How Uncle Jack made me a golfer.
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Everyone who plays golf had someone who introduced them to the game. Usually, that’s a parent. In my case, my parents had never picked up a golf club, and I’m not sure they would have known which was the business end if they had.
I had Uncle Jack.
John Joseph (Jack) Kelly (and is that an Irish name, or what?) was third of the four Kellys, my mother being the youngest. He was a member of The Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw perfectly described our forefathers that went to war in WWII. He was wounded by a Japanese mortar in New Guinea, which severely injured his left arm, and left his face disfigured. He never married, and in retrospect, I believe it was partly due to that disfigurement. As someone who grew up only knowing him that way, it never registered with me that anything about him was disabling. Just different.
Which, as a side note, is a pretty good way to think about anyone who is disabled in any way.
Golfer for Life
Since he was the unmarried uncle, he had time for his nieces and nephews. Being the oldest in my family, and the most athletic, he and I had a lot in common when he would come to Tennessee to visit from Manhattan, Kansas, where he and my mom and all the Kellys grew up. We would talk Tennessee football and K-State basketball (this was before their football program turned around). And from the time I can remember, when he came in, or we went there, he and I would go play Putt-Putt. And Manhattan had a 36-hole course! Which was awesome! I was crushed when mom told me, once I was in junior high school, that Uncle Jack didn’t really enjoy Putt-Putt that much. He was taking me because I wanted to play, not because it was fun for both of us. Early teen years are not noted for significant selfless introspection, but that disclosure did produce additional respect for the man.
About that same time, during a trip to Knoxville, he took me to the driving range with him. Golf was a mysterious, foreign, even sacred game that rich people played. Uncle Jack, being unmarried, was pretty self-sufficient and more affluent than our family of 6. “Rich” is relative, especially when you’ve just reached double digits in age, and your frame of reference is family and the kids who lived on your street. But he was “rich” enough to have cable-tv! And to play golf regularly.
And now I was given the opportunity to see what it was all about.
I was hooked. I held real clubs and real golf balls and swung and missed and swung and shanked and swung and hit a couple (probably).
I started playing with borrowed clubs. I made enough money mowing yards to buy my first set. Several of us all got the golf bug at the same time, and started playing at the local municipal course in Knoxville as time and money allowed. We, at least I, would scour the woods down the right side of #1 and the dogleg-right #7 (if memory serves correctly) looking for Spalding Dots and Rams and if we were really lucky, Titleists. Even Titleist 100s!
First Golf Trip
The summer before I started high school, Uncle Jack invited me to fly to Manhattan to visit for a week. And play golf. My first golf trip! My first airplane trip! My first away-from-home-by-myself-vacation-trip! All rolled into one.
We would play at Stagg Hill Golf Club– a tree-lined course he belonged to and helped start, and which is still one the favorites I’ve ever played. He was quite proud that he had his own 3-wheel cart in cart storage area #1. Kinda like this one:
This photo of Rick’s Restorations is courtesy of TripAdvisor
I remember walking into the clubhouse for the first time, and the staff immediately greeting him with, “Hello, Mr. Kelly!” and “Mr. Kelly, sir, it’s great to see you again!”
I was impressed. Uncle Jack rose a few more notches on the hero scale that day.
We played all that week. I think I broke 50 a couple of times on a couple of nines. We would play, then have a late lunch, then shop or sightsee or go visit relatives. And talk golf. I remember him telling me that when the doctors were working on his arm after the mortar hit, they said it was shattered so badly that once they put all the pins and rods in place, it would heal in whatever position it was in.
“So, Sgt. Kelly, what position would you like us to set your left arm in for the rest of your life?” What kind of question is that? And how do you answer it-especially lying in a hospital bed somewhere in the Pacific?
Uncle Jack told me that he said: “Just make it where I can swing a golf club when I get home.” Which is why his arm was at a 45 degree angle.
The Sunset Years
My mom passed away in 2005. The summer of 2004, I drove her back to Manhattan to visit for the first time in many years. I had told Uncle Jack I wanted to play golf at Stagg Hill again. As he had done several times before, he arranged it so that I could enjoy myself while he pretended to be having a good time. Age had taken its pernicious effect on Uncle Jack, however, and he hit a total of a half dozen shots over the nine holes we played. The role-reversal was something I wasn’t expecting. I was doing the encouraging. I cheered when he hit a particularly good shot. I had the relatively relaxing, no big numbers/no birdies 42. And he still got the same reception by the staff in the clubhouse.
He passed in 2007. I had been notified that I was being mobilized from the Navy Reserve to Iraq, with pre-mob, medical, etc. to commence in September. About the last thing I did before starting the mobilization was to fly to Manhattan and pay my respects to the man who introduced me to golf.
We all have had Uncle Jacks in our lives. And as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge it, I’m at about the age that Uncle Jack was when he introduced me, encouraged me, and made me want to become a golfer.
It’s my turn. It’s our turn. I tried with my daughter several years ago, and she had no interest in golf. I wish she would have, as it’s something we could play together until I get to the point where I can only hit six shots in nine holes. We father-daughter bond in lots of other ways, so not doing it on a golf course isn’t important to us.
But, I still have the opportunity to be “Uncle Jack” to someone. Maybe my step-son. Maybe a next door neighbor. Maybe a niece. Maybe a kid in a First Tee program. Lots of kids out there don’t have a downhill slide into the front door of a golf club.
You had your dad, or mom, that did it for you.
And I had Uncle Jack. RIP.