Kids today still learn the game at Knollwood Fairways, but will miss out on having a mentor like Jesse Nelson, who died May 8 at age 94. (Photo: Bill Fields)
In all the talk about "growing the game," a phrase I don't particularly like because golf isn't a crop, something is often missing.
Besides a good grip, a golfer also needs a helping hand.
That person can be a parent or a sibling or a pro, but when I was a kid falling in love with golf, a man who was none of those things did more for me than he probably ever realized.
Last week I happened to be in my hometown of Southern Pines, N.C., and was reading the website of the local newspaper when I noticed that man, Jesse Nelson, died May 8. He passed after a brief period of declining health at age 94, according to the obituary, and is survived by his wife of 70 years, Maude, six children, 16 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and six great-great grandchildren.
In the 1970s, after more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, Nelson managed the golf shop at Knollwood Fairways, a facility that included a nine-hole executive-length course, a par-3 course and a driving range in Southern Pines on land that had been fruit orchards years earlier. Opened in the 1960s, Knollwood wasn't much compared to the twin Donald Ross designs just down Midland Road -- Pine Needles and Mid Pines -- or the celebrated Pinehurst courses a few miles away. Yet after I graduated from hitting plastic balls in our yard, then real ones in a field not far from our house, unassuming Knollwood was my first golf home.
No matter how many golf courses, good or bad, famous or obscure, that you play, you never forget your first. Knollwood was where the game initially teased and taunted but ultimately lassoed me for the long haul. It was where I took my brand-new Johnny Palmer starter set on Christmas Day in 1969, where I broke in my full set of Wilson Staffs five years later, where I bought from an elderly member a set of MacGregor Tourney woods with aluminum inserts.
The club professional at Knollwood in my early visits was a compact guy named Bob Round, who was the first person I saw who could consistently hit a tight "pro" draw that usually split the nine-holer's very narrow fairways. (Moe Norman is said to have singled out Knollwood's bowling-alley third hole as a great place to learn how to control your ball, and Gary Player reportedly stopped by to tune up his ball-striking too.)
Round played Pedersen clubs and had the company's distinctive bright-yellow-and-blue staff bag. It was a brand that, it turns out, was produced in Wilton, Conn., not far from where I'm typing this column.
Jesse, who came on a bit later to manage the shop, also hit a draw, though not as reliably as Bob since he wasn't a pro. Most of the swings I remember Jesse making he was wearing dress loafers, hitting a few balls on the range or later, after the shop moved to a building by the first tee, over a pond to the water-guarded first green if things were slow.
Even if Knollwood wasn't very busy, I could often be counted on to be there -- getting dropped off in the summer before my mother went to work at the bank or on her lunch hour. A lot of kids of a certain age talk about idyllic, care-free childhood memories. Those many hours at Knollwood were part of mine. There weren't many juniors, but I liked the solitary times and the chance to play with grown-ups, whether my Dad after I got him into the game, or others.
My regular partners included an electrician, a fellow who ran a janitorial service, an Air Force navigator and a high school coach. It was as far away from fancy as you could get. For several years I worked Friday and Saturday nights at a nearby seafood restaurant to earn golf money, but I wouldn't have gotten to enjoy the game as much -- and strive to become a player -- if Jesse Nelson hadn't been as kind as he was.
He let me help out around the shop and the range. At the modest snack bar, I warmed up Stewart sandwiches ("cooked" in a infrared oven that was a precursor to the microwave) and Hormel chili. In return, instead of paying 75 cents for a small bucket or $1.25 for a large bucket, I could hit balls for free. What Jesse couldn't offer in swing tips, he supplied in encouragement. I never became quite the golfer I wanted to be, but there was much fun in the effort
The day Jesse Nelson died I was back at Knollwood Fairways. I'm so lucky. My first course hasn't been covered completely by condos or a freeway or a big-box store. The par-3 course is long gone, along with part of the fifth hole that was lost to housing. Otherwise, the nine-holer and range are doing well. The practice green where I putted for dimes and Cokes, with a faux Cash-In and then a real Bulls-eye, has better grass than it ever has.
There were some kids -- actually quite a few -- playing that afternoon. Their clubs didn't have Johnny Palmer's signature on the heads, but the fun seemed to have traveled quite well over four decades or so. As I watched them hitting a few shots while thinking about my youth there, I hoped they have a Jesse Nelson in their lives.