Even with the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to explain exactly how I found the place. I stumbled upon it years ago, and although the passage of time has worn down the grooves of my memory, I can still recall many of the details.
I was barely twenty years old as I threw my clubs over my shoulder and set out for Lincoln Park Golf Course, which sits on the very northwest tip of San Francisco. Lincoln is a little bit of a golf course, a mere freckle on the great body of the game. If it were a rubber band stretched to its limit, the elastic would snap at fifty-three hundred yards. That's all it is, just a kick-in putt compared to places like Medinah, Oakmont, and Winged Foot.
They will never play a United States Open Championship at Lincoln Park. But then again, those of us who have negotiated Lincoln's hills and scraped shots off her bare lies don't care about that. The course is vivid in our memories for its tumbling terrain and its rock-hard fairways and concrete greens. Most important of all, we remember Lincoln Park because it is where we grew up.
At Lincoln you can't fly a shot in tight or watch the ball suck back to the hole. I have learned from experience that the best way to get around the place is to let your pitch shots bounce a little; you have to punch the thing at the flag, forcing the ball to dance the dance of a hungry rabbit, bobbing and weaving as it hops between daisies and uneven tufts of grass.
The course is tucked into a seemingly forgotten corner of the City, adjacent to a quiet, middle-class residential neighborhood. I suspect the people who live along Clement Street, which borders a couple of Lincoln's fairways, don't care much for golf and are thankful for the wall of trees and the huge fence that work together to keep wild slices from veering into their living rooms. That is not to say nongolfers don't make use of the place. Lincoln is a wonderful spot for a walk and has an excellent museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, which features the works of French impressionists and sits in the middle of everything. It is surrounded by the tees, greens, and fairways of at least eight different holes, everything from mammoth par threes to an intimately short par five.
The highest point at Lincoln is the thirteenth tee. From there, weather permitting, a player can see all the way to Contra Costa County and Mount Diablo, catching a glimpse of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge in the process. Even on the dullest of afternoons you can see the Transamerica Pyramid, its thinly tapered top floors jutting above the other skyscrapers, aimed at the clouds like a needle waiting to be threaded so it can stitch the city's rooftops to the sky. And from the tee at the par-three seventeenth, you don't think of the oval green 234 yards away, puckering a bit like a temptress; the only thing on your mind is the landmark that dominates the horizon to the east of the tee box, the Golden Gate Bridge, looming in the distance, stately and still -- a huge, mute, inanimate member of the gallery, rigid and tense in anticipation of shots to come.
I wasn't thinking about such vistas on the day in question. All I had on my mind was teeing it up and chasing my ball over Lincoln's hills, hoping to avoid her trees, hoping lightning would strike and I could shoot a score worth remembering. I was alone, so there would be no one to verify the excellence of my effort, should I be lucky enough to get hot.
I didn't have a dime in my pockets, and things were always sort of laid back at Lincoln, so I cut in on the seventh hole. I selected number seven partly because it was the point of entry closest to my mother's home, located nearby on Forty-third Avenue between Anza and Balboa streets. More important, the seventh tee is hidden in a far-off corner of the course, completely out of sight of the starter's window, an excellent place for starting a round of golf if you have no intention of paying a greens fee.
I didn't plan on committing a major crime here. All I wanted was a few holes, a little space, a few whacks at the pellet. After all, a few years earlier, when I was in high school, I was here every afternoon, playing anytime I wanted by virtue of a monthly fee card I would purchase while playing fifth man on the George Washington High School golf team. The school is located only five blocks away, and anyone with any brains knew how to fill out his schedule at the start of every semester: In the morning four "solids" (history, math, foreign language, English) followed in the afternoon by three shots of pure air (lunch, study hall, and physical education). That translated into a school day that began at 8:45 A.M. and ended at half-past noon, leading directly to at least eighteen holes a day because we could leave campus at lunchtime. We never worried about coming back, for our golf coach, the inimitable John "Gravelmouth" McGrath, signed us out of study hall and instructed us in no uncertain terms to hit the links instead of showing up for in-school PE.
I loved golf, so this was heaven. In addition to playing, I had the good sense to soak up the fullness of the game -- its history, its heroes, its rules, its lore. And when it came to making the little white pill dance at Lincoln Park, even a player of my limited ability had an edge: I knew the dang course like the back of my hand.
After high school it was on to Berkeley. I played golf -- not nearly as often as I had in high school but often enough to keep the flame burning inside me at the right height. While my friends were walking to lecture halls through the smell of tear gas, I was prowling the fairways of nearby Tilden Park, another hilly course not unlike Lincoln. My love of the game continued to grow, with each day bringing some new observation, some new discovery. My progress suggested that if I kept at it, I might just discover the elusive treasure that every player of my meager ability seeks: the secret of the pros. If I ever found it, I knew, I'd be home free -- Flush City, ready to bask in a lifetime of shots that went where they were supposed to and stopped whenever I cried out "bite."
The day I cut in was nothing special. The weather was dull, the sky a blotchy wall of battleship gray, the way it is for more than three hundred days a year in that part of the city. There was no wind, and the air was muggy, which meant it was heavy. I could tell in an instant there would be no hang time even if I hit one on the screws.
I didn't stand on ceremony. I looked down the chute of number seven, saw an empty fairway, then slapped a three-wood off the ground and walked onto the course as though I owned it. The ball sailed over a hill that crests 185 yards up the fairway, and I rushed after it, hoping no one was waiting on the down side to rip off what was a pretty fair blow. I knew all about the ball hawkers who lurked over the hill on number seven; after all, only a couple of years ago I was one of them. That, in fact, is how I got started with all of this, for I never even played the game until, at the ripe age of thirteen, I borrowed a friend's wood-shafted, rusty-headed mashie and proceeded to steal an unsuspecting customer's drive that had sailed over the very hill I have just described. I thought about that inauspicious beginning, but only for a moment. I had to get moving.
Fortunately, there was no one around, and I was able to play the seventh quickly. My downhill wedge shot to the green bounced like a kid on a trampoline, but it never veered off line, stopping only twelve feet from the hole. The putt caught the lip and fell. Birdie. I made no outward display of excitement, no fist in the air, no shout to the heavens. All I wanted was to blend into the scenery and play with a natural ease, all the better to deflect any inquiry should someone from the starter's office be prowling around to check if players had actually registered and paid to play.
Had I been thinking straight, I would have realized there was little reason for fear. It was early evening, and the course was almost totally deserted. I moved along, playing five more holes in relative peace. I made an easy three at the eighth, a downhill par three whose green is guarded by bunkers. Then it was back up the hill, climbing the fairway of number nine, panting with every step. Even a good poke down the middle on that hole leaves a blind shot to the green, and my drive fit the pattern perfectly. I fired a nine-iron, which landed safe though not really close to the hole. I escaped with par.
The tenth and eleventh, two short par fours, were birdie land even for a player like me. I almost drove the tenth and sandwedged my ball to six feet. Drain-o. My three-wood tee shot at the eleventh drew a bit, bending its way around the corner, dribbling down a short slope to a decent lie near the green. All that was left was a short chip, which I hit with confidence. The ball did not respond; it seemed to have a mind of its own, bouncing in fear, squirting off to the right. When the ball calmed down and stopped carrying on, it was eighteen feet from the hole. Not a good shot.
I made up for it, though, as my putt caught the grain of the green and rode it as though it were a streetcar whose rails ended at the bottom of the cup. When the putt dropped, I was three under. That's when it started to get scary.
The twelfth is another diminutive par four, all of 280 yards. Even though my tee shot wound up under the trees to the left of the fairway, I could still reach the green with a low punch. It didn't work. I looked up on my second shot, squirreled the ball forward, and faced a tricky up-and-down for par. My third shot, a pitch caught the green and rolled up near the hole. Although I was alone, I was three under, which caused me to feel the presence of a huge imagined gallery roaring at every shot.
I made the putt for par, and that convinced me, as only good rolls can, that it was my day. I began walking slowly toward the next hole, sensing that this was a round I would long remember. If only someone were there to see it -- someone to be my marker, someone to attest to the mastery of my effort. Three under after six is as good as it gets for a player like me.
By the time I reached the thirteenth tee, a thick fog had rolled in. I couldn't even begin to think about seeing the East Bay hills or downtown San Francisco or either of the bridges. I was starting to shiver, and under the circumstances I wasn't sure if that was my nerves or the weather talking. I took stock of where I stood: I had parred number twelve and reminded myself for the fourth or fifth time that I was still three under. It was an incredible score for me, so good that I was beginning to wonder just when the hands of fate would wrap themselves around my neck and tighten their grip. The fog hovered around me like cotton fluff, ready to soften my fall, but even in the mist I could make out the fairway.
The thirteenth hole at Lincoln Park is a 495-yard roller coaster of a par five. The fairway runs downhill from the tee, and then back up to a landing area; from there it slopes gently downhill again, all the way to the green. Despite the undulations, the hole is basically straight, and it is very, very easy. The main object off the tee is to carry the ball over two stands of trees that lie 180 yards out, bordering the fairway in clumps to the left and right. With a good tee ball, all a player has to do is blast the second shot at the green and then chip and putt for a birdie. I was staring four under right in the bloody face.
I hit a perfect drive, and my eyes widened with delight as the ball sailed away, straight and true.
The lie for my second shot was a good one, providing no excuse for failure. All I can say is that a sudden, quickening wind at my back proved to be more of a temptation than my young character could resist. Convinced that I could loft one into the stratosphere and watch admiringly as it rode the stiff breeze all the way to the green, I yanked out my three-wood and flailed away. But my grip was too tight, my takeaway too abrupt, and my swing too quick. My hoped-for stroke of majesty looked more like a rotary fan at high speed. I barely made contact. The ball careened far to the right, a toe job if ever there was one. The ball disappeared into the middle of the trees. The last time I looked, the ball was heading straight toward the middle of the Monument.
Everyone who plays Lincoln Park knows about the Monument. It is one of the last remaining landmarks of a Chinese cemetery that covered the land before the City decided this hallowed stretch of earth should be a resting place for wayward golf shots instead of Asian families. The Monument is no mere headstone; it is over twenty-two feet tall. It is made of gray stone, but over time it has broken down to the point where all that remains is a simple archway infested with lichen and covered with creeping greenish moss. Even though the archway continues to stand its ground, it has all but surrendered to the aggressive reach of overhanging tree limbs. The archway is perpetually bathed in shadow now, and the surrounding darkness gives it an eerie quality. The Monument is a marker of death, yet as the greenish moss continues to spread over its surface, it is also the seat of life. I find the Monument and its peculiar setting so haunting that I often sense the presence of ancient spirits hovering nearby.
I feared those spirits this day, feared they had struck me down in the midst of an unforgettable streak, ruining the round of my young life. But I pushed onward, hoping I could salvage something from the wreckage. I trudged into the fog knowing the best I could expect was an unplayable lie, a score of at least six or seven, and no doubt an ignominious departure from the course I loved.
And that's when it happened. I was walking slowly into the trees, the frustration growing, when the fog quickly thickened. I could barely see my hands. I couldn't find my ball, and to this day I have never found the darn thing. The fog soon curled around my feet and began to enshroud my entire body. Then came a wind, much like the one that had prompted me to swing so fiercely at my second shot. But this wind was different. It was guiding me, pushing me forward on a path I could not see.
I didn't know what was happening, and there was no time to question the circumstances, so I kept going, following the wind and the fog into the trees. I crossed the threshold of the Monument, snaking my way past the overhanging limbs, working my way through the mossy stone archway. The mist was folding over itself, rushing by me like the rapids of a mighty river. The current of fog nearly knocked me down. It felt as if a tremendous force were pushing through a hole of some sort. Even though I was alone, I started to shake my head in disbelief. This is crazy, I thought. But I continued on, drawn by a magnet of curiosity. As I stepped forward, I heard a deep, heavy sound -- not thunder but something more subtle. It was a rolling sound, as if someone were pushing open a heavy door that was on wheels, rumbling across stone.
By the time I emerged from the Monument to the other side of the trees, the fog was so thick that the hand I barely saw in front of my face a few moments ago had disappeared entirely. It was a total whiteout. I turned in circles, trying to get my bearings, but all I could hear was the sound of my spikes clicking on a smooth surface that I guessed was concrete. That caused me to look down, and I saw white tile, cut into small hexagons, grouted in place, the type one finds in bathroom floors. And that's exactly what it was -- a bathroom in what looked like an old hotel of some sort.
I saw a man at one of the sinks, washing up. I stood by watching and wondering as he cupped the water in his hands, then brought them slowly to his face, wetting it and rinsing the sweat away. He did this several times, finally turning the brass fixtures to shut off the flow of water. When the water stopped, the room went deathly silent. I held my breath, afraid I would startle him if I breathed too heavily or, God forbid, coughed. He was methodical and graceful as he went about his business. When he began patting himself dry, he turned toward me.
I recognized him from pictures I had seen. He was much younger than he looked in the photographs, but there was no mistake. It was the Mechanical Man. The Hawk. The Iceman. Ben Hogan. He just stood there, staring at me. I didn't move, couldn't move. I stood staring back at him as my clubs hung off my shoulder. The room was eerily quiet except for my spikes, which were still clicking against the tile.
"Better remove those shoes, young man," Hogan said. He was talking to me! He was looking, too -- a dour, disapproving glance that asked the question that was on my mind as well: How did you find your way in here, son?
He kept looking my way as he dabbed the water from his face. He folded the towel neatly when he was done.
"If you have any sense at all, young fellow, you'll remove those shoes. If the bartender catches you inside this place with your spikes on, there'll be hell to pay, and I don't even want to think about what'll happen if old man Fry gets ahold of you."
Who? What was he talking about? And what had happened to my golf ball?
Hogan moved slowly and fluidly. All his movements had purpose, and they all meshed as if connected by a string. He did not say anything else as he passed by and pushed open a swinging door that led to another room. It swung back and forth a few times. He was gone.
The only thing I could think of was that I'd better get those spikes off. When Ben Hogan, winner of nine major championships, the fiercest competitor of his age -- maybe of any age -- tells you to do something, you don't ask questions; you do it.
I unlaced my shoes as fast as I could. I didn't know where I was, or why I was there, but something was up because I found a pair of slippers, just my size, sitting under the sink where Hogan had been standing only a moment before. They had my initials on them. I put them on and hurried through the swinging door.
Copyright © 1995 by Bo Links