Outside of Kansas, the other state of my life seems to be all about Iowa. With a new KU men’s golf coach and no home matches this year, chasing after the little white golf ball called me back to Iowa again, this time to Burlington for the Golfweek Conference Challenge.
As soon as I saw all of the 12 and 16-passenger vans in the parking lot Monday morning, I knew I was in the right place. Most in simple white, but many were decked out in school colors. The giant Mercedes van tricked out in Iowa Hawkeye black and gold topped them all as it flaunted its great length – its booty sticking out illegally anywhere but at a golf course. Boosters donated one of these monsters to the KU women’s golf team. Seating is beyond plush. For the rest? If they thought about it, many an athlete surely could trace the back pain they will suffer later in life to the long trips in the school bus or van upright seats most universities call comfortable.
Of course, what right do I have to criticize a big van? I made my scenic journey through up-state Missouri and into Iowa swerving along the twisting and rolling roads in a KU mini-van. I occupied myself on the long Sunday drive trying to count all the storage containers and cup holders. Time flew as my final count reached 31, though I am sure many remained undiscovered. I did like the little fisheye mirror near the rear view mirror that allowed me keep an eye on every seat in the van even though I was sadly traveling without Laura.
Certainly I was anxious to arrive at the hotel of golfing choice, the Pzazz Resort. Trying to get into the spirit, I thought the “resort” surely would be sassy and snazzy. Sadly, all that jazz faded fast when I opened my door to find an old Holiday Inn-like room classed up just a bit with updated organic cotton bed covers and a flat screen television. When you turn on every light, and the room still remains dark, there is a reason. It is not called “mood lighting.”
Now, I know many who would think this a heaven-sent trip since the Pzazz connected via a series of covered walkways, as twisting as the Mississippi River that borders Burlington, to the Catfish Bend Casino. Since I know only the most basic skills needed to play anything more than shoveling coins into slot machines, there was no appeal to visit anything named after a catfish.
As a youngster, word would spread through the neighborhood that someone had caught a giant channel cat and it was on display in one of the holding tanks at Munk’s Bait Shop about a mile from our home. With my friends, I would race to stare in shock at this monster fish, often bigger than me. While the size was amazing, the flat-out ugliness of that fish flat-out disgusted me. Those long whiskers were simply gross.
Many years after Topeka’s Lake Shawnee covered the 37th Street bridge, the county hired divers to check on the state of the bridge now deep underwater. The newspaper story noted that after diving down to the bridge, with the muddy water limiting visibility, the divers surfaced to declare they would not be going down again. They had come face-to-face with catfish grown monstrous resting under the bridge eating anything that floated past. Just the thought of that was my Jaws moment long before the great white terror came to the movie screen.
Walking past the variety of buffets that are a staple of any casino on my way to the hotel gym, the smell of fried catfish brought back bad memories of those ugly whiskers flickering before my young eyes. Fish might be a big part of my diet now, but never catfish.
Returning to my room, I passed KU senior golfer Chris Gilbert stuffing money into what looked like a slot machine just off the lobby. I thought it might be one of the machines you find in Las Vegas’ airport for those who cannot wait to start losing money upon arrival or hoping to strike a last-minute bonanza before boarding their flight home. Turns out it was a ticket dispenser for the go karts in the hotel’s Fun Zone.
Joking with him about the casino, Gilbert said, “This is money better spent and lots more fun.”
“Gamble only what you can afford to lose,” I replied. “In my case, that always means nothing.”
My Sunday night arrival left me in the dark regarding my surroundings, but as I left the hotel in the morning light, there across the street sat the minor league ballpark of the Burlington Bees. That would mean nothing to me were it not for the “six degrees of separation” between me, the Burlington, Vermont, Lake Monsters, the Bees and T.J. Walz. In the summer of 2011, while vacationing in New England, we tried to watch Walz, a former KU pitcher, play minor league baseball in Burlington, Vermont.
That is until Walz called to tell us he had just been promoted to another Burlington team, the one in Iowa, and would not be able to see us. Driving by the ballpark Monday, I stopped to send a text to our KU baseball communications contact, Mike Cummings, to find out that Walz’s time in Iowa was short too. He spent most of this past season playing high “A” ball in California. Good for him, but truly strange how these events all seem to mesh together.
Time to finally photograph some golf. Save for a few flat and open holes, the Spirit Hollow Golf Course carved through a heavy forest of stunning trees with nary a flat lie anywhere. Tight fairways, with tricky landing areas, favored shot makers, not long bombers. Straying from the fairways meant not just a bogey, but likely a lost ball. As trying as it might be for the golfers, the course, considered the best public layout in Iowa, was a visual delight.
A golf cart was a must to cover the five KU golfers that teed off on the 10th hole Monday morning. As I rolled down the steep hill that led from the elevated tee box of the par 5 hole, I noticed my cart was lacking zip. By the 11th hole, trying to climb the first of the endless steep hills, all juice drained from the little engine that could not. Rolling helplessly back down the hill, a former Florida Gulf Coast golfer kindly whisked me back to the clubhouse for another cart before rejoining his friends.
Touring around the course, with my heavy long lens cradled in my lap, the monopod stuck out boldly in front. A modern carbon fiber jousting pole ready to lance any challengers to my duties. Not that there would be many to challenge. There really are no galleries. A photographer stands out, but there is more than enough room to use my longest lens and disturb no one.
The threat of thunderstorms remained just a threat with the rain holding off until final scores were posted. That is critical. As a midwest school far from the golfing hot beds of California and Florida, pictures of golfers bundled against cold or storms is not how KU wants their golf portrayed when recruiting. Fortunately, shorts and short-sleeved shirts remained the uniform of the day.
KU played Monday alongside San Jose State and Florida Gulf Coast, two schools that would seem to never need to leave their home states to play any golf, but here they were in Iowa along with other east and west coast teams. “If you build it, they will…” No, no. I will not go there, at least in this story.
Chris Gilbert’s father, Jeff, was the lone KU parent out on the course. He flew from the family home in Simi, California. Late in the Monday round we talked about recruiting and weather. He recalled his recruiting trip to the University of Oregon where he eventually played.
“It rained the entire time I was there,” he recalled. “Everyone assured me it was often sunny and quite nice. I came and it rained for nine months.”
“Cold rain,” he added, “and we had to play in it no matter what.”
I shared some of my rainy track & field stories from Eugene which prompted Gilbert to tell me of living just a block away from Hayward Field and seeing Steve Prefontaine run what proved to be his last race in Eugene. Gilbert awoke the next morning to the newspaper detailing the famed runner’s tragic death in a freak auto accident. Racing to the site of the accident, he recalled there were many grieving fans already there. I told him how so many come to the site to honor a real favorite of mine even today.
It truly had been a very good day, and there still was one more round to be played.
Tuesday dawned clear but quite cold by late summer standards. The pictures of the day would be missing that balmy look. It was easy to sense there was a quicker pace to the round leaving me with only the five-hour trip back to Lawrence and Topeka.
On my drive to Iowa on Sunday, I chose the scenic route, but for the return home, I followed the Mississippi south along Highway 61 on my own Huck Finn journey nearly to Hannibal before traveling west on Highway 34 across Missouri. The smooth four lanes and light truck traffic happily will become an alternative to the brutal stretch of I-70 from Kansas City to St. Louis should our travels take us east.
Now I have the women’s golf team to photograph in a home tournament next week and then my golf season ends almost before the two teams really start. I always envy the places the two teams play and the beauty they see while playing. There is much more on the line for the golfers than for me, but I hope they find the same joy and peace I do whenever I chase after that little white ball with my cameras.