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Golf as a Game of Life: My Dad, Brother, and a Bear

Updated: Jun 16

by Matthew Bauer

Edited by Brian Back

 

In a land and a time decades ago, I remember a day when my brother Andy, then in his early teens, brought home a set of golf clubs.

 

Unbeknownst to me, Andy had started playing a sport I knew very little about. My Dad and I were curious, to say the least.

 

At that point, we didn’t see Dad so much. He had a small business, and he worked almost every day. This was all about to change.


Out we went to our neighbor’s yard (pictured to the left from Google Maps), oddly a few acres right in the middle of our larger-than-most Midwestern town of South Bend, Indiana. So gracious they were to allow us to take all those divots out of their yard.

 

The neighbors didn’t come out much. But I think it gave them joy to see Dad, then 40-something, Andy, 12, and me, a spry 8 years old, all learning this most unforgiving of sports – all at the same time. All lined up taking whacks at that silly white ball.


As sports go, it’s much easier to learn when you’re young. My Dad learned this the hard way. It wasn’t long before Andy and I were going out and bringing back serious hardware, while Dad’s game plodded along at a much slower pace.

 

Andy and I hit the jackpot, from bored pre-teen and early teen to 27 holes a day all summer, especially with a 9-hole “beginner” course with greens fees of 50 cents a day, unlimited!


The 9-hole muni is named Studebaker (scorecard from our first round pictured left), after the car company headquartered in South Bend in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where my grandfather was a test driver and later a member of the City Council. There’s a bridge named after him, but the plaque has since fallen off. We assume it's still named after him.

 

The daily routine in summer: Mom dropped me off at Studebaker with a buck fifty in my pocket – just enough for greens’ fees, a hot dog and a Coke, and a few spare nickels for putting on the practice greens with the other rug rats, some of whom became lifelong friends. Bless her heart for the hundreds of hours, she spent couriering us around to tournaments and such in those early years!

 

Our mentor, surrogate and babysitter was a veritable saint of a person, Fred Biggs, forever known to us as Mr. Biggs. Mr. Biggs was the golf pro at Studebaker forever, overseeing the beginning of so many golf careers as a teacher. But more importantly, he set the table for one of the great cornerstones of our community.

 

One cold, cold – and I mean cold – winter day, President Ford came through South Bend, a big deal back then. Motorcade and all, thousands of us lining the streets. I tucked into a city building to use the loo, and there was Mr. Biggs in the lobby, working. He was a mechanic (or something of the like) for the city, in the off months.

 

Winters were rough in the mid to late ‘70s, especially downwind from Lake Michigan. There was no golf from Thanksgiving to April-ish. It was so weird to see Mr. Biggs, outside the confines of Studebaker – like seeing behind a movie set. We exchanged a pleasant “Hello, See you in a few months,” etc. 

 

For $300 our family was able to play unlimited golf at the three city-owned courses, Studebaker, Erskine and Elbel. And oh, how we made the most of that yearly investment! From roughly age 9-12, that’s all I did each summer.

 

South Bend had an incredible youth golf program. It allowed anyone in. It was inexpensive. We were able to play our tournaments every week or two in season at Munis, public courses and even some of the country clubs, which were off limits to most of my circle. 

 

We played no handicaps. You won or lost by age group. I didn’t even know what a handicap was until my 20s.

 

If you won or got runner up in your age group, you received not only a great trophy, but also some print in the South Bend Tribune and airtime on at least a couple of the local TV channels. Being in the same market at Notre Dame, it was cool to see your mug on the TV sometimes just after an interview with Joe Montana.

 

A couple of the sportscasters made a regular trek to the course to interview us and reported on TV that same night. They hosted an annual dinner where the top winners got recognition and all participants could attend.


Most weekends Andy, Dad and I saddled up and drove to some goat pasture usually locked in cornfields across northern Indiana and south-central Michigan, where for $10 got you 18 holes, a cart and lunch (North Liberty GC was a favorite haunt - scorecard pictured right). We would stand by the green waiting for Dad to stop hitting it over the green and back, usually mumbling and swearing the whole time.

 

Back at home, we’d describe the play-by-play to our mom, who always pretended the stories were funny and interesting. We’d settle in for a few hours of watching our hero, The Golden Bear, wage his own battles with some of the best competitors who we also loved: Trevino, Player, Watson, Miller, Weiskopf – the list of greats at that time as long as my arm. Amazing his number of Major victories is still unequaled, all accomplished with style and grace.

 

Andy and I played other sports for our high schools. He basketball, me football. But golf was the river that ran through it. We both were on our high school golf teams. Each of us ended up in the state finals, four years apart.

 

When I graduated college, Dad took me on a trip out West. We started with some golf with Andy, who was living in Scottsdale at the time, then made our way driving up to San Francisco. We stopped in for a couple nights and a day at Pebble Beach. Our two greens fees were cheap by today’s standards, but still almost equaled our season pass back in South Bend.

 

What a special day it was, with calm winds and a sunny sky. Pebble Beach earned in our heads and hearts its status as one of the great temples in the world. Dad and I went on to play a few other greats together, including The Ocean Course, Torrey Pines, and a few other classics. But it's our time rooting around the muni courses and grass between the cornfields in northern Indiana that still holds the magic.

 

In the years that followed, many of my friends from college and connections I made living in D.C. were playing golf or starting to pick up the game. Some got possessed with it and quickly went from my first lessons with them at the range to beating me in a matter of months. Oh, the humble pie!

 

In 1995, where I had been living in D.C. since graduation, the U.S. Senior Open was being held at Congressional, one of the Earth’s tastiest tracks. The lineup was straight from the Saturdays and Sundays we spent in the ‘70s – huddled, rooting for The Bear, Jack Nicklaus, or the best one to win: Palmer, Trevino, The Bear Weiskopf, Player, Watson – the list went on and on. We knew every name.

 

It didn’t take much cajoling to get Dad and Mom out for the weekend. It was Sunday, and we’re parked walking into the confines at “Congo.” The first tee we walk up to, there was Arnold Palmer, driving, with his customary Arnie’s Army in tow. Funny, watching on TV you don’t realize that his swing was so unorthodox. He looked like he was going to fall over.

 

We made a beeline for Nicklaus. And, finally, we catch up to him. The crowds were huge around his group.

 

I say to Dad, “Let’s go get a good spot in the stands behind the next hole.” Which we do. Suddenly, we’re right behind the tee, and up walketh The Bear.

 

We’ve never seen him live before. Jack waves to the crowd, has honors – long par 3 uphill, big crowd behind the green. He hits the shot, it disappears over the crest, and the entire throng behind the green jumps up at once – hole in one! Dad and I are jumping up and down looking at each other – sheer, unadulterated joy.

 

After years of great golf trips and playing less and less, as Dad could not make it out on the course anymore and my brother lost interest, I did as well. I basically shelved the game. I didn’t stop playing entirely, but I played hardly at all, for about 10 years.

 

Then, a few years ago, Amy and I moved to Denver, where she had grown up. Denver has an amazing muni golf system. About a five-minute drive away from us is a 100-year-old muni that was getting a $40 million facelift, paid for by the Denver Area Water District, for flood control reasons. The course reopened a few years back, and I’ve been like a kid in a candy store. I joined the Men’s Club, and I found my people again and have begun to forge new relationships, borne on the course (hey Josh and Gary).

 

My Dad died a couple years ago, at the age of 93. He was born before The Depression. He saw it all, and he lived a full & great life, on his own terms.


Two summers ago, after his passing, I returned to The Well, a pilgrimage of sorts, with three of my buddies dating back to grade school when we were all running around the munis all summer long – Gary, Kevin, and Neil, still friends from all those years back. We started at Studebaker on a Saturday morning, then played Erskine that afternoon, and Elbel the next day.

 

Gary now helps manage the two courses we spent most of our youthful years playing, Erskine and Elbel. We were treated as royalty and had no issue with tee times. We ran into some old friends and high school golf teammates both days – even proceeding to the 19th hole après’ all together, which continued well into the evening.


During our round at Studebaker, (picture to the left, on the first tee) the first order of the day was to check the trophies in the Pro Shop. Sure enough, there was my friend Kevin’s name in multiple places (he had won the annual Pee Wee tournament in the mid 70s, and the tournament is still going strong).

 

I won runner up in the youngest bracket in the first Pee Wee I played at 9 years old, but that nameplate didn’t survive the test of time. After pictures with the trophies on the practice green, it was off to the first tee. Caps were removed, and homage was paid to Mr. Biggs, who had passed some years back.

 

We promised to make it an annual thing, naming it the Fred Biggs Annual, to the memory of Fred and our fathers, with The Bear auspiciously in the background. Gary is especially fond of Nicklaus. He has seen and met him a few times recently, and even named his son Jack. He was so proud to show us a pic with the three of them snapped at a recent tournament.

 

We are about to return for the third Fred Biggs Annual, I believe three makes it a tradition! It’s possible that not everyone understands the fun of hitting a silly white ball around a patch of green pasture with friends or even strangers. But the essence of this exercise still means more than the scores and the victories or defeats.

 

Perhaps Bagger Vance said it best: “Yeah, the rhythm of the game, just like the rhythm of life…”

 

For me, meaning is found in having a few heroes to look up to – Mr. Biggs, The Bear…and my Dad.

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