A Little Patch Of Augusta

March 20, 2013

From left: Tony and Herman; a plane approaches Daniel Field; Augusta Municipal, aka the Patch.

There was a frost delay at Augusta Municipal on a recent weekend morning, and the guy behind the counter told me the course would be closed for at least another hour. A small plane came in low over the clubhouse, headed for Daniel Field, next door. I asked whether I'd have trouble getting out as a single, and he laughed. Augusta Municipal

—which is known locally as the Patch, short for Cabbage Patch, after a vegetable garden that used to be nearby—isn't in great shape and is seldom crowded. It has had management troubles for years, and its future is uncertain.

And that's a shame, because the Patch is a real golf course. It was designed, in 1928, by the same Scotsman who designed Augusta Country Club, and through the weeds and bare spots you can feel the inspiration that shaped it—especially on and around the greens, which are tiny and, on several holes, diabolically crowned. The Patch also used to be the only course in Augusta where blacks could play, although in the early years the choice tee times were reserved for whites.

On Sunday morning, I played with Tony and Herman, who had been about to tee off when I signed in. Tony is in his 40s. He retired from the Army after 20 years and now works at the Fort Gordon Bingo Palace. Herman, who is 69, is blind in his right eye. He was a medic in Vietnam, then a cop, a surgical technician, and a bank guard in Passaic, N.J. In Vietnam, he had to do triage one day, and he assigned a severely wounded soldier, who was expected to die, to "the last helicopter." The soldier overheard, and angrily asked who had given him the right to play God. Herman told his superior that he couldn't bear to make such decisions, but the superior told him that if he refused he'd shoot him. A day or two later, a helicopter pilot brought back a message from the wounded soldier: "Tell that black mother------ I didn't die."

On the third hole—a good par 4, which plays over a pond and up a hill—we were joined by Gene, who sells cars. Gene is almost blind in his left eye, so he and Herman make a pair. On one green, Gene handed Herman a dollar, and Herman claimed to be astonished. He said that usually when Gene paid a golf debt he would drop the money on the ground, or put it in the cup. "We have a white guest," Gene explained.

During race riots in Passaic, in 1969, Herman arrested some people who were looting a shoe store. They had boxes spread on the floor, and were trying on shoes. Herman asked them why, and they said they didn't want to take shoes that weren't the right size. Another time, he arrested a man who was piling stolen merchandise on the sidewalk outside a store. When Herman tried to handcuff him, the man grabbed for the gun he was covering him with, and Herman shot him. The next morning, Herman was working his shift at the hospital, where the man had been taken. "I went to get him for surgery," he said, "and he asked, 'Do you have a brother who's a cop?' And I said, 'No, I'm the cop who shot you.' " The man refused to be operated on, and Herman learned later that another policeman, at the station, had told the man that the officer who'd shot him would be working in the operating room when he got there, and he'd never wake up from the anesthesia.

I asked whether the man had survived. "Oh, yes," Herman said. "He died four years later, but not from the bullet. I liked him. He was a good guy. I told him he ought to get a good lawyer and sue me, but he never did. I used to feed him. I fed a lot of addicts. I wouldn't give them money, because they would spend it on drugs, but I would buy them meals."

When Herman retired from the police force, after 25 years, he became the only black member, and then the president, of the Passaic City Council. Not long after his term ended, he and his wife, a retired social worker, moved to Augusta to escape New Jersey winters. Recently, his 31-year-old son, one of five children from two marriages, died. That death torments him, but golf, as always, has been a comfort. He plays seven days a week, and he never improves his lie, even when he's alone on the course. His goals are to continue helping those who need help, to play for as long as he can, and to die a pauper. "I'm living my dream," he said.