A Short Story
By Leighton Vaughan Williams
Based closely on a meeting with a stranger on a golf course, it is a meeting that has inspired me to write this story. It is a story that I didn’t expect to need to tell, but have needed to tell. If nobody reads it, no matter. But I hope people do read it. Especially the people who have lessons still to learn and dreams still to dream. Especially the people who want to play the tenth hole! Especially those people. But it is a story for everyone.
It all started on the first green when a little white ball mysteriously appeared over our heads, landing next to the pin. Enter nobody! Then a stranger! The journey had not yet begun but would soon do so. As we parted company at the final green with a firm handshake and a salutary farewell, we realised that we had been part of one of those experiences which challenges one’s fundamental perceptions and pre-conceptions, illuminating us without dazzling us, humbling us without diminishing us. Yet we know not the stranger’s name nor philosophy. We did not ask, nor did we desire to know. We had learned enough without needing to seek further.
As I placed my trusty white putter into the bag for the final time in the round, I realised I would never reach for it again in quite the same way. I realised also that our journey could only really be experienced, not told. Yet at the same time I knew that our journey offers a tale that needs to be told and re-told, for as long as there remain in golf, and life, lessons to be learned, dreams to be dreamed. Steve knew so too. He knew so because of what had happened the night before.
Chapter 1: The Third Hole
Chapter 2: The Fourth Hole
Chapter 3: The Fifth Hole
Chapter 4: The Sixth Hole
Chapter 5: The Seventh Hole
Chapter 6: The Eighth Hole
Chapter 7: The Ninth Hole
The Tenth Hole
The Third Hole
“Sorry about the shot back there. I didn’t know there was anyone on the green. I should have checked.” In truth, the apologised-for strike up the demanding uphill first hole was not a shot many would have expected to reach the skirts of the putting surface, let alone come to rest blowing a six inch kiss to the flag. I brushed it off with a dismissive wave. It is part of the happenstance that populates any game of golf, and especially one in which the opening challenge is played blind over the brink of a hill peering barely 60 yards to the front edge of the polestick’s personal domain.
It was not until we were standing astride the third tee that the stranger had made his presence known, in the guise of one of the series of sauntering singleton players who increasingly grace the summer weekday afternoons with their individual displays of personal golfing panache.
A stranger, a singleton, that much we established on sight. A player of the game whose pace, and possibly skill, somewhat outstripped ours, we now established by simple deduction. “Go ahead of us. Play through.” Steve made the offer, as if in response to the words of apology, though it came out more like a barked command.
“But I have all the time in the world.” The stranger’s words could have been spoken with weary regret or mock ribaldry or simply matter-of-factly, but there was no flicker of any of these sentiments. None. They were spoken instead with an inflection of what might be described as detached satisfaction lightly brushed with a hint of passion. Such a vocal inflection was strange, but only because it was unexpected. But it somehow sounded neither odd nor unusual. Nor was it discomforting.
Yet we were discomforted, for another reason. That offer to go ahead of us, such a superficially selfless act of generosity, was in fact neither selfless nor generous. It was born rather out of a simple desire to see the stranger proceed on his way. And to free us from the burden of a pressing presence to our rear. As well as potential exposure to a dimpled projectile rising bullet-like in undetected flight toward our unprotected frames. And to free us from the burden of unbidden external inspection and inner judgement.
We played on, in the quiet hope, even expectation, that a couple of wayward and horizontally challenged strikes off the tee would achieve the result which invitation had regrettably failed to achieve. The concept of limitless time would be put to the test of the real ticking clock.
I struck the ball first, to see it simply disappear from sight. In my experience this always means one thing – that the ball, while technically still in its own existence, would never again be part of mine. It was lost. Steve kept track of his own ball, but only because it had travelled a bare 30 yards towards its destination roughly a quarter of a mile away. We looked to the stranger. “Bad luck” , he intoned. “It happens to us all.” “Play through?”, I enquired.
The stranger seemed to consider for an extended moment. “I know where your ball is. I’ll show you.” The ball was soon retrieved, from some of the rough grass designed to challenge players on the adjacent hole. Meanwhile, Steve had played his second shot. Eventually we reached the putting green. As we considered line and length, a ball could be seen descending from its high trajectory. Struck from the third tee, it landed short of our feet but long of reason. An obvious fluke, this was a ball delivered to its flight path as if by mechanical, not human, means. Inspired, we sank our putts.
We bagged our respective putters, one made for the left handed and one for the right, and turned, a little lighter of foot, to tee off at the short fourth. Our path meandered edgingly close to the little white missile which awaited the stranger’s next smack. We paused as he came closer. “That was a big hit”, I ventured. “It achieved its purpose,” he smiled. “After all, you sunk your putts.” I considered how he knew our green play from so afar, but set the thought aside. “By the way, thanks for finding my ball. I was sure it was lost.” He looked at me quizzically. “If you know where something is, can it be lost?” He paused for a moment. “I’m not just talking about golf, you know. I’m really not!”
The Third Hole
The Fourth Hole
It is a relatively short hole, so the course designers had felt the need to compensate. They dug a deep bunker to the front side of the green, another to the right side and a steep grassy bank running down its back side. But we were confident. That’s what a hole-dropping long putt does for you. The tee is set atop a flight of short steps, offering a balcony view to any short strike to the third. So we viewed. The stranger obliged. He knew where the hole was. And he knew how to reach it.
Two feet from the hole. Now a simple tap-in, he marked the ball, cleaned it, set it down again. He tapped but it stayed out. He turned and looked up to us atop our temporary perch. He was smiling broadly. He was happy.
Now it was my turn. To be happy. To sidestep or overfly sandy trap, to shy short of flirtation with treacherous back side. I visualised. I swung golf’s version of bat at ball. I succeeded. In my own way. I was satisfied. But I was not happy. Not happy like the stranger. As Steve stepped up, the happy face, now muted, stood with him, still, close yet distant. Club hit ball, ball responded. Then misbehaved. “Difficult hole.” Steve and I were silent, then Steve spoke. “We’re not on song today. You go ahead. Please proceed.”
Proceed he did, to place tee in ground, ball on tee, administer smart blow of short club to small ball. Perfect shot, perfect line, perfect distance, if aimed at the deep forward sandy trap. “Beached!”, he noted. It was a simple statement of fact. “I could be quite some time. You two play ahead.” We did.
Steve withdrew this time a club of middling length and swung freely at the ball. A pleasing crack. It was well timed. We all knew it. His second shot had found the green, albeit the right edge, opposite end to the stick. But nice enough. This was a turnaround. Both Steve and I with at least a chance of potting the hole in three, and the stranger’s ball buried deep below a gaping, uninviting, curling upper lip. This was an unequal contest between skill and natural sand, tipped heavily in favour of nature. And tipped in favour of us.
I had clear sight of the pin, about 40 feet away, angled just forward of my left shoulder. Maybe 12 feet to the relatively smooth surface which surrounded the flag. I was furthest from the hole, if measured by distance. I locked my wrists and applied blade to ball. Ball bounced away to order. Slow surface. Good for once. Just short and below the hole. Steve was on the green. Still separated, ball to cup, by more than the stranger. But Steve’s ball had the advantage. It could see the objective. So could Steve. He took his time. He took his time on that putt as if he had all the time in the world. He had the line. He sort of had the length. Came up a nose short, queried its options, then decided to drop. Three. Par. He seemed to wave. Almost imperceptibly, but he seemed to wave. He seemed to wave to the stranger.
Now it was my turn. A five footer to share the hole. Don’t leave it short. Don’t leave it short. I didn’t. Hole shared.
Move on or wait for splash of grainy sand? We waited and got a shower, and a show, as the flecked sphere soared from its tomb aloft a chariot of spray. It was long of the pin, before the backspin, and less long after, but still the length of a longshot. “You go ahead,” he shouted. “I might be quite some time.”
The Fifth Hole
We walked on to the difficult fifth. My honour again to tee off first. 480 yards to the middle of the green. No need to guess. Modern technology has seen to that. Smooth swing. This time it flew straight, but not particularly long, and so tracked by eye through its entire flight. “I’m happy enough with that”. Could have been longer but a shot to make you happy. Now Steve inserted his tee into the sloping ground, placed his ball on it and prepared to play.
“Same action, using a higher tee, and you would get the same result and a lot more length.” The stranger spoke softly but it interrupted Steve’s pre-shot ritual. Steve stopped and took a few steps backward. Hesitant now, where he had been confident, he sort of tiptoed to tee, imparted a dull thwack to ball and stood back to inspect the damage. He had topped it, had hit just its very top. It had at least gone straight. It was in the short grass, that much could be said for it. But if only he had cradled the ball upon a higher tee. He remembered the stranger’s words. He looked at the stranger. The stranger said nothing. He had no need to.
Steve was still a good 400 yards short of the green, I a little closer, but there was someone with us who placed his ball on a somewhat higher tee than either of us. I saw an opportunity. “Why don’t you show us how you tee up your ball, and show us the result?” He obliged, propelling the ball into an unusually steep trajectory, unusual by our standards. “How did you do that?”, I asked. “Practice,” he murmured. “And belief.”
“So you can do it every time?” I was curious.
“Not at all,” he replied.”You saw. I just missed a simple putt back there. It happens.” He paused. “Acceptance. When we fail we need acceptance. It’s about belief and acceptance. And practice.”
“Easier when the putts are dropping, and you’re hitting the greens. It’s when they’re not that the doubt creeps in.” I looked at Steve, still mulling over his mishit.
The stranger smiled, as if he’d heard it all before. “That, of course, is when your belief in your game is most important of all. Trust me.”
I did trust in something. I trusted in his own belief in his game. I shared his belief in his game. It was my game that I didn’t trust, that I didn’t believe in. I told him just that. “Well, it’s a start,” he said. “It’s a good start.” And he was off.
“See you!” We bid the stranger well as he strode off over the artificial horizon created by the dip down the hill. “Try transferring some weight onto your back foot if you want lift.” He was calling back to us. “But don’t expect miracles. Genuine miracles are rare.”
Soon out of sight, he was not out of mind.
We played on.
To play safe or straddle the lake? Doubt or belief? We both chose the middle path, left of lake and far short of target. And found, in each case, the creek. Doubt played no further part. Lost ball, dropped ball, lose a shot, carry on.
Lost ball? “It’s not lost if you know where to find it!” It was the same voice, of the stranger.
“But I don’t know where to find it.” “Nor I”, echoed Steve.
“Here they are!” Balls both found, thanks to stranger. We could barely see them, but there they were, buried treacherously, all but invisibly deep. How did he spot them? Why was he looking? Questions soon rendered academic. We could not retrieve them. Thank you stranger, we thought, you have shown us what we looked for. We know more but have gained nothing. But we were thinking of golf. We were only thinking of golf. We had learned nothing. But the stranger, he wasn’t just talking about golf, you know. He really wasn’t!
We didn’t mind that. Get a new ball out of our bags. Time to play our shots. So we did. We were playing golf. And the game, to win or lose,was on.
So to the green. Preparing to putt for the hole. I’m confident. I bring the putter head straight back. Now don’t decelerate on the shot! A cry from the direction of adjacent tee. ‘Fore!’ “Watch out!” I react, instinctively, and miss. In truth, the rocketing wayward ball missed my person by all of six feet. “Unlucky,” Steve commiserated. But he was happy really. He shared the hole. I was lucky in another sense. Six feet to the left and I might have played my last shot. I hadn’t prepared for that. You never do. You’re concentrating too much on playing the game.
The Sixth Hole
I like the sixth hole, except for the tree, the tree that always grabs my ball out of its soaring greenward flight. A neighbouring golf club had taken a vote on whether to demolish a tree. Their golfers had the same problem. It stopped the ball going where it was hit. It was a hazard, like a sand trap, only taller and more explicitly menacing. They voted to chop it down. Ours is much the same, but there’s no plan for a vote. One of my balls is still up it, trapped for posterity. I guess it will still be there when I am gone. I think about that every time I pass that tree. It was there as I considered my second shot.
We had both hit pretty standard drives up the hill, off the tee. If the ball flies far enough that it disappears over the brow of the hill, I always jump a little. I don’t actually leave the ground, but I jump inside, if you understand. I suppose Steve does too, though not when I do it. Then he has the opposite feeling. There’s not much room for empathy on the golf course. Maybe there should be. It’s only a game, they say. But they’re wrong. Games are important. They teach you things. About yourself. And about others.
Standing atop the crest of the hill, and a few strides beyond, I prepare to avoid the tree. It’s to my left, about 100 yards, maybe a bit more. Should be able to avoid it this time. Hit straight or perhaps a little right. Then it’s a safe, controlled punch to the middle of the green. I can dream. That’s part of the game. But do I believe? I think I do. Then I see the branches. I always see the branches. I try to see the smooth, even grass of the fairway beyond the tree. I believe I will reach it. I’m sure I will reach it. But what about the branches? It’s always about the branches. There are so many branches.
I prepare to play. A shout to me, this time heralding advice not danger.
“It’s not about the tree!” It was the stranger. “It really isn’t about the tree. It’s about the fairway. Focus on that and you’ll be safe.” Easy for him to say that, I thought. He knows the game. He may as well have invented it. But I didn’t know the game. Well, I knew the rules, at least the ones that let me play the game, but I didn’t really know the game. Not like the stranger.
“Trust me!” I looked at him, bag of clubs slung over his right shoulder, left hand propped against tree. “Keep standing there and it’s you who’ll be needing to trust,” I shouted back. Addressing the ball, I took aim. He didn’t take cover. He seemed to know. As did I. I simply knew that I wasn’t going to hit that tree. I trusted him. Despite the branches.
As I walked past the tree toward the pleasant fairway lie, I thanked him. I didn’t even ask him why he had waited, and not moved on to the next hole. I didn’t need to. And I didn’t want to. He returned the thanks. “You won’t always miss that tree,” he said. “But you will always know that you can.” He walked on to the next hole. My next shot found the deep rough, then the sand, then three more shots. Steve raised his hand. But he didn’t jump. Not in the air. Just inside. So did I. For a different reason, so did I.
The Seventh Hole
Hit it down the fairway. Straight as you can. Easy shot to the green. One putt. In the hole. Shout of ‘Birdie.’ Job done. Before we hit the ball, we can all dream. I had the dream that day. Until I swung the club.
The ball bore no blame. It had no will, no self-control. It simply obeyed instructions. But I had will, I had the freedom to instruct it as I liked. And I had the dream. So why was the ball buried deep in the bushes? I had teed it up high as I should, swung club with smoothness of action, completed follow through with self-referenced elegance. So why? I could have asked the stranger, had he been there. Steve was there, but he didn’t know the answer, even if it had been a real question.
Then I saw a dog. Looked like a nice dog, a spaniel, I think. I don’t know a lot about dogs so I can’t be sure. I just know that there are nice dogs and nasty dogs. This one looked nice. The one that bit Steve a few weeks back was the other kind. That dog wasn’t on a lead. It was free to bite and it bit. It bit Steve on the belly. But he didn’t tell anyone, not anyone in authority. That was his choice. He chose to hope it wouldn’t do it again. Steve wasn’t doing anything wrong, not when he was bit. He had no choice about that. The choice came later.
I had a choice. I could have chosen to give the ball better instructions. But it was not a real choice. I did try. But now I had a real choice. To forget the fluffed shot, drop another ball, lose a shot, address the ball, play as if this was the ball’s natural resting place. Or to continue asking ‘why’ in plaintive cry. I knew what the stranger would do. So I played the ball, as best I could. Not in anger but in thanks. Thanks to the stranger. And now to the lady with the dog, who shouts “Well played!” The kindness of strangers.
Quite pleased with the outcome. Not as pleased as Steve who will soon be at the flag. Or at least near enough to ensure the hole. But I was playing against the course. When Steve plays well, I play against the course. When Steve plays badly, I play against Steve.
Confident now, unhurried, undisturbed. I dream of holing it in one from here. Hit the flag. That’ll do. I’ll be happy with that. I look around. Nobody to impress this time. The lady’s moved on, taking her nice dog with her. It had no choice. It was on a lead. The man in the motorised grass-cutter does have a choice. He can choose to buzz around when you are trying to play, or to buzz off until you’ve played. He chooses to buzz around. He always does. It stops him getting bored. He’s near enough now that the ball might hit him if you take your shot quickly. The stranger could definitely hit him. He has the skill. But you’d have to be lucky. He’s not even wearing a helmet. His own silly fault if I hit him. I feel lucky. Then I see him. Back of the green. Watching. I see the stranger. Embarrassed, I aim for the green, and almost hit the flag. I’m playing the game now. That’s why games are important. They teach you things. Steve wins the hole, but I’ve won too. The man in the machine has moved on. So has the stranger. And so, I feel, have I.
The Eighth Hole
The weather forecast had said heavy showers. But I didn’t believe the forecast. They say bad things and if they’re wrong, you will be happy anyway. And forget their mistake. But if they say good weather, and you are drenched, you will not easily forgive them. Clever strategy. But no good if you want to know how the weather will be. So I didn’t believe, and persuaded Steve I was right. He believed me. Now he was wet. I saw the lady with the dog in the distance. She had opened an umbrella. I wondered about the stranger. Now we had a decision to make. We could take whatever partial shelter we could or play on and be fully sheltered sooner. We played on. The weather did its worst but only served to help us focus. Two shots. Straight off the tee. Both off the putting green. But neither by much. Then a flash. Count to three and the crash of thunder. Not far away now. I know someone who knew someone who was struck by lightning. The girl she knew was on a golf course when it happened. Did everything right. Made all the right choices once she saw the electric fork. But she hadn’t believed the forecast. Clever strategy, she had said, to forecast storms. You’d forgive and forget if the weather was good. This time it wasn’t. The forecasters were right. She was wrong. She paid the price. A high price for getting it wrong, but life is like that sometimes. This was on my mind as I lined up my shot, designed as a little chip to the flag. Maybe my wrist quivered. I suppose the ball obeyed my instructions, it always does, but not my intent. Short, very short of the pin. Steve wasn’t scared like me. He said that it was very long odds to be struck dead. But he didn’t know someone who knew someone who succumbed despite the odds. I think it makes a difference. At least it made a difference that day. He holed it. And would probably live to tell the tale. Very probably, according to the odds.
We move on to the closing hole of this nine hole course. You can play eighteen holes if you like, but not eighteen different holes. You just play the nine holes twice. We play them just once. For us, there is no tenth hole.
The Ninth Hole
The heavens continued to flash, almost in time now with thunderous clash, but Steve was unconcerned. He was chatting with someone in what the British call a golf buggy and the Americans call a cart. Steve climbed in. Then climbed out. “Safer in there”, he said. But he was wrong. First advice is to get clear of open frame vehicles. I told him. “But they’re earthed, grounded. Look at those rubber tyres.” Steve was sure of his physics. I didn’t know the physics but I knew the advice. Get clear, it said. “Anyway, meet Chris, who knows about these things.” My heart sank.
The stranger, in whom I’d placed so much trust. Sitting in the nippy four-wheeler. So sure of himself. Placing his trust in a death trap. Now it made sense. I thought as we left the fourth green that I’d seen Steve wave at him. Almost imperceptibly, but definitely an acknowledgment. I had put it out of my mind, put it down to courtesy, but now it all came together. He was not a stranger, not to Steve.
I went over to Chris, back turned but obviously impervious to danger. Blissful in ignorance. I tapped on the shoulder of the white collared shirt. Chris turned. She turned and looked at me. “Always best to hire the car when there’s a chance of thunder”. It was one of the local lady golfers, good player, better than us, at golf, but no better at physics.
I laughed. Out of relief, really. The stranger would never sit in an open vehicle in a thunderstorm. We were free to do what we wanted, but not the stranger. He would only do what was right. I trusted in him.
Then I saw him, at the crest of the hill, over which we hoped to propel our first volleys. He was calling us on. I felt safe now. And Steve seemed to wave. He seemed to wave to the stranger. We cleared the hill, first bounce I prefer to recall, and took good advantage of the downward sloping smooth grassed fairway. Two further blows apiece, of club on ball, and we were on the green. Then two putts from Steve, one from me.
“Well played, Sirs!” He joined us on the green, shook our hands firmly. “The game is important,” he said. “It teaches us things, about ourselves, and about others. The question is how we play it.” We wanted to play it like him.
On to the tenth hole?” he asked. “There is no tenth hole,” we said, almost in unison. “There are only the ones you see. You keep going round and round. Until you stop. That’s all there is. Didn’t you know?” The stranger smiled. He knew that we were still talking about golf. “There is a tenth hole,” he said. But you need to look for it. And to believe in it.”
He proceeded to hand each of us a little white ball. They were the same two balls, with their distinctive markings, that we had lost in the creek. I was momentarily staggered. “But how? They were lost, unreachable.” “Yes, those balls truly were lost, they were unreachable,”‘said the stranger. “But on the tenth hole, there are no lost balls. Nothing is lost on the tenth. Trust me.”
We did trust him now. We had seen and we believed. “You remember that shot off the tee, the one that soared so high, over the very tall pines. I saw you watching. Well, you can do that too. You can do that, when you reach the tenth hole.”
Then, with a wave, he started to walk away. “It’s about belief and acceptance”, he called back, “and practice. So, practise these things.”
The stranger now out of sight, Steve turned to me. “He gave me a lift home last night,” he said, “when I missed the last bus, and was caught three miles from home in that terrible storm. He stopped his car and offered me a lift. Went totally out of his way, took me to my front door, then he was gone. A gift from a stranger, on the day of my birth.”
“So why didn’t you say anything before?” I was just a little perplexed. “Because I didn’t recognise him at first, though I did feel that I knew him. I didn’t recognise him until he called us on in the storm.”
“Steve, are you absolutely sure it was him?” “Not for certain,” he replied, “But that doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“I suppose not,” I agreed. “I suppose not.” The kindness of strangers. What a wonderful thing.
In the mind’s eye, we now both looked to the sky. As if to ask the question why. And glimpsed the tenth hole, through a dark cloud we glimpsed the tenth hole. We knew where we were going now. Someday we’d play there. Someday we’d play.