So I'm tryin' to get out of the office to make a tee time at Dickens Hills, just me, just a practice round. I got phones goin' off here, e-mails there, Cratchit bitchin' about a day off tomorrow to work on his short game for the club championship....it was a mess.
So I finally get everyone calmed down, and I'm almost out the door, and Marley shows up. Dead Marley. Guy's a ghost. Got all these chains hangin' off him, and each one is trailing some new club or teaching device. Looks like hell.
'Marley! Listen, man; I'm runnin' here. Can we set something up for next week? Call me, dude.'
Guy starts moanin'. Like this: 'Ebenezer!'
'My name's Bill. Ebenezer was my great-great-great-y'know, over-and-over-again grandfather.'
'Whatever! I come to warn you!'
'Is this about the ground under repair on 14?' I had my clubs on my shoulder, and I was heading for the door. He just kept up with the overacting ghost thing.
'No! You are sucking the fun out of golf!
'It's your attitude!,' Marley wailed. 'You're crushing yourself to perform when you should be enjoying more!'
'Witness the chain I wear! Yours was as long these seven club championships gone by, when I keeled over at the turn. You have labored on it since!'
'Yeah, right. Can I go now? I want to finish before dark.'
He ignored me.
'You will be visited by three spirits! The first, on the first tee. The second at the the turn. And the third on the 18th tee.'
'Couldn't I just meet them all in the men's grill and have it over?'
'Look for me no more,' he moaned. And he flew out the 60th floor window. That's gonna cost me.
I had to weave in and out of a lot of traffic on the 405, but hey, the old ladies are used to being cut off out of the right lane anyway. I got to the first tee, got over the ball, and up floats this little glowing dude holding a first-generation Big Bertha.
'Who are you?' I said, restarting my pre-shot routine.
'I am the Ghost of Distance Blast,' it said.
'Don't you mean Distance Past?'
'No, I said Blast,' it said, annoyed. 'Although it's true you used to bust it farther. But it's not just your age. You're using out-of-date technology.'
'I am?' I said.
'Yes. And you're not optimized.' He snapped his fingers, and a launch monitor appeared.
'Your drives are just shadows of what they could be,' Blast said. 'Give me ten swings for a base line of data. And don't steer it!'
I did as I was told. Within minutes, we went for a stiff shaft with a soft tip, plus another degree of loft. He touched the new titanium clubhead with his finger, and there was a flash of light.
'What happened?' I said.
'I have put a little more weight in the heel, so the toe can catch up. You won't leave it out to the right as much.'
With that, he put the new war club in my hands. I swung: the ball went high, straight and forever. I turned around, beaming.
'Hey! That's great! How did you...?' But I was alone on the tee.
All through the front nine, I busted it with the new driver the ghost had fitted me into. I was four under and all I had into the ninth was an easy 8-iron. I swung, I steered -- I got in the bunker and ended up making double.
I was pissed. And the turn house was closed. Not a soul in sight. I banged my fist on the plywood panel over the counter. Suddenly, the panel flew open, and some guy with a very calm face looked out at me.
'I hope you're the Ghost of Not Three-Jacking,' I said.
He looked at me funny.
'No,' he said softly. 'I'm the Ghost of Christmas Present. As in keeping your mind in the present. If you hadn't been thinking of five under back in the fairway, you'd have made that birdie.'
'O.K.; listen, Buddha. I was just trying to be positive. What was I supposed to do, drop into a Zen trance?'
'Well, yes, almost,' said the ghost, sipping on a cup of green tea. 'Just clear your mind and stay in the moment. Make a good swing, the way you know you can. Just let it happen.'
'Psychobabble,' I spat. 'Just gimme a hot chocolate with a double shot of Hennessy and I'll carve one into the green on 10 and make it up.'
But the plywood panel suddenly slammed shut, and Mister Zen was gone. I shrugged and headed to the tee.
On the tee at 10, I figured, what the heck. Maybe Buddha Boy was right. I picked a line, then set up and forgot about it. I loosened my grip pressure. I chucked the mental steering wheel. I swung.
Eureka! A sweet draw that found the speed slot down the left side, and I had a perfect angle into the green and 7-iron in my hands. To 10 feet! I put a Brian Hammons on it ('Drano!'), and the world shined.
Zen Man was right. I dropped the grinding, and things started happening. I got to 16, and I was five under. I think. I didn't care. I had a rhythm going. I was having a great time.
Dusk was gathering. I stood on the tee and watched the bare branches of the trees move in the cooling breeze. Dead, dried leaves blew across the tee, making a sound like rattling old bones. I remembered some of my solitary end-of-season rounds when I was a kid.
I can't say how, but as I was about to start my backswing, I was aware of someone watching me. It was Michelle Wie.
'Michelle?' I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Now it was Paula Creamer.
'I am the Ghost of Golf's Future,' she said, just before changing into Hunter Haas. While I looked, amazed, he morphed into Morgan Pressel.
'How come you can't stay...y'know, one person?'
'No one person owns golf's future,' said the ghost, who was now Camilo Villegas. He became Natalie Gulbis, then Erica Blasberg.
'Wait! Stay like that!' I said. No luck. I resigned myself to the morphing as the ghost became Tiger Woods.
'O.K. Why are you early? You weren't supposed to come until 18. And what do you want?'
'There is no time to lose. A golfer's spirit is required to walk among its fellow players,' said the ghost, now Luke Donald, 'or it will be condemned throughout eternity to review its old scorecards and agonize over missed four-footers.'
'Humbug,' I said.
'What?' the ghost said.
'Never mind.' There was a long pause. I brushed my club back and forth over the turf. The ghost became Jack Nicklaus, the young Jack, then the older one, then the old Byron Nelson, then the 1942 version, then Bobby Jones. It went on and on.
'Why did you play alone so much as a kid?' the ghost asked.
'I liked it,' I said, not so sure. 'I dunno.'
'How can this game grow,' the ghost said, 'unless we all take up some of the task of convincing people -- especially kids -- that the time, expense and difficulty are worth it? That sports, golf in particular, is worth putting the XBox aside from time to time?'
The ghost was Old Tom Morris now.
'Looka there,' it said.
Up by the 16th green was a boy, perhaps 10 or so. He was by himself. He set up over a 40-yard pitch and swung. The ball landed by the hole. He jumped up and down, then stopped and looked around -- and seeing no one there, he seemed a bit ashamed. He went up to tap in the putt, then moved toward the 17th tee, looking a little sad.
I rushed up to the tee.
'Uh...can I play in with you?' I said.
The kid beamed.
So we did. We played 17 and 18, and four more holes after that. Had a basket of french fries in the grill. Talked about golf, school, work, sports, girls, stuff. Laughed and laughed and laughed.
At the end of it, we shook hands.
'We'll have to do this again soon,' I said. 'It was fun.'
He pumped my hand and smiled up at me.
I woke in my bed with a start. Was it....was it all a dream? I rushed to the window, threw it open, and looked through the palms. A boy was running by.
'You there! Halloa!'
(Halloa? Did I actually say that? I forgot about it and addressed the boy, who now looked up at me.)
'Tell me, boy....what day is it?'
'It's the final of the club championship, sir.'
I haven't missed it! The spirits did it all in one round! Well, of course they can. They play golf; they can do anything they want, can't they?
'Boy! Do you know the bank of lockers in the clubhouse, the next row over but one?'
'I should think I do, sir.'
Bright boy, brilliant boy. Probably never three-putts.
'Well then, my lad, stick a note on Mr. Cratchit's locker and tell him I'll be there! And if you're quick about it, there's a box of Pro V1s in it for you!'
He dashed off, and I went rushed to get dressed.
Well, you probably know the rest. I looped for Cratchit, and he got up and down five times to win the scratch flight by three strokes. He and his boy, Tim, play golf with my son and me pretty regularly.
Oh sure, I still work on my game, and I still try to play well. But there's a lot more match play, and a lot more smiling, laughter and....well, fun, which was the whole idea, I've come to realize.
And that was on my mind the other day when the Cratchits and my boy and I shook hands on the 18th green and went into lunch, with Tim saying, 'Thanks for the game.....and God bless us, every one.'
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