The Ranch… may it rest in peace, in my dreams
(I write a back-page column for Mississippi Sports Magazine, a widely distributed publication with a growing circulation that publishes six times a year. What follows is my column for the May/June issue. People who join the 200 Club, which is a lifetime membership to your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, receive a free, one-year subscription to the magazine. See more information at the bottom of this page.)
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 left 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. 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. Pro 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, closed nine years ago. Forever. The Hattiesburg area had more courses than it had golfers to support them. The weeds, which always were plentiful The Ranch, have taken over. An unknowing passerby would never know it was once a golf course. Truth is, it was never a great golf course. In fact, those of us who loved it most — and, God, we did love it — 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, ant beds and all. Some of us practically grew up whacking golf balls out of those sticker patches that kept us from playing bare-footed. 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 life lessons there. Our foursomes were integrated when our schools weren’t. A crusty, lovable 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 tour golf, Lee Trevino 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.” Yes, and pressure is when you go home and tell your daddy you lost 50 dollars you don’t have a dollar 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 training bra. It would still make my top 10 list of all-time difficult par-3s. 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 and twirled 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 it all: “Well, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” Yes, and Andy promptly followed the ace with a 10 on the par-4 fifth. ·
The first hole was a 282-yard par 4 with small, elevated green that was as hard as slate. Most people stepped to that sandy first tee thinking they could drive the green. But, when they didn’t, they knew they had no chance on the second shot. The green was just too hard to hold. Once, good old Burke almost drove the green, shanked his chip shot, shanked it again, and again, and again and still again— until he was right back in front of the green in almost the the same spot where he had shanked the first. It happened. But then so much did at The Ranch. May it rest in peace.
Let’s put it this way: It has been my good fortune to play famous golf courses all over, including Augusta National. And yet when I play golf in my dreams, I always play The Ranch.
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