I officially fell in love with golf in 1988.
Oh, I had dalliances in the past with the game, from hitting balls in our backyard (and breaking a few windows in the process) to carrying my father’s bag on Saturdays in hopes of getting to smack a few 5-irons to swearing it off entirely at the age of 13 after a particularly bad tournament experience to some drunken or stoned collegiate high-jinx on a private course in Milwaukee that a classmate’s father owned. And there were work outings with some fellow IT geeks that whet my appetite for (gasp) a return to the game.
At the end of 1987, I started what turned out to be a 14 month contracting assignment at the IBM facility in Kingston, NY. Home at that time was in Enfield, CT, which just far enough away to merit a Monday through Friday stay. It is to this day the most enjoyable IT gig I’ve experienced. The pay was fabulous, expenses were generous, I managed to finagle a 12 room house in a tony section of town for $600 a month during my stay (which was also expensed), and there were restaurants galore in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills, no doubt a happy coincidence of numerous graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, located just down the road in Hyde Park.
The village of Woodstock, NY was not the site of the infamous music festival (that took place in Bethel, some 60 miles away), but it has a long history as an artisan’s retreat, and many musicians have taken up residence there. Bob Dylan and The Band were probably the most famous, but Ornette Coleman, Van Morrison, Jack DeJonnette, Carlos Santana, and many others have lived there or in nearby Saugerties over the years. I mention this because Woodstock borders Kingston; it’s a short shot up the mountain on Route 375. And in the center of the village is the Woodstock Golf Club, a private 9-holer that, in the spring of 1988, I was able to join for the princely sum of $500.
I had only recently taken the game back up, and was nervous about joining a private club – what are the protocols? Is there some kind of initiation ceremony? I discussed all of this with Jeff, the young head pro at Woodstock who lived in an apartment above the golf shop with his wife and infant daughter. He laughed and said, “Gary, you’re about to meet the most colorful group of guys imaginable.” He was right.
The membership at Woodstock was a mixture of IBM employees, ex and current hippies, artists, roadies, and other assorted characters. I recall playing a round with a 76 year old man named Paul (it kills me that I can’t remember his last name) who was a retired dancer/choreographer, and had worked for years with Fred Astaire. He walked and carried his own bag. There was Jim, who was part of the road crew for The Band and Orleans, and Pierce, a gourmet chef. Art was an illustrator of children’s books.
But it was Irv and Carl, a couple of IBM employees, who made me most welcome. We met on the first tee early in the season, where they mistook me for a Big Blue executive who happened to have the same name as mine. They were peppering me with questions about IBM’s new operating system; I had not a clue what they were asking. Carl also mentioned in passing that I didn’t look anything like my picture.
“What picture?” I asked.
“The one in the main lobby.”
“That’s not me.”
“Oh, ok. Well, you have honors anyway. Tee it up.”
We wound up playing a lot together that year, usually two or three times a week after work. They showed me the intricacies of Woodstock’s layout, which was not particularly long but had plenty of character, what with rock outcroppings, various hardwoods, and Sawkill Creek providing plenty of opportunities to mess up. They also introduced me to a lot of members so that I didn’t have to drink alone in the grill room. Moreover, playing with them allowed the game to grow on me, and I began to better appreciate its allure.
I witnessed my first hole-in-one at Woodstock. The three of us were waiting to tee off on the par-5 5th hole. I happened to glance over at the 4th green, a medium length par-3 which requires a carry over a small pond, and spotted a tee shot that hit the front part of the green. My first thought was, well, at least he’s on. Then I noticed that the ball kept rolling toward the hole. I nudged Irv and Carl, and pointed toward the green. “That’s going in,” I exclaimed. Sure enough, it struck the flag solidly and fell in the hole.
It turned out that the fellow who hit the shot was playing alone, and if the three of us had not witnessed it, the hole-in-one would not be deemed official. “Thank God you guys were here!” he remarked. “Not a problem,” said Carl. “Why don’t you join us for the rest of the round?” This is when I first learned about the tradition of the maker of a hole in one buying drinks for the house. Smart man, that Carl.
We also took an afternoon off to drive down to Westchester to watch the first round of the tour event there, and watched Seve Ballestreros hit the greatest golf shot I’ve ever witnessed (it involved a ball against a tree which Seve wound up hitting with his back to the target – and putting it on the green). We marveled at the shot-making skills of the professionals and compared notes on the drive back to Kingston.
I also remember hitting the flagstick on the 7th hole on my approach shot on consecutive days. Jim the Roadie was in our group both days; after the second time, he looked at me, eyes bloodshot with sincerity (and not a little THC), and intoned softly, “Bloody hell, Gary.”
But perhaps the most remarkable event of that year was a late summer round that Irv, Carl and I played. Carl had never shot lower than 44 for 9 holes, but he started this day with 5 consecutive pars. Irv and I were doing our best to keep him loose, but then he saw Jeff out on the course giving a lesson, and for some reason this made him nervous. He pulled his tee shot on the par 4 6th well left, and then hit his second shot even further left. After four shots, he found himself in some deep greenside rough. He hacked the ball out with his wedge; it hit the flagstick full force and dropped into the cup for an unlikely bogey 5.
With Jeff safely out of sight, Carl resumed his steady play, making par on both 7 and 8. We came to the 9th, a fairly long par 3 that required a carry over Sawkill Creek. As we stood on the tee, there was no mention of Carl’s score; I sent a secret prayer to the golf gods asking that nothing horrible happen on this tee shot. Carl struck his shot – it was not dead solid perfect, but cleared the creek and rolled up on the green. I exhaled and said, “Way to go, Carl.”
Irv, however, kept watching the shot. “Wait a minute, guys. That ball’s still rolling!” Carl and I turned our eyes back to the green, and sure enough, much like the hole in one we witnessed earlier, the ball was tracking toward the flagstick. It finally stopped a few inches short of the hole. We all laughed; Irv said to Carl, “You just can’t catch a break, can you?” We made our way to the green, where Carl tapped in for his birdie and an even par 9 of 35 – nine shots better than he had ever shot before. I’m not sure who wore the biggest smile in the group, although Carl did whisper to us, conspiratorially, “This might get me laid tonight.”
We got together for one last round in early October. There was nothing spectacular about our play that day, but the weather was classic Indian Summer, and the foliage on Saugerties Mountain provided an impossibly gorgeous backdrop as we teed off on the 6th. We joked about Carl’s tee shot there on the day of his career round, and reminisced about other moments that the game had brought us that summer.
When you live up North, there’s a grim finality to the golf season, unless you’re a snowbird. It’s generally a cycle of getting the rust off in the springtime, experiencing the game’s frustrations in the summer, and then, just when you feel like your game is rounding into shape, winter’s coming.
1988 was the first time I truly experienced that cycle. And there was some unwelcome closure, as I never did make it back to Woodstock after my assignment was over, and I’m not sure whatever became of Irv and Carl. I hope they continued to take new guys under their collective wing at their club. And I couldn’t wait for the snow to melt in the spring of 1989.