I took a little walk this week over some very familiar territory, though I had a hard time recognizing it.
If you squint and use your imagination, Wakefield Valley Golf Club still looks a bit like a golf course. But if you didn't know what it was in a former life you'd probably pass it by thinking it a wheat field with an occasional patch of sand near roundish areas of scorched earth (that were once the slickest greens in the region).
When Wakefield closed last year, many hoped someone would swoop in, buy it on the cheap, pour money into it and restore it to its former glory. But most figured it would never again open as a golf course and that seemed to be confirmed this week when Westminster Mayor Kevin Utz told the
that the City of Westminster had reached an agreement to take over the once-proud property. Utz said there were no plans to reopen it as a golf course, but to turn the place into "a sanctuary."
For me, Wakefield was a sanctuary for many, many years. I learned a lot about the game and about life as a member there for more than three decades.
As I started my walk around what was once among the best golf courses in the state, I pictured myself as Iron Eyes Cody, the old Native American of the 1970s ecology commercials who surveyed the pollution and what had become of his land and cried.
Certainly, the memories flooded back. How could they not? There was a time when, as a kid, I would be dropped off early in the morning pretty much every summer day and be picked up at dark, having played 18 or 36 or even more holes. I can't even calculate how many rounds I played there from 1978 through 2013.
I remembered making a 15-foot, side-hill putt in a playoff on the third hole of the green course to win a tournament of some significance. I remembered coming into the clubhouse after nine holes with a nice lead on a friend of mine in the semifinals of the junior club championship and asking my next opponent when he wanted to play the final only to get drubbed on the back nine. I remember the only time I ever broke 70 there – and losing to a more talented buddy. I remembered my very first tournament and getting beaten by a friend who had just taken up the game and was using my mother's clubs. I remembered routinely negotiating settlements of gambling debts with another friend.
The memories were strong, but there was no Iron Eyes Cody moment. No tears for a once-great course run into the ground. There may have been a few thinking about the people I used to play with, however.
There were about six of us who grew up together playing at Wakefield. I naively assumed we'd always play lots of golf together.
The guy I beat in the playoff? He died tragically in a car accident. The guy who taught me a lesson about staying in the moment during a golf round? He spends most of his time in South America. The more talented buddy? He's still more talented, living three states away. The guy who beat me in that first tournament? We get together to play once, maybe twice a year. The guy I frequently had to settle up with? No clue. He's probably still spending my money.
Plenty of other people made Wakefield special. The golf pros that made time for a bunch of kids, thereby making an impact on all of us. The staff that took so much pride in doing whatever they could on a shoestring budget to keep the course in great shape. The adult members who let us tag along for rounds, play in their weekend events, and join them for marathon sessions on the practice green to learn a little bit about life, human nature and the pressure of making a putt for money when you didn't actually have any money.
I remained a member for many, many years and got to know scores of wonderful people from the course. Some I see every now and then and the topic of Wakefield usually comes up. Some I haven't seen in years.
Many have died. That includes the person who drove me out to the course on all those summer mornings, who reprimanded me when I complained about a second-place trophy, who constantly encouraged me and who thoroughly enjoyed the game far more than I ever will, my mom.
I played Wakefield Valley for the final time almost exactly one year ago. It was part of a series I did for the Times reviewing all the courses in Carroll. Sure, I wanted to inform and entertain readers and to help bring in a little ad revenue, but the main reason I wanted to do the series was to get out and play some rounds with my parents, particularly my sick mother.
Several times last summer we played on Wednesdays, two days after she had endured yet another grueling round of chemotherapy. She wasn't always strong enough to play every hole, but she played most of them, often laughing, occasionally angry about her bad shots, constantly telling us how great we were playing. She wasn't always happy with her scores, but she sure loved getting out and playing with us, just as she loved getting up early on weekend mornings and zooming around the course with her friends.
I know I fired a pretty nice 36 on the last nine I played at Wakefield, but I don't remember a single shot. What I do remember is feeling incredibly lucky to be out there playing with her. (She hadn't been able to play at all the previous summer, though she came with us and putted when we played in scramble tournaments, even holing a downhill, 40-foot eagle putt that I'll never forget).
I knew walking off the course that day we would never play Wakefield again. The three of us got in a few more rounds after that – several at the Links at Challedon, one in Ocean City, scrambles at South Hills and Quail Valley. She wasn't physically able to play after September but she was still talking about getting out and playing again a few weeks before she died. I wish she had been able to.
I'm reminded of the advice everyone gives in case a house catches fire. Just worry about getting everybody out. Anything can be replaced but people.
Just as you can always move to a new house or find a new favorite restaurant, there are plenty of golf courses. My dad and I can have just as much fun at Challedon as we used to at Wakefield. My friends and I can meet up for an occasional round just as easily at Raspberry Falls or any number of places as Wakefield.
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I had a lot of great times at Wakefield Valley, and I miss it. But I miss the people responsible for those great times far more.