The more things change, the more some things never change. Or something.
I'm not a smart man, but I do know one thing: best friends are hard to come by. That's why I'm particularly melancholy this week as yesterday my best friend, former college roommate, golf partner/adversary and brother from another mother boarded a Southwest flight with a one-way ticket to Florida. The Jefenator is gone.
I knew this day was coming for months, and bounced between states of denial and self-loathing in equal measure. Every time I tried to bring up the subject to Jefe, he'd simply reply, "Dude, I am not dead." True, thankfully, though it does feel like the end of an era.
This isn't the first time we've been down this road. Back in 2000, Jefe left Chicago and took a job in Pittsburgh, I think primarily motivated by a desire to add a bunch of new golf courses to his list. And just as I finally got within shouting distance of him (332 courses vs. 360-something), he packs up his tent and heads to a magical land of year-round golf. Oh, the humanity! Let the self-loathing begin...
With the end quickly approaching, I tried desperately to plan some sort of special last-ditch golf hurrah before Jefe's departure. I batted around ideas like a day trip to Erin Hills or 36 holes on Blackwolf Run, one of our personal favorites. Nearly every great idea got squashed by scheduling debacles. Jefe was making trips to Florida almost every weekend. The one weekend he was around to golf, I was downtown with my family. Multiple times, Jefe texted me on a beautiful day wondering if an emergency 9 was a possibility...and I'd text him right back from Ohio or New York. I even worked on lining up a round with a living legend golf-course architect on a mutually agreed upon date...until Jefe later realized he had plans to take his kids to Disney World. Damn you, Mickey Mouse! The world seemed to be conspiring against us from ever teeing it up again.
It very much looked like that would be the case, until Jefe gave his two weeks notice on Monday and his boss gave him a two-minute countdown to exit the premises. He had four days of unencumbered "retirement", which undoubtedly had him on Golfnow.com looking for the next available tee time.
As fate would have it, I already had a vacation day planned for golf that Wednesday with my buddy Matt, who was in town from Denver for a work convention. Almost prophetically, Matt had long ago made arrangements for three for golf in the afternoon, fully expecting that one of the Tang Bros would be able to join us. With Jefe now free and the round with Matt not until 2:00 PM, the morning was wide open. So Jefe and I hunkered down and did what we've done countless times before: batted around different options for golf at one of Chicago's countless quality public courses.
One course quickly came to the fro: Ravisloe...perhaps the only decent public golf course that neither of us had played before. Ravisloe is an old Donald Ross course that used to be private until recently. Ravisloe debuted at 7th in the 2011 update of our Definitive Guide to Chicago's Best Public Golf Courses, and after finally playing it, I'd say maybe that's a tad too low (look for updated rankings this fall). Not surprisingly, Ravisloe has some very interesting, well-protected greens. Nearly all of the par 4's are in the 390-410, which gets a little monotonous, but overall the par-70 course is quite fun. If it weren't 55 minutes from my house, I would probably play it multiple times a year.
Somewhat by happenstance, Jefe and I usually end up teeing it up together in late September right on or around the Ryder Cup. This is one of the rare opportunities I can convince Jefe to put the scorecard and pencil down and play some match play. The last three Ryder Cups, we gotten together for a singles match, a mini-President's Cup to our Ballynizzle main event. And just like the Ballynizzle Cup, Jefe always manages to get the best of me. By most accounts, I consider myself to be a better golfer than Jefe, but I'm 0-5 lifetime in these ventures. I just can't beat the guy in match play.
I was determined to finally hang an 'L' on Jefe as a going-away present. Things looked very good from the get go, as I rolled in a downhill birdie putt on the first hole and managed a 2-up lead through four holes. I was ON-FIRE! with the putter (I believe the result of some time spent with the iPing app -- by the way, check out my buddy's Tom Dunne write-up on this app in Links magazine. Try to guess which "golf buddy" would be cruel, yet creative enough to give him the nickname "Dubya" after a round of 43 putts.) Jefe stuffed it in to four feet on the 5th hole while I short-sided myself in the bunker. Thinking I had to hole out the shot, I aggressively went after the flagstick and scurried the shot clear across the green. With nothing to lose, I took dead aim at the 45-foot putt up and over a ridge with about three feet of break and calmly jarred it for par. After opening the round with five straight one-putts, Jefe couldn't decide if I had sold my soul to devil or if he needed to find the nearest Apple store. Shaken but not stirred, he responded by making the birdie putt to get it back to one-down.
Having staved off the best I had to offer, Jefe reclaimed the momentum and went back to his M.O. of demoralizing his opponent with D- tee shots followed by A+ recoveries and improbable par saves. On the 9th hole, I bombed a tee shot down the right side and had a three-quarter wedge left to a green light pin. Jefe hit his tee shot dead left with no real angle to the pin, but deftly hit a half-knockdown with his hybrid that defied all laws of physics by bounding through the thick rough like it was firm-and-fast fescue to within 10 feet of the hole. Try pulling the trigger after witnessing your opponent pull that off! My 37 on the front would've been cause for elation, but on this day, all it got me was 1-down at the turn.
Jefe quickly stretched it to 3-up by winning the 10th with a birdie and the 11th with a par. I continued my putting magic on the back nine, but who are we kidding here? Even with a personal best 23 putts and a respectable 77, it just wasn't enough. Jefe pulled the world's ugliest 75 out of his orifice. 0-6!
To add insult to injury, Jefe left me dazed and confused and ripe for the pickings for Matt in the afternoon. The winds picked up and the already tough former U.S. Open course grew fangs. It was a challenge not to make double bogey on any given hole. Matt waltzed to a 4&3 victory.
After a ceremonial trip to Chipotle and a long drive home, Jefe dropped me off, said goodbye to my family and was on his way. It all happened so fast that I found myself woefully unprepared about what to do or what to say. It's a strange feeling seeing your best friend pull out of your driveway and having no earthly idea when you might see him again.
Maybe it will be soon. Optimistically, I cling on to the experience of juggling a number of long-distance golf relationships, and my experience there has been that while quantity might suffer, quality increases exponentially. To that end, it just so happens that a 36-hole complex called Streamsong (with courses by personal favorites Tom Doak and Coore & Crenshaw) is opening at the end of the year just a few hours from Jefe. It very well may be our winter or spring break meet-up destination. Still, I will miss those times waking up or leaving the office for lunch and realizing that it's one of the handful of '10 out of 10' weather days in Chicago when you just have to get out on the golf course, knowing full-well that there's somebody just a text message away having the exact same thought at the exact same time.