How Hard Can It Be?
The ball sat motionless on a peg in the grass. Behind it rested apolished block of persimmon wood, significantly larger insize and harder in composition than the ball. Jutting from thewood was a long, shiny, silver shaft of steel. Wrapped tightlyaround the grip at the top of the shaft were the strong hands of athirty-one-year-old man. He took a practice swing. Then another.Weapon at the ready, target open wide, the ball was his for thecrushing.
It would have been a different story had the ball been moving.It was not hurtling toward him at blinding speed. It was not camouflaged, made no evasive movements or attempts to elude. Itwas not curving or sinking or knuckling about. It just sat there,ready for takeoff.
He had no reason to fear repercussion. What he was about todo was not illegal; in fact, it was encouraged. “Give it a ride,”said one of the three men waiting and watching behind him. Theball was not fragile and would not shatter or explode. It bore noseams or stitches or other impediments to its trajectory. It wasneither slippery nor spindly nor oblong nor heavy. It was, in fact,quite light and perfectly round. It did not teeter or totter. It justsat there on its perch, completely obediently. “What are youwaiting for?” cracked another of the men.
He was not being timed. The others were not referees or umpires,nor were they there to judge him. His style would not becritiqued; his livelihood could not be jeopardized. They had nomotivation or mandate to thwart him. He had nothing that theywanted, and they had nothing to defend. “Don’t mind us,”needled the man who had invited him.
Homer Kelley waggled the club back and forth to loosen up.Taking a deep breath, he raised his club like Paul Bunyan liftinghis axe and took a violent lash at the defenseless object.
“If I pay for the lessons, will you take them?” Golfing buddieswere hard to come by as America climbed out of the Depression,but the boss also aimed to shut Kelley up. “Silly game,” Kelleywould grouse. It was not that he disliked golf so much as he enjoyedpushing the boss’s buttons. “How hard can it be to hit aball in a hole with a stick?” Kelley’s cocksure derision—despitenever once having so much as picked up a golf club—spurred theboss to put his money where Kelley’s mouth was. Offered freelessons, Kelley conceded he had nothing to lose.
“That settles it,” said the boss with a wry, knowing grin. “Youwill get just as bad as anybody.”
A teaching pro had opened up a little indoor driving range justdown the street from the billiard hall where Kelley worked as acook. A couple of times a week over the course of a couple ofweeks, Kelley met with the man before working his shift behindthe grill. The pro showed Kelley how to hold the club with an interlockinggrip, how to take a stance with the ball between hisfeet, how to take the club away and turn his back to the target,how to swing through and turn his belly button toward the target,and how to finish with his hands high in the sky. Athletic if not anathlete, Kelley picked it up in short order, and after five lessons theboss arranged a weekend game with Kelley, the pro, and a friend.
The round got off to an inauspicious start. Kelley had neverset foot on a golf course, and upon arriving on the first tee he wasinvited to lead the way. Kelley looked to his left, then to his right,and then back to his left, as if he were about to cross a street.
“Which way do I go?” Kelley inquired.
“At the flag,” said the boss.
Homer instinctively spied the Stars and Stripes flapping atopthe flagpole.
“That flag!” said the boss, pointing up a long stretch ofmowed lawn.
Kelley squinted at a tiny speck on the end of a stick 453 yards inthe distance. As he laid the persimmon wood behind the motionlessball, one thought rang in his head, Swing as hard as you can.
Luckily the stand of fir trees lining the fairway deflected Kelley’shosel rocket, otherwise he might well have taken out one ofthe golfers on the adjoining hole and been hauled off for manslaughterbefore ever getting to hit a second shot.
“How can it be that hard?” Kelley grumbled under his breathas he trudged after his tee shot. Meadow Park Golf Course inTacoma, Washington, was a perfectly pleasant municipal track.Opened in the spring of 1938, it was less than a year old. A par-70 measuring just under 6,000 yards, it was intentionally designedto be friendly to even the rankest of amateurs, which HomerKelley most assuredly was.
The first three holes at Meadow Park carried the three highesthandicaps on the course. Unfortunately, Kelley failed to capitalizeon even that slight advantage. He made a hash of number one,carding a nine on the par five, however he did not shoot himselfout of the match, as his pro, his boss, and the friend fared onlyslightly better, posting six, eight, and nine, respectively. Kelley gotthings moving in the right direction; he followed his quadruplebogeyat the first with a triple at the second. At the par-threethird, he sniffed par but settled for bogey.
Whatever hopes Kelley might have harbored for a decentscore were dashed when he put up a ten-spot at the par-five sixthhole. And yet, when they made the turn Kelley’s 58, while twenty-ourstrokes over par, placed him just two strokes behind the bossand his friend. When they finally put the flag back in the hole ateighteenth, the pro had run away from the others with matching41s, while the friend limped in at 106 and the boss at 115. Kelleyand the boss came to the eighteenth hole tied, but Kelley finishedthe day as disastrously as he’d started, with a quadruple-bogeynine, finishing with a score of 116.
Kelley had no delusions that he would shoot lights out hisfirst time out, but neither did he envision playing like a one-armedblind man in a straitjacket. He was embarrassed, but more thanthat he was vexed. Shuffling to the parking lot Kelley carped,“I hit the ball so well at the driving range—why couldn’t I do iton the course?” The boss chuckled at Kelley with a wry, knowinggrin.
Kelley did not play golf again for six months. Then, onesummer Sunday in July 1939, two friends coaxed him into battingit around Tacoma’s Highland Golf Course. Highland was not abrute of a course by any stretch; at 6,147 yards and par 72 it wasslightly tougher than Meadow Park. Like Meadow Park, Highlandstarted out with a relatively easy par five measuring 448 yards.Kelley took his stance and addressed the ball, but instead of tellinghimself to swing as hard as he could Kelley cleared his mind andsmoothed his tee shot into the fairway. His approach came upshort of the green, but his pitch tucked up close, and his puttfound the bottom of the cup for a birdie four.
“How can that be?” Kelley mumbled to himself as they movedto the next tee. At the par-four second hole Kelley again hit thefairway, then the green, and then two-putted for a par. He bogeyedthe third, the number-one handicap hole, then strung togethera series of pars at the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, andeighth holes. Kelley was looking at making the turn in even parbefore a bogey at the par-five ninth.
Heading to the back nine, Kelley learned a new Golfing term:sandbagger. He endured no shortage of good-natured ribbingfrom his friends, who had every reason to be leery of Kelley’swoe-is-me tale from his ghastly first time out on the golf course.He gave them no more reason to believe him on the inward nine,carding par-bogey-par-double-par-bogey-par-par through seventeenholes. Like Meadow Park, Highland closed with a 520-yardpar five that was rated as the third-hardest hole on the course.Unlike at Meadow Park, Kelley finished with a putt for a birdiefour. The ball took a look at the bottom of the cup but stayed out,and Kelley wound up with a 77.
Kelley asked to keep the scorecard, which he summarily presentedto his teaching pro, Al Dunn.
“How did I shoot a 77?” asked a dumbfounded Kelley.
“You must have been more relaxed,” was Dunn’s only explanation.
“No,” Kelley countered sharply. “I wasn’t relaxed. I was sucha nervous wreck the night before I hardly slept at all.”
“What was different?”
Kelley pondered the question. Maybe his defenses had beendown. Or perhaps he had felt a subconscious relief about notplaying with his boss and the pro. It might have been that he feltmore at ease with the blue-collar crowd at Highlands, or the factthat almost everything is easier the second time around. The onlytangible thing that stuck in Kelley’s mind, however, was the slow,sweeping swing he had used.
“Then stick with that,” said the pro. “It obviously works foryou.”
More befuddling to Homer Kelley than how he shot a 77 hissecond time playing golf was how he wound up flipping burgersin a Tacoma billiard hall in the first place.
Kelley was born August 3, 1907, in Clayton, Kansas, thecapital of the middle of nowhere. His father, John Kelley, is listedon Homer’s birth certificate as a retail merchant, twenty-nineyears old, originally from Saline County, Kansas. Kelley’s mother,Ida, was a twenty-six-year-old housewife from Ottawa County.The family left Kansas when Homer was five and settled in suburbanMinneapolis. Along with his brothers and sisters, Lawrence,Ward, Emma, and Elsie, Homer attended public schoolsand did all the things that average kids do. He played the clarinetand toyed with the piano. He liked to hike and bike and participatedin almost every sport except golf; winter, spring, summer,and fall, indoors and out, he played football, basketball, andsoftball, did gymnastics, swam, bowled, ice skated, and skied.Tennis was his favorite, but Kelley’s true talents and dexterity residednot in his body but in his mind.
Kelley’s hyperactive imagination and insatiable curiosity werefostered in large measure by his having grown up with MinnehahaFalls State Park right in his own backyard. He spent hours uponhours and entire weekend days exploring the farthest corners ofthe two-hundred-acre wonderland, which felt like a world removedfrom his extraordinarily ordinary life next door. Aftergraduating from South High School in 1924, Kelley gave collegea try for two years, studying a mishmash of subjects from botanyto civics to logic to public speaking. The jobs Kelley worked wereas odd as they were mundane:
- Newspaper carrier
- Park pony-ride counter
- Office boy
- Mail-order house stock boy
- Department store delivery boy
- Machine-shop messenger
- Garage helper
- Harvest hand
- Apple warehouseman
- Building painter
He wanted more. He wanted out.
It would be another four decades before man set foot on themoon, so Kelley settled on the next best place, the one that wouldget him as far away from Minnesota as humanly possible.