It was too hot for him to be out and he looked shriveled before the day had even begun, but he wanted to play a round before the real heat set in, so I loaded his clubs onto the back of the cart and steered us toward the first hole. The sprinklers were stuttering back and forth over the greens, throwing little rainbows, and the horizon lay hazed with the impossible heat that would come later in the day, but it wasn’t so hot just yet, at 7 in the morning. “The real hot hasn’t gotten here yet,” he said, as if to remind himself or me, so we got out of the cart and took a few practice swings while far down the fairway the mowers were working in the early morning.
He drove his first shot into the ground and it dribbled barely off the tee box. Sometimes he had a temper about such things but he only looked up sheepishly. I said Mulligan because I knew he wanted a mulligan and it had already begun to set in on me—like the heat, like the haze at the horizon—that I wouldn’t get many more chances to do things for him, to give him another shot. And I’m sure, because I drank a lot back then and still do sometimes when sadness settles in on me, that my head was hungover and I didn’t really want to be there, not at that hour and not in that heat, but sometimes you play a round of golf with your 77 year old grandfather not because you really want to, but because he does.
His second shot was a little better, though it didn’t go far, because he had suffered several strokes, was on blood thinner and other kinds of medication. I have never been a large man and I wasn’t much more than a boy then, but I crushed a drive about three hundred and it rolled down the fairway baked by the heat that had already settled in so far that summer. He said “That was a good one, Son,” and put his hand on my shoulder standing there on the tee box.
It took him another shot and half of a third to reach my drive. His arms were like sticks and his skin strafed by liver spots where he stood over the ball. A headband kept his glasses from sliding off his head; it made his hair stick up wildly in the wind. He was stooped over and he couldn’t hit the ball far, but it always seemed to go straight, which is more than you can say for a lot of people. When we got to the green he stared at the sun as if it should quit and when we got back in the cart he was glad for the shade.
His next drive barely made it to the women’s tee. He made that old joke about Alice, and did he really have to pull his bloomers down, and we grinned at each other and got back in the cart. I think this was the day he told me about playing golf in Europe during World War II, and maybe another time in Korea, although I don’t know for sure, don’t even know if there were golf courses in Korea in 1951, and of course I can’t ask him now. He no longer played much because of the strokes, and the heat, and because, by then, he didn’t have anyone to play with except me, when I wasn’t too busy being hungover in the early mornings before the real heat came.
He made a 7 on the first hole and a snowman on the second. He got in the cart shaking his head, but I could tell he was also enjoying the sound of the sprinklers and the way the cut grass smells in early summer, and by the time we made it to the shade he was smiling a little.
“Did I ever tell you about the hole-in-one I made?” he said. “I put the first shot in the drink. The flag was tucked behind the water and I put the first shot in the drink, but it’s easier to just take your next shot from the tee box instead of the drop zone. The drop zone is behind the water and you can’t hardly get the ball to stop, you either hit it short in the water or it rolls off the green. Then you have that hill to contend with on the way back and you definitely cannot get the ball to stop from back there and back you go into the water. So I just teed up again and wouldn’t you know it, I hit a hole-in-one, only it wasn’t a hole-in-one because I put the first shot in the drink.”
We hit our second shots and drove to the green and then went to 4, a short par 3. I remember thinking how great it would be for him to get a hole-in-one, and I said something to that effect. He shook his head and said “I don’t think it works like that. I don’t think you can just make something happen like that. If you could just wish for it then everyone would get a hole-in-one every time.” He said this standing stooped over his ball and I watched and waited and hoped, on what would turn out to be his last round of golf, but his shot barely crossed the creek.
“No one saw it,” he said. I thought he was asking for another mulligan, but he wasn’t. “That hole-in-one. No one saw it. I was alone. Wasn’t even anyone I could buy a coke for.”
I had to help him down off the tee box and into the cart, and then he got too hot standing on the green in the absolutely merciless sun. I helped him back to the cart and as I drove on the cart path in the heat he said “Slow down just a little, Son.” He was having trouble sitting in the cart because the world was spinning around him, so I pulled into the shade, not far from where he’d once made a hole-in-one that didn’t count and no one saw. He was white by then, leeched of all color, and I think now he might have been having one of the mini-strokes that hit so often in the last few years of his life, but he said, “Let’s just sit here a minute.”
I told him I could drive him home but he shook his head, and even though I knew something was wrong with him, I also knew he was stubborn. We used to make jokes about how stubborn he was, that he would argue with a fencepost, that he’d cut off his nose to spite his face, but what I think now is that he was afraid of dying, and by not acknowledging there was anything wrong with him, he might somehow make it so.
It may have also been that he saw in me the hurt I felt from the night before, the way my face was swollen in the sun, how my sweat stunk of schnapps. We sat in the shade until his color came back and he could breathe again, until my head didn’t hurt so hard. A few months later he would have another little stroke that made this his last round, and a few years after that one would come in the night that he couldn’t just wait out until it got better. When my brother called the next morning to tell me he was gone I’d sit by the window and try to remember the last time I saw him, and that night I’d drink too much at my computer when it came to me that I could not recall.
The heat had really settled in now, the sky the no-color of white summer, the young kids just beginning to show up, laughing and slinging their heavy bags over their shoulders. They would play 36 holes at least, carrying their clubs on their backs, the heat not hitting them at all, the sprinklers occasionally switching on and throwing rainbows. His thin skin was bruised like parchment, like something you could write on, and the sun stabbed down like a sword, but my hangover had finally stopped hurting and the color really was coming back to him, I swear to you that it was. He had taken his glasses off and his white hair was stuck to his head, but all the color had come back.
“It really was a good shot,” he said. “It hit once and went in on the first bounce. Right in the cup. I wish you could have seen it. I’ll buy you a Coke the next time we play.”