It happened the same week strawberries were served at Wimbledon, with iced Pimms. Fans queued quietly and wore straw hats and sun block. Federer crashed out. Satorial elegance and Swiss cool gave way to the next contender, hungry to serve, ace and volley and walk with the champions.
England footballers froze in the heat of the South African sun and White Van Fan flew the flag for his team. It was the day the amber eyed New Yorker teed up his ball and Bon Jovi played at the O2. A day to both remember and forget. For different reasons.
Summer had finally arrived in a blaze of glory. Beaches were adorned with deckchairs, towels and sunshades. Toddlers licked ice creams. Paddled, made sandcastles and slept on the soft sand.
Shops sold out of barbecues, beer and black currant juice. And it was the same week that Ruggy came up with an idea.
“Why don’t we all go in for the medal?”
“Don’t forget England are playing that day” said Gus.
“There are only 2 million in Slovenia” said Big Rich. “Means they might have an outside chance of a draw”.
“Bit harsh” said Gus.
A football fan to his soul. He loved the flow of the game. The skill of the first touch. The movement off the ball. And the goals. It had not been a good World Cup.
“I think they are going to start playing now” he said. More in hope than expectation.
“Who cares?” said Ruggy.
The tee time was booked. A tee time had also been booked by an American and his son along with a buggy and clubs. And ahead of them, a regular four ball who would tee up at the allotted time and make their mark on the day.
The fairways wore the brown parched air of summer. Balls ran. Bounces were in the lap of the golfing gods and the greens were fast and true.
The day of the medal dawned. The sky was blue and cloudless and the mercury in the thermometer rose quickly. The tee time was early. England were due to kick off at fifteen hundred hours. All the white vans drove around with their St. George’s flags and everyone booked the afternoon off. Or planned to go sick.
The dinner was prepared and in the fridge. Salad. With pork pie and hard boiled eggs. Beetroot and rocket.
I left early, beat the traffic and headed to the practice ground. Before the Pro managed to stake his claim and his lessons. The swing felt good. The chips were crisp and the putts ran to the hole. It seemed simple. Take the practice ground swing to the course. The ball was marked with its anchor, the lucky ball marker in the right hand pocket. Water. Sun block and tees.
We needed one more for the medal.
“Come on Gus. Be the man”.
“Got to get back for a barbecue and the footie” he said.
“Hours to spare” said Big Rich.
Gus capitulated. We signed the book and paid over the money. Plus the sweep for the twos on the par threes.
The swing had been taken from the practice ground to the course and the front nine was good. The drives ran long and straight and putts dropped for birdie. There was the odd unlucky bounce. Each time it was the ball of Gus. He did not get the rub on the green.
“Knew I shouldn’t have gone in for the medal” he said writing down his score.
“Turn it round on the back nine” said Ruggy.
Things do not always go according to plan. More shots were dropped and the four ball ahead slowed down. We waited on every shot, every green, every tee. It was like waiting for snow to thaw. An avocado to ripen. Tooth ache to go away. None of us knew about the man behind. Or the amber eyed New Yorker.
Gus was a worried man. He accepted he would go up point one. He knew in the big picture he could live with a bad card. But every time he looked at the slow four ball ahead or his phone, he knew he was in trouble. He knew the team would be warming up. Listening to the team talk. Waiting for the first kick of the ball and the sound of the vuvuzelas.
The first text came through on the twelfth hole.
Where are you?
He hit his tee shot into the trees and hit the reply button.
On the 12th x
The twelfth was not a kind hole. It did not yield par and we walked off with ugly scores.
Close behind the four ball played the twelfth.
Gus looked at his watch again and sent a text.
Back asap x
We met the New Yorker on the thirteenth hole.
“Can you tell me where the clubhouse is?” he said.
It was not a question usually asked on the thirteenth. He did not look injured or bored. He did not look like someone who cared about the men in the three lion shirts.
He was a man in need of a ball. After playing twelve holes, he was sans balls. We turned out our bags and donated to the cause. Had we known about Bon Jovi, we could have traded the balls for a ticket. What price a Callaway Black, Titliest prov1 or a Taylormade? He smiled his mega watt American smile and we continued with our medal round.
On the fifteenth, Sid shovelled his drive out to the right. It took a vicious bounce and headed to the trees. Gus looked at his watch and winced as the hands moved nearer to kick off.
The ball was found. Beyond the trees and on the adjacent fairways. On the tee in the distance, the four ball prepared to play down to the green.
“Careful, Sid. They are on the tee”.
The first ball came over and landed short of the trees.
Sid took his time to line up the shot. He looked at his ball and back across the fairway.
The second ball followed shortly after.
“Careful, Sid” I called out again.
But Sid was in the zone. Sid was focused on the shot. Sid was in a place where you do not hear or see anything. Totally in the zone.
On the tee ahead, the fourth member of the four ball took a few practice swings. He addressed the ball and stood with his feet and shoulders closed. As he started his downswing the club face was open. The ball could only go in one direction. And there was Sid, still in the zone. And he did not hear the ball leave the open club face.
“Sid!” I said.
The man on the tee called out. Sid still looked at his ball and the distant flag on the green. Sid was zoned.
Too late, I realized the ball was not on a direct line with Sid. It had locked onto a different target. Locked in like an exocet. It caught a branch of the birch tree, with its soft green leaves and dappled shade. The ball hit. It hurt. I took one for Sid.
“You ok?” said Sid.
Big girls don’t cry. The medal card needed to be completed. Gus had a match to watch and meat to cook on the barbecue. We carried on.
My next shot went in the bunker. I walked off with an eight and a sore arm. A scorched arm. A dead arm.
Three holes left to play.
Gus sent a text between shots.
Light the barbie. Still on the 16th x
The barbecue was lit at home and the picture on the big screen showed the ground in South Africa vibrating to the sound of vuvuzulas.
We finished the round. Gus went up point one, took a chance on the speed cameras and made it home just after the National Anthems.
“Where have you been?” said his wife, sweating over the hot charcoal.
“Don’t ask” said Gus.
The man who fired the shot into the trees was full of contrition.
“Sorry” he said. “It ruined my round”.
I didn’t mention about the eight on the card.
The amber eyed New Yorker, beaten by his son Michael Junior, went off to prepare for the Bon Jovi Concert. Nobody asked if there was a spare ticket. The boys from New Jersey caught the boat up the river and played their blue collar rock to a full house. They sang about Tommy who used to work on the docks. Last Man Standing and Living On a Prayer.
The Golf Police tucked into his salad and the arm went from red to black and blue.
Gus watched his team beat Slovenia one nil. On the Sunday, he lit another barbecue, put on his England shirt and watched them torn apart by Germany. No one told them a lion only hunts when it’s hungry.
White Van Fan took down his flags and the team, who wore the three lions on their shirt, flew home to a nation who no longer cared. They left behind the vuvuzelas and men who wore their shirts for pride not shekels, as they reached out to drink the elixir of the champions.
And when all the Pimms and strawberries had gone, and all the pretenders to the Wimbledon crown vanquished, the day belonged to a muscle- ripped smiling Spaniard. A champion who understood the meaning of Kipling’s words. Humility. Grace. Acer of the centre court. Nadal.