Memories of my youth were rekindled in a glorious golf reunion
Reunions only work when the people you’re reuniting with are just as sentimental and just as energized as you are to go back in time to rehash old memories and share with each other what made you such everlasting friends in the first place.
Of course, reunions come at all times in life and any time of year. Right now we’re in the season of hope, during which a reunion with family and friends can be the cause for optimism and renewal.
I am still in the afterglow, however, and will be until the final embers die out, following a golf reunion in mid-summer that, along with a nine-hole round with my daughter, was the highlight of my 2017 golf season. It came at a perfect time in my life when I needed a positive event to happen. It was a reunion that measured up to my stated conditions of all hearts aflutter and every emotion engaged. And it was a reunion that passed the Chat Test: we were able to jump into the chatter and conversation like we’d been conversing regularly in the decades since we'd last played.
The reunion connected my high-school years with my midlife self—which I’m working on restarting career-wise—so it came at the right time to reflect on my life to this point. If you were fortunate to start golf at a young age, during which you developed friendships with your junior golf buddies, imagine in your 50s getting to play another weekend of golf with your mates all grown up. And picking up with the banter about life events as if you had just played the previous weekend.
That’s what happened in what was actually a two-fold reunion. One was my 40th Bloomington (Ill.) High School (BHS) reunion, but that was just the undercard to the main event: having my high school and college golf buddies come to play a couple rounds, and if possible, re-create a photograph that ran in the local paper of us as junior golfers.
When Rick Gilbert, Pete Wofford and I began emailing at the start of 2017 about coming from Texas, South Carolina and Connecticut to meet in the Midwest for our 40th, the pre-reunion emails focused on concerns about hair loss, weight gain, and shaky golf games. But I had a problem that both Rick and Pete didn’t have. My game was as dead as a doornail, to quote my favorite Christmas Carol man Dickens, compared to them. They were first string, I was second, at BHS. They played college golf at Illinois State University, I worked at the ISU golf course and wrote about golf for the student paper. They had pro aspirations, I wanted to write about sports and, primarily, golf. Meeting up for golf after decades away had me a nervous wreck. How bad was my golf game going to be in comparison? What upped the anxiety level was hearing that another junior golf friend but not a BHS alum, Kevin Schwulst, was going to drive down from Chicago to join us for one round.
The three of us knew darn well that golf was going to be the main attraction in Illinois. We scheduled golf at two childhood courses in town, The Weibring Golf Club at Illinois State University and Highland Park Golf Course. For sure our fourth at ISU was PGA professional and former ISU golf coach Harland Kilborn, which officially made me the worst guy in the group either round.
As the first round on July 28 arrived, the butterflies kicked in as I pulled into the ISU parking lot on a gorgeous summer day, and more comfortable than I remember Illinois feeling in the summer time. What would the first sighting be like? Rick's wife Cindy (aka C.J.) was joining us. Would she and the guys recognize me? No worries, we had big smiles all around. We were so busy talking that we didn't actually get to the first tee in "ready" mode. Playing with my old mates felt comfortable, but other-worldly at the same time. I can report that golf that weekend was the first time I recall ever wanting a four-hour round to feel like six. The holes went by too fast, the rounds too quickly ended.
From a golf standpoint, I wanted everything to be perfect, but sadly I have to confess that the swing I thought was working well in practice didn't make it to Illinois. First of all, that queasy, awful feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I play with golfers much better than me was there in full force, on top of the anxiety of the situation, and it never completely left me. Sadly, too, my old swing habits of coming over the top and releasing the club early were in full vigor both rounds and I was an even-bogey shooter for the most part. Rick, on the other hand, was killing it, Pete consistently inconsistent because of lack of play, Harland solid, and Kevin was striping it after a slow start. But as golf will do, I closed out the final hole on July 29 with my best stuff. The par-4 18th at Highland has a scary tee shot with a highway OB right. I put my drive down with the big boys, hit one close, and had the stage all to myself to knock in a 10-footer for birdie, but had to settle for par.
All their swings are now on my phone and I am going to study them to see what good habits of theirs I can borrow for my own swing. That, curiously, was a bonus to our reunion. When we played in high school and college, we never “talked swing.” But after reading 30 years of instruction galleys with Golf Digest, and seeing the guys’ motion again, with what I know now, I would have liked to have picked their brains about our swings.
But after all that time apart, lack of time became our enemy that weekend. Kevin had to get back to Chicago, I needed to get to the Quad Cities, and it was time to break up the party. But when Kevin was in for a round, our goal was to accomplish one of the neatest things we could have done. In July 1978, in the Bloomington Junior City golf tournament, Rick beat Kevin in a playoff to win the 17-18 division. Pete was third and yours truly, well, true to form I was in the supporting cast, caddieing for Rick.
The local paper, The Pantagraph, which I would later write sports for after graduating from ISU, ran a photo of the four of us after the match on July 12, 1978, four teenagers who’d just concluded a memorable day on the golf course, the place where are bonds of friendship were tightened over and over again.
For weeks leading up to the reunion, we said we had to re-create the photo, we just needed to get a break in the golf action and the wherewithal for each of us to pose as he had in '78. C.J., who was as endearingly into the reunion as the rest of us, and later sent all of us a photo book of the trip, set up the pose during a play stoppage on the fourth tee at Highland Park, our main childhood course and where Rick had witnessed my double eagle on No. 2 in the 1980s. The mid-morning sun was perfect light; had to be the best summer weather day of the year. We got into our poses like we’d modeled our entire lives, and now when I stare at the two photos side by side, the emotion of wishing to be young again washes over me like water from a Winged Foot showerhead. Gone are the fresh-faced kids, but to our credit, you can see how the joy in the reunion is making us feel young even if we don’t look it.
I can’t wait for us to do it again.