Charles Wheeler, golf and fear

Notice of the death of former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler reminds me of the only time I met him. It was on a golf course, where he spent a lot of time in retirement. My encounter with Mayor Wheeler that day helped teach me something about playing golf and about living without fear.

          I never played golf much, but when I did it was with Linda’s father, Ed. He had taught me to play, and he remained remarkably patient with my inconsistent and sometimes embarrassing performance on the links.

          One day Ed and I head out to the Blue River golf course in Swope Park in Kansas City. There are a lot of golfers out that day, and we’re told that we’ll have to pair off with somebody, so soon we are introduced to a guy I’ll call Bill.

          The moment I see him, I know I’m way out of my league. The guy has the look. He has the tan, he has the clothes, he has the swagger, and of course he has expensive golf clubs. If he’s not a pro, it’s only because he doesn’t need to support himself with a job of any kind.

          When we introduce ourselves, Ed says he hopes Bill doesn’t mind playing with a couple of duffers, and Bill says he doesn’t mind at all. But then he’s never played with me before, has he?

          As we’re standing around waiting our turn at the first tee, I notice that there’s quite a crowd gathered. Why, there’s Charles Wheeler, the former mayor of Kansas City. And there’s so and so, who’s the head of some political party. And there’s so and so, who’s the CEO of some big corporation.

          There are enough powerful people standing there that we could hold a convention and elect somebody if we wanted to.

          But we’re here to play golf, and eventually it’s our turn.

          Bill goes up to the tee, takes one or two easy practice swings, and then strokes the ball out onto the fairway. It’s one of the nicest shots I’ve ever seen – straight and true and long, just beautiful.

          Now Ed takes his turn. His ball doesn’t go quite as far as Bill’s, but it goes nice and straight.

          And now it’s my turn. And as I place my ball on the tee, I realize that everybody is looking at me. Charles Wheeler and the head of some political party and the CEO of some corporation – all these big shots are looking at me.

          So I’m telling myself, “Just hit it. It doesn’t matter how far it goes or how straight it goes, as long as it gets off the tee. Whatever you do, don’t screw up.”

          It’s that last thought, of course, that gets me into trouble. Instead of being loose and carefree, I am tight and fearful. So I haul off with the mightiest swing I’ve ever made, and when the club hits the ball there’s a crack like a rifle shot, and I just know that the ball is traveling 90 miles an hour.

          The only problem is, it doesn’t go straight out onto the fairway. It goes straight out to the side.

          Suddenly there’s a shout, and people are running and jumping in all directions. It’s like the parting of the sea in “The Ten Commandments.”

          And then I see, as if in slow motion, that the ball is heading right toward Charles Wheeler, the former mayor of Kansas City. It is traveling straight at him at 90 miles an hour, and for a moment he is the one paralyzed by fear.

          Finally, at the last possible moment, he ducks behind a little sapling. The ball hits the trunk of the sapling and bounces off in a new direction, and now more people are running and jumping out of the way. 

          Bill has this look of utter astonishment on his face. He exclaims, “My God, you almost killed Mayor Wheeler.”

          Now that is an exaggeration if I ever heard one.

          Granted, Mayor Wheeler was somewhat advanced in age, and the ball was traveling directly at him and probably would have hit him right between the eyes, but I doubt that it would have killed him.

          Still, I’m thinking I ought to apologize. I walk over to where he is collecting himself, and I tell him how sorry I am that I almost hit him. He gets this sickly little smile on his face and says, “Why don’t you try again? Only put it on the fairway this time.”

          Well, when the former mayor of Kansas City, who has just survived an assassination attempt, tells you to take a second shot, that’s exactly what you do.

          Only this time, I notice that people in the crowd are giving me a lot more room than they did before, and some of them are hugging trees pretty close. I figure I can’t embarrass myself any more than I have already, so I just walk up to the ball and whack it.

          It’s not a good shot, but it’s not a bad shot either. As the ball sails out onto the fairway, I can hear a mighty sigh of relief from the crowd – and there is a scattering of applause, too. I would have bowed, but humility prevented me.

          That’s the day I learned how to play golf. That’s the day I learned that you just walk up to the ball and hit it the best you can, and then you follow it and you hit it again, and whether you land in the rough or on the fairway or the green, you make the best of the journey.

          And you never worry. You never fear. Because fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear will do you in. Fear creates negative attitudes, and negative attitudes create negative results. Faith creates positive attitudes, and positive attitudes promote positive results.

          Don’t be afraid, the Good Book tells us again and again. When we place our full trust in God, we have no fear. We just walk up to the ball and give it a good whack and go from there.

          Charles Wheeler didn’t teach me that. But he was there — in the room, so to speak — when I learned it. Rest in peace, Mayor.

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