Saturday, May 19, 2012

Return to Home

* * * * * * * *

Suddenly he feels a warm breeze on his face. High above, the air whispers through tall Georgia pines and everywhere is the varied scent of dogwood, azalea, and magnolia—an outdoor hothouse of floral aromas.

“Whattaya think, Boss? Driver, three-wood, or one-iron?”

“Uh . . . I . . .” he mumbles. It’s like waking from a dream. Or possibly waking to a dream. He only knows he’s no longer sitting at home watching final day’s action at the world’s favorite tournament, but has somehow, like Alice stepping through the front of the tv tube, been magically transported to this lush setting. He looks around in wonder: people everywhere—standing behind him on the tee, rushing from other parts of the course, craning necks over gallery ropes strung alongside the tee. Tiger Woods leaning on a golf club nearby, chatting softly with Steve Williams, his caddy.


He, Lew Winston, recalls his last moment of normality, the last scene he remembers before his fade to gray . . .

* * *

“Who’s ahead?” Valerie asked.

“Toby Bonner, by three. Woods and Watson are both three back.”

“Toby Bonner? Who’s he? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any Toby Bonner.” Valerie was frying chicken and had come from the kitchen to stand behind him for the drama of the eighteenth hole—Sunday, final round of the 2013 Masters at Augusta, Georgia. She leaned on elbows on the back of his chair, absently wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. Valerie Winston—tall, blond, tanned, beautiful, a fifteen handicap at the Oak Run Country Club west of Chicago.

“I don’t know him either,” Lew replied, shaking his head. “Maybe he got in through one of the side doors, like winner of the Transylvania Open or leading money winner on the South Polar Tour. And just look at him,” he said, pointing to the screen. “He’s got to be the oddest looking pro golfer I’ve ever seen.” The man in question had just finished putting out on seventeen, a tricky four-foot slider for par from above right. Woods had earlier made a twenty-footer for bogey from below the cup to fall three shots back. Tiger, most unTigerlike, had hit a short drive to the left, pulled a mid-iron into the left bunker where it buried just under the lip, a blast that caught the lip and rolled back down in the sand, a mediocre bunker shot to twenty feet, then the typical Woods confident stroke for a five that brought forth the expected raised fist and growl of triumph from the young man. A scrambled bogey for Tiger, and three back with only one hole to play, not a happy situation for the heavy pre-tournament favorite, and his scowl as he strode to the eighteenth tee said it all.

Passing through the gallery, Toby Bonner stopped momentarily to hug a woman along the ropes. She was wearing a pink and orange floral blouse that hung down over the top of lime green Bermuda shorts, shorts that ended just above pink knees and legs like kneaded bread dough.

“Oh, my! You don’t suppose that’s Mrs. Toby Bonner, do you?” Valerie said, smiling wickedly. “She’s . . . an unusual looking woman. But they make a nice couple—Bulldog Bonner and the Pillsbury doughgirl.”

“Jack and Mrs. Spratt,” Lew added. Valerie continued the speculation. “Felix and Oscar, but I’m not sure which is Oscar. Maybe Oscar and Oscar. Anyway, definitely an odd couple.”

Toby Bonner hurried to catch up with Woods, and the woman stood on tiptoe waving, her shriek loud and clear over one of the mikes following the players. “Go get ‘em, Tobe Honey!”

Lew watched the twosome approach the eighteenth tee. “He’s got three strokes to play with. Bubba Watson is already in with 279 and nobody else is closer than four except for Tiger. Boy! What I wouldn’t give to be in old Toby’s shoes. Even I could walk it in from here.”

The eighteenth, the Holly hole, 480 yards of dogleg right and then severely uphill to the green. This year the Augusta powers that be had lengthened it another fifteen yards from 2012, trying to keep the big hitters honest, the view from the tee even more intimidating now, looking more and more narrow as they kept moving the tee back. He watched as Tiger Woods and Toby Bonner prepared to hit their tee shots. Bonner and his caddy were in whispered conference and once again Lew contemplated the man’s features. Yes, definitely odd. He looked almost simian—about five-five, arms long and hairy, legs bowed, face dark-bearded and leathery, eyes black with deep lines etched at the corners from squinting into too much southern sun. He wouldn’t look out of place in a tree, Lew thought. Maybe munching a banana and scratching himself in the crotch. Just then the man reached behind him and absently dug at his right buttock. Lew smiled.

“Yeah, even I could get in the clubhouse with a cushion like that,” he mumbled.

* * *

“So, what’ll it be, Boss?” Lew is there, somehow having been granted his wish . . . or his worst nightmare. He’s on Augusta National on a warm April afternoon. And he’s about to play the last hole for Toby Bonner. The caddy stands waiting, leaning on the bag, looking at him expectantly.

The view from the tee is just as he’s seen it on television over the years. But more intimidating from ground view—the striped grass of the teeing area, lines moving forward, converging as they pointed the way through the narrow chute, menacing pines on the right, spectators dangerously close on the left, huge grinning fairway traps at the corner of the dogleg—a shot to turn the strongest knees to jelly.

“Uh, gimme . . . gimme the three.” He doesn’t know how it happened, but he’s here, and now it’s up to him somehow to get to the eighteenth green and win the Masters for Toby Bonner . . . or Lew Winston . . . or whoever the hell he’s supposed to be. The caddy hands him the three-wood.

“No, no, I meant the three-iron!” The caddy shrugs and exchanges clubs, handing it to Lew as he purses his lips and slowly shakes his head. Lew takes it and swings several times to get the feel. He’s aware of the gaze of the thousands around him, the millions more around the world watching on television. He bends to tee the ball and sways forward, nearly planting his nose instead of the tee. He catches himself with his left hand, gets the ball on the tee, and straightens. His head is pounding and the pressure on his chest is overwhelming. He can’t seem to get enough air. He takes his stance, waggling the club nervously. He looks up, sees what looks like an impossibly narrow avenue out through the chute of trees and spectators leaning out over the ropes. He shudders inwardly, looks down at the ball, at the ball, at the ball. He swings.

CLACK! The gallery OHHHH’s. The spectators on the left duck away from the low-liner heading their way. Even before he looks, his hands tell him what he’s done—thin on the toe—and where it’s going—left, somehow making it through the left pines at the corner and then rolling to a stop just outside the tree line, an embarrassing hundred and fifty yards off the tee.

Tiger bends to tee his ball, giving Lew an oblique smile. No iron for the Tiger, no three-wood for the Tiger. He laces a driver that starts left of center and then slides back to the right, seeming to stay in the air forever. It finally lands and kicks forward and right and rolls to a stop 175 yards from the pin, a modest drive of only 305 yards. He flips the club to Williams, gives him a thumbsup, and together they move down from the tee, talking about the next shot to the green.

“Okay, Boss,” Lew’s caddy counsels as they stride to his ball, “don’t blow it now. Just play for a nice safe five and we got it made.”

What’s this WE stuff ? Lew thinks. It’s “I” if I blow it and “we” if I don’t. He wants to throttle the man, or better yet, twist the errant three-iron around his neck. A nice safe five, eh? Well, he can do that, can’t he? His chest feels like it’s bound with rubber bands.

“Front’s 310, pin’s 330. Whattaya want, Boss?”

Lew considers the three-iron again, then asks for the five.

Okay , he thinks, I’m no professional, but I’ve played the game long enough, haven’t I? I’m a ten at Oak Run. A ten-handicapper should be able to hit a five-iron 180 yards, even if he can’t breathe. That leaves 150 yards uphill —a eight. I can do that. Can’t I?

He takes the club and checks his lie. Pine straw under the ball, pine branches waving seductively just left of his line. Ignore them. He looks toward the green. About a hundred and fifty yards ahead and directly on his line are the two fairway traps as huge as Sahara. Ignore them. Nice slow takeaway. Stay with the shot, watch the ball. He sets up, picturing the ball’s flight. He stands there frozen. Seconds pass. Then what seems like hours. His hands are blocks of ice, his face is numb.


He swings.

Click! He sees the ball leave the club, needles dancing behind in slow motion. He looks. The ball is flying straight on line, soaring like a bird just outside the pine branches, then up and over Sahara, dropping wonderfully in his comfort zone some 150 yards from the pin.

“Nice shot, Boss.”

The rubber bands begin to loosen. He can breathe again. He hears the polite applause and gives the gallery a tiny wave as he strolls up the fairway to his next shot. He hears the song of a cardinal, he smells magnolia and dogwood. Life is good.

Hah ! he thinks. Nothin’ to it. What’s all this fuss about Augusta and the Masters anyway?

He stands waiting for Woods to hit his approach. Tiger bangs a 9-iron that lands pin-high right, jumps forward, then pulls back about eight feet to the right and slightly uphill, a putt ideally suited to the aggressive Woods style.

So what, Lew thinks, trying to convince himself. I’ve got three to get down for that nice safe five. I can do that. Yeah, sure, I CAN do that.He takes the 8-iron from the bag. “We got 148 to the pin, Boss, 140 to the edge of the shelf. Not a lotta room, but we sure as hell don’t wanna be above it.” The pin is in the killer position left-center, about ten feet over the crest that crosses the middle of the green. Lew knows he hits a seven 150 average, 160 max. But he knows the eighteenth is nearly fifty feet above him and the shot should play almost exactly his average 150.

The Masters. Hah!

He sets up for the shot. Three-quarters back, accelerate through, head steady. No freeze over the ball this time. He swings, head and shoulders dipping. Beaver-tail divot and he knows it’s fat, but not a total chunk, enough to land it just past the front fringe where it somehow manages to stay—sixty feet, a thousand miles away.

They walk to the green, tv cameras recording it for posterity. The gallery responds, the applause and whistles building with each step, the Tiger fans roaring for “da man,” and Lew feels a thrill he’s never known. He waves nervously to the crowds and finally reaches the green.

His caddy hands him the putter and together they assess the putt, sixty feet of pure ugly. Up the face of the green, then back down, definite break to the left all the way. He hasto hit it hard enough to clear the ridge and then float it gently back toward the pin. Two practice strokes. Stand over the ball . . . and pray. He strokes it and immediately thinks it’s going to be way short, then watches it rolling, then climbing the slope, then arcing left as it slows and heads deliciously toward the flag attended by his caddy. It passes under the cup, the caddy trying to wave it back. Despite his urging, the ball continues a nervous six feet before stopping.

All right , Lew thinks as he marks his ball. One putt and no matter what Tiger does, I win.

Tiger paces his putt, plumbs from behind it, then around to the other side for another plumb. He and Steve confer and seem to agree on the break. Eight feet right, on nearly the same line as Lew’s. Tiger takes two practice strokes, then gives it a last sideways look. He stands over the ball and strokes it, but gently. Lew takes careful note of the break and roll. As the putt starts to slow, it turns languorously left and comes to rest on the left edge, hanging on the lip. A long moan from the gallery and Tiger tries to stare it in, the putter pointing to the sky. How could the ball dare not to go in, Tiger’s stare suggests. Then he growls once and back-hands it in for his par—in at 279 and tied with Bubba.

Lew can now two-putt for 278. And he’s just watched a putt on the same line. A breeze. Practically a gimme. So what if he hasn’t exactly walked it in. A win’s a win. He replaces the ball and crouches over the putt, not bothering with a practice stroke or a plumb. Two inches outside right, but gently, geeently. He takes the blade back, then rushes it forward. Too hard! Too hard! Easyeasyeasy! The putt speeds down the line too fast to take all the break, spins off the right edge and does a ninety degree turn, gathering momentum like a space probe slingshotting off Saturn. Four feet, six feet, eight feet, an agonizing ten feet, and Lew can actually read the make and number on the ball as it reaches the crest of the shelf still turning oh so slowly. Then over the edge and gathering speed as it rolls down to the front of the green, almost exactly where he was two putts earlier.

Dazed, he walks to the ball, automatically strokes it toward the cup, looks up before contact and scuffs it, the ball not even reaching the rise to the shelf. The fourth putt goes ten feet past, the fifth rolls below the cup but somehow manages to stay on the shelf, the sixth is mercifully close enough for Lew to tap in for a seven-putt ten, a 282 total.

He notices for the first time the deathly silence. The gallery is looking at him in embarrassment, and when his gaze moves around the green, their eyes fall away in a wave. Even Woods is silent as he shakes Lew’s hand and pats him on the shoulder, then hurries off to the scorer’s table. Tiger has a playoff with Watson to worry about.

* * *

As quickly as he’d arrived, as quickly he returned. He was slumped in his chair before the television set, Jim Nance telling viewers that Toby Bonner, having won the honors on the seventeenth, was about to tee off on the final hole. Bonner, the very dark horse from New Zealand, had a comfortable three-stroke lead and needed only a bogey five to assure himself a victory in the 2013 Masters.

So, it was only a dream , Lew thought, shaking his head. But how vivid! He could still smell magnolia and feel the texture of the eighteenth green under his feet. And the seven putts neoned uncomfortably in his memory.

He guessed it wasn’t wise to wish oneself into someone else’s shoes, even if for only fifteen or twenty minutes. He sighed and turned back to the action on the screen. The leader, Toby Bonner, was bending to tee his ball. Tiger Woods, in the background, leaned nonchalantly on a club. Bonner straightened and the camera zoomed in on his face.

And Lew’s jaw dropped.

He was staring at himself. There he was, getting ready to tee off on the eighteenth at Augusta National, looking handsomely at ease in his role as golf pro from New Zealand—six feet tall, blond hair feathered back, tanned and twenty-seven. He, the man on camera, smiled at a woman standing at the ropes near the back of the tee, smiled at Valerie, his wife—HIS WIFE! And she smiled back and gave him a tiny wave. He, the man sitting slumped in his chair, looked down at his arm in horror—long arm covered with black hair, simian arm.

Just then he heard a shriek from the kitchen. “Who’s leadin’, Lew Honey?” And then she entered the living room . . . dressed in a pink and orange floral blouse that hung down over the top of lime green Bermuda shorts, shorts that ended just above pink knees and legs like kneaded bread dough.