Read an Excerpt
I arrived just before five-thirty and saw Eddie waiting for me outside the gate. He was driving a '67 Cadillac Fleetwood, which somehow surprised me. I thought a hustler like him would be driving something nondescript, something that wouldn't call attention to himself. He was standing outside the car with a three-iron hung across his shoulders, one hand on each end as he turned first one way, held it, then turned back and held it on the other side.
Once we got inside, he went directly to the range to hit some balls. He must have gotten to the gate by five so he could have his stretching routine done. I got through mine in about fifteen minutes, hit a few and then called out, "You ready?"
As Eddie had said, we were both to carry our own bags. It went without saying that I didn't want any caddies to witness me scramble four balls against a nobody. Both of us had brought carry bags, mine a leather-trimmed beauty I got as a gift from a sponsor, his an ultralightweight, apparently homemade job that didn't look as if weighed much more than the air it displaced.
The first hole at Seminole is a par-four that plays 475 from the back tees. Eddie took a moment to survey the hole, probably never having seen grass that looked like it had been cut with a nail clipper and a ruler. Seminole was like a postcard come to life, so impossibly manicured it seemed a shame even to set foot on it.
I let him have his look so I could have a moment to myself as well. I try never to tee off without first taking a few minutes to appreciate this game I play, and the physical environment in which I play it. On this perfect morning, the warm air was cooking the fresh-cut grass so that humid waves of its musty smell rose up gently like a heady perfume. The moisture in the air made things a little on the hazy side, a little heavy, recalling the dreamy laziness of summers when I was a kid. I find it hard to resist the serenity that seeps into me in these kinds of conditions, the kind that makes you want to walk a little slower, swing a little smoother, the kind that keeps pulling you back into awareness of the day so you don't get so caught up in the game you forget where you are.
I would have thought that Eddie'd be getting impatient by now, but he was standing quietly, maybe mulling over something of his own take on the day.
"You sure about this, Eddie?" I asked solicitously. "Not too late to change your mind. I wouldn't say anything to anybody."
He took a deep breath, then looked down at his shoes. "Deal's a deal, Al. Let's do it."
I stepped back out of his line of sight as he teed up his ball and took a few practice swings. Rolling his neck once to make sure it was loose, he sidled up between the black markers and took his stance, waggling the club and taking one more look down the fairway before fixing his gaze on his ball.
After about two seconds of stillness, he took the club back smoothly, brought it back down and hit the ball, keeping his head down, following through nicely and then looking up to see how he did.
It was a fine shot, almost perfectly straight, with only a hint of fade. It hit the grass and rolled, not as far as it might have a few hours later when the dew had dried, but good enough to end up about 250 yards away and right in the middle.
"Good shot," I said graciously as he stepped away to make room for me.
"Thanks," he replied, and got back out of my sight line.
I teed up and did my own pre-shot routine, not much different from Eddie's, and hauled off much harder than I normally would have, knowing I had three more attempts if it didn't work out.
My connection was very solid, and I, too, faded the ball a little, but I had started off more centered, so I drifted to the right of the middle. When the ball came to rest, I was at least thirty-five yards past Eddie, about halfway between the middle and the trees on the right, on the fairway.
"Beauty!" he said in sincere admiration.
I rocked my head a little. "Not bad."
Then I turned around, and as I pulled another ball out of my pocket, I said, "But I get to try again, right?" Thinking, And here comes the bullshit.
Eddie held out his hand, palm up, toward the tee box. "Be my guest."
I still had trouble believing this. I took another swing, this time as hard as I possibly could, knowing the first ball would play just fine and I didn't need any safe shots to protect me. This time I cleared over 300 yards, but the intended fade was more of a slice, and I was in the rough.
The next time I eased up slightly and got 290, but safely on the fairway, and my last shot was a real screamer that drew too much to the left, this time deep into the woods.
"You bring enough balls?" Eddie asked amiably.
"Plenty," I answered with equivalent good cheer.
We hefted the bags and took off. I dropped my bag down and walked to pick up the two visible balls I wasn't going to use, not bothering to hunt in the woods for the last shot.
Eddie waited for me, and we stopped at his ball. He had about 225 to go to reach the green. He chose a five-wood and hit a very pretty shot, landing three feet off the dance floor on the left side. It was a makable par opportunity. Then we went to the ball I decided play, the 290-yard drive sitting on the right side of the fairway. I had 185 to go.
First I placed a ball marker about six inches to the right of my ball so I would be able to tell where to put the balls for my other tries. I took out a five-iron and hit, ending up about ten feet off the green, on the side opposite where Eddie was lying.
"Crappy," I said, pulling another ball out of my bag. I placed it as close to where the first ball had been as I could, then hit the five-iron again. This time I hit the green, maybe twenty-five feet from the pin.
"Should be able to do better than that," I said, reaching for a third ball.
Eddie nodded enthusiastically. "Whaddaya got to lose?"
"Yup." I hit again, this time landing about ten feet from the flag. Then once again, ending up not much closer to the pin than my second shot.
"That oughta do it," I said, unable to keep the smugness out of my voice.
But Eddie was not to be dismayed. "Yup. Lookin' good, Al. Play this format a lot, I see."
At the green, Eddie chipped to within four feet, then went ahead and putted out for his par.
I took my time with the ten-footer, missed but saw the line, tried again and drained it. Birdie.
"Nicely done," Eddie said as he wrote down the scores on a sheet he'd pulled out of his back pocket.
I was up one.
Number two was a par-five, a 590-yard monster with a dogleg right about 320 out. One of the five strokes per side I was giving Eddie came on this hole, so I had to beat him by two to win it, or by one to tie. Eddie hit another nice drive, again about 250 yards, keeping it left so he'd have a way around the dogleg.
Not wanting to lose my head, I hit my first drive safe, about 280 and also slightly left. With a good one sitting in my pocket, I was able to whale away at the next three shots with abandon, doing everything I could to get past those trees. My second shot ended up in the woods, and the third, a cannon that actually put me just about past the trees, nevertheless ended up in the rough. The fourth was useless. It would be a tough call which one I'd play of the first and third.
Eddie hit a good three-wood that got him within 120 of the green. I knew after taking a look at the ball in the rough that there was no way I could put it onto the green, so I elected to be smart and play from my 280-yarder. I hit a three-wood just like Eddie had, but got myself within 70 of the green.
With nothing to lose now, I pulled out my driver and smacked my second try with everything I had. It hooked badly, splashing into the creek running alongside the rough over on the left. I hit the driver again, but took a little dirt, sending the ball less than 200 yards. For my fourth shot, I concentrated as hard as I ever have and hit the driver so clean and pure, damned if the ball didn't fly its way to maybe 40 yards in front of the green.
"Holy shit!" Eddie said, grinning like a schoolboy. "Wun'ta believed it, I hadn'a seen it with my own eyes!"
I turned around as casually as I could, slipping the head cover over the driver and placing it gently back in my bag. "Yeah, I liked that one."
Eddie easily plopped his ball onto the green with his pitching wedge. I hit four with my sand wedge and got one of them less than five feet from the pin. Once again, Eddie parred and I birdied, but because he got a stroke, we tied the hole. Or "halved" it, as we golfers put it.
I won the next one, which Eddie didn't stroke, so I was now up two after three holes.
This was getting embarrassing.
It went on pretty much like that for the next three holes. I birdied them all, Eddie parred them all. He stroked two of those, so I was up three at this point. I was having a good time, smacking hell out of balls without worrying too much about what happened to them, hitting enough beauties to ensure a birdie on every hole.
I started to notice Eddie's game a little bit more. It wasn't spectacular, but it was practically flawless. He didn't make mistakes and seemed to have a definite plan for every shot, always doing what he intended to do. He was deliberate.
Too deliberate. I was killing him, and Eddie was still being conservative, admittedly playing excellent golf, especially on such a long course, but I had this strange feeling I wasn't seeing his best game. Was he sorry now he'd made the bet, and too timid to pull out the stops and try to catch up to me?
"Eddie," I called out as we pulled up to the seventh tee and set our bags down. My back was starting to ache a little from all that whacking at the ball I was doing, as well as all the extra walking around to pick up the ones I wouldn't be using, so I sat on the bench alongside the tee box. "Wanna have some fun?"
I thought about it for a few seconds. "You're down three, right?"
He nodded, not having to look at the scorecard.
"Look: Me making birdies and you pars, looks like I'm gonna be up about eight when we're all done, right?"
"Not if you get a couple eagles."
"And you could get some birdies. So what if I spot you five of those eight?"
He thought it over, probably realizing it gave him an outside chance of winning, whereas now it was completely hopeless as things stood. Of course, he also knew that I wasn't going to change the rules in his favor without some concession on his part.
Like upping the stakes. Which is what I expected him to inquire about next.
But he didn't.
"I got a different idea," he said, and I gestured for him to go on. He put his foot up on the bench and said, "Let's just double the stakes."
"And . . .?"
"And nothin". We just keep playing. For ten large."
I couldn't have heard that right. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"Just what I said. I'll even go you one better: Twenty grand says I beat you straight up."
I felt something cold crawl across my back. I literally shivered. "No strokes?"
"No strokes. Take 'em all back, 'cept what you already gimme. You start off up three on me."
I was clearly playing with a lunatic, and I realized that Eddie probably didn't have a pot to piss in and couldn't even pay off the original five thousand. "You plannin' to bolt on me, bud?"
He was ready for that, and walked back to his bag after laying his club against the bench. He reached into one of the outside pockets for his wallet. He opened it as he came back and counted off four bills, then pulled them out and laid them on the bench next to me.
They weren't bills. They were four cashier's checks, fully negotiable, for five thousand each.
"How many a'these you carry round?" I asked, buying time to try to cope with this madness.
"A few. Whaddaya say?"
I fingered the checks. "You wanna play me straight up for twenty large."
"That's the bet."
"And I'm already up three."
"And if you're bullshittin' me, I can call it off."
He was starting to piss me off. "You got it."
I scooped up the checks and started to hand them back, but he turned away and said, "You hold 'em." Then he grabbed his club and walked back toward the tee box.
I got up off the bench, leaning left and right a few times to try to get the kinks out of my back and shoulders. I wasn't used to hitting that many woods and long ironsso far that I must've hit sixty or so as hard as I possibly couldand I needed a moment to work out the stiffness.
"Gimme a sec," I called out.
"Take your time," he yelled back. "I'm in no hurry."
The seventh was a par-three, 220 yards. I got one of my four tee shots within fifteen feet and sank the putt on the third try for a birdie. Eddie put his tee shot twenty feet out and two-putted for another par. I was now up four.
Eddie would have stroked eight and nine, but he gave those up when we changed the bet. I had an anxiety attack as he pulled out his driver at the number-eight tee box, thinking I'd been hustled and he was going to hit the damned thing 340 down the middle, but once again he hit a safe 250, just as he'd been doing all day. I only managed a par on the hole, and he halved it with his own par. I birdied nine, but so did he, and that was another half.
We finished the front nine with me still up four. I was now pretty certain that this clown's ego had cost him a whole bunch of money. I also thought that the reason he had to carry around cashier's checks was because he'd made so many dumb bets nobody would trust his markers anymore.
But, shit, my back was really hurting now.