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Character Study

Rainy Day Wisdom

The golfing legacy of Uncle Bill

By Robert Kowalski

The coffee can full of golf tees was my Uncle Bill’s. He’s gone almost 20 years now, but I found it where he had left it, way in the back of the garage, stuffed behind a half-used can of WD-40.

Uncle Bill had no vices. He didn’t drink, gamble or swear. He delivered the mail for a living. His stride was quick, his hands weather-beaten. A member of the Greatest Generation, he knew who he was and who he wasn’t.

Uncle Bill was a public links player. He never got invited to corporate outings, never played at a country club or took a lesson. Breaking 90 was rare. He didn’t keep a handicap. Didn’t wear a glove when he played. No shorts. No logos. He played in the age of blades, balata balls and spike marks.

His power wasn’t in the rhythm of his swing but in the way he played golf: with precision and economy and joy. Uncle Bill’s advice was timeless and simple: “Keep your head down and don’t swing too hard. Don’t try to kill it!” When my drive ended up in the pond, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Golf is like life. It’s all about avoiding waste.”

Uncle Bill grew up poor during the Depression. He lost friends in Europe during World War II. He became a widower at 40 when a drunk driver took the life of a young man’s wife. He would never remarry.

Every part of his life found its place in his golf. The jalopy he drove mirrored the rickety old pullcart he used. The maintenance he put off on his house reflected the sad state of his golf shoes. The sacrifices he made as a single parent echoed his resistance to buying a new set of golf clubs, clubs that were only marginally better than the ones he gave me. Once, when I noticed his grips were worn down to the steel shafts, I suggested a new set might make a nice birthday gift. He shook his head and said, “Don’t waste your money. I know exactly where to put my hands now.”

Uncle Bill said his most cherished club was his ball retriever. He protected his better balls — the ones he called gems — by employing his rock strategy. Rocks were the scuffed, cut and beaten balls he kept in a separate pocket to use on holes where danger lurked. His gems were too precious to risk if there was a water hazard in play. “Funny,” Uncle Bill would say, after hitting a good shot with a rock, “somehow not caring whether you lose the ball always leads to a better swing.”

In the parking lot after a round Uncle Bill took the golf balls he found that day out of his bag. A good round was finishing with more than when you started. Then, he’d empty his pants pockets, filled with the tees he’d collected. Looking at those balls and tees lying in the trunk, he’d smile with great satisfaction and say, “Not a bad haul today.”

Only after a full accounting did the scorecard come out of his back pocket. He’d tally up the strokes he wasted before he totaled the score. The 3-putt on the 5th annoyed him. The time he failed to get up and down from the fringe on the 9th was tough to take. The face he made when he thought about leaving it in the greenside bunker on No. 12 said it all. The cruelest cut was the lost gem he hit out of bounds on 16 and never found. But even after all his agonizing over wasted shots, Uncle Bill found balance on his card — for every hole that should have been better, he found one that could have been worse.

I asked him once why he kept collecting tees in coffee cans when he already had so many. “For a rainy day, my boy. For a rainy day.” What Uncle Bill left behind was far more than 1,000 wooden tees.  PS

Robert Kowalski is a transplanted Midwesterner who is glad to be living in the Sandhills of North Carolina.