If Dickens Had Been a Golfer

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TOWSON, Md. -- Recently I had the pleasure of being in this Baltimore suburb on a cold, rainy morning.
 
'Pleasure?' I hear you saying. 'But don't you live in Florida, where people rollerblade on Christmas morning? Where ornaments hang from palm trees, and tee times never end?'
 
It's all true. But as I walked into the comfortable old clubhouse at the Country Club of Maryland, I barely had time to enjoy that old smell of decaying oak leaves, familiar since my boyhood, before the piney scent of the front-door wreath embraced me. And inside, wood smoke: A roaring fire was ready in the enormous stacked-stone hearth.
 
Old friends all, these aromas of a Northeastern youth. Amid the wood paneling and fox-hunt theme of the nearly 80-year-old club, I had a nice visit to the winters of my past, even though I thoroughly enjoy my present in Florida.
 
After the breakfast meeting I had come for, I had a word with Mike Healy, the head professional. Mike grew up playing at the Country Club of Maryland. He had a 10-year run as a pro at another club, and came back here five years ago. He calls it a dream come true to return to this venerable Herbert Strong course, with its mature trees and challenging greens.
 
'And the clubhouse' - Mike pointed to it from the pro shop, a separate building across the practice putting green - 'it's been added on to, but the main house was built in 1750. First stone house in Maryland, they say. Had some Civil War history.'
 
And after a pause for effect ...
 
'Some folks say it's haunted.'
 
I chuckled - but then thought, 'Why not? What structure qualifies for haunting more than a grand old clubhouse?' I got to thinking about likely ghosts and the courses they would frequent.
 
Wouldn't Snead be hanging out at Philadelphia CC, hoping some miracle might reopen...the 1939 U.S. Open, which the Slammin' Spirit triple-bogeyed away on the last hole? Is Mr. Hogan loitering in the caddie yard at Glen Garden, where he and young Byron Nelson used to wait for loops? Or is The Hawk happy in his old chair in the clubhouse at Shady Oaks?
 
Jones is surely on the first tee at his reborn East Lake. Or perhaps he's with his pal Sarazen on the 15th hole at Augusta National, sporting a mischievous grin as he goads The Squire to 'go ahead -- try and do it again.'
 
This is the season of memory and reflection, when nostalgia intensifies even among the chronically nostalgic (I plead guilty as charged). For Decembers uncounted I have seen grown men dig out old persimmon drivers (which of course look like 5-woods now), gently drawing them from the oblong tops of musty canvas bags. They grip the leather wraps and whip the club in a tiny waggle, perhaps muttering, 'I'll have to take this baby out on the course come spring.'
 
I have seen women go glassy-eyed as the memory of girlhood rounds with a mom or dad or brother or sister plays before their eyes with special vividness, viewed through the lens of a tear. And I have heard fireside stories of mountainous putts made to win big matches on the final hole, the halo over the victor's head - and the length of the putt - growing greater every year.
 
So clearly, it's not just clubhouses that are haunted.
 
Dickens had the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. We have a game with richness in all three departments. Whatever you believe about the spirit world, those lately and not-so-lately departed crowd the tee sheet in our hearts and memories: I get the idea that the late IMG founder Mark McCormack is teeing it up with Deacon Palmer. Hope and Crosby could round out that four-ball. Sarazen and Stewart would try to outdress and outdrive one another, and Ely Callaway and TaylorMade founder Gary Adams would compare notes and have a few laughs. Babe Didrikson Zaharias would play a match with the late Chandler Harper -- from the tips.
 
It's a comforting thought in this spiritual game, the idea that our golf ancestors might be watching.
 
I hope that if you have a loved one who plays golf, you get to make many more golf memories in the years to come.
 
Happy Holidays, everyone.
 
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