I had a busy day ahead, so I thought I would play a few holes of golf ... you know how it is, pleasure before business. Under a gray sky, the air heavy with moisture that condensed around every blade of grass, I headed out to the first tee. Rounding a corner, I startled a goldfinch into flight, the bright yellow wings flashing against the backdrop of drab clouds that clung to the mountains. I thought immediately of my father, the twin hits of golf and goldfinches bringing back memories from his dying days.
The first hole is a 140-yard par 3 with a slightly elevated tee and a huge willow tree guarding the right side of the approach to the green. About twenty yards in front of the green is a thick belt of weeds and tall grass, which is where I dumped my first shot. That is sort of a tradition for me, dumping that first ball into the rough, so I wasn't too upset. I think of it as tribute to the golf gods.
The next eight holes went pretty well. I'm actually playing the best golf of my life. That's not to claim I am a particularly good golfer, just that I am an improving golfer, which, in this game, is all you can hope for. The ninth hole, a par four, ended especially well ... a straight drive into the center of the fairway, followed by a crisp wedge with a leave just a few feet below the cup. I knew I should head home, but I wasn't quite ready to finish, so I went back to play the first three holes, which form a loop that ends near the first tee.
I rounded the same corner as I had earlier, but there was no goldfinch. Instead, I looked down and saw an old man standing motionless beside the tee box. I stopped, golf etiquette demanding that I not disturb his shot routine. But he just stood there, shoulders slumped, peering straight ahead. After a minute or so, an elderly Japanese lady spoke from behind me. "You go," she said. At once I understood. The man had been waiting for his wife, who had returned to their car to get something she forgot. I had seen them both before, two people who had grown old together as gracefully as the willow tree down by the green.
I thanked them and took out my 7-iron again. I was already warmed up, so I wasn't worried about hitting it into the rough. I stood over the ball and went through my current set of swing thoughts, mostly centered around my right arm action into the ball. I knew it was a good shot because I never felt the ball on the club face. I looked up and saw a high draw that arced over the willow tree and landed about ten feet short of the hole and rolled to within eight inches or so below the cup. That close to a hole in one.
The couple complimented me on my shot. I enjoyed a moment of quiet satisfaction made all the sweeter by having shared it with two people who embodied the gentle patience one learns both from golf and from growing old together into the twilight. The willow tree branches swayed gently in a breeze that broke open the sky and bathed us in steamy sunshine.
Walking to the green, I thought back on all that went into making the story that unfolded in my head. The precise timing to catch that goldfinch as it took flight ... a goldfinch being the only bird that would immediately trigger memories of my father. The decision to play a few extra holes. The image of the old man patiently waiting for his wife. The incredible luck of striking a perfect shot.
I had this feeling that something had just happened, something bigger than a golf shot. Was it some sort of message from my father? I can't bring myself to go quite that far, but there are moments when it does seem that nature is trying to catch my attention. Such moments are as evanescent as the flash of a bird's wings, a barely registered movement in the corner of the mind's eye. But I have come to understand that the more I look, the more I see.
I don't know what it is I am seeing, but I believe that I am seeing something ... an underlying current of kindness that persists in a world that seems at times to be drowning in malice. It's not much, but I'll take it.