More memorable tales from The Ranch

(My syndicated column this week dealt with the greatest golf shot I ever saw on my favorite golf course I ever played, the one named for Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer B.O. Van Hook. The golf course no longer exists, but the memories will last a lifetime. What follows is the column I wrote in 2004 when the golf course closed. Then there’s this week’s column and finally a link to the Hall of Fame pages of both B.O. Van Hook and James Ray Carpenter.)

•••

OUR foursome was on the fifth tee looking out over the lake in front of us. Billy and I were playing out of one cart, Buddy and Red were in the other.

I was just about to hit my tee shot when I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye. It was our cart, rolling down the hill, picking up speed and heading directly into the lake.

I hollered. Billy started running down the hill after the cart, tripped right at the edge of the water and splashed in head-first. Buddy and Red, who has since gone on to that 19th hole in the sky, just laughed and laughed and laughed.

I probably would have laughed, too, but the cart was carrying about $1,000 of golf equipment, and understand, those were 1976 dollars.

Good, I thought. Billy will fish out our clubs, and I won’t even have to get wet.

But, no, Billy grabbed the ice chest, which was carrying about 10 bucks worth of beer.

“Billy,” I hollered, “what about our clubs?”

“First thing’s first,” Billy hollered back.

About that time golf pro James Ray Carpenter was heading down an adjacent fairway in his golf cart.

James Ray saw it all, and just turned around his cart and headed back to get a tractor and a winch.

He had done this before.

The B. O. Van Hook Golf Course, formerly known as the USM Golf Course, will close Wednesday.

Forever.

The Hattiesburg area has more courses than it has players. The Van Hook course, named for the longtime USM golf coach, doesn’t get enough play to pay the bills. Like an old, rusty truck that has been sent to the junkyard, our old golf course has lived out its usefulness.

It was never a great golf course. In fact, those of us who loved it most called it “The Ranch,” which was short for “The Goat Ranch.” I’m not sure even goats would have eaten some of those strands of weeds.

But it was our golf course. Some of us practically grew up whacking golf balls out of those sticker patches and forever trying to avoid the fire-ant beds.

Mama would fix a bag filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drop us off bright and early. We’d play basically from daylight to dark. We didn’t think twice about walking 36 or 54 holes in the day and playing Little League baseball at night.

I broke 100 for the first time on that course. Then 90, then 80, then … well, that’s as far as it got.

We learned important lessons in life there. Our foursomes were integrated when our schools weren’t. A crusty, loveable codger we nicknamed Super Duck taught us to play gin rummy. An always smiling hustler named Bender taught us not to gamble for more than we had in our pockets.

When asked about the pressure of playing high stakes golf on the tour, Lee Trevino once replied, “This isn’t pressure. We’re playing for other people’s money. Pressure is when you play for 10 bucks and you don’t have a dime in your pocket.”

I would amend that to say pressure is when you go home and tell your daddy you lost 50 dollars that you don’t have to your name.

We had a group of us that played every day. Jud and Scott and Andy and Bobby. Mike and Burke and David and Kevin. We called it golf. We could have called it Jud wins. Jud Vance, the first golfer ever to get a full scholarship at USM, always beat our brains out.

My brother Bobby and I played with Andy Burkett the first day Andy ever stepped foot on a golf course. He made an 8 on the par-4 first, a 10 on the par-5 second and a 12 on the par-5 third. The fourth hole was a 210-yard par 3, with a green about the size of a postage stamp. It would still make my top 10 list of all-time hard par-3s. It was so difficult they finally built another tee base about 40 yards closer to the green.

Andy took a 3-wood out of his bag. This was back when woods were really made of wood. Andy had what can best be described as a whirlybird swing, and the binding on that old, scuffed-up 3-wood was loose. At the top of his swing, that binding whirled every which way. Somehow, his club connected with the ball, which went soaring high above the pine trees along the right side of the fairway. And then it started to curve back to the left, directly at the green. And then it bounced once on the fringe, rolled a few feet and dropped into the hole.

Bobby and I started hollering. Andy stood there as if he didn’t understand what all the commotion was about. His expression said, “Well, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

He promptly followed the ace with a 10 on the par-4 fifth.

·Our old course opened on June 1, 1959. It will die Wednesday. James Ray Carpenter, the self-taught pro who went on to become the president of the PGA of America, figured it shouldn’t pass on without ceremony.

So, Wednesday, Carpenter is having a wake in the form of a scramble golf tournament. Appropriately, play will be in sixsomes. “Pallbearers,” Carpenter calls them. Some tales will be told.

I hope Andy aces the fourth again. I hope Billy forgets to set the brake on the fifth tee. I hope that, somewhere, Red is smiling.

God, I loved The Ranch.

May it rest in peace.
•••
The B.O. Van Hook Golf Course, named for the Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, is no more. It was the old USM golf course, fondly called “The Ranch” by those of us who played there.

The Ranch was short for “Goat Ranch,” because we believed only a goat would eat the grass and weeds that grew on our course. Believe this: Said goat would have learned quickly to beware of fire ants.

I took a long walk in Hattiesburg the other day and ended up at The Ranch, so I kept going around the front nine where those weeds have turned into bushes and the greens are no longer recognizable as such. A road now splits the fifth fairway. The trek brought back a flood of memories, especially when I reached what once was the fourth hole.

The Ranch’s fourth, when played from the back tee, was only the most hellishly difficult par-3 on earth. It measured 210 yards to a postage stamp of a green that was as hard as asphalt. A few feet to the right of the green was out-of-bounds. A few feet behind the green was out-of-bounds. Just to the left of the green was 40 feet of dry land that went steeply downhill into a pond.

The right side of the fairway was guarded by tall pine trees, which prevented skilled golfers from hitting their usual right-to-left “draw” into the hole. If you wanted to hit a fade, your ball had to carry over the water.

Playing the fourth at The Ranch was like walking a tight rope. It was harder than advanced trigonometry, a quadruple bogey waiting to happen.

Yes, and the greatest shot I ever saw was executed there.

This was 48 years ago. Brother Bobby and I took Andy, our baseball teammate, out for his first round of golf. We laughed our way through the first three holes. Andy made 10 on the par-4 first, 10 on the par-5 second and 12 on the par-5 third. He was headed for a record.

We stepped to the tee on the dreaded fourth. Andy, using borrowed clubs, took out a 3-wood. The binding just above the scuffed-up clubhead was loose and was flying this way and that as he took a couple of practice swings.

About Andy’s swing: His backswing looked fairly normal until he got to the top, and then he kind of whirly-birded it around. Think Jim Furyk, only exaggerated.

So, Andy addressed his ball, drew the club back and looped his swing with the binding flailing comically. Somehow or another his 3-wood connected with the ball. The ball headed far right of the green, high above the pine trees, headed over the fence and from Forrest County into Lamar.

I thought it was gone forever, and then the strangest thing happened. It hooked back above the trees and toward the green. Forty-eight years later, it seems a dream.

That ball landed on the fringe of the green, bounced once, rolled a few feet and, yes, dropped into the cup.

Bobby and I started hollering. Andy just stood there as if he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. He stared back at us and if his stare could have talked it would have said, “Well, isn’t that what you are supposed to do?”

Well, yes. Andy then followed his ace with a 10 on the par-5 fifth. No matter. He was hooked on golf forever.

I was at the time a fledgling sports writer, but knew a story when I saw one. I wrote about Andy and sold my first magazine story to Golf World, which over the years has immortalized so many golfers and so many golf shots, none more amazing than Andy’s.

•••

B.O. Van Hook

James Ray Carpenter

•••

To support your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *