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Pilgrimage to the Panhandle

The little pond had a familiar look and smell. The water was stained black with tannin from palmetto roots and other vegetation, and the soft earth under my feet smelled faintly of sulfur. The sawgrass cut my bare lower arms just like it had a long time ago.

Back then, I had come here to fish and blundered onto a water moccasin, lying in fat coils. The snake didn't back down and showed me the inside of its alarmingly white mouth, so I did what boys my age did back then. I blew him away with my .22.

This time I was searching forlornly for a Pinnacle 2 that had sailed into the sawgrass after a catastrophic slice. If I ran across a cottonmouth this time, I thought, I would have to de-fend myself with a three-iron, and I was a lot better with a .22. I didn't see any snakes. Didn't find my Pinnacle 2 either. I did pick up a Titleist and a Maxfli, both stained faintly yellow from lying in the mud. Back on the fairway, I dropped the brighter ball, took a penalty stroke and played on.

It's great to be home, I thought. But my, how the old stomping grounds had changed.

There has always been some golf along that little strip of the Gulf Coast between Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. The area feels like good golf country, with tall pine, spreading live oak,

Spanish moss and, in season, azaleas, wisteria, redbud and dogwood. In late March, the local courses have the mood of the Masters, held north in Augusta, where the flowers peak a week or two later.

During the late fifties, in fact, Pensacola was host to a PGA tournament, a tune-up for the Masters. Palmer used to come to town and beat the Pensacola Country Club course into submission and thrill the small but knowledgeable gallery with his intensity and boldness.

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