Read an Excerpt
by Les Standiford
Redfish Key, Florida
"You see that one, Hector?" Alfonzo Zamora called, the squat, stocky form familiar to a generation of golfing fans outlined against the setting sun. He had his eyes screwed tight, squinting down the narrow tunnel of mangroves and palms guarding the brutal eighteenth hole of the Links at Redfish Key.
On toward 7 p.m. of a languid Florida summer evening, the light failing, the shadows murderous, anyone could be forgiven for losing sight of something as tiny as a golf ball, Zamora told himself. His belly was no more formidable than it had been when he'd waded across the Rio Grande from Santa Teresa to El Paso almost forty years before, and his drives were very nearly the equal of those he could hit back then, but, admittedly, his eyes were not the same.
"I saw where it came down," his longtime caddy said.
"Good," Zamora said, turning to hand over his driver.
"I dunno about that," big Hector said as he accepted the club.
"What are you talking about?" Zamora was already off the tee, moving toward their cart, anxious to get things over with. His opponent-one Harvey Byers, a bond trader from Palm Beach who had put up twenty thousand dollars for the privilege of playing eighteen holes with the legendary Marvelous Mex this day-was venturing out onto the members tee box a hundred yards or so ahead, waggling his club, readying himself for his own final tee shot.
Hector shrugged. He stowed the driver into the cavernous tooled leather bag that had once been given to Zamora by the president of the state of Chihuahua, then slipped on one of the head covers done up to resemble a tiny sombrero. "That water really sucks up," the caddy said. "That's what I'm talking about."
Zamora swiveled around, stared back down the fairway. The blue of the sky had paled; a bank of distant thunderheads had taken on a pinkish cast. A late breeze off the water stirred the overhanging palms. "No way," he protested. "I hit that ball good."
"You did hit it good," Hector said. He glanced at the little dog-eared yardage book he carried in the pocket of his T-shirt. "I'd say two-eighty, two-ninety, right into that lake on the left side of the fairway."
"What lake?" Zamora demanded.
"That one right down there," Hector said, pointing. They had always been something of a Mutt and Jeff act, but the big man was truly losing patience with him, Zamora thought. One of the inevitable drawbacks to a long-term relationship. He'd been with Hector for almost thirty years, had run through four marriages in the same length of time.
Zamora stared. A long line of trees bordered the fairway, which seemed to widen out into a blue-green plain, just about where Hector's dusky finger was aimed. "That looks like grass to me," he said.
"Well now, that's the problem, isn't it?"
"Shit," Zamora said.
The solid crack of Byers's tee shot drifted back toward them.
"Watch for a splash," Zamora said, hopefully. "You seem to be good at it."
"Ain't splashin'," Hector said, peering off into the gloom. "That white man just split himself the middle."
Zamora sighed. "Come on, Hector, get in the cart."
Hector gave him a look. The caddy stood well over six feet, weighed somewhere between two-seventy-five and anybody's guess. He shouldered the heavy bag as if it were nothing but a day player's canvas tote and started off down the fairway. "I been carrying this bag for thirty years, I ain't about to turn it over to some machine at this stage of the game."
Zamora sighed again, then pressed the accelerator, heading toward what he'd just learned was a lake.
"Well, at least we didn't lose any money," Zamora was saying. He'd had to hurry to his cart and floor it to catch up with Hector as the caddy stalked off the eighteenth green. One into the lake, drop with a penalty, he'd been hitting three into the green. But he'd been a little long with that approach shot, had to settle for a two-putt, had finished with a five. The bond trader, meanwhile, had somehow managed a bogey as well, his lowest score of the afternoon, and, with the stroke Zamora had given him, had won the hole outright.
"Mmmm-hmmm," Hector said. His lips were tight, his gaze fixed on that bank of thunderheads in the distance. Big roiling bank of thunderheads-pink on top, dark blue on the bottom, some kind of silent lightning flashing around in between-it looked like a giant brain about to explode, Zamora thought.
"I mean, who wouldn't have taken that press? You got to make life interesting, Hector, or what the hell's the point?" Zamora persisted. "Double or nothing, guy hasn't hit one out of his shadow all day . . ."
Hector gave him a sidelong glance. "Was a time," he said, "when you were known for the same damn thing: take on a man with a full set of clubs and you with nothing but a taped-up Coke bottle-"
"Pepsi," Zamora corrected him.
Hector shrugged. "Same thing."
Zamora glanced back toward the green where Harvey Byers was peeling bills off a roll, handing them over to his own caddy. "You think he set me up?"
Hector made a snorting sound that might have been intended as a laugh. "You better start wearing those glasses like the doctor said, Z-man. That's all I got to say. You seem to be missing quite a bit these days."
At that, Zamora turned his broad, bronzed Aztec features away, wondering what Hector would say if he told him he had been wearing glasses, contacts anyway. He'd slipped away to find a Specs-Is-Us outlet during that rain-out day at the Atlanta Senior Classic, had himself fitted for a pair of the soft lenses. And they'd worked fine, for a month or so. But now . . . He shook his head. The truth was, he didn't know what was happening with his eyes. Soon as he got back home, he'd go see the doctor again-
"Look out!" Hector cried, and Zamora came back with a start. He slammed on the brake of the cart, locking it into a power slide that stopped a few inches short of a decorative pond occupying the grounds between the clubhouse path and the parking lot. Vague orange shapes slithered around in the shallow water there-those giant Japanese goldfish, Zamora thought; either that or orange alligators. He reached down to the transmission lever, flipped the cart into reverse.
"Throw those clubs on the cart and get in," he said to Hector. "We got a plane to catch." Zamora had his foot poised atop the accelerator, was doing his best to ignore the shrill warning ping that the cart was sending out. He didn't have to read his watch to know they'd be cutting it close. Maybe forty-five minutes to make the last plane out; he was due in Orlando for an 8 a.m. tee time, a corporate outing with some executives from Disney the day before some new Senior event-the Mickey and Minnie Open.
Only ten grand for the outing, but he had alimony payments rolling around, and he'd just blown this appearance money. The way he'd been playing on the tour this season, it might be the only cash he could count on taking home from the Florida swing.
"I been meaning to talk to you about Orlando," Hector was saying. He had his head hanging down, the big bag off his shoulder now, resting it on the ground in front of him. He was moving from one foot to the other as if he might be practicing how to dance.
"Talk about what?" Zamora said. "We'll have plenty of time on the plane, man. Come on."
Hector glanced up finally. "Fact is, I won't be going to Orlando."
Zamora stared at him dumbly. He reached down, twisted the key of the cart. Though the pinging stopped, the throbbing at his temples did not. "You're not going to Orlando? Why the hell not?"
Hector rolled his big head around uncomfortably, glanced back in the direction of the eighteenth green.
"Z-man, you don't have to make this any harder than it is."
"You sound like my last wife, Hector. Now tell me what's wrong."
"Well, you know we ain't been doing so well lately-"
"Don't tell me Hale Irwin's been after you again. Promising you things? I told you that guy is just trying to mess with me. He don't care about you, Hector, not like I do. Besides, he's picked up a hitch in his swing, and his putting stroke is shot. He lost back-to-back playoffs against a couple of nobodies."
Hector held up his big paw. "It's not Hale Irwin," he said sorrowfully. "I just told you I ain't going to Orlando."
"Well, what then?"
Hector shrugged, glanced back along the path toward the green. Harvey Byers, the bond trader, was striding their way, his smile glinting even in the fading light. "I got kids in high school, Z-man," Hector said. "About to go off to college. I got to be thinking of the future."
"Mr. Zamora," the bond trader was calling. "I wanted to catch you before you got away-"
"We're having a conversation," Zamora snapped.
"I better just leave these here," Hector said. He stepped forward, propped the big bag against the seat of the cart.
"Why don't you just go on inside, tell them you're with me," the bond trader said to Hector.
Zamora stared at Byers, then back at Hector. His mouth fell open as it began to dawn on him. "Hector!" he called. "Are you shitting me?"
But Hector didn't turn. He was moving down the path toward the clubhouse as quickly as Zamora had ever seen him move. Zamora swung back to Byers, who held his hands up in a placating manner.
"Now I know you must be upset . . . ," Byers began.
"Did you just hire my caddy away?" Zamora said. He vaulted over the clubs Hector had dumped in his path, and in one smooth motion had a handful of Byers's shirtfront before the man could step away.
"Hustle me out of twenty thousand dollars, steal my caddy . . ." Zamora dragged Byers toward the pond, had one hand on his collar, another at the seat of his pants. Yes, let them be orange alligators, he thought.
"Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars!" Byers cried, as Zamora neared the top of his backswing.
Zamora hesitated, glanced down at the man he held in his hands. "You offered Hector that kind of money? He's a good caddy, but he's not that good."
"I'm offering you two hundred and fifty thousand dollars," Byers said. His voice sounded a little strange. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
Zamora realized he was strangling the man with his polo shirt. He released his hold on the back of Byers's collar. The man managed to catch himself on his palms, keep his face from smacking the curb at the edge of the pond.
"Are you going to let go of my pants now?" Byers asked. He looked like he was frozen halfway through a push-up.
"Maybe," Zamora said. One good sling and he could still run the man right into the water. "It depends on just how good this story is."
"It's not a story at all," Byers said. "It's true. It's why we brought you down here to begin with. We wanted to be sure your skills were still intact, you see, and they were outstanding, I must say, except for that final hole-"
"I am going to feed you to the fish," Zamora said. He noted agitated splashing in the pool now. Perhaps they were golden piranha. This was South Florida, after all.
"Please, Mr. Zamora, hear me out . . ."
"Just who is this we?" Zamora said, tensing himself for the toss.
"I represent Phillip Bates," Byers said.
"The computer guru," Zamora said, irony in his voice. "Richest man in the world."
"Not to mention golf aficionado," Byers added hastily. "Remember when he tried to buy Augusta Country Club?"
Zamora peered down through the gloom. Of course he remembered. For what Bates had offered, even the supposedly inviolate membership of Augusta had finally caved in. It had taken an act of the Georgia legislature to keep the deal from going through. "What would Phillip Bates want from me?" he asked suspiciously.
Byers twisted his head around. In the gloom, only one eye visible, his mouth working awkwardly, he looked a bit like a fish himself. "He wants you to come to Scotland, Mr. Zamora."
"To Scotland?" Zamora said. He released his hold on Byers finally and the man dropped in a heap. "What the hell for?"
Byers got to his feet then, straightened his thinning blond hair, dusted his hands on his slacks. "For two hundred and fifty thousand dollars," he repeated, his voice back to something like normal. He had withdrawn his wallet, was holding out something that looked like a check. "Half to be paid now, half when the job is done."
"And what sort of job is this?" Zamora asked dubiously.
"Why don't we go inside and talk about it?" Byers said, handing over the check.
Zamora stared down. It looked like his name all right, and he thought all the zeros were in place. He checked the sky, saw he'd have to find better light to make sure the decimal point was right.
What the hey, he'd already missed his flight. He could go inside, do that much, he thought, and followed Byers away.
Palm Desert, California
Rita Shaughnessy stood beneath the patio overhang at the rear of the bungalow she had occupied for nearly a month at the Samantha Forbes Clinic, a copper-faced wedge poised about three-quarters back in her swing. Though it was a man's club, it hardly mattered. She'd been the longest-hitting woman on the tour, could outdrive more than a few of her male counterparts. Besides, she was hardly in a position to be picky about her equipment.
"Spend enough time in a place like this," she said over her shoulder, "you can figure out all sorts of things."
She hitched her hands just a bit higher. "One thing I realized, I'd been cupping my wrist at the top of my swing," she said. She gave a toss of her shoulder-length blond hair and, without appearing to look, brought the club down neatly onto the AstroTurf carpeting of the patio. The ball she'd placed there arced out into the clear desert sky, its white orb outlined cleanly against the purple range of mountains opposite.
The ball seemed to hang in the sky for an inordinate amount of time, and when it finally dropped, it landed with a gentle plop on the immaculately tended grass of the clinic's croquet court, took one quick hop backward, and came to rest by a wicket peg, not half a yard from where several other balls lay.
The croquet court was set like an emerald among the parched surroundings, had been carved into a gentle slope about fifty yards away, just this side of a pair of clay tennis courts and a sizable open-air pavilion where tai chi and stretching classes were conducted for those attempting to cleanse themselves during the cool morning hours.
"Maybe you ought to put some clothes on," Vin Baxter said, gesturing at an older couple who stood together under the pavilion roof, staring up their way.
"I have clothes on," Rita said.
"Not many," he said.
She gave him a smile. "You haven't been to the beach lately, have you?" In fact, she was wearing only a brassiere and bikini panties, and though Rita was not what anyone could call overweight, she was five foot ten and owned what her mother had once referred to as "certain bodily features." There was enough fabric in what she wore to make two or three outfits for any of the girls of Baywatch.
"I've been to the beach," he said, flushing slightly as she bent over another ball.
She smiled, and bent lower than was necessary toward the ball. She squeezed her arms together, gave an exaggerated waggle of the club just as Vin turned his gaze from her breasts toward the distant mountains.
Rita smiled to herself. Vin was her agent and busi-
ness manager, but he was fairly new to the job. He was young-younger than she was, at least-and he would take time to break in. But unlike Nathaniel Phillips, her previous manager, Vin had not so far tried to tell her what to do. He had been content to couch his suggestions about what you might call her "exuberant" lifestyle in relatively deferential terms. This deference had a great deal to do with the fact that she was one of Vin's better-known clients, that despite her spotty earnings on the tour these past few years, there were few in the world of sports who were unaware of the accomplishments of Rita Shaughnessy, both on and off the course.
And even though he hadn't much to show for all his efforts on her behalf, Vin was eager and energetic, even sincere at times. After all, he'd managed to get her into this clinic, when the Betty Ford had declined to re-enroll her after what had taken place during her fourth sojourn there. Besides that, she thought, he was cute, in a Jerry McGuire kind of way. It had been a while since she'd been around a man whom she could make blush. That in itself made him attractive.
"I had a call from the clinic director this morning," Vin said, watching another shot soar out into the desert sky.
"You two are getting chummy," Rita said. She tipped the half-empty range bucket on its side, flipped a ball to a relatively unmarked spot on the chopped-up carpet with the wedge blade.
"She's a bit concerned. She thinks you're backsliding."
"Nonsense," Rita said. She put a little something extra into her downswing. There was a sharp report as the ball hit the top of the pavilion, and the old couple ducked in reflex.
She turned to him, hooked a finger to adjust a bra strap. "The director's a twenty-four handicapper in a scratch-event world. She's just upset about the cook."
Vin shook his head. "She didn't say anything about a cook."
"The director of cuisine," Rita said. "That's his title. He's really not such a bad guy, though. We made friends; he comes up to the bungalow now and then, brings a little cooking sherry along-"
"He's the one who found me the clubs." She pointed to the eelskin bag leaning in the corner, a black monster that looked large enough to house a colony of bats. "Nicklaus left them here."
Vin stared. "Jack Nicklaus came to the Forbes?"
"My mistake," Rita said. "I meant Nicholson. The actor."
"Oh," Vin said.
The old couple had ventured a few steps out onto the gravel path that led from the pavilion toward the red-tile-roofed cluster of buildings that constituted the main compound of the clinic. Rita lobbed a pair of wedge shots in quick succession, and the balls smacked down into the sand, bracketing the pathway like mortar fire. The old couple yelped and scurried back under cover.
"Have you been drinking?" Vin asked.
"Is it five o'clock yet?"
"Ten past," he told her.
"There's your answer," she said.
"You promised you were going to buckle down, really work on things this time around, Rita. That's how I got them to agree to take you."
She turned to him, wide-eyed. "What do you call this?" she asked, sweeping her arm toward the neat circle of balls below. "Just watch." She brushed past him, close enough to send him into full-fledged blush, picked up an empty martini glass from the patio table. She walked out onto the strip of grass that abutted the bungalow and bent from the waist to settle the glass securely. She glanced back toward the patio through the inverted V of her legs, but Vin seemed to be examining his fingernails.
She came back to the patio, adopted a wide-open stance, sent a flop shot in the direction of the glass. The ball landed a foot past the glass, bit hard, leapt backward. There was a tinkling sound as the ball settled into the conical bottom. She glanced up at him and grinned.
"Now there's a garnish," she said. "Two jiggers of vodka, splash of Rose's lime juice, add a Titleist 2. I'm still working on what to call it."
Vin glanced at the glass, then down toward the pavilion. The elderly couple had taken advantage of the moment, were hotfooting it up the path toward the main compound. Rita watched them for a moment, then turned back to him, a sorrowful expression on her face. "Some people have absolutely no sense of humor," she said.
Vin nodded, but he wasn't agreeing with anything. "You're going to have to leave here, Rita. That's what I came down to tell you."
She turned to stare at him. "Hey, Vin, I'm just having a little fun, that's all."
"They messengered in a refund check," he said. "And they've agreed not to say anything to the press so long as you just go quietly-"
"Geez, Vin, stop trying to sugarcoat it. How do they really feel about me here?"
"I assured the director we'd have you packed up and out before dark . . ."
Rita saw something in Vin's face, felt an unaccountable pang shoot through her. She'd had a sudden flash of the incident that had brought her to Forbes. Not halfway through the Jenny Jones Invitational in Santa Barbara, twenty-four strokes over par, at the dead bottom of the pack, a lock to miss her tenth cut in a row. She'd ducked into the ladies for a little pick-me-up toot, had dropped everything onto the floor. She'd been on her hands and knees in front of the toilet, snorting whatever looked right through a rolled-up twenty when Nancy Lopez had walked in on her. Rita had caught a glimpse of her stunned face before she whirled away, slamming the door in her wake.
She'd stood up, wiped the grime off her knees, smoothed her skirt, and walked out in the bright sunshine, then straight across the fairway and into the clubhouse bar. Someone had called Vin to come get her later that night. Much later. Good old Vin, she thought. She seemed to remember throwing up in his car.
She laid the wedge down across the patio table, took a step toward him. "Hey, I'm sorry, okay? I'll drop it in reverse a couple of notches, I promise . . ."
"It's too late, Rita."
"Come on, Vin. You're right. I need to work on things a little while. I'm not ready to go back out on tour, not just yet. A couple more weeks here, I can get it together-"
She heard a note in his voice she never had before, enough to stop her. Stop her dead. She stared back at him.
So quiet here in the desert, she realized. In the distance, she could hear the sound of music. Mozart, most likely. They liked to pipe Mozart through the public area speakers just before dinnertime.
"Where am I going to go, Vin?" she said, hating the plaintive tone she heard in her own voice. "I sublet my place in Malibu. They blackballed me at Chateau Marmont, I got this huge tab at Sportsman's Lodge-"
He held up one hand like a traffic cop, was reaching into his coat pocket with the other. "You know me, Rita, I'd never leave you flapping in the wind." He handed over an envelope.
"What's this?" she asked. She noticed her fingers were trembling as she took the paper.
He shrugged. "It's a kind of corporate thing-"
"Oh no, Vinnie. I told you, no more outings with the suits. I hate those assholes. They're all like Rodney Dangerfield, without the jokes-"
"You're not in a position," he cut in, and the chill in his tone stopped her again. He saw the look in her eyes and glanced away, softening his voice. "The money's good," he said. "Damned good, considering." He held up his hand to keep her from saying anything. "The best thing is, this one's out of the country. It'll get you out of the eye of the storm for a bit . . ."
"Out of the country? As in where?"
"Scotland," he told her.
"Scotland, huh. Who's the sponsor, Cutty Sark?"
"You wish," he told her dryly. "This is something Phillip Bates cooked up."
"Bates? The guy who owns Macrodyne Software?"
Vin shrugged. "They wouldn't let him in Augusta, he built his own course in Scotland." He pointed at the envelope. "It tells about it in there. He bought a castle, several hundred acres on the coast north of Edinburgh. Apparently, there was one hole there already, the earliest anyone's ever found. Bates added another seventeen. No one's ever played the course. No one's even seen it."
She opened the envelope, saw something flutter toward the carpet at their feet. She reached out, snatched the check in midair. She turned it over, checked the figure, looked up at Vin in surprise. "All this for a round of golf?" she said. "What else do I have to do?"
"Hey, the guy's made of money," he said. "And that's after my cut."
She took a breath then, tapping the check speculatively with a nail. "I dunno, Vin . . . all that way . . . and there's a lot of scotch in Scotland."
"There's a lot of scotch everywhere, Rita."
She nodded disconsolately. "Maybe you could come along?" Her voice rose hopefully.
"I wish I could," he told her. "But you'll have to handle this one on your own."
She glanced down at the check once more. She'd held bigger in her day. But she'd be hard pressed to remember just how long it had been. All that money that had come and gone. Would it have been any different if she'd gone into computer programming? she wondered.
"We can always tell them no," Vin was saying.
She glanced up at him, feeling the chill that always came to the desert about this time of day. She turned, picked up her robe from one of the patio chairs, wrapped it tightly around her. She reached and patted Vin's well-tanned cheek.
"Never mind that," she told him. And went to pack her things.
Squat Possum Golf Club,
near Cambridge, Ohio
"Lordy, what a shot," the man in the gimmee cap said, watching Billy Sprague's ball drift down toward the tiny green set in the valley floor far below. "It's going in."
"No it isn't," Sprague said calmly. He was tall and angular, with a certain resemblance to Jimmy Stewart, his voice carrying a similar down-home twang that lent an extra note of gravity to whatever he said. "It's going to hit about six feet past the pin, and stick."
There were four men in the group altogether, and they stood watching from an elevated tee, built on a ridge that had once been part of a strip-mining tract. When demand for soft coal had fallen sometime in the late forties, the strip mine had been abandoned, and the golf course constructed atop its somewhat softened contours. The project had been the brainchild of Earle "Doc" Toland, who'd picked up the land for a song and built the course despite the general disparagement of the surrounding community's business leaders, most of whom thought the site far more suited to become a bass-fishing lake, or perhaps a tire vulcanizing plant, maybe even the town dump.
Toland, however, was something of a visionary. He had traveled to Europe, studied medicine in faraway Cleveland, had seen such miraculous sights as department store escalators, soft-serve ice cream, and golf courses. When he had returned to his hometown to practice, he had brought with him not only some knowledge of the physical needs of his patients, but their spiritual needs as well. Thus it was not long before the vision of Squat Possum Golf Club had taken shape in Toland's mind, and he had spent every spare dollar and every free moment away from the swabbing of strep throats and the delivering of squalling babies to see that the vision became reality.
Though Toland was certainly one of the area's most eligible bachelors, he never married, for his true passion was Squat Possum. From the initial stirrings of spring to the first day snow flew in winter, it was the same: nine holes in the mists of early morning, before his rounds at the county clinic, another nine in the fading light of evening, after he'd ducked away from his burgeoning family practice. In his younger days he reserved whole Saturday afternoons for a full eighteen, and Sundays for thirty-six, for even in those days the one permissible substitution a God-fearing man might make for a contemplative hour or two in church was that properly reverent walk through the natural sepulcher of golfdom.
In his later years Toland modified his routine, spending more time tending to the course itself, modifying and making improvements (a driving range, fairway bunkers, an irrigation system) to his initial design, as well as spending more and more time in the tutelage of youngsters who might carry on his passion once he was gone. And though Toland had been mentor to many a fine player in his day, had sent more than one lad off to college on the wings of a golf scholarship, none of his pupils had been more apt than the one who had just struck the ball this tender summer evening, and the name of that man was Sprague.
For a number of years Billy Sprague's name had been affixed to every trophy awarded in every amateur tournament held south of Akron and east of Cincinnati, and many more besides. He'd attended Ohio State University in Columbus, where he'd equaled or broken every record set by the great Golden Bear himself. And when he had girded up his loins and strode out upon the field of professional play a dozen years before, expectations of his success were boundless.
The man in the gimmee cap knew none of this, however, for he was from West Virginia, a man who had come to golf late, after a career in dragline operation and maintenance had finally provided him with the wherewithal to retire and pursue more leisurely interests. With much practice and great determination he had whittled his handicap down into the high teens, and had accepted this day at the invitation of a friend, Blaine Craig, the owner of a Cambridge trucking company, to join in a round of golf at Craig's home club of Squat Possum.
As it turned out, the foursome included Craig, his brother Tom, Billy Sprague, and Winston Park, former dragline operator. The Craig brothers were good, significantly better than Park, their scores just a few strokes over par as they stood on the tee box of the par-three fourteenth hole. Park had not done badly himself. He was holding it at even bogey, not bad for a strange course, and with the strokes the Craigs had given him, he was already feeling his wallet fatten.
It was Billy Sprague, however, who had dazzled them all. He had belted every tee shot straight enough to lay pipe to, lashed irons to every green in regulation, his swing equally effortless and well made, no matter what club he held. On the greens themselves he'd lipped out a putt or two, but not many. Though the bets had been arranged according to match play and the Craigs thus paid attention to what happened scorewise only hole by hole, Winston Park knew that Sprague, who had declined the invitation to join in the wagering, stood at least six under, and this with five holes left to play. He might have been a rank amateur, Park thought, but he knew enough to realize he was in the presence of greatness.
Right now, for instance, as he gazed down through the southeastern Ohio haze to the tiny green on the valley floor below, he was watching the whirling ball do exactly what Sprague said it would do, strike no more than six feet beyond the flag and stop dead.
"Man," Winston Park said, doffing his Weirton Steel hat and clapping it to his chest. "You are something else."
Sprague glanced up from retrieving his tee and gave Park his guileless smile. "Thanks," he said, as if he'd never heard such a compliment before. And then they were all off the tee.
"This guy is a club pro?" Park said to Blaine Craig a few minutes later. "Your club pro?"
Craig, who was driving the cart down the precipitous path toward the green below, glanced over casually. "You making some sort of comment about Squat Possum?"
"No, no, it's a nice little course," Park protested. "I mean, we still have sand greens down where I play." Park was wishing Craig would turn his attention back to the narrow roadway. "It's just that . . . well, he's really good. Even I can see that much."
Blaine Craig nodded, apparently appeased. "Twelve years we've had him, ever since Doc Toland retired." He turned back, gave Winston Park an odd look. "Sprague is sumpin' all right." He took the cart around the last bend, gave it full out down the last straightaway, his normally vacuous expression turning thoughtful. As they were getting out of the cart, Craig nodded toward the green where his brother and Billy Sprague were already walking.
"I want you to watch something now," Craig told him.
"Watch what?" Park asked, puzzled.
"Just wait and see," Craig said enigmatically and went to whisper something in Billy Sprague's ear.
Winston Park never did find his ball in the scrub brush bordering the creek that ran left of the green and gave the course its name. After five fruitless minutes of searching, he had to take a drop, then skulled his chip shot well past the hole. He misjudged the speed of the green coming back and nearly sent his first putt into the opposite fringe. He managed a decent lag on his next attempt and Tom Craig conceded the short putt for a six. Tom and Blaine were already in at four, both having made lengthy putts to salvage bogey. Twenty dollars going the other way, Winston Park thought ruefully.
It fell to Billy Sprague, then, to finish up. He surveyed his putt for what seemed an uncharacteristic length of time, then stepped up, hitched at his pants a couple of times, glanced at Blaine Craig at least twice before he bent over the putt in earnest. Craig, meantime, seemed to have turned his attention on the swifts wheeling about in the dusk, the creatures feinting and diving after insects like giant commas finally set free from a page.
Something going on, Park thought, just as Sprague drew back to putt. Instead of the smooth stroke Park had come to expect, however, what came next was a palsied stab, a slashing movement that sent the ball screaming past the hole, all the way across the green, where it disappeared into the thick collar of the second cut.
Park stared in astonishment, but the Craig brothers idled about, apparently unconcerned, as Sprague went soundlessly after his ball. At the collar, Sprague didn't bother to change clubs. He steadied himself over a dark clump of grass, then swatted his putter down in a way that made Winston Park think of his own swing as fluid.
The ball careened on a wild diagonal out of the thick grass, finally wobbling to a halt some fifty feet away, near the front of the green. Sprague was looking at no one by this point. He strode to the front of the green, resumed his stance over the ball, drew back . . . and whistled this one so far beyond the hole that Winston Park had to use the flag he'd been tending for a balance point, do a little two-step to get out of the way.
"I think that's enough," Sprague called, his voice as untroubled as ever. "You can pick that up for me, if you don't mind."
Winston stared down at the ball, then back at Sprague, who was already following the Craig brothers off toward the nearby tee. What was going on? Park wondered. He was suddenly hesitant about picking up Billy Sprague's ball, but he told himself that was foolish and forced himself to snatch the thing up. The ball wasn't really glowing hot, Park told himself as he hurried away. But it sure seemed as if it were.
By the time Park caught up, the others were already on the fifteenth tee, a long par-four, according to the carved wooden marker that featured a colorful relief map of the dogleg ahead. The tee box was set into the side of a hill, with the back and right side fashioned into a bulkhead of railroad ties. The big things had been stacked up where the hillside had been cut away to prevent erosion onto the flat surface of the tee itself, but the effect was one of teeing off alongside the walls of a log cabin. The Craig brothers went off first, both of them managing decent, if undistinguished, efforts toward the fairway. Sprague turned to motion Winston Park forward, but Park shook his head.
"Hell no," he said, tossing Sprague his ball. "No way I'll ever take honors from you."
Sprague shrugged, snatched the ball deftly. As he bent to tee it up, Blaine Craig gave Park a knowing smile.
"You better watch yourself," he said softly.
"Why's that?" Park whispered back, just as Sprague swung, an awkward lunge that bore no resemblance to the graceful passes he'd made all the livelong day.
There was a terrific crack as Sprague's ball shot nearly sideways off the tee. It slammed into one of the heavy ties, then caromed sharply backward, narrowly missing Park and the Craig brothers as it disappeared down the hill in the direction of the meandering creek.
"Dear Lord," Winston Park said as he straightened. He had no idea what it must have felt like to watch Rome burn, of course, but the stirrings inside him at that moment could not have been greatly dissimilar.
"Sorry, guys," Sprague said. His face showed no hint of emotion. "Looks like I'm going to have to go in anyway." He juked his thumb over his shoulder. Down the fairway, Park saw a cart fast approaching. In contrast to the beige models the four of them were driving, this one was painted a dark color, with a Plexiglas windscreen glinting orange with the last rays of the sun. As the cart neared, Park saw that a narrow-shouldered black man in bib overalls was at the wheel, that no clubs were tethered at the back.
"Sorry if I let you down, Blaine," Sprague said. "But you ought to know better. Nice meeting you, Mr. Park. You come back anytime, you hear?"
Winston Park felt his hand wave of its own accord as Sprague conferred briefly with the driver of the black cart. In the next moment, Sprague was in the seat and gone, and Park had turned in disbelief to the Craigs. "What the hell did you say to him?" Park asked. "I never saw such a thing."
Blaine Craig and his brother shared a smile that turned into a laugh, then outright guffaws. "That's the thing about Sprague, you see," Blaine Craig said, when he finally managed to stop laughing. "He's the best that ever was, so far as anyone around here knows, anyhow."
"But . . ." Winston Park was still shaking his head in bewilderment. "It was like a switch flipped."
"It did," Tom Craig cut in, wiping at his eyes. "That's just it. That's why the guy bombed out on the Tour. So long as there's no money involved, Billy Sprague can play like the angels. But the minute you bet him a dime." He pointed at the nearby tee. "Well, you saw what happens."
Winston Park stared off down the darkening fairway in the direction of the departing cart. "I still don't get it," he said to Blaine Craig. "If he knows it, why'd he accept your bet?"
Blaine shook his head. "I didn't bet him. I didn't have to. I just told him you laid a hundred with me, you wanted to take ten strokes and see if you could beat his score for the last five holes. That's all it took to throw him, just being the subject of a bet."
Winston Park digested the enormity of it for a moment. "Well," he said finally, "that seems kind of cruel then, what you did."
Blaine Craig considered this, staring off into the dusk and the whirling cloud of swifts. "Well I suppose it is," he said as a delicious leer crossed his face. "But ain't it a hell of a lot of fun to watch?"
"What do you mean the old man's sick?" Billy Sprague was saying as Teddy drove them resolutely through the gloom. "Did you call the doctor?"
"He didn't want the doctor," Teddy told him. "He said to get you."
"You shouldn't pay attention to that," Sprague said. "He's an old man." He wasn't one to make an outburst-and had long ago learned how to control those impulses that might have sent him into a rage at what had just happened with the Craigs and Winston Park, for instance-but for God's sakes, it was Doc Toland they were talking about now.
Teddy seemed unmoved. "He says get you, that's who I get."
"All right," Sprague told him. "Can't this thing go any faster?"
"Nope," Teddy said, arraying them on. "I told Doc, let's take the governor off your cart, but he says, 'Teddy, ever'body else has a governor on their cart, so we'll just have to live with one ourselves.'"
"You do him pretty well," Sprague said, his eyes on the maintenance building that was taking shape in the gloom up ahead.
"Ought to," Teddy said, allowing himself a rare smile. "Been listening to the man fifty years."
The cart bounced onto the rough gravel of the maintenance yard, crackling on toward the base of the old stone structure, its whitewashed face glowing unnaturally white in the last light. The building had originally housed the offices of the strip-mining operation, but Toland had pressed it into service as his clubhouse for Squat Possum's first couple of decades.
As the membership had grown and Doc's practice swelled, a new clubhouse had been erected on a promontory out near Byesville Road, a handsome glass and native fieldstone building that afforded a striking view of the rolling, hardwood-studded countryside. The old offices had been converted again, this time to a maintenance building, along with spartan residential quarters Doc Toland had rigged down in the basement rooms, where he could stay close to the place that he loved.
As a child visiting Doc's chambers, Billy had always found it a dank, almost subterranean place, more like a cave than somewhere for a person to live. But as he'd grown older he'd come to understand something of Doc's fondness for it.
Not such a bad place for an eccentric bachelor to tuck himself away, Sprague had come to understand, and at the same time felt an uncomfortable jolt, as if he might be envisioning dragging himself into the very same cave one day. There were certain unmistakable similarities between the two of them after all.
Though, unlike Doc, Sprague had once been married; the union had not long survived the aftermath of his colossal failure upon the Tour. The daughter of an Upper Arlington banker was not about to settle down as happy homemaker for the head professional of far-flung Squat Possum Country Club, and for that Sprague could not really blame her. Since Daisy, however, he had not found anyone-or perhaps, he thought, he simply had lost the heart for it, had turned his passions toward the one lover who never failed to give him all he might desire (or almost never), and that focus was what linked him, so to speak, most obviously with Doc.
Sprague had reached the bottom of the steps by now and turned to knock at the great wooden slab of a door, entered when he heard Doc's wheezy voice sound inside. From what Teddy had said, Sprague had expected to find the old man laid out in his bedroom. Instead, he was surprised to find him in the cluttered living room, propped up in the old leather recliner he often slept in these days. It was a battered old thing but comfortable, its footrest often raised, as now, in front of the stone fireplace where Teddy kept a fire banked against the perennial damp and chill of the place in all but the hottest months.
"How'd you hit 'em?" Toland wheezed, raising a hand in greeting as Sprague entered.
"A bit too often," Sprague said. "Especially toward the end."
"That happens," Toland said. "Even to the best."
Sprague nodded, his eyes adjusting to the dim light of the room. The old man had been failing in recent months, but it was something he didn't want to recognize he supposed. Something they all simply refused to see. Now, however . . . he shook his head. "Teddy told me you weren't feeling so hot," he said. "He said you wanted to see me." He stood regarding the old man for a moment longer. "I think we need to take you into town."
The old man waved his hand as if there were a bothersome fly at his face. "Forget about town," he said. He patted the arm of his chair. "You come over here. Sit yourself down."
Sprague hesitated. He was almost thirty-five, but old habits died hard. Doc Toland asked-or told-you to do something, you found yourself doing it. He'd never spoken sharply, never shown anything but a moment's disappointment at Sprague's numerous failings over the years, but still you just did what the man said.
He stepped over a pile of golf magazines, found his way to Toland's chair. The old man glanced down at the stack, gave a laugh that turned into a long, hacking cough. "They send me all that stuff," he managed finally, his eyes glistening. "Hundred ways to help your game." He shook his head wonderingly. "How to shine your sticks and keep 'em shined." He laughed at his own feeble joke.
"So how come you wanted to see me?" Sprague asked. He had an awful premonition. Doc Toland had summoned him for the final speech. "All this will now be yours, my son . . ."
Sprague's own parents were long dead. His father in an auto accident his senior year of college, his mother of a heart attack not long after. He got no more than an annual Christmas card from Daisy, who had remarried several years ago. Toland was all the family he had left.
"Got something in the mail today for you, too," the old man said. He paused to cough again, then reached for a heavy-looking envelope that lay on the fireplace platform at his side.
"What is it? Another invitation to a qualifier? You can just toss it right in there."
"Ah no," Toland said, pulling the envelope back from him. "You don't want to burn this one up, son."
"If it's about a golf tournament, I do."
"That's not exactly what we're talking about," the old man said.
"If there's money involved-"
"Just keep quiet a minute," Toland said, and the tone in his voice sent Sprague right back into eighth-grade yes-sir mode. "You ready to listen to me?"
Toland nodded, but he was already past the moment, had something more important on his mind. "I met a man in Scotland once, when I was about your age, taught me a few things about the game."
"What does that have to do with-"
"Just quiet!" the old man said. He cleared his throat and began again. "We've kept in touch over the years, he and I, one thing and another, I told him about you, of course . . ."
"What about me?"
The old man glanced up, fixed him with a gaze. "That you were the best, son. The best I ever saw . . ."
"Let's not get into that again."
Toland waved that away. "This man knows about the thing with you and the money. But he needs you anyway."
Sprague shook his head. "Needs me for what?"
"What else? He needs you to play a round of golf, that's all."
"That's what this is about?" Sprague said. He was relieved, of course, but a little annoyed as well. He had another look at Toland. Where he'd seen frailty a few moments ago, he now saw strength, the canny gaze of a fox. So he was to give some wizened Scotsman a playing tour of Squat Possum, let the man see all of what Doc Toland had wrought. He sighed. What was all the fuss for? "When's your pal coming in?"
Toland shook his head. "You'll have to go to him, I'm afraid."
"Oh yeah, like to Scotland I suppose." Sprague was trying to keep the irony out of his voice.
Toland seemed almost agitated now. "That's it, son. That's exactly it."
Sprague was reaching his limit. He was tired and hungry and vaguely embarrassed about what had happened with the Craig brothers earlier. He wanted to trudge on up to the grill in the nice new clubhouse, have himself a beer or three, scarf down a burger, drag himself into town to bed.
"Now why would I want to go to Scotland just to play a round of golf with some guy I've never met?"
Doc Toland smiled and pulled himself up straighter in his chair at that. "To lift the curse, that's why."
"The curse?" Sprague glanced around the room, feeling his hackles rise. Clearly Teddy had been right after all. The old man needed help, and fast. "Just sit still, Doc, I'm going to bring my car around-"
But the old man seemed frantic, had lunged all the way out of his chair now. He staggered forward, thrusting the envelope toward Sprague. "You're going over there to save the world as we know it, son." And as Sprague felt the envelope come into his hands, the old man pitched onto his face and lay still.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Les Standiford"