“…for just one moment, every muscle, every sinew, every synapse in his body remembered what it had probably done perfectly thousands of times before.”
by Dave Riley
About six years ago I went out to play golf and was put with three guys I didn’t know — two who played together regularly and a third named Robert who, like me, had come to the course alone in search of a game. Robert was a tallish slim fellow with a traditional East Coast taste in clothing and a beautiful golf swing. I guessed that at one time he had been a very low handicapper or possibly even a pro.
But his play this day proved to be inconsistent, and he was also a bit slow, both in his movements and his speech. All of this clearly bothered the two we were paired with and as the round progressed, they became visibly impatient with him and left after nine holes.
At times I am not the most socially perceptive person, so it took me several holes to realize that Robert was afflicted with some sort of dementia. Several times he left clubs behind, and once he walked off toward his second shot without realizing he had left his golf cart at the tee.
On the sixth fairway, Robert asked how far we were from the green.
“200 yards,” I said.
“My wife did that for me on all my clubs,” Robert said. “I can’t always remember how far I hit them.”
Nice, I thought. But, given his spotty play, I cringed at the idea of his trying to hit a two-iron. It’s a club so difficult to master that Hall of Fame pro Lee Travino once said, “If I ever get caught in a lightning storm I’m going to hold up a two-iron because even God can’t hit a two-iron.”
Robert took several practice swings, and I waited for the inevitable flub. But when he swung, for just one moment, every muscle, every sinew, every synapse in his body remembered what it had probably done perfectly thousands of times before. The ball took off on a low trajectory, rising ever so steadily until it was over its target. Then it seemed to pause in the air before finally falling softly to the green. It was the closest thing to poetry I have ever seen on a golf course. In years past, I thought, he must have played entire rounds filled with magnificent shots like that.
Alas few of his hits this day were that fluid. He took four swings to get out of a bunker and much of his fairway play was poor.
At the end of the round, Robert asked me if he could have the scorecard. He said his wife really liked it when he showed her his score.
“Unfortunately, I can’t.” I said. “I’m a club member and I have to turn it in for handicap purposes.” But I suggested we go up on the verandah and make out a duplicate card for his wife. So we sat and sipped some soft drinks as he dictated scores for me to write down, and then we each signed the card.
Afterwards, I asked him where he was from, and he said North Carolina. He went on to describe some lakes and cabins and small towns, but it was apparent after about four sentences that he couldn’t remember what question he was answering. Eventually we got up to leave, and he said, “What’s your name again?” I told him and he said, “Oh yes. You’re that nice fellow who helped me on the golf course.”
Since that day I have encountered three or four more golfing partners in various stages of dementia, not an unusual number considering that I live in a retirement community of almost 17,000 residents. I understand that people with some types of dementia can be quite cantankerous, particularly during the affliction’s latter stages. But the ones I’ve met were not.
Nor was Robert. He was just a sweet person, walking slowly into that gentle fog, just over the next hill.