The Hole in One

By Brian Lawrence (1999)

"Okay, here's the bet," Jimmy McCormick said. He stood on the sixteenth tee in a casual pose, resting his eight iron against his tan Dockers. The hot breath of August ruffled his patterned Polo shirt; rows of golf bags and flags rippled across his barrel chest. "I'll bet you ten dollars I can get a hole in one. But, you have to give me one-thousand-to-one odds."

He looked at each of us, none of us flinching. We knew Jimmy too well. A well-muscled, dark-skinned blond, Jimmy had a full head of hair - something I always envied - with a single lock that had a mind of its own, dipping in an ornery way over his bushy brow.

"Okay, okay. Five hundred-to-one." Always the salesman, Jimmy could sell baby bottles to a wet nurse. That's why he held the position of Senior Vice President of sales at a small telemarketing firm in West St. Louis County.

Looking straight at me, Jimmy said, "It's a sure bet, Larry. You can't lose."

Just as I opened my mouth to accept, I remembered another thing Jimmy once told me. We were at a gambling boat in downtown St. Louis. Jimmy was dealt a full house in Caribbean poker. I glanced at his hand and said, "You got yourself a sure winner there, Jimmy."

With a serious expression - a rare thing for Jimmy - he looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Larry, there's only one sure thing in life, and that's death."

"What about taxes?" I asked.

"Nope. Just death. One hundred percent of us will die. Guaranteed."

It was hard to imagine death coming within a driver's length of Jimmy. It wouldn't dare. Jimmy won the hand.

I decided to accept his golf bet anyway. Like Jimmy said, it was a sure bet.

Putting on a typical ear-to-ear Jimmy McCormick smile, he positioned himself over the ball. He set the club head down behind the white, dimpled sphere, wiggled his butt, glanced at the hole, back at the ball, then swung. The club came through smoothly, sending the small orb rocketing into the blue sky. The ball carried over an impotent creek and through a gateway of trees. It landed in the middle of the green, about fifteen feet from the pin, bounced once, and then rolled. We watched with wide eyes as the ball headed straight toward the pin. I glanced at Jimmy. In a Babe Ruth style pose, he casually pointed at the hole with his eight iron. The ball dropped in. A million-in-one shot.

Bob, George, and myself stared, our jaws resting on the shaved grass of the tee box. A jay scolded us from a nearby tree and knocked us out of our stupor and into childlike excitement. We jumped up and down, hollered and carried on so much that, later in the clubhouse, we were asked what all the commotion was about.

As we calmed down, ready to hit our own shots, convinced we could do the same, Jimmy casually walked over to me, laid his hand on my shoulder, and calmly said, "I've told you before, Larry, nothing is a sure thing. But, hey, you gotta play the odds, right?"

I nodded sagely.

"You owe me five thousand dollars." Then smiling even wider he added, "But you can just give me ten dollars and hold off on the rest. Maybe you'll get a chance to win it back."

I got my chance to win the money back, almost one year later to the date. We were on the same golf course, but this time only Jimmy and I made it out that day. We trudged around the course, neither of us playing well. Jimmy's face wore four day stubble. Red streaked his normally brilliant blue eyes. As he walked from hole to hole, I wondered if his bag weighed a hundred pounds, so stooped and weary he looked.

"How's the wife?" I asked, hoping to spur more than monosyllabic conversation. On the list of favorite topics to talk about, Sara was number three.

"Fine."

"Kids?" I asked. Number two on the list. Jimmy loved to brag about his kids, a boy of fifteen, already primed for the pro tour, or so Jimmy said, and a girl of twelve, the greatest soccer player since Pelé.

"Okay."

Jimmy smacked his drive on fifteen. Picture perfect, a slight bend to the left, settling on the fairway, seventy-five yards from the green. I followed suit, landing my ball a few yards behind and slightly right of Jimmy's. We walked in silence to our balls, Jimmy, his head bent to the wind, eyes to the ground.

"Ten bucks says I put my chip shot closer," I challenged, hoping to snap Jimmy out of his funk. Next to golf, gambling was Jimmy's passion. "Playing the odds", he called it. He loved playing the odds.

"Sure."

I frowned. My shot landed on the green, about twenty-five feet from the pin.

"Wide open, buddy," I said. "Shouldn't be tough to beat."

Jimmy approached his ball, quickly looked ahead, swung with little enthusiasm, and dropped the ball in the creek. Without a word, he dropped another ball on the ground, took another lackadaisical swing and cleared the creek, rolling up to the edge of the green. He dropped his club in his bag, pulled a ten from his pocket, and crammed it in my open hand, all without saying a word or making eye contact.

We came to the infamous sixteenth hole. Before teeing off, I said, "What the heck's gotten into you, Jimmy?" It had taken me only fifteen plus holes to work up the nerve to ask. Maybe he'd talk about his favorite topic, himself.

Staring at the green, one-hundred and forty-five yards away, ignoring my question, he said, "Larry, I'll give you a chance to win your money back. You remember, the forty-nine hundred bucks you own me. Double or nothing. I'll give you five-hundred-to-one odds on a ten dollar bet that you can't make a hole in one."

"That's a sucker's bet, Jimmy. There's no way I'll get a hole in one."

"What's life without a little risk? Go on, what have you got to lose?"

"Ten bucks. But, what the heck." The birdie I'd managed to roll in on fifteen had me feeling cocky.

I lined up my ball, swung, and sent it in a high arc through the opening in the trees. It easily cleared the creek and landed on the green. As it rolled toward the pin I held my breath. When the ball came to rest two feet short, I exhaled.

"Whoa, baby. That was close. Great shot." A smile blossomed on Jimmy's face. I thought it odd that my shot pulled him from his funk.

I reached into my pocket and fished out a ten. As I handed it to Jimmy, I said, "Looks like I still owe you four-thousand, nine-hundred and ninety dollars."

"Five-thousand," he said, handing me back the ten. Then without warning, he blurted, "I may have pancreatic cancer. They found a tumor on my pancreas."

I gawked at him, my friend for over twenty years. A man I thought to be indestructible. A man who had survived so many ups and downs we nicknamed him the Screaming Eagle after the large roller coaster at Six Flags. I studied him closely, but could detect no signs of the cancer. His color looked good, no gauntness in the face. He looked as strong as ever. I couldn't believe it. I refused to believe it. A golf ball seemed stuck in my throat, my mouth as dry as the creek bed stretching across the sixteenth.

Jimmy said nothing for a considerable time. The unusually cool August wind, which only a few moments before had been whipping his hair into a tangled frenzy, abated. The dark, fall-like clouds, visible through an opening in the now still trees, paused in their race across the sky. All of nature seemed to hold its collective breath. I realized I held mine and let it out in a loud rush of air, the noise filling the silent void.

"Jimmy, I don't know what to say. When did you find this out? My God, that's terrible." I babbled like an idiot, wishing he'd slap me.

He smiled again, this one lacking energy, and said, "I found out yesterday. But hey, there's a bright side." With Jimmy, there always was. "The doctor said he's ninety percent sure it's operable. And after the biopsy, they'll know if it's malignant."

He bent over, inserted a tee in the ground, and addressed his ball. Looking at the hole, then his ball, then the hole again, he prepared for his shot. The wind resumed its premature fall gale and Jimmy sent his shot skyward. It cleared the creek, but was short of the green.

On the way to the green, his stride visibly crisper, his back straighter, Jimmy clapped me on the shoulder and said, "I'll bet you ten dollars I chip this shot in."

He made the chip, but would not take my ten.

The next day I received a call from Jimmy. I was sitting in my office trying desperately to concentrate on a report for the boss when the phone screamed three short rings indicating an outside call. I snatched the handset.

Bubbling with excitement, Jimmy said, "Larry, it's Jimmy. I'm having surgery in one week."

That's an odd thing to get excited about, I thought.

Jimmy continued, "The doctor said the biopsy showed the tumor to be benign. He gives me a one hundred percent chance of recovery. Is that great or what?"

I breathed a sigh of relief and Jimmy and I set a date for a golf game six weeks after his surgery, the soonest his doctor said he'd be able to play.

Jimmy died four weeks after the surgery. I'm sitting in his hospital room staring at the starched white sheets where Jimmy's shriveled body had been moments ago. His indentation is still visible. In my mind is burned the image of him lying there, weakly holding my hand, his perpetual smile frozen to his hopeless lips. The benign tumor had been on the surface. Underneath had been a malignancy, one that spread like...well, like cancer. The grief is numbing my senses and my emotions. There are tears in me waiting for the opportunity to spew forth. Not now, though. Later, in a more private place I'll mourn the passing of a great friend.

Now, I can only smile and shake my head as I remember Jimmy's last words. He had coughed, vibrating his entire body, and clutched my arm. In a hoarse whisper, he said, "Larry, I'll bet you ten dollars I'll be on the course in four weeks."

"Of course you will, Jimmy," I had replied, unable to meet his gaze.

"But you have to give me five-hundred-to-one odds," he added.

I'd have given him a million-to-one odds and gladly paid just to have one more chance at the sixteenth hole with Jimmy.