SIXTH IN A SERIES
We were standing on the 3rd tee looking across a small stretch of
fairway when the sound of the whistle rose in the hot air like a
one-note anthem to things past. Nothing is more plaintive than the
distant whistle of a train, a cry that always draws milk from
memory, and nothing is lonelier than hearing it when you are once
again standing on a strange tee box in a strange place--a kind of
homeless vagabond living on scraps of time, picking for clean
clothes through the dumpster that is your car, moving in a state
of hazy, perpetual drift.
"That's the Norfolk and Southern Railroad," said Jim Harrison.
"No passengers anymore. Only freight. No Amtrak....So where are you
I answered by rote: "Washington, D.C." I had been gone so
long--almost six weeks on the second leg of this 12-week golf
journey--that I was beginning to wonder where I was from. (As was
Carolyne, my increasingly unhappy fiancee back home. "I have a
whole new meaning for golf widow," she's been telling friends.) Far
easier to trace was the irregular geometry of my life on the road,
the journey of the bee between the blooms. The most memorable of
these diversions, as when I was looking for a course to play in
Alabama and found Fort Benning and its memories in Georgia, were
touched by the magic of serendipity. That was how I happened to
meet good Jim.
June 14, 2004
Late in the day on May 25, as I was rushing north on Route 59 from
Gadsden, Ala., to Crossville, Tenn., from the endless glories of
the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail to the superb, Nicklaus-designed
Bear Trace course at Cumberland Mountain, I saw a sign indicating
that Route 27 bore off to the right toward ... Dayton! My blood
jumped. Why, almost 80 years ago, in July 1925, little Dayton,
Tenn., was the scene of the wildest media circus of its time. More
than 200 reporters--among them the acerbic H.L. Mencken, then
America's most celebrated journalist and critic--descended on
Dayton to watch the greatest defense lawyer of the day, the
agnostic Clarence Darrow, do battle with the evangelical William
Jennings Bryan, thrice the Democratic candidate for president, in
what had become known as the Monkey Trial, Tennessee's prosecution
of Dayton school teacher John T. Scopes for the crime of teaching
Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
The trial reached its most raucous point when, under Darrow's
prodding, Bryan declared that man was not a mammal, at which point
Mencken, who was standing on a table in the courtroom, toppled from
it to the floor--to roars of laughter. I had spent time in Dayton
in November 1970, researching a Newsday article on Mencken titled
"Travels with Henry," so the car sort of steered itself north
through Soddy Daisy, over Big Opossum Creek and into Dayton.
"Is there a golf course in this town?" I asked the guy sitting next
to me at dinner.
"`Bout three miles up the road," he said. "Nice little course, but
I'd head up to Cumberland if I were you. The best of the five Bear
What?! Abandon the pleasant ghosts of Bryan, Darrow and Mencken for
another day of flailing in the sun on one of Nicklaus's monsters?
No, thank you. Jack could wait.
The next morning I was emerging from my car at Dayton Golf and
Country Club just as Harrison, a 78-year-old former U.S. Marine and
a retired coach and math teacher at Soddy Daisy High, climbed from
his. I introduced myself, and as we chatted, I told him I had been
there years ago and wanted to see again where they had tried and
convicted the infidel Scopes. Soon I also told him why I wanted to
play golf in these latitudes. "What better place to celebrate the
evolution of my game than in Dayton, Tennessee?" I said. Harrison
smiled faintly and nodded.
I was being only half-facetious. At the risk of angering the
goddesses of golf, I must tell you that I have found a putting grip
that short-circuits the deadly, involuntary muscle twitch known as
the yips, the gruesome condition that had been plaguing me for
weeks. I know I look like some manic plumber trying to run a snake
down a drain, but it is far too late in life--particularly since I
have arthritis and can never find my glasses when I need them--to
sweat the aesthetics of a putting stroke. Bent forward almost 90
degrees at the waist, with my left hand clutched high on the grip,
my left elbow pointed toward the target, the right hand gently
holding the steel shaft more than halfway down, I had found the
grail that cannot fail.
However unorthodox, this contortion has enabled me to yiplessly
swing through the ball and has given me cause for hope. I found the
cure just in time, right as this odyssey was winding down, smack in
the middle of playing some of the neatest, hardest, prettiest
courses encountered since Winging It began in February. On May 21,
after slipping east from the Redneck Riviera, I wandered around the
Florida Panhandle until I discovered a Greg Norman-designed private
course called Shark's Tooth Golf Club at Wild Heron, in Lake
Powell. Shark's Tooth turned out to be a spectacular spread that
plays along scenic lakes and over gnarly roughs. The course had the
best-tended fairways that I chewed on during the entire journey and
is hairy but fair from 1st tee to last green.
Only my putter, Herman, so named because it rhymed, in the little
ditties I composed for it, with vermin, kept me from blessed
nirvana. Then--voila!--I found the cure. I fussed and fiddled with
it as I meandered north into Alabama and up the incomparable Jones
Trail, through Highland Oaks in Dothan, with its magnificent 3rd
hole, a dogleg-left par-4 over water, and that staggering 701-yard
6th on another nine called Marshwood; through Cambrian Ridge at
Greenville, with its lakeside panoramas and deep, sprawling bunkers
and elevated, undulating greens so typical of Jones's creations;
and on through the 54-hole Capitol Hill complex at Prattville,
where the 1st hole on a course called the Judge is unequivocally
the single most spectacular hole I've seen in 12 weeks of touring.
It's a 415-yard par-4 whose tee sits atop a bluff overlooking a
fairway embraced far below by the Alabama River on the right and
unplayable rough on the left, the whole crowned by the Montgomery
skyline on the horizon.
By the time I got to the 36 holes at Silver Lakes near
Gadsden--where three of the nine-hole courses are named
Mindbreaker, Backbreaker and Heartbreaker--the yips had vanished.
After shooting a 40 on Heartbreaker, the best nine-hole score of my
life, I roared north in a state approaching euphoria, and 12 hours
later was bucking in a cart at Dayton with Harrison, listening to
the trains while celebrating the evolution of my game. Harrison had
been born a few miles outside Dayton and had spent most of his life
in what Mencken had called, in the title of one vividly drawn
essay, "The Hills of Zion." "My dad went to the Scopes trial every
day," Harrison said. So I had to ask.
"Where do you stand on the evolution issue?"
"I have to take Bryan's side," he said quietly. "I think God made
man as he is. I don't think he was a monkey who came down from the
trees. I believe in the Bible."
"Adam and Eve?"
"Yes, but it's a big puzzle. I simply accept the Bible."
We plunked our tee shots to the right of the 3rd green and were
riding after them when he mentioned the latest national firestorm
that little Dayton had created. On March 16, during a meeting of
the Rhea County Commission in the same courthouse where the Scopes
trial had been held, commissioner J.C. Fugate proposed banning gays
from living in the county. "If they're caught in Rhea County living
together as such, [they will] tried for crimes against nature,"
Fugate said. The motion passed. "Talk about it hittin' the fan,"
Harrison said, shaking his head. "But they voted on it. That was
terrible." Two days later the vote was rescinded, but by then
Dayton, the county seat, had once again become the butt of jokes.
We played on. "What do you believe?" Harrison asked, referring back
to the question I had put to him.
"I'm afraid I'm on the other side from you," I said. "The fossil
record is strong that human beings were walking...." He looked
surprised. I did not finish. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled
out a small aluminum cross. "Take this," he said. "I give 'em
We didn't keep score, but I figure he had me by a couple of strokes
at the end. Then I was off again, this time to play that Bear Trace
course--the last round on the journey--the next day. It was as
ornery and splendid as everyone had said and, at 2,000 feet above
sea level, decidedly cooler than any of the courses to the south.
At round's end I was picking through a pocketful of coins, tees and
ball markers when I came upon the crucifix.
I had not yipped a putt all day. I was never much for icons, but
only fools don't hedge their bets, and I was taking no chances now.
Looking around, I slipped the cross inside my wallet. Two hours
later, with the road vanishing behind me, I was heading north on a
tortuous two-laner through Kentucky, toward home.