The most pressure I’ve ever felt playing golf was standing over a 70-foot lag putt from off the green, two teammates having already flubbed chips, knowing that par on this final hole meant a 59 for our team. I’m confident in my Texas wedge game, so I committed to putting, even though the course was soaked through, remnants of Hurricane Isaac having made their way to northern Indiana just in time to threaten one of my favorite days of the year: the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Rhodes Classic day.
I pulled the trigger, the putt rolling true through the fairway, across the ridge at the front of Raccoon Run Golf Course’s postage-stamp third green and coming to rest 3 feet from the hole. My uncle Joe, our anchor player, who at that point had won three of the first seven Classics, pumped his fist. A 59 was unheard of in the family scramble. Raccoon Run is a short faux-par 70, but most of the teams featured at least two beginners; the prior record was 62, shot in 2007, when I’d also played with Joe only to finish one shot shy at 63. A 59, though, meant not only would I finally shed the label of Best Player to Never Win a Classic, but I’d do it in record fashion. We celebrated all the way back to Raccoon Run’s charmingly obsolete clubhouse, where waiting extended-family members asked for our score. Joe, almost guiltily, answered, “Eleven under.”
“Oh, wow,” said a relative. “We were 12 under!” A three-person team with one good cousin and two complete novices somehow posted 58. Joe and I would go on to win together in 2014, 2016 and 2018, but mention 2012 to him at your peril.
He’s not alone in taking it seriously. Our 2018 win came after a tie, which led to an impromptu closest-to-the-pin lag-putt contest on the practice green. Months later, one of our opponents lost his mother. Joe was talking to his wife at the viewing, and the Classic came up. She asked who won last year, and when Joe politely said her husband lost in a putt-off, she exclaimed, loudly for any context and especially for a funeral home, “Oh, right, [redacted] choked!”
In 2019, we celebrated the 15th annual Rhodes Classic. It was the 13th and final edition at Raccoon Run. The course was closing at the end of the year, a victim not of low traffic or a lack of community (it was always full—the kind of place where even on weekend mornings you rarely find eight sleeves in a foursome) but of the local housing market. The demand for housing inventory in Kosciusko County is such that the property became too damn valuable to exist merely as Raccoon Run. It’s disheartening; golf needs more places like it, not fewer.
It’s surreal knowingly playing a course for the final time. It’s one thing to know that it was the last time I’d be trying to hit shots into, through, around or over the massive trees that surround the property. It’s another thing entirely to realize that the trees are all probably going to be gone too, which sucks. (Except for the ones lining No. 6, which can go fuck themselves.)
There was nowhere I’d rather be, though, than with Joe, playing Raccoon Run on that windy Saturday, firm conditions not deterring us from racking up five birdies in a row on his favored back nine. We finished at 9 under, won by three shots, my fourth title and Joe’s seventh. (Not sure we’ll be paired together anymore.) We finished on No. 17, a 170-yard par 3. Our tee shots left us a 40-foot putt. The first three of us missed. Joe rolled it in, tossing his putter high in celebration.
It was a hell of a send-off.