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Chapter 1: Thistledown
It had been years since I'd thought of her. Owen Lux was the most beautiful woman in the world. Sunlight always played in her hair. Her eyes glistened the whole day through. Her perfume was sweet, sweet lilac. She laughed quietly, easily, often, and long. My guess is that she was then thirty-five, forty years old; my friends and I were eleven and twelve. Owen Lux could hit the ball a mile. She putted like a whiz, craved birdie and eagle above all else, and reminded us at least once or twice an hour that anything, everything, was possible.
I needed Owen Lux. It was the early sixties and I was wandering a far-flung, nine-hole course, most often alone. I came to the game when I was seven -- dropped off to join ten boys and two other girls for "lessons" at the local club. I bolted from the car that day toting a makeshift bag my mother had sewn from heavy curtains. My clubs were the usual motley assortment -- a cut-down Walter Hagen spoon and a burn-stained Spalding 7-iron my brother had found in the dump. My putter, a rusty Wilson "driller," was one I'd admired and gained in trade for a well-used pitchfork. I was far from country club material. In a county known for having many more cows than people, my parents sold tractors and farm equipment by day and farmed at night.
But the local course was itself far from fancy. A modest public venture, it had been laid out on 110 flat, sandy acres. A bubbling creek ran through two holes; soybeans and cornfields lined the outlying fairways, and grass waged a constant battle with burrs, fireweed, and thistle. Members affectionately called it "Thistledown."
My teacher, "Doc," a middle-aged man, now I had my price: not ownership, but full use of the matched set of Spaldings and the handsome brown bag he'd bought with his gas-station earnings.
Though I struggled in carrying them, and Doc made no reference to my acquisition, I was certain I'd moved up in the golf world. Somehow wielding their excessive length, I managed the few remaining seconds that year to Courtney's firsts; the next year, she passed into an older division and I cruised. But despite the ribbons and the trophies, my brother and his friends let me know I was nothing more than small-time. At matches I walked fast after out-of-town, honest-to-goodness teaching pro or seemingly knowledgeable parent, hopeful for counsel, but the most any of said was, "Hi." I'm sure I had the air of a nuisance; or may be they thought that with a flat, reckless swing like mine, once youth gave way to nervousness and fear set in I'd be finished; may be I was just too shabby. Whatever the reason, "Thattagirl!" was what I had to drive me.
Until Owen Lux. The other girls and I wanted a girls' teacher, someone to talk to us. We'd wished and waited and waited, two seasons until finally, when she didn't come, I made her up. If Doc said something down the line to Willie or Dan or Pete that I couldn't hear, Owen said it better. If Doc found a new club for Mark or Steve or Ron, Owen shined Beth's and Julie's and mine all up. Par, bogey, double, triple, whatever the score, Owen moved us on. But in my thirteenth summer, mid-season, Doc died. He'd had a Hollywood-style heart attack and was buried with his putter three days later. "Come back," I said to him in his casket, but it wasn't any use. All out-of-town trips came to a halt. Beth and Julie blen ded in with the kids at the soda shop; more of the boys drifted to baseball. Me, I went round and round the same nine holes, from early light on into dusk -- just me anal Owen Lux. Round and round and round, until late season, in Thistledown's own tournament (the last Doc had scheduled), I knew the lies so well I shot 76, many strokes clear of second. That day Courtney's father spoke to me (she'd carded 79 in her division). They were moving soon to Florida. Naples. Naples was the place to be. "Good-bye," he said, "Congratulations."
The next summer, I played only once between swimming and odd jobs -- the next year, not at all. Owen Lux dwindled. The clubs were eventually sold by mistake at a yard sale.
Not until twenty-four years later did I return to it. I'd been thirteen years on the East Coast after college and had settled back in the Midwest on a two-year project when a friend sent me Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom. Like its many readers, I was awakened. I started walking the course again where Doc had first led me. Though the grounds were much improved, fireweed and nettle having now given way to manicured fairways, it was still a rural muni track, worlds away from the championship tests of a Mission Hills or Pine Valley. With every spare moment devoted to practice, I neared scratch quickly, and I read everything -- golf history, psychology, biography, philosophy, Nicklaus, Palmer, Floyd, Armour, Norman, Couples, Snead, Pelz, Penick, Jones, Hagen. The night Mayo doctors worked to save my brother from an aortal hemorrhage, it was Hogan's Power Golf that calmed me.
I was thrilled, sustained. I'd returned to a game I loved. All within me marveled. Yet, despite the score, I realized I knew nothing. I wanted keener eyes, better balance, top equipment, and an earthbound version of Golf in the Kingdom's pro, Shivas Irons -- a whimsical, wise, larger than life magical master.
In early spring, I heard of her -- or at least a hint of her -- through something as unlikely as a long-lost friend serving coffee and doughnuts in a church kitchen. I tell this friend I'm working to apply for LPGA teaching-pro certification and that summer am starting a program at Thistledown for juniors and women. As for my own game -- I demonstrate for her, there, in front of unsuspecting devout parishioners, the place in my swing that needs serious attention. I tell her that despite shooting par, I know too little.
She says there's a woman three hours east -- an old master who teaches no two people the same, an odd sort of bona fide original. "Matia Lund. Go, and tell me what you think of her."
I say I'm going to, but then I don't, and then later I do, in July. The clerk in the pro shop stops counting change when I ask for her. "You someone she knows?" he asks, giving me a good look over.
"Well, the world's funny. Hasn't been in for 'round a month. But she's here today. Over there, the bench, below the tree." As I glance quickly where he's pointed out the window, then turn for the door, he says loudly, "But she doesn't take now but one or two lessons. And doesn't go in much for chatter."
Outside, I gather my clubs over my shoulder, rehearsing an introduction, but as I near her, my breath shortens. Time scatters, then stops. She looks at me. And I can see clearly, in just that moment, she is the very embodiment of excellence -- way beyond all I ever dreamed in tho se years of straining to overhear Doc's wisdom. Her sun-browned hands never slow, deftly braiding the rope of a heavy canvas safari bonnet. Her long, white hair glistens; her face is a treasure map of the world. Deep eyes shining, she nods, I nod, she nods, as if we'd just parted yesterday and nothing need be said in greeting.
I sit down slowly, barely on the edge of the bench, and there we are with the birds, one loud, triumphant cry from somewhere down a fairway, and my own heart beating. Quietly I start my story. When I've finished, she dons the bonnet and walks to the range.
"You can use that swing," she says after I've hit only two 7-irons, "it's here and here you suffer." She gestures first to her forehead, then her solar plexus. "You have a bad case of the 'If onlys' -- the old 'If I had wheels, I'd be a wagon.'" She looks straight at me. "Whether by neglect or intent, your man Doc did you a favor. 'Reach for the stars; shoot for the moon'? In it he gave you the thing most valuable -- freedom."
She takes my 7-iron and returns it to my bag. "More," she says, walking from me as I'm thinking that we've only just gotten started, "he left you hungry. You might thank him."
When I've grabbed my clubs and run to catch up with her, "You're like a thirsty fish," she says. But beside an old station wagon, in the parking lot where I've followed, she brings out a flat, black book, finds a page, and scratches my name in.
The three hours there, three hours back -- I drive it the next week, the week after, the week after that, and again until deep on into fall; the winds come, acorns clutter the greens, then sleet, then snow -- she's gone with the season.
But in a month a letter comes from Mi chigan, and when I write to tell her I'm doing the book I've wanted -- golf wisdom for women from women -- a note arrives again in answer. In script uncharacteristically clear and large, Matia tells me I must not forget that "Goodness is at the heart of wisdom. The good will find you," She tells me to be led by word of mouth, to respect the unknown as well as the lauded, to listen carefully to the names repeated. Above all be mindful of Mark Twain: "I do not wish to hear about the moon from someone who has not been there." Go, she says, be bold.
I set out east, west, south, and am greeted repeatedly with generosity and kindness. "You learn so much being asked a question," the great amateur and now seventy-nine-year-old pro Betty Jameson tells me. "Everyone needs a listener -- something more than a seashell. We aren't just Proettes. Our days, our swings, our games, our minds are full. We have things to tell..."
Poolside at opulent country clubs, distant ranges; a small apartment in Oakland, Las Cruces, Durham, Philadelphia; a Denny's in Carlsbad; the magnificent dining room at Pine Needles; a bungalow in Cupertino; a farm in North Carolina; an equipment shed in Texas; a grand house in DeLand; on and on -- women who have lived and loved the game, each one. In the eyes, most often pride; sometimes sadness, sometimes longing, joy, bravery, mischief. When I leave, I am given everything, anything, at hand -- photos, clippings, a prized club, a ball, shoes, a money clip, books, a trophy, clothing, an apple, a bag of tangerines, a roll of tape. None of it, I know, is really meant for me. From these women (the pioneers especially), well-respected but sought and heard from so little, the physical mementos are the mere underpinnings of more -- a willingness and a goodness meant for those whom they know now they will reach.
Home, with the stacks and stacks of tapes and tapes, and books, and notes, and photocopies from archives, there's another letter from Michigan. It's a response to my having written somewhere along the way that I can tell that with the many varied voices in this collection, I must strive to make it something more than a hodgepodge. Matia doesn't bother with a greeting, right off the top she starts: "Why fear hodgepodge? Women know hodgepodge. Think of the old quilts -- stitched lovingly from hodgepodge -- always warm, always useful." Forget preconceived ideas.
And forget the tapes and books and notes. They're only for later, for accuracy. For now, she says, I must rely on stillness. "Sit. And pay attention to what fights its way back to you; it's that that is right and true."
As for her, she's heading farther south to a place she hasn't seen, courses she hasn't walked. "You. You must work. Make something women can count on, go back to." Don't be too technical. Remember Mrs. Castle in Podunk, Anne Crawley in West-chester, Mildred Hegg in Sauk City, Kim Sightling at River Crest, Frieda Kane in South Dakota. "Make it human. Keep it short. Easy. When you least know it, I'll be with you. May the gods speed."
And so went the journey to what follows. A book unwittingly and longingly begun those days with Doc, then furtbered and guided, simply and sparingly, by a teacher finally found.
Copyright © 1999 by Mona Vold