Meeting the Men of the Trip
On the operational theory that too much talk and not enough action renders any golf scribe a tedious boob to be around, I slipped over to Mid Pines Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, shouldered my golf bag, and set off by my lonesome over my favorite golf course.
It was two hours before twilight on the summer solstice. Somewhere June brides were fussing over last-minute details and Happy Hour toddies were being served to the porch. Somewhere pagans were preparing to dance in the moonlight and Jon and Kate were preparing to split. The governor of South Carolina was hiking the Appalachian Trail to Argentina.
For my part, however, I was simply grateful to be back home in the heat-mused Sandhills with a month of book-touring travels suddenly behind me, my favorite golf course lying completely open ahead of me.
Playing golf alone on a late summer afternoon is surely one of life's greatest unadvertised guy pleasures, a walking meditation right up there with eating ripe blackberries straight off a neighbor's vine, sneaking a double cheeseburger into a crowded movie theater or peeing outside in the winter moonlight.
You can't live forever, a friend of mine likes to say, but perpetual immaturity is a simple gift from the gods. Speaking of pee, which I apologize for actually saying in a family newspaper, I'd come home to find the deer of Weymouth had made tidy disposal work of the elaborate raised vegetable garden I'd spent weeks carefully constructing but sadly neglected to properly fortify with a peculiar homemade anti-deer concoction composed of dish-washing liquid, garlic powder, and humanly distilled water.
A rural gardener with impeccable credentials assures me in no uncertain terms that any reasonable defense of tomatoes shy of a massive steel cage against the invasion of garden-grazing deer involves liberally spreading this unholy liquid deterrent around one's veggie patch.
"Careful where you spread it, though," he added, "they could taste kind of funny."
Because I forgot to do so before going off to peddle my book, alas, my wife now estimates our ambitious tomato yield this year has been substantially compromised by the craven invaders. With only half a dozen meager survivors showing on the vine, she estimates a decent tomato sandwich will run us about $21 this summer.
Ghosts of Twilight
This worrying detail, however, like the rest of the world's strange doings on that official midsummer eve, weighed only lightly on my mind as I played happily along the first two holes at Mid Pines. That's the beauty of solo golf, you see. The mind and feet wander simultaneously, unmolested by the broader cares of the world.
I parred the short but sweet first hole easily, remembering how I played my first full 18 holes of golf one summer afternoon with my dad in 1966, meeting U.S. Open champ Julius Boros that same Sabbath afternoon. On hole 2, the short par three, I missed an ace by three inches and had to laugh out loud. It would have been my first one ever -- with nary a soul but the thieving deer around to verify it even happened.
Among other downsides, I would have been morally forced to kick myself out of the Hole-in-None Society, of which I am founder, chairman, and chief custodian. It's been a dozen years since I played golf with my late Pop, who shared my love of twilight golf and maybe put the attraction for it in my head in the first place.
I miss him more than I thought I would, and I sometimes hear his voice among the pleasant ghosts of a summer twilight.
Three years ago, the two senior members of my longtime regular golf group in Maine passed on, as well, leaving me pretty much without a golf group to call my own. One reason we moved back to the Sandhills was so I could find an idle knight or two to chase Old Man Par with into my own dotage.
That's why meeting The Men of the Trip was such a recent pleasure. Once again, they reminded me of the unique place golf friendships hold in the hearts of certain kinds of ordinary guys. One of their members, a newspaperman named Gary Brown, got in touch after reading my aforementioned book about coming home to the Sandhills to say he and his mates would be in town the week before the U.S. Open. He sensed we might be kindred spirits.
He was right. I met them late one afternoon at the Pine Crest Inn before heading off to Bethpage to sign books. There were six of them: Gary, Jim, Ron, Bill, Russ and Paul. That very day, they'd played 36 holes at Mid Pines.
This was their 18th trip to the Pinehurst area. Their golf trips have been going since 1978. They've been to Myrtle Beach twice and to Charleston and even Ireland together. But the Sandhills is where they feel most at home. This year represented their 15th straight visit. Name a course in the area, and the chances are good they've played it.
It all started back when Gary Brown, Jim Colletti and Bill Heslin were all high school teachers at Ironwood High in suburban St. Paul, Minn.
"It was spring break, and other teachers were going on fishing trips," Gary explained to me. "We all had young families and not a lot of money, and we weren't terribly keen on fishing. So we decided to take a golf jaunt around Minnesota."
That worked fine for a few years. Then the three friends decided to venture a little further afield and add a fourth companion. Teacher Bruce Moore joined them. A couple of years later, coach Russ Miller and music teacher Ron Olson joined the Men of the Trip, as they'd taken to calling themselves.
Their first big trip was to Pinehurst in 1983. "We stayed at Talamore when there was nothing but a trailer for a pro shop," Gary remembered. "And we always did 36 holes a day. Some golf groups go to spas and things like that. Not us. We're all about playing golf and harassing each other. We're also pretty relentless about how we play."
'All About Tradition'
"A friend's misfortune on the golf course is the source of endless enjoyment," explained Russ Miller. "These guys are ruthless."
"We laugh and laugh and laugh," added Gary. The founding three members of the group called themselves, creatively, The Originals. Eventually a 7th member, Paul Bieder, a former student, was invited to tag along, too.
"But the Originals got to make the rules of the trip," Jim Colletti explained. "Golf is all about tradition, after all, and observing certain rules. Some things are important."
The rules, according to Brown, were pretty basic: "We require that every member take a shower after golf and wear nice trousers and a clean shirt and loafers that have a decent tassel. It's permitted to get a little immature at dinner, but rudeness is not tolerated."
One year, Ron went over to chat with the pianist at the Carolina dining room and wound up doing a 20-minute piano set himself. "We've shut down the Carolina and the Ryder Cup bar several times," Ron admitted.
The Men of the Trip were here in the summer of 1996, just as Pinehurst No. 2 was being closed for refurbishment to prepare for hosting its first U.S. Open three years later. "In fact, we were the last group to play the course before it closed," Jim explained. "They took the flags out right behind us."
"We have a rule that thus far hasn't been tested," Bill chipped. "If someone dies during the trip, nobody is allowed to call home and report it to our wives until the trip is completed."
"We've agreed to just find a nice storage cooler that has some room in it," one of the others quipped in the gales of laughter.
Jokes in the Hospital
Some years ago, though, Russ Miller suffered a major heart attack.
"Ironically the guys and their wives had been over to my house for a party when it struck," he explained. "I felt this awful pain, and then there was this bright white light and I was speeding toward it. I have to say, it was very peaceful and I was completely aware of what was happening. I saw the emergency crew working over my body, just the way others have described it. I didn't want to come back, but then I thought about my 6-year-old daughter -- and was slammed down. There was this guy with paddles in his hand. He said to the other doctors, 'OK, he's back.' It changed how I look at death entirely."
Russ paused an instant, then grinned. "It couldn't be any harder than playing golf with these guys."
The Men of the Trip came to see him in the hospital, bearing gifts.
"We went to the golf shop and bought him a new driver," Gary recalled. "But when we took it up to the checkout counter, the clerk said, 'Wow, what a nice thing to do for a friend. This is a very nice driver. Big bucks."
"So we took it back and got a cheaper one," Bill said, prompting another group howl.
Russ recalled. "Jim was particularly sympathetic. He leaned over my bed and whispered into my ear, "Hey, Russ, I'm really sorry this happened to you. Sure hope you recover without any problems. But in case you don't, can I have your new golf bag?"
Already Booked for Next Year
The stories went on and on over aprs-golf cocktails at the Pine Crest bar. How they still always stay in the same unit at Talamore Resort and eat at Dugan's Pub on their first and last nights in town. How they always play the same half a dozen games and once burned up a golf cart on Pinehurst No. 6. The traditions even extend to their families. Several summer weddings and anniversaries have been moved to accommodate the sacred summer golf trip.
"At first, our wives were pretty annoyed by us," Jim explained. "Now they're pretty much glad to see us go."
Russ Miller's daughter Jennifer, the 6-year-old who is now 23, announced recently that she plans to marry next June. When she learned that was the week of the trip, she moved it back a week.
"We have another wedding tradition," Gary said. "Whenever we gather for a wedding, we book a separate room and go in and shut the door and open a bottle of Jack Daniel's and drink a toast to the bride and groom -- and our friendship. We toast until the bottle is gone."
"We're traditionalists through and through," offered Jim Colletti.
"In other words, our wives get to drive home," one of the guys quipped, causing another explosion of laughter.
I kept thinking about the Men of the Trip as I played until dark on the evening of the summer solstice. The years, like scores on a card, quickly mount up. Your game declines, but not the friendships it creates.
Next summer's visit to the Sandhills is already in the reservation book for the Men of the Trip. Maybe by the equinox they'll phone me up and invite me to play along with them. If so, maybe I'll have some nice but slightly funny-tasting Sandhills tomatoes for them to take home to their wives.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence with The Pilot, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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