NEIL AND ME

Sometime back in the late 90’s, I was Principal of a residential special education facility serving multiple-handicapped and severely emotionally disturbed youngsters to the age of 21. Given the often stressful  atmosphere, frequently charged with major emotional escalations tainted with violence, most of the staff chose some activity outside the school to provide some relaxation and solace. I like golf.

For many years, participation in sports had been a major interest of mine; although I never was “a star” my own assessment was that I was “better than average”. One of the high points along the way was being a starter on the 1956 University of Kansas freshman basketball team during the annual Freshman-Varsity basketball game to kick-off the season; the highlight was the first varsity appearance of Wilt Chamberlain, and the media was there in force. It was also sort of a low point in my career; at one point during the game I was trapped under the basket when he stuffed one of his classic dunks, right on my head, to the amusement of the 12,000 fans in attendance. The following Monday at practice, I tore some muscles and that essentially ended my dream; that particular injury reappeared on the first day of practice when I had been asked to try out again, as a junior. However, a small photograph appeared in the Paul Hornung Dec. 3 Sports Illustrated, with Wilt soaring high above the hoop and I in my pre-cringing stance peering up through the hoop, in nervous anticipation of things to come.

Other sports also held my interest; for a brief time, I practiced with the university’s tennis team, but quickly lost interest when I realized that although I had enjoyed some success in city tournaments in Kansas City, growing up, I really didn’t have more than a recreational/social commitment to become competitive.

During my sophomore year of college, I fell in with a pack of buddies that decided to enter intramural competition in everything that was offered; I should have concentrated a bit more on my studies rather than badminton, horseshoes, volleyball, tennis and anything else that came along. Our volleyball team was undefeated, having among its members the U.S. Volleyball Coach James Coleman along with two All-Americans. I was directed to be “only a spiker”, and did so happily as the spiking motion is the same as a tennis serve, and I had a fair serve. I however did not have the necessary agility, strength, or quick movement required in volleyball, certainly one of the most athletic of all sports, and I did not commit to further development.

With all this devotion to non-academic pursuits, I made the ”wrong Dean’s List” for the first semester. Fortunately I was able to recover for the second half of the year and get on “the right Dean’s List”, but missed out on some really fun stuff. The satisfactory grades for the second semester helped me to receive a National Science Foundation Undergraduate Research Grant in Astronomy, one of my majors along with Mathematics, for my junior year.

Sprinkled throughout the years from age 12 and upward, I had dabbled with golf and found it to be an intellectual activity as well as physical exercise. Each shot, other than those at a driving range, is different from the one preceding and the one after; the lie of the ball on the ground changes as does the target and distance desired. Even the basics of the swing have to be consistently reassessed and modified in order to have a chance for a successful outcome. At the same time, the golfer is really competing against the landscape, not his opponents. A golf match is really saying, “ I can maneuver this ball around this pasture in fewer strokes than you”; there is no opportunity to “play defense” other than perhaps an occasional cough or flatulent interruption in the middle of the opponent’s swing. When you think about professional sports, golf may be the only one where the participant doesn’t get paid until he or she has achieved, from week to week; they don’t have a huge pre-season contract that is based on hope instead of future performance.

As with my involvement with other sports, I considered myself to be “better than average” as a golfer, having tried to learn the game from one of the classic books, “Power Golf” by Ben Hogan (and still available as a paperback).  I remember the excitement of the first time I “broke 80”, at a public course in Kansas City and with some used clubs I had recently purchased from the pro. But again, there was no sense of dedication or commitment although it was more than “a passing fancy”. As a member of the first Peace Corps project, along with my teaching science and math, and initiating basketball, in Ghana, West Africa, I played a few rounds of golf here and there around that country. One had to be careful where one walked; I recall eyeing a recently shed cobra skin on one of the roughly cut fairways. If you hit the ball into the woods (read “jungle”), you sent the caddy in after it, not yourself. I was amazed that they always seemed able to find the ball! During my second year in Ghana, I met another PC volunteer who had come more recently, and I was able to relive those halcyon days of athletic competition in as many sports as possible, during school vacations—one on one basketball, tennis, badminton, ping-pong—anything. Again, it provided a sense of relaxation and relief from stress. (Actually, we still get together periodically, 50 years later, for some golf. He usually wins).

As I changed jobs and locations, academic pursuits, and career options, married and became a parent, golf has been a thread as a side interest to the main foci of my life. When I worked briefly and began graduate work in Anthropology at Columbia University in New York, I indulged myself with 7 ½ hour rounds in Van Cortland Park, in the Bronx. Continuing grad work under a fellowship at Kansas University, there were the sand greens outside of Lawrence, just like some of those in Ghana where there was a special weighted tool used to drag a putting path to the hole. A move to North Carolina introduced me to “real golf”, and I had a membership at Tanglewood outside of Winston-Salem, while filling in as an Anthropology instructor at Wake Forest. A move to UNC in Greensboro brought me to a number of other venues, including the famous Pinehurst #2. A few years later, in the pre-wedding activities of my aforementioned buddy, we played at Cog Hill #5, the famous course in the Chicago area.

A year later, he and his wife introduced me to my wife, a lab partner of theirs in the Biological Science doctoral program at the U. of Illinois. And an athlete! Former Illinois state diving champion at 13, holder of swim records, played college basketball and tennis at a small college north of Chicago, great baseball and softball player—–and somewhat of a golfer (her aunt had won the Illinois State Amateur several times, as well as the Wyoming Women’s Amateur once, and played with the famous women golfers. She had started my wife onto golf).

THE GOLF TEACHER

After we married, we headed to Colorado where I completed my Ed. D. in Educational Change and Development;  we then moved to Wyoming where I was charged with establishing the state’s first middle school program, in the small town of Thermopolis in the Big Horn River Basin. As luck would have it, during the first year a need arose to have someone operate the golf pro shop the following summer, and we were asked to do so. Both us were busy doing other things; I with my school duties and she having our first child, but we hired some of my more reliable students to staff the shop and collect green fees and cart rentals. We also stocked some equipment, and could order just about anything. There was a problem, however—-no one to give lessons. I didn’t feel competent enough to do so, and anyway, if I did I could no longer play in amateur tournaments. What to do?

We discovered that if lessons were given under Adult Education, with me as an educator, I could receive some payment and remain an amateur (certainly my prowess was still at that level, and has definitely remained so). I went back to my “Power Golf” book along with Jack Nicklaus’ “Five Fundamentals”, and anything else I could find. An ad in the local paper, emphasizing group lessons for beginners, gave me the start on a new venture, one that eventually provided me with a great deal of satisfaction as well as new opportunities. To illustrate my need for information, I had to ponder deeply to answer a question posed by a rather chesty young woman in her first lesson—“Do you swing over them or under them?” I decided that “over them” would be best, and confidently resumed the rest of the lesson.

We operated that shop during summers for three years, and along the way managed to upgrade our own ability to play. One year, both of us won the Club Championships; afterward, my wife stopped playing golf and turned her attention to landscaping our new home and working in a variety of part-time jobs in education (college night class teaching), building museum displays, helping friends with establishing new businesses.

LABOR DAY TOURNAMENT

She, however, in collaboration with a man who was the backbone of the golf activity in our town, ran a highly-popular three-day two-person-teams golf tournament every labor day. Her partner in this venture had become fairly wealthy recently, having taken a chance on a nearby oil field where he had worked as a petroleum engineer, and which one of the larger oil companies had acquired and was now “dumping” as not promising future profit. They were wrong and he began enjoying the fruits of his labor; along the way he established friendships and acquaintances with a number of “people in high places”; at the same time, another man who had grown up in our town had become a CEO of a number of national and international businesses, and was a close friend. As a result, the golf tournament brought persons from far-away places to town and was the major social event of the year. One year, I was recruited to be the partner of Tony Tyrone, then President of Warner Brothers and a partner with David Janssen and Frank Sinatra; another year, Don Ameche’s son was a participant. The same teams came every year for over 20 years, flying in from San Francisco, Brussels, Atlanta, and other far-flung places. One participant invited me to “look him up” if I was in his area—I did so later, he lived at Pebble Beach and was a member of Monterey Peninsula Country Club. One year, the Calcutta reached $32,000, and the Saturday night auction was a thing to behold, as “conglomerates” formed in order to pay for the bids.

My wife had become “a legend” in connection with the tournament. With the advent of computers, she began keeping records about every entrant; we learned which persons to un-invite as they were sandbagging with inflated handicaps in order to win money; she kept everyone’s sweater and shirt sizes along with other preferences; there was both a men’s and women’s division. With this information, we selected great tee prizes; I’m still using the Nike duffel bag for all my international travel, after 12 years. The tourney itself was a best ball format, the first day the front nine was played as best ball, the second nine was individual. Two thirds of handicap were used. The second day, the order was reversed, then on the third day back to the original sequence. There were the usual side pots for closest to hole, long drive, shortest drive, long putt made, etc., there was daily day money from the Calcutta, and about a quarter of the field enjoyed standard prizes. Hole-in-one insurance was provided although the one year it wasn’t, our financial backer had to shell out for a prize golf cart.

Unfortunately, the tournament is no more. With changes in personnel, aging and passing of participants, and economic woes, it is only a fond memory.

BEYOND LABOR DAY

In subsequent years, I have worked in several locations around Wyoming while maintaining our primary residence in Thermopolis. My wife has stayed there, our two sons graduating from the local high school and going on to college. She has been a highly-honored teacher in the next town to the North, Worland, and is presently a central office administrator for curriculum and instruction, and educational grant programs. In at least two my other locations, I was asked to provide golf lessons through local adult education, and as usual focused on beginning golfers, especially women. Over the years, I found that the persons easiest to teach were those who had never played any kind of sports but had good coordination; among athletes, the easiest to learn the game were basketball and tennis players; football players and baseball players have the most problems. Of these two groups, the former tend to try and “crush the ball” instead of working on rhythm and timing; the latter have the problem of the dominant right hand which causes slicing, hooking, topping, and other nasty results.

I will shortly be drafting a short “instructional blog” which a beginning golfer could use to get a good start. None of my students hooked or sliced; they could always get the ball up in the air and straight, using the basics I teach. I once read that “the golf swing is the single most complex movement in all of sport”, and I agree. If even the tiniest thing, maybe a hangnail or a blister on the right heel is wrong, the rhythm of the swing can change. I’ve played lots of basketball with minor injuries, and managed to perform adequately. That’s not the case in golf.

Using the proceeds and relationships from my golf instructional career, I’ve played at Pebble Beach (92 from the back tees, two triple bogey’s out of the unfamiliar kind of sand, kikuyu grass and consistently wrong clubs to the sea level greens from my accustomed 7000 ft. elevation in Wyoming), Monterey Country Club (80), Prairie Dunes (Hutchinson, KS, 78). Other opportunities have brought me to other well-known courses including the Myrtle Beach and Charlotte areas of the Carolinas. On recent overseas educational evaluation trips, I played in Germany, Cairo, Japan, and South Korea. I’m tentatively planning a stopover in Scotland next spring, on my way to or from another educational evaluation assignment in either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.

You may be wondering, what happened to the “Neil and Me” and the opening paragraph? Well, that special education residential facility is located in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and if you’re familiar with the area you know it can be expensive. Normally, I wouldn’t be able to afford to play golf there, but I discovered that I could work as a volunteer course ranger at the Teton Pines resort, just a half mile down the road from my school, and play free! I did that for five years and along the way, briefly met or chatted with lots of celebrity-types either visiting or living there. Former Vice-President Cheney has a house on the property, as does former World Bank President James Wolfenson, and as did David Brinkley. Harrison Ford and Jay Rockefeller were listed as members. Among the folks I had the good fortune to meet was Neil Armstrong, who occasionally came to Wyoming probably for R & R. While he was waiting to hit on the 12th tee, I said, “You know, I let you take my place”. He asked me to explain, so I said, “when I entered college in 1956, I wanted to be the first man in space and travel to the moon or Mars. I was to major in Astronomy and Physics, and throw in some Archaeology just in case there would be something “there” to find. I got my degree in Mathematics and Astronomy, and took some Anthropology classes, but I was told that I was too tall to easily fit into any potential space vehicle, and my eyesight wasn’t good enough to be a jet pilot. So that dream ended, and you took my spot.” He found that amusing. He was a fairly decent golfer as well as an astronaut, and much better than many of the other celebs that cluttered up the view of the Tetons.

I almost really took his place several years later; he was to be a guest at the annual meeting of the leaders of the world aircraft industry, held at the A Bar A Dude Ranch in southern Wyoming during the week after Labor Day. I was working in the nearby school district office in Saratoga, Wyoming, and the small airport is annually dwarfed by as many as 39 jets assembled on the apron during the meeting week. The persons operating the dude ranch asked if I would come up and give an astronomy talk one evening—“What, ME? With Neil Armstrong among the participants? You’re out of your mind!”

Always Be Happy!                     Totally Out of the Universe!

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