I was a better golfer as a 14-year-old than I’ve ever been since.
Now, that’s not a high bar. Though I can pull off a respectable round in the handful of times a year that I play, I consider a golf outing as more of a hike through nature. Once my drives start slicing, I’m hunting mushrooms, other long-lost golf balls, and the occasional 5-iron (probably hurled during a duffer’s tantrum long ago) in the woods beside the fairways. I can shoot double digits for an 18-hole round, with a few pars and maybe a birdie…or not.
But in the summer of ‘74, I played like a phenom, thanks to my old friend, Scott.
Our small-town gang consisted of country kids, with a meat-and-potatoes background in sports — sandlot baseball, driveway basketball, backyard football and a few scattered games of hockey on a frozen horse pond, in addition to Prairieton Nerfball League games in a 1900-era barn. A few of us wound up playing for youth league and school teams.
Meanwhile, Scott was learning the gentleman’s game, golf.
Scott progressed rapidly enough to get his picture in the Terre Haute newspaper after winning a flight in the junior city tournament.
So, a handful of us scrounged up our own sets of golf clubs. My dad snagged me a set, at a neighbor’s yard sale, complete with wooden shafts and a Scottish plaid bag. Soon, I was practicing my driving (the non-motorized kind) and chipping with whiffle golf balls in the backyard, and putting in the hallways of our house. Eventually, we tested our lessons on actual golf courses.
Sophistication had come to Prairieton.
None of us had driver’s licenses yet, so we relied on parents and older siblings for rides to the courses. One day, Scott’s sweet, patient mom, who worked in Terre Haute, agreed to drop us off at the Memorial Stadium Golf Course before her shift started at 8 a.m. By the time she picked us up shortly after 5 o’clock that afternoon, we’d played a ridiculous amount of golf. We begged her to continue that routine, and she consented. Thus, unless it was raining or we had chores to do, we golfed almost every day, totaling 36, 45 or even 54 holes by quitting time.
The Stadium course suited us ideally. Its nine-hole layout circumnavigated Memorial Stadium, and was bordered by traffic-filled city streets — Wabash and Brown avenues, and Locust and North 34th streets. Hecklers in passing cars were typical. It opened as a WPA project during the Great Depression and became an everyman’s golf course — inexpensive, unintimidating and accessible. Occasionally, our gang had to wait for a weekday senior league to finish before we could start. Otherwise we could just show up and play, no tee times necessary.
Scott became my golf mentor. Between our wisecracks, he demonstrated the basics of the game — how to turn the club face to prevent slicing or hooking a shot, position my feet, set my left elbow on the back swing, line up a putt and mark my ball on the green with a dime (or penny, if it was late in the afternoon and I’d already used up all my major coinage on Snickers bars and hot dogs as we loitered in the air-conditioned clubhouse).
We adapted our play to the Stadium course’s quirks. On one of its longest holes, we’d intentionally hit our tee shots toward the parking lot pavement (waiving the penalty strokes that should’ve been assessed), stretching those drives by an extra 50 yards. On another hole, if our shots soared over the old concrete wall surrounding ISU’s football complex, we’d scale the barrier, retrieve our ball and find dozens more.
The older Stadium regulars sometimes challenged us to a round. One guy played all nine holes with a putter, and won.
We did all that day after day, from June to July to August. The sheer repetition guaranteed we’d improve, but Scott’s pointers refined my primitive style. If I remember correctly, par at the Stadium course was 33 for nine holes, and by the end of the summer I’d hit that score a few times, as did the other guys.
Eventually, summer ended and school resumed. I never again played golf that much, or that well. Still, I’m able to muddle through a round without embarrassing myself (usually), thanks to that brief immersion in the game. Today, the grounds of the Stadium course, which closed in 2002, serve as a pedestrian trail. Life took our gang in various directions, but the high jinks and friendships from our small-town youth had deep roots. In recent years, Scott and I usually crossed paths when my wife and I, and another couple who are also close friends of Scott’s, ate dinner at the cafe where Chef Scott cooked a mean tenderloin and fries. We’d crack up, all over again, talking football and music (specifically guitars), spiced with Scott’s gregarious laugh.
The summer of ‘74 at the Memorial Stadium Golf Course, and the boyhood escapades, came rushing back last weekend when I heard the sad news that Scott Harvey Morgan had passed away, unexpectedly. I’m grateful now for those bygone days, which sometimes seem straight out of a Mark Twain novel.
And, if I happen to be golfing someday with my kids or friends, and I manage to successfully hit out of a sand trap onto the green, I’ll tip my cap to Scott … and then make a wisecrack. Just like we did all day long, all those summers ago. TNS