You can’t put a price tag on friendship.
I took my annual trip to my hometown of Independence this past week for the Swinging Bridge Golf Tournament, which for me is a gathering of many of my lifelong friends.
For many years I played with my Dad, because the tournament is always scheduled on Father’s Day weekend and what better way to celebrate. In fact, it started as the Father-Child Tournament and evolved into the Swinging Bridge, which got its name because there’s a bridge that divides two holes and it swings when you drive across it. There are still several father and sons who play in this together.
Dad played with me in the tournament until he was nearly 80 years old when the rigors of playing three straight days was simply too much. Those are days I’ll always cherish. We even won our flight one year and to hear Dad tell it, he carried us to victory.
I now play with Craig Dancer, who is like a brother to me as we’ve known each other since we were 5. Our parents were best friends and so are we. He lives in Tennessee and this is the one time of the year I get to see him.
As for the tournament itself, it starts on Friday with a low-ball format, then Saturday is a scramble. The final round is a modified alternate shot event where both players tee off, then you alternate the rest of the way.
Craig didn’t play high school golf, but we coaxed him into playing junior college golf with us as our team was mainly Indy High guys. Craig’s father, Don, was a legend as he played at Tulsa University and combined with another Indy legend and KU standout, Dave Dennis, to win the Heart of America championship in Kansas City some 50 years ago, going up against the likes of Grier Jones, Jim Colbert and an up-and-coming youngster named Tom Watson.
Craig does a lot of traveling with his job and doesn’t play very much, whereas I play almost every day.
Yet, we shot a respectable 76 in the low-ball on Friday, which is about our customary score. We’ve been better on occasion, but you have to remember we’re closing in on Social Security age.
On Saturday, we shot an astounding 67, one of the best rounds of the day among the 88 teams in the field. That’s right, there are 88 teams, which means 176 players. For a couple of old, bad-backed hackers that’s not bad.
The alternate shot format has been our kryptonite. Now the last couple of years we have played pretty well, even shooting 76 two years ago. But Sunday, knowing that we had little chance to place since we were in a flight loaded with studs, we faltered to an 83 as we couldn’t drive, couldn’t chip and couldn’t putt. We had the entire package going the wrong way.
But we didn’t care. Getting to spend four days out of the year with your best friend was like getting first place. Craig even followed me home and is spending a couple of days here (playing more golf) before flying out of Wichita and back to Tennessee.
But this tournament is more about what happens when we’re not playing.
It’s become a ritual after the Friday night banquet for the old gang to gather on the back patio. There’s a lot of smoke in the air from all the stogies that are puffed and I wouldn’t dare light a match around us because the place might go up in flames. Let’s just say that a few adult beverages are consumed (except for Craig, my designated driver).
It didn’t take long for the stories to flow. Everybody has a nickname and Mark “Meek” Palmer is like the master of ceremonies. I keep saying one of these years I’m going to tape record the evening so I have the stories on file, but I know them by heart. Meek’s story of winning the El Dorado Juco tournament with a 69 after having eaten some bad chicken (and getting sick) never, ever gets old.
It was great to have Meek’s brother, Craig (or Cecil), back this year. Cecil is a year older than me and we grew up going to the same grade school and I also lived with the Palmer brothers when I attended KU. We are all brothers in every sense of the word.
It’s a veritable cast of characters (and I mean characters) — CD, Meek, Cecil, Monz, Boro, Hambone, Sidewinder, Fat Watts (who's not fat anymore), D Pasternack and adopted out-of-towners Montana and his brother (who needs a nickname). We closed down the place on Friday as the waitresses obviously knew they were going to be tipped well. In fact, only the outside lights illuminated the place as we sat out looking at a pitch-black golf course.
Then on Saturday, after play is completed, the Top 10 teams from Friday play in what is called a “horserace.” This is simply an amazing sight to see because there are about 500 people riding around in carts watching the competition. They’ll circle the green and words can’t do it justice. Craig and I actually played in it one year and got knocked out on the first hole. I had never been more nervous golfing in my life.
A highlight for me this year was that I went by to look at my old family house and wouldn’t you know, they were having a garage sale. I told the woman who lives there that I wanted to take a picture for old time’s sake and she told how much she and her family loved the house and asked if I wanted to go in and take a look at what they had done. Needless to say it didn’t look anything like the house I grew up in, they have made that many upgrades. My old basketball hoop that my Dad put up 50 years ago is still standing and the wood is so old I think if you tried to bank a shot in, the backboard would crumble.
Craig and I always drive around town on Thursday night. This year we stopped at Riverside Stadium, which has undergone a facelift. Some of the history was taken away with the new look, but it was probably for the better.
Unfortunately, Independence is not what it used to be. The economy has taken a big hit since I grew up there and the population is about 3,000 less. Downtown is so much quieter and while the west has expanded, it’s still a town where there’s too much unemployment and too many bad neighborhoods where houses should probably be condemned.
But it will always be home to me. Priceless.