Sunday, June 21, 2009


I’m enjoying a leisurely Father’s Day, now that we have returned from our annual period of Restin’ in Destin. Part of that leisure involves watching the U.S. Open Golf Championship, which is being contested this year at the infamous Bethpage Black course.

When the Open first came to Bethpage Black in 2002, they played it up as “The People’s Tournament” - the Open at a course not only open to the public, but actually owned by the state. The first Daily-Fee Muni Open! The Open Open! Tiger Woods won that one - his second U.S. Open victory - beating Phil Mickelson by three strokes and helping give the Black course an indelible stamp of legitimacy as an Open venue.

This year, Tiger is struggling, and Ricky Barnes has a commanding lead midway through Round Three. But as I watch the competitors whack the white pill around, I am transported back in time... back to when I knew every fairway of that harrowing course.

Bethpage Black, it should be explained, is but one piece of a majestic five-course complex. Ninety holes, in toto, divided up into the relatively manageable Yellow and Green courses, the increasingly difficult Red and Blue layouts, and the seriously challenging Black course. The Red, Blue, and Black courses were designed by the legendary A. W. Tillinghast, with the Black his final masterwork.

Back in the day, both Eli (hizzownself) and the Momma d’Elisson were regular players at Bethpage... and when I came of age, I was, too. But while Eli was a capable weekend golfer, Momma was out there a good three or four days a week. She was a charter member of a group that called itself the Fairway Women of Bethpage, and at various times had served as club president as well as club champion. Yellow, Green, Red, Blue, Black - she played ’em all.

There was no greater pleasure for the Young Elisson than to be invited to play at Bethpage (or anywhere else, for that matter) with one or both of the ’Rents. We’d arise at the Butt-Crack of Dawn to go and secure a tee-time (Bethpage was a ten-minute drive away), go home for breakfast, then return at the Appointed Hour to play. The round would last a full six hours, thanks to the crowded conditions, but the slow play was only a minor inconvenience. This was Golf, dammit!

Maybe it was my familiarity with the Bethpage courses that impelled me to take a job as a caddy there. For many members of my generation, 1967 was the Summer of Love... but for me it was the Sweaty Summer of Schlepping Other People’s Golf Clubs. It was a fine job for anyone who enjoyed the out-of-doors, especially anyone who had any kind of interest or ability in golf. Well, I had the interest, anyway.

It was a good education. I learned when to talk, when to be still, when to crack a joke. I learned how to tend a flagstick, rake a sand bunker, find a ball in thick woods, assist with reading a tricky green.

I also learned the value of a dollar, for dollars were hard to come by. Lugging a golf bag around eighteen holes would earn you five of ’em, plus a buck or two for a tip. If you were a glutton for punishment, you could do two loops (thirty-six holes) and make an extra five-and-tip, or carry two bags at once to double your pay. It was a hard way to make a little spending money, yet there were a few grizzled veterans who made a living at it, doing two double-bag loops a day to pull down $25 or so. Wiry bastards, they were.

The pay was the same no matter which course you worked on a given day. And so we dreaded the lengthy Black, at least as much for the misery it inflicted upon the golfers as the wear and tear it exacted upon us caddies... for misery tended to work against the golfers’ Tippy Generosity. But a job was a job, and so we would do our best to grin and bear it.

Bethpage was more than golf. In the winter, when the courses were closed to play and snow would transform them into a white wonderland of hills and trees, we would bring our sleds there. The first holes of both the Red and Black, with their elevated tees, offered excellent prospects for Hill-Sliding... and the park even operated a rope tow at the Green course for skiers.

And so, as I watch the Golfy Luminaries ply their weekend trade today, I see a different Bethpage Black. I see my Dad (Happy Father’s Day!) sinking a long putt on the Red’s fifteenth hole. I see my Mom’s tee shot carry the pond on the Black’s scary par-three eighth. I see a red cap that bears the number 99, perched on my head as I look to see where Mr. Fitzboggle’s tee shot lands. Crap - in the woods again.

I see the Bethpage Black of forty-two years ago. Maybe not quite as pretty, but every bit as challenging. I’d give my eyeteeth to play it with the Old Man once more.

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