Remembering My Grandfather On His Birthday
Several years ago when I was still living in the Pacific Northwest, I used to write a column for a local sports paper. I wrote this article when my grandmother passed away in 2000, and came across it recently when I was unpacking some boxes. In honor of my grandfather’s birthday today (February 24th), I’d like to share it with everyone.
The ‘Texas Wedge,’ Grandfather, Grandmother, Cookies and Good Times
When I head out to the lesson tee with a student for the first time, I always ask them how they got interested in playing golf. The answers I get are varied. A lot of times it’s because they were dragged out by a couple of buddies at work, or it’s because their spouse wants them to play (rest assured, the spouse usually does this from the selfish standpoint of wanting to spend more time on the course themselves!).
But the answer I get the most often is their dad or grandfather got them started.
I was given a book several months ago called “Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul,” in which there are several stories of father’s taking their sons or daughters to the course, or grandfather’s teaching the game to their grandkids.
As I was reading this book recently, I would catch myself thinking back to a simpler time in my life, and thinking a lot about my grandfather, Lee Schmalbeck.
My grandfather. Oh how he loved golf. Lucky for my dad that he did. Being the die-hard Washington Husky supporter that he was, and my dad a WSU alumnus, golf gave them some common ground, which made for a good father-in-law, son-in-law relationship.
I think the ‘Texas Wedge’ was my grandfather’s favorite club, and anytime he was within 50 yards of the green, out came the putter. And as I remember, he was pretty good with it. It was either for Christmas or his birthday, I’m not sure which, but my parents bought him a pitching wedge for a gift.
As the story goes, my grandpa used that club exactly one time, skulled the shot, shot my dad a dirty look, and retired the club to the garage, where we found it several years later. I’m sure my grandfather appreciated the thought, but he had no use for that club. Nothing would take the place of his ‘Texas Wedge’!
Dad and grandpa would play all over the place in Seattle and Kitsap County, and apparently no matter which course they were at, it seemed my grandfather would always shoot about 91. It always amazed my dad that he could do that. One weekend they played Kitsap G&CC on Saturday and Village Greens on Sunday, and he had the same score on both courses. Kitsap played to about 6100 yards at the time and was a par 71. Village Greens was all of about 2900 yards, and was a par 58.
To my knowledge he never carried a U.S.G.A. handicap, so he was always in the ‘Callaway’ division. I’d never ever accuse my grandfather of sandbagging, but I think he had that Callaway system figured out so he knew what he needed to shoot to be competitive. Now keep in mind that my granddad was the head of the math department at Sharpless Junior High in Seattle, so he was pretty good with numbers.
When the two of them played together, my dad would usually come in with a lower score, which really wasn’t the point, but a fact that I’m sure my granddad was very well aware of. Every once in awhile however, he would catch my dad having an off day. And my dad swears that if their scores were close with two or three holes to play, my grandfather always found a way to ‘accidentally’ step in his line on the green.
Of course my mom vehemently defends her father’s character every time that story is told, but afterwards we all chuckle about it. No doubt there was some gamesmanship in those trips around the links.
The par 3 course at Jefferson Park in Seattle was where I first remember playing golf with my grandfather. Even back in those days, before golf had gained its current popularity, that little course always seemed to be busy. There was no starter, so everyone had to fend for themselves on the first tee. He would have me stand in the line at the tee while he went in and paid our green fees.
The first hole there is about a hundred yards long and being nine years old at the time, the green looked like it was a mile away. Being extremely anxious to try out the ‘new’ brassie that I had dug out of a bag of old clubs in grandpa’s garage the previous night, I wound up and let that thing fly.
I’m not sure the people on the second tee shared my enthusiasm as the ball flew over their heads, but my granddad quickly taught me the meaning of the word ‘fore!’ and suggested that I use a little less club next time.
Perhaps my fondest memories of my grandfather are of when I was 14, 15 and 16-years-old. By then he wasn’t able to play golf anymore, but he still loved the game. Golf coverage on TV wasn’t much back in those days, but whenever a tournament was on, he was watching it.
Lee Trevino was his favorite pro. I’m not sure if it was because they had the same first name, or because Trevino was one of the premier players at the time. Or maybe it was because they both played their shots from left to right. But whatever the reason, every time we talked golf, Trevino’s name always crept into the conversation.
Every summer the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department put on a three-day junior tournament at the city courses of Jefferson Park, Jackson Park and West Seattle. This was before the Washington Junior Golf Association was organized and there weren’t near as many tournaments for kids to play in as there are now. So I always looked forward to playing that tournament.
Those three years I went over to play in that tournament with a couple of friends of mine, Allen Pod and Randy McIntyre, and we’d spend that week staying at my grandparent’s house, located in the Mount Baker area by Lake Washington. We’d take the ferry over, dragging a suitcase in one hand with our golf clubs slung over the other shoulder.
Grandpa and grandma would pick us up on the Seattle side and from the time we arrived at their house until it was time to go home, we were treated like royalty.
My grandfather was in charge of keeping us organized and getting us to and from the golf courses. He’d find out our tee times, figure out when we’d have to leave to get there on time, and also figure out the quickest way to get there. Even though they’d lived in Seattle since sometime in the 1940’s, he’d still break out a map and figure which back road would get us to the course so he wouldn’t have to deal with all the traffic.
Grandma’s job was to keep us all fed, which was a major undertaking. On the occasions when I was at their house by myself, keeping the ‘fridge full was a challenge. But with three teenage boys calling the place home for a week, I’m sure she had to make daily trips to the local Safeway.
And the food, it was unbelievable! Every single meal was about six courses, and we’d just gorge ourselves. And she made sure we wouldn’t be hungry on the golf course either, fixing us up with enough sandwiches and cookies every day to last for two rounds of golf, even though we were only playing 18-holes each day.
After we were done with the tournament for the day we’d spend the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening chipping golf balls out in the back yard, We’d set up a coffee can with a circle around it and made quite a competition out of it. This was something my grandfather would join in on, while grandma kept the picnic table loaded with food.
We spent hours and hours chipping balls back there, finally having to use the “Welcome” mat from the front porch to hit off of because we were starting to tear up the grass, a definite no-no in my grandfather’s back yard.
Not too long after our annual tournament stay in 1976, my grandfather passed away. I can’t remember if the three of us went back over the next summer or not. By then we all had cars, girlfriends and jobs, the latter supporting the other two. Or it might have been that we didn’t want to feel like we were putting my grandmother out, although I know now she would have loved nothing more than for the three of us to have taken over her house for another week.
My grandmother joined my grandfather last week, ending more than six years of being frustrated by the effects of a horrible disease called Ahlzeimer’s. Sitting by her bed during her last night, reading “Chicken Soup” and remembering those times as a kid at my grandparents’ house….how I would give anything to be able to go back and live all those times again.