Only in Wheeling: Not Another Teen Movie

I’m not much of a golfer. Ok, that’s an understatement at best and a bald-faced lie at worst.  I probably haven’t actually played a round of golf since I was fifteen.  It was around that time when I discovered the utter frustration that is trying to swing a long awkward club at a small white ball and actually hitting it long and straight and into a small awaiting cup.  I played a lot of golf my fifteen year-old summer, and contrary to the urban mythology that says the more one does something the better he becomes at it, my trajectory as a golfer was straight decline.  The more I played, the worse I became.  I decided right then and there—there on the fifth green at Wheeling Park’s golf course as I vividly remember—that I was giving up golf for good.  The frustration was just too much for me to bear.

My father is an excellent golfer—I might even guess and say a “scratch golfer” if I actually knew enough about golf to know what that means. But I don’t.  Perhaps the skill skips a generation.  My eight year-old son is also a bit of a little golfer.  At least one of his eight birthday parties has been a golf-themed party, and I can vividly remember one Sunday afternoon when he, as probably a five or six year-old, asked if he could sit and watch the PGA Championship.  If it weren’t for his asking, I wouldn’t have even known it was on.

Given my son’s bit of interest in golf, I try to be supportive of that interest despite having absolutely no knowledge or ability to help him develop. The one thing I can do is take him to the driving range occasionally and let him swing away.

Late this summer we did just that. It was a perfect late-August Thursday evening, and my wife and I decided it would be a great evening to sit on an Oglebay Park bench and watch our son hit a few golf balls.  We didn’t make the decision to do so until after dinner, so we feared we might run out of time.  Luckily my wife called ahead, and she was told that the range was open until 9:00 p.m.  Perfect.  We headed up Rt. 88 and pulled into the parking lot at about 8:25.  This would give our son plenty of time to make it through a bucket of balls before the 9:00 closing time.

As we came around the corner from the parking lot—passing the Par-3 first tee and the cooler of complimentary water my son just can’t help but use every time we go to the range—my eye was immediately drawn to the crowd in the first stall of the driving range.  It was odd that there was a crowd in the stall at all; hitting golf balls at a driving range is typically a solitary activity.  I quickly ascertained that the crowd was a small gaggle of undoubtedly bored high school kids looking for a way to pass one of their last summer nights before the start of the new school year.  One kid in particular caught my eye.  He was a sloppily dressed, lanky, floppy-haired kid who was animatedly jumping around the stall, raising his voice, imitating Happy Gilmore’s running golf swing, and just generally goofing around.  I may not know much about golf, but I do know—perhaps from watching the PGA Championship with my son that Sunday afternoon years ago—that doing it well apparently requires silence and concentration.  I’m sure the middle-aged man two stalls over who was just finishing up his bucket of balls was thinking the same thing.  No matter.  I assumed we’d simply purchase our bucket of balls, rent a child’s driver for my son, and head down to the other end of the range away from the teenage commotion.

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We approached the desk and asked to purchase a bucket of balls and rent a child’s club. There were two high school girls working the counter—these the ostensibly responsible variety who hold down summer jobs rather than goof around in driving range stalls on a Thursday night.  One of them politely responded that they were already closed.  This seemed impossible.  My wife had just spoken to someone on the phone, most likely one of these young ladies, who had informed her that the range was open until 9:00.  When my wife said as much, the girl replied that the range is technically open until 9:00 but that they sell their last bucket of balls at 8:30—a detail the voice on the phone had clearly left out.  Upon hearing this, I looked at my watch and frustratedly remarked (only half under my breath) that it was only 8:27.  Hearing my comment, the other girl chimed in that it was too late, as she had just finished closing down the register.  My son began to tear up at the news.

Quickly, our idyllic late-August family jaunt to the driving range was turning into a series of frustrations. Those frustrations were mainly directed at the smattering of high school kids we had encountered there: from the floppy-haired loudmouth in the first tee box to the less-than-informative-on-the-phone young ladies who were also a bit quick on the draw in closing their register.

But just as it seemed that this was turning into yet another story about the irresponsibility of high school kids, something unexpected happened. Hearing that we would be unable to get our own bucket of balls, the floppy-haired kid in the first stall immediately stopped his histrionics.  He turned to us and calmly said, “You can have the rest of my bucket if you want.”  I was shocked.  I had initially assumed that this kid was locked into a self-indulgent teenage performance, selfishly thinking nothing of disturbing the other golfers and most certainly unaware of our unfolding predicament behind him.  On the contrary, not only was he aware of our predicament, but he was also selfless enough to offer us his bucket as a solution.  “Unfortunately,” I replied to him, “we also needed to rent a child’s club, so we have nothing to hit with.  But thanks anyway.”

Then, from behind, one of the girls from the counter appeared holding a child’s driver. “Here you go,” she said.  So, attempting to appease my teary-eyed son, we set him up to hit the remainder of the offered bucket—probably only about 6 or 8 balls.  It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.  As my son was preparing to hit the penultimate ball (after really only a few minutes of golf), the other girl from the counter appeared carrying half a bucket.  “I hadn’t gotten a chance to load these back into the machine yet,” she said of the leftover balls she had been working to clean up.  “He can hit them.”  And he happily did.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about that night at the driving range. I imagined that I had walked into a stereotypical story about disappointing high school kids: kids carrying on and misbehaving, kids not taking pride in their minimum wage jobs, kids trying to do anything to get a jumpstart on ending their shift as quickly as possible.  I had “seen that movie before,” so to speak.  But that stereotypical narrative was quickly shattered by the collective selflessness of these high schoolers who were willing to work together to scrounge up enough golf balls just so my young son could wipe the tears from his face and take a few swings.  I was never so pleased to be so wrong.  Only in Wheeling would a group of selfless teenagers band together to make a disappointed kid’s night . . . and that is why I live here.