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Player's Journal

It all started in the Army PX


Every golfer remembers their first set of clubs. For Charlie Lemay, his lifelong love of golf began when he set eyes on a junior half-set in the Army Exchange Service…
It all started in the Army PX

It was love at first sight.

I saw the five-club set of Wilsons in the Army Exchange Service, known to Army Brats like myself as ‘the PX’.

They were sitting in a purple and green bag, with two large side pockets and a single strap. In an act of maturity far beyond my seven years, I started saving up Deutsche Marks in the hope of making them mine, presumably after I had taken care of life's other non-negotiables at that age: sweets, footie mags and bangers. 

Living in Germany, my dad had taken me to the Army golf course before – at first just on the range, but latterly on the course – with a borrowed cut-down set. But I really wanted a bag I could call my own, hence the weekly trips to the PX in which I would ogle and waft equipment around aimlessly. 

A dark purple driver was complemented by three irons – five, seven and wedge – rounded off with a jet-black Anser-style putter with a single white alignment line. They even threw in a sleeve of balls, enough to get me through the first hole (on a good day, at least).

After what seemed like years, I had managed to save enough to make them mine. I cradled the bag reverently as I handed over my life savings (I think it was about £50). No more sweets, football mags or fireworks for a while.  We drove home with the clubs cradled on my lap as I sat on the back seat, the way a child would treat a new-born puppy.

I finally had my own clubs – a mini version of my dad’s Titleist DCIs, to be loaded with care into the boot of the car and treated to a weekly wash in the kitchen sink.

I was just learning the game, dipping my toe into the warm, shallow waters, before later diving in to experience the total immersion that all golfers come to know. I started to enter competitions (something that I haven’t done as an adult for more than a decade).

Off the bat, I encountered tough realities. Golf came at me fast.

I carded 140 in a club tournament. In fairness, it was a tough layout, and the wind was blowing. But it was still a 140. I went through multiple pencils, some worn to a stub, some snapped, some just fell from my pocket when I had no desire to pick them up.

To make matters worse, my playing partner swung it like a young Ernie Els, moving like a glider through warm pockets for air. He’d taken to the game with ease, and like Bach pumping out fugues or Shakespeare and his sonnets, the genius appeared to just fall out of him. I was still the youngster sitting at the piano, feet swinging, awkwardly pressing the wrong keys and struggling to make the left and right hands work in unison.

When I finally shuffled into the clubhouse, chin to chest, fellow juniors and family members were unsuccessfully trying to stifle their giggles. Word had clearly gotten around. A junior was coming face-to-face with his first proper meltdown.

Everyone else had finished eating, but had been commanded to wait until I finally finished my round. That served only to increase their resentment at my inadequacy – I remember wishing that they had all been sent home.

I found my packed lunch (now closer to dinner), and passed on the over-clingfilmed sandwich, opting for a pick-me-up starter of Cheese & Onion crisps. But as my mood began to lift, a severe-looking adult strode over to my table. Apparently, I had signed for an incorrect score, and would therefore be disqualified – something about an 11 when it should have been a 12. Slightly harsh, I thought.

“Would you like to play next week?”, the junior organiser called after me as I sloped off.

And I did. I came back every week, displaying the masochistic tendency that would later scupper my education.

And not too long afterwards, I actually managed to start a tournament quite well. What people might term ‘off to a flier’.  Negotiating the first few holes without a quadruple on the card.

My mind began to wander. I visualised myself bursting into the clubhouse, slapping my card down in front of ‘that’ scorer’, and spraying Orange Tango around in celebration.

Just as I was starting to consider which pose to strike in the press photographs, my five iron violently snapped mid swing. I watched the clubhead career down the fairway, which sloped aggressively to the right. I didn’t know that club snapping was a thing. I picked up the head trying to keep my emotions on a level plane, wrapping the precious steel in my jumper and placing it in carefully in the side pocket of my purple golf bag like an injured bird.

Franky, dear reader, two irons are not enough to play golf. At least not enough to score well. I was chipping down fairways on par fives. Playing two layup shots on par fours. It was a gapping disaster. It’s tough to watch a good score disintegrate, but it was nothing compared to the pain caused by my broken club.

Can you mend a snapped club? Surely you can just glue the two parts together, I reasoned. Surely a patched up club is better than no club at all? Apparently not.

At home, I leant the bag sadly against my bed, an exposed wound yet to scab over. I didn’t play for a couple of weeks. But then something odd occurred.

I started to notice chips on my jet black putter, revealing the cheap silver beneath. The irons started to morph in my mind, suddenly appearing chunky and childish. I noticed the bag had faded in the sun, the first few ends of thread coming loose. The clubs started to feel unfamiliar, like imposters at my bedside.

After a conversation with my dad, I was gifted my first proper set of clubs. It was time. I was mature enough. I eyed them up and down, as they sized me up. Fairway woods, a choice of wedges, a heavy leather bag that I struggled to lift, with a strap that would dig painfully into my shoulder. And irons. So many irons.

The grips were harsh and thick, like a labourer’s handshake. They felt heavy and long – different. The irons were Wilson blades (I can’t remember which model), with rifled shafts. A Titleist 975D driver, the crown a luxurious mottled grey, chiming with the shiny silver face. I used to sit and stare at them, the way a visitor to an art gallery would sit in front of an artwork, looking through the object in front of them.

It took a while for us to sync up, but we formed a solid unit. We began to move together, our feet steeping in time, our relationship beginning to evolve. There is no perfect set of golf clubs – only a set and a player that are perfect for each other. It felt like I had just found mine.

I had moved on from my junior set, but I would never have arrived at this moment – in this perfect state – without my experience with them. We had learned together, grown together, and now we went our separate ways, taking our shared history with us. It’s up to us whether we remember the angels or the demons that make up that history.

I had my new set. The junior bag was gifted to a cousin (with a new shaft in the five iron). Perhaps they would work their magic on him too, if any remained. They had given me enough for a lifetime.

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