© Graeme Crawford
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(A complete short story.)
I'm losing, as required. One hole down – only two to play. I've just overheard an on-course commentator whispering into his mike that I've been playing well but not had much luck.
So far, so good. Sympathy for veteran favourite Jimmy Kerr, pushing forty. Hopefully, TV pundits are analysing my drives and second shots as fine – pitches and putts only a fraction short. Hard to judge the delicate shots, but if I can keep missing the crucial ones – just – I'll lose, yet stay credible.
You see, I've been told that if I win this final, I’ll no longer be able to keep my eye on the ball when pivoting to the top of my backswing, due to a steel needle having pierced my left eyeball. Actually, I’d never be able to play golf again.
So I’m glad Beatson’s holding his nerve – essential in one-to-one match play like this over two rounds. Gregg Beatson Jr – okay, nearly twenty years younger than me – he’s on form and he’s got this army of US kids. Their inane ‘Beat-Beat-Beatson!’ chant's doing my head in.
My son and qualified caddy, Alan, stares at me. He probably thinks I’m worried about losing. Thank God he agreed to stand in today for Tommy, my usual bag-carrier, who’s called off sick. I suspect Tommy’s somehow smelled a gambling rat.
Right, we’re on the tee. A long par five and young Beatson’s honour. That nostalgic view, down the slope to the green under the high crags.
I remember climbing these crags to get kestrel eggs; vandalism of course, but a less correct era then, and I'd only be sixteen, maybe? About a couple of years less than Alan is now. The fall would have killed me but for that grassy ledge quarter-way down. Yet here I am once more – only yards away, older but no wiser, gambling with my life all over again.
There goes Beatson’s drive, another good one.
Just concentrate . . . get into the zone.
My reply is okay, but doesn’t really deserve Alan’s, ‘Shot!’
Still – happy to hear anything at all from him. Five years of missed birthdays and Christmases, my contrite calls back to grey Edinburgh from distant hotels, bars, casinos, sun-baked golf courses – it’s amazing he’s even talking to me, never mind caddying. Avoids calling me Dad, though.
We set off, sun warming our backs, down through a hundred shades of green, followed by a chattering gallery of two thousand golf fans. Breathing in the smell of freshly mown grass, I hope the dozen misfits – gleaming shoes, suits, unsmiling faces – are sufficiently scattered amongst the crowd to go unnoticed.
A kestrel is hovering, patiently waiting to plummet onto his Sunday afternoon tea. From way up there, our gallery must look like some multi-coloured snake writhing slowly back and forth over a lumpy emerald carpet, jaws agape in endless pursuit of two tiny white eggs . . .
Come on, Jimmy – focus.
My particular egg has nestled into an awkward downhill lie. Never liked these shots. What a hard bloody game this is. Wish I’d been good at football, say, or tennis, or cricket – any game with a moving ball demanding fast, reflex reactions.
But the golf ball just waits, motionless, mesmerising you for minutes between shots. The closer you get to hitting it, the more it dares you, intimidates you. Like an instinctive soccer striker forced into a stationary penalty kick, you’ve too much time to think. And if you’re distracted at all – well.
Lonely years of practice have given me a brittle confidence, however; I swing fully and easily and the ball soars in a handsome parabola towards my unspoken target – some head-high whin bushes a hundred yards short of the high plateau green. Slightly off-line, however, my ball somehow lands safely, looking uncannily like a sensible lay-up.
With a start, I realise that these formidable clumps of bushes, smothered in yellow-orange flowers, must be descendants of those which modestly screened the same secret areas of soft grass where, decades ago, Elena and I once lay, discovering each other in the quiet gloaming. She used to tease me that, one day, she’d see me return here as a famous golfer – said I was a sort of hero to her. How she must regret all that stuff now . . .
Last night, for the first time in nearly two years, I visited my wife in our home. In desperation, I wanted to confess about my gambling. I don’t know what I really expected her to do about it. I suppose in a way I was just seeking temporary sanctuary – maybe even vaguely hoping, somehow, for a fresh start.
Elena looked amazing in a dark blue dress – the colour intensifying her eyes. She was animated, laughed at my brown face and white forehead.
‘You're more like a conker than ever, Jim!’
Faintly, I caught her usual Chanel No 5; I wondered if she’d be going out when I left – or if she was expecting a later visitor . . .
The longer-driving Beatson hasn’t been as ‘lucky’ as me: his second shot carries farther, but the ball plunges straight into the whins. His fans groan and rush to help stewards search for it.
A russet pheasant emerges crying harshly, stalking towards safer cover. Alan winks at me as he hoists my bristling bag, revealing the faded blue scar on his eyelid.
Aged five, the boy fell in the school playground, skidding face down on the gritty concrete, opening up a ghastly eye gash. I can hear again the terse phone calls, see our mad dashes to A&E; poor Elena’s strained pallor, our shared horror at first seeing his bandaged eye.
‘Will his sight be affected, doctor?’
Not a bit of it – the wee blighter was fine – but, oh, the relief!
I consider my third shot; the plateau green is backed by a high stone wall enclosing rough woodland, where deer, rabbits and foxes hide. I know very well that a seven-iron should over-hit this narrow target and put me out of bounds.
Instantly I know I haven't given it enough to get over the wall. The ball proves me right by towering high and descending softly towards the centre of the unseen green.
‘But that’s perfect, isn’t it?’ Alan glances up at the green then, quizzically, at me.
My thoughts stray again to yesterday evening. The place looked familiar, yet strange: a painting we’d bought, still up; the old brass coffee table there as ever; even our white cat, Simba – but purring now on a new settee. And under the hallstand I noted a pair of hiking boots, too big for Grampa, even for Alan.
From the little widower-flat extension we’d added for Elena’s dad, I heard faint instrumental strains.
“ . . . It’s All In The Game . . .”
I should probably have insisted on better sound-proofing.
Seemed Grampa had been asked – more likely he’d offered – not to join his daughter tonight.
Sotto voce, Elena picked up the line, ‘“. . . Once in a while he won’t call . . .” Proved only too true, eh, Jim?’
Challenging, but she did smile that old smile at me . . .
Ironically, Beatson’s ball is found lying free in one of the little clearings Elena and I might once have occupied. From such an unlikely lie, his approach shot looks excellent, but brings strangely muted applause from his fans. When I crest the green I see why; my ball’s lying four feet from the pin in three, while his is buried in tangled grass just off the putting surface.
After endless study, he attempts his chip; the clubface snags in the turf and scarcely moves the ball. Easily done, and I almost feel for the youngster. Predictably, his next strike over-compensates and his dismayed fans watch the ball shoot past mine. Even then, playing five, Beatson doesn’t concede, but has to when his return putt also misses. I don’t even have to take my putter out.
My brain whirls; hell's teeth, we’re level.
Last night, I made a hopeless attempt to postpone the truth with small talk, but eventually I stammered out my halting confession that I’d been sending home only half my tournament winnings – or less.
Elena said she wasn’t stupid, that prize moneys right down the field are openly published – she'd known perfectly well she was being short-changed. Did I have another woman? Was that my real reason for staying abroad so long each year – nothing to do with tax advantage excuses?
Yet she asked these questions in a quiet, resigned way that simultaneously humbled, melted and frightened me.
I swore I hadn’t got any such woman – I haven't – and on that issue at least Elena didn’t really need much convincing. Inside, I think she knows she’s always been the only one.
But then I had to own up to the emergence of my terrifying monster: the numbing boredom of life on tour; the pleasant distractions of odd casino visits with caddies and other pros; my delight at a couple of initial big cash wins, and my casual dismissal of all the smaller losses. The build-up of that intoxicated craving for the thrill of chance.
I described how I’d got sucked into bigger and bigger, more bizarre gambles; how my tour buddies always covered up for me (‘What happens on tour stays on tour!’) – but how, after my catastrophic losses in Shanghai, I’m now deep in debt, away over my head, completely out of my league.
Ashamed to say I almost broke down then. Near to tears, I implored her not to tell anyone – especially not Alan and Grampa. I begged her forgiveness for my stupidity, for my neglect; I told her how very much I loved her, repeated how there had never been anyone else for me – ever. I vowed I’d somehow sort out my current crisis and do whatever she wanted me to do – get psychiatric help; join Gamblers Anonymous; just be a nicer person – anything, everything.
Elena said nothing for a while; simply sat there, looking down at her hands.
Then she shook her head and looked up.
‘My God, you certainly need professional help.’
But, psychologist or not, it didn’t sound like she was about to offer it.
‘Anyway, you should get an early night. Big day for you tomorrow.’
I got the message and stroked Simba goodbye. I automatically went to kiss Elena on the cheek, but she put her hand out.
‘Good luck for the final.’
We shook hands. Going back to the tournament hotel, all I had to cling to was a tiny smudge in her mascara and the suspicion of a catch in her voice when she’d said, ‘Goodbye, Jimmy.’
I was glad I hadn’t told her about the intimidation after my Shanghai disaster – how, right in front of me in my rented flat, the thugs had casually strangled the little cat I’d befriended – how ingenious they were in causing agony without a visible sign on my body. For now . . .
But they’d also convinced me that, unless I lost this tournament, their insertion of a needle into my left eyeball would be a rather messier affair.
We trudge towards the last tee.
Animated hubbub amongst my supporters; I smell smoke and see that two heavies, keeping pace with me beyond the ropes, have lit up cigarettes. I once enjoyed the fragrance of blue tobacco fumes in the open air – reminded me of sport, of being on football or rugby terraces on winter afternoons. Now it seems hostile, a pungent, foreign stench. Korean? Chinese? I’ve never been able to identify them.
The acrid prickling in my nostrils evokes damned Shanghai again: smoke haze drifting over green baize scattered brightly with chips and cards. I feel again the way my palm steepled over the tall pile of counters I pushed forward, caressing the chips goodbye as I prayed. Even hardened gamblers held their breath; a glimpse of deep cleavage and deft, scarlet-tipped fingers; the slither and slap of glossy cardboard . . . the ghastly consequences . . .
Now, as stewards clear a way for me through spectators, my mouth abruptly dries when a sharply-dressed man moves close to me, holding a handkerchief pad tightly to his left eye, as if he’s got something in it. But his right eye is staring fixedly at me.
I blink, nod. He melts back into the throng.
Beyond the other side of the eighteenth tee, I see the Chinese casino boss talking urgently with more Koreans, or whatever they are, and glancing across at me. My stomach lurches horribly; sweat starts to trickle down my spine – or whatever jelly has replaced it.
‘All square going to the 36th – the final regulation hole.’
The match official is bursting with self-importance. ‘In the event of the match being tied, the 1st hole will be played repeatedly until the final is decided by sudden death.’
Or semi-blindness; my eyes water; instinctively I squeeze them shut.
Then I see the last green far in the distance, surrounded by tall, flag-streaming grandstands, mottled pink with packed spectators. The great, the good and the ordinary – fans are still spilling from the white hospitality marquees and a giant TV screen fitfully records one colourful image after another. I sense everywhere the heady air of expectation. The radio and TV teams in the mobile studios will be cranking up the drama, inwardly praying for a prompt finish, interviews and presentation ceremony; then a relaxing dinner, a night on the town, or flights home.
But whoever they are, all these apparently assured people, whatever their roles, their jobs – however impressive – I’ll bet that, inside, many of them are terrified that, any day now, someone might discover just how shallow their expertise actually is. The old impostor syndrome. Tell me about it.
'Your honour,' says Alan.
That’s a joke. The only pathetic honour his father now has – golf’s little privilege of teeing off first, just because he’s the last player to win a hole.
Yet it truly is my honour that’s involved here. Or was. I wish Alan would stop watching me as if I was suddenly transparent. I sneak a look at him, seeing not only my own rangy height, brown eyes and maybe slightly weak mouth, but also Elena’s slow smile, her grace.
I once hoped Alan would make a pro golfer; he’d got down to scratch by age thirteen, won several regional competitions, his slim body curling flexibly into shots with timing that sent the ball farther than many stronger boys could achieve. His build then was like Elena’s, as was his nature – quietly strong yet uncompetitive – he had to be persuaded to enter tournaments. Still, I remember thinking, maybe in another year or two . . .
Remorse floods me again. That same damned year or two marked the beginning of my slide into the obsessive gambling that the golf tour world makes so easy for weak bastards like me.
I pull my driver from the bag and slip off the faded leather clubhead cover Elena shyly gave me for my twentieth birthday.
‘Sorry – can’t embroider,’ she had murmured, but her accompanying kisses are what I still remember every time I see the cover’s legend.
In childish handwriting in front of the big ONE, she’d stitched, ‘We are’.
At address I’m calm, fingers gripping the shaft lightly, but I’m invaded by a curious, unworldly sensation which grows throughout my steady backswing. Then, in that momentary, coiled-spring pause at the top, I’m possessed with furious, impotent rage. A surge of accumulated guilt, shame and venom pours irresistibly into my downward swing – contrary to all golfing wisdom. And just for once, the destructive emotions flow smoothly.
I don't feel the slightest impact as clubhead meets ball, and my sweeping, balanced follow-through takes me round and up into golfing nirvana.
Gasps from friend and foe. I hear Alan yell something. Beatson’s mouth hangs open. I bet – no! will I ever learn? – I guess the TV cameras will lose track of the ball’s flight altogether.
I know I’ve never before hit a shot so cleanly and powerfully – and I know I probably never will again. I don’t wait to see the ball run onto the green, twenty feet from the flag; I’m walking to the edge of the tee before anybody else moves.
Alan says, ‘What a shot! Where the hell did that come from?’
For no obvious reason, I'm breathing fast and shallow. ‘To be totally honest, son – I’ve no idea. But I'll tell you something – I’m going for it now.’
Wordlessly, we just stand there, till a still-shocked Beatson gathers himself and addresses his ball, in a stunned silence. My adversary’s swallowing hard; a small pulse beats visibly at his crew-cut temple as he settles into his stance. His gallery pals are very quiet. But young Beatson ranks third in the world for average length off the tee and, sure enough, his hips swivel fast, his poised club swishes through viciously, the ball flies high and true, and the whooping ‘Beat–Beat–Beatson!’ – louder than ever – helps it on its way.
When his ball lands, however, it’s still ninety yards from the green.
I begin to feel a strange elation; if I’ve lost Elena I no longer care about my eyesight or my golf career, or bankruptcy or prison – or anything. I’ll open a golf supplies shop, a chip shop – always been good with chips. Ha! But I will – I’ll do whatever it takes; I'll get psychiatric help, get free of these preying bastards!
I find myself humming, ‘It’s All In The Game’.
The enforcers are now circling with growing menace; my last shot has clearly worried them, and they might be sensing the sudden crazy defiance in me. Yet somehow my exhilarated fatalism is anesthetising me to their threat.
The Yank’s second shot is a nervous pitch which only reaches the green's darker fringe. His long putt, painfully considered, goes past the hole – narrowly – but by as much as five feet. Worse, he now has an awkward downhill return putt, across a deceptive slope.
I’ve got at least two for the championship – maybe three, because Beatson’s by no means in the hole yet. The crowd seem dumbstruck, waiting, pent-up, for what they think might be a glorious eagle two. And I’m going to give them just that.
I want to get the best possible perspective on my line, so I back up almost to the spectator ropes. I see a steward looking agitated and then I realise why, because some idiot get-in-the-hole fan is straining over the rope and whispering in my ear.
I try to listen politely. I manage a hoarse laugh, say, ‘Thanks – need all the luck I can get,’ and by the time the steward arrives, the fan's vanished.
But, with his departure, my strange euphoria also suddenly evaporates. I think I might be physically sick. Thing is, I'm imagining a head immovable in a vice-like grip, eyelids prised savagely apart, forcing the eye to see the remorseless approach of a needle’s point. I’m hearing screams in stereo.
Brain swirling, I hunker down, bouncing slightly on my haunches, lining up the twenty-foot putt. It’s straight, not much borrow at all. Easy. Too easy . . .
Across the green, I see Alan waiting, his gentle gaze on me. My eye is drawn beyond the flag, past the expectant gallery and up the slope. I catch my breath. They’ve come. Oh God, she's actually here. A slender statue, Elena's standing beside her father, transfixed like the rest. The old man's nervous, slowly tapping his gnarled walking stick on the grass.
The sight switches on something deep in my memory. It’s a dark Christmas morning – long ago, when I was a decent dad – and I’m lying spoon-snug in bed with Elena. We reluctantly give in at some ungodly hour to the shrill pleas of four-year-old Alan, allow him to get up to see if Santa’s left him anything more than cinders.
The toy fort’s a big hit, though I’m obliged to march endlessly around it with Alan. Meantime, Elena and Grampa, still dressing-gowned and blinking sleep from their eyes, are laughing and clapping along; little Alan’s beating military time on the floor with a walking-stick for a rifle.
A thought coalesces. I squint one last time along the line of the putt . . .
From the corner of my eye, I see Beatson pretending unconcern, gazing up to distant hills with studied nonchalance.
I realise I’m pushing things time-wise. So I make my decision.
I straighten up and walk along beside the line of my putt; nerve-ends twitch at my mouth. A yard from the hole, I stop, stare at it briefly as if to fix it in my memory; then, with the flourish of a man who’s finally made up his mind, tap my putter firmly on the ground, turn and head back towards my ball as briskly as trembling legs allow.
Nothing happens. The sky doesn’t fall in. The crowd seem simply to sense this is it and wait on tenterhooks for the eagle attempt. Nobody says anything – and I walk on, afraid I’ll have to earn my Oscar the hard way. Come on, somebody – anybody!
All I see is a greenside match official straightening and frowning – but it’s a start.
Then I spot Beatson’s agent murmuring to the American’s psychologist – and I hear the word ‘interference’ whispered into a microphone close by.
Then – thank you God – Alan, who’s seemed frozen, is suddenly at my side.
‘Jesus! D’you know what you did?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘What?’ I look deep into his frantic eyes.
‘You pressed down on your line when you grounded your putter!’
I shake my head. ‘I didn’t.’
‘You did! Tournament rules – interference! It’s not just a penalty stroke – it’s loss of hole. Dad – you’ve lost the match – you’ve lost the whole thing – the championship!’
I note the ‘Dad’ as I make my mouth go slack. I say, ‘What . . .? Oh, my God! You mean when . . .? But I just tapped . . .’
I look up to the heavens, close my eyes, then slump my shoulders and whisper, ‘Sorry, son, you’re right, you’re right. Oh, my God . . . Nothing else for it then. That's it. God! I'm so sorry. Have to take my medicine . . .’
I make as if to start walking, stop uncertainly, then march purposefully across the green to the match referee, who’s obviously realised the drama and is just about to tell me – but I beat him to it by a fraction.
‘Charlie – I’m afraid I have to declare a penalty against myself.’
Well, now of course there’s the inevitable hoo-hah from all and sundry. The official line is that it’s a tragedy; that they’re very sorry, but rules are rules, Jimmy; that all players were advised that pressing a club down on the putting line meant loss of hole – any downward pressure at all – you know; so, so sorry.
While they’re trying to be nice to me, I’m looking up the slope and I see Elena and Grampa looking blankly at each other; the crowd are buzzing but still don’t really know what’s happening.
Eventually, I say to Charlie and the officials, ‘Is that it, then?’ and on their nods, I go straight over to Beatson, shake his sweaty hand, say, ‘Congratulations’, and apologise for spoiling our ding-dong final with such a stupid mistake.
Young Gregg, decent enough lad, says all the right things; how sorry he is for me and the way it’s turned out, but he doesn’t really give a damn – he’s won, he’s just delighted. I can hardly hear what he says anyway, because of the ‘Beat-Beat-Beatson!’ rammy, which is now being taken up by some locals as well as the ecstatic Americans.
Exposing what he imagines is his best profile to where he thinks the main TV cameras are, Charlie announces the dramatic news.
Then it’s the media’s turn to grill me.
Some are tough, and I give them the blandest responses I can manage.
'Jimmy - surely you knew you'd grounded your club.'
'No, I'd no idea. I must have done it unconsciously – still don't remember. I'll have to look at the video, but I wasn't in the slightest aware of it until my caddy told me.'
'Jimmy, weren't you told about this specific tournament rule by the organisers? And, if you were, what's your excuse?'
'Yes, I was fully aware of the rule, so, no, I’ve no real excuse. I can only say I’ve been under great pressure on tour for a long time.'
'This happened just because you're tired?'
'I’ve certainly been quite exhausted recently, yes.'
I actually have more difficulty handling sympathisers, particularly one TV guy who goes on and on. ‘No sport other than golf can boast such honourable player conduct – a competitor voluntarily admitting to a penalty offence and taking such a tragic loss on the chin . . .’
At the official presentation, my loser’s voice echoing over the PA system, I congratulate Gregg Beatson Jr all over again, saying what a tremendous game he played and what a fantastic young prospect he is. I wish him well – none more so. (Cheers.) I thank the tournament organisers and of course all the wonderful spectators. (Cheers.) The rules and etiquette of golf are unique, I say, and should always be observed.
Finally, with a slight catch in my voice – not entirely false – I say I’d like to thank my family for all their support, and particularly my caddy, for bringing my unfortunate penalty offence so quickly to my attention. Thank you all very much indeed. (Cheers.)
After Beatson’s spell in the winning limelight and thunderous applause, the presentation ceremony’s wound up. My mask’s still firmly in place as I accept parting words of comfort from a few loitering supporters. None of them seem to notice my flicker of fear at sight of the two heavy, blacked-out Mercedes saloons still idling in the car park.
But, for now, I climb the slope in the gathering shadows, my son's arm around my tired shoulders. Alan’s trying to say something about ‘Mum’, but his own voice is faltering, and suddenly we find ourselves face to face with Elena and her father.
'How are you feeling, Jimmy?’ asks Elena quietly. I say I’m not feeling too good. Grampa tells me I must have played very well indeed to take that young American star so close.
I say nobody will ever know just how much young Alan helped me through all this, kept an eye out for me.
Nobody, I tell myself, except that fan who leaned across the ropes around the eighteenth green and quietly told me of a change of plan which meant that, should I dare to win today, it wouldn’t just be my left eyeball skewered with a needle – but also, now, one of Alan’s eyes . . .
A man rushes up.
‘Jimmy! I know we’re late, sorry – technical cock-up. Any chance of one last interview?’
I’ve known and respected this senior TV golf pundit for years so I say okay, and in no time I’m blinking into harsh camera lights again.
He says, ‘Personal honesty today, Jimmy – you’re a fantastic ambassador for this game. Why d’you think golf is managing to keep its integrity, when virtually every other sport’s succumbing to some form of corruption?’
Christ! I can’t take any more of this. I’m starting to mumble some pathetic response, when I feel Elena’s hand steal into mine. I sense Alan and Grampa standing foursquare behind me.
Then, beyond the cameras, I see several policemen, duties over, chatting casually as they near their van – and I note how hurriedly the two Mercs drive away, occupants probably flustered into postponing debate on my next shameful assignment.
I know, I know only too well – if the bastards are frightened off by as little as the approach of a few uninterested British cops, surely I could . . .
And Heaven also knows I've agonised about this long enough and often enough these past months . . . but . . .
Guts, man . . . c'mon . . . GUTS!
‘You all right, Jimmy?’ says the interviewer.
‘Actually, no,’ I say. Elena’s grip tightens.
I square my shoulders, look straight into the camera with the red light on, and speak as clearly and steadily as I can manage.
‘I’ve got something to tell you. Something I should have spoken out about long ago.’