By Tom Dorsel, First published in SCNow
Just to let junior golfers know that us old-timers still remember our junior days, let me tell you about a David and Goliath scenario for this writer that came early in his golfing life.
I had just turned 16 years old and was facing an established veteran at the golf club in the first round of the men’s match-play club championship. Suffice it to say that I was lucky as a junior to have even qualified, and here I was up against a 2-handicap, feared competitor, who had been a semifinalist a number of times in this competition.
Through the eyes of a teenager, Gus seemed old enough to have been related to Old Tom Morris. In reality, he was somewhere in his 40s.
Yes, Gus was his name, same first letter as Goliath. He came across as a bit gruff, walking around somewhat hunched over like an old football player, probably a linebacker. He made me nervous just thinking about him.
A little Background
Back in those days, first-round matches were played in pairs on the weekend, to get early matches over as quickly as possible.
Our companion match that day involved Big John (a No. 1 college player and city champion) vs. a guy named Red (Gus’s good friend), who was about as likely to beat Big John as I was to beat Gus.
So, off we went at the appointed tee time, Gus and Red riding together in a cart, while Big John and I walked carrying our bags. Gus and Red, for opposite reasons, were so disinterested in their respective matches that they set up a side match between themselves, right there on the first tee.
On the ninth tee, I said to myself, “Tom, why don’t you win just one hole? Can you win just one?” Surprisingly, I settled down and won the ninth with a birdie.
Going to the 10th tee, I said, “How about one more?” I won that one, too. But, could I win yet another hole? Yes, at the 11th, and then again at the 12th and 13th. At the 14th hole, a par-5, I sank one from out of the sand for a birdie, putting me 1-up after winning six consecutive holes.
In the meantime, Big John was beating the tar out of Red, and their match was effectively over. Still they went on with us, enjoying that I had finally gotten Gus’s attention. Indeed, Red was mocking his old friend, saying, “Gus, I hope he takes you a whole bunch of extra holes.”
However, on the 15th hole, Gus responded with a win. Match now even. I followed with a long winning putt on the 16th to go back 1-up. But Gus made a knee-knocker putt on the 17th to tie the match once again.
So, down the 18th we go, all even. I don’t know what Gus was thinking at this point (there wasn’t much conversation), but I’m in a daze. Here I am, 16-year-old David in a position to take down Goliath. Can I finish it off? Will I hyperventilate and collapse before I get to the green?
Down the Stretch
Gus, having won the 17th, has the honor on the 18th tee and promptly duck hooks one over into the adjacent 12th fairway. He is now a long way from home, while I somehow hit my best drive of the day, long and straight.
Big John and I stride up the 18th fairway, as Gus, with Red sitting in the cart beside him, hits one up short of the green. I find my ball only about 8-iron distance from the green, and I pull out a 4-iron. John looks at me quizzically, as if to say it was a little too much club, but I thought, “I just feel like I need a 4-iron.”
I’m reminded of Ben Hogan, who said he didn’t like yardage markers in the fairway because, “What if I feel like hitting a 2-iron and then find out it is only 150 yards to the green. What am I going to do? My confidence in my club selection would be shattered.”
So, I took the 4-iron, probably thinking that I had to over-club to make sure I got it there. Big John just said, “Keep your head down.”
I hit the 4-iron, kept my head down, but I hit it a little heavy (fat, chunky, etc.), and it went about a far as a well-struck 8-iron, ending up about 10 feet right of the pin!
Gus, seeing the writing on the wall, chunked his pitch shot still short of the green, chipped up from there, but was now lying 4 shots to my 2 shots. At that point, he walked up, picked up my ball and handed it to me, thereby conceding my putt and the match. He simply said, “Good match, Tommy.” I didn’t know till then that he even knew my name.
I was numb, not knowing what to say. I was just happy I didn’t have to putt it, because I was shaking so much I might have 4-putted.
As the match unfolded, word must have spread because a small crowd had assembled around the 18th green. Curiously, one notable absentee was my dad. He knew I never liked him watching me compete, so he was home, but someone called him and told him he better get out here for the finish of this match.
I later found out that he was up in the locker room, which was close to the 18th green, standing on a stool watching out of a small raised window in the showers. Perfect. He got to see it, and I didn’t know he was there. However, from that point on I was always looking for him in the bushes or hiding somewhere behind a tree.
Of course, I’ll never forget Gus and will always be thankful to him for this unforgettable memory. And he was really not some kind of ogre. In fact, he used to travel to some of our junior tournaments and offer support. He just didn’t have a lot of time for a 16-year-old opponent in the men’s club championship … up till then, anyway!
Later at one of the junior events, Gus was standing green-side next to my fellow junior, Andy, both watching me hit out of a sand trap on the 18th. Andy said something a little mischievous like, “This might be trouble; Tommy’s not very good out of the sand.”
Gus just kind of “harumphed” and lumbered off, presumably remembering my fortuitous sand-play of yesteryear.