winning isn’t everything

Golf is not a game, it’s bondage. It was obviously devised by a man torn with guilt, eager to atone for his sins. ~Jim Murray

Wednesday night, somewhere in China, Mays and Walsh won the Olympic gold medal in women’s beach volleyball, falling on the sand in the rain, rolling around and screaming with joy.

This ecstasy was followed by tears, especially during a brief moment when Mays sprinkled some of her mother’s ashes on the court where she had just won her second Olympic gold. She did the same thing in Athens four years ago.

The next day, on the other side of the planet, and equally amazing athletic accomplishment unfolded. I won the Cascades six golf championship by one stroke, net 30 on nine holes.

Setting aside that my handicap is 29, and that the other three in the championship round had to give me anywhere from 15 to 25 strokes, this is still somewhat remarkable. I beat my own average for the summer by six strokes.

But the amazing thing is that I play golf at all, because I have no athletic inclination whatsoever. I’m the guy that got picked last all through elementary school, in that cruel playground ritual where bookish kids have no value. My parent signed me up for Little League, long before anyone ever thought that everyone should get a chance to play. I sat on the bench for an entire season, and never played a single inning.

In high school a P.E. teacher once threatened a group of guys and told them if they didn’t shape up he would put me on their team. In college I got my only C in a P. E. class for not being able to do enough chin ups. I had to take an activity class at the University of Tennessee, so I signed up for beginning swimming, even though I had a senior lifeguard certificate at the time.

I am by nature a risk taker, but when it comes to athletics, no risks or team sports for me. I raised three sons, and not a jock in the lot of them. A designer, a photographer and a musician: plenty of risks and lots of solitude. We play games with words, and we’re very good at it.

But ten years ago I signed up for a golf class, because my dad loved the game and I loved him. It was to be a way to spend time with him, but it wasn’t then and isn’t now a passion.

Seven years ago, in early August, we played nine holes together at Hickory Hills in Jackson on a hot, sticky afternoon. I came within a few strokes of him, a rare accomplishment in its own right although he was clearly off his game and very tired. It was the last time we would spend together alone. He returned home to Florida and died of a heart attack three weeks later, just about this time of year.

I don’t know why I kept playing. I like the discipline of having to relax to do well, but it is a difficult one for me to master. I need the exercise, and always walk. And the 16 guys who make up my league, none of whom I know in any other context, are remarkably gracious, considering how poorly I play.

They offer suggestions and encouragement, and only laugh out loud when I go in the same water hazard three times in a row. There are jokes about me, of course, but slightly out of range, while I’m looking for my ball in the tall grass. In some ways it still feels like the playground in forth grade, only with grown ups.

But I seldom think of Dad when I play. He never laughed at me at all, and once introduced me as a poet, one of the proudest moments of my life. I didn’t have to win anything to be loved by him.

He would have been proud though, and when I pulled out of the parking lot Thursday I began to cry. I wanted so much to call him. He would have laughed with me, and rejoiced in the irony of it. And he would have told me to keep my head down and to follow through, not just in golf, but in everything.

I know what he would have said. I so desperately needed to hear him say it. Even now, a day later, my grief is palatable and immense. I have no ashes to spread on the field of my accomplishment.

But I have this to say: Treasure those moments you share with those you love, even on a hot, sticky afternoon doing something you’re not very good at.

It is good to be loved and better to embrace it. Everything else is just a game.

3 thoughts on “winning isn’t everything”

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