A Walk In The Park
Last month, I wrote about Swope Memorial, the great Tillinghast muny in Kansas City, Mo., where I grew up. During my visit, I joined the regular weekday gang, and as we waited to tee off I realized that I knew one of the players: Bob Gleeson, who taught math at my old school. I'd never had him in class, but he was my brother's eighth-grade algebra teacher and high-school golf coach, and later in the week he and I played a round at Minor Park, another local muny. I remember driving past Minor when I was a kid, on my way to an annual camping trip with my father. In those days, both the course and the campsite seemed like outposts in the wilderness south of the city, but Kansas City has sprawled so far since then that both are now practically downtown.
When Gleeson was 12, two older boys in his neighborhood stole the bicycle of a kid no one liked. "They asked me if I wanted to help roll it onto the trolley tracks," he told me when we played. "Of course, I said yes, and of course we got caught. The bike cost something like 15 bucks. My dad said, 'I'm going to pay your share, and you can have your usual strap beating or work it off by caddieing for me.' " Gleeson didn't know what caddieing was but decided it couldn't be worse than the belt.
Gleeson's father played 50 rounds at Swope that summer, he said, so his fee worked out to a dime a loop. He would fool around on the practice green while the men settled their bets, and occasionally his father would adjust his grip or his stance. "On the day before I went back to school, my dad said, 'This is your last caddie day,' and he gave me a set of clubs. So we tee off, and I pick up my bag and start walking, and he says, 'Hey, where are you going? You're carrying double today.' So that's how I got into golf."
Gleeson's father—Jim (Gee Gee) Gleeson—played major-league baseball from 1936-'42. (He was a switch-hitting outfielder for the Cubs, the Reds and the Indians.) Bob played college basketball, at Rockhurst University, and first took golf seriously while waiting to complete flight training, during the Vietnam War, at the naval air base in Pensacola, Fla. In 1981, he took a teaching job in Fort Worth, but during summers he often came back to Kansas City. He stayed at Minor Park, in the house of the course manager, an old friend, and they played from sunrise till sunset. "Minor was the best-kept course in the city, including the Kansas City Country Club," he said. "We called it Little Augusta. Bent greens, bent fairways and bent tees, and there wasn't a weed on the place." He also played with his father, who died in his sleep in 1996, at the age of 84, on a day when he'd beaten his age by five shots. Both Gleesons hold Minor Park course records.
Minor is short and easy to walk, so it's popular with seniors and beginners. On the day Gleeson and I played, the maintenance staff had just removed a bunker from the 10th hole, leaving the course with none. Still, it's not a pushover, and when you're standing in the prairie grass near its center you can see what the entire area looked like back before the city had expanded halfway to Arkansas. The Santa Fe Trail ran just east of the course, and you can still see a thousand-foot-long stretch of deep covered-wagon ruts.
When my brother, whose name is John, was a high school senior, his golf team won the state championship. The tournament was rained out one day, and Gleeson, to fill the time, taught the boys blackjack in his hotel room. They liked the game so much that they wanted to keep playing, and on the trip back to Kansas City, John told me, Gleeson turned the driving over to him, and dealt his cards onto the dashboard so that their faces were reflected in the windshield above the steering wheel. On another day, a package of rolling papers fell from the pocket of a member of the team. "I made him room with me so that I could keep an eye on him," Gleeson said, "but before he played I'd say, 'Why don't you go listen to the Grateful Dead in my car and be back in an hour? And roll down the windows, please.' "
The golden age of high school, now gone forever. But we still have golf.