An ode to 'Uncle Frank' and all of our golf buddies like him
Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Catch up on earlier installments.
It’s the little stories about ordinary people doing everyday things that have made Golf Digest over the years. “Take dead aim,” Harvey Penick wrote. “Putt to the picture,” Earl Woods told Tiger. “Reach for the sky,” Jack Grout taught Jack Nicklaus. And they all said it in Golf Digest.
The characters we’ve profiled and illustrated and photographed often reminded us of ourselves or the buddies we play with. For many years contributing editor David Owen wrote about his golf club in Washington, Conn., and what he called My Usual Game, which he turned into a series of essays, a book and a website. The mark of a good freelance writer, he always tells me, is getting paid for everything you do three times. One of David’s pals who frequently made it into the magazine was the extraordinarily ordinary Uncle Frank, who became the subject of a column in May 2005.
“When Uncle Frank died,” Owen said, “we had his name printed on lots of golf balls and divided them up among ourselves. The idea was to lose the balls in interesting places, so that his name would keep popping up for years, as a kind of memorial. I’ve lost them on great courses in three different countries.” If you ever come across an Uncle Frank golf ball, remember this column. —Jerry Tarde
We called him Uncle Frank. He joined our club nine years ago and wasn’t shy about entering in or speaking up or mouthing off. He inspired one of the nine local rules on our Sunday-morning scorecard: “No competitor shall dress in a black-and-white sun suit purchased by his wife.” He arrived at our first golf-club sleepover in a blond wig and a blue feather boa and would have smoked cigarettes two at a time if he hadn’t needed a free hand for storytelling. He discovered he was sick after waking up unable to speak above a whisper, the ultimate ironic disability for a man who lived to talk. He had lung cancer, and it had spread to his vocal cords. Before the end of the golf season, he was dead.
People fell for Uncle Frank. If you wanted to play a fully booked golf course, he was the guy you sent into the golf shop to negotiate. He’d come out 10 minutes later with two tee times and an invitation to spend Christmas with the family of the pro. After Frank’s funeral, his wife threw a party in his memory, and so many people wanted to be there that she had to find a bigger room.
Telling stories about Uncle Frank is hard to do because the teller is always aware that Uncle Frank would have told them better—like the one about the Japanese steakhouse in Myrtle Beach where he cracked up the joint by doing an impression of the chef's food-preparation routines using a couple of sex toys he borrowed from a bachelorette party one table over. Nothing about that performance was inoffensive; somehow, though, it didn’t offend. Uncle Frank’s disarming vulnerability showed through everything he did, even when he was flipping shrimp into his pocket.
Uncle Frank’s cancer spread to his brain, and he was given an 18-hour radiation treatment, during which his head had to be immobilized in a halo brace. Before going to the hospital, he made a basketball backboard out of Styrofoam. When the treatment ended, he asked the nurses to attach the backboard to his brace and take him to the children’s oncology ward, where he let children shoot free throws at his head with a Nerf ball, three shots for a buck. “Hey, I made 23 bucks,” he told me later.
Three days after the treatment, my friend Jim took him to the club for what turned out to be his final round. Uncle Frank’s face was puffy from steroids, and he had a bottle of oxygen beside him, but he was happy. “If this was baseball,” he said, “I’d be batting .750.” Four days later, he was gone.