Tear-stained putting sessions and blistered hands on the driving range. A journey through personal tragedy, one stroke at a time.
Words by Shawn Allen
Art by Shane Miller
Light / Dark
There is a popular map of Nashville that hangs on brick walls of local restaurants that have inhabited old factory buildings. It’s black with white lines detailing the various neighborhoods and the amorphous way each one seems to dissolve into the next. The borders are more like suggestions; the neighborhoods are so fluid that realtors have trouble distinguishing them in their listings. Yet each has a distinct identity, from its people to its architecture.
The city was built on agriculture, shipping, manufacturing and the music industry. Today the music is even bigger, and it’s been joined by the medical, tourism and creative industries. In March 2017, The Tennessean ran a story titled “New data: Nashville region still growing by 100 people a day.” There is a seemingly endless flow of millennials (and bachelorette parties) enjoying the boom.
There isn’t much room for golf in the city anymore, so what was built before the influx is all there is: the private courses that sit in the heart of old-money neighborhoods and seven municipal courses that the city funds as part of its parks system.
My wife, Mary-Margaret, and I were two of those incoming millennials. We moved to Nashville in 2012 for her four-year pathology residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. We didn’t know where to live, so we moved into an apartment complex in the Elmington Park neighborhood.
Mary-Margaret was working 11- to 14-hour days at the hospital, on call at all hours of the weekends and nights and, in her spare time, studying for her national board exams. I was struggling with time away from my bride of just two years. We had recently found out she was pregnant with our first child, and despite the joy of that news, I found myself alone in a new city more often than not, away from a lifetime of established community and with a teaching job I hated. It was a difficult time. I turned to golf, escaping the loneliness by being alone.
Golf has always been part of my life. I grew up in Citrus County, Florida; despite its name, the main industries are a nuclear power plant and services for the tens of thousands of retirees who make the place home for a few months out of the year. The census determined that the county is suburban, but one drive through and it is plainly rural, with 30,000 Old Florida locals and 90,000 seasonal residents who come and go.
Retirement is such big business that there are at least 15 different 18-hole tracks throughout the county. Expand the borders a bit and you quickly hit 20. For locals, this creates a massive glut of tee times in the summer, when the snowbirds fly the coop. Golf is imminently accessible, cheap and popular.
My dad played golf at Florida State, and he played the Space Coast Mini Tour before regaining his amateur status. He was a coveted player in the many team tournaments throughout the county, and he got us free golf wherever we went.
I wasn’t much of a player, though. My brother was the stud. He’s still somewhere between a scratch and a 4 these days, depending on if he wants to practice. He’s a big-shot attorney whose golf skills have come in handy, especially when his clients are members at places like Oakmont. I golfed seasonally, in between the four other varsity sports I played in high school.
I ended up at FSU on a track scholarship, and it would be several years before I would fully welcome the game into my life.
While Mary-Margaret was pregnant, I’d start my daily commute down West End Avenue from Elmington Park, just across I-440, toward Belle Meade. Belle Meade is the wealthiest neighborhood in Nashville—possibly in the state. It began as a slave plantation, and the manor and land still exist to remind us of who built the South. The neighborhood itself is bisected by Belle Meade Boulevard, the 30 mph thoroughfare where the magnolias reign and the mansions are so absurdly historic and grand that my brother-in-law mistook one for a private school.
Smack in the middle of the neighborhood is Belle Meade Country Club. It is as pristine as its surroundings. I drove past the club every morning, in awe of the sun rising over the trees, burning the dew off the perfect practice area. At the time, I drove a red 1998 Toyota Camry. It was red in name only; it was rusted through. I’m color-blind, so where the paint stopped and rust started I couldn’t really tell, but I was often informed. The inside and outside front door handles were broken. I had to crawl through the back door during my first winter ice storm. The sunroof didn’t open, but at least it leaked, and my front passenger-side hubcap was gone. I was certain I would be pulled over by the Belle Meade police for devaluing their neighborhood’s property simply by driving through.
I knew I would never play Belle Meade, even though my students were members there and my father-in-law swore he knew an assistant pro. I didn’t have the money to actually pay for golf. We moved up on my teacher’s income after my wife finished medical school. It felt irresponsible to spend money on golf outings, plus I didn’t want to play by myself…at some muni.
On the south side of the city past Belle Meade, the Percy Warner and Edwin Warner parks sit adjacent to each other. There are hiking trails, trout streams, a municipal golf course and, among many other things, a quiet 600-by-300-yard field where someone, if they were so inclined, could hit golf balls.
In late summer, I’d leave work and hit for hours, working through two gloves, turning them from white to that familiar translucent gray. Every 10 shots or so, the dark soil would cake onto the faces of the 1998 Titleist DCI hand-me-downs from my brother. I’d spit on the face and clean it with a towel, but in the heat, I’d quickly get cottonmouth. I learned to carry a water bottle. By late fall, I was at the field on Saturdays after Mary-Margaret went to work and before the football started. I was there after work a few times a week, where a rafter of turkeys would strut out into the field like the literal cocks of the walk they were. My stinger 3-irons never hit them, but they didn’t scare them away, either. Soon, bachelor groups of velveted bucks would ease off the wood line. I made sure to text photos with the innocuous caption “Hit balls in the field today” to the incredulous males in my family. They’d call me a liar after looking at the racks on the bucks and my proximity to them.
The field gave me a chance to work on my swing. I was a high jumper at FSU, so I was still athletic enough, but I had no hand-eye coordination. My swing was vertical and violent—Bubba vertical. I could hit drives well over 300, but barely one in three were playable. That’s a good stat for a baseball player, but not for a golfer. I worked on taking the club flatter to eliminate my over-the-top move. I probably flattened it too much, but the ball flight became consistently right to left.
I loved firing ball after ball at the lone maple tree atop the hill at the end of the field. When I grew tired, I’d walk the 350 yards and pick up the balls with my shag bag. When I returned, I’d tee it up again, cathartically burning the last of my energy in the fading daylight. More than work on my swing, the field gave me a place to belong, to connect with the game my dad knew, and his dad before him; to be alone but not feel alone; to grind through the daily stresses of life and to think about my wife and our baby growing inside her.
While I hit, I streamed podcasts on football, pop culture and church sermons. Mostly I listened to Jason Isbell, a Nashville-based recording artist and the front man of the self-described “rock ‘n’ roll band” The 400 Unit. His songs work through the loneliness, loss, guilt and fear in his life. He got sober and became something of a second conscience out in that field.
You thought God was an architect, now you know He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow And everything you have built for show Goes up in flames In 24 frames
Anna was stillborn on Jan. 19, 2016. Everything changed. The day before, my wife and I had a rare day off together, and we went to Pancake Pantry, a Nashville institution where lines wrap around the block waiting for the best pancakes in the state. We didn’t wait on that Monday; it was one of the coldest days of the season, the kind where locals swore it hadn’t been this cold in 100 years. Mary-Margaret hadn’t felt Anna kick since she had woken up, which was unusual because Anna was particularly active. They would often “play” as Mary-Margaret would press on her stomach when she felt Anna, and Anna would respond with a kick or punch.
We finished breakfast and went home, eschewing our errands because Mary-Margaret wanted to do a kick count. I refused to entertain the idea of what deep down I most certainly knew was taking place. After an hour, Mary-Margaret was frantic but trying to remain calm. She called the doctor and scheduled an appointment. I knew, but I didn’t believe. Belief is when you allow yourself to be affected by the knowledge at hand, and it changes you. I refused to believe, so I drove my wife and child to the doctor’s office, encouraging her the whole way, firmly asserting that the odds were low and this wasn’t anything to worry about.
After two fetal monitors were placed on my wife’s stomach, and after I jumped for joy because I thought I heard a heartbeat that was just an echo of my wife’s, the doctor took us into an exam room to verify. I still didn’t believe.
If there are two things I can’t take It’s the sound a woman makes About five seconds after her heart begins to break
Etched into my memory is the sound my wife made when the confirmation came that the worst had happened.
Anna’s memorial was two days later. Our family flew in on Monday. Fourteen months prior, my cousin, who is closer to a brother, lost his firstborn at 39 weeks. He wouldn’t let us be alone. My brother, sister, parents and aunts and Mary-Margaret’s parents all descended to be with us. Nashville was in the midst of a snowstorm. In the early morning, on our way to the service held at my church south of Nashville, we drove through Belle Meade and we drove past the field. The reflection off the snow was blinding. The world, my world, Mary-Margaret’s world, stood frozen, perfect and beautiful for a short time. We sang hymns and I delivered Anna’s eulogy, resting in the daily faithfulness of the Savior, distraught that I had to leave my baby girl in the hospital the night before wearing the onesie her Aunt Jackie bought for her with “Hello World, I’m Anna Ruth!” written across the front. I couldn’t hold her anymore. In my arms, my wife’s arms, the day before, she was perfect, frozen in time. She was pristine, her eyes closed. “Asleep,” the Apostle Paul called it.
Not far from the entrance to Belle Meade, maybe a mile or so, is McCabe Golf Course. It’s one of the seven munis in Nashville, and it’s the one I turned my nose up at after we moved to the city. It’s where I spent most of my time after Anna was born.
McCabe is a 27-hole complex with a large, renovated driving range on one side of the clubhouse and a tight putting green and chipping area on the other. Originally, it was an 18-hole track built on an old airstrip in 1942, now called the West and South. In the 1970s, when the local government laid out the city’s growth plan, it recognized the need to have common areas of green spaces and added another nine holes, called the North. From a city-planning standpoint, it’s genius. It’s a large area servicing the many needs of diverse neighborhoods. From a golfer’s standpoint, it’s the perfect way to slip away for a quick nine while the missus jogs the 3-mile loop or the kiddos run in the playgrounds near the community center.
Each nine plays with narrow, fuzzy fairways and ragged rough. Trees are overgrown, branches limiting sunlight and ball flight. The latter is probably intentional, being that the holes are so close together that it is not uncommon to hear “Fore!” and not know exactly which hole or nine it is coming from. Nashville is built in a floodplain, so during the dry months the ground is hard and cracked like a dried riverbed. In the wetter months, you might lose a ball to it being plugged into what was once reasonably maintained turf. It is a unique thing, the ability of a course to possess both dry hardpan and muddy terrain. The greens, however, are challenging. They are raised from the fairway like a turned-over bowl, and they are nuanced: Where the eye is drawn to a noticeable slope, the green may run away at its edge, influencing the putt without ever tipping its hand.
McCabe has the most tee times of any course in the state. It’s a worn track the way a government building is worn. The surrounding areas aren’t as peaceful as a well-heeled player might expect. From the driving range, you can hear the UE Booms that blare walk-up music for Little League baseball games. There are people constantly running around its perimeter. In some ways, it’s like having a gallery for every round. You get used to the nerves of playing in front of people, although it’s not nearly as safe for them as it is for professional-golf spectators. I once mishit a 4-iron so badly from the fairway of the par-5 seventh on the North course that it carried the fence protecting the joggers from people like me. For the most part, the fence is effective, but I figured I was doing the city a favor by testing the limits of height and trajectory.
There is a skins game a couple of times a week: $10 for the game, $5 for the par-3 contest. Its entrants are retirees, veterans, hustlers and people like me who sometimes just need a place to go. During grief, there is existential unrest.
It is difficult to stay still or focused, because the very fabric of your being is challenged, pulling at your understanding of the world and unraveling what you know to be true. Yet the body is exhausted, perpetually tired from crying or thinking or doing daily life while crying or thinking. It’s a cruel paradox, but there is relief. Outside brings peace. Breezes, sunsets, vistas trigger renaissance in the mind’s eye, finding a new place as they relieve the stresses and overwhelm the senses with their majesty.
Golf has long been a game of man versus nature. It is portrayed as man versus man to win a tournament, but at its element, it is remarkable audacity for an architect to be so bold as to carve into the earth and tame the land to cultivate something so immensely beautiful to the eye and enjoyable to the golfer that they are inspired to conquer the land by hitting across it as they walk. The eternal pursuit of man versus nature was the prescription for my soul’s restlessness.
After Anna died, I stopped going to the field. The money we had saved to raise a child was no longer allocated, and in the scope of eternity, a few bucks for range balls seemed reasonable. I hit off the mats at McCabe in 40-degree temperatures, buying weather gloves in the pro shop so I could retain the feeling in my hands. After church and my obligatory Publix sub (12-inch Ultimate on white), I went to the course. I went to the course after work because I didn’t have to go home; there was no babysitter or daycare, because my daughter wasn’t there. She was in the ground, buried by her father and mother, her uncles and grandparents. She was laid to rest next to her great-grandparents, peacefully surrounded by her family.
As spring came around, I streamed “No Laying Up” and “Shackhouse” as I worked on the transitioning putting green. I became friends with the local club pros and assistants, swiping my card for $13 a pop each time I wanted to walk nine by myself. Jason Isbell accompanied me from the valuables pocket of my old Titleist stand bag.
When I get my reward, my work will all be done And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father And the Son
The wind whipped off hills and into my face while I played. My grief became focus, tuning out the noise of the world, seeing only ball and target. My swing became easy and relaxed; my dad commented on the smooth tempo when he visited. Grief brings perspective; it rouses and it settles. Golf was once a place to prove my worth, trying to live up to the expectations of my father and brother. After Anna was born, it became a respite, a place to channel the pain, see the world for what it is and hope the way one hopes during a round.
You focus your eyes on what could be, not the fear of what lies waiting to trap you, and you work to create something beautiful.
By the time the summer began, I was emotionally exhausted. During the Masters, I streamed the tournament on my computer because students were asking for updates while they worked. A parent complained, prompting a meeting with my superior, who suggested I was hiding my grief in electronics and began a misguided line of questioning that probed into my marriage. I was upset and offended, but the larger point rang true: I did not have the bandwidth to engage with my students every day.
It was the end of May and the major season was coming around. I was a regular at McCabe, hitting balls and putting for hours. I vacillated between listening to Jason Isbell and the sermons of a few pastor friends of mine. Free from the misplaced concerns of my boss and the whispering of students who couldn’t quite understand why losing an unborn child could wreck you, I would weep on the practice green. As to not draw undue attention, I wore a hat and sunglasses and kept my head down. It was time to be alone, to reckon with the pain in my soul. On the range I’d hit 100 balls, go inside to cool off, then go back and hit 100 more. Sometimes I’d hit 4-iron 50 times in a row only because it is so damn hard. My world had fallen apart and the only thing I wanted to control on this chaotic rock was a fucking 4-iron.
I won a few skins in the weekly games. I lost a couple of massive ones, too. I missed a 4-foot slider for eagle that would’ve paid out $130. I was sick, but I didn’t care that much in the grand scheme. It was more about the process of the game, the people I played with. One day after the game, everyone was squaring up, gathered around the book—a three-ring binder with approximately seven years’ worth of skins game results in it. One man with a mustache was bullshitting with his best friend and playing partner, like he did every Wednesday. Then they looked at me, the friend saying, “Hey, can you believe this guy has been married three times?”
“Well, the first was for 17 years,” he responded. “I hated her. The second one was for just a few years. She died, and now I’m on wife No. 3.”
“He couldn’t kill the first one, and the second one, he actually liked and couldn’t keep around!” His friend guffawed, splitting his own side, ready to roll on the floor if he wasn’t 70-plus years old.
Word spread quickly after one Friday game that Phil Mickelson was on record pace at the Open. Everyone filed in to check the book, but they stayed, watching Phil line up his putt on 18 on the big TV above the dormant fireplace. The lunch-counter girls headed over, and the club pros and attendants inched forward from behind their desk. When the ball got to a half-foot from the cup, you could feel the energy pulsing, like the way the electricity in the air goes static before lightning strikes. When an angel blew his ball away from the cup, the room groaned in disbelief and quickly stood in awe of his accomplishment that day. Phil said he never believed in the golf gods, but when asked after the round, he said, “I do now.”
It wasn’t uncommon for me to go to the course before lunch for several hours and then return home to eat and read and start happy hour before my wife got home from work. After we ate dinner, the light stayed for almost another two hours. I’d try to convince her of an emergency nine, sometimes comped because the clubhouse attendant knew me or didn’t mind someone walking the course until the fireflies made their evening appearance.
To subsidize my new habit, I drove Uber. The existential unrest continued, but I had begun to love my city and wanted to show it to others. I slowed my range time and drove instead. I met people from all over, and most would share honestly.
I met teachers on break, bros from Chicago and a woman who also lost a child. Uber funded a new Titleist golf bag, new 714 CB irons and new Vokey wedges. (The following year, I got the maintenance guy at our school to let me use their equipment to stamp my initials on them.) Later that year, I got my first Scotty Cameron putter as a Christmas gift. I charted his specialty head-cover releases over the four previous years and wrote a note on my computer with the dates and times 2017 would release. I was in deep.
Uber also helped me fund a trip to the U.S. Open. My attorney brother, Jason, invited me to Oakmont. His client got us a house, a car and tickets. He even gave us his member number so we could eat and drink on him. I followed Rory for an entire practice round. I stood 10 feet from him and took burst photos of his swing. I waved, whispered encouragement, and now I think we might be best friends. We played crazy elite courses like Allegheny Country Club and Sewickley Heights Country Club near Pittsburgh, and I even met former President George W. Bush. (Being a teacher with a master’s in American history, this ranks among the best experiences of my life.) I apparently pissed off the owner of an NHL team because I skipped ahead of him during an emergency nine. I’m unsure of what exactly happened because my brother’s client kept ordering some special concoction out of Australia, and when I teed up there were three balls on the ground in front of me.
After five days of nonstop once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I crashed back to reality at an airport bar. My brother looked at me and said, “I love you, man, and I’m going to give you some advice: Turn your brain off.” It made sense. We aren’t made to compute the entirety of variables in the world around us. We are given the opportunity to play the course in front of us, and it’s up to us to do it with skill and grace. Worrying about everything may seem like the way to prevent hardship and heartache, but it’s not. It only makes matters worse.
Summer gives the illusion of having all the time in the world, but when the sun sets and the leaves turn, the finite nature of our existence is revealed. Time, however, is relative. The moments holding Anna after she was born, while brief, replayed over and over in my mind. The love I experienced in those hours continues on. Humans tend to measure time by
the hands of a clock, but a truer measure is in the experience of one another. Over the course of the summer, I waded through anger, pain and anxiety. When fall returned, there was nothing left to fear.
The golf association at McCabe held its annual stroke-play tournament that fall. I entered, playing in my first real competition since graduate school, where I’d shot 90-92-74 (a whole other sad story). The first day, I shot 80. It wasn’t great, but I wasn’t out of it.
Sunday, I skipped church, which was hard for me. Church was my source of strength, where the universe made sense and where I could take the hymns and sermons from the start of the week to the course and ruminate on them while walking the nines.
On the front nine I shot an awful 39. I didn’t convert up-and-downs and left too many strokes out there. On No. 10 (North No. 1), I hit one so far through the fairway that it landed in the middle of an undergrowth island separating the 10th and 18th holes. I took a stroke, bladed a pitching wedge to the side of the green, flubbed a chip, chipped again and two-putted for an 8. I didn’t lose it—no raging or crying or ejection. It was a rare moment when the rust falls off and clarity sets in. I no longer felt stiff or uncomfortable in my swing.
I stood on the 11th tee and roped a cut onto the par-4 green. “A little bit of red ass in that one,” my mouthy playing partner commented. It was an uphill 15-footer. “Now can he make it? It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t make it,” he crowed. I read it, picked a line and hit the putt with the same certainty as I struck the drive. Made it. I parred the next hole, a long par 3, narrowly missing birdie. I birdied the next par 5 and par 3, rolling in 12- and 14-footers. I parred the longest par 4 on the course, missing birdie by leaving it short 2 inches. Then I hit a mammoth drive on the next par 5. I cut the corner and landed it in the adjacent fairway of the hole I had just played. I pulled out my old Callaway Steelhead 3+ fairway wood and chased it 270 yards through the center of the green to within 15 feet of the back pin. I read the putt from each side, stood over it knowing a straight back-and-forward pendulum would give me my second eagle on this side. The ball poured into the cup. “Get excited! You just made another eagle!” My playing partner was now enjoying the ride. I parred out to finish the back nine with a quad, two eagles, two birdies and four pars for a 72.
I hope you find something to love Something to do when you feel like giving up A song to sing or a tale to tell Something to love, it’ll serve you well
Golf is a game of soil and metal and wood, and yet it can be transcendent. I believe we are composed of both body and soul, the tangible and intangible. For me, the proof is when I think of Anna, when I experience a father’s pride in being her dad, when I weep at the memory of holding her and of her fragility. I feel it every day now in the joy of our son, Langston, born in January 2017. Anna’s soul is stitched to mine, and her absence is proof that she existed.