Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Mr. Stegall and the Old Goats Club (pt 1)

In a social media culture where the term ‘G.O.A.T.’ creates long threads of endless memes and pithy arguments, I can’t help but smile and remember.

And those memories? The smell of steaming hot onions at Mountain View Golf Course, one of the last grills left with enough residue to conjure up real cheeseburgers and fries. The sound of old friends rehashing the round. The sight of short golf pencils adding up the scorecard with symbols for ‘trash’ and ‘press’ and plus marks, double circles, asterisks, triangles, rectangles. And underneath everything was the warmth and royalty of a club of elders.

I was the young gun, almost like their pet- but in a good way. I was the out-of-place, tag-a-long rookie whose best contribution to the group was that I filled out their foursome and they could all still beat me at golf.

They called themselves ‘the old goats’. It was a group of 8-10 retired businessmen who traded in their briefcases and daily stock reports for Ping golf clubs and large headed putters with oversized grips.

And the one man who stood tallest in the saddle was William (Bill) C. (Clyde) Stegall, Sr. But no one called him anything else but ‘Stegall’. He was a poor boy from rural South Carolina who was picked and plucked out from the farm through the ministry of R.G. LeTourneau and the mission of the Rabun-Gap Nacoochee school.

Mr. Stegall graduated from Clemson University with a degree in engineering, founded a successful commercial AC/heating company in Birmingham, AL, was heavily involved in heating and cooling many buildings at Auburn University, and silently contributed to the early growth of Briarwood Christian School.

I met Mr. Stegall in his twilight years, after he sold his business and moved to Shoal Creek, a secluded and beautiful golf community in north Shelby County, AL.

In fact, I know the exact time and date.......

I had been invited to speak at the Sunday chapel that Stegall had organized at Shoal Creek.

I still have the program that Mr. Stegall had typed for the 15 or so patrons that morning.

It was Sunday, April 8, 1990 at 9:15 AM.

Stegall was a muscular 6-6, 225 lb, 68 year old grandfather full of vigor and joy.

I was 25 and life was way over my head, though I had no clue. (Life is still way over my head, but at least I know it now).

Little did I know that our relationship would last a full ten years. 

Mr Stegall went to be with the Lord on Feb. 24, 2000 at the age of 78. At that time, I was 35 and my life had been transformed in such a powerful way, that I still think of my spiritual grandfather almost every day.

It is time, I took some time to write about him. Mr Stegall and the Old Goats Club.

I don’t know how long it will take and I don’t know how often I will be able to write in this hectic season.

But this first post has to be about golf. As I am sure many more will be.

The ‘honorarium’ for speaking at that chapel on April 8, 1990 was a round of golf at Shoal Creek. Mr. Stegall was the member I had been assigned to play with and from the very first day we met, he decided to take an enormous amount of time to help me become a better golfer- but most important was his desire to mentor me in my walk with Christ.

My friend, Bobby Patrick had spoken as well- so we all got to play together in May 1990.

And though I was SO EXCITED to be playing such a special place... I was also intimidated. Shoal Creek golf course had hosted 2 PGA championships, it had ambiance, I would be playing with a caddy... all of that was well beyond my capacities- both mental and physical. I had only taken up playing consistently for about a year. I was still figuring it out.

I can’t overstate how wonderful that golf course is. In fact, years later I had the privilege of playing Shoal Creek with a friend from Memphis who played exclusive courses all the time including the Honors Course, TPC Southwind, and others.

In the middle of the round, as my friend noted the pristine condition of the course and the fact that there were almost no houses in view, he stopped and sad, ‘When you were bragging about this course, I thought you were exaggerating… this place is awesome!”

But back to that fateful first day. Why Stegall even bared to ever see me one more time is evidence of God’s immovable providence.

I was nervous!

Mr. Stegall sent very specific instructions on what to wear, and the expected etiquette that had to be honored. Over time, I grew in my reverence for the course and also in my fear of Mr. Hall Thompson.

Hall Thompson was the founder and president of Shoal Creek. He carved the course out of the woods and mountains, even build his own private road (Hugh Daniel) to get residents and members back to civilization.

He put in bent grass greens when people thought it too far south for such a notion. Hall was a member of the pin selection committee for Augusta National and with Jack Nicklaus as the course designer, Shoal Creek is about as close to Augusta as any course could dare to be.

Mr. Thompson was also known to escort people off the premises who couldn't respect the traditions and expectations of golf. A well known story to this account, was a very wealthy but loud visitor who decided to put on his golf shoes in the pro shop instead of the locker room.

Mr. Thompson went up to the man and said, “Sir, we have a locker room just over there.”

Evidently, the man was just rude enough or naive enough to not know who he was popping off to.... so his day ended much earlier than he anticipated.

Mr. Stegall had stoked the reverence in his communication to me- "Hall wants his quests to wear long pants, dark socks, and you need to shave.” And he didn’t have to say collared shirt, belt, and tucked in… that was a given.

My anxiety grew.

Then Mr. Stegall sent a yardage book of the course with just a few comments- "The course is long, the rough is deep, and the greens are as fast as lightning. And if Mr. Thompson is playing with us, you better play the ball down…. Rolling the ball on his course will generate some wrath. Play it as it lies and know the rules.”

Now that I know him....  Mr. Stegall was messing with me. Hall Thompson was NOT playing with us and he knew it. And Mr. Stegall played fun rules… he wanted fast golf… and that meant liberalizing the USGA rulebook ‘a tad’.

I will get back to that first day in just a second... but I do need to comment on how Mr. Stegall used to play pranks on me ALL THE TIME!

As we started playing more, I got to play with the 'Old Goats'.

It was usually a phone call or voice mail (on an answering machine LOL):

"Jay, Stegall here... the Old Goats are playing tomorrow at _______ (many local courses) and we want you to help us fill out a foursome."

And they all had their quirks and medical maladies... I hope you get to meet all of them in my writing, but I may have to conceal their names.....

And yes, the Old Goats bet on their rounds.

I still can’t keep up with how it works. There was trash, press, double up, front, back, total, handicap holes.

One of the Old Goats was O.C. Turley.
When you played with Mr Turley, no one kept a scorecard… he knew at all times where everyone stood.

My first experience with the entire ‘old goat’ group was a Monday round at Mountain View Golf Course. It was their choice of play on Mondays, when Shoal Creek was closed.

About halfway in the round, I discovered I not only was in I IN the bet ..... I was WAY DOWN!

Stegall leaned over and whispered to me in his unmistakable voice and style.

“Jay, did you bring any cash with you? If not, I’ll cover you today.”

After the round, the men sat down for the real reason they came to the course… the cheeseburgers.
The first comments made every time we played was that the grill at Mountain View was better than the whole menu at Shoal Creek.

And then the ‘ciphering began’
I had lost so many holes, had so little trash, and lost so many presses that my final tally was about $40.

All I thought was how I was going to tell my wife, I lost $40 playing golf!

But then I learned the "McElwain Rule”.

The “McElwain Rule”, was a payoff system which was some kind of ratio of what had to be reported as income on their personal income taxes. So the maximum payoff at the end of any round was $12.

But I don’t think any bet was ever actually paid, the Old Goats had more joy in giving the debtor (me) grief than they did in actually collecting.

Let me go back and finish the first round (May, 1990) and will move on……

My first day at Shoal creek, I was already in awe and overwhelmed.
I was so impressed with the pretty grass, that I didn’t feel right in even taking a divot!

There were two groups that day, we were in group one and there were some other guys in group two.
I had felt a little stupid that I had bought new shoes, a new glove, and new balls just for the round.

The guy in the group behind us bought a whole new bag!… and not just any bag, this was one that the pros used… it was massive!

My other anxiety was playing with a caddy. But as I soon discovered, Charlie was another highlight on that day!

Hole #1- Shoal Creek Golf Club

On the tee, Mr. Stegall repeated his rules. ‘Play fast, have fun’. Then he started telling the group that he was a wounded, partially disabled and old WW2 veteran. (Then he proceeded to birdie 3 out of the first five holes).

Stegall’s Golf Rule 'Addendums':
  • Play fast. Hit when you are ready.
  • Practice swings are useless.
  • If you hit it anywhere out of play, return to the fairway for a 1 stroke penalty.
  • Roll ‘em in the fairway.
  • Double bogey max, pick it up, and let’s move on.
(By the way, Stegall would have LOVED the new rule where the flag can stay in place when putting.)

Hole #1 is a relatively ‘easy’ starter hold, about 400 yds. I made good contact but pulled my drive and found the left fairway bunker.

So this is comical, not only did I find that bunker… I found EVERY bunker on that first hole! I proceeded to go from the fairway bunker to the frontside left sand, from frontside left sand to frontside right sand, and then on to the green and NEVER in my life had I played undulating and steep greens like these.

Charlie picked my ball out of the hole and Mr. Stegall put the big bear arm around me.

“Jay…. double bogey maximum… you’re doing good.”

Two things happened… I settled down and we all started having fun.

My caddy took a liking to me, because he could see he was actually helping me. His name was Charlie and he was a very good man… very patient… and wise! He got to where he just handed me a club and really helped me on the greens. Before long, I was LOVING how smooth and fast those beautiful greens were!

After the 9th hole, we took a short break.

Charlie and I sat down together, wiped off the sweat and drank some of the coldest, best water I had ever tasted.

Charlie’s buddy was one of the caddies of the other group, the one who had the misfortune of carrying the brand new monster bag- he was beat tired!

Charlie looked at him…. “How’s your guy?”

The guy looked at me and paused…. Trying to figure out if he could be honest or not.

He simply said… “He’s ALL bag.”

And we laughed.

I finished the round and shot 105 (using the Stegall rule means that I was NOT ready for Shoal Creek).
But I had found a mentor that day who decided that he was going to teach me.. A lot about golf and a lot about being a man.

The next day, I went to the dentist.
As my dentist was looking in my mouth he said… ‘What in the world!?”

And he put his hand in my mouth and said ‘Would you LOOK at THIS!”

And I looked… his entire hand was FULL OF SAND!

“Where did you get a mouth full of sand?”

And he couldn't keep a straight face anymore…

My boss, the Rev, Tom Caradine, was with us that day at Shoal Creek and followed us every step of the way. And he loved the fact that I found every sand bunker at Shoal Creek, he called his buddy… my dentist… to make sure the memory would be forever etched in my memory (but really to just rub it in).

Mr. Stegall got a big smile on his face when I told him the story.
And from that day, we were about to go on a 10 year journey together that I will never forget.

And so I will be writing for a little bit about 'Mr. Stegall and the Old Goats Club'

To be continued…….

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