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In Search of Burningbush: A Story of Golf, Friendship, and the Meaning of Irons

In Search of Burningbush: A Story of Golf, Friendship, and the Meaning of Irons

by Michael Konik

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A deeply moving true-life tale of courage, wisdom, and friendship between two men united by their love of golf

Critically acclaimed In Search of Burningbush is a beautifully written true-life story of an unlikely friendship between two men with nothing in common except a consuming and abiding passion for the links. Michael, a successful young


A deeply moving true-life tale of courage, wisdom, and friendship between two men united by their love of golf

Critically acclaimed In Search of Burningbush is a beautifully written true-life story of an unlikely friendship between two men with nothing in common except a consuming and abiding passion for the links. Michael, a successful young journalist, and Don, a middle-aged card dealer with brittle-bone disease, go to Scotland in search of the mystical course “Burningbush.” As Don struggles with his physical challenges, Michael struggles to keep the game--and life--in perspective.

Michael Konik is the author of four previous books, including the wildly popular The Man with the $100,000 Breasts. His writing has appeared in more than 100 publications worldwide, including the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and Travel & Leisure.

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McGraw-Hill Companies, The
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4.94(w) x 6.72(h) x 0.82(d)

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Slowly but Surely{TF}"Scyoose m' sar! A roond a gowf us s'posta tek thuree oohers! Nay sex!" {T}If I understand the shouting of this incensed Scottish fellow correctly--and there's always the outside chance I've completely mistaken his livid burr for an enthusiastically warm welcome--what he means to tell me is that a proper game of golf here in the land where the sport began is supposed to take only three hours to play. Not four. Not five. And for the love of Old Tom Morris, certainly not six!

"I'm very sorry," I say, truly very sorry. Like a guest in a stranger's home, I know two Americans playing golf in Scotland ought to be on their best behavior. Holding up the foursomes behind us hardly qualifies as impeccable manners, particularly since the club we are at, Royal Aberdeen, welcomes only a limited number of nonmember visitors. And besides, I myself know the frustration, the growing agony, of being stuck behind a group of sod-chunking snails weaned on the glacial pace of televised professional golf. Most Americans, emulating Tiger Woods and his highly sponsored colleagues, view a round of golf as an all-day affair best enjoyed at a crawl, as though the participants were coated with some sort of viscous fluid meant to lubricate their knees and elbows. The Scots, on the other hand, view a round of golf as a vigorous walk through the park--or along the sea, or upon the moors--best enjoyed as though the game were indeed a happy form of exercise, not merely an excuse to sit in a motorized cart and drink beer. The Scots leave slowness for their swings.

Gesturing with my head toward my companion, Don Naifeh, making his way toward the fourteenth tee, I tell the justifiably angry Scotsman that we're doing our best, but that, well, at a certain point there's only so fast Don can move. The local fellow sighs hotly and harumphs back to his group on the thirteenth green. "Like Casey Martin," I offer, weakly. Fairly sprinting to the teeing ground of the fourteenth, the number one handicap hole, I join Don, who is breathing heavily and perspiring even more so. "What was that all about?" he asks me. "Just a little request that maybe we might pick up the pace a little," I say, as diplomatically as possible. "Don't worry about it. We'll just let them play through." "Sure," Don says. "I could use a little rest, anyway."

We hit our tee shots. Don lays up with a 3 iron short of the ditch that gives the fourteenth, "Dyke," its name. I foolishly use my driver, partially in the hope I might fly my golf ball over all the trouble and leave myself a little wedge shot into the hard-as-an-industrial-diamond green. But the real reason for my poor club selection, I realize as we walk down the fairway, is to provide a physical release for the mild embarrassment I feel for holding up play at one of the oldest golf clubs (founded 1780!) on the planet. The satisfying crack of titanium meeting Surlyn somehow gives me the same kind of cathartic pleasure some patients derive from punching feather pillows in their weekly psychotherapy sessions. Fueled by a growing frustration with my partner's unintentional breaches of etiquette--this will be the third group that has had to play through us today--I swing extra hard. Predictably, my drive flies forever and crooked somewhere over the dyke in the left rough. Don, on the other hand, huffing audibly, composes himself long enough to make his usual smooth pass at the ball, a replica of the simple rhythmic motion he makes every time he swings a golf club. Seventy yards short of where my wayward pellet has come to rest, Don plunks his tee shot into the short grass.

Trying vainly to banish thoughts of "The Tortoise and the Hare" metaphors from my mind, I march off into the high weeds. I wave on the group behind us. While the charging foursome of Scotsmen play their tee shots, I stand in the rough looking backward toward the tee. Don, I notice with some chagrin, is lying down on the right side of the fairway, apparently staring at the flinty blue sky. Since each member of the quartet on the tee seems to have also selected a driver, he's probably not in any imminent danger of getting dinged. But I half suspect Don wouldn't mind if he were, anyway. He'd probably say if he was meant to go, it would be on a golf course where he'd like to perish. One of the Scots hits short of the dyke into the left rough. Two of them fly directly into it. And the other clears it and rolls up near my black carry-bag.

I watch them stomping up the fairway, past my supine friend. Please, I pray, don't let this turn into something out of Braveheart. No war cries. No blood. From my distant vantage, their brief conversation seems to contain nothing but the usual golf pleasantries--fine day, thanks very much, on you go, and so forth--though the Scotsmen don't seem particularly eager to stand around and chat with a sweaty American prone upon their ancient links. While two of the gents fish their balls out of the dyke, a pernicious four-foot rut crossing the fairway, the big hitter approaches me and his ball. It's the same perturbed man from the previous green. "Right here," I say, pointing toward his ball with as much sweetness and courtesy as a guy 3 down with five to play can muster. The Scotsman waves at me. "Rrreight. Thunks." I look into his blue eyes. "Again, sir," I say apologetically, "I regret the slow play." "Nay, nay," he says, shaking his sandy-haired head. "I dinna knew aboot hum." I could say more, and so could he. But we both understand.

No apologies necessary. The Scotsman plays on, and so do his companions, and I know as they trot off into the late afternoon light, Don Naifeh and I will likely never see them again. But I know they'll always remember the two American chaps they played through today, the talkative one with apologies at the ready and the odd fellow with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a peculiar shoe on his right foot. {T BREAK} {TF}Royal Aberdeen--known locally as the Balgownie Links--is one of the most rugged golf courses in a country teeming with ruggedness. The elephantine sand dunes here, created by wind and sea, form natural amphitheaters through which the fairways scurry and off which the clever player is compelled to bounce all manner of golf shots. Royal Aberdeen is a cheering sight--and site--to anyone who cherishes primal golf, the kind of hardy challenge best enjoyed in an otherworldly landscape of mounds and craters, gullies and bluffs. Unless you are strong and fit, it is not, however, the kind of place one would choose for a pleasant afternoon stroll. Training for an Olympic steeplechase event, sure. But a little promenade along nicely manicured lawns? Not at Royal Aberdeen. {T}Which is why I'm mildly concerned. The caddies Don and I have requested haven't shown. (This happens occasionally--particularly, I've noticed over the years, when a big football match is on the telly.) Either we cancel our round--and there's less chance of that happening than of my breaking 70--or we sling our bags over our shoulders like the average Scotsman does and get ourselves (and our equipment) around the four-and-a-half-mile lunar loop. "What do you think?" I ask Don, already knowing the answer. "Oh, we're playing," he assures me. "If I can just get a--what do they call them here?" "A trolley," I say. "Yeah, a trolley. And a yardage book." "Sure. No problem." "Nah. No problem. I'll be fine, Michael," he says, in the way a first-time marathon runner tells himself there is no such thing as the mythical wall. "Really. No big deal." Well, for my friend Don it is a big deal. But we're going to mutually pretend it isn't. "Do you want to call off our bets?" I wonder. "Hell, no!" Don says, scowling. "I mean . . ." "No." "All right," I say, shrugging.

Though Don typically beats me like a drum in our $10 Nassau (with two-down automatic presses), I decide to even the playing field--if such a thing can be done on a place as rolling and bumpy as the Balgownie Links. Today I shall play without benefit of a yardage book. I figure I've got the physical advantage; I'll let him have the psychological advantage. With neither caddie nor "scoresaver," which Don consults religiously whether he has a caddie or not, I vow to play this round completely by eye, as have thousands of players before me on these storied grounds, which don't even bother with 150-yard stakes, not to mention labeled sprinkler heads. He'll have the discomfort of having to lug his own sticks up and down the giant dunes; I'll have the discomfort of not really knowing how far away my target is. This will be a classic matchup: Infirmity versus Insecurity. The first tee at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club sits directly in front of a stately white clubhouse, whose large picture windows afford a splendid perspective of the Grampian coast. Members enjoying the otherwise unspoiled view of the North Sea may choose to inspect the swings of visiting hackers--or turn away in horror, if necessary. As I wave a few irons to warm up, I notice several of the club's older members looking toward me and Don, trying discreetly not to stare. It must be difficult. We are, admittedly, quite a sight: both wearing floppy bucket hats of the Gilligan-meets-Jim-Colbert variety; both toting identical Ping Mantis golf bags (at two pounds, four ounces, among the lightest made, and cleverly designed for the walking golfer); both playing Titleist DCI irons. Plus, I've got this all-red Tad Moore Skyrider driver, now a collector's item, that looks vaguely like a Porsche 911 painted with lurid nail polish. And Don--well, Don tends to draw looks no matter what color sticks he plays with. Most clubs in Scotland don't have practice ranges of the American sort, where one blasts shag balls with impunity, certain that a sullen teenager driving a tractor and listening to Rage Against the Machine in his headphones will eventually sweep them all up and return them for future beatings. In Scotland, if you want to practice, you find an empty field and shag the balls yourself. On the one hand, this teaches you from an early age that golf is a game of accuracy, not distance. On the other hand, it discourages American visitors from littering empty Scottish fields with lost balls.

Before a round of golf, most Scots merely swing a few clubs, perform a few stretches, and fire away. (The really modern ones hit balls into a net.) They view the practice range as, well, a place to practice--unlike Americans, who often turn up at the range an hour before their scheduled tee time in hopes of locating their game somewhere amid the AstroTurf mats. On my first visit to Scotland, seven years prior, I found the dearth of practice ranges somewhat unsettling, just as some might find the dearth of lush green turf somewhat unsettling. Back then it was my stock excuse for not playing well the first few holes. But I've come to appreciate the simple wisdom of commencing a round of golf with the same swing you intend to end it with, and instead of hitting the expected dribblers, skullers, and poppers, I nowadays generally strike my opening tee shots in Scotland with a purity I seem to lack back home.

Today, blessedly, is no different. Under the watchful eye of several Royal Aberdeen members who politely pretend not to look, I crush one down the left side of the first fairway, and it runs and runs on the baked brown turf. I resist the urge to tip my cap to the lads in the clubhouse and, instead, breathe in deeply the briny air, immensely glad to be just where I am. Don steps to the tee. He studies his yardage book. He scans the hole, all 409 yards of it, through suddenly narrowed eyes. And he makes a few practice swings. I peek toward the clubhouse. The members aren't even pretending not to look. This they want to see. Don swings his driver just as he does his 3 iron or his 8 iron or his pitching wedge. Back-front. Tick-tock. In-out. Where the clubhead speed comes from, I'm not smart enough to say. It doesn't look like he's trying. It doesn't look like he could try if he wanted to. And yet . . . There she goes: another one straight down the middle, with a gentle little draw on it, as graceful as the curl on a young lassie's forehead. "Shot," I say robotically. "Thanks," he replies, still staring at the ball, his hands frozen near his left ear and the slightest hint of a grin forming at the corners of his mouth. We trundle down a gravel path toward the fairway below. Before we get to the forward tees I realize I'm already ten yards ahead of Don. "You want me to carry something?" I suggest.

"No, no. I'm fine. I'm doing my best."

And he is. I can tell he is. From the moment Don steps onto a golf course until the time he departs, his eyes smolder with determination. Even when he's smiling he's determined. Still, I can see this round is going to be a momentous struggle for Don Naifeh. After a couple of pars at the first--mine thanks to a standard 2-putt; Don's thanks to a beautifully judged chip-and-putt from the fringe--we ascend the second tee, where I can see that the twosome following us has already caught us. "Let's let {'}em through," Don says, wheezing slightly. "Good idea," I reply, briefly considering if it's not too late to turn back and play on another day, when someone might carry Don's bag (and the virtual golf superstore contained therein) for him. But before I can even suggest such an outrage, Don is directing my gaze toward the fairway. "Man, Michael," he says, shaking his head. "Will you look at this? I mean, this is just made for golf." It is. It truly is--and I am so pleased to be sharing the vista with my favorite golf partner, even if it's under mildly unpleasant circumstances. For years, on each of my annual journeys to this magical world of roughly hewn playgrounds, I've imagined having Don standing by my side, seeing what I am seeing, feeling what stirs in my heart when a long fairway unfolds before me, leading to the sea. We both love the game of golf. Scotland, and in particular a place like Royal Aberdeen, which so insistently and eloquently highlights the game's charms, is, in our bedazzled eyes, something of a holy shrine. And today we are here accepting its blessed sacraments--beauty, ingenuity, honesty--standing upon the same closely mowed rectangle of ground. Together. I drill another sweet drive down the right side of the fairway, probably long enough to get home in 2 on this 530-yard par-5. Don crushes his tee shot beside mine. Together.

We both giggle involuntarily.

From a safe vantage in the rough, I watch the twosome behind us play through while Don fiddles with his trolley, which has a troubling tendency to fall over and disgorge its contents at least once per hole. Though they tee off from the forward markers, about twenty yards closer to the hole, their drives don't reach ours. Don and I say nothing, but our silent looks speak volumes. We're both secretly pleased, in an innocently smug way. A golf kind of way. There's a peculiarly male pleasure in being, um, longer than the other guys. Freudian explanations notwithstanding, almost every player I know takes some small delight in outhitting the competition, even if both guys, at the end of the day, are hopeless duffers. In Don's case, I imagine his length off the tee is especially cheering, mostly because no one expects him to be able to hit a golf ball out of his shadow. I know better. And so does my wallet. The climb up the dunes to Royal Aberdeen's third tee is akin to something one might find in the Himalayas, albeit with less ice and more waist-high fescue. Don, a chain-smoker, is completely winded by the time he makes it to the top, where I am waiting, snapping scrapbook photos like a tourist at the Eiffel Tower. Though I hit first--getting my ball on the green 223 yards away thanks to a miraculous kick off an exceedingly friendly dune 15 yards to the right of the putting surface--Don is still wheezing as he puts his tee in the ground. He hits his iron shot weak and to the right, throws down his club in disgust, and proceeds to make an untidy bogey.

I can tell he's angry. Not at the golf course. Not at me. Not at the groups gaining ground behind us. Don's angry because he's angry. He's at the magnificent Royal Aberdeen, playing his favorite game with one of his favorite buddies. All should be right with the world, and with him. And he's angry that it's not. He wants to be transported far from all his troubles, to a gentle place where the worries of real life fade away like a melting sunset. He wants golf to heal all his wounds. And it might, he suspects, if he will only let it. I feel likewise. Perhaps we all do. In Don's case--right now, right here on the unforgiving front nine of the Balgownie Links--he's unable to let golf cast its salutary spell. And that's maybe more disappointing to him than hitting a poor tee shot. Still, Don's used to getting over (or around, or under) obstacles. He won't let himself beat himself for long. Or, for that matter, me. His travails, both physical and mental, don't prevent him from shooting a stellar 1-over on the front nine, aided greatly by a putting touch on (and from just off) the greens that borders on immortal. I, on the other hand, suffering no handicaps other than my inexpert ability to guess distances and hit the ball in a direction resembling straight, do slightly worse. I'm 3 down to a man who, if you were to take an informal poll of the old boys in the clubhouse, might have been better off joining them for a wee nip at the bar while the stalwart lad with the funny red driver went off to lose golf balls on his own. As we make the turn, both slightly stunned by the unrelenting goodness of the course we have just played, I can see that Don's wellness, his physical wellness, is deteriorating quickly. This is what I was frightened of. This is maybe why our journey together to the promised land has taken so long to have ever happened. Maybe we both knew this kind of hardship would inevitably befall him. And maybe neither of us ever wanted Don to feel anything but joy upon a golf course. He's moving more slowly, taking more frequent breaks. Every other hole or so he requests a five-minute "breather," blissfully unaware of the ironic locution as he pauses to light another cigarette.

It's funny--well, actually it's weird and sort of spooky: I can see my friend Don Naifeh falling apart before my eyes, his body literally crumbling with each successive step. And yet his golf game--the quality of his shots and his ability to score--seems only to get better, as if the sport somehow sustains him through the visceral problem of getting himself and his accoutrements around the links. All the way in, "gettin' hoom" in the poetic local parlance, Don makes noises about having nothing left, of being totally exhausted, of being finished. Yet he still scores, the thieving bastard! Royal Aberdeen is blanketed with gorse, that nefariously thorny plant species seemingly put on earth solely to consume misdirected golf balls. Everywhere you look: gorse. Doesn't matter where you miss your shot--left, right, long--the prickly stuff is waiting to devour your errors. The gorse on the Balgownie Links is a whale; we hackers are helpless plankton. Don, to my amazement--and gambler's chagrin--blithely swims past the intimidating threat like a jolly dolphin. Not every shot he hits is perfect. But even his prodigal balls never stray too far from home.

And when he's near the green, forget it. He 3-putts only once the entire round, and that occurs immediately after the disconcertment of having to let a third group play through. For a few fleeting moments the anger seizes him, confounding Don in a way, it seems, that wind and hillocks and physical frailty cannot. But then something else, something liberating and transporting, takes over.

After his putter hiccup on the fourteenth green, Don lights another cigarette. I gently propose that he might not be so winded, so utterly exhausted, if he eschewed the smokes. "That might even make you feel better than having a caddie," I joke. "I've got no problem getting around without a caddie," he replies gravely. "But I don't think I could do it without the cigarettes."

"You're that addicted?" I ask, incredulous. "Michael, they help dull the pain," Don tells me. "I know it seems sad to you. But these," he says, indicating the cigarettes, "are possibly the only way I can get myself from point A to point B without too much discomfort." I shake my head, speechless. "Well, now, at least I'm here," he says, chuckling. "Maybe without them I wouldn't even be able to come to Scotland." Don wipes the perspiration from his brow. "And you know I wouldn't miss this for anything." Then he puts a peg in the ground and hits another gorgeous tee-shot. I'm 2 down now with four holes to play, and I know, I'm certain, I've got absolutely no shot of drawing even, despite Don's protestations of decrepitude. As his body is allegedly getting worse, his legs weaker, and his hands shakier, Don finishes par, bogey, par, par. As he holes his putt at the last, beside the same white clubhouse he commenced from nearly six hours earlier, Don Naifeh stands still for a moment and enjoys the silence. He's shot a 78. Then he looks up at me and says, "I made it." He nods slowly and says hoarsely, "I made it." "Yes, you did," I say, extending my arm for a congratulatory handshake. "I didn't know if I could," he says, smiling, taking my hand. "Yes you did," I say. "You knew."

He pulls his ball out of the cup and sighs heavily. "Yeah, I guess I did."

Meet the Author

Michael Konik is the author of four previous books, including the wildly popular The Man with the $100,000 Breasts. His writing has appeared in more than 100 publications worldwide, including the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and Travel & Leisure.

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