me at that precise moment was indescribable, and that emptiness remained long after we’d settled in and got accustomed to a new life in the Northeast.
There have been a number of instances over the years that I’ve found that old, “better to have loved” adage to be painfully true, although nothing was lost with my friendship with Russ. He and I still talk from time to time despite the 1000 miles between us, and I’ve also enjoyed a few annual golf trips with him over the years since. Given my life-changing situation that blessed me with an abundance of time to devote to improving my golf game over the past decade, and the fact that his career and family life have only demanded more of his time and energy, the competitive golfing scale that for many years tipped the balance in his favor now leans to mine. He doesn’t play nearly as much golf as he used to, of which he readily admits each time we talk, but embedded somewhere deep within all of the trappings of a hectic life still lies the spirit of a competitive warrior whose winning attitude proved contagious.
As I wiped the sweat from my brow and took one last look at the remaining 4 feet left that Sunday afternoon on the final hole, my mind reflected back to those old days gone by on the course with Russ. I seldom had an opportunity to close out our match on the 18th hole by virtue of a simple 4-footer for par, but it was always the goal at the start of each round I played with him. Although he was 1000 miles away that hot summer day back in August of 2009, in my mind he was leaning on his putter as he stood 10 feet away watching and waiting to see if I was brave enough to close him out.
I stepped back over the ball, gave the hole one last look, and somehow managed to take the putter back on the perfect line with the perfect pace, and I stroked it into the heart of the cup to become my club’s Champion Golfer that year, the amateur equivalent of winning a major championship.
The only possible thing that would’ve made that accomplishment more fulfilling was if my old golf buddy had been there pushing me the entire way.
Then again, in my mind he was.