PARAMUS, NEW JERSEY | Set on a rock that borders Ridgewood Country Club’s back patio, a plaque is dedicated to the most famous assistant professional in the club’s history.
A 22-year-old Byron Nelson worked at the timeless A.W. Tillinghast course in 1935 and 1936 to supplement the income of his fledgling playing career. The first of his 64 professional wins came during his short-lived Ridgewood tenure as he clinched victory in 1935 at the nearby New Jersey Open, but it wasn’t his most memorable moment in the time he served as an assistant.
That moment came when the lanky Texan was challenged to a bet from several caddies who scraped together 55 cents in hopes of doubling their money. From a spot on a slate deck just steps outside Ridgewood’s pro shop, Nelson was given three balls. If he hit the skinny flagpole, which was about 100 yards away, he would win the bet.
“I used my 3-iron,” said Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 94. “My first shot missed, but I gripped down and hit a draw and, sweet as you please, got the pole dead center. The caddies stared, their mouths open. I picked up my 55 cents, gave them a little smile and walked away.”
The plaque (above) is near the legendary spot where Nelson struck iron. On it is a quote from the eventual five-time major champ: “The best any man can do is to be the best in his time.”
Fast forward to last month when Austin Greaser, runner-up at last year’s U.S. Amateur, came to Ridgewood for a media day in advance of this year’s event, which was held last week.
USGA officials set Greaser on the back patio of the club with a turf mat and a clear opening through the fence. The flagpole, which stands amongst a circular array of gorgeous flowers on the practice putting green, was decorated in an American flag, a USGA flag and a Ridgewood C.C. flag that waved gently on the breeze, surrounded by a cove of towering trees.
It had the feeling of the scene in “Tin Cup” when Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner) wins a bet by hitting a ball out the door of a bar and into a lake, disturbing a pelican off its perch. OK, maybe the liability would have been a lot higher in that fictional scenario, but you get the idea.
Greaser grabbed a 2-iron and took aim at the pole. First came the swing, then a brief moment of silence, and finally a loud clang of metal that reverberated across the property like the world’s largest hockey puck being sniped into a cross bar. The small crowd roared as Greaser erupted in a delirious fit of joy.
Iron Byron did it in two shots. Greaser needed only one.
A friend of mine recently theorized that there are two types of people in this world. There are relatively normal human beings – and why would you want to be one of them? – who walk around in everyday life mostly thinking about what they are doing. And then there are golfers, the desperately obsessive type among us, who walk down a random city street and quietly think to themselves, “Could I hook a ball around that skyscraper? I think it’s a 5-iron. No, it’s a 6-iron. Have to make sure I get it over that traffic light. Wait, where am I walking to, again?”
Unfortunately, most of those daydream shots never get hit. They stay in our imaginations, hopefully being preserved for another life.
So when those shots do get hit – 87 years apart, no less – it’s a reason for celebration.