I don’t know with absolute certainty that in the 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993 seasons the St. Agnes golf team was the worst high school golf team in Minnesota, but it would have been almost mathematically impossible to have been worse than we were.
We played over ten matches each season, and of those 40+ total matches, we won only one—by default, when the other team didn’t show up. We also played two tournaments each year, each time playing against all of our rivals in the Tri-Metro Conference, and in seven of those eight total tournaments, we finished dead last. The closest thing we had to an earned victory in my four years on the golf team was when in one tournament, we somehow managed to achieve a lower average score than the team from St. Bernard’s High School, thus finishing only second to last.
How could we possibly have been that bad? Well, for starters, St. Agnes is a tiny school: my graduating class had only 49 members. Since the golf team had to field six players for each match, that meant that about 6% of the school’s entire male student population had to be on the field for each match. We couldn’t afford to be choosy.
There were very few kids at my school who had spent much time on a golf course. St. Agnes is located in St. Paul’s inner-city Frogtown neighborhood, which in the 1990s was the site of deadly gang wars. Our football team would be the subject of inspirational newspaper articles that would talk about how the players had to watch out for for broken crack pipes on their practice field. As golf coach Mr. Cartwright put it, we were “not a country club school.”
In retrospect, it’s strange to think that I even took an interest in golf. I learned the game from my father, who would take me out on the course with him when I was a kid, but those outings were not particularly shining moments in our father-son relationship. Dad would get furious and shout obscenities at the balls, at the clubs, at the trees, at the lakes, at himself, and at me. Dad and his golf buddy Ed Litwinczak would ride on the golf cart seats, and I’d squeeze onto the back bumper and hang on for dear life.
Nonetheless, for my 13th birthday I was genuinely pleased to accept the gift of a set of golf clubs. Dad took me to Target, and for $99.99 he bought a set of clubs bearing the signature of Jim Thorpe—not Jim Thorpe the great Olympic athlete, Jimmy Lee Thorpe the golfer who won a total of three PGA victories and is currently under suspension from the pro tour after being convicted of tax evasion and serving a one-year prison sentence.
“You’ll be ready for a better set of clubs,” Dad told me, “when you break 100 for 18 holes.” That’s not a particularly ambitious goal—it’s kind of like running a marathon in under five hours—but 22 years and hundreds of rounds later, I still have yet to ever break 100. Accordingly, I still have the Jim Thorpe clubs and I expect that I will have them for the rest of my life.
Every golf team had a “home course,” and ours was Como Park Golf Course in St. Paul. As a course, Como is distinguished by having wide fairways and relatively few trees—which is convenient for golfers who have difficulty staying on the fairway, but also makes it a deathtrap, with golf balls flying at you from all directions. If, for example, you shank your drive, your ball proceeds at high velocity directly towards the green 50 feet away where players on the next hole are putting. A guy lining up a putt was taken down that way by one of my teammates, who accidentally fired a line drive right into the guy’s thigh. One of my wayward drives once bounced off the hood of a golf cart coming up an opposing fairway—if the driver had been laying on the gas just a tiny bit more, he might have lost an eye.
When we hosted opposing teams, the players liked the easy layout and short holes—with our helpful advice regarding how to cut the doglegs, our opponents could often land their drives right on the greens of Como’s par-four holes—but they didn’t appreciate the patchy fairways, the muddy sand traps, and the distraction of animal noises coming from the neighboring Como Zoo. One time, a St. Bernard’s player went into the woods looking for his ball and found a guy and a girl rutting behind a tree in flagrante delicto.
We had no such entertainment on our opponents’ quiet, well-manicured courses. As a small private school, St. Agnes is in a conference with other small private schools; St. Bernard’s, our closest rival, was also an inner-city Catholic school, but most of the others were elite prep schools like St. Paul Academy and The Blake School. (“The” not to be omitted.) Their home courses were places like the Minikahda Club, where the pencils had erasers and players got little booklets with yardage maps.
Those courses had fancy carts with roofs, but neither power carts nor pull carts were allowed during competition—players had to carry their own clubs. You could rent power carts during practices, but besides the fact that the daily expense would have been prohibitive on a baby-sitter’s income, the Como staff were not inclined to rent to us. The conversations we’d have with them would go like this:
“How old do you have to be to rent a cart?”
“How old are you?”
“Well, how old do you have to be to rent a cart?”
“Well, how old are you?”
One day we did manage to rent a power cart, which predictably we almost tipped over and also almost allowed to roll backwards into the Lake of Two Seasons. (The two seasons were pre- and post-pesticide each spring. Pre-pesticide, the lake was full of green gunk. Post-pesticide, the lake was crystal clear and we were inclined to obey the signs cautioning players to keep their hands out of the water.)
It’s hard to communicate just how much worse than our rivals we were. Really, we weren’t even playing the same game: they were trying to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible, and we were just trying not to lose our balls in the woods. Typically, the other players would sail straight drives a few hundred yards down the fairway and we’d either shank our drives off the ball-cleaner, top our drives and send snake-killers hustling 50 yards forward through the grass, or get under our drives and land the resulting high pop-ups on the ladies’ tee.
If we actually managed to send our drives a decent distance, chances were that a hook or a slice would land the ball in the woods or in the water hazards that were annoyingly prevalent on our opponents’ courses—those courses having been designed to legitimately challenge golfers whose lifetime goal was to break par, not break 100. One time, the guys from the other team just went up and kept hitting their balls, continuing on to the next hole while we thrashed away. They finished the ninth hole while we were still on the fifth.
Each member of a competition foursome (two players from each team) had to keep score for all four players, so at the end of each hole you’d have to report to all three of the other players what your score was. I would often score so high that I actually had a hard time keeping track of my score, which annoyed the other players to no end despite the fact that we were constantly cutting them breaks by not invoking the two-stroke penalty for obscene language or club-throwing.
Really, the most absurd thing about the whole enterprise was just how competitive the other players were despite the fact that was never any remote possibility that we would actually win any match. Some of those kids had been trained like preppie attack dogs: put nine-irons in their hands, and they wouldn’t let go until they’d made the kill. One guy from St. Anthony insulted my mother as I lined up one of several approach shots, and a Farmington guy angrily accused me of club-counting—checking to see whether he had more than the allowed maximum of 14 clubs in his bag—when I was gaping at his expensive new Ping Eye 2 irons and his monogrammed bag in school colors.
Not only did we not have monogrammed bags, we hardly even had the wardrobe to meet the dress codes on our opponents’ courses. One afternoon we showed up for a match and learned that long pants and shirts with collars were non-negotiably required on the course we were scheduled to play, so we had to run back to my parents’ Dodge Ram van and change out of our shorts and homecoming t-shirts back into our school uniforms—lest we forfeit the match instead of losing it fair and square. The next time we played that course, I showed up in a business suit and one of my dad’s loud paisley ties from the 70s; our coach Mr. Schoen was not amused and made me take off the tie and jacket.
Unlike his bemused predecessor Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Schoen actually cared whether or not we embarrassed ourselves. (He also disapproved of the Fleetwood Mac I played one day on the way to practice—the “lay me down in the tall grass” line, he thought, was inappropriate for Catholic schoolboys’ ears.) In my senior year, St. Agnes matriculated a freshman who, miraculously, was actually a pretty good golfer; the rest of us easily buried Joe’s low scores in our pile of penalty strokes, but Joe’s presence raised Mr. Schoen’s hopes that someday we might actually win a match. It was, in fact, during that season that we managed our supreme achievement of my high school golf career: we finished second-to-last in a tournament. Suck it, St. Bernard’s Bulldogs!
Looking back, I don’t really remember enjoying the golf itself: what’s to love about carrying a bag of metal rods across a park, often in the cold, trying to use them to hit a ball into a tiny hole while in the company of people who are far better at it than you are? What I enjoyed was the camaraderie I shared with my brothers-in-arms, and the knowledge that we were getting for free a privilege that, in adulthood, we would have to pay huge sums for. (Playing the Minikahda Club on a weekend will currently run you $130, and that’s not even an option unless you’re friends with a member who’s ponying up the several thousand dollars in annual fees.)
Mostly because I was the kid who most consistently showed up, I was named the golf team’s co-captain in my senior year. So it was that I managed the unlikely feat of earning a letter jacket with four bars and a captain’s star. The first day I wore that letter jacket to school, members of the basketball team took turns sticking their head into my homeroom and laughing at me. Like I wasn’t a real athlete.