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It is not altogether bad to have a golf club with a Christian name, the way Tom Hanks named that volleyball in Cast Away. People used to name sporting equipment all the time. Shoeless Joe Jackson supposedly had a bat named Black Betsy—similar to the name, if the legend's true, of Davy Crockett's rifle, Old Betsy, which is sporting equipment of a kind. And this doesn't even include generic product names like Louisville Slugger, or items that have as their collective monickers the name of the company that produces them, the way all hockey sticks were once called Bauers. That individual names have gone out of fashion is undeniable. Today most professional athletes play with pieces of equipment they like to call "$13 Million on a Three-Year Deal."
All of which is a long way of explaining that I happen to own a two-iron named Lawson.
It is heavy and unbalanced, especially compared with the rest of my irons, a full set of Pings that I won at a charity auction a few years back. They are all uniform and shiny. Lawson is dinged and scuffed and battered, the result of my having used it to hit one too many hopeless shots off one too many gravel cart paths. It has one stubborn spot of rust on its head. It has a metal shaft painted such a bilious green that it looks like fiberglass, which was a revolutionary material back in the days after World War II, when my father bought Lawson as part of a set of irons that he used for almost 20 years. Lawson got its name from the signature of the man who endorsed this line of clubs for Wright & Ditson. His name was Lawson Little Jr.
My father was an assistant principal at a high school in Worcester, Mass. He was also the school's hockey and golf coach, having picked up the latter game, he said, while frittering away downtime in Hawaii during World War II. Every Saturday he had a regular game with some of the other fathers in the neighborhood. He would go off at about 10 in the morning to a local course in Worcester, and he'd be back in the middle of the afternoon. He would then sit down and have one cold Miller High Life beer, condensation running in rivulets down the outside of the clear Miller bottle and onto his fingertips. On occasion he would sit in front of the television set and watch whatever tournament the PGA Tour was playing that weekend. This was part of the unchanging rhythm of my life, on every Saturday of every summer until, one day, it wasn't anymore.
My friends and I started playing golf because we were children of the age in which Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and the rest of them made the professional game interesting enough to put on television every week. This, of course, was the presiding dynamic of our generation—if it's on TV, it must be worth doing, whether that was orbiting the earth, playing the guitar or hitting a golf ball. My father bought me a set of cheap clubs to start, but eventually his clubs passed down to me through strange and somewhat tragic circumstances.
I used his clubs for more than a decade despite the fact that they were too heavy for me ever to hit them squarely and my iron play suffered for it, as did my hands. My friends and playing partners got a great deal of pleasure out of watching me try to swing these relics; strangers thought I was poor and underprivileged. Then the guy at the charity luncheon pulled my ticket out of the bowl and my game out of the early 1950s. I left the old Lawson Littles behind, all except the two-iron. I couldn't let that one go.
For a while, when my driver went to the zoo, I used the two-iron off the tee, and since I am congenitally incapable of hitting two consecutive fairway woods with any kind of skill, Lawson filled in there too. There were some holes on which Lawson accounted for everything but my final three putts. Gradually, however, it evolved into my bailout club, used only when unclassic shots are required, chopping the ball free from tree limbs and underbrush and, once, in Ireland, out of the ball-eating gorse that very nearly devoured the clubhead as well. Lawson sits in the bag like an old man, liver-spotted and bruised, playing dominos in the town square as all the children run around his feet.
Once, while writing in another magazine, I made fun of Lawson. This was not so bad, but I also made fun of the fellow who had lent it his name. Lawson Little Jr., I wrote, appears "to mean less to the history of golf than did Francis Gary Powers, Estes Kefauver, Alan Freed or Native Dancer, to name only a few of his contemporaries." This was funny and clever, but it was a joke told by someone who defined golf history by what he had watched on television all those years before. Pretty soon I was deluged by Lawson Little Jr.'s fans, friends and relatives. Didn't I know about the Little Slam? About how he beat Sarazen in a playoff in the Open in 1940? (All I knew about Gene Sarazen was that he was the avuncular voice of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, on which you could see your favorite pros playing in some exotic spot or another and, occasionally, also riding an elephant.) If anything was going to keep Lawson in my bag, it was these letters, if only to atone for my manifest public ignorance of Lawson's namesake.
Lawson has had only one moment of real glory since he became the functional equivalent of a shovel for my game. A few years back a friend and I were playing at Carton House, the lovely little course that Mark O'Meara designed along the river Wye outside Dublin. I left a drive on the right edge of the 15th fairway. There was a bend in the Wye in front of the green, and its banks were reinforced by stone walls. There was a little brick building behind the green. I talked myself into the notion that I hadn't flown all the way across the Atlantic to lay up, so I took Lawson out of the bag and stung one on a low line toward the green. It was one of the only times since I owned the club that I didn't feel as if I had driven a railroad spike with the palms of my hands. The ball stayed low and cleared the bend in the river with ease, whereupon it hit the top of the stone wall and rebounded backward into the current—gone. "I thought you had it," my playing partner told me, as the ripples in the Wye died away.
That was the last time I used Lawson for anything except my regularly scheduled dire emergencies. On most other occasions the club is simply a curiosity. The greenish shaft and the steely blade are something out of another time. The rest of the Lawson irons are bound up with a bungee cord and stashed in an obscure corner of my garage. I might be able to turn a buck or two on them; I just saw on eBay that a Lawson Little eight-iron of roughly the same vintage went for $79. But the set stays in the garage, and Lawson stays in the bag. He is there to help me out from under trees, and from behind rocks, and out of all the trouble that triple-digit hacking is heir to. He is also there because he means something. It is always good to have a little history in your bag, heavy and unbalanced, battered and scuffed and dinged, with a spot of rust on it that never goes away.