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Golf - The Game At Its Best
February 3, 2021

- How a Day in the Sun Came to Mean So Much More -

By Chris Stevenson

I grew up playing a golf course, Grovehill in Lachine, Que., where there seemed to be close to as much asphalt as grass menacing a wayward shot. Pedestrians and cars could lead to some of the most cringe worthy moments of a young teenager's life; watching your unruly Canada Cup launch itself in the general direction of a backyard with clothes fluttering on a clothesline or a shiny Impala on the 2/20 ("two and 20" as we pronounced it).

Such are the charm and the chagrin of the urban muni.

Municipal golf was the beginning of my long and mostly productive relationship with the game, taking root in a crack in the cement-like ground like a weed in a sidewalk.

Over my years I have been blessed to play some of the finest golf courses in the world in some remote and breathtaking settings. I have appreciated those opportunities. But nothing like the way I appreciate a round played next to a stop sign or in view of a traffic light, with a backdrop of the occasional honk of a car horn or the sound of children at play.

Never mind a train hurtling within feet of the tee markers.

It was often with complete strangers whose company I ended up actually enjoying. That's public golf.

So it was that exactly one year ago, at the conclusion of a week at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, I was so anticipating playing the golf course at Winter Park (WP9), a nine-hole muni in the residential neighbourhood north of the city.

After the events of that day unfolded and the subsequent end of the world as we knew it for the past 10 months, I have often thought about that day at Winter Park. I have thought about the stage and its almost seamless integration into the homes, backyards, sidewalks and streets thanks to the work of architects Riley Johns (of Canmore, AB) and Keith Rhebb, and their Integrative Golf Design.

More importantly, during this time of stay-at-home orders, limited interaction and desolate isolation for many, I have thought about the people I met that day. I have thought about the joy of shared experience a place like Winter Park and its unassuming culture of golf for all can inspire. I met so many people that day from so many points of the compass, both literally and figuratively, and one year later, in such a drastically changed world and with no hope of a replay any time soon, I felt the need to reach out to some of them again.

First, a word or two on Winter Park. It is, after all, just dirt and trees with some sand mixed in here and there. It is real estate, no doubt much more financially valuable as housing lots for two-stories than greens for three-putts. But that ignores its value as a place to feel grass under your feet and the sky over your head in an urban setting. That ignores its ability to be connective tissue in a community.

Winter Park has been a part of this neighbourhood for more than 100 years. Built in 1914, by the turn of the century it had fallen victim to trees which won the battle for air and sunlight and nutrients and invasive grasses which overwhelmed the golf turf. To their everlasting credit, the powers that be opted for a renovation in 2016 rather than a resignation to urban development.

Thanks to the vision of Johns and Rhebb, WP9 is a subtle 2,400 yards of what look like exploitable holes. Beware. The course is like a game of three-card Monte. It looks quite simple, but with each gamble your pockets are emptied.

There are wide fairways, but depending on the flag, a definite right and wrong side. The greens are generous and rise and roll.

For the first five holes at Winter Park, you cross a street to get to the next tee. I love it. To me, there is a feeling of reassuring co-existence when you nod to a driver who has stopped to let your group cross the street to the get to the next tee.

That a graveyard intimidates with its solemn silence for your tee shots on the third and fourth holes (it almost got me on the third hole. It got two of our group on the fourth) adds to its mystique and the opportunity for one-liners.

Winter Park invites you to go for it and if you don't hit a cracking shot, you will grind to save par.

So the golf itself, from eye level, is a beautiful thing. From 10,000 feet, Winter Park is a revelation.

It is a neighbourhood hang. Johns and Rhebb brought in the project ahead of schedule and under budget. They used the remaining money to build a 10,000 square foot putting green by the ninth tee for people in the neighbourhood to use.

The clubhouse is not much bigger than the rest stations you might encounter on an ostentatious course. It's got everything you'd need (along with a street meat vendor outside). The beer is in a fridge by the door.

People arrive to play on foot and on bikes.

My anticipation for this day had been building the entire week of the PGA Merchandise Show. At the invitation of Flagstick editorial director and associate publisher Scott MacLeod, a Winter Park advocate, this was the finale to our week in Florida. We would play nine in the morning, along with Rick Young, Canada's leading voice on the business of golf, and Lisa "Longball" Vlooswyk, long-drive champ and one of the most energetic people you will have the pleasure to meet, Derek MacDonald, teaching professional at The Royal Ottawa Golf Club, Nyle Kelly, general manager of the Brookstreet Hotel (Ottawa), and Dan Keogh, of Belding Golf, a former touring pro.

It was Lisa and Nyle's first time at Winter Park, too.

The morning round would be a warm up for Matt Ginella's legendary skins game in the afternoon.

Winter Park is golf for the people, of which I am one. There are few of the pretensions which, I think, deter some people from trying golf on for size. For instance, we teed off in a sevensome. I'm pretty sure it was a sevensome. It was hard to keep track. There were sometimes two balls in the air at the same time or a putt struck before the previous had either holed out or had to come to a stop.

It was glorious.

"What strikes me about that round, like any round at WinterPark 9, is the smiles," Young said. "They're all around you. Playing partners, people waiting on the first tee, walking off the ninth green, everyone wears a smile there.

"It's like the WP9 (un)official dress code. I still recall you and Lisa before our tee time. You guys were jacked. Couldn't wipe those pearls off your faces if we tried. Which is great. Fun is what makes a round at WP9 special. Fun is what makes it distinctive and memorable. The smiles? They confirm the fun as much as validate it."

We moved through our round briskly and despite being a sevensome (I think), we found ourselves waiting on the seventh tee.

As we waited, the group of three guys behind us, with a service dog in tow, arrived in the area of the tee. They hung back. We asked if they were interested in joining us for the rest of the round, rather than wait on each tee for our group to finish up. They said no.

We wound up talking back and forth, how their round was going, asking about the dog, and again we asked if they would like to join us.

They agreed.

Our new golf friends (dog included) join us

Over those three holes and for a while after the round, the beauty of public golf, of Winter Park, of the way golf can randomly bring people together unfolded for us.

The guys behind us were veterans. They had served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and like thousands of other veterans they carried scars we couldn't see. Socializing was difficult, we learned later, and that was why they were reluctant to join us.

As we played those three holes, they gradually shared their stories.

Jason Miller is a USAF vet. Doug Knapp served five combat deployments with the Marine Corps Special Ops Command and was an Expeditionary Forces Combat Corpsman. They had battled depression and, in Miller's case, thoughts of suicide after returning home. (You can watch Miller's story here). Jeff Wyatt was also playing with them that day.

After the round, we chatted outside the Winter Park clubhouse. They were in Orlando as part of Fairways for Freedom, a program that helps injured veterans assimilate back into society through golf.

I made a trip to Afghanistan in 2009 and saw first hand what the women and men of our armed forces put on the line every day. The price they pay, frankly, is beyond our comprehension even after seeing what they experience up close (three Canadian soldiers died after striking an IED while I was there. Attending that ramp ceremony on a cloudless night under a brilliant moon will stay with me forever).

Listening to their stories was emotional, standing out there under the Florida sun that afternoon a year ago. I have thought of them often since that day, the serendipity of our paths crossing, how golf had brought us together and how golf had been a lifeline for them.

The game had helped them cope, helped bring them back from the edge.

That day had been such a wonderfully positive experience for all of us, the game at its best. I reached out to Miller on the anniversary of our meeting.

He wrote back: "So great to hear from you. That was truly a special day!!!

"Doug and I spoke this morning on the phone about what a difference a year makes and our experience at the PGA show and particularly that day at Winter Park. He currently is working in the ICU as a critical care nurse in the Covid unit in Jacksonville. So, it's been an extremely difficult year for him. Jeff Wyatt was the other Veteran with us that day and he seems to be doing well and playing lots of golf.

"As for myself, I'm in Pennsylvania doing my best to continue to serve others through my volunteer work with Team Rubicon and Fairways For Freedom (www.fairwaysforfreedom.us). Unfortunately due to Covid we cancelled last year's trips to Ireland and England, but we are hopeful that we will be able to resume them later this year. It's such an important part to our healing."

Amazing people.

It has been and will continue to be a remarkable year for Knapp. He will undertake his 99 Hole March on Pinehurst in June (fff99holemarch.com). He will play six courses in one day at the famous resort to raise money and "increase awareness of the physiological and psychological injuries our combat-injured veterans endure after returning from war."

Their stories left such an impression on us.

"Remember those guys smiles?" Young remembered. "Recall how reluctant they were to join us at first and then how emotional they were telling us their personal stories after? That was memorable for all of us. Why for me? Because it was a showcase for golf's ability to heal; for the game to help close wounds not easily seen or detected. To think a nine-hole public muni has that ability makes me proud to be the golf community. That too makes me smile."

"I loved the casual atmosphere," wrote Vlooswyk. "It was about playing golf with friends. No fancy club house. No tee times booked seven days in advance. Come and tee it up. I LOVED when the war veterans joined us with their dog and I was especially enamoured watching the young man in a pair of jeans that had strolled over to the putting green with his small child with only a putter and ball in hand to simply teach his child the joy of the game with the same free access of a public park!"

"Walking down #7 I was a little behind so I could see the whole group in front of me. Our "new friends," the dog, scanning the whole scene, after the train (by the seventh tee) had just passed, all I could think was 'this is what golf is all about; this is why I love this game,'" said MacLeod.

"All that knowing it was happening at a place where just about anyone could do the same thing; there wasn't a big price barrier or the surrounds of a country club keeping them out."

We didn't know what was coming at us that day. We revelled in the redemptive qualities of golf as the sun went down, sipping on a beer bought by the winners of the skins game. We all felt like winners in that shared moment.

The first case of Covid-19 in Canada was reported the day after our round at Winter Park.

I've since thought often about Winter Park and Jason, Doug, Jeff, Rick, Lisa, Scott and Matt and his skins game gang over the past year. We have all struggled at times to find thoughts to help us get through the past year.

I've thought often about that day, as the others have as well. I've thought often about the gifts Winter Park and the game gave us that day. I didn't know it then, but the best gift would emerge over the past 10 months: the sustaining hope there will be other days like that sunny Friday at Winter Park.

Photography done by Scott MacLeod, Flagstick Magazine


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