Thursday, March 01, 2007

Sky Valley Elegy

They’re closing down the golf course in my hometown.

It was a little nine-hole course built on one cow pasture and bordered by another, a course with some rolling hills and a ball-eating drainage ditch and a couple of birdieable par-fives. The #2 and #6 holes shared entirely too much fairway for my taste: One went north, one went south, and in my high school days I lived in constant fear of taking a ball in the face on my way to the second hole.

The little course had a couple of tempting par-threes, too, and one early morning before the dew burned off I emptied my bag and hit a good two dozen balls off the #3 tee, hoping for a hole-in-one. Fruitlessly, it turned out. My dad and brother scored their holes-in-one the legitimate way—in the middle of a round—and Dad even managed to do it twice.

My dad was a hell of a golfer: consistent, patient, and a good straight hitter. He taught me to play and hoped I’d love it as much as he did—though that, I believe, was impossible. He was our high school golf coach, too, and each spring from 1975 through 1978 I was out on our little hometown course every afternoon after school, trying to lower my average score enough to qualify for the varsity matches and succeeding only rarely. Dad would send us out in random foursomes and we’d walk the former pasture carrying our clubs, shooting the breeze, discussing girls and school and life, praising each other’s best shots, occasionally bending Dad’s rules and awarding a gimme if the situation called for it. While the baseball players were doing conditioning drills and the track team were running their lungs out, we were enjoying a stroll on a sweet cool spring afternoon, pausing occasionally to hit a ball a little closer to the hole.

The name of the course was Sky Valley back then, and it was generally the smallest and scrubbiest of all the courses the golf team played on. The fairways were far from lush and the greens sometimes got rubbed down to dirt in places, but that never bothered me. I liked the fact that it was ours. There were only two places in the county with courses, and my little hometown was one of them. We traveled to some much nicer facilities over the course of each season, but the bigger and better cared-for they were, the more they intimidated me. Sky Valley felt like home.

I stopped playing regularly after I moved away in 1985. Seven years after that, the entire Sky Valley complex—golf course, campground, lodge, and restaurant—was purchased by the Indiana Regular Baptist Youth Camp, which changed the name of the place to Twin Lakes Camp and Conference Center, closed the restaurant, and converted everything but the golf course into a church camp. After reversing their original decision to close the course on Sundays, the Baptists bravely entered the world of golf course management.

The change of ownership didn’t affect my dad’s love of the game. By the time the Baptists took over, he’d turned my mom into an avid golfer, and ever since then the course has been the hub of their social life. When they were both retired, they were free to go out in the middle of a weekday and play a round or two—and since they had a family membership they could tack on an extra four holes before going home. They golfed with couples their own age and couples who were younger, and if none of their friends were around they golfed by themselves.

One of the younger couples ostensibly adopted Mom and Dad and soon the four of them were going out for pizza after their Friday-night rounds. On Saturday afternoons it was common to see 20 or more of these regulars lining up on the first tee and dividing into foursomes, and then at the end the round switching into new teams and playing again. Whenever I was home for Mother’s Day weekend, I’d join this motley crew and experience firsthand the camaraderie and competition of people who truly enjoyed each other’s company.

My dad has been in declining health for the last few years. He’s on oxygen full-time now, and last year he only felt well enough to play golf four times, a number exponentially lower than his average. Most days, though, he went out anyway and rode in the cart with Mom, taking pleasure in the warm weather and the warm presence of his friends.

This past winter, when they were looking into course membership for 2007, Mom and Dad decided it made sense to buy only a single membership for her.

I can hardly imagine a summer without my dad golfing. Until last summer, I’m sure he couldn’t either. I’m sure it hurt for him to see Mom mail that check for just one membership, and to know he’d be limited to a summer of being the golf cart chauffeur.

But even that was taken from him—from both of them—when Mom opened the mail one day last month and found a refund check for her membership. According to their website, Twin Lakes has decided to use the golf course land for “sports fields, bike trails, disc golf, a hydra course, and a nature/welcome center in the former pro shop.”

I don’t think the Baptists were ever all that gung-ho about managing a golf course, and I don’t know why they couldn’t have sold it to investors who would have been. But it’s not important now. What’s important is that something unique to my little hometown is gone. Something good, something fun, something that was important to quite a few people.

Sure, there are other golf courses within a 20-minute drive, and maybe the younger golfers will gravitate to one of them. Maybe the older golfers will head there too when they feel like a round, and maybe they’ll invite Mom and maybe Dad will go along for the ride.

But it’ll never feel like it used to. It’ll never feel like home.

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