by Roger Vaccaro
The sun, low in the cold, gray November sky, offered little resistance to the coming night. Shadows covered half the rain-soaked fairway, but I figured we still had time to finish the round before darkness overtook us.
“That’s out of bounds!” Pop shouted, not trying to conceal his pleasure. He grabbed a ball from the front of the golf cart and tossed it to me. “Let’s see if you can lose another one.”
I resisted the urge to throw it right back at him. Golf is unlike most other sports in that you’re supposed to pretend to root for your opponent. This practice perhaps goes against human nature, but it does make life easier, and I try to follow it. Pop feels no similar compulsion to observe this nicety, which is one reason I don’t relish our daily matches.
We usually play in the late afternoon. I’m kept busy during the day giving lessons to the members based on the same Golf Digest articles they too read religiously and then forget immediately upon reaching the course. This suits me fine, because lessons provide the real money for a club pro. The rest of the time I’m little more than a glorified cashier, limited to selling greens fees, balls, tees, and other equipment. Besides, it’s not as crowded now, and we have the course all to ourselves.
I’m one hole down after thirteen, and I’m starting to get worried. Being the pro, I’m expected to win, even if I do give him four strokes a side. As a rule, I’m not especially competitive, something that surely contributed to the brevity of my lackluster stint on the PGA tour. But if Pop beats me, I’ll never hear the end of it.
* * *
I had retreated to my small north Florida hometown after losing my playing card last January, and I used my local celebrity to get what was supposed to be a short-time position at the country club. I was embarrassed at being back in my childhood bedroom in Mom and Pop’s house, but after minimal soul-searching I convinced myself I would just stay until I could save enough money to get moving again—something that was taking longer than I had anticipated. Pop gave me continuous grief about my current situation; things would only get worse if he managed to beat me.
My father died in a car accident when I was an infant, before I even had a name for him. Mom almost never spoke of my father and married Pop when I was three years old. Pop had started at the local paper mill a week after he graduated high school and worked with few vacations and no need for sick days for more than forty years. His father had worked there before and with him, and I think Pop sort of resented the idea that I had somehow escaped the real world experience of “actually working for a living.”
* * *
When he retired last March, I gave Pop a new set of golf clubs and he immediately relegated them to the back of the living-room closet. But one Monday morning about two weeks later he came to the pro shop and, without comment, paid for two large buckets of balls and headed to the practice range. He returned that afternoon for two more pails. He continued that routine Monday through Friday for the next three months.
It was painful watching him flail away for hours, but he flatly refused any advice I offered. He had bought Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf and it quickly became his bible. He consulted it continually on the driving range and at home in front of the living-room mirror. His weeks of hard work resulted in a fast, jerky motion that I’m sure differs significantly from any Mr. Hogan had envisioned, but Pop’s such a natural athlete (and former high-school baseball star), he hits the ball well despite his horrendous swing.
I make it a point not to watch him when we play, out of fear that I’ll unconsciously start imitating his swing and do irreparable damage to my tempo. He finds this insulting, perhaps providing him further incentive to improve.
I overheard him tell a friend one night after a round of golf and a few rounds of Budweiser that he just wanted to get good enough to “whip the boy’s tail at his own so-called profession.” I also heard him brag about how “the little punk sure can hit the hell out of the ball,” and I’m embarrassed to admit how good this quasi-compliment made me feel.
Anyway, Pop improved dramatically over the summer and now clearly enjoyed watching me squirm as he came closer and closer to achieving his not-so-noble aim. And he’s never been as close to beating me as he is tonight. My main hope is that he’ll start to choke now that we’ve reached Satan’s Circle.
* * *
These are the three most difficult holes on the course, and for some devilish reason, the architect had arranged them consecutively. A popular member had bestowed the sinister label after a poor finish in a club championship, and the name stuck. Luckily, I never have too much trouble there.
You see, I’ve played the Circle a thousand times. Our two-bedroom brick house is only a nine-iron’s distance from the fourteenth green. Before they built the course, the owners of the club offered a generous sum for the property, previously my father’s, but Pop held out for a final bid that never materialized. To hear Mom, Pop’s greed cost the family any hope of ever living in comfort, but I, for one, am glad we stayed here. The house might be too small and too old, but like they say: location, location, location.
I literally grew up on or about the golf course. We couldn’t afford the membership fees when I was young, but that never stopped my older brother Darryl and me. Satan’s Circle isn’t part of the course’s natural layout. It’s as if the architect were nearing the end of his southward trek back to the clubhouse when he realized he was running out of room. He made an abrupt turn to the left and cut the fifteenth hole straight into the dense forest that borders most of the back nine. The course turns south again with the narrow par-three sixteenth hole. (They removed a sand trap here a few years ago in a move that seemed heretical at the time, but now it’s as if the bunker were never there.) The golfer who has survived these two monsters must then fight his way out of the jungle down the equally perilous seventeenth.
Darryl and I took advantage of the Circle’s isolation to hone our golfing skills for free. During the day we’d scavenge the woods by fifteen and sixteen, searching for the members’ stray shots. We collected dozens of balls in this manner (Darryl always kept the best ones), and when the course’s traffic began to lag, we’d run home for the golf bag that we shared. Then, with our newfound balls, we’d play far into the night.
Occasionally a course ranger or irate member would spot us, but the forest provided ready refuge, and few bothered to pursue us past its edge. We had dug parallel, eight-foot-deep cubbyholes as secret hideouts but were rarely forced to use them. Mom and Pop never censured us for sneaking onto the course. Mom usually went along with whatever Pop decided, and he felt competition was good for character, no matter what the means. Besides, we weren’t hurting anyone, and we were saving him a few bucks.
Copyright © 2021. Satan's Circle by Roger Vaccaro