For the fifth time on the back nine, my caddy, John Abate, pulls his green military-issue binoculars from the side pouch, and rather than locking in on a target on the 16th hole, the one we’re playing, squints into the distance at the leaderboard behind the 9th green.
“Any good news?”
“Afraid not,” he says. With his binoculars screwed into his face, Abate could be mistaken for an amateur bird watcher instead of a veteran bag toter on the Senior Tour, albeit one with five days of gray stubble, a diamond earring, and a large New York Yankees logo tattooed on his calf.
“Summerhays is still tied for eleventh at three under,” he says, “and Gibson is still two up on you at six under. And they both just parred seventeen.”
“You sure about that?”
Abate lowers his binoculars to give me the full benefit of his smirk.
“You don’t believe me, look for yourself.”
It’s late on the final Sunday of the season, and if me and Abate are getting a little testy with each other, it’s because we’ve spent the last four hours of this hot and brutally humid November afternoon fighting for our professional lives. And what makes our predicament all the more frustrating and nerve-wracking and mentally draining is that our fate is largely beyond our control. To keep my card and play another year, it’s no longer enough that I play well. Brent Summerhays and Fred Gibson also have to play badly, which is why for the past couple of hours, Abate has spent as much time studying leaderboards as reading greens and pulling clubs. And according to his latest long-distance recon, neither of my colleagues has been doing his part, which means, in all probability, I’m down to my last thirty minutes as a professional golfer.
Let me explain.
And please bear with me because it’s a little complicated.
To retain your playing privileges in the game of musical chairs known as the Senior Tour, a golfer has to finish in the top thirty-one on the money list, and when me and Johnny A rolled into Sarasota three days ago for the Liberty Mutual Gulf of Mexico Classic, the last full field event of 1999, I was thirty-third on that list. To leapfrog those two places and grab that last spot, two things have to happen. Summerhays, who started the week in thirty first, has to finish outside the top fifteen, and I have to finish ahead of Gibson, the golfer currently one spot in front of me in thirty-second.
If you’re finding it a bit tedious to keep track of all this, imagine how wearying it’s been for me tallying up my prize money and checking the standings week after week, round after round, like some junior high school nerd averaging the scores on his algebra tests. But that’s the way of the world and vaguely humiliating reality for those trying to hang on to the lower rungs of the Senior Tour, but not so humiliating that I wouldn’t sacrifice a digit or two for one more year of it. And with Summerhays and Gibson teeing off on 18, and me and Johnny A a hole and a half behind them on the 16th fairway, we’re running out of time and real estate.
Objectively, I know I have no right to complain, not that that’s ever stopped me before. As a former advertising copywriter who didn’t turn pro until fifty, no one expected me to last twenty minutes out here, let alone four years, but I guess I’m greedy. I’m like that orphan in that musical who has the temerity to hold out his empty bowl of oatmeal and say “Please, sir, I want some more.”
To maintain a semblance of dignity, Abate lifts the binocs from around his neck and stuffs them back into the side pouch and we turn what’s left of our fragmented attention to the shot at hand. “You got a hundred sixtyfive yards to the front edge,” says Abate, tossing a pinch of bent Bermuda into the soupy Florida breeze. “A hundred eighty to the pin, wind hurting from the right. And I need to see some focus. We’re not out of this yet. So let’s keep grinding until the fat lady sings.”
Abate hands me the 6, and in a rare display of professionalism I banish the Rubenesque diva from my thoughts and put a good swing on it, holding a high cut against the wind that stops twenty-two feet left of the hole. As usual, my putting stroke is less impressive than my ball striking, and my birdie try scares me and Abate more than the hole. I clean up the remaining four feet for par and we head to 17, still on the wrong side of the bubble, but still alive.
Seventeen is a beast, a 237-yard par 3 with a bunker right and out of bounds left that’s as long and tight as anything we face all year.
“What a nasty hole,” I mutter, “even without this wind. We’re seniors, for fuck’s sake. We’re going to be on Social Security and Medicare soon. We’re not supposed to play holes like this. It’s not good for our cholesterol. And what does it say about a country that it shows such little compassion for its elderly?”
Abate responds to my whining with a blank stare. “You done?” he asks. “You parred it yesterday. You can do it again.”
He sees no good reason to bring up my bogey on Friday.
The last five holes of Islandside Golf Club run alongside Longboat Key’s only major road, Gulf of Mexico Drive, and the Sunday traffic back from the beach has slowed to a crawl. The cars are progressing at the same pace as we are on foot, and after grinding our asses off all day with nothing to show for it, and not knowing if any of it will even matter, it’s hard not to see the stalled traffic as a metaphor for our predicament. Certainly, we’re as hot and cranky and frustrated as the drivers in their sticky seats.
“And by the way, those frigging horns don’t exactly help,” I say.
“I can’t see how they would,” says Abate, who, after countering my negativity all afternoon, is taking a different tack. “Maybe you should walk over and smash a few windshields.”
“Might be just what I need. Release the tension. Free me up.”
Abate’s decision to cut me some slack and let me vent pays instant dividends, and I respond with my best shot in months—a low penetrating 4-wood that never gets more than twenty feet off the ground and holds its line in the wind before stopping just short of the green.
“Golf shot,” says Johnny A, doing his best to conceal his surprise. I’m still forty feet from the hole, but they’re all uphill so I can give it a good rap, and for the second hole in a row manage a relatively straightforward two-putt par.
“Proud of you,” says Abate, and as we stand on the back edge of the green, waiting for our playing partners to finish up, the breeze that fought my 4-wood brings encouraging noise from the gallery up ahead on 18.
First comes an abrupt collective gasp, echoed thirty seconds later by a deep groan. When they are followed soon after by the most pitiable soundtrack in golf (although from our point of view the most uplifting), which is the embarrassed, anemic applause of fans who have just witnessed golfing hara-kiri, Abate and I gape at each other like wide-eyed children.
With the urgency of unexpected hope, he stoops over and yanks at the zipper of the side pouch that holds the binoculars. In the last several hours of overuse, the zipper has lost a third of its teeth, so it requires multiple violent tugs and what feels like twenty minutes before he can rip it open, extricate the field glasses, and refocus them yet again on the leaderboard.
“Talk to me, John. I’m dying here.”
Abate doesn’t respond, just screws his fists deeper into his eye sockets, and as he digests the latest data on the big board, his mouth stretches into a lascivious grin, so that now he looks less like a bird-watching hobbyist than a demented peeping Tom.
“Actually, you’re very much alive. Summerhays and Gibson must have rinsed their second shots on eighteen.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that Summerhays and Gibson both doubled eighteen. The fat lady has laryngitis. We’re back in the hunt.”
In case you’ve lost the thread in all this excitement, let me lay out the situation one more time. With their disastrous finishing hole, Summerhays and Gibson, God bless them both, have finally started pulling their weight.
In order to retain my playing privileges for another year and extend my career into the new millennium, the first thing that had to happen was that Summerhays finish outside the top fifteen, and his double bogey on 18 took care of that by dropping him from a tie for eleventh place to sixteenth. The second requirement was that I finish ahead of Gibson, and with his closing double, the two of us are now tied at four under par, so if I can birdie 18, I’ll pass him on the leaderboard and keep my card.
Under most circumstances, a birdie on the final hole would be something of a pipe dream, but in this case, it’s well within the realm of possibility, because 18 is a short reachable par 5, a birdie hole if ever there was one, and although various issues have crept uninvited into my game and central nervous system in the last four years, I’m still long off the tee. If I can keep my drive in the fairway, I can almost certainly go for the green in two, and if I can land that shot and get down in two putts, Abate and I can party like it’s 1999, which it is.
It’s amazing what a little calamity from your rivals can do for your worldview. Thanks to Summerhays and Gibson’s generous acts of self-destruction, I’m not nearly as cranky and tired as I was moments before. Those honking horns from the poor overheated drivers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic sound less abrasive, even celebratory.
For the first time in months, my fate is entirely in my hands. For better or worse, the only person I have to worry about is Travis McKinley, and to emphasize that point, Abate turns putting away the binoculars into an elaborate ceremony. With slow and exaggerated movements, he lifts them over his sweaty head and meticulously winds the strap around them. Then he digs the four plastic caps out of my bag and snaps them over the lenses and eyeholes, as if he is about to put them into storage forever. And then to further emphasize this sense of a new beginning and clean break from everything that has gone before, he takes my perfectly good Titleist and hands me a brand-new one, which has not been subjected to the stress and traumas of the past three hours and reeks of nothing but the box and hope. “We’re done grinding,” he says. “Time to go birdie hunting.”
Part of what makes the 18th at Islandside a great finishing hole is that you can play it two ways. You can play it as a right-angle dogleg by following your drive way with a straight-ahead lay-up, leaving you a short wedge to the green with your third. Or on your second shot, you can bear right over water and go directly for the green, in which case the hole plays harder but shorter. It’s a classic risk-reward finishing hole designed to stir up drama.
“The first goal,” says Abate, “is not to overswing. On the card, they got it at five hundred fifty yards, but if you cut off the dogleg, it plays closer to five hundred, so we’re not looking for anything extra. Your usual swing and yardage is plenty. Don’t add a thing. Just put some smooth on it.”
Despite the new higher stakes, I do just that, and my low hooking ball flight yields plenty of roll. “Perfect,” says John, and for the last time in the season puts the driver back in the bag. “Let’s go see what we have left.”
Walking as slowly as we can, we head for the ball, which sits in an ideal spot on the left side of the fairway, and after checking his yardage book and pacing off the distance to the nearest sprinkler head, Abate determines we’re 248 to the front edge of the green, 266 to the hole.
It’s a scary shot, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a good distance for me—a solid, garden-variety 3-wood, even if the first 200 yards are taken up by a man-made pond, which did in Summerhays and Gibson.
“You’re swinging great,” says Abate as he hands me the club. “We just need one more.” For about twenty seconds, I stand perfectly still behind my ball and imagine with eyes wide open the shot I need to hit, and as I hear the sound of the club face compressing the ball and envision the trajectory as it sails over a row of palms and draws toward the flag, I pat my thigh and feel the metal object in my right pocket.
Although there is no descriptor I love more than “card carrying member of the PGA Tour,” the Senior Tour doesn’t actually issue a paper credential. Instead, you get something way cooler—a money clip. To those who’ve earned one, it’s an object of rare beauty, with PGA TOUR inscribed on the front along with their signature logo of a golfer holding his follow-through. And it has a satisfying heft and lovely hinged action. I remember my excitement when it arrived in a little box from PGA headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. That evening at dinner I placed it on the table beside the salt and pepper shakers so we could all admire it and pass it around. For me, the sight and touch of it have never gotten old, and knowing that it’s safe and secure in my pocket is a source of comfort.
As soon as I hit it, I know it’s enough to clear the hazard. The only question is how close to the hole it will end up. Forgive me for saying this, but I hit it too well, not generally a problem for someone vying for the last secure spot on the Senior Tour money list. Instead of landing just short and bounding up near the pin, it lands hole high and races off the back edge into the little collection area behind the green.
I’m lying two just off the back of a par 5, but when Abate and I see the tight lie and how little room I have to stop the ball on the green, it seems like a miserly reward for such a well-struck shot. Hitting a soft pitch from a tight lie is one of the harder shots in the game, and no one has ever confused me with Phil Mickelson. Maybe that’s about to change and I’ll have to start wearing a name card, because I catch it just right and hit one of the sweetest little lob shots I can recall.
The same fans who were gasping and groaning minutes ago are oohing and ahhing with appreciation. But when the ball stops rolling, there’s still five and a half feet between me and a birdie, sixty-six inches of unfinished business that will determine whether I get to spend a fifth year doing what I love and still do better than all but a handful of people my age on the planet or will be put out to pasture.
“Right edge firm,” says Abate, and slaps the polished Titleist into my palm.
My stroke is positive and somehow I resist the urge to peek. So it’s just a matter of waiting for the echoing sound of the ball rattling in the cup . . . but unfortunately, the silence says it all. After a great drive, a bear of a 3-wood, a near-perfect pitch, and a solid putt, I am once again unemployed.