It was almost exactly one year ago. And here we were, once again driving in the early morning darkness of a September morning to another unknown golf course to have a "business meeting" and a match. The destination this time: Clay Center Country Club just south of the county seat of Clay County.
Clay Center Country Club basking in an early September morning sunlight.
I had driven by the course on my only other trip to Clay Center a couple years ago. I was in town for my day job at the time and the cold, rainy weather that day scared me into staying in my suit and tie. I was glad I had another opportunity to get back up there and play on this remarkable piece of ground in north central Kansas.
As I pointed my father in-laws borrowed Chevy Cobalt northwest out of Manhattan (shout-out Dan for letting me borrow his ride; my wife needed our car with the car seats in case of an emergency shopping trip), I was thinking about the last time my business partner and I loaded up early in the morning to play golf in some random corner of this state. September 2019 seems like it was so long ago. Think about how naive we were: COVID-19 wasn’t in any headlines, we thought a face mask belonged on a football helmet, and our world hadn’t been turned completely upside down. A lot can happen in a year.
I won the race between the two of us to the parking lot in Clay Center. I left Manhattan with plenty of time to stop and get some cash as I had insider knowledge that this course still ran off the old honor box system, at least when the enormous clubhouse was closed. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong about the amount, which meant a trip into town to find another ATM. I chuckled a little bit to myself as I made my way back over the Republican River and into downtown Clay Center and thought, “how ironic that the Middle Pin has a solution to this problem that I seem to find myself in every time I play someplace new…”
Par-three second hole features a dramatic chute with plenty of contour.
We were grinding our way through the front nine and a howling south wind that definitely had us on tilt the first several holes when we were greeted by a familiar face coming around the cart shed by the practice and near the sixth tee box: our fellow Medicine Lodge native Brett.
Brett was the reason why I had been to Clay Center before. He invited me up to talk to the local Rotary Club about a year earlier. Brett is a couple years older than me and he and his wife settled in Clay Center several years ago. They are active in the community and you could tell he was at least a little excited to show off the course to a couple “out of towners.” I gave Brett a heads up that we were coming and he was the one that hooked us up with a cart from one of his buddies. Unfortunately, a lingering back injury kept Brett from playing with us all morning but he threw his wedges and a putter in a cart so he could at least hit a few golf shots in-between catching up on each other’s lives.
I feel like I say this all the time about golf courses in Kansas, but the course itself featured a lot more hills than I expected. There might be one hole on the entire course that doesn’t feature some slope and the hills go all directions: up, down, and side to side. I’m also writing this without any background history, so this might be way off, but the course also just feels old. There are some gigantic cottonwood trees, especially in the gullies and valleys of the course, that help give it that feeling but even the trees lining the fairways seem like they’ve been there decades. Some of those trees are even featured in play, like the one blocking the green on the par-three fifth hole. The trees and contours of the land give this course a lot of character.
I was three under on the par-five sixth hole for the day. A lonely highlight of a tough round of golf.
While you’re going to be aware of the undulation and the foliage of the course, you might not even notice that there aren't any water hazards on the entire property. When Brett told me that I was a little shocked, especially considering there would be so many natural spots for a dam here or there to catch some runoff. But don’t let that fact fool you: what this course lacks in water hazards and yardage, it makes up for in plenty of other ways from the quick greens with subtle breaks to the uneven lies all over the course. Two of the longest holes, the par-four third and the par-five eighth, also point straight into the prevailing south wind and both are on the perimeter of the course bringing out of bounds very much in play.
We battled our way through nine holes to a pair of pretty terrible scores at the turn. Brett shared stories about the community, the people, the houses we were seeing, what he and his family had been up to. Of course, we talked a little bit about the “good old days” when we didn’t think about back injuries, kids starting school, and the work we all had to get back to on Tuesday after the holiday break.
We both picked it up on the back nine. Kevin birdied the tenth. I dropped in my eagle putt on the fifteenth and took back the lead. The lead was short-lived though as my case of the meltdowns struck on the seventeenth putting me down one on the par-three eighteenth. My par to Kevin’s bogey put us right back where we were at the beginning of the day: all square.
The par-five sixth hole green is guarded by two of the three bunkers on the course.
As I was driving my borrowed car back to Manhattan to spend the rest of the weekend with the in-laws, I couldn’t help but think of how much has changed in the last year. I’ve got a kid who is starting school this year. I’m going back to school this year too, both as a teacher and a student. Those are some pretty big changes… There have been new purchases, new experiences, new friends, new courses, new low scores. There have been hard times, stressful situations, coping with the new normal of life after COVID-19, new ways to ruin a good round of golf. About like looking at my last several scorecards, life has been an emotional roller-coaster at times in the past twelve months.
It’s always great to play golf. It’s always great to see friends. But the one thing I didn’t realize I needed was that drive back home to reflect on life and where I’ve “been” for the last year. I’ve had plenty of quiet times through all this and plenty of lengthy car trips to get that perspective but I hadn’t done it. It took a day like that, in a place like that, with people like that, to trigger a memory like that. Personally, it’s been a busy year. Professionally, it’s been a busy year. In some ways, I hope I never have to repeat some of those things that have happened since the last time we raced daylight to a golf course somewhere in this state. In other ways, I’ll miss some of the things I’ll never get to relive again. Weird that’s where my thoughts took me as I barreled down highway twenty-four back the Little Apple...
Kevin and I both parred our first playoff hole and when I bogeyed on the second, all Kevin needed to win was a three foot putt. Which he made. Of course. He won this round.
Later that same evening, my four year old overheard a conversation between my father in law and myself. We were discussing going to play a twilight nine before it was time for dinner. My son loves to golf and does it daily, either outside with his real clubs or inside with his toy ones. I've seen it a lot this year with the additional time we spent together hunkered down at home. And he's been to the course with me several times, mostly to the driving range but occasionally to walk nine. In all of those times it was me asking him if he wanted to tag along. Or his mother strongly suggested to both of us that he go with me. This time was different. He heard our conversation, walked up and said, "Can I go to play golf too?" Just another way how much things have changed in the last year...
I hope the little one remembers and cherishes this as much as I do...
It was the perfect way to end a day of reflection on the past twelve months. Next time you get out to play, take a second to think about your last year. Think about the good times and the struggles. Think about the eagles (or birdies or pars) you put on the scorecard of life this year. Think about the meltdown holes too. It's certainly been that type of year. But, I think you'll come away from that exercise rejuvenated, like I did, and that's just worth doing every once in awhile.
As always... We're glad you're here.