Restful Stay By the River
Last Friday afternoon, my wife and I slipped out of town for a much-needed weekend with friends at a rustic camp cottage on the shores of the Pamlico River near the village of Bath, North Carolina's first governing capital.
My fondness for this "forgotten" little corner of the state, the sparsely populated "Inner Banks" created by the mighty expanse of the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, was sealed when I ventured there to fish and canoe as a student at East Carolina in the mid-1970s. Something about the small Colonial-era towns, saltwater creeks and soulful landscape spoke to me the way I suppose it once spoke to Blackbeard the pirate. It was a dandy place to get blissfully lost.
After several weeks of radio interviews and public talks to promote the soft-cover release of my latest book, I frankly needed a getaway - if only to escape the sound of my own tedious voice trying to make sense of Tiger Woods. Down yonder on the ancient Pamlico we sat up late both nights on a breeze-filled screened porch mere feet from the water's edge with half a dozen good friends, eating freshly harvested seafood, drinking cold beer and wine, swapping fish and golf tales, talking of many things.
Apart from lapping water and bird song at dawn, about the only sounds we heard were the contented sounds we made. Sleeping in a well-worn frame bed by a wall of windows open to the sea wind, I was reminded, is one of life's peak experiences.
The cottage belongs to a distinguished family that burrows at least a dozen generations into Pamlico history, a remarkable clan of local physicians and pediatricians, the venerable Tayloes of Little Washington.
The current patriarch, -affectionately called "Big Dave" by his grown children and friends throughout the region where he spent decades birthing babies and serving young families, bought and improved the cottage almost 50 years ago, aiming to make it his rustic fishing retreat, though one man's vision of "improvement" might strike others as work still in process.
A Perfect Retreat
The Tayloe camp cottage is blissfully short on modern conveniences. The kitchen sink appears to be vintage World War II, its appliances the latest thing from the Ronnie Reagan years. The living room furniture is nothing fancy, comfortable but by no means fashionable. A small six-point deer head presides from a pine-paneled wall.
The bookshelves contain the latest best-sellers from 1966 or earlier. Half a dozen fishing rods hang on the wall, ready for action. In other words, it's a perfect retreat. Big Dave obviously knew exactly what he was doing with kids and fish camps.
I didn't even learn the place had a TV set until my buddies Whit and Bill and I returned from a morning spin around the Little Washington Golf and Yacht Club and discovered someone watching the Tournament Player's Championship from Ponte Vedra, Fla., moments after Tiger Woods withdrew from the tournament, blaming a pain in the neck. Earlier that day, apparently, Woods' swing coach, Hank Haney, announced he was resigning from their partnership.
"So what do you think about this whole Tiger Woods thing?" asked a pleasant chap named Danny, a friendly neighbor who'd come for a visit.
I hesitated before I answered, wondering if I might frame my thoughts in a classical context. Two cold beers helped.
"I think he's a modern day Icarus whose hubris caused him to fly too close to the sun," I said to Danny. "Now he's falling into the sea."
"You mean like the myth?" said Danny, seeming surprised.
As he perfectly illustrated at this spring's Masters, I said, Tiger Woods is merely the poster boy for modern hubris and greed - the very thing the ancients warned us mortals about.
"Unfortunately, he's simply a product of the Tour that made him."
I pointed out that both Masters founder Cliff Roberts and Pinehurst scion Richard Tufts - sounding like ancient soothsayers from Caesar's Rome - warned that the one thing that could bring about a major decline of golf's popularity in America was too much money, greed and corporate domination of the professional game.
Golf was booming when Tiger Woods entered the game in 1997, signing a $60 million sponsorship deal that made him set for life before he ever struck a ball in competition. Thanks to corporate sponsors who couldn't throw enough loot at the tournament circuit and envisioned golf primarily as a great way to introduce a product or woo their customers, golf no longer valued or needed real fans. The prices on everything from equipment to greens fees sky-rocketed.
At that time, self-described golf industry "experts" insisted America would need to have a new golf course open every day just to keep abreast of the booming growth of golf.
But a little over a decade later, as Tiger Woods closed in on Jack Nicklaus' record of major championships, richer and remoter than any professional athlete who has ever lived, exactly the opposite is the case.
These days, a golf course per day closes somewhere in America, TV ratings are on a steady downward trek and - most distressing of all - more people are abandoning the game, more than ever before.
Last year alone, I explained to a somewhat shocked-looking Danny, roughly 1.8 million people stopped playing golf in America. The three reasons they cited: too expensive, too time-consuming and just not fun enough to continue.
Since Tiger began his professional quest for immortality, more people have quit playing golf than started playing it. This year maybe 20 golf courses will open for business.
Meanwhile, according to a friend who runs one of the most successful tournaments in the Far East, more than 100 golf courses will open for play in China alone - where the new money capitalists are throwing up clubhouses that rival the splendor of Imperial Rome and are preparing to woo a host of tournaments that flee American shores for more lucrative turf.
"The worst part of all this," I said to Danny, since he opened this can of fishing worms, "is there are no heroes left in their wake. Can you name just one?"
"Well," he said, sipping his light beer, "I guess you could say Tiger was a hero to many - until last Thanksgiving."
I asked Danny to name one thing Tiger Woods had given the game of golf beyond a generation of eager stage parents who want their little Billy and Susie to be the next Tiger Woods or Michelle Wie.
"The way he played the game?" he said with a shrug.
"I'll personally take the way Palmer or Hogan played the game over Tiger," I said. "He also didn't play the kind of golf courses they played - or face the kind of competition they faced. Also, they were the soul of grace in either victory or defeat."
"OK, well, what about Arnold Palmer or Ben Hogan or even Tom Watson? They're all modern heroes. Arnie's still active and Watson's still competitive. He almost won the British Open last year."
"True. But their behavior makes them heroes from a different age," I suggested. "They built the modern game of golf, popularized it with ordinary people like never before. They gave lavishly back to the game that made them wealthy and famous men. Tiger, I'm afraid, can't make that claim."
Danny, bless his soul, wouldn't give it up. "What about Phil Mickelson? He was unbelievable at the Masters. I mean, his wife got off her hospital bed to come cheer him on. There wasn't a dry eye in the house."
"You're right," I said. "He's a nice guy who finished first. Phil might have become the new Arnold Palmer in the process. Let's hope so."
Eventually someone turned off the TV set and Danny went home. We went back out on the porch to watch the sun set over the river. It was nice not to have to think about what a Circus Maximus Tiger and the PGA Tour have become, fulfilling the dark prophesy of Tufts and Roberts.
The talk switched back to our children, our jobs and tales of fishing trips and the lovely Tayloes of Little Washington. Among other things, this -prodigious family has produced no fewer than seven Daves, all of them physicians, including a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Just the Needed Tonic
That's why running away to the shores of the Pamlico River proved to be a tonic to this -golfing pirate's soul. On Sunday morning, we went out for a -fishermen's breakfast and then on to the oldest Episcopal Church in North Carolina, tiny St Thomas' Church, 1734, which happened to be welcoming its new rector that very morning.
He gave a splendid opening sermon, reminding us how every journey ends somewhere and how good it was that his had ended here, in the oldest town in North Carolina, at the edge of an inland sea, where the tide of life goes in and out with a -classical breezy rhythm. At one point, he broke up the house by taking a dinner fork out of his robes.
"The ladies at my former parish used to say, 'Please keep your fork because the best is yet to come.'" He smiled at his new congregation and added cheerfully, "I happen to believe that is true. That's why I brought my fork."
As he said this, I sat pleasantly gazing out an open side door at a lovely May morning, peonies in bloom and a gray cat sitting on an ancient stone wall, dozing in a patch of clear morning sunshine. Perhaps someday I could say the same thing about the beloved game of golf - after the professional tour set sail for a new world of waiting riches.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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