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Chapter 3: The Great Golf Shoe Heist

I had just banged a wedge off the side of the caged jeep about 90 yards out. Harley, the range ball picker, let out a bellowing howl. We waved to each other, and he drove on. It was about 9:00 the next morning after my interesting lesson from Mark. I was hitting balls, trying to straighten out my swing. Mark’s lesson had made sense to me the day before. If I was going to give into the temptation to analyze my swing and find a mechanical solution, I needed to do it at the driving range and not on the course. I was certain that I was getting the clubface open at the top. I was making a conscience effort to keep the clubface perpendicular to my target as I reached the top of my swing. While I was finding moderate success with this new idea in my head, it still didn’t feel completely right.

I spent the first 15 minutes just working on my wedges and short irons. That helped me get into a rhythm. I could never understand it when I would see someone come in with just a driver and buy a large basket of balls. They were making it awfully tough on themselves.

I enjoyed aiming at the ball picker. It was good for my short game and it felt good deep down inside. After all the hours, I had spent as a moving target picking balls when I was younger, it felt good to be on the other end of it now.

Harley soon had the baskets on the ball picker full and drove behind the protective fence on the left side of the range. He began unloading the large baskets of balls into his maintenance cart. I stopped aiming at him and kept on with my practice. After I was in a groove with my short irons, I began to hit my five-iron. Maybe it was because I no longer had Harley as a target, but I began to struggle with my swing. He had stopped picking balls. I had lost my touch. I was topping the ball on one swing and chunking it on the next.

I tried to go back to the basics. I shortened my swing a little and just tried to hit the ball straight. After hitting about 15 balls with my five-iron and a three-quarter swing, I started to make better contact. I guess it just takes time. I could hear the sound of a cart behind me as I took my next swing. The sound of an approaching golf cart is one that is recognizable, yet easy to blame for a poor swing. It is probably one of the most common sounds and equally common excuses. The sound of the cart stopped, and I continued to hit balls. I tried so hard to block out the sound of the cart that I never thought about who it was.

“You’d be all right if you would get your belly button through before you hit the ball,” said Harley from behind me. He was standing beside his maintenance cart watching me swing. Standing confidently in his mud-stained overalls, the sleeves and collar of his yellow golf shirt poked out in contrast. He wore a faded blue PING baseball cap. It only left his head when he wiped the sweat from his brow.

Harley was smart and as eccentric as he was intelligent. He was in his late forties and had retired early from a nuclear plant in Arizona. He supposedly had some sort of mental breakdown. He apparently made a fair amount of money because he got by on next to nothing working as a greens keeper and range picker. He was actually a pretty decent golfer.

“My belly button?” I asked.

“Yeah, imagine that there is a bungee cord connecting the end of your club to your belly button. That way, the club face is bungee jumping from your belly,” he replied.

“OK, thanks Harley.” I wanted to humor him, but I really didn’t need any more advice.

“Well, Alice needs more balls,” he said, as he turned and walked toward his cart loaded with baskets of range balls.

Alice ran the driving range and kept Harley on his toes. She was like a grandmother. She looked out for everyone, but she was also sharp as a tack. You couldn’t fool Alice. Harley drove off in his cart to wash the balls. He really had some strange ideas about the golf swing. His swing was flat and long. He usually scored in the low 70s though, so there must have been something to it. Perhaps it was simply his confidence. He was never one to display any self-doubt, and confidence goes a long way on the golf course. I was just the opposite, obsessed with self-analysis and doubts.

John had just finished drooling over a lesson about 30 yards down from me on the large grass tee. Sometimes I think that the only reason he gave lessons was to get dates. He had an understanding with Alice that she would push the men who wanted lessons to Mark or Andy. Since she answered the phone at the range most often, she did virtually all of the scheduling of lessons. This arrangement kept John with almost entirely female students. Most of them were cute, too. As John accepted the lady’s $40 and her phone number, he waved goodbye and walked over to me.

“She wasn’t bad looking,” I said.

“Not bad? She was great,” he said. “Did you see that ass?”

“No, I missed it.”

“Oh, it was awesome,” he replied.

John grabbed some of the balls out of my basket and dropped them a few yards to my left. He began hitting little pitch shots to a sewer lid with his sand wedge.

“Did you hear Harley’s new thought for the day?” I

asked him.

“No, what is it today?”

“Something about the club being tied to your belly button with a bungee cord,” I said.

“Shit, he’s a strange one,” said John.

“Yeah, and you said Mark has a funny teaching style,” I replied.

“No, Mark’s OK. He straightened me out a while ago with this drill when I wasn’t turning all the way,” said John. “I’ll show you. Hand me your driver and a towel.”

He teed a ball up as high as he could and then dropped my towel on the ground. He bent down and knelt on the towel as he waggled the driver. From his kneeling position, he addressed the ball. Then, he swung back and then around, knocking the ball 240 yards straight out. It was amazing.

“If I can do that with just my upper body, think how little you need to use your lower body,” he said as he stood up.”

As if I didn’t have enough thoughts in my head already. Mark’s lesson yesterday, my analysis today, Harley’s bungee jumping idea, and now this.

“Yeah, that makes sense,” I said, trying to be nice and hoping John would drop it.

“Here, you give it a try,” said John as he backed away from the towel.

“I’m not sure that would be a good idea,” I replied.

“Do it, you wimp,” he said firmly. “It can’t hurt you.”

“Gee thanks,” I answered as I stepped toward him. Reluctantly, I carefully knelt down on my towel. I addressed the ball and made a couple of slow practice swings. It felt really awkward. Finally, I swung.

My club hit the ground about a foot behind ball and then skipped over it. I couldn’t help but to laugh at myself.

“Try it again, and concentrate on the ball,” John said. With the ball still teed, I took a shorter swing. The club head flew under the ball popping it straight up about thirty feet. It landed 20 yards in front of us.

“Fore!” said Paul who was now standing behind us.

“I think I’ll stick to standing on my feet for now,” I said in complete embarrassment.

“You guys are always up to something,” said Paul.

“Yeah, so are you old man,” I said as I put my driver

away.

John and I started hitting balls normally now. Paul was watching John’s swing and asking him about it. I enjoyed the lack of attention for the moment and continued with my practice. After a few minutes of quiet practice, Paul broke the silence.

“Since you guys can hit the ball from your knees, I got a good bet for you today,” said Paul.

“What is it?” asked John, who never passed on a golf wager.

Paul walked in front of where John was hitting and dropped a quarter on the ground.

“I bet you guys each a dollar that you can’t make a full swing and hit the quarter with the butt of the grip during the down swing,” said Paul.

John and I thought for a few seconds. Each of us was trying to decide if it was possible. Finally, John said, “That’s impossible. We can’t win.”

“No, it’s definitely possible,” said Paul. “To prove it, I’ll do it after you guys try. And I don’t win unless I do it. You’re not afraid of an old man are you?”

“Sounds fair,” I said.

“Yeah, you’re on,” said John.

I stepped up and addressed the quarter, holding my five-iron upside down. I was gripping the shaft just below the club head with the grip touching the ground. I waggled the club a couple of times, concentrating on the quarter. I looked at Paul to see if I was on the right track.

“You didn’t say how we had to hold the club,” I said looking for assurance.

“Hold it any way you want,” Paul replied.

Then I went ahead and swung. The grip of the club went flying about five inches over the quarter.

“You whiffed,” said John.

“Yeah, I noticed,” I replied in disgust. “One down. One to go,” said Paul.

John then walked over and addressed the quarter.

“I got this figured out boys,” said John.

He focused on the quarter with a regular grip. Then he took the club back fast. As he brought the club down, he bent down very low and swung the butt of the grip towards the quarter on the ground. The grip hit the ground about six inches past the quarter. As John tried to follow through and let the club head swing around and up, he fell forward and rolled over, landing on his back.

“He’s an acrobat as well as a golf professional,” said Paul.

“I give it an 8.5,” I said.

“All right Paul, let’s see you do it,” said John with a bitter tone, climbing back to his feet.

“OK,” said Paul as he addressed the quarter. “You had the right idea, John. You were just a little quick.”

Paul then took the club back the way he normally would, but then he started his down swing in extreme slow motion. He slowly bent down and pressed the butt of the grip against the quarter. Then, he stood up and made a normal follow through.

“That will be a dollar each,” he said.

“That’s not fair,” I said.

“Sure it is,” answered Paul. “I said a full swing. I didn’t say what it had to look like or how fast it had to be.”

“That’s a cheap one, Paul,” said John.

Admitting defeat, we each handed over our dollar. It wasn’t often that John lost a bet on his golf swing. He began hitting balls again to reassure himself of his ability. I took a break from hitting balls and joined Paul as we watched John make his graceful swings. There was something rewarding about watching an excellent golfer swing.

Paul began telling me one of his stories about an old friend from the Birdie Hunters who was a jokester. I wasn’t paying complete attention to him. Sometimes his stories would run together in my mind. As he talked to me, I could hear the garage door to the back of the driving range open. A few moments later, Harley came riding up the cart path again and stopped behind us.

“I’m going to grab a bite to eat. Anyone want anything?” Harley asked.

We all told him that we were fine. Then, I saw Harley reach into the back of the cart and reach for something. There was some loud rattling, which caused John to stop hitting balls, and we all looked to see what he was doing. The noise stopped and Harley raised his arms out of the cart. He was holding up the weather vane that I had knocked off its perch the evening before. I got a little nervous, thinking that my secret would now come out.

“Look fellas. The damn storm blew down the weather vane last night. Isn’t nature wild?” said Harley.

“Yeah, that is something,” said Paul.

“I’m going to take it back up to the clubhouse. I might be able to get it back up on the barn,” he said.

“I wouldn’t go climbing around on the roof of the barn,” said Paul.

John and I both cracked smiles, trying to refrain from laughing.

“Maybe a golf ball hit it,” suggested John. I could feel my face turning red.

“No way a golf ball hit it,” said Paul. “Had to be that storm.”

“Nature is awesome, man,” said Harley as if mystified. He placed the weather vane back in his cart and headed towards the clubhouse.

“He’s a strange one,” said John.

Harley was one of a kind, but he really was a good guy. John made me squirm a little, but he was letting me get away with my secret. His generosity would no doubt require a payback.

As I stood next to Paul, I noticed that there was a woman in her fifties struggling with her swing further down in the grass. Paul was a widower and enjoyed talking to women around the course. He also could never resist giving out his advice to unsuspecting victims. He would never admit that, but we all knew it about him. I watched the woman roll her fifth consecutive ball along the ground.

“Hey Paul, that lady is having a hard time. Why don’t you give her a hand,” I said.

“No, I don’t give lessons. I don’t believe in giving advice to people who don’t ask for it,” he replied.

John looked up at me as he addressed a ball and rolled his eyes. We both knew better. John had nearly finished off my basket of balls when he decided to quit. I decided to work on my bunker shots for a while so grabbed the remaining balls and said goodbye to John and Paul. I walked down to the practice bunker and began hitting a few shots. After about 15 or 20 minutes, I was satisfied. If I wanted to get a round in before I had to work, I needed to head towards the clubhouse now. As I walked by the practice tee, I noticed Paul had just approached the woman. She was still rolling the ball.

“I couldn’t help but notice you were having a little trouble,” he said to her.

She seemed eager to listen to someone who thought they knew what they were talking about. Paul began lecturing the lady on the need for her head to remain still. It was good for him. Paul was at his best when he was walking the range, helping people who were struggling. It made him feel needed. I waved to him and began walking up the cart path.

The clubhouse was about 200 yards from the practice range. As I walked up the path, I began surveying the course. I was curious to know how busy it was. I hated playing when it was crowded. It didn’t look too bad yet. White Lake wasn’t exactly known for speedy play. Not that everybody who played there was slow, but all it took was a couple of groups to screw up the pace of play.

When I arrived at the clubhouse, there were two groups waiting on the first tee. I waved to Hank the starter, and he motioned to me to come over. I acknowledged him and started walking in his direction. I thought he might need me to cover while he went to the men’s room, but instead he wanted to show me something. He put his hand on my back and faced me toward the back nine. He raised his hand and pointed to the 15th tee.

“Cunningham has the water works on his pet project out there,” said Hank.

There were two bright yellow water works trucks and a backhoe parked behind the tee. Hugh Cunningham did not have many fans at White Lake. He lived to drop names and point out the fact that he had an MBA. He always checked the thermostat as soon as he arrived at the clubhouse to make sure it was set at 77 degrees. Any lower, and we’d be wasting money according to him.

He had wasted a sizable amount of money on a study to calculate the best temperature to which the clubhouse should be cooled. Engineers came down and measured the doors and windows. They counted the number of times the doors were opened and closed, and they brought in light meters and thermometers. It was quite an ordeal. Apparently, his brother-in-law worked for the contractor that did the study.

“What are they doing out there?” I asked.

“He’s got them tearing up the whole damn course checking for lead pipes,” answered Hank. “He says the drinking fountains might not be safe.”

It was then that Oscar, our other weekend starter, pulled up in a cart. Weekends were generally busy enough that we needed two starters for a while. Especially since Leo, our weekend ranger, was usually asleep out there. Oscar had been working as a starter for 12 years. He was friendly, but he had no tolerance for bullshit and had no problem letting people know it.

“That boy from downtown sure has torn the place up good,” said Oscar.

“Is Cunningham himself out there?” I asked.

“Not anymore,” Answered Hank. “He took a cart out to supervise for a while, but he came in and left in a hurry about 30 minutes ago.”

“Probably going to try some bullshit at one of the other courses,” said Oscar.

I agreed with Oscar and walked inside the clubhouse. Mark was in the pro shop straightening the displays and dusting them. He wasn’t just being diligent in his job, cleaning was a habit for him. Ashley had him well trained. We all called him the maid.

“So, we’ve got lead in our water?” I asked him jokingly.

“Cunningham has lead in his head,” replied Mark.

“So, are they going to replace all the pipes?” I asked.

“No, that would cost too much,” answered Mark. “If they turn out to be unsafe, he’s going to just rip out the water fountains and cap off the pipes with concrete.”

“No water fountains?” I asked with alarm.

“No water fountains,” replied Mark.

No water fountains on White Lake golf course would change everything. While most of the newer courses outside of the city had water jugs and cup dispensers in nicely built wooden stands; this was White Lake, a municipal golf course. It should have drinking fountains just like a park.

“I’m not going to get stuck filling up all those water jugs,” I said to Mark.

“I don’t think Cunningham plans on putting out any water jugs,” he responded.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, when I asked him about it, he said that the concession stand would soon be stocking more sizes of bottled water,” Mark answered. “And you know who sells them the bottled water.”

“Nicole Cunningham,” I answered. “Lisa said something about needing counter space for a bottled water display.”

As the governor’s daughter and first lady of the county golf courses, she treated them like her own private country clubs. She would bring her gaggle of friends to the courses to play with her for free.

“Sounds like a good deal all around for the Cunninghams,” said Mark.

“It’s illegal,” I responded. “Nobody cares,” said Mark.

“The Times might be interested,” I answered.

“Yeah, you go ahead and tell the paper,” responded Mark with a laugh. You’d be on the nightly news but out of a job.”

“Someone will catch him eventually,” I commented. “He almost caught me turning the air conditioning down this morning,” said Mark. “What happened?” I asked.

“As usual when it gets too hot in the clubhouse, I popped open the lock box on the thermostat with a screw- driver and turned the temperature down to 72 degrees. Just as I got back into the pro shop he walked in and of course checked it. I had no idea he would show up today.”

“What did he do?” I asked with a grin.

“Well, he accused me of changing it of course, but I told him that I didn’t have a key to the thermostat and didn’t know how it was changed. He went out to check on the water project for a while. He apparently called the county building maintenance from his cell phone because one of their guys showed up just as he came back in. Cunningham walked over to the thermostat with the maintenance guy and rather than using a key, the guy popped it open with a screwdriver.

“Oh great,” I said.

“Yeah, Cunningham walked back over to the pro shop and said to me, ‘You don’t need a key, do you?’ He told me that he would be having a more secure lock put in place.”

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I just played dumb,” responded Mark.

“Shouldn’t have been too hard,” I replied.

“Funny. You gonna play?” asked Mark.

“Yeah, I thought that I would try to squeeze in nine before work,” I said.

“It’s not too bad out there. Shouldn’t take you too long,” he said.

Mark was straightening the shoe display in the pro shop, and I leaned up against the counter. As we were talking, Harley walked in from the back door wearing his dirty overalls and carrying his golf bag.

“Are you going to play, Harley?” I asked.

“Yeah. What about you?”

“Sure. Let’s do it,” I said.

“Yeah, uh…OK. But I’ll have to clean my golf ball first,” said Harley.

“OK. Go tell Hank and I’ll meet you on the tee,” I said as he walked out the door to the patio where there was a ball washer.

I knew it would take Harley a few minutes to clean his ball. That’s singular. He had one ball. He carried one ball in his pocket and he kept it very clean. The ball had only one small scuff on the cover. Harley could tell you when and which tree it was that “hurt” the ball. It was really quite amazing. I had known him for two years, and he had been playing with the same Titleist the entire time. He kept a sleeve of new balls in his bag for emergencies, but they had never been touched.

Harley could really piss me off sometimes with the amount of time he would spend searching for his ball, bu he always found it. After all, there was no water on White Lake. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t spend more than a minute looking for a ball. I went through new balls like they grew on trees. Mark, John and Andy got so many balls from the sales reps that they always gave me their extras.

“What the hell are these?” asked Mark in a confused tone as he looked inside a shoebox.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

Mark was holding a Foot Joy box in his hand and had a blank look on his face.

“This box has a pair of dirty old shoes in it,” he said. “They’re not even Foot Joys.”

“What do you mean? They’re used?” I asked.

“Yeah. These are somebody’s shoes,” he said as he stood up and quickly looked around. “There was some guy over here looking at shoes about 15 minutes ago.”

Mark quickly walked around the corner of the display and scanned the grill area looking for anyone who might be trying on shoes. I walked into the men’s restroom to check, but it was empty.

“He’s nowhere,” said Mark.

“Shit. He’s probably long gone by now with his new pair of Foot Joys,” I said.

“Yeah. I imagine so. God-damned thief,” said Mark.

“Well, I don’t want to be around when Andy finds out you let someone walk out with a pair of shoes.”

“Thanks Bri,” he replied.

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