JIM DODSON: Billy Casper and Small Miracles
I was sitting in the lobby of a beautiful inn in Freeport, Maine, the other evening, waiting for PGA legend Billy Casper to come downstairs for a dinner I was hosting in his honor, when a woman I hadn't seen in many years walked over to say hello.
She was working as a cocktail waitress in the adjacent tavern.
The inn was crowded with guests, early "leaf peepers" and Christmas bargain shoppers and a busload of senior citizens from Mississippi. Even with Hurricane Kyle bearing down on the coast of Maine and the nation's economic fate supposedly teetering above the abyss, there was an almost festive air in the place. Maybe the prospect of calamity brings out the best in some folks.
"It's great to see you," I said, hopping up from my wing chair to give her a hug even as I mentally groped to remember her name and why I knew her. "So how have you been?" I added, stalling for time.
"Not too bad," she allowed with a vague smile. "I've been working here for the past few months. It's kind of fun. How are Maggie and Jack? I heard you sold your dream house and moved back to Carolina. Never thought that would happen."
It suddenly came to me who she was. Claudia something. Our children had once attended the same preschool. She was working for the bank that loaned us the bridge loan when we built our house way back in 1990, fairly high up in management. Her husband, a carpenter, had done some work on our house. I seemed to recall that his name was Frank.
I said my kids were doing well, off at college in Vermont and North Carolina, probably doing things I didn't really need or wish to know about.
I admitted that even I sometimes couldn't believe I'd actually sold my so-called dream house -- a place I'd built with my own hands and once envisioned passing along to my children. "But life changes," I said, attempting to strike a philosophic note. "Dreams and houses come and go." After spending more than five grand just to heat the house last winter, I confessed, I'd mostly felt relief to sell it last May to a nice Massachusetts couple who promised to take care of it. We'd only had to shave nearly $200,000 off the original asking price to seal the deal.
"You're one of the lucky ones," Claudia declared, shaking her head sympathetically. "The Maine house market totally flat-lined last June. They say it's the worst in the nation. I've been selling real estate for 10 years and never seen anything like it. And with home heating oil predicted to go up 30 percent this year, well."
Her smile trailed off. She casually asked if I planned to check up on my former dream house while I was in the north country.
"I'm still debating that in my head," I admitted, explaining how part of me was dying to lay eyes on the only house I'd ever owned. Another part never wanted to see the place again.
Meanwhile, I added, I was up briefly to host a charity golf tournament at Highland Green Golf Club and take this year's celebrity guest to supper with several folks from our tournament. Before she went back to work, I asked Claudia how her husband and daughter were getting along.
"Tiff's in her second year at U-Mass," she said. "Frank's work dried up this summer. He's been at Home Depot since then. He says it leaves more time for playing golf. I started playing too, by the way."
She casually mentioned that she and Frank had recently lost their own dream house to the worsening financial weather. The large national bank that bought out the friendly local bank where she was working when she helped us get a bridge loan had foreclosed on their property.
"Pretty ironic, huh?" she said. "Fortunately, my mom still has her house in Yarmouth. We've moved in with her for the time being. I'm just trying to figure out how we pay for the rest of college."
I nodded, suddenly feeling a stab of guilt about getting out from under my dream house in the nick of time, and whining about it. Claudia and Frank -- whose names I've changed simply because they are old friends, even if I still can't remember their last names -- aren't terribly different from millions of us who could lose a job and find ourselves on a sudden downward spiral. I now had a good job. But I also have my own mounting fears about paying for college.
Hard Weather, Good Timber
Like a true Mainer, though, Claudia was proud and tough, and determined to keep going. As Maine goes, a political slogan used to go -- so goes the nation. Hard weather, Mainers like to say, makes good timber.
"What's done is done. We'll survive," she said, brightening. "So who is your tournament celebrity? Anyone I would know?"
"Billy Casper," I replied, explaining that during the 1960s, Palmer, Nicklaus and Player got all the headlines as the Big Three of Golf but Casper actually won more golf tournaments than any of them for a time. Casper was golf's unheralded fourth, a quiet legend who put his family above worldly fame. He was also probably the greatest putter of all time. "Chi Chi Rodriquez said he could wink at the ball and it would go in the hole."
"I'd like to meet him," Claudia said.
"Here's your chance," I said, as Billy Casper came strolling up.
After I introduced them, Casper took Claudia's hand and made a courtly bow. "Aren't you a lovely lady," he said. "Do you like golf?"
Claudia grinned at the celebrity guest. "I love golf."
"Billy's doing a free exhibition tomorrow," I provided. "You should come. Bring Frank."
"Can I?" She seemed thrilled at the prospect.
"We'll see you," answered Casper, winking at her.
'The Fantastic Fourth'
During the dinner, Casper -- who, not surprisingly, turns out to be more in demand for exhibitions and speaking gigs than ever -- told our group fascinating tales of his illustrious PGA Tour career, a tally that included 51 Tour wins, three major championships, and nine Ryder Cup appearances. Among other things, Casper still holds the record for accumulating the most points in Ryder Cup competition. He spent two weekends ago watching America recover the cup in Louisville.
The best part of the evening, however, came when this quiet, classy legend, a converted Mormon, grew unapologetically emotional talking about his own 11 children and 32 grandchildren and the various children's charities he's been associated with over the years. At the height of his playing career in the late 1960s, Casper had a teenage son who staged several armed robberies and wound up going to prison in California, where he is to this day.
"He'll probably never get out," Billy said softly. "But he's still my son, and I love him dearly. It's funny how life works out. It's full of things you never see coming. Thank God for magical moments like this," he added, glancing around the table. "When I get to meet new people and share stories, I'm reminded that life is full of little miracles."
The next day, I witnessed a couple of small "miracles" of my own. Beginning with the weather.
As Hurricane Kyle inched ever closer, the forecast for Saturday called for torrential rains and gale winds by nightfall. I went to bed Friday night fearing a complete washout. But the rains held off and most of the tournament's players showed up to play -- once more proving hard weather makes good timber, especially in Maine golfers.
During the morning sessions, I drove Casper around to meet individual groups and witnessed pure magic of another kind.
Our celebrity guest posed for photographs, signed autographs, chatted expansively with every group, offering valuable swing and short-game tips to anyone who wanted them. After absorbing Casper's swing tip about allowing the back of your left hand to stay on path to the target, for example, a pair of burly dudes who'd just duck-hooked their first efforts on the par-3 ninth hole miles into the woods put their next shots eight and 10 feet respectively from the cup. They thanked Casper profusely as he autographed their tournament caps.
On another green, a nervous young man prepared to try making a 17-footer for a team birdie. Casper helped him line up the putt as he pointed out the subtle break of the green. The ball went promptly into the cup. You'd have thought these guys just won the Ryder Cup themselves.
On the next hole, the "Fantastic Fourth" (as I sometimes think of Casper) offered to help a team facing a daunting 45-foot uphill putt. "Let me show you guys the line," said Billy. He borrowed a player's putter, dropped a ball and drained the monster putt as easily as if he'd winked at it. The group cheered loudly and slapped hands as they posed for photographs with the greatest putter of all time.
We'll Survive Somehow
During the lunch break, before the afternoon session of the tournament got under way, Casper gave a charming seminar on chipping and putting that had 100 or so brave souls who ventured out laughing and nodding their heads, lining up for autographs, too.
I was pleased to spot Claudia and Frank in the crowd. They came over to thank me before I took Billy Casper back out on the course for more photos and tips with the afternoon groups. I thanked them for coming and invited them to the lobster dinner under the stars.
"What stars?" Claudia declared with a laugh. "The weather is supposed to be awful tonight. There's flood and gale warnings out."
True enough, by sunset, the gale arrived on schedule and the heaviest rains I've seen in a long time came down, blowing sideways. Less than half of the 200 folks who'd paid in advance for the lobster feed dared to brave the elements. But Billy Casper ate at least two Maine lobsters and spun great stories of Ryder Cups and family as if he had an audience from the Mormon Tabernacle.
Moments before I slipped off into the swirling tumult, hoping to get on the road back to the Sandhills before the worst part of the storm struck, I thanked Casper for coming so far and pleasing so many ordinary folks. I pointed out that we'd raised a lot of money for Habitat for Humanity.
"Oh, I wouldn't have missed this for anything," he said, winking at me. "I like to think of people getting houses instead of losing them."
Hours later, somewhere around the Delaware Bridge, watching the skies clear, I realized that I'd forgotten to go up and see my former dream house. It was probably just as well, I decided. As Claudia and Frank would probably agree, dream houses and hurricanes come and go. We'll all somehow survive.
But class acts like Billy Casper, the Fantastic Fourth, make you believe in little miracles.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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