A tribute to Harvey Pack, and a plea to horse racing executives

A refrain we hear often after influential figures pass away is, “we’ll never see anyone else like him/her.” More often than not, that’s hogwash. Different versions of most of those people come along, we get used to it, and life goes on.

That’s why, when I say we’ll never see anyone else like Harvey Pack, it’s important to understand I’m not blowing smoke.

Pack was one of the most recognizable figures on the New York horse racing circuit for decades. He passed away at age 94 earlier this week, and tributes have poured in from those who knew him well.

I didn’t. As is the case with a lot of people I’ve modeled myself and my work after, I never met Harvey. This is probably a good thing, as he’d have been one of only two people I’d have been too intimidated by to interact with at the racetrack (for reference, the other is Andy Beyer, because what the heck would I tell him, that my name is Andrew, too?).

Having said that, I grew up watching shows Harvey hosted that recapped days of racing at Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct. My dad and I would watch VHS tapes of Harvey chronicling the likes of Golden Tent, Boom Towner, and Kelly Kip, among other stalwarts of the early to mid-1990’s. Add in that we’d hear some of Harvey’s handicapping axioms, mixed in with tidbits from The Daily Racing Form and the racing sections of The New York Daily News and The New York Post, and you’ve got the foundation for how I found my voice as a writer, handicapper, and host.

I still use the things I learned as a kid in every single aspect of what I do. When I host handicapping seminars at Pleasanton, one of my most repeated refrains is a piece of advice Harvey used to trot out: “Never bet a horse, as the favorite, doing something it’s never done before.” Even as a kid, I got the logic behind it, and many of his core philosophies are ones I try to use in everything I do within racing (including the content I’ll be producing on a daily basis for the upcoming Saratoga meet).

This is the case for one simple reason: If I’m not providing an informative, engaging product to my audience, regardless of whether it’s their first time at the track or if they’re an everyday player, I’m not doing my job correctly. It’s a responsibility shared by everyone in the industry with a voice and a platform, and for two months or so, I’ve got one.

Most of racing’s on-air personalities are extraordinarily talented. However, they’re part of business models that are totally different from the one Harvey kept going for most of his professional career. When Harvey did seminars, people listened. There were times where he was standoffish, sure, but people came away more informed than they were when they arrived, which is the ultimate way to keep fans engaged.

What Harvey Pack did for so long provided a formula to grow the entire pie, not just some company’s portion of it. If more organizations took that model emphasizing fan cultivation and education, every single aspect of the game would benefit. Increased handle means bigger purses. Bigger purses mean more engaged connections. More engaged connections mean more money in the game and, in theory, at least a small chance the best horses stick around for longer than a handful of starts.

If major organizations in racing care about feeding that cycle, most of them do a lousy job of showing it. NYRA’s director of communications lambasted fans complaining about the experience at Belmont Park in a series of now-deleted tweets. Rumors recently flew that The Stronach Group is considering selling pieces of its portfolio, which includes tracks in California, Florida, and Maryland. TV contracts and petty disputes often leave fans confused about the best ways to watch races, and many small tracks show their gratitude to some of the hardest-working media and marketing professionals I know by forcing them to do the jobs of entire departments for just a single full-time paycheck.

Lots about this game is broken, and there are times where fixing it seems like a herculean task. However, Harvey Pack’s career provides a case study in how to do things correctly. Trot out a knowledgeable person who’s passionate about the game, let them be themselves with minimal interference, and use them as assets to grow the sport and leave the industry better than they found it.

Racing’s current construction won’t allow for the emergence of another Harvey Pack. There are TV anchors and handicappers for networks and simulcast feeds. They’re good. Many of them are excellent, and I’m proud to say a number of them are friends of mine. However, they’re serving different purposes than the ones Harvey did on TV and in seminars.

If you’re a higher-up reading this, and you want to pay tribute to Harvey Pack, consider going this route: Appreciate the talent you have, give them every opportunity to be the communicators they want to be, don’t burn them out, and watch as their passion and drive to educate the public about our game grows the fanbase at large.

I never met Harvey. I don’t know if he’d find all of this blasphemous, or at least something to throw at the camera with disdain at the end of “Thoroughbred Action” when he’d say, “may the horse be with you.” Whatever his views would’ve been, my view of him was simple.

Harvey Pack was the best to ever do what he did, and the racing world is a lesser one now that he’s no longer in it.

INTERLUDE: Gimmick Andrew, the Kentucky Derby, and horse racing insanity

We find Normal Andrew in his absurdly-overpriced Northern California apartment, mulling over the events of the strangest day in the history of horse racing Twitter. It’s quiet.

Too quiet…until music familiar to wrestling fans of a certain age blares from the parking garage next door.

Suddenly, we see the familiar flair and panache of Gimmick Andrew strut right through the front door and past Elliot the fearsome attack cat. Unlike past run-ins, this time, Gimmick Andrew is clad in a freshly-tailored suit, walking with a newfound spring in his step in time with “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s theme music, and speaking when marked in bold.

“Is the music really necessary? And the suit? And…is that a cane?”

“Everyone else is doing stupid things with no ramifications for their actions. Why not me?”

Both Andrews judgmentally look at a nonexistent camera for a few seconds, a stretch of time that feels like an eternity.

“You know what you need to do?”

“Write something that’ll go over the head of 90% of my audience but hit the other 10% square between the eyes?”

“…other than that.”

“Ask when you’re refunding the money you won on Derby Day?”

“Nobody’s going to make either of us feel guilty about hitting the race. I won’t allow it. All the naysayers can come take my Kentucky Derby winnings from our cold, dead hands, like Charlton Heston and his guns.”

“Credit where it’s due. We had Medina Spirit and gave out winning wagering strategies on every platform…”

“So why shouldn’t I be celebrating?”

“Read the room, dude. It’s not exactly a celebratory time.”

“What? Trainers cheating in horse racing comes as a shock?”

“Not quite. It’s moreso the fact that we’ve got so few chances to get things right as an industry and can’t do it. Then, when stuff happens, we have no uniform response because jurisdictions can’t work together.”

“Did I hear right that Baffert’s blaming a groom for urinating in a stall?”

“Yep. He’s also blaming ‘cancel culture.’”

“How is ‘cancel culture’ at fault with regard to a drug test? His horse tested positive. He’s either got a drugged-up horse or the testing system is flawed.”

“I wrote that.”

“Well, one or the other clearly has to change.”

“I wrote that, too. Read the site.”

“Sorry. I spent all day getting my suit worked on. It’s like an Italian sports car. Gotta get it fitted just right.”

“Whatever. It’s just sad.”

“Why do you feel that way?”

A pause.

“Don’t get all clammy on me. I’m your subconscious. If you can’t tell me, who CAN you tell?”

“I’ve given a lot to this game. A lot of passion, a lot of gambling money, a lot of time spent creating content. Now, everybody’s got an opinion, everyone thinks their opinion’s the only one that counts, and whether you’re being logical or not, and whether you have any credibility or not, isn’t worth a damn.”

“Welcome to Twitter.”

“It’s never been like this, though. Monday was unprecedented. Horse racing really can’t get out of its own way.”

“Then why do you care so much?”

“That’s why I paused. Between this situation, how it’s being handled by everybody, and the general disrespect being shown by everyone towards everyone else, it’s the first time I haven’t been proud to be part of the racing community. I just…wish there was room for some logic, somewhere, ANYWHERE.”

“You wish there was room for you.”

“…you don’t pull punches.”

“What good would I be if I did?”

“You want to fire up the CM Punk pipe bomb, or should I?”

“Go ahead.”

“Hey, WordPress isn’t allowing me to post a link to the spot in the video.”

“Tell them to scroll to 4:14.”

“Better now?”

“A little. There’s so much wrong that I want to change, except I can’t change it. Being passionate is almost a negative nowadays.”

“You wrote about that a few years ago.”

“Nothing’s changed. The people angriest about this situation may not be the connections involved in the Kentucky Derby. It’s the fans, the bettors, the people the sport cannot function without yet sometimes completely takes for granted and fails to appreciate.”

“You mean the people that groom from Claiborne went after?”

“I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole.”

“You’re no fun.”

“Anyway, it really stinks to be passionate about something when a perfect storm of horrible things comes together and threatens to destroy it.”

“You’re not going to quit betting, are you?”

“No, why?”

“Because if you did, I’d say, ‘see you tomorrow,’ which is literally the only possible retort against an attention-seeking person who resorts to that.”

Normal Andrew smiles.

“I’ll give you that. But what do you do when the thing you love very much seems hell-bent on destroying itself and doesn’t much care what you think about it?”

“You be yourself. In your case, it means being the very best you can be, doing things very few other people can do as well as you can, and hoping that one day, it’ll be enough for…well, whatever it is you’re chasing.”

“What am I chasing?”

“It seems like a moving target. But if it’s meant to be, you’ll hit it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m double-parked outside.”

“You bought a car?”

“Yeah! Brand new Camaro.”

“How’d you afford that?”

“What I made on Medina Spirit pales in comparison to what I made buying Dogecoin.”

Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby, and two important words

A long time ago, I composed a 50-point plan to improve horse racing’s future prospects. One of the most important ones was also probably the simplest one on the list. It was two words, and comprised a philosophy that racing had yet to embrace at that time.

“Optics matter.”

You know why I’m writing this column. It was announced Sunday morning that Medina Spirit, the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, tested positive for a banned substance. We’re now playing the waiting game as a split sample gets tested. If that comes back positive as well, we’ll see just the second medication-based disqualification in Derby history.

When trainer Bob Baffert was reached for comment on the situation, he denied giving Medina Spirit the illegal substance.

“I don’t know what is going on in racing right now but there is something not right,” he said to reporters Sunday. “I don’t feel embarrassed, I feel like I was wronged.”

This is consistent with his responses to situations involving top-tier horses such as Justify, Gamine, and Charlatan, among others, all of whom tested positive and have largely had those situations swept under the rug. In the latter two cases, the Arkansas Racing Commission recently overturned rulings made by its own stewards and reinstated victories for those two horses. Justify, meanwhile, tested positive for scopolamine following the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, but was not disqualified, either immediately after the test results came in or after lengthy legal proceedings stemming from a lawsuit filed by Bolt d’Oro’s owner/trainer, Mick Ruis.

I’m not a vet. If you’re looking for a detailed analysis of the substance Medina Spirit tested positive for, you’re going to need to look elsewhere. What I am is a lifelong racing fan, a handicapper since I was in middle school (for better or for worse), and someone with a career in marketing and communications that can provide some insight into how this will go over with the people racing needs in order to survive.

Spoiler alert: It’s not going over well.

Many in racing want the sport to be mainstream, as it was many years ago. As Alicia Hughes, a friend of mine and one of the best writers in the game, continually points out, this means an acceptance of criticism and coverage that is good, bad, and indifferent. Right now, what we have are a bunch of people who are very angry, for legitimate reasons.

Those who bet Mandaloun, who ran his eyeballs out to be second and tested clean, feel robbed. Those who took to social media to complain after the Derby, either because they didn’t use a 12-1 Bob Baffert trainee in a race he’d won six times before last weekend or because they genuinely felt something was afoot, have all the ammo they need to say the game is crooked (though cries of “I’M NEVER BETTING AGAIN” from those who shove the GDP of a developing nation through the windows or ADW’s will always come across as hollow and/or ego-driven).

How does any of this help racing draw the new fans it desperately needs? How has racing’s continued inability to effectively police itself in any way, shape, or form helped ensure a place for itself moving forward? And when will people who have the ability to make decisions that impact the sport moving forward realize trainers constantly complaining about being wronged are taking lessons from the Taylor Swift School of Spin, where nothing bad is ever their fault?

The answers: It doesn’t, it doesn’t, and they won’t, at least not without significant prompting to do so.

It took the FBI moving in for Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis to be run off the racetrack. In Navarro’s case, he had a rap sheet as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s arm but continually received mere slaps on the wrist as he took bottom-level claimers and turned them into stakes winners. All the while, bettors had an idea of what was going on, bet money accordingly, and watched as racing took no significant action despite enough smoke to indicate a giant wildfire.

At a time when perception is everything, it seems racing is deliberately choosing not to be proactive. In combating the issue of race-day medication, the sport decided to phase out Lasix, a substance designed to stop horses from bleeding. While Lasix may be A problem, the Medina Spirit situation shows it was not THE problem. Add in that horses may need Lasix to run at the sport’s highest level due to the way horses are bred in 2021, and that several of those top-tier equine athletes have bled during races, and anyone who’s watching closely knows significantly more work is needed in order to ensure any consistency and integrity moving forward.

If Medina Spirit’s split sample comes back negative, I hope it’s a stimulus for the complete and total rebuild of post-race testing from coast to coast. I don’t care what it costs, nor what the hurdles are in instituting a nationwide system where all results can be trusted. If we can’t get this right when the entire world is watching, who’s to say we’re getting this right when it isn’t?

If Medina Spirit’s split sample comes back positive, I hope it’s a stimulus for a new era of stricter sanctions for trainers who cheat. Horses run for millions of dollars, and paltry fines that amount to change “supertrainers” might find between their couch cushions means the usual punishment doesn’t come close to fitting the crime. Meaningful fines and suspensions, ones that shut the door for assistants to step in as program trainers and allow a “business as usual” mentality, are long past due.

Optics matter. And if for horse racing doesn’t apply those two words to this situation on a national level, it casts doubt on if the sport ever will in a meaningful way.

INTERLUDE: Gimmick Andrew Returns

The following conversation took place on Normal Andrew’s couch on a recent day off from work. Those unfamiliar with the Gimmick Andrew concept should read this piece published in 2018, at which point many perceived notions about Normal Andrew’s behavior should evaporate.

To make things easier to read, Gimmick Andrew’s quotes will be in italics.

– – – – –

“…who let you in here?”

“You did. This is YOUR subconscious, dude.”

“Fair enough.”

“What’s new?”

“Rushing Fall cost me a Pick Six and I’m sweating The Pink Sheet’s pick box like it’s a life-or-death situation.”

“So not much.”

“Yeah, that’s all pretty on-brand.”

“Why am I here, then?”

“What do you mean?”

“I only come out when there’s a defined reason for my existence. Clearly, something’s got you acting pensive and thinking weird thoughts. What is it, Saratoga running without fans?”

“No, that was actually the right move.”

“No fans at the Derby?”

“Unquestionably the right move, and one that should have been made months ago.”

“Your new podcast, ‘Champagne and J.D.?’”

“The one everyone should open in a new tab to check out? No, that’s going pretty well. We’ve gotten a great assortment of guests on a wide range of topics, and J.D. Fox and I are really proud of what we’ve built.”

“I’ll go build a fake Gmail account and subscribe.”

“Good. Tell your friends to do the same.”

“Why’d you even start that, anyway?”

“A couple of reasons. We wanted to give people something to have fun with during the pandemic, and neither of us were particularly happy with…oh.”

“What?”

“I just figured out why you’re here.”

“Keep going, then. I’d prefer if you didn’t waste my time with commercials nobody asked for that wind up making horse racing content impossible to watch, read, or listen to.”

(An uncomfortably long pause ensues as both Andrews glance deeply into an imaginary camera.)

“Well, I’ve got genuine issues with the way the sport is being marketed.”

“How’s that any different from what you’ve believed for years?”

“I don’t work in horse racing full-time anymore. I haven’t for two years.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Working in horse racing?”

“Yes.”

“Every single day. And that’s not to say I don’t like what I do now. But there are days where I firmly believe I was put on this planet to make a positive difference in the sport I love.”

“You have.”

“I’d like to think so.”

“Well, again, this is YOUR subconscious.”

“I miss the racetrack. I miss being able to promote the sport in a meaningful way, with people recognizing I know what I’m doing and letting me do it.”

“Is anyone else out there doing the stuff you want to do?”

“Nowhere near enough. I was born about 50 years too late. There aren’t full-time turf writers left, and a lot of good, solid racing people have been shown the door.”

“Then why put so much time and energy into something that doesn’t seem to want you around?”

“Because I care. Because there are issues I can fix.”

“Like what?”

“Who out there is creating content produced by horseplayers, for horseplayers? Some people. Not many. Racing is bound and determined to market to an attractive potential audience rather than the one it actually draws. What I do isn’t sexy. But what I do works, and there’s data that shows it.”

“What do you do, exactly?”

“I write, I produce videos, and I do so in a way that appeals to the biggest audience possible, the one horse racing wouldn’t survive without. Everywhere I’ve gone, social and digital media numbers have shot through the roof. And when people in charge of this stuff around the industry now do so in a way that’s sloppy, or insulting, or shows a defined lack of research…I get angry.”

“As angry as you got three and a half years ago?”

“Not quite. Close, though.”

“So what’s your plan?”

“Well…”

“Say it. If people are going to think you’re loud, or pompous, or have an ego, give them a reason.”

“You’re a horrible influence.”

“Say it.”

“…if nobody else is doing it, maybe I should.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“If not enough people are creating meaningful content for racing’s biggest audience, and if I’ve shown that’s something I can do effectively, maybe it falls on me to do that.”

“My work here is done.”

“Wait. How do I start?”

“What do I look like, your assistant? Finish Saratoga, then figure that out. If you need me, start having internal dialogues. If I’m not busy abusing your Netflix account, maybe I’ll come back.”

“Is that why I’m getting weird documentaries as recommendations?”

“Watch ‘Tread.’ Dude makes a bulldozer and tries to steamroll an entire town.”

“You’re strange.”

“I’m you.”

“Well, I’m the guy bound and determined to do something positive for horse racing.”

“Good luck.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Pebble Beach Tore My Face Off, And I Don’t Care

MONDAY, JULY 6
11:45 am-ish

I sauntered off the sixth green at Pebble Beach Golf Links on a beautiful summer day several steps ahead of the rest of my group. This twist on social distancing was by design, because I needed a minute.

I stood on the seventh tee box after filling our caddy in on what I was feeling and why I needed some time. Looking down on the green from about 100 yards away, preparing to play one of the most picturesque par-3 holes in golf, my eyes started welling up.

I waited as my dad, he of numerous club championships in upstate New York and a 4.8 handicap index to match, hit a wedge about 30 feet past the hole.

“I’d buy that right now if I could,” I thought to myself as I put my yellow Callaway, colored to make life easier for my caddy when shots inevitably went askew, down behind the tee markers.

I took a deep breath as I addressed the ball, hunched over due to the whole “I’m 6’5” and golf isn’t a sport for giant people” thing. I bent my knees, brought a three-quarter swing back, and came through the ball.

We’ll leave that shot in the air for a little while. In this case, the journey to Pebble Beach and the emotions it brought out, rather than scores written on a card, is what mattered more than anything else.

– – – – –

My dad was supposed to go to Scotland in May on a journey that would include 18 holes at St. Andrew’s. He was pumped to cross several things off of his bucket list…and then the coronavirus screwed everything up.

After planning a journey to Northern California, Dad did some digging. The research led to a shocking discovery: Pebble Beach was not requiring its traditional two-night hotel stay in order for guests to play one of the most famous courses in all of golf.

Following a few phone calls, Dad and I had a 10 am tee time for his trip out here. I was excited, but also scared out of my mind. As I’ve written, I enjoy playing golf, but I’ve never been anywhere near good at it. Occasionally, I’ll slap a few good holes together, but between my busy schedule and the whole “I’m way up here and the ball’s way down there” thing, it’s just never been something I’ve been able to improve at.

Before his arrival in the Bay Area, I took my clubs out for a spin and tried to work out the kinks. I was encouraged by my first outing, when I shot 44 on a par-34 course near my apartment, but visits to several 18-hole layouts varied from “humbling” to “where is my face and why did this force-carry decide to rip it off?”

When Dad got here, we played Hiddenbrooke, a public course in Vallejo (about an hour north of Oakland). It’s a beautiful Arnold Palmer design that has hosted several LPGA Tour events, and my banana-like tee shot was in no way prepared for it. After recording an 18-hole score of 108 (and a liberal 108 at that), plans were made to hit the driving range on Sunday.

Due to either uncommon foresight or common hoarding (both frequent behaviors within the Champagne family), we had several drivers laying around. One of them, a Taylor-Made, had an adjustable clubhead, and one of the employees at the range had a screwdriver. After moving the setting very far to “draw,” with a clubhead that may as well have been at a right angle, I at least had some general idea where the ball was going.

That enthusiasm waned when Dad decided we needed to be awake at 5:30 am for the drive to Monterey the next morning. How am I supposed to apply what I learned and swing a golf club correctly, I thought, if my consciousness was still laying on my couch? Alas, that was a battle I was never going to win. The alarm, predictably, came early, and off we went to Pebble Beach.

– – – – –

We left my apartment at 6:23 (I know because Dad complained we were eight minutes late). The first win of the day came when Bay Area highways, known for being some of the worst in the country, were miraculously mostly empty save for a trouble spot near San Jose caused by debris in the road. We got from parking spot to parking spot in almost exactly two hours, which allowed for plenty of wandering around before our tee time.

As Dad went into the shops, I found myself looking at the wall of plaques honoring winners of professional and amateur events held on the course. I couldn’t help but wonder, “what the heck am I DOING here?,” as I read about the exploits of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Gary Woodland, and a host of other golf legends.

Before going to the putting green, Dad and I watched a foursome tee off. The last player was a kid, maybe 10 or 12 years old, and Dad remarked how the kid may not be old enough to appreciate Pebble Beach. I countered by saying, “you watch, the kid probably has a better swing than I do.” I was proven correct when he hit a decent little drive about 180 yards down the right side of the fairway, one I’d have gladly bought from him had he been willing to sell.

I deliberately kept my goals low. In summary, there were only a few benchmarks I wanted to hit.

– Don’t be the worst player our caddy had ever worked with (mission accomplished).

– Take two shots to get out of as few bunkers as possible (this happened twice, but it could’ve been worse).

– Don’t leave the ball on the hill separating the fairways on the sixth hole (I hit one of my best shots of the day to get a hybrid over the hill and near the green).

– Par the seventh hole (we’ll get to that).

We met our caddy, Mike Z., and our playing partners on the first tee. I warned him, “you won’t need to help my dad much, but I STINK.” He laughed, and he would wind up doing an amazing job for us. Pro tip: If you play Pebble Beach, spend the money for a caddy. They’ll help you around, provide a wealth of knowledge (especially around the greens), and can even act as photojournalists taking photos and videos throughout your round. I can’t possibly recommend Mike Z. any higher, either. He added to the experience in a way we’ll always rave about.

Dad striped his tee shot down the first fairway, and then it was my turn. Somehow, I put together a controlled series of motions resembling an OK golf swing. While the yellow Callaway had left-to-right spin on it and found the right rough, it gave me a clear second shot into the green and was far from the worst tee shot the starter would see that day.

In an odd, welcome plot twist, I actually scored pretty well early. I bogeyed the first three holes, but made several 15-foot putts to do so, including one on the third hole that took one or two trips around the cup before falling in.

I made the turn in 53, with only three lost balls (coming on the fourth, eighth, and ninth holes). Despite wasting a great opportunity by dumping a wedge into the hazard after my best drive of the day on the ninth hole (a low stinger that caught a downslope and kept rolling), I considered the front nine a complete and total success. This continued when I made par on the 11th hole (albeit on a first-tee mulligan when I grounded one just barely off the tee box; I then hit a decent drive up the fairway, a good 7-iron to within about 25 feet, and two-putted). At that point, visions of a 99 danced in my head.

And then the back nine at Pebble Beach ate my lunch.

The 14th hole is when the day took a turn for the worse. After a drive into the right rough off the tee, I hit two solid hybrids to within about 60 yards of the hole. Unfortunately, that left me with one of the most daunting shots on the golf course: An uphill half-wedge, with no green to work with and a bunker staring at me with a menacing, “COME AT ME BRO” look.

I attempted to hit a half-wedge, but was intimidated enough to hit a three-quarter wedge that went long-left and flew the green. Several chunks and bad putts later, I slinkered off to the 15th tee box, where I hit one of my few push-slices of the day. Somehow, it stayed in bounds, and I wound up with a punch shot that I’d hoped to send between two trees and out to the front part of the green. I made great contact and missed one with ease, but the ball clipped an extending branch of the second one and went straight down into the ground.

“Five feet left and it’s perfect,” I grumbled on my way to making 7.

Still, I had a chance at a decent score (by my subterranean standards) as we headed to the 17th hole. I wound up playing most of the long par 3, as I grounded the tee shot short, put a second shot into the bunker short of the green, took two to get out, hit out of the bunker LONG of the green, and made a less-than-graceful quadruple bogey.

After taking a few pictures on the 18th tee box, though, I exorcised the demons with a beautiful drive up the right side of the 18th fairway. I hit a decent second shot, too, but chunked my third and wound up directly behind a tree adjacent to the green. Once again, I made 7, and I wound up signing for a 111 while Dad found ways to grumble about turning a 77 into an 84 (I hate him sometimes).

I did, however, say that scores didn’t matter as much as other things. This is where we teleport back to the seventh hole.

IMG_7935

– – – – –

As you may know, my grandmother, Carolyn Hake, passed away earlier this year after contracting the coronavirus. Between being 3,000 miles away and the pandemic not allowing for funerals or memorial gatherings of any kind, I never really got a chance to say goodbye to her, and it’s eaten at me for a while.

Many years ago, she got to play Pebble Beach with my grandfather (my mom’s dad), who at his peak was a scratch golfer. The story I was told went like this: They got put with two guys who wanted no part of playing with a woman. Nana countered as only she could, kicking their butts all the way around the golf course. The highlight came on the seventh hole, when she hit a wedge in and made par.

This is why keeping myself composed on the seventh tee box was hard. It’s why I wouldn’t have been surprised if the ball went anywhere between 10 feet off the tee box or halfway to Oahu, and why I needed to be careful in ensuring the golf club wasn’t shaking in my hands as I took it back.

I can only speculate, but chances are the wedge she hit was probably far more graceful than mine. While I hit it somewhat fat, though, the ball came off the center of the clubface and went to the right of the flagstick, where I had aimed in hopes of accommodating an ocean breeze that naturally subsided when I made contact.

“GO!,” I yelled, hoping it wouldn’t land in a bunker shy of the green.

The yellow Callaway obliged. It hit the green and rolled just off the back fringe, and golfers all over the course probably heard me yell, “FINE!,” from under the golf-themed mask my girlfriend bought me.

We got down to the green, and I was the first to putt from my lie in the rough. I had the speed perfect, but the ball stopped a foot or two to the right of the cup. Dad gave me the par putt and I took the ball away, pumping my fist as discreetly as I could while my eyes welled up again.

Dad lined up his birdie putt right as I’d recomposed myself. Like lots of putts at Pebble, it wasn’t easy. It went left to right, with a few feet of break and ocean waves crashing in the background.

He hit the putt.

There was no discretion necessary in the reaction.

There were a lot of special moments in that round. I’ll remember putting before the round and the practice green magically emptying for us for 10 or 15 minutes. I’ll remember the pictures we took and how lucky I felt to be with my father in those moments. I’ll remember remarking to my caddy, “these putts DO break the same as in the WGT video game!” I’ll remember going up to people working in various spots, from marshals to food and drink venders to salespeople in the shops, and saying, “you must REALLY love your job.” I’ll remember all of them saying that, yes, they did indeed love their jobs.

The seventh hole, though? That’s burned in my brain, and it’ll stay there as long as I live.

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I never got the chance to say goodbye to my grandmother. I suppressed the feelings from that for quite a while, simply because there’s no playbook to dealing with that stuff and there was no acceptable way to deal with the grief and frustration that I felt. Doing something she did as well as she did it isn’t going to heal everything, but it’s as good as I was going to do. Sometimes, that has to be enough.

I debated throwing my ball into the ocean after the hole was over, but I decided against it. After all, the ocean would have many more chances to deliver a souvenir to her, and that’s what it did on the next hole. After hitting a really nice 4-iron to just shy of the cliff’s edge, I took a 5-wood, attempted what Jack Nicklaus calls the greatest second shot in all of golf…and pushed that yellow Callaway dead right into the Pacific Ocean.

“Close enough,” I though to myself as I put another ball down.

The score really didn’t matter. Everything else did.

Thanks, Dad.