When I was growing up in Patchogue, a village on the south shore of Long Island, baseball was king. Basketball was a close second. The only golfers I knew were my dentist and Mr. Greenlee, a gym teacher at my middle school. One year Mr. Greenlee decided to introduce us to golf. Before the third marking period was over, in the spring of 1974, I had a new game. With borrowed clubs from my dentist's wife in hand, I headed to Bellport, Patchogue's neighbor to the east, by bus. Bellport had a public course. I'll go to my grave loving it.
In my years there, a kid could play all the Monday-through-Thursday golf he wanted for $50 a year, which I could earn in a day of clam-digging. The course was (and is) short—6,200 yards, par-71—and some of the holes were crammed in, but the only thing I felt there was freedom. I caddied there and putted for quarters on the practice green and hung out in the men's locker room. If you watched and listened, you learned: how to gamble, how to dress, how to talk to an adult.
The most carefree golf I've ever played was with my friend Larry Lodi at Bellport on summer evenings 25 or so years ago. Sometimes we would play with John Sifaneck, our golf coach and a math teacher at Patchogue-Medford High. We played Sifaneck for money, and debts were paid at the 19th hole. He treated us as adults.
Sifaneck loved golf more than anybody I've ever known. I can imagine his crooked grin when he made a hole in one in 1986 at Bellport's 6th, nearly 200 yards. A few months later he was in a hospital. He was to lose a foot, a consequence of diabetes. While waiting for surgery, he had a heart attack and died. He was 44. His ashes were scattered on the site of his final golfing glory.
When I play Bellport on visits home, the smells of distant summers come flooding back: cut grass, brackish air, Sifaneck's cologne, a date's perfume. A smart young girl once defined wistful as being a little happy and a little sad. Golf for me at Bellport is wistful, as wistful as life itself.