Ben Wright: Feeling Chipper

Christmas came early for me this year—on August 27, to be exact. Who would have thought an aging hacker, ailing with pneumonia and consigned to playing “game improvement” clubs, was capable of championship golf and highlight-reel theatrics? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all started when I ventured to Northern Michigan for Crystal Mountain Resort’s inaugural invitational tournament, for which I was to serve as “special guest.” I was charitably permitted to compete in the first two rounds, but my main roles would be after-dinner speaker and on-course commentator for the alternate-shot foursomes shootout that would comprise the event’s finale.

Crystal Downs Country Club. Photo by L. Lambrecht.

First, however, came a pilgrimage to Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell’s revered Crystal Downs layout nearby. My playing partners there—Brad Dean, Crystal Mountain’s director of golf; Dr. Roy Vamastik, a Crystal Downs member; and my good friend Michael Patrick Shiels, who is like a son to me—would each play a key role in the saga that unfolded that week.

Dean told me in no uncertain terms that my clubs—thin blade irons and shallow-faced metalwoods—could only be weapons of self-destruction at my advanced age. So, two weeks before my 73rd birthday, I purchased a set of brand-new Cobra fairway woods and irons—with senior-flex shafts—to go with my only previous concession to modern technology, a Cleveland 460cc Launcher driver.

Dr. Vamastik also had a few words for me. What I presumed to be merely a nagging cold—I had been suffering from it for the past week—he informed me might well be walking pneumonia. He wrote a prescription for Zithromax, and suitably outfitted and medicated, I soldiered on.

Over the next two days Shiels and I, receiving 38 handicap strokes between us, played Crystal Mountain well enough to make the 10-team cut for the final round. The nine-hole shootout began at the 10th hole of the resort’s Betsie Valley course. Michael and I vowed simply to avoid elimination at this treacherous, water-lined par-5, and Dean agreed to fulfill the commentator role until we were sent packing.

So, with balls flying in every direction, Shiels drove through the fairway and into the water. After a poorly judged drop into deep rough, I shanked a 6-iron into a similar fate. We were still facing a five-foot putt for an 8 when a pair of hapless opponents somehow amassed a sorry 10, keeping our chances alive.

Suddenly I experienced an odd feeling that we were destined to win. This brought a hearty laugh from Michael. But more than two hours later, there we were at the 18th hole, having survived two chipoffs and poised to take on a pair of skilled limberbacks named Rick Schmitt and Doug Ladd.

The momentum swung in each team’s favor with dizzying rapidity. Shiels drove long, but right into the forest. Amazingly, Ladd hooked his drive out of bounds. Schmitt re-teed and left a monstrous drive 50 yards short of the green. I found a two-foot-wide opening between trees and somehow bisected it to get our ball back in play. Ladd atoned for his earlier error with an exquisite pitch within two feet of the flag, guaranteeing a bogey 5. Shiels pushed our third shot right again, leaving me a chip off a patch of hardpan 20 yards from the hole.

Those next few moments felt like an out-of-body experience. My wedge shot landed halfway between the fringe and the flagstick—just as I had envisioned—and rolled straight into the hole for a miraculous par! When Dean approached me with the microphone, I was nearly speechless, able only to stammer, “Isn’t golf a crazy game?”