It was the 18th hole of the Austin Valley Open, and Hugh Grace had a one stroke lead. He could finish this final hole with a par and still win the tournament. It would be his first tour victory, and along with the over-sized trophy he would receive a 1-million dollar purse.
It began to lightly rain as Hugh and his caddy, Sam, hustled up the final fairway and into the rough. The wind whipped at their umbrellas as they began to search the tall grass for Hugh's golf ball.
As they hunted for the ball, Sam was all smiles. “You were in this same area the first day of the tournament and got an easy par. Looks like a win to me.”
“We’ll see,” said Hugh. He wasn’t so confident. Even if the ball was in play, it would be a very difficult shot.
“Lighten up,” said Sam. “I’ve got your victory party all planned out, I’m taking you out for drinks.” He unslung the golf bag and sat it in a grassy puddle. “I met a couple of college girls yesterday that were fans or yours—seen you on TV.” Sam scratched his jaw embarrassed. “I might have dropped your name… and said that I could arrange for them to meet you.”
“No,” said Hugh shortly.
Hugh struggled to contain his anger. Sam’s lack of focus was infuriating. This tournament was far from over, but the old man was already planning a victory celebration.
“Don’t be such a prude,” said Sam. “I’m just trying to help you out. I know things between you an Emma haven’t been great, so I just thought—” Sam was cut off.
“You need to get serious,” Hugh growled, growing more and more frustrated. “We haven’t won this yet.”
Hugh trudged through the deep grass anxiously scanning for his golf ball. Finally, he found it. It was beside the small creek which ran adjacent to the 18th hole. The muddy, white ball sat just past the Out-of-Bounds line that surrounded the creek. Seeing the initials HG Sharpied on the side of the ball, Hugh cursed his luck.
“Motherfucker,” Sam grunted upon spotting the ball. “Just one inch too far! Fuckin’ wind caught it!” He ran his hand through graying hair.
Hugh squatted next to his ball. A heavy weight had just been placed on his shoulders, and he wasn’t sure that he could carry it. Winning this tournament was everything; the million dollars was crucial to turning his life around. Well, 900-thousand, as ten percent would go to Sam for caddying.
Hugh needed a cigarette. Patting his back pocket, he remembered that he’d left his smokes on the nightstand. Shit! He thought about kicking the ball into the creek. Forget first place, in this situation he would likely fall outside the top ten. The prize money would drop from 1-million to 100-thousand.
Hugh breathed deeply, and massaged his temples. A hundred grand was still a lot of money. It would be enough to cover his living and travel expenses—maybe enough to buy Emma that Gucci purse that she had been drooling over. Hopefully that would get Emma off of his back for a little while. She kept pressuring him, saying that she wanted him to ‘talk to her.’ Recently that discussion always ended in a fight.
Hugh owed Emma more than money could buy, he knew that. The constant travel and money trouble the past two years had placed a strain on their relationship, but through it all she had believed in him. If he could just manage through this rough patch and get his first win on tour—and the million dollar prize—then things would be better. More money and less stress—that was how Hugh would heal his marriage.
The wind was beginning to pick up, blowing icy rain into Hugh's face. A peal of thunder boomed nearby and Hugh knew that he would need to hurry, otherwise play would be suspended.
“Hey,” Sam whispered over the wind. “I say we nudge the ball back into play. An inch or two doesn’t really improve your ball’s position.” He looked over his shoulder. “I don’t see an official. Plus, the panning cameras will have low visibility in this weather.”
Hugh pretended not to hear him.
“Come on, it’s not fair!” complained Sam. “Everyone that finished early got to play in perfect weather conditions. And here you are, forced to play during a fuckin’ hurricane! Taking a small relief barely levels the playing field.”
Hugh had to concede the point on the weather conditions. As windy claws threatened to shred his umbrella, he knew that it would be nearly impossible to hit into this gale with accuracy. Not only that, the rain was beginning to fall in sheets. There was no way he could grip his clubs correctly. Hugh shook his head. It didn't matter, that was just the way it went sometimes.
“I think you can win this, even if you were to take the penalty,” said Sam. “But sometimes life gives you the chance to make lemonade out of your lemons—just like the Delaware Open.”
“That was a one time thing!” snapped Hugh.
Sam fell silent.
“I'm getting the official,” said Hugh. “We need him to assess the situation and record the penalty.” He stood up, then trudged headlong into the wind.
The peals of thunder were becoming more numerous when Hugh returned with the official.
“What are we looking at?” asked the official, scrutinizing Hugh's ball.
“We need you to assess our situation,” said Hugh.
“What situation?” said the Official. “Hit it as it lies!”
Hugh glanced down at his ball with surprise. It was no longer out of bounds. It was now sitting comfortably in-bounds by three inches. “Wha...” Hugh's eyes went to Sam, who was inspecting the ribs of his umbrella with extreme interest. Sam!
“What was it that you wanted to consult me about?” asked the official, struggling to hold onto his umbrella.
“I...” Hugh looked blankly from the ball to the official. A bolt of lightning flashed far on the horizon, and several seconds later a peal of thunder boomed. Hugh’s heart raced. Winning would be incredibly difficult with the penalty. But, if he gave himself a small relief…
Hugh bit his tongue then spoke to the official. “I wanted to determine if play will continue,” he said. “I’m seeing lightning, so I thought the round might be suspended.” He pointed to his ball. “I need you to verify my ball location if we are stopping here for the day.”
“You are the last group,” the official droned. “If you hurry, we can wrap this tournament up in ten minutes. The sponsors say we must finish today, so you need to play this shot quickly.”
Hugh thanked the official, who quickly strode toward a distant canopy.
“See that,” mocked Sam. “A little pressure from the sponsor and they are willing to disregard the personal safety of their players and fans. Moving a ball one inch is nothing compared to that.” Sam removed the cover from the golf bag. “Lets finish this,” he said.
Hugh hesitated, then pulled out a 6-iron. “With the head wind and this grass, I'm going three extra club lengths,” he said, toweling off the handle.
Sam shook his head and pointed to the 7-iron; the lines on his face were finally taut with concentration. “With this water, you aren't going to get any backspin on the ball. I'd recommend that you use a 7, and leave it ten yards short. The shot'll have more green to roll out.”
Hugh looked at rain dripping from the face of his club, and had to admit that Sam was right. “Good call,” he said.
He squared up with his 7-iron and sent the ball headlong into the wind and rain. He tracked the flight of the ball, calling out for it to 'be good' until he lost sight of it in the haze.
There was a sudden roar from the spectator's box surrounding the green. The applause boomed even more loudly than the thunder.
“It went in!” Sam whooped in excitement. “You son of a bitch, you did it!”
Hugh realized that he was still holding his follow-through. It went in? He had actually won? He slid his club back into his bag, then didn't bother to unfold his umbrella as he strode toward the green. He won!
A roar of applause greeted him as he stepped onto the 18th green. Stooping, he took his ball out of the cup and held it high for all to see. The five thousand spectators erupted with renewed whoops and cheers.
Hugh shook hands with the golfer that he was paired with. “Good match,” the golfer said. “That was a hell of a shot.” He grinned and shook his head. “Hell of a match too. I knew you'd get that win sooner or later, Grace.”
Hugh thanked him.
Emma was waiting for him at the edge of the green and Hugh scooped her off the ground, causing her to drop her umbrella. He kissed her. He felt his bitterness and resentment melt between her lips; the spark was still there. They were in a rough patch, but they could come back from this. They could still make it work.
“You did it!” she said.
“No. We did it,” Hugh corrected. He sat her down on the wet turf with a slosh.
Emma wiped the rain out of Hugh’s eyes. “I know it was hard, but you didn’t give up—and you won,” she said.
Emma stroked Hugh’s arm and smiled. She spoke with her eyes, not her mouth. He could hear her say, Same goes for us; we just need fight for it.
“Yeah,” said Hugh. He gave her supple waist one last squeeze before letting go.
The increasing rain drove the crowd to search for cover. Several golfers and caddies made a point to congratulate Hugh before scampering for shelter.
Hugh was uneasy as he made his way to the clubhouse. He continued to watch for officials or camera technicians. Visibility was poor, but what if his misdeed had been seen by someone? All it would take was one person.
Sam strode up to Hugh holding two umbrellas, and had a young woman clasped to each arm. “Hey there, Champ! I have some people that I want you to meet.”
One of the young women on Sam’s arm introduced herself as Mia. “I’m your biggest fan,” she said to Hugh. Despite the weather, she wore a low cut shirt that brandished her ample cleavage. She gazed at Hugh with piercing blue eyes, then gave him a knowing smile.
Hugh smiled back.
The other young woman introduced herself, but Hugh wasn’t listening. His eyes were locked with Mia’s. Her signals were making in blatantly clear why she was here.
Hugh broke off his gaze, ashamed of what he had been thinking.
“I'll see you at 8 o'clock, Buddy.” Sam winked at Hugh, then after a congratulatory punch to Hugh’s shoulder he disappeared into the flock of migrating umbrellas.
Emma stared after the young woman named Mia until Hugh gently shook her. “Let’s get out of this rain,” he said.
Emma’s eyes came back into focus. “You’re going out tonight?” she asked, reaching out and taking Hugh’s hand. “I thought we could have a nice, quiet dinner. I even got some candles.”
“I'll have to take a rain check,” Hugh said, giving Emma's hand a squeeze. “I promised Sam that I’d buy him a few drinks tonight.” He shook his head. “I don't care for the guy, but he did help me win today.”
“Is it just the two of you?” asked Emma hopefully. “Could you maybe use a third wheel?”
“It's just the two of us,” said Hugh, “But I promise it will be quick.” He kissed her on the forehead.
As Hugh shook hands with the officials, sponsors, and several tour professionals he felt an overwhelming sense of relief. This was real and they weren't going to take it away from him. Up to this point, he had been constantly on edge, expecting someone to call him out on his violation. But that never happened. Instead he was warmly congratulated, and asked to do post-round interviews, where reporters and analysts excitedly jotted down his every word.
Hugh's tension gave way to relief. His legs were a firm jelly by the time he was handed the large crystal trophy and declared champion. Somehow he hadn't been caught. And because of the weather conditions at the time of the incident, it was probable that he never would be.
The guilt was only a mild irritant by the close of the award ceremony. Surely other champions had done as much in the past. A strange rush of adrenaline assaulted Hugh as he walked away with his trophy. It wasn't technically cheating if you didn't get caught. Besides, he had only moved his ball an inch.
The future was bright, Hugh had finally acquired that elusive first win. Now that the monkey was off of his back, he was going to start winning tournaments regularly. He could feel it.
An official took Hugh aside as he was preparing to leave and introduced himself as the Vice President of the PGA Tour, Tobias James. However, his introduction wasn’t necessary, Hugh knew who he was—everyone did.
Hugh’s heart raced.
“Congratulations, Mr. Grace,” the Vice President said. “It was a very well played tournament… until your last shot.”
Hugh stopped breathing.
“It was interesting,” the Vice President said. “I talked to a spectator that was watching you from the cart path of the 18th hole. He said that your ball was very close to the hazard.” His eyes narrowed.
Hugh felt the man’s gaze pierce through him. He knows!
The Vice President lowered his voice to a whisper. “I can’t prove anything, so you’ve won this time, but your future on tour will be short lived,” he said. “My colleagues plan to treat you like a rising star, but I intend to give you hell moving forward.”
“I don’t know what you or this ‘spectator’ are talking about,” said Hugh, finally collecting himself.
The Vice President sighed. “You have a rare talent, but you will never make it in this game.” He shook his head with disappointment. “With your skill, you probably would have won, even had you taken the penalty.”
Hugh clenched his fists. This same thought had been gnawing at him for hours. “If I would have won either way, then what difference does it make?”
“You took an easy out,” said the Vice President. “You cheated. A real champion would have fought their way out of the rough, and made it work.”
A group of golfers entered the far end of the hallway. Hugh could hear one of the golfers bragging that it rained like this every day of the week at his home course.
“Ha-ha,” the Vice President patted Hugh on the shoulder as the golfers passed. “I’ll have my eye on you in the future,” he laughed. When the passersby were gone, the Vice President’s smile faded to an icy glare, then he was gone.
Hugh felt like a lump of wood as he left the clubhouse. In his childhood he had lain awake nights dreaming of becoming a PGA champion—now he was one. But… was he really?
We are the choices we make. Hugh suddenly recalled his father’s favorite proverb. He sighed, looking up at the dark gray sky. The rain had finally stopped, but it would be dark soon. It had been a long day, and he was exhausted.
As Hugh opened the car door for Emma, he met her eyes. They were cloudy as if she were holding back tears. Before he could say anything, she quickly slid into the car and pulled the door shut.
Hugh frowned. He and Emma had a lot of ground to make up, and it was going to be hard. The prize money would make things easier, but it wouldn’t bridge the rift that had grown between them. Only time and hard work would do that.
If Emma wanted a candle-lit dinner, that was what she would have. Hugh decided to call Sam and move their appointment to another day. He was going to fight for his marriage.
Suddenly there was a ding from Hugh's pocket. Checking his phone, he saw a text from Sam: Drinks at Mia's place, 8PM. Dropped you a pin.
Hugh put his phone back in his pocket, suddenly thinking of the young woman with the piercing blue eyes. He was very tired, and a drink did sound good—just one though. He owed Sam that much. Emma could have her candle-lit dinner tomorrow night.