Befitting our cover story on golf leagues by Jack Saylor, I began to reminisce about my 20 odd (that's for sure) years' stint in a Thursday night league at Saskatoon GC near Grand Rapids. Although I don't compete in it any longer, the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) golf league holds a treasure chest of memories for me. For sure, the 100 plus league membership contains a wonderful cast of characters. Let me introduce you to a few of them. As might be said about Greg Norman, John Daly, or Laura Davies, they're definitely in a league by themselves.
The Pastor -- Although now at a different parish in town, former IHM pastor Fr. Len Sudlik is the all-time gungho priest in the history of the league. For Fr. Len, Thursdays are wholly days of (golf ) obligation. You could usually count on Len for an early warm-up nine or 18 before league play officially started. Due to the unpredictable nature of his schedule, Fr. Len was the league full-time substitute. A fine, caring, and gifted priest, Len is indeed a veritable pilgrim when it comes to golf, forever looking for that magical driver or putter to lead him to the Promised Land. Yes, he's just a regular joe when it comes to the game. But I'll remember him for one timeless quote. Once after still another errant drive left with him a hopeless recovery shot in the woods, he offered up this nugget: "You know, one thing about this course, the trees aren't very forgiving." And like some incorrigible and wise-crackin' altar boy, his partner retorted under his breath: "Yeah, and the water hazards don't repel your ball too well, either."
Dutch -- Don "Dutch" VanderVeen is one of the veterans of the league. He's synonymous with the question, "Hey, you got your checkbook?" Dutch is the most indefatigable fundraiser and volunteer around. He's a walkin'-and-talkin' in baggy shorts United Appeal. Invariably, various raffle tickets are sticking out of his vest pocket beckoning league members to extract their wallets and checkbooks and support another worthy cause. If Dutch VanderVeen were put in charge of the federal deficit, you could bank on Uncle Sam being in the black within seven Thursdays. And no one is a more steadfast and unselfish volunteer than the 82 year old VanderVeen. Countless charities around G.R. can always count on Dutch. Anyway, Dutch is still playing in C flight with his son, Mike a.k.a. Reggie, where they both battle all comers with wicked swings and good-natured quips all through the match.
Woody and Nick -- The brother-in-law team of Woody Hakeem and Nick Sherman are sadly no more. Both have passed away in the last few years. (But Fr. Len insists they're still quite an unbeatable duo up at the Celestial National Golf Club.) You could not find a more enjoyable pair of playing partners in the league. Always in sunny spirits, Woody and Nick could put up a good fight in a match. Off the tee, they were infamously known as "sneaky short." ( Gee, Woody, I thought your drive was short, but I didn't think it was that short--oh go ahead, move that ladies tee marker.) But these guys were straighter than a laser. And when you factored in the handicap differential, you usually realized the futility of beating the pair. Once, I shot a respectable two over par 38 and my partner likewise had a good round well under his average. Regardless, Woody and Nick cut us by a cool 11 shots. How did I know when teeing off that I needed a fine nine hole score of 26 to give them a match. Darn it, if I had only aced the last three holes.
Frank Kloska -- Every league has a big hitter but few are longer than cigar-chompin' Kloska. Solidly built, Frank has a sound, powerful, upright swing that just flattens the ball off his metalhead driver. Often, it'll take three shots from his opponents to finally arrive at Frank's launch. Frank and his playing partner Jim DuRussell are always giving up a bushel basket of handicap shots to their opponents. No matter; they play their game and more often than not come out on top.
But it's Frank's prodigious length off the tee that creates a stir. Like John Daly, no par five is unreachable for the 50 year old Postmaster. Most five pars are easily hit in two for him with a drive and an iron. Once, he hit a par five with a nine iron second shot. But the most amazing feat that I personally witnessed occurred some six or more years ago. We were in close match with Frank and Jim; we came to the last hole, a 350 yard par 4, all square. Well, Frank threw down his cigar, pegged up his ball, and made a powerful coil behind the ball. As Rick Reilly once wrote about Daly, "small children and dogs were sucked up in his downswing vortex." The result was a high, soaring ball that incredibly landed on the green on the fly! However, what next occurred is right out of the saga of Pecos Bill. It's painful to relate but Big Frank commenced to four putt on the final green for an ignominious bogey. Yes, this Postmaster was still using airmail when a postcard would've done just fine.
Jack Bek -- Since I'm married to this guy's daughter, I gotta be careful here. Jack's been playing in the league for over 30 years. The first thing you'll notice about Jack's game is his grip. It has been favorably compared to a number of infamous Americans' handiwork including wrestling's Gorgeous George ( Jack once posed as GG for a costume party), Albert "the Boston Strangler" DeSalvo, and Eddie the Pipefitter. But somehow Jack makes it work. Surprisingly, years ago Jack became a cross-handed putter long before it came in vogue on the Tour. It improved his putting immensely. So all in all, he has more going on with his hands than the Muppeteers. Off the course, those strong hands are put to even better use as Jack is renowned locally as a handyman and woodworker. This fall Jack expertly constructed two new league permanent trophies. Jack says he left enough blank spots for the winners' names to last until 2030. By that time, his redheaded grandson Quinn will surely have his name inscribed on it at least twice.
Space and time doesn't permit me to elaborate on a dozen or more personalities, such as the affably competitive Malewitz team, the sweet-swinging Rosenbachs, the incomparable pair of Tierney and Waidner, R.J. and Rick Chulski ( "just kick it out of there, Rick"), and the longtime treasurer Bob Reichardt. I wish could tell you the full story of how Mike Jandernoa lived up to a prior bet by making a birdie deuce on the par three 8th hole and then jumping into the nearby lake fully clothed. I'll always remember Mike swimming out to a pontoon boat, climbing on board and being happily served a gin and tonic.
It's quite a league. And just think there are literally thousands of them that make up the Michigan golf scene. The winter is long but all know it won't last. Eventually, the first league meeting will be held. Before you know it, you'll be finishing up the first match and headed for the clubhouse. And lo and behold who'll be there to greet you?
"Yeah, Dutch, I've got my checkbook."