I wanted to scream, but I was caught by the soothing warmth in Rolly’s eyes. Slowly, the dizziness subsided. Rolly had answered something that only I knew. I had never told anyone about it. And I was certain no one outside my family knew mom’s secret nickname for me.
Rolly looked up slowly and grinned knowingly. “At this moment, on this golf course, I’m the fellow who can give you answers to nine more questions. I should warn you, though, it will take courage.”
He continued with quiet determination. “Not to ask the questions.” He locked eyes with me. “To live with the answers.”
He sighed and turned to look around the valley, full of autumn colors. He smiled widely and breathed deeply. Then he bent down and retrieved his ball.
He rolled the golf ball in his hand and asked, “So, are you game?”
I wiped my eyes and took a step back. A cold tremor swept through my body and left me feeling weak.
This can’t be possible. Or could it?
I forced myself to meet his gaze. “Okay. Let’s go.”
“Capital!” said Rolly. “There are certain conditions, however. First, no distractions. Keep your phone in your pocket on mute. Second, you can put your clubs back in your car, because you must play with my clubs. And you will caddy for the both of us. And finally, you must follow the rules of golf to the letter. A copy of the rules is in my bag. I’ll explain more when I meet you on the first tee.”
Rolly walked off the practice green and slid the putter into his golf bag, which he draped over his shoulder. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and held it up.
“I already picked up the tab for our round of golf. My treat!”
He turned and walked back through the parking lot past the pro shop to the first tee.
Before I put my phone away in the glove compartment, I checked for messages. Nothing but the annoying questions from my little sister. Putting my clubs back in the trunk, I gripped the edge with one hand and wiped my eyes again. My mind was darting around so fast I couldn’t focus on a single thought. A nervous exhaustion weighed me down to my bones, but a tingling emptiness made me feel light as air. I breathed with shaking huffs and finally said out loud, “Answers!”
I walked up a hill behind the pro shop to the highest of the first tees, which sat like small Mayan pyramids on the hillside. In the center of an oval patch of smooth grass I saw Rolly’s smooth swing. He swung several more times, stretching and smiling between each swoosh of his club.
He walked off the tee as he said, “It’s a great day for golf!” He picked up his golf bag and opened a side pouch. “Here we are, rules of the game.”
Rolly handed me a pamphlet that looked like another antique.
I read the title out loud, “Rules of Golf as approved by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews ... amended 29 September 1925.” I looked up at him.
I started to ask, “Mr. Jones, are you—”
He quickly held up an index finger. “Please, it’s Rolly. All right?”
“Okay, Rolly” I said. “But, seriously, you’re serious about this rule book?”
“Afraid so. If you break a rule for which the penalty is loss of the hole, you also lose the answer on that green. I won’t even try to explain it, because I can’t. It just is. It’s the way it works.”
I thumbed through the rule book.
“Okay ...,” I said, while thinking: Strange ...
Rolly stood his golf bag on the ground. “You have your own clubs, so I assume you are familiar enough with the game.”
“I’ve played for a few years,” I said. “Last year I played on our high school team. I’m not a top player, though. Maybe bogey golf on a good day.”
Rolly nodded and handed me a golf ball, a tee, and what I assumed was a driver back in the day. I held it up and frowned. It looked like a long skinny piece of driftwood.
“It’s called a brassie, a two wood or driver to you.” He pointed to the bottom of the club. “It has a brass plate on the bottom to help cut through the grass. Good for the fairway, but I also like to use it on the tee.”
I hesitated and continued to look up and down the feather-weight stick.
He smiled. “Leather and wood. As nature and the forefathers of golf intended.”
I gave him an, Oh yeah? look and walked out between the starting markers. I pushed the small wooden tee into the ground and set the ball on it.
Higher up, beyond a gulch for the cart path, the fairway started halfway up a long rise.
“Where the heck is this hole?” I asked.
Rolly pointed up the hill. “That flag is standing in the center of the fairway. We’ll aim for that.”
After two practice swings, I stopped to look up at the fairway. I felt a small queasiness and wondered what I might learn at the end of the hole. Maybe nothing. Maybe this was all a strange joke, leading nowhere. But maybe not.
I swung at the ball and was surprised that it felt as solid as a hit with my metal clubs. The ball sailed high and curved off to the right toward some trees. I sighed.
“That slice a friend of yours?” Rolly asked.
I shrugged as I walked off the tee. “Yeah. Can’t seem to get rid of it. Especially with a wood.”
Rolly accepted the club and said, “I might be able to help you with that.”
He dropped his ball and moved it to sit on top of some solid grass. He did not take a practice swing.
I marveled as I watched the smoothest, most effortless swing I had ever seen. It was a calm, full breath of air. The ball rose and curved a bit to the left. It sailed over the fairway flag.
“Nice hit!” I said.
Rolly smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
He handed me the club and I put it in the light canvas bag. The clubs rattled a little. There were only six: two woods, two irons, and two putters, all looking like they belonged in a museum.
I lifted the bag to my shoulder. It was no heavier than a backpack with a single book in it.
We walked down the cart path and up the other hill. I was nervous and didn’t say anything. My mind was busy, wondering what to ask first.
Over the top of the hill, we found my ball just off the fairway in some rough grass. The green was about 150 yards away, down a shallow sloping fairway. I set the bag down and looked through the clubs. It didn’t take long.
“I recommend the mashie,” Rolly said, “the fairway iron. Best to use out of the rough.”
I chose the iron that didn’t look like a wedge. I took several practice swings to get used to the strange brown stick. I swung a few more times as I tried to pick the question I would ask.
I assumed these light clubs would be weak, so I swung hard, and almost topped it. But it flew low and long and then bounced down the hill to stop in front of the green.
“Unconventional,” Rolly said, “but it got the job done.”
I put the club in the bag and followed him down to the left, halfway to my ball. I pulled out the wedge and handed it to him.
“Ah!” he said as he held it up. “Will my niblick be my lucky club today?”
“You call your wedge a niblick?” I asked.
“It’s a lofting iron, called a niblick. Not quite a wedge though. I think you might consider it a nine iron.”
“Okay,” I said. But I was thinking, not much iron about it, as I stepped back.
Rolly stood looking down the hill. “Before we get to the green, I would like to offer you some advice about how to ask your questions.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said, “thanks.”
He thought for a moment. “For starters, avoid questions that could lead to yes or no answers. I also suggest you avoid questions that have a limited number of possible answers.”
“Right,” I said. “No yes or no answers. No multiple choice. I should be asking for essays.”
He looked confused for a moment. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. You should look for answers that are wide open yet pointed in the direction you want. Explanations. Descriptions.”
I nodded again.
“An easy way to approach this is to pick a suitable first word, such as ‘how’ or ‘why’. Or maybe ‘what’ if the question is carefully worded. Avoid starting with the words ‘when’, ‘which’, or ‘did’.”
“Makes sense,” I said. I stepped away and stared at the flag on the green.
Rolly addressed the ball and, with a smooth half swing, sent the ball soaring high. It dropped and stayed on the back of the green, about 20 feet from the pin.
“It’ll do,” he said and handed me the club.
We walked down to my ball. I stood behind it and stared at the hole at the base of the pin, thirty yards away. I knew I had to ask about mom. As always, gravity seemed to double as I remembered watching the joy and energy slowly drain from her beautiful face, until it looked like she just wanted to get it over with. I hated seeing that. I hated remembering that. But I had to know.
“Jake,” said Rolly, “are you okay?”
I looked up and took a deep breath, relieved to get out of that unhappy place in my mind.
“Yes,” I said. “Well, no. Not really. And I guess that’s why I’m here.”
Rolly nodded. “Okay then, let’s get to it.” He took the golf bag and stepped away.
I took a few short practice swings then hit the ball. It popped up and dropped halfway to the green and barely bounced.
I sighed and stared at the stupid thing. Without looking at Rolly, I asked, “You look like a guy who might have a pretty good short game. Got any advice?”
“You scooped it. Don’t worry about loft. Just punch it from behind. It’ll go where it’s supposed to go.”
It sounded a bit Zen, but I figured it was worth a try. I walked up to my ball and took several practice swings, focusing on the ground after each punch into the grass. Then I stepped closer, hit the ball, and didn’t look up until I heard the ball lightly plop on the green. It was going fast and would have rolled off the green if it hadn’t hit the pin squarely and bounced back a few feet.
“Respectable aim,” Rolly said as he walked around the fringe of the green to the back.
I smiled at my luck as I walked onto the green. I pulled out the pin and set it aside.
Rolly approached me with two putters and handed me one.
“Does this one have a name, too?” I asked, kidding.
“Yes, actually. It’s called a Schenectady.”
I stared at him, expecting a punchline.
He smiled and continued, “Once upon a time it was illegal in some countries. But I think it should bring you good luck.” And then he walked back to his ball.
I didn’t know how to respond to that bit of oddness, and my mind quickly wandered back into that heavy place of dreary numbness. That’s when the question popped into my head, fully worded.
I stepped up to my ball and took no practice swing. A good score meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was what followed Rolly sinking his putt. Without thinking, I hit the ball softly. It rolled directly into the center of the hole and dropped.
Rolly said something, but I wasn’t listening. I retrieved my ball and stepped away from the hole. My breathing became uneasy as I waited.
His ball rolled to within a foot of the hole. He arrived and looked at me. I nodded, slowly.
He tapped his ball in for a par.
I gulped and took a sharp breath in.
With both hands on top of his putter, Rolly breathed deeply and closed his eyes for a moment.
I looked down and concentrated. I desperately wanted to get this right.
Slowly, I asked:
“How did the cancer kill my mother so quickly?”
Rolly replied immediately:
It started years ago. Her doctor first discovered cancer in her breasts when you were five. With radiation and chemotherapy, she survived. That was the summer she wore a baseball cap of your favorite team. She didn’t want you to worry, and she didn’t want you to see her bald head.
The cancer returned ten years later. She thought she felt it, but waited for a month to talk to the doctor, hoping it wasn’t really coming back. This time the treatment did not eliminate enough of the cancer. In two months it spread throughout her body, and she died.
I sighed deeply as the dizziness subsided. “Twice?” I whispered. ”How did I not know that?”