Sketch by the talented Dave Baysden

If golf is a drug, then I was raised in an opium den. Havana Golf & Country Club is the social epicenter of the single stoplight town I grew up in. When I was young, I was convinced that this little nine-hole golf club was the center of the universe. Today, I know it was just the center of mine.

Havana Golf & Country Club was founded in the early 1960s as a place for the town’s farming citizens and working class to recreate. Routed over an old tobacco farm, the golf course is short, easy to walk, and built for a laid-back lifestyle. My grandfather was the golf professional at the club and my house was just off the fourth hole. Every day was a golf day for me. My proximity to golf when paired with our small town’s lack of entertainment options for children was like giving a young pyromaniac a box of matches and a forest to play in.

The addiction took hold early. Somewhere under the hot sun of a childhood summer, my grandfather began to seriously teach me the game. He told me, “I’m going to show you how to the hook the ball and I want you to spend your whole life fighting it.” He wrapped my young hands around a cracked old golf grip and helped me find my infatuation.

As I ventured into adolescence the Havana Golf & Country Club became a beacon that called to me daily. In my youth, I spent every waking moment soaking up the atmosphere of the club. I found myself drawn to the people who loved to play the game there. The men that frequented the club were like living legends to a small boy who dreamed of playing like them someday.

The cast of characters that called our club home was like something from a Faulkner novel. Many of them could have been regular cast members of the Andy Griffith Show. I have vivid memories of their larger than life personas. Most of all I remember their passion for playing golf. These men lived to play and played to live. They were at home on the course and spent their time and money surrendering to the whims of the game.

I remember men like Cotton Jackson. He was tall, slender, blue jean-clad with a cigarette on his lip, and had a vicious short game. Every time he saw me he yelled out, “How ‘bout it young lad!” before inquiring about the state of my game. There were some serious sticks in Havana. David Touchton was known as “Mr. Smooth” and was a hell of a player. His left-handed and effortless swing was symphonic in nature. When he made a turn at the ball it sounded like a candle being blown out. There were a hundred more guys just as interesting and entertaining out there every day.

These were the kind of men who made up the gangsome every Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 1 pm. Forty some odd players lined up on the putting green on those weekend afternoons chasing a few dollars before the shotgun start. The bets these gentlemen made were small in nature but large in importance. When they let me start playing with them I felt like I had just earned my tour card.

These men taught me how to cuss, play cards, and grind out pars. More importantly, they taught me how to be a champion for camaraderie and competition on the course. They dumped gasoline on a spark that my grandfather created when he put my hands against a club for the first time.

These passionate players were my heroes growing up. So naturally, I set out to master the game they all loved. Havana gave me the opportunity to dive into the depths of my swing and I spent days on end hitting shots and chasing my golfing dreams.

My exploration into the golf swing occurred under the shade of a pecan tree that sat at the back of the driving range. Each day I pulled a rickety rust bucket of a range picker behind a golf cart to earn a few bucks. The club let me hit as many balls as I liked as long as I left the field clean picked afterword. I would hit balls well into the dark while wearing down the ground around the pecan tree. When the tree toppled some years later I assumed that my decimation of the root system was at fault.

When I wasn’t on the range I was at the pro shop. The pro shop is separate from the clubhouse and it has always served as the primary hang for the members. The building is made of red brick with a living room style lounge area that is centered around a fireplace. Overlooking that room is a wrap-around counter that long served as my grandfather’s workstation. There at his post, he checked players in, sold drinks and snacks, and peddled golf gear with advice and tall tales.

On the back of the pro shop door, my grandfather recorded my childhood height by carving a notch with his pocket knife every few months. Those traces of my upbringing are still ascribed in that door jam. There are plaques on the wall with the names of my idols listed for winning club championships and over on the bookshelf is a trophy named for my grandfather that I managed to get my name etched on once. That’s likely the only Hall of Fame I’ll ever make it in for my golf conquests, but I’m damn proud of it.

Out on the porch is where the evening drinks were consumed by the regulars. As the sun reached its sinking point on the horizon each night, these men would sit in rocking chairs with relaxing company and a stiff drink to sip. From that shared perch, they all watched me on the putting green a few feet away. I worked on perfecting my putting stroke while they told me stories that encouraged me on my path to becoming a golf junkie.

My grandfather retired just before I started high school, but my service to the club was just beginning. I was hired to run the carts and mow the greens. There is something incredibly therapeutic about dropping mower reels onto the morning dew and sweeping it away with a fresh cut of the grass. To this day I think it was the best job I ever had. I learned so much about golf courses during those summer days that now shape my beliefs about the game. It’s hard to describe the appreciation you develop for a golf course when you are the one mowing it.

My days and nights at Havana Golf & Country Club built a dependency for golf deep inside my soul. I can’t imagine my life without the game. My wife will probably never understand what happens to me when I’m deprived of this pastime, but over the years and many trips back to Havana, I think it has started to make sense. My relationship with golf is symbiotic. If you remove it from me, you remove part of me and I’m afraid of what I might seek out to fill that void.

Golf at Havana was my first love. In a small town where there weren’t many kids around it was the golf course that became my best friend. We took long walks together, made memories when no one else was watching, and shared secrets about each other that most folks wouldn’t understand. My small town course never felt inadequate to me. It was always someplace special and when I go back there I still feel that way.

Many of the old timers are gone now and Havana doesn’t have games as big as it once did. The course has lost some great characters but it hasn’t lost its charm. There is a gaggle of golfers that gather on the porch each day and occasionally there is a youngster learning the game on the same putting green I used to mow. My golfing dreams are buried somewhere under the stump of a pecan tree, but what I learned about the game there will stay with me forever.

My life is uniquely tied to the game of golf. My grandfather made the introduction and Havana Golf & Country Club served as the backdrop for my discovery of the game. These days I’m fortunate to travel and play at many places across the golfing landscape of America, but there is still no better sight than when I come over the railroad tracks to see the Havana pro shop sitting peacefully on the hill. It’s like reliving my favorite first date over and over again.

Small town clubs like Havana once dotted the maps of American golf and those places raised many a golfing fool like me. As times and tastes have changed, Havana and courses like it have become increasingly rare. Golf is highly addictive, but for the game to take hold in people there must be places where it’s best qualities and most colorful characters are found in abundance. I was lucky to have a place like that. I know that I’ll never be able to shake my addiction and because of Havana, I wear that like a badge of honor.