Bill, I think, was the best athlete I’ve ever met. There just wasn’t anything he couldn’t do in most sports.
Bowling, baseball, soccer, football, track and field … you name it, he probably did it, and did it well. So it didn’t surprise me that he was good at miniature golf too.
Most of us don’t think of miniature golf as a sport, and we’re right — it’s just a fun family activity. But when you’re as gifted physically as Bill is, nothing is very difficult, including dropping a little ball into an Astroturf-embedded cup. He’d get a semi-serious look on his face, look at the ball, line it up with that goofy little guide on the club head, and he always seemed to give it just the right amount of power to send the ball around its loopy, convoluted trip to the hole. He didn’t get a hole in one every shot, but he almost never scored par, either. Always below — always.
I can’t tell you the number of times he’d stand behind me, giving me instructions, talking me through trying to sink that confounded ball. I got better, eventually — but I never had the smoothness and the ease of doing it that he carried.
That stifling, sweaty northern California day, my mother — not yet drunk — decided we would all go miniature golfing. My father, of course, was working. My brother, Bill and I were all excited for the change of scenes and the chance to do something fun. It would mean a trip over the steep, car-killing grade of Kirker Pass into Concord, then up Clayton Boulevard to the miniature golf course just beside the A&W drive-in. Naturally it was our plan to connive her into getting us burgers and floats for lunch, too.
It was a weekday, but a fair number of people crowded the tiny golf course with its protruding spires of Disney-esque castles, a windmill with a slowly rotating 4-tine fan, a teeny stream running under gnomish bridges of false stone and gurgling into bubbling pools beside the fake grass. The little structures were more fun to me than the actual game, and we’d climb over the obstacles and peer inside the windows of the little cottages and shop fronts, only to be disappointed to see garbage and construction debris littering the hollow guts of them all.
The course became more challenging as it progressed. The initial holes were simple curves and bumps in the Astroturf that nearly guided your ball into the hole with no effort on your part. I, of course, was nerdy enough to screw a few of them up. After about the sixth hole, though, things changed dramatically.
The holes became very, very hard. Ryan actually had to be scored just for trying; at five years old, he had no hope of conquering some of the difficult challenges the course began to present. It was becoming clear why even high school students were attracted to this miniature golf course — it was not easy.
But Bill was under par on every hole.
We came upon a monstrous gorilla perched on a plant-choked hill, beating his chest and issuing a tinny roar from the speaker at the back of his mouth. The goal was to go up the hill and under the gorilla, into one of three holes. The center hole would drop you safely into the hole for a hole-in-one. The other two were more unpredictable.
My brother’s first shot didn’t climb the hill. He tried about four times before he finally gave up and just dropped his ball — close to the hole, naturally — on the other side. My mother’s shot ricocheted wildly off the concrete curbs up the winding ramp, but slipped under the ape’s plaster rump and ended up about three feet from the hole. My shot cleanly climbed the ramp, but annoyingly bounced into one of the outside holes and ended up about six feet away from the hole. Being a sore loser, I was pissed.
Bill’s shot went effortlessly up the ramp and never even touched the sides of the center hole under the primate’s ass as it slipped past, and was dropped perfectly with a hollow “clunk!” into the cup at the middle of the green.
I just chuckled and shook my head.
The next hole was a majestic pink castle — if a pink castle can be majestic — sitting in the middle of what I imagine was the tiny moat surrounding it. The “moat” was actually a channel about two feet deep with jets rushing the water about. There were leaves and other stuff floating in the water, and you could see them get scooted along quickly by the rushing water. There was a long, suspended bridge, with NO rails to keep the ball from spilling into that dirty rushing water, that spanned from the edge of the moat through the middle of the castle. Inside that castle, a series of tubes would carry the ball through the structure of the pink palace and dump your ball according to where you’d hit it. In the middle, hole-in-one; left or right, no one knew.
My mother’s first shot nearly went off the bridge. She cried “Noooooo!!” and twisted her body, trying to somehow control the ball as it barely edged across the bridge and dropped into the far left hole at the castle’s “gate.” She exhaled loudly through her flapping lips and moved aside. Ryan’s shot went directly in the drink, do not pass go, do not collect the ball. We actually had to go ask for another one. My first shot went right, and ended up on the green about three feet from the hole.
But Bill’s shot went straight and true, dead-on center, and dropped easily in for a hole-in-one.
I just chuckled and shook my head. “Man!” I exclaimed. “How’d you DO that??”
He thought for a moment, and shrugged. “I dunno. I just … look at where I want the ball to go, point the line at that spot, and hit it.” He shrugged again.
“You should think about turning pro,” my mother said stupidly.
The next hole was an anthill type thing, where you have to hit the ball up a mound with a depression in the top where the hole was; there was only one way to do it right. Miss it, and the ball rolled down the hill and you’d have to get it up that hill somehow, and around all the plaster toadstools and crap strewn over and around the ramp. My shot went in on the first try. Ryan hit his too hard. My mother hit hers too soft.
But Bill’s shot went straight up and into that cup effortlessly.
The next hole was a weird one. It looked like we’d come to a driving range. There was a huge — and I mean huge — ramp, with a net over it that extended some 20 or 30 feet into the air. The whole thing was maybe five yards wide. There were dozens of holes for the ball to fall into. It was a monstrosity, and it took us a minute to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do.
“I get it,” Bill piped up. “We have to hit the ball up the ramp. If you get to the top of the ramp, there’s a little gutter-thing that drops the ball into the hole. If you don’t get it to the top, you’ll hit one of these other holes and you’ll get on the green.”
“Ohhh,” we all said together, nodding slowly with the understanding.
Ryan teed up his ball, whacked it, and it rolled weakly off to one side and down into the gullet of a hole that spat him about 10 feet from the hole on the “green”. My shot was similar, but not quite as pathetic. My mother’s ball found a similar fate.
But Bill’s shot went straight and true, up the ramp — and died about two thirds of the way up.
It rolled straight back down and he stopped it with the bottom of his sneaker.
“What the hell?” he said, confused. I always thought he was a bad-ass when he swore, and my mother never corrected him. He was too bad to be corrected, I assumed.
“What happened?” she said blankly, even though she’d seen what’d happened.
“It didn’t make it up,” Bill said. “Not even close.”
His face grew a bit more determined, set in that concentrating way he had. He set his shoulders, gauged his shot, and hit it again, harder.
His shot went perfectly straight, rig
ht up the ramp … and died about two-thirds of the way to the top again. It rolled limply back down and he stopped it with his foot.
“Dammit!” he cursed. “This is tickin’ me off now.”
He adjusted his stance, lined up his shot, set his shoulders and hit the ball again. Once more it went dead-on target, but only climbed about two-thirds of that steep L-curved ramp. He stopped the ball again with his foot when it sped down to him.
“Sonuva … what’s the frickin’ problem??” he stormed, getting steamed now. He wasn’t used to being frustrated like this.
“I guess you gotta hit harder,” I said, concerned with his growing anger.
“I did hit it harder,” he said. “The bastard won’t go up the ramp. Is there something up there stopping it?”
I placed my hand over my bottle-bottom glasses to shade out the powerful California sun, peering to the top of the ramp. “I can’t see anything,” I said.
He focused too, staring at the top of the ramp. “Yeah, me either,” he agreed. “It’s just Astroturf.”
“I guess you’re just not hitting it hard enough,” my mother added again. “Just give it a little more whack, that’s all.”
Bill shrugged. “What the hell. I’m already going over par even if I get a hole-in-one now. Might as well.”
“But make sure you can tag it good, though,” I said. “Lots harder than before. I think the ramp is steeper at the top than down here.”
“Yeah,” Bill said, “don’t worry. I’ll tag it.”
He settled in his stance, just as a pro golfer would, watching the position of his feet and the guide on the club. He carefully set his shoulders, then took a look up the ramp and gauged his putter’s guideline. He took a couple of half-swings to ensure the club head ended up where he wanted it. Then he settled in again.
“Okay,” he whispered to himself, “this is goin’ up.”
I expected Bill, with his magnificent body control and athleticism, to be able to apply an infinitely adjustable range of power to his hits. He probably could, but he’d lost interest in that. He was determined to get this ball in the hole now, and to do so by using that little channel at the top of the ramp. He would not be content to use the other holes in the field.
So he tipped that little club back like a driver, arced his swing down and ripped the hell out of that ball like Tiger Woods at the Masters. His swing followed through all the way, and his little colored golf ball launched off the tee area mat and shot up the ramp like it was blown out of a cannon.
We watched agape with shock as the ball roared as fast as our eyes could follow up that ramp, cleared the top, and took off into open air. It soared with no sign of slowing down as it cleared the top of the net designed to catch the ball in just such a case. Up into the air the tiny ball receded, and I put my hand over my eyes again to try and watch the trajectory as it whistled away into the crisp cerulean sky.
My mother cupped her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God!”
“FOOOOORRRRRRRE!!” she bellowed … and she can bellow.
Humanity buzzed out of nowhere. People boiled out from behind that ramp like hornets from a burning nest, hands held over their heads, running low and trying to avoid whatever catastrophe was falling on them. Girls screamed, men ran with fear, and all the while I watched that ball finish it’s parabola and begin to fall back toward terra firma.
“Here it comes!” I shouted, “LOOK OUT!”
We all four darted for cover as the screaming ball whizzed out of the air. It crashed soundly into the top of the ramp, hopped up another 20 feet, came down and bounced again, and then struck the net behind the ramp. The net killed all of the ball’s momentum instantly, and it rolled helplessly down the ramp.
And it dropped gently into the channel at the top of the ramp. Bill’s ball rolled down the channel and was deposited nicely into the hole.
We all stood there staring, amazed.
In a moment, Bill spoke again, clearing his throat.
“So … was that four strokes or five?”