High Knuckle Fades

Spencer Deck

     
   

        All through the opening round, Alex paced through the motions mindlessly—reciting to Teddy the depths, widths, and slopes of greens, approximating wind directions and speeds, cleaning grooves with shards of broken tees, drying grips, raking bunkers, replacing divots—while Teddy pured shot after shot and strode confidently down the fairways of Orange County National Golf Club on his way to a sixth place 67—five under par.
        Teddy Stevens, Alex’s old roommate and teammate at the University of Florida, had surprised him with a phone call a week earlier telling him that he’d holed out from the 18th fairway in the second round of qualifiers and earned a spot in Q-School Finals—a six round marathon where over a hundred and fifty golfers would compete for twenty-five spots on the next year’s PGA Tour.
        “It’s not ‘the show,’” Teddy said. “but it’s close enough for you to get your skinny ass down to Orlando. Daddy needs a looper.”
        “Next week?” Alex said. “You want me to caddie next week?”
        “You promised.”
        “That was like three years—”Alex stopped himself and leaned back in his desk chair. “I was tripping face, man.”
        “No, no, no. Tripping or no tripping. Come on, I need you on the bag. OC is like seventy-six hundred yards from the tips. If my dad has to loop it six days in a row, he’s going to stroke out. Do you want that on your conscience?”
        “Shit,” Alex said. He looked around his office and over at the cubicle next to his, where Kathy Jameson ate a Lean Cuisine and listened to Rush Limbaugh’s podcast. It wasn’t like he had any real reason not to go, or anyone to spend a weekend with in Raleigh anymore. He’d screwed that up nice and thoroughly. Bottom line was, he knew Teddy would do it for him. “The hotel room is on you.”
        He caught sight of Teddy the day before the opening round of finals on the southwest side of the Orange County practice facility—a circular driving range that was so massive it seemed more intimidating than either of the two courses. Alex pulled the cart into a small lined spot behind Teddy’s marked place on the range and watched him hit a few balls. Aside from Teddy hitting a fade now, instead of his signature draw, his ball flight seemed higher, more piercing than it ever had. His lower body movement, always swift, now had a tremendous torque to it, his 6’5” core rifling through the ball. Teddy was killing the ball. The situation started to make sense. While Alex’s skills had topped out at twenty, Teddy was just now coming up on his prime.
        “When did you start ripping the ball?” Alex said, walking up behind Teddy. “Fucking sandbagger.”
        Teddy turned around and smiled. “Look at this kid. Somebody quit going to the gym.” He rested his driver against his bag and hugged Alex. “Thanks for coming out, man. Gonna be a wild week, eh?”
        All around Alex were old pros and All-Americans tooling their swings. And then there was Teddy, who somehow seemed older, too. His faced had squared off and his brown mop-top was cut down. “Your swing looks good. Except for those bitch-fades you’re hitting.”
        “Don’t hate on the swing. High knuckle fade, baby.” He waved his hand in the air from left to right, mimicking the ball flight. “The universal way of saying hello. I’m hooked on them like swing crack.”
        Alex laughed. “The fade can be a wicked bitch, though.”
        Initially, Alex’s relative excitement about being a part of Finals was curbed by his fear he’d probably have to stand right there and watch if Teddy’s dream—much like his—folded right in front of him. But it didn’t.
        In the rounds that followed his opening 67, Teddy needed him even less, if that was possible, and Alex felt like little more than a living, breathing golf cart. Alex hadn’t expected to be much of a resource to Teddy, but their player-caddie relationship on the course wasn’t the same as it was off. Teddy was focused, walking ahead of Alex down the fairway, asking for yardages and not club-recommendations, not seeking any encouragement or advice. Alex felt useless, removed, along for the ride, and he resented Teddy a little because of that. After Teddy’s second round, he was the talk of the tournament. He started to take dinner meetings with sponsors, leaving Alex back at the hotel while Teddy brushed shoulders with reps from Nike and Adams. Even this didn’t faze his game in the least. His swing never wavered as he split fairways, hunted pins and drained putts. He ground out two rounds of three-under 69—leaving him at eleven-under after three rounds, five shots ahead of the twenty-five man cutoff and only two shots behind David Duvall and leading the whole damn thing.
        Alex hadn’t played Orange County since the summer after college, when all the shine had faded away from his Titleist blades and they looked like old tarnished family silver, cloudy and nicked by bunker sand. On the faces were dime-sized sweet spots the color of new rust, beaten into existence by thousands upon thousands of scuffed black stripe balls on the range.
        The putter left Alex late in his senior season at Florida. The yips. It was in his head. By the time he left school it had spread to the rest of his game like an infection—first his tee ball, then pitching, short and long irons, and finally, his patience. He spent the next year playing mini-tour events, which were basically organized gambling, but never made a single cut. Since then he’d been back home in Raleigh hawking insurance and cultivating a bitterness towards the game for having been so bad to him when he’d loved it so much, for turning its back on him after he worshipped it so completely. Golf was not a just god.

                 

        They had driven through the night, their Saturday grounds badges tucked away neatly in the glove box beneath four grams of liberty gold cap mushrooms. Stopping at a gas station outside Augusta at 7 a.m., they watched local folk stop in for coffee while they cut the mushrooms up with kitchen scissors and sprinkled the pieces into plastic Chunky Soup cups, suppressing their distasteful faces like youthful whiskey sippers.
        The tickets were an early graduation present from Teddy's uncle, and Alex had picked up the mushrooms off of an Australian from the swim team for $75.  It was senior year and organic psychedelics didn’t show up on NCAA urine tests.
        “This is going to be fucking epic,” Teddy said, shoveling the clam chowder in heaps with a plastic spoon.
        When they arrived at the gate, they had, by Teddy’s calculations somewhere between twenty and thirty minutes before the effects would take hold. Alex stopped at the entrance to the huge white gates and snapped a picture of the sign: “Welcome to the 2005 Masters.” There it was, the threshold to the holy land of golf. They had proclaimed themselves students of a lifetime game, and they had come now to bow their heads reverently at the altar of the perfect course.
        They took to the fairways when they felt the trip coming on, tee-time sheets folded and stuffed into the back pockets of their khakis. The sun lowered a piercing sheet of reflection that glazed the length of the dew covered fairway at Augusta’s seventh. Alex watched the ground breathe—up and down it pulsed, seeming to grow in front of him like a million perfect weeds. He slipped off his sandals so he could feel the land between his toes.
        Teddy spotted Tiger Woods through the pine trees as he approached the green at the third. “There he is,” Teddy said. “Good god.”
        “Look at him,” Alex said. “He’s fucking regal. Look at his posture.”
        “He’s like the next step in evolution. There’s the fully upright guy, then it’s Tiger.”
        They were waiting for Martin Pendergrass to tee off—a junior at Oklahoma State who’d won the British Amateur and an automatic spot in the tournament. Alex had played with him once, and the kid beat the hell out of the ball.
“God, he’s so young,” Teddy said as Martin walked by them toward his ball in the fairway.
        “This is worse than the first time I was older than the centerfold in Playboy,” Alex said. “I can’t believe he’s in the Masters already. That’s not even a little bit fair.”
        Teddy was biting his nails furiously and looked as though he’d made up his mind about something important but was working through the details.
        “What are you thinking about?” Alex said. “You’re creeping me out.”
        “Me?” Teddy said, startled. “I don’t know. Lunch mostly.”
        Seeing Martin there triggered something inside Alex and made him feel like more of a fan than he ever wanted to. He wanted to be a part of Augusta, not watch everyone else be a part of it. He realized the fan within him never wanted to go to Augusta as an observer, never wanted to be an observer at all. Golf meant more to him than that. He couldn’t help but carry the feeling with him through the day that, apart from the effects the mushrooms and the beer and the roar of the crowd, he didn’t belong there; that, for a kid raised on fairways, crossing the threshold of Augusta National without earning it was forgoing some ancient and holy tradition; that walking outside the yellow ropes was like looking into heaven through one-way glass.
        After Martin passed, they picked up lunch and moved to a ridge in the gallery on thirteen, right in the middle of “Amen Corner,” eating the customary pimento cheese sandwiches, washed down with the cool crisp of a light beer. They sat atop the ridge amongst the throng of fold out chairs—empty but placed perfectly in line. Teddy was pestering Alex with hypotheticals as they ate.
        “You know this Martin thing has got me doing some thinking.” Teddy took a sip from his beer. “Promise me if you ever make it back here I can have the bag. I just want to wear one of those white caddy jumpsuits. I don’t care what I have to do.”
        Alex held the half-eaten sandwich in front of him, estimating the distance between it and his mouth. His hand felt unconnected to his control, yet was somehow guided to his mouth for a bite when he called upon it. Teddy was leaning forward, trying to break Alex’s line of sight.
        “You gotta take my bag, too. Promise!” Teddy said, the skin around his wide eyes swollen as he took a bite of his sandwich. “Nobody understands how important this is but us.”
        “Sure,” Alex said, staring at the mass of azaleas that dominated the high mound behind the 13th green. Even in the height of his trip, he still managed to picture himself embracing Teddy in his white jumpsuit on the 18th green.
        “We’ve got to get each other’s bags. Nobody else fucking gets it, man,” Teddy said. “Nobody but us.”


        After a two under fourth round, Teddy was tied for 11th place at thirteen under par, with a healthy cushion of six shots separating him and the cutoff. He’d drawn an afternoon tee-time and insisted on getting “a little loaded” before bed to calm his nerves.
        Drifting into familiarity with Teddy was easy. It reminded Alex of the nights during freshman year when they would get dressed up in blue blazers, slacks and loafers, and sit in their dorm room with a case of Steel Reserve, watch movies and drink themselves into stupidity.
        Alex poured them each a few fingers of Jack into the thin Styrofoam cups by the coffee machine. Teddy dropped himself tiredly into an armchair adjacent to the far bed. “You playing much lately?” Teddy said, taking a sip from his whiskey.
         “I’ll beat some at the range after work every now and again,” Alex said. He handed Teddy his drink and sat down on the side of the bed. “But I don’t get out too often anymore. Flexibility is pathetic.”
        “Ah come on, sweetheart. You quit stretching, too?”
        Alex sipped slowly from his cup before placing it on the nightstand. “Don’t give me that shit. Who couldn’t touch his toes first day of practice?”
        Teddy grinned. “Well I’m crazy limber now. Met this girl back in Jupiter that’s got me doing yoga.”
        “Yeah?”
        “Hell yeah. Twice a week. I’m full lotus—the works. But those places are traps, man. I know I’m gonna end up trying to bang the instructor.”
        “Poor girl.”
        “Which one?”
        “Both.”
        “It was her idea from the start. I’m a victim of the circumstance.”
        Alex laughed quietly.
        They drank a few more glasses each and watched SportsCenter until the hour was over and the highlights and commentary started repeating.
        “What ever happened to that brunette you were seeing?” Teddy said as Alex filled his glass. “The law student. Bitch was blowing up your Facebook like Cambodia.”
        “Wised up,” Alex said. “Got a job in Nashville. I thought about going with her til I realized I wasn’t invited.”
        Alex was telling the truth, too. She’d wised up and he knew she would. He couldn’t fool her as well as he’d fooled himself. As much as he hated to admit it, that bitterness he felt towards golf settled itself over the better part of his life like house dust. The one thing Alex realized after golf slipped away was that the future didn’t mean what it used to. In the year since he’d moved to Raleigh, he’d felt no great change in himself, only fluctuations in his desire to be someone other than who he’d become.
        Alex filled his cup again. “So when did the swing come around?”
        “You know,” Teddy said. “I’m not totally sure. Was working on a swing plane system for a while with this guy out of Boca, which was a total fucking bust. Then I started working with Ken Stuvall, from Marsh Dunes in Jupiter and he set me right—had me slaving short game and hitting a thousand putts a day. Took my head out of it. Long game just came along for the ride, I guess. It was weird. Six months ago I’m posting mid-seventies—scraping it around like some pro-shop dickhead.”
        “Yeah, I know the feeling.” Alex stared down into the bottom of his glass.
        When he looked up at Teddy, he felt jealousy pour onto him like dumped water. He didn’t blame Teddy, but it pulled at some hidden string to watch a friend do something he knew he’d never do. Even the liquor couldn’t cloud his thoughts enough to make him forget what it meant to feel like failure.
        “Couple more rounds, man, and we’re home,” Teddy said. He drained his cup and walked past Alex on his way to the bathroom, punching him lightly on the base of his shoulder.


        Teddy cruised through the fifth round on the Crooked Cat course in an effortless round—a few birdies, a few bogeys—to an even par 72, leaving his cushion at six shots. He seemed to be biding his time until the end, letting his swing play the course and taking his medicine. It was the most beautiful even par he’d ever seen; it reminded Alex of Augusta; it reminded him he wanted to be taking the swings.
        At the range before the sixth and final round the collective impacts smacked concurrently like bubble wrap. Some of the guys who’d played themselves out of it sat back with coaches or caddies and talked ‘next year’ or Monday qualifiers; the bigger names would get sponsors exemptions, free passes—the perks of having been there or done that. For the rest of them, Alex was sure, it was mental mayhem set to sport.
        There were twenty or so within shouting distance of the cut and today would decide whether they made the PGA, or fall back into the anonymity of the minor league Nationwide Tour. He could see the hitches in their swings as they over-hooked drives and hit fat wedges, sending plots of turf flying into the air in front of them as though they were loosening up their spines for a friendly Saturday foursome. Teddy seemed calmer than ever, and Alex was waiting to congratulate him, maybe celebrate a little, and go back to where he could be comfortably surrounded by mediocrity.
        Standing on the first tee at the Panther Lake course, the longer of the two at Orange County, Alex and Teddy shook hands with Duff Muckler, the other member of their twosome, and his caddy—an old weathered pro who hardly spoke a word. Number one was a dogleg left par four with a trio of nasty bunkers down the right side, but a relatively short approach shot if Teddy could stay out of trouble.
        He handed Teddy the driver. “Bunkers right edge 246, 293 to carry,” Alex said, looking down at his yardage book.
        Teddy nodded. “Fade off that left tree set?”
        “I like it,” Alex said, as he had on every tee box all week. He pulled the bag up and stood off to the side by Muckler’s caddy.
        Teddy got quick with it, pushing it way right and Alex watched it sail into the bunker, disappearing.
        He’s swinging with his head, Alex thought.
        “Dammit,” Teddy said. “That looks plugged.”
        It was. Wedged between sand and sod was the barely visible circle of white that was Teddy’s ball. He was going to have to take an unplayable lie, give up the stroke, and drop in the bunker for his third. Teddy didn’t seem too concerned, but a plugged lie in a bunker off the first tee was never a good omen for a final round.
        He struck a decent 6-iron out of the bunker to thirty feet and two-putted for his bogey. He found the pine trees with another bad tee-shot on two, lipped out two putts under six feet on three and four, and managed to find the water on five, leaving him five over for his round. There wasn’t another leader board posting until the ninth tee box, but Alex figured Teddy’s cushion was down to one or two shots at best. Teddy’s reliable fade had exaggerated itself into a rip cut, losing yardage and any sense of control. Teddy’s pace slowed as he tried to be more deliberate, methodical with his routine. The same result lingered.
        As the group ahead of them waited in the fairway for the green to clear at the par five sixth, Teddy turned to Alex. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on. Do you see anything?”
        This was the first time Teddy asked him anything in the arena of advice. It caught him off-guard. “Um, well,” Alex said. He thought for a second. “Your hips are going through like crazy. Slow down. Let the swing take you to the ball.”
        Teddy nodded.
        “Keep that as a swing thought. Last thing: let the swing do the work. Get out of your head.”
        His tee shot on six was much better and it looked like he could get there in two, take a run at eagle and put this start behind him. Alex let out a quick sigh of relief when he watched it leave the clubface. “Good ball,” he said. He picked up the bag and walked with Teddy down the tee box towards the fairway. Teddy hit two-iron to forty feet and two-putted for his birdie.
        He made a couple close pars before a miracle par save at nine from the deep bunker, making the turn in four over par. He looked white as a ghost as he saw the scoreboard at the clubhouse. His cushion for the twenty-five-man cutoff had dropped to a single shot. At nine-under for the tournament, he was now on the bubble.
        On the tenth tee box, Alex could see that even though he’d stopped the bleeding, Teddy feared the worst. Another bogey and the train would be back off the rails.
        “Had to make it interesting,” Teddy said with a half-smile.
        “Just gotta grind it out,” Alex said. “The swing is there.”
        “You may have been right about the fade.”
        “Not at all. Trust it. Get out of your head.” He handed Teddy the driver. “Let the swing do the work.” He related to Teddy more than he had in a long time right then, as his self doubt bubbled to the surface. He’d been there. You couldn’t play high-level golf and not get dealt a shitty run every now and then. That was the game. The difference between Teddy and Alex—what Alex had known and envied all along—was that Teddy could handle it.
        Teddy seemed to pull himself together and scrambled for pars on ten and eleven. Trapped, in a way, by the occasion, Alex invested a part of himself that all the pushed putts and endless bogeys had taken away from him. His speed became Teddy’s, or Teddy’s his, and there was a sense of rhythm between the two of them on the back nine that Alex hadn’t thought possible. It was a fraction of a return to something he loved and knew better than he knew anything else in the world, and for moments on end, as they contemplated putt lines, Alex gave a part of himself to the game again, a part, he discovered, that could be recalled, had been stored unconsciously in someplace safe, not to be held hostage by some saturation of time.
        Teddy made a solid two-putt par on ten, and sank a twenty-footer on eleven for birdie. He followed that with routine pars on twelve and thirteen, and hit a magical three-wood on fourteen for a kick-in birdie. He was two shots clear of the cut at twelve-under par. The color returned to Teddy’s face.
        At the par three fifteenth, Teddy was riding the momentum, but if he was going to squander it, the fifteenth would be the place to do it. Trouble was everywhere—pine trees lined the hole on both sides, bunkers left and right, water long, and a treacherous deep pin location. Teddy looked over to Alex for the yardage.
        “One-seventy-six to the front, one-eighty-two pin, and one-eighty-six back edge—water deep,” he said. “Over the green is dead.” This hole begged you to go after it, but if you overcooked it, it was easy double-bogey.
        “So, six?” Teddy said.
        “I’m thinking seven,” Alex said, seizing the opportunity, realizing that Teddy was about to make a mistake. “You’re juiced up. I think six is dead. And you don’t wanna ease on it. You need a full shot here. I like seven.”
        “You sure? I don’t think seven’s enough club.”
        “It comes up short and you get out of here with par. I don’t like six here.”
        “You said 182 pin, yeah?”
        Alex nodded.
        “Give me the six.”
        Alex pulled out the six and handed it to Teddy. He wasn’t going to fight him.
        Teddy stood over the ball for a second and then backed off. He handed Alex back the six-iron.
        “Seven,” Teddy said, staring at the hole.
        Alex handed him the seven and backed away to the corner of the tee box next to Duff.
        Even in college when he was actually on one, golf was never a team sport to Alex. It was played by him and for him. There were no alley-oops, no assists, no hail-marys. You either did it or you didn’t, and he hadn’t. Half the game was played in the six inches between his two ears. This was trite but undeniable. But when Teddy handed him the six-iron on the fifteenth tee box and took the seven, and the ball curled back to pin high for a six-foot look at birdie, he had been right, he had done something. In a very minor way a part of this became his. Golf had given it to him. And if no one else ever knew about it, it didn’t matter. He knew. He knew that a six would have been dead long in the water and Teddy would be lying two hitting three with an almost certain double-bogey, and a squandered week of real talent. He knew this, and he was grateful.
        After the shot, Teddy pulled Alex by his polo as he started to walk down the path toward the green, letting Duff and his caddy pass him. He unstrapped the Velcro of his glove and stuffed it into the back pocket of his pants. “Seven, eh?” he said, smiling.
        Alex nodded.
        “You know I meant what I said the other night,” Teddy said.
        They walked down the path after Duff and the gravel crunched beneath their spikes.
        “Meant what?” Alex said.
        “That we were almost home. I meant that.”
        “I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
        “Fuck you. You’re going to make me ask you straight-up, aren’t you?”
        “I can’t give you an answer if you don’t ask a question.”
“I’m talking about the real promise, you dick.”
        Alex laughed and handed Teddy his putter, giving him a light shove on the shoulder towards the green as they approached it. “Just make the fucking putt,” Alex said.
        The handful of spectators politely cheered as the ball fell dead center. Birdie. A three shot cushion with three to play.
        He knew what Teddy wanted to ask him and he realized that he knew his answer, too. The game wasn’t through with Alex yet—that much was clear to him now. This round wasn’t the end of something at all. When he handed Teddy that seven-iron, Teddy approached the ball calmly and stood over it. He opened his stance and drew the iron halfway and back to the ball twice to loosen his hip flexors. Alex closed his eyes and listened to the pure smack of contact.
        When he caught sight of the ball again—the perfect flight, fading from the left edge back toward the pin—he called out after it, “Oh, be as good as you look.”

     
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Spencer Deck is originally from Memphis, Tennessee, but has since been as far west as Arizona and as far south as Florida before beginning an MFA at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he now lives with two writers, a twelve handicap and zero pets.