The First Round/The Last Round

2009 has been a strange year with a lot of ups and downs. The stock market is up big, yet over 15 million Americans are still out of work. Barack Obama went from "Yes, we can!" to "Maybe we will." Tiger Woods blows a major on Sunday for the first time and it's a distant second to his most newsworthy item of the year. And on a personal level, my handicap index soared, my number of rounds played hit an all-time low and the Ballynizzle Cup sits on Jefe's mantle on not mine, yet 2009 has been the best in terms of memorable moments, quality golf courses played and friendships formed.

With that in mind, I guess it should come to no surprise that in a year where I played such revered courses such as Ballyneal, Sand Hills, Crystal Downs, the Kingsley Club and Harbour Town, a recent eight-hole round that took 2 1/2 hours to play would be far and away the highlight of my golf season.

On a warm Tuesday afternoon at World Woods in Brooksville, Florida, I played golf for the first time with my entire family - my wife and our three kids. For our two youngest, it was their first 'real' experience with the game. It was truly one of the best times I've ever had on a golf course, and I hope it's the first of many rounds together. But in an even more bizarre twist, it was a round that I wish had never happened. I wish we had spent Thanksgiving week at home in cold and dreary Illinois instead of the warmth and sunshine of central Florida.

The memorable round came on the heels of one of the worst weeks of my life. Six days earlier, my Dad called and before he could even finish "Hello," I knew it wasn't to ask me a fantasy basketball question.

"Your Nana passed away this morning."

A couple things you need to know about my Nana. First of all, she was one of my favorite people on Earth. Second of all, you wouldn't be reading this blog if it weren't for her.

My love of golf comes from my grandparents. My grandfather, who passed away 13 years ago, was an avid golfer. He was a lefty, a Pirates fan, a golfer, a successful businessman. He was even on the board of directors of a community bank that was eventually gobbled up and is now a small part of the bank I now work for. Essentially, my grandpa was my role model and I figured if I could follow in his footsteps, I wouldn't be doing too badly for myself.

One of my earliest memories with the game was when I was four- or five-years-old. My parents were taking my older brother and I to a local parade and for some reason they stopped by the local muni to see my grandparents right as they were about to tee off. I took one at the golf course and decided, "Forget the parade. I want to check THAT out." A golf-a-holic was born on that day.

Golf slowly replaced baseball as my passion as the years wore on. I played in high school, almost every day in the summers while I was in college, and golf eventually became a huge part of my identity. When I was a freshman in college, my grandparents hosted my buddies Jefe and Wego and I for a week of Florida golf over spring break. World Woods, which had just opened, was the main event. It was the first of many buddy trips. And the first of many occasions where I brought friends down to visit Nana and play World Woods. My friends just called her Nana, which was fitting because she treated them like family. I wrote a blog post in February 2007 about my last trip to Florida and a day of 36 at World Woods.

A mild heart attack and a botched bypass surgery about twelve years ago effectively ended Nana's golf career and slowly led to her demise, but her love for the game never waned. She loved watching it on television. She loved railing on Tiger Woods. I loved defending him (after the events of this past week, I'm afraid to admit that she's a much better judge of character than I am). She loved hearing about my golf adventures and always asked about Jefe, Wego and others. When I made my hole-in-one in 2005, she was the first person I called.

Although Nana couldn't log-on to the Internet if her life depended on it, she was an avid follower of my blog. I'd print out the entries and send them to her. She was convinced that I had missed my calling. She encouraged me to keep writing. Knowing that she was getting a good laugh despite the increasing pain in her legs drove me further. Essentially, the blog served two purposes: 1.) to make fun of Jefe and 2.) to make my beloved Nana laugh.

To that end, I had the brilliant idea of putting these blog excerpts and other golf stories into a book, which was going to be her 85th birthday/Christmas present (one of the disadvantages of having a birthday five days before Christmas...the dreaded combo gift. My wife and her family try to stretch this concept to its very limits despite the fact that my wife's birthday is in February and mine is in October.) I had been working feverishly the last three months to get it ready and published before the holidays. All was going as planned until I got that call from my Dad. I regret that Nana never got to see the finished product, although every word was written with her in mind. If others enjoy it, that's just icing on the cake (it's now up on amazon. Check it out here.)

Just hours after I heard the sad news, I received a promotional e-mail from World Woods. I showed the offer to my wife, noting the irony. She said, "We should take the kids out there to honor Nana and Grandpa." Reason number 5,456,832 (and counting) that I love my wife. The wheels had been set in motion.

For some strange reason, we decided that driving to Florida was the best option. You have to understand that the Colton's have never spent more than three hours in the car together. We had talked about taking the Great American road trip as a family in 2010, but it hadn't made it past the conceptual stages. Driving 1,150 miles to Florida with a seven-year old, five-year old and a two-year old (and an impatient 36-year old) was definitely a trial by fire. At the time, however, it seemed like a better, cheaper alternative than booking last-minute airfare and battling crowds at the airport during the week of Thanksgiving.

So at 5:15 a.m. on cool, clear Saturday morning, we piled into our packed GMC Acadia (one of the finest packing jobs of my young career. Five suitcases and four sets of clubs condensed into two golf bags, plus enough snacks to feed a small army) and headed south to Atlanta, where we spent the night at my cousin's house. From there, it was another full day getting down to Central Florida. All in all, the drive was extremely pleasant and went a hundred times better than anybody could've expected. And while I have the floor, I'd like to take this opportunity to personally thank the guy who invented the DVD and the guy who first thought of attaching one to the ceiling of a car. Real men of genius, indeed.

[Note: we drove back straight from Orlando on Thanksgiving Day, celebrating Thanksgiving at a Cracker Barrel in Chattanooga. I was in the zone the last five hours driving through Indiana and Illinois. The 19-hour drive was quite possibly the crowning achievement of my life. There's a good chance that my tombstone will read: "Devoted father and husband. Obsessive golfer. Mediocre writer. Once drove straight from Orlando to Chicago in one day with three kids in the back." It helped that there was NOBODY on the roads. At one point, driving north on I-294 outside of Chicago, we were the only car within sight. I felt like Will Smith in I am Legend.]

Another big help to the long drive was having a five-year-old daughter who always keeps you on your toes. We never know what Madelyn's going to say next, only that she's going to say something. Here are some actual conversation starters, each completely out of the blue:

- "Jordan, say you owned an ant farm."
- "Do manatees go to doctor's appointments?"
- "Hey, I found a piece of cracker in my belly button!"
- "I'm thankful for my family and they're thankful for me!"

The funeral service was Monday morning, followed by the burial. I went up to the podium during the service and stumbled through some notes that I had jotted down, mostly about fond memories of Nana both growing up as a kid and more-recently while on those golf trips. But more importantly, I wanted to relate just how much she meant to me -- how she played a huge role in what kind of father, husband and person I am, or at least aspire to be.

I've been extremely fortunate to have faced very few trials, turbulations or tragedy in my life. I was 23-years old and less than a year out of college when my Grandpa passed away, and while he meant just as much to me as Nana, I don't think I was old enough to really appreciate the gravity of the situation. With the perspective of time and having a family of my own, Nana's passing hit a little closer to home. It was the first time in my life that I really grieved. And I must admit, I'm finding the grieving process to be extremely fascinating in its complexity. In one 12-hour period I bounced around like a pinball between the following extremes:

- obvious sorrow and lots of tears over the loss of a loved one
- laughter from recalling the fond memories (and from looking at old pictures of my family from the 70's. Nobody rocked the wide-collar/crooked bowl haircut combo better than the five-year-old Jim Colton.)
- regret over not doing enough, not calling enough and not visiting enough
- joy from knowing she's no longer in pain and is in a much better place
- fear of the unknown and the weight of our mortality
- gratitude for having a wonderful grandmother and great friend
- reflection over the meaning of life, my spot in the universe and questions about my legacy
- smiles shared between distant relatives that I hadn't seen in years
- the bizarre empty feeling of entering Nana's house and not seeing her in her blue recliner.

That's enough to make your head hurt, which is exactly what happened to me. I had a massive headache on Monday afternoon from the roller coaster of emotions. Even a couple weeks later, I sit at my desk in front of my computer, just like any other day, with the only difference being the strange feeling that I might burst into tears at any given moment, but never do.

Tuesday was family day. We took the kids to the local wildlife park in the morning with my folks and some of my cousins and checked out the alligators, manatee and other native animals (very cool place, but when I came here as a kid, it was a privately-owned exotic-animal attraction. They used to feed the gators with whole chickens on a clothesline, and the gators would leap out of the air for them. Lu the Hippo is the lone holdover...she turns 50 next year.) From there, it was straight to the golf course.

One quick plug for World Woods. It is simply one of the best values for quality golf in the country. You have to check it out. Sure, it's in the sticks and there's little to no nightlife in the area, but if you're in it for the golf, you can't do much better when planning a long-weekend with your cronies. One detraction has always been the lack of quality accomodations nearby, but they have rectified that by recently opening some villas which are less than five minutes from the course. We actually stayed in one of the villas for the funeral and I would highly recommend it to anyone. It's a great fit for a group of four or more guys coming down for a golf binge. The cost during our visit was around $180/night for a two-bedroom unit, perfect for our family of five. Plus staying on-site gives you the benefit of discounted greens fees (only $40-$45 per person, including lunch, during our stay -- an absolute steal).

We thought about just hitting up the par-29 Short Course, but in the end, I wanted to play Pine Barrens. The course holds so many good memories for me, plus I had no idea when I would be back in the area. In all likelihood, this would be my last round at World Woods for a long time. The course looked beautiful, greener than I had ever seen it and very mature, like seeing your kid brother all grown up. Basically, my wife and I played most of the holes, either Jordan or Madelyn would play up from the middle of the fairway and all five of us would putt in to the hole. By the time we all reached the first green, I had a huge smile on my face. This was just what I wanted. This was just what I needed. This was what golf was all about -- chasing the white (or orange or pink) ball around while spending time with the people closest to you.

The quality of the golf left a lot to be desired. There were a lot of shanks, whiffs and worm burners...and not just from the under-10 set. My wife, who has a lifetime fairways hit percentage of over 97%, was spraying shots all over the place. I guess it's hard to concentrate on golf when your maternal instincts are focused on making sure your two-year-old son doesn't take off by himself in the cart.

Speaking of Luke, he probably wondered what the big fuss was all about -- he'd simply plop his ball down 12 inches from the hole and tap it in, a la young Tiger on the Mike Douglas show. What an easy game! Despite no more than 20 minutes of naps over two days, little Luke was loving every minute of the golf. Everytime we stopped the cart, he was looking to get out and grab a club. What's that saying about the apple and the tree?

Luke was an ideal playing partner as well. On the 2nd tee, he brought over a sleeve of golf balls and dumped them out on the tee. After my drive (a 200-yard low screamer), he brought me one of the balls and encouraged me to re-tee. Are you taking notes, Jefe? Later in the round, he reacted to the thwack of one of my drives with an, "Oh Yeah! Daddy!" and as my wife was teeing off, he rooted her on with a "Go Mommy! Go Mommy!"

My wife and I somewhat surprisingly both found the green on 'Gator Bait', the par 3 3rd hole over water. It was probably the first time in my life that I didn't deposit any 'bait' in the pond. Not knowing what to do with myself, I took out another ball and made my contribution. My kids had a hard time believing me when I told them I did it on purpose.

On the risk-reward, par 5 4th hole, I called my son over and let him in on a little secret. "You see that deep bunker in front of the you want know what it's called?" I asked. Cleaning it up a bit, I whispered, "The bunker is so nasty and gnarly, they call it the Devil's Butt!"

Jordan's right in that seven-year-old wheelhouse where butts, farts and gross stuff are the highest of high comedy, so his eyes lit up. "Can I go tell Mom?!" he asked, then ran over to share this little tidbit with her and then his little sister. They all got a kick out of it, especially when my approach shot landed smack dab in the middle of the hazard.

"Daddy's in the Devil's butt!" Madelyn said.
"It stinks down here," I joked.

I proceeded to hit one of the best bunker shots of my life, just clearing the tall front lip of the bunker and rolling the ball up the front of the green. My seven-foot par putt was right in the jar, a butt save and a beauty.

We lasted until the 8th hole, where I had everybody tee up from about 100 yards and play it in from there. The rains came as we were putting out and everybody ran for cover, which was probably a good thing because I was primed and ready for a group hug and dorky Rockne-esque speech on the great attributes of the game. Who knows...even without the speech, maybe my kids will be hooked like I was when I skipped the parade to hang out on the course with my grandparents.

Now if you'll excuse me...I think I'm going to burst into tears.


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