Dear Golf: A word of thanks to the game that shaped me and saved me

This odd game produces so many unexpected joys.

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I often take a slide on the Monday after the tournaments I cover. For instance, on the Monday after this year’s Masters, I went for a longish jog in downtown Augusta in the morning and, in the afternoon, played the old-timey public course in Aiken, S.C., across the Savannah River and 15 miles away to the north and east on U.S. 1.

After golf, and supper at the Pizza Joint in Aiken, I started the drive home, to Philadelphia, with a plan to stop somewhere. You don’t need a reservation these days. The hotels are wide open.

Around 8 that night, while heading eastbound on I-20, I called Sam Reeves. Sam is a friend through golf. That is, golf was our starting point. Sam’s not ordinary. He casually said to me once, “Human potential is undervalued.” As an investor, Sam is loading up on humankind. He’s 86 and weirdly young for his age. He can still break 80 and that’s the least of it.

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Sam Reeves is a retired cotton merchant, bodysurfer, pro-am partner and one of golf’s trusted old souls

“What you doing?” Sam asked.

He grew up in rural Georgia and you can tell. 

“Driving home from Augusta,” I said.

“That tournament ended weeks ago,” Sam said. 

Well, a day and change ago, anyway. But Sam had made his point. Don’t you have places to be? 

Not really.

Here’s another post-tournament Monday, the one following the 2015 Players Championship, in Ponte Vedra Beach, in North Florida. On that day, I was looking to do an open-water swim. I could tell you I was “in training” but that would give you the wrong idea. The triathlon I was preparing to do, and had done a half-dozen times before, consisted of a one-mile swim, not even, downstream in a city river. A 25-mile bike ride with a few hills. A dead flat six-mile run — or should I say jog? You get the idea.

I did a Google consult for swimming beaches in the vicinity of St. Augustine, where I was staying, down the road from TPC Sawgrass. I pointed my Hertz rental south to an inlet beach, part of a state park, and turned right into a parking lot, paved and sign-posted and family-friendly. I’ve debated telling you this next thing but here goes: My heart is racing, as I type up this part. I know what’s coming.

The parking lot, with its neatly painted lines, was on a sliver of land that separated the Atlantic Ocean from a body of water unknown to me called the Matanzas Inlet. I walked the elevated boardwalk on a summery day from the parking lot to the inlet. The narrow beach there did not have any lifeguards but the inlet was calm and flat and there were young kids wading by the shore, their parents nearby.

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Across the inlet, maybe a quarter-mile to the west, was an untamed island with its own beach. I saw it, and a bell went off. It was like my inner explorer was suddenly called to the plate. We humans like destinations, don’t we? Anybody who has made the mecca trip to the Old Course has experienced this: You head out, make the turn, play on home. In other words, golf is not just a cross-country game, it’s a destination game. My vague plan (a specialty) was to swim across the inlet, check out the island, swim on back. Five or 10 strokes in and I was past the kids. Gilligan’s Island beckoned.

The water was warm.

The sun was high.

***

Sam Reeves, Sam Rogers, Sam Snead. Sam Rogers is the son of friends and he’s logged a lot of rounds at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, where I play, as a golfer and as a caddie. Great kid now in law school, who, like his father before him, will likely pursue justice and golf for the rest of his life. Sam Reeves you’ve met. As for Sam Snead, I once beat him out of $100 at the Greenbrier. He was 82 and gave me four a side and I played my bottom off.

The people you meet in this game! It’s probably dangerous to even go down this road. Incautiously, I proceed. I nod here to just some of the editors I have met through my golf typing, wordsmiths who have enriched my life immeasurably. Al and Alan. Bill Eddins, formerly of the Bala Golf Club and also the Philadelphia Inquirer. Jim H. at SI and Jofie F-A at S&S. David I & David II. Some others. Last names mostly omitted here to encourage you in your own at-home version of This Is Your Life. Your Al, your Alan, your Bill, your Jim, your David I and David II. Good luck finding a Jofie.

I just looked up Al. Al Silverman. He was not a golfer but he edited and published one of my golf books (To the Linksland in ’91) with so much insight. He died last year at 92 and was the subject of a wonderful obit in the New York Times. Al edited Saul Bellow and William Kennedy and was Gale Sayers’ ghostwriter. I am Third. (“The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.”) Al was a giant. It was mostly luck that he bothered with me at all but he did like the idea of newlyweds in Scotland, no mortgage, no kids, no itinerary, on a golf bender. I failed to keep tabs on him. It hurts but I can’t undo it. 

Al Silverman with Muhammad Ali.

I know, 45 years in, this gratitude walk won’t leave even a footprint on a rhetorical dune, but I continue anyhow: Eddins introduced me to Bob and Bob introduced me to Tom and Tom introduced me to Jay. As for Jay — he’s a super-connector. Plus, of course, the wives. Dinner for four, for six, for eight. A christening, a bris. Weddings, birthdays, funerals. We all know how it is. 

I caddied for Brad Faxon at the Honda tournament in ’85 and he was paired with Mike Donald for the first two rounds and Mike has become one of my closest friends. Mike recently sent me, by mail, a handwritten list of the courses we’ve played together. The Jacksonville Beach muni is on it and so is Augusta National.

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Bert (or a reader named Bertis, as he was then) wrote a letter, more than 25 years ago, and that missive opened up whole worlds. More recently, in a rented house in Birkdale just a few summers ago, Bert and I and some others founded a very selective artisans society, doing business now as The Pros from Dover. You may know the refrain from our anthem: We’re comin’ to your town, we’ll help you

Golfers write letters. (Email gets full credit.) A typed letter I wrote 30 years ago to a Yale-educated touring pro named Peter Teravainen changed the course of my life. I can draw a line from Peter Teravainen, now of Singapore, to Peter Alliss of England to John Stark of Scotland. Stark opened, solely for my benefit, the cattle gates to a remote Highlands course called Auchnafree. Bill Campbell and Sandy Tatum found their own way there and reported their findings to me. RIP, Mr. Stark, Mr. Campbell, Mr. Tatum.

Sandy Tatum.

Rest in peace, Jim Finegan, Fred Anton. Jim died while planning one more trip to Scotland, and he made dozens of them. As for Fred: My friend Neil knocked one on from 175ish the other day and as he marched to the green, putter in hand, I cited Fred. Neil likely knew it: The long proud walk! Neil, for some reason, loses track of Jaime’s contact information. It pleases me, to be the Neil-Jaime middleman. You play that role for somebody, don’t you?

Herb Wind, Dan Jenkins, Dave Anderson: knew him, knew him a little, knew him well. A priest, a comic, a prince. Michael Murphy, newly 90, still kicking. Shivas Irons (Murphy’s timeless invention) said to his spoon, “Thank ye kindly.” A very great sentence.

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To this whole aforementioned gang and to (literally) innumerable others: Thank ye kindly. To a truck-driver opponent in some match somewhere who told me how he was saving for a husband-and-wife trip to Pebble Beach: Thank you kindly. Your comment settled deep within me. To all manner of spectators, caddies, players, rules officials, press-tent friends and colleagues, to all the many people who have shared this with me and shared that: thank you kindly. My undying thanks.

This odd game, with its unexpected joys. The people drawn to it. Nick Petrillo, head pro at Bellport, dancing with his wife, in their shop, summer of ’75.

***

The water was warm, the sun was high, the swim was easy, until it wasn’t.

I could see my little destination island, about which I knew nothing. I was within 30 feet of it. But I could also feel a strong northbound current underneath me. I couldn’t see the current, but it felt like I was hitting an underwater wall. I thought about trying to power my way through the current and to the beach, the very thing that you’re not supposed to try to do. But the beach was so close and it looked like salvation. Swimming back to where I had started was not an option. Letting the current do with me as it wished did not strike me as an option, either, in large part because I did not know the waters. (An open-water swimming PSA, of a sort: always know your waters.)

I had two semi-cogent thoughts. The first was that if I tried to power my way through the current and didn’t have the strength to do it, what could potentially doom me was not the inlet’s current but my own panic. A panicking swimmer doesn’t breathe.

My second cogent thought was this: There was a white-hulled cabin cruiser, long and tall, maybe 200 yards north, downstream from me, in the middle of the inlet. My guess was that it was drifting with the current, too. It was a beautiful afternoon for boating, for fishing, for drifting. No day is a good one to drown.

I began swimming toward the boat. It wasn’t like I had a lot of options. Who would be on board, if anybody at all, I, of course, could not know. What I needed was a lifeline and not the kind you call on a game show.

***

Borrowed, with gratitude, from “I Thank You,” as Sam & Dave belted it out in the original version (Stax/Atlantic, 1968):
 
You didn’t have to shake me like you did but you did but you did and I thank you

Shouting out to Mr. Greenlee!

Middle-school gym teacher, who decided to teach, as an elective, beginner golf to a collection of eighth-graders who didn’t know a wedge from a 1-iron, thereby turning a hardwood basketball court into (literally and otherwise) a launching pad. Third marking period, 1974.

Yo, Sam “Killer” Foy!

Late, great pro-circuit caddie and former boxer, who gave a half-assed aspiring touring caddie, on the date below, a (figurative) map of Las Vegas while standing on a practice green in New Orleans, thereby showing once again the power of kindness. March 15, 1985.
 
Dear Chriski!

(Her first-car California license plate.) Spirited bride, married on the date noted below on Shelter Island, N.Y., who thought having her husband caddie across Europe in their first year of marriage was a good idea. Oct. 28, 1990.
 
Calling Mickey Wright!

Iconic, camera-shy golfer and perfectionist, who allowed this reporter repeated access to her experiences, insights and mind, through a series of phone calls and letters, for a 20-year period, concluding with her death on this date. Feb. 17, 2020.

Mickey Wright

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I could go on, but you get the idea. I have my roster and you have yours. Today — this Blursday, in this pandemic, in this home-for-the-holidays season — is as good as any to dust it off. Of course, any day is a good one to dust it off, to read “Our Town,” to sing, as Sam & Dave did so nobly, thanks for the shake. Thank ye kindly.

***

When I got near the boat, on that Monday after the Players Championship, I could see that there was an anchor chain coming off its bow (its front), which was pointed due south, into the current. I grabbed on to the anchor chain and called out for help. In my mind, I wasn’t panicking, but I am dubious about the quality of my own testimony, at that exact moment. I can say with certainty that there were two people on board, a husband and a wife named Bob and Christy Garces. As witnesses, you would have to consider them far more reliable than I.

***

I spoke to Bob at length in late October. Christine and I were in Richmond for our 30th wedding anniversary. We had planned to go there in April, after the Masters, but there was no Masters in April. I have told Christine for years how much I like Richmond, sometimes stopping there when I drive to Augusta. It’s an interesting city. One thing you can do there is visit the Jefferson Hotel, where “My Dinner with Andre” was shot.

Bob Garces.

Courtesy of the family

When we spoke, Bob was in Key Largo, south of Miami, where he’s the commodore of the Ocean Reef Yacht Club. Between his boating and his fishing and his golfing, plus the call of family life, Bob’s a busy retiree. (He started and sold businesses related to hospital administration.) Seventy is the new 50, right? He summarized one recent all-day fishing trip thusly: “Three nice groupers and a sailfish.” Assessing his golf game, he spoke for many of us: “I’m just a hacker trying to stay out of the woods.” His boat, on that Monday after the Players Championship, anchored in the middle of the Matanzas Inlet, was called Bikini Blues. It recently left the family, by way of sale, after a new boat came in, Slice of Life. That’s a good boat name for a golf-playing boat owner, to be sure, but it can’t touch the undisputed leader in that category: Off Course.

I asked Capt. Bob what he remembered from our Monday in May, five-plus years ago, when I showed up at his bow.

“I’ve told the story to all my buddies — I’ve told it a thousand times!” Bob said cheerfully, not wearily. And then he painted for me the story’s opening scene: “There was this person hanging on our anchor chain. He was wet and beat-up looking. You ask yourself: What kind of nut-job is going to swim in a current like that? He didn’t look like somebody you would want hanging on your anchor chain.”

No, you wouldn’t. I was wearing, on that Monday, the kind of swimsuit you might find at Marshalls, and nothing else. There was no white zinc oxide goop on my nose. I wasn’t wearing an easy-to-see brightly-colored swim cap or a UPF 50+ swim shirt. I didn’t have goggles or footwear. I was just a guy in his mid-50s in an inlet, wearing a here-comes-dad bathing suit, hanging on a stranger’s anchor chain.

Bob and Christy had only recently dropped anchor there. They’re avid boaters. They have condos in Key Largo and Jacksonville Beach and enjoy taking their boat north and south in between the two, either in the Atlantic or in her long, often-friendly neighbor, the Intracoastal Waterway, and its attendant inlets and estuaries. Bikini Blues was a 40-foot cabin cruiser with an exceedingly tall bridge and most of the comforts of home. Bob and Christy, after dropping anchor on that Monday afternoon, had set themselves up on the Bikini’s aft deck. It was an unusually warm day for mid-May in northern Florida. “We were about to crack open a couple of beers,” Bob told me, “when we heard somebody yell for help.”

As we spoke, Bob consulted a chart, to jog his own memory and to give me the lay of the land and its waterways. I had parked my rental car, we determined, in the Matanzas Inlet West Parking Lot, near the southernmost part of a barrier-beach peninsula. At the very bottom of the peninsula there was (and there is) a wide cut, an opening that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Matanzas Inlet. 

The X on the right marks where the author entered the water, and the X on the left marks where he was rescued.

Google Maps

“When the tide changes and the ocean starts pouring into that inlet, you can get a serious current, maybe four or five miles an hour, as you would know better than I do,” Bob said. “It was ripping. If you had tried to swim through the current to the beach, I doubt you would have made it. If you had, you probably would have got yourself all cut up on the oysters that line the shore there.” This was not information gleaned off a website. This was Bob’s life experience speaking.

***

Bob’s father, Tavi Garces, loved the water, too. He was born in Cuba in 1919 and came to the United States with his family in 1932 and graduated a decade later from the University of Florida, where he was a swimmer. He was, for decades, the athletic director at the Bolles School, a private school in Jacksonville. Bob went there himself. Tavi Garces also founded a summer camp, Camp Tomahawk, where generations of Florida kids spent their summers, paddling canoes, swimming in lakes, water skiing behind noisy engines. Bob went to the camp and worked there as a camp counselor.

Maybe you have heard of the Bolles School. It has many famous graduates, including the baseball Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, about whom I have written several long pieces. Bob swam at Bolles and later at Clemson, from which he graduated in 1971. Clemson remains a big part of his life. I’ve been to Clemson only once, in 2011, to write about Dabo Swinney, the Clemson football coach. Coach Swinney allowed me in the locker room after a Tiger smackdown of North Carolina. “Boogie Shoes” was blaring and Swinney danced with his players like a man on fire. Bob and I, in our late-October phone conversation, compared notes about Chipper and Dabo and Bolles and Clemson. On that Monday, five-plus years ago, none of that came up.

***

“When you began your swim, the tide had to be out, there was no current and it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security,” Bob said. Then everything flipped. The power of water.

“We heard you before we saw you,” Bob said. “I have to admit, for about a minute, I didn’t know what to do.”

Bob described how he threw me a 35-foot line and I grabbed it. He led me down the starboard side of the Bikini, along her tall white hull, to a swimming and diving platform at the stern. 

“You were totally exhausted,” Bob said. He wasn’t being kind or unkind, just matter-of-fact.

Exhausted. The word itself is tiring. All those heavy consonants. It’s not a word people tend to use casually. Bob, I’m sure, was not.

***

A few days later I spoke to Christy Garces by phone. Christine and I had returned home to Philadelphia. Christy was with Bob in Florida. That statement would be true almost anytime over the past 55 years or so. They met in the 1960s, when they were in their respective high schools, in Jacksonville. She and Bob married in 1970. They have two children and seven grandchildren.

Christy described how, elsewhere on the Matanzas Inlet on that Monday afternoon, there were kids on the beach, playing in the shallow water. There was nothing threatening about the day, beyond the oddness at her boat.

“The thought did cross my mind, that you could be a serial-killer, but that probably you were not,” Christy told me. Statistical probability. She had studied math at Emory.

“Bob threw you that line and you were hesitant to let go of the anchor chain,” Christy said. I don’t remember that and don’t doubt it for a second.

“We should have thrown you a lifejacket but hindsight is 20-20, isn’t it?” It is.

This next part I do remember. When Bob led me to the stern, and to the diving platform, the long line sunk in the water and got caught on a propeller. I am someone, like a lot of people, who needs to fix the problems I create. I got on deck and Christy gave me a water bottle. I know we talked briefly about the Players Championship I had just covered and they had just watched. (That was about the best credential I had just then — if it was believable at all.) I then went back in the water, without hesitation, to try to untangle the line from the propeller.

Bob and Christy Garces.

Courtesy of the Family

I couldn’t believe how deep the propeller was, and how strong the current was. With great reluctance, I gave up.

Christy said they had a service called BoatUS that they would call. It was like roadside service for AAA members, but for boaters. Naturally, my discomfort only deepened. What more could I do to inconvenience these nice people?

A motor boat, maybe half the size of Bikini Blues, came by. Bob, without any fanfare, waved it over and asked its helmsman if he could bring me to shore. The kindness of strangers.

The highest form of wisdom is kindness. A sentence as wise as it is ancient. It can be difficult, to accept the kindness of others. But two things about that. The first is, at times you have no choice. Also, people like to give. It makes them feel good. It makes the world go ‘round. Give it and accept it. It’s not complicated.

***

Bob and Christy had started that day, on their boat, in New Smyrna Beach, where, it happens, Slugger White, the legendary rules official, and Jim “Bones” Mackay, the caddie, grew up. I’ve played the public course there, said to be the last one Donald Ross designed, likely on my way to or from TPC Sawgrass. In the 1970s, in New Smyrna Beach, Slugger and his buddies had a triathlon all their own: golf followed by bowling followed by billiards. They’d hydrate with beer, and nobody ever got hurt.

“We were thinking of spending the night there,” Christy told me. Her there was the middle of the Matanzas Inlet, in a setting unchanged by 500 years of civilization. “But we decided against it — it was too windy.”

BoatUS arrived with a diver who got the line free. “It cost us maybe an hour or two,” she said, without even a hint of complaint. Bob and Christy motored their way to the civility of St. Augustine, got there before sunset and spent the night there, on their boat. St. Augustine is a neat town. I’ve logged a lot of nights there. 

“I’ve thought a lot about that day we met,” Christy told me. “I could tell that you were somebody who loves a challenge, loves being outdoors. You told us about your children in college. It was an interesting way to meet, and a great way to meet.”

It’s astounding, how generous some people can be.

“I’ve been saved many times, maybe not plucked out of river, like you were, but from emotional drowning,” Christy said. “There was always somebody there for me. That day with you reminds me how I need to be there for others.

“I believe everything happens for a reason. We live each day for a reason. Your life was not ready to end that day, and we were there, on the right day, at the right time. Any day you wake up is a day you can do good works.”

I wrote down Christy’s words. They settled in me. They continue to.

“Thank you for saving my life,” I said.

“We were happy to do it.”

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.