Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Me and Mr. Jones

By Bruce VanWyngarden

AUGUST 10, 1998:  It’s Friday morning and I’m reading the morning paper, scanning the scores from the first round of the FedEx St. Jude golf tournament. Veteran Nick Price is leading at six under par, but a lot of ink in the local daily is given over to the young Germantown phenom, David Gossett, who carded a lovely five-under-par round of 66.

Now, I’m happy for the kid, but as a middle-aged golfer who is gratified to occasionally hack my way into the low 80s, it just doesn’t seem fair somehow. A 19-year-old kid shooting a score like that. Shouldn’t he be – oh, I don’t know – skateboarding or something? The nerve.

Down the list of scores I go, idly scanning the names, stopping finally at the very bottom, where I read the name of Don Jones, and a score I can relate to. In fact, it’s a score I shot two days before at T.O. Fuller – an 82.

Now an 82 is a very respectable score for me, and for most of the people I play with, but an 82 for a pro in a professional tournament is a flat-out disaster, a nightmare of a round. Don Jones, whoever he was, hadn’t slept very well that Thursday night. He’d probably stayed up in his room watching cable, replaying balls that he’d bounced into the water, into the sand, into Southwind’s Brillo-pad rough, shots that he’d hit clean a million times before. Tomorrow, he thought, over and over, tomorrow, I’m going to redeem myself.

I note that Don Jones is teeing off the 10th tee at 8:36 a.m. I note also that I have an hour to get to Southwind and lend the man moral support. It seems the least I can do. I down my coffee, pin on my handy FedEx media badge, and hit the road. Don Jones, an ordinary golfer with an ordinary name, will have at least one fan in his gallery today.

At 8:36, clouds hang low in the pink sky; birds are singing; a light breeze pushes out of the north. As Jones’ threesome approaches the tee, a hush falls over the gallery. (Of course, it doesn’t take much to hush a gallery of 13 people.) Jones is playing with Tom Pernice, a young pro from Missouri, and Richard Coughlan, a red-headed Irishman. A tournament volunteer arrives with the large signboard he will carry all day. It reads: Pernice – -1; Coughlan – 2; Jones – 11, as in 11 over par. I try to imagine what it must be like to have someone follow you around the golf course all day with your score posted on a big sign for all to see. Not good, I imagine, if it reads 11 over.

Pernice and Coughlan hit long straight drives into the fairway, and there is a smattering of applause after each shot. (Well, perhaps not quite a smattering, but six or eight handclaps, anyway.) Jones sets his ball on the tee. He is a smallish man, nattily dressed in olive and khaki. After a couple of practice swings, he hooks his tee-shot into a tree about 200 yards out. Not a good start. No one claps. No one yells, “YOU THE MAN!” I feel his pain.

As we leave the tee, I see that the gallery consists of one middle-aged couple – and me. The couple and I stop to watch Jones hit his second shot, and I learn from them that our man is a club pro from their hometown, Signal Mountain, Tennessee. He is also a former PGA Tennessee state champion, and a fine golfer who simply had a terrible day on Thursday. He and his wife, a former collegiate golfer, have three kids, and are “great people.” His wife, it should be noted, is also his caddy. I suspect the dynamics of their marriage are undergoing an interesting test this week.

Jones bogeys the first hole, and the number after his name on the omnipresent signboard now reads 12. Then he seems to find his game. On the next hole, an island green par three, he drops a long birdie putt. Likewise on the following hole, and the number on the board drops to 10. If he can just get that number into single digits, I think, he’ll feel a whole lot better.

Jones pars the next three holes, just missing a couple of birdie putts. I’m feeling good about my man now. It’s obvious he’s settled down and heading for respectability. I applaud a nice par putt. I even say, “You the man,” but not too loudly. Then the wheels fall off. He shoots a bogey, a double bogey, then hooks his drive into the water on 18, for another double bogey. At the turn, the number behind his name is suddenly a god-awful 15.

On the back nine it doesn’t get any better. Jones’ game erodes like a sandcastle in the rain. A bogey here, a bogey there, an endless parade of sandtraps, tree limbs and cart paths. Through it all, his wife carries the heavy bag, rakes the traps, offers encouragement and advice. And as the round passes, something else begins to emerge: the subtle evidence of a partnership that transcends a bad day on the golf course. Jones and his wife treat every shot with seriousness and composure, even though he is hopelessly out of the tournament. He doesn’t throw his clubs; she doesn’t show her disappointment. Sharing wry smiles, they maintain their dignity to the bitter end, to the last anguished bogey on the last long hole.

When Don Jones walks off the the final green, his shirt is soaked through with sweat and the number behind his name reads 21 over par, the worst score in the tournament. But Jones doesn’t act like a loser. He hugs his exhausted wife. He looks like someone who’s already won big.

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