There were always golf clubs, golf bags, golf balls, putters, whiffle golf balls, rubber targets for putting on rugs, golf shoes with cleats, fingerless golf gloves, and green sun visors around our house, mostly in the downstairs closet (a huge closet, where umbrellas, overcoats, dad’s felt hats, and mom’s special silver fox stole and its fox-head clasp hung). There were also trophies from past tournaments, a crystal dish for cigarettes with a silver lid; three or four crystal ashtrays with silver rims; a silver cup with winged handles; a golden figurine of a golfer on a wooden base, with a little plaque. Mom, Chuck (my second oldest brother), and Dad would practice their swings outside. Dad and Chuck would practice chip shots in the side yard, careful not to make divots.
The St. Davids Golf Club, where we had our family membership, had once been the pasture of my great grandfather Henry’s dairy farm. In fact the house in which my father had been born stood behind the tenth hole green. When my great grandfather had died, the farm had been sold by my grandfather, so that they could buy the Bloomingdale Avenue house in Wayne, and he could continue to build his candy business in Philadelphia.
Our membership included a monthly dining room charge whether we ate there or not. So periodically, on Sundays, Dad would “take us out to eat,” and after my grandfather’s death, would sometimes bring Nana Henry as well. Except for Mom, we all hated this; hated the dressing up, and the stiff formality. Dad would call the middle-aged waiter by name, Tony, and Tony would welcome him personally as Mr. Henry, and Mom, Mrs. Henry, and smile at us admiringly, the Henrys. In summers, our table would be on a porch with open screened windows that overlooked the putting green and vistas of the fifth, eighth and ninth fairways. As we ordered, I watched distant players with envy, wishing I could be out there (in shorts, tee shirt and golf shoes, carrying my bag), instead of here (in my suit with scratchy pants, my shirt with starched collar, my white buck shoes). When Mom ordered, she always said “the”: “I’ll have the lamb.” Chuck and Jack would go for steak; Dad, Judy and I for roast beef “au jus,” pink in the center and crisp brown at the borders. Dinners at the club were one of our few public appearances as a family. Dad and Mom would greet other members with a smile or nod, or sometimes people came over to say hello, and we would all be introduced.
One branch of the club’s activities involved junior members, for whom tournaments and lessons, as well as social activities were arranged. Chuck had been Junior Champion, renowned for his long drives and iron shots. On one of our first family foursomes--or maybe it was only an early occasion when I walked around with the three of them, or caddied for my mother—we marveled at the distance and accuracy of Chuck’s shots.
When I turned thirteen, I began to go to junior clinics and to play in their nine-hole tournaments, which were held on Sunday afternoons. I played with hand-me-down clubs. Some had been grandpop Thralls’s, some Mom’s (Dad had bought her a new set), or Dad’s or Chuck’s. I wore Dad’s castaway shoes. Gradually, my game improved. I made some pars and even some birds, along with all the bogies and double bogies. I played full rounds regularly with two other Juniors, who were younger than me, and neither as good; and some days, even two rounds. In tournaments, I never placed at the top, but sometimes came close. But all that was put to the test in our family threesomes and foursomes.
Dad’s own game was stable. He played every week with his foursome, as he had been for years. If for any reason, he missed a Saturday, he would propose we play as a family on Sunday, when the course was less busy.
We’d arrive, all pomp and circumstance. Chuck and I would bring our golf shoes with us and change in the car; then we’d take our clubs from the trunk and carry them in through the men’s locker room, cleats clicking, and up the rubberized ramp into and through the pro shop, out to the crowded first tee. Mom would change in her locker room and Dad in his; then Dad would stop in the pro shop. Irv the caddy master would give him a special greeting (Irv had a withered left arm, and when Chuck or I were there alone, he would tell us how grateful he was to Dad for getting him his job, presumably when Dad served on the club’s board of trustees). Mom would get the scorecard and little pencils. Dad would ask for his favorite caddy, who could carry double. Irv would pull down their bags from a storage rack in back, and the caddy would bring them around to the tee, where Chuck’s and my bags were lined up. We’d all take practice swings with our drivers as groups ahead of us teed off. Then Paul, the florid-faced Irish starter, would call out: “Henrys!”
In front of Paul, the caddies, and the players waiting to go after us, each of us stepped up in turn. Dad thwaped the ground with his practice swing, wiped his right hand on his leg, got set, then scoop-swing with a grunt and fell away, sending his drive in the fairway some 200 yards. Mom, next, ten yards forward on the ladies’ tee: her back swing twisting high, then swiveled and down, topping the ball, so it bounced short of the fairway to the left, at which point she shook her head and waved off Dad’s offer of a mulligan. Chuck teed up (and behind us, Paul whispered: “Watch this guy, he’s really good!”), took practice swings that clipped the ground with a swish, then squared off at the ball, waggled, then all in one smooth motion hit and followed-through, as his ball carried high down the middle and over the crest. I went last (Paul’s whisper: “Kid hits long, but he’s wild”), worked my feet into the ground, inhaled, exhaled, checked the fairway, eyes down, concentrated on the ball, started the club head slowly back, pivoted, then swung down hard, hit and followed through, clean, the club and shaft up and behind my neck, and only then looked up to see my drive straight and low, the equal of Chuck’s, or, more likely, a big slice into trees to the right, nearly out of bounds.
Chuck and I shouldered our bags. The caddy stopped at Mom’s ball with Mom, and after she hit a wood into the fairway, and then another, headed for Dad’s. If I was in the trees, I hit out fat and ended up way short of the green, or maybe in a sand trap. Dad’s four iron landed short of the green. Chuck’s drive was perhaps 80 yards from the hole—a high nine iron with back spin that rolled back, leaving a twenty foot putt, which he missed by five feet, but still made par.
Our games rehearsed our lives. Dad played smugly confident in mediocrity. Mom played lamenting the game she used to have. Chuck played well. And I played frustrated and anxious about the game I knew I should have, and did, I thought, on any occasion but this, when I had to prove myself in the eyes of my family.