Four rounds. Four heroes. Four life-changing lessons.
On the morning of his fortieth birthday, Randy Clark believes the only way he can help his family is to end it all. Standing on the Tennessee River Bridge in Decatur, Alabama, with his dreams of a pro golf career long gone, his marriage struggling, and facing financial ruin, Randy sees no other alternative to help his wife and daughter but to jump, which he plans to do in the next twenty-four hours.
But his plans are put on hold when the ghost of his best friendwho did live out the fantasy of playing the PGA tourreveals to Randy that he will be given a wonderful gift: four rounds of golf with his four heroes, the champions he's looked up to his whole life, each with a life-changing lesson to impart.
For anyone who has ever dealt with tragedy, adversity, or failure, The Golfer's Carol will bring grace that stays with you long after you've turned the last page.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Wednesday, April 9, 1986. 6:30 a.m.
"There comes a point in every man's life when he realizes that he's not going to be Joe Namath." Sixteen years ago, that was my father's way of telling me that my dreams of being a professional golfer had no chance of coming true.
What does a famous football player have to do with the game of golf? Well, nothing, when you look at it that way. But in the spring of 1970, pretty much every red-blooded male in the state of Alabama dreamed of being Joe Willie Namath, the strong-armed, good-looking quarterback of the New York Jets, who before turning pro and becoming "Broadway Joe" had led the Alabama Crimson Tide football team to two national championships.
I understood exactly what my dad was telling me, but he went ahead and broke it down just in case.
"What I'm trying to say, son, is that not everybody can be the star of the football team. Or a movie star. Or . . . even a golfer on the PGA Tour. God didn't bless us all with that type of talent. But he gives us other skills, Randy." He had looked at his hands then, and so had I. For forty years, my father, Robert Clark, had been a bricklayer. He had helped build houses all over north Alabama. His hands were like two blocks of concrete. They were the tools of his trade.
"God has given you talents too, son." He had paused then, and again looked at his heavily callused hands. "He's also given you responsibilities."
Pulling myself from my reverie, I stood and felt the wind coming off the water hit my face. The Tennessee River Bridge, at its highest, is a good hundred feet from the surface of the water. If a person were to dive in headfirst, he would die in an instant. His body would wash up on the shore or be dug out by a boat dragging the river, but the person's spirit would be gone quicker than the ripples.
My spirit died in 1970. I was twenty-four years old. My golf game had sent me to the University of Alabama on a scholarship, and I had been good enough to make All-SEC. I had played the mini tours for a year and felt like I was close to breaking through. Just a few more putts going in. One less penalty shot. Keeping my mind focused. I was so close.
Then Mary Alice got pregnant, my game went to pot, and my dad told me that I couldn't be Joe Namath.
And life still had one more sucker punch left to throw.
Today is my fortieth birthday, so it'll be slightly different than every other day this week. I'll still go into the office. I'll still work nine hours and attempt to bill every second to an insurance company that is paying me to represent its insured in a car, wreck case. I'll still have a coffee break around ten thirty, and I'm sure I'll shoot the bull with Steve Ledyard. Steve's a big Auburn fan, so we'll probably rehash Alabama's victory over the Tigers in the prior year's Iron Bowl again and debate for the hundredth time whether Bo Jackson should play baseball or football. But around two thirty, the people in our department will gather in the small firm kitchen while my secretary, Debbie Seal, cuts the cake she bought at Kroger on the way to work. It'll taste okay, and they will all make jokes about the big 4-0. And then, at about the seven- or eight-minute mark, everyone will return to their jobs.
At around six fifteen, I'll walk to the elevator with my briefcase. Then I'll go home and there will be more cake, this time Mary Alice's homemade German chocolate, my favorite. Before we eat cake, we'll head down to Boots' Steakhouse. Our sixteen-year-old daughter, Davis, and I will split the prime rib and baked potato, while Mary Alice will have a few bites off our plate and stick to the salad. Then we'll come home. I'll blow out the candles. There will be exactly forty of them. Mary Alice is a details person, always has been. Then I'll eat a slice of cake, maybe even two. I'll brag on how good it tastes, because it will taste good. My wife is the best cook I've ever met. I'll help her with the dishes afterward and then we'll probably watch TV while Davis does her homework. After the ten o'clock news, we'll go to bed. We won't make love. We haven't in years.
The next day, my wife will expect me to wake up at six a.m., make a pot of coffee, read the newspaper, and give her a kiss on the cheek before heading to the office. She'll expect me to be home for dinner. That's been our life together for as long as we both can remember.
But tomorrow, Mary Alice and everyone else is in for a surprise. Tomorrow, I plan to wake an hour early and slip out of the house without a sound.
I'll drive to the bridge and stand exactly where I'm standing now. I'll wear my golf clothes. Collared shirt with a sweater over it, khaki slacks, and my FootJoy spikes. I won't say a prayer, because, though I used to go to church on Sundays and even served as an usher for years, I don't believe in God anymore. No, instead I'll repeat the words of my father, Robert Clark, on a late summer day in 1970.
There comes a point in every man's life when he realizes that he's not going to be Joe Namath.
And then, as the sun begins to rise over the Tennessee River, I'll jump.
You might say that my birthday didn't pan out the way I thought it would. And that would be an understatement. Things got weird long before I saw the ghost of Darby Hays, but let's take them in the order in which they happened.
I left the Tennessee River Bridge at six forty a.m. and was at my office in downtown Huntsville by seven. I spent the morning preparing for and conducting a car, wreck plaintiff's deposition. When it finished sooner than I expected, I reviewed my life insurance policy one last time.
At eleven forty-five a.m., I decided to go out for lunch. I had made it halfway down the hallway when Debbie called after me. "Randy!"
I looked over my shoulder, and Debbie was leaning out of her cubicle. She had stretched the phone line as far as it would go, and she was holding the receiver out. "It's Mary Alice. She says it's important."
My stomach tightened as I registered the look of worry on my assistant's face. I tried not to speculate, but my first thought was that something had happened to Davis. My second was for my mother. Since Dad's death two years ago, Mom had kept busy with her friends and seemed to be in good health. But she was in her seventies, and life can change on a dime.
Shaking off the thoughts, I strode back to my office and picked up the phone, steeling myself for the worst.
"Is Davis okay?" I asked, forgoing any pleasantries.
"Randy, have you heard about Darby?"
I blinked, as relief flooded through me that my daughter and mother were okay. Darby? My friend's heavyset gait, bushy salt-and-pepper beard, and piercing blue eyes immediately came to mind. "No, what is it?"
"He was in a car accident last night in Birmingham." She paused, and I could tell she was trying hard not to cry. "He's dead, Randy. I'm so sorry."
I lowered myself to my chair and stared through the yellow notepad on the desk. All I could see was my last memory of Darby. Standing on the tee box of the eighteenth hole at Shoal Creek, his home course, telling me that the PGA Championship was coming back to Shoal in five years. Then he had hit his patented draw that started down the right side of the fairway and curved into the middle, coming to rest approximately 285 yards from the tee. He had the smoothest golf swing I've ever seen. "That'll do, Randolph!" Darby had yelled. I had followed with a good but not great tee shot that had come to rest on the right side of the fairway a good twenty yards behind Darby. Length off the tee was one of the strengths of Darby's game. It was one of the main reasons my friend and former teammate on the University of Alabama golf team had played nineteen years on the PGA Tour.
He's dead, I thought.
"Randy, are you there?"
"Yeah," I said, trying and failing to bring myself back to the present. When I had met him my freshman year, Darby was a senior and one of the finest college golfers in the country. The coach asked Darby to room with me on the road, and I initially wasn't sure what to make of my supposed mentor, who, from the first moment I was introduced to him, took to calling me "Randolph," when my real name was Randall and the only nickname I had ever had was Randy. But, like everyone else on the team, I eventually grew to idolize Darby's quick wit, laid-back manner, and unbelievable game. He was the only player I'd ever known who could stay out all night partying and still show up on the first tee and shoot under par. Darby let me tag along during many of his adventures, on and off the course, and we became good friends. After school, we remained close as his golf career took off and mine fizzled out. He was my best friend, I thought.
And now he's gone . . .
"Randy?" Mary Alice asked again, her voice an octave higher. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I lied. "I just . . . can't believe it. How did you find out?"
"Charlotte called. She said she was going to call you herself but didn't think she could get through it."
"How did it happen?"
"Darby had played eighteen holes at Shoal Creek, drank a couple gin and tonics, and left around seven. She doesn't know what he did after that, but the police found a half-drunk fifth of Bombay in the floorboard of the Jaguar."
I paused, remembering how much Darby loved his white Jaguar. Randolph, this is the finest automobile made in the world, he had said, the first time he'd taken me for a spin in his pride and joy. I felt tears forming in the corners of my eyes.
"How did Charlotte sound?"
"She was okay. I think she's madder at him right now than sad."
"Does she need anything? Should we-"
"No, she said the funeral would be Friday. Nothing fancy. Just a small service. Charlotte said that Darby would be livid if she scheduled his funeral to conflict with Masters coverage on the weekend."
I smiled and wiped the tears off my cheek. "That sounds like Darb."
For several seconds, silence filled the line. "Are you sure you're okay?" Mary Alice asked, her voice tentative. "Do you want to take the rest of the day off?"
I stood from my chair. "No . . . I can't. Debbie and some of the folks in our department have a cake for me and-"
"Your birthday," Mary Alice interrupted, sniffling. "I can't believe this would happen on your birthday. Randy, I'm so sorry."
Me too, I thought. "I'll see you tonight, hon. I'll be okay."
"If you don't feel like going out, I can make something here."
"Okay, we'll play it by ear," I said. "I need to go."
"I love you."
I closed my eyes, thinking not of Darby Hays but of the hard surface and dirty water of the Tennessee River. "Love you too," I managed, before hanging up the phone.
I had originally planned to walk to Gorin's, a sandwich and ice cream shop downtown, for lunch. I had wanted my last lunch on earth to be at one of my favorite places, and Gorin's had the best chicken fingers I'd ever tasted.
Instead, without much conscious thought, as if my mind had turned on autopilot after learning about Darby, I ended up driving to the Twickenham Country Club. Though my law firm provided few fringe benefits to associates, the partners had offered me, as the firm's only accomplished golfer, a corporate membership to the club. In return for this perk, which netted me ten rounds a year and access to the course and practice facilities for my children, I was expected to entertain clients and hustle new business.
Since our money troubles had begun three years ago, the only golf I allowed myself to enjoy other than obligatory outings with current or prospective clients was the few hours I was able to spend out here with Davis in the early evenings after work. Watching my beautiful, spunky daughter hit balls until her face and neck were covered with sweat and her brown hair was matted to the side of her head was about the only thing that gave me peace anymore.
Today, however, given the news I had just received and what I was planning to do tomorrow, I decided to go rogue. I went to the nineteenth-hole lounge and, in an ode to my dead friend, ordered a gin and tonic.
"Taking the day off, Mr. Clark?"
I turned to see Cary Harvella, the club's young assistant professional, who smiled and added, "Don't see you out here much anymore."
I nodded and took a sip of gin. "I know, but today . . ." My mind flashed images of Darby Hays wearing a white golf shirt and green slacks and striding down the thirteenth hole at Augusta ten years ago. Darby had gotten me a badge for Saturday's round that year, and I had followed him every hole. On thirteen, he'd strolled over to me, whistling as he was prone to do, and said, "Randolph, if I'm going to make any noise in this tournament, I need an eagle. Get your camera ready." He had then walked up to his ball, taken two drags off the cigarette he'd been puffing on, and launched a three wood right at the flag. The ball had landed on the front of the green, barely clearing Rae's Creek and coming to rest five feet from the pin. Darby had turned to me and taken a bow. It was the greatest golf shot I'd ever seen.
"Mr. Clark?" Cary's voice sounded like it was coming from a mile away, but, seeing his eyes crease with concern, I remembered myself.
"Today's my birthday, Cary. I figured I could squeeze in eighteen holes."