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Passing the Torch

That afternoon my nephew got a playing lesson at the fabled Whitinsville Golf Club, one of America’s finest nine-hole golf courses, from Tom Shea, the former Kittansett Club head pro and a sort of PGA philosopher king. With the playing lesson as background, Shea conducted an especially thorough club-fitting session with Patch, using the Henry-Griffitts system. At about the twenty-minute mark, shots started bombing off the face of a driver Tom had put together for the kid. “We found him twenty-five extra yards,” I told my sister that night. She wondered how much a new driver might cost. “We just bought him new clubs last year.”

The following day I pointed out Ouimet’s old neighborhood to Patch as we made our way to The Country Club for breakfast with the head pro and the general manager and a tour of the clubhouse and locker room. Afterward we headed to Black Rock Golf Club in Hingham, hit some balls, then had lunch with Brian Silva, the award-winning architect who designed the course. Patch heard all about the odd path of a golf design job, from overture to grand opening. Then the three of us played eighteen with an endearing young female caddie guiding us along.

On the back nine, Silva pointed out a rough edge of fairway with some bunkering that he wasn’t sure looked right, and he asked how I thought it could be improved. Silva was probably sincere, but he had to know that my young relative’s opinion of me would only be burnished by this request for my advice from a Real Golf Architect.

The next morning we played Gil Hanse’s eye-popping Boston Golf Club with the head pro, J. J. Weaver. Patch was off his form, struggling to make contact as we warmed up on the range. Wet divots the size of the Sunday newspaper rose from the turf and landed just short of his ball. The boy was fatigued, but I got the feeling he would pull it together, and somehow he did.

On sixteen Patch was on a hillside above the fairway bunkers. Weaver coached him on the shot, and the tip worked. Patch landed his ball in a smart place on the green, getting it to move toward the hole. The pro congratulated him, as did I. Patch tried the swing again several times to remember it. “Having a good time up there?” I asked him as he descended. He continued walking to the green, saying, to no one in particular, “I even like the smell of this place.”

Our caddie strode up the slope, reached toward a low bush and broke off a section of leaf for the kid to smell up close. “Sweet fern,” the caddie said.

Three months later tryouts were held for the high school golf team. At about eight o’clock on the night after the first round, my phone rang. It was Patch. “Uncle Dave, I did okay today,” he said. “Shot eighty-three, and there are only nine guys ahead of me.” He came back the next day with eighty-two and jumped up four places. When he officially got his spot on the team, I took no credit but indulged in some avuncular pride.

I didn’t tell Patch, but one night during our trip, while he zoned out watching the Red Sox, I put my notepad in my back pocket and hiked through some woods toward Needham Golf Club, passing along the way the house Joan and I grew up in. The old path through the pines leads to a set of creosote-stained railroad tracks that separate the seventh hole from the eighth. It had been thirty-some years since I’d walked them, and I was looking for some sensory memories.

They came to me, in quantity. The slip-slide of pine needles underfoot when you leave the rail bed and descend toward the first tee. The fleeting, blurred flight of bats overhead in the dusk. The little sluice gate at the edge of one of the ponds—that night it was boarded up high, water landing below it in muted claps.

Little things you remember get wrapped up in the big things you care most about. I tried to help my nephew latch onto something big, something that mattered, knowing memory would be there in fine detail with its reassurances. Like how you play that pitch shot the pro showed you, and afterward the smell of the sweet fern.

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