Long before I ever played golf, I loved covering golf. It would take a truly hardened heart to not feel something stirring within after a walk on a golf course on a beautiful day. I have been covering KU golf on Monday and Tuesday of the last two weeks. Both the men and women’s teams hosted Invitationals at Alvamar’s public course with perfect weather conditions. Every minute out there was a joy.
It’s been a pleasure to cover major golf tournaments on both the PGA and LPGA tours. College golf has long been a source of good photographs. I photographed this year’s United States Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin in the early 80’s when he was playing for UCLA in a tournament in the Phoenix area. He badly missed a bunker shot and fell into the bunker. Laying there in anger, he made a very nice photograph for me. Years later, I covered Pavin in a PGA Championship when he was at the top of his game.
I got to photograph Paul Azinger’s return to golf after his battle with cancer as well as Arnold Palmer’s final PGA Championship. I thought a lot about my father as Palmer walked off the first tee of his final round to cheers and roars from the adoring fans. My father loved to watch golf on television though he never really played. He did buy us our first color television because he wanted to see the color of the Azaleas in bloom at Augusta during the Masters. Oh, that and the Ponderosa on Bonanza.
My father quickly adopted Jack Nicklaus as his favorite back when Nicklaus was still a chubby wunderkind. I chose the hard-charging Palmer as mine. We both shared in the joy of following those two legends around Topeka Country Club during their long ago exhibition in the city.
There was always something very special about the Masters then and now. The tournament is played close to or on my birthday every year. The great event signals spring to me. It often coincided with the Easter, a glorious event in our house and church. After the packed Easter service my father loved to sit and relax after all the Holy Week services and watch the Masters in all its beauty and glory.
Despite all this fascination, playing golf never took a strong hold on me until later in my life. There were a few youth lessons and some stolen rounds with friends on the sand-green nine-hole course at Washburn University where now the Law School, public television station, married student housing, many athletic fields and expanses of parking lots have wiped away the pots of oily sand once called greens. We loved to play the little Pitch and Putt course out at 29th and Wanamaker back in the day when that meant really traveling out into the country and not to what has sadly become the centerpiece of Topeka life.
Still the game didn’t matter that much until I started competing in the Topeka Tinman Triathlon at Lake Shawnee in the 80’s. During the seven years I did the event, all but the first year finished on the Lake’s east side near the old bath house. The seven-mile run’s final critical section was always the climb up East Lake Road right alongside the golf course. My luck there was always good because I just kept staring at the golfers inside the fence instead of focusing on the sticky pavement and the final miles.
Every year I kept asking myself, “Why am I out here doing this and not inside playing golf instead?” Thanks to a bum shoulder, a new job title and my youngest daughter’s arrival in 1990, the time finally came to answer that question.
A friend, on a trip back to Phoenix, took me to a golf course where years before I photographed a very promising young golfer trying to qualify for the PGA tour. He hit his opening tee shot of the final round into the branches of a hanging tree and then into a small lake not more than 50 yards off the tee box. Needless to say, the round didn’t get off to a good start for the young man who failed to earn his Tour card.
My first real round of golf at the same course actually went quite well. Seems I had a natural swing. I missed that overhanging tree and found myself soon hooked. Leaving out all the details, I played and played, practiced and practiced. I once played the game quite well and played everywhere I could. My work years in Phoenix, when I never played, were made up for during trips back to the Valley to play many of the wondrous golf courses with lush fairways dotting the brown desert landscape.
I dragged my clubs on a football trip to Hawaii where I played with three Japanese golfers that could speak not a word of English. They were awful and hit balls all over the course but never bothered to search for one. At the turn, they all stopped to buy two-dozen more Titleists each. It got so bad I started picking up their balls myself and filled my bag with their discards.
The 90’s were a turbulent time for me both professionally and personally. On a golf course I found a refuge. Some call golf “a good walk spoiled.” It never was for me. It gave me an opportunity to think, to clear my head. Loyal friends always seemed to be there to join me as needed. Playing once outside Junction City at the very nice Rolling Meadows course a group of us finished off 36 holes. I was so lost in the peace of the moment that when they asked if I was game for another nine holes, I offered up that I needed to get home since my wife would have dinner ready. They all looked at me in wonder seeing as how I was about to finalize my divorce. Whoops. Bad trip. We played another nine.
As wonderful as the new courses can be, the older courses that don’t get lots of play were just as fun. Besides Rolling Meadow, Custer Hill on the Fort Riley Army base was perfect for an annual all-day outing with friends Mike Van Dyke and John Johnson. Johnson picked up his clubs once a year to play 36 holes and still dazzled us. Johnson was such a wonderful athlete at Seaman High School and Washburn University, it never surprised us.
Van Dyke has the quickest wrists I’ve ever seen. He could hit the ball a mile. He just wasn’t always sure of that mile’s direction. We once stood on the 18th tee box at Rolling Meadows talking about how it would be impossible to hit a ball over giant fence meant to keep balls in play and out of the highway and businesses on the other side. Proving anything is possible, Van Dyke blasted a slicing drive over that fence with enough force that it smashed into the wall of a small bar and grill across the road. People came running out of the bar wondering how that was possible as our group rolled on the ground in laughter.
During my interlude between the Topeka paper and work at KU, I played a lot. I played more rounds of golf with Galen Holston than with anyone else during that time. We both liked to walk and play very quickly. Detailing the myriad of topics we discussed in between shots would be impossible. When I see him now, Galen always mentions he liked me a lot more “when you were out of work and could play golf any time you wanted.” I know he’s joking, but those good times had to end, and I had to begin to pay the bills.
I love the etiquette of the game. It is a game that I’m never sure needed to be brought to the masses. I liked the idea of proper dress and conduct. A collared shirt and proper shorts is a whole lot better than cutoffs and a tank top you see on public courses today. I also loved the sound of a well-hit shot – actually the lack of sound. It never happens for any golfer often enough, but when you hit one “pure,” it is an awesome feeling.
While I rarely play anymore, I still am in love with a golf course. Though covering big time golf was fun, I really enjoy events like those from the past two weeks. Standing alone on the dew-covered grass as a young golfer tees off early in the morning is as calming as it gets. The only crowds are a few parents and coaches.
Alvamar is an old walking course that for years before the golf course construction boom was considered one of the very best in the country. Greens and tees are grouped together which makes coverage very easy on foot and allows me to make pictures at a wide variety of locations. It is so quiet that every shot resonates with a sharp click. I can back off far enough with a 600mm lens that my camera’s click causes no disruption.
Now the KU golfers have completed their home schedule. The rest of their rounds will be played all over the country on some of the finest courses. Talk about a good college life. How I’d love to be walking along with them and taking in the wonders and the peace life’s fairways bring.