As summer proceeded in 1973, I spent many days playing golf at Pottawatomie Park in St. Charles.
My new friend Rob Walker and I were members at the park district course, which probably cost $35 for the entire season. We’d sometimes play 36 holes carrying our bags on the nine-hole course. Sometimes we’d keep score, sometimes not.
Rob also worked at the St.Charles Country Club, the private course on the north end of town. I’d stop by while he was shining shoes at the back end of the club house. Eventually I got roped into caddying, a job I hated. Lugging a bag of golf clubs around for someone else felt like a gross indignity to me. Not that I was some spoiled rich kid that didn’t want to work. I just found the whole caddying thing absurd.
I grew up on the Meadia Heights Country Club in southeastern Pennsylvania from the age of five through twelve. Before that, my brothers and I hung around Seneca Falls Country Club in Upstate New York where my parents were members. We learned the game of golf early on in life, and all of us were decent if not great golfers. It disgusted me to carry a golf bag around for someone else while they hacked up the course.
My favorite thing to do on the Meadia Heights Golf Club was golfing on rainy days. I’d grab a three wood, a seven-iron and putter, then head out on the outer reaches of the course where I couldn’t be seen from the club house. My golf ball collection was pretty large as I’d picked up many a golf call on journeys to my best friend’s house on the 17th fairway, so I was never lacking for equipment.
I’d often play barefoot, running from shot to shot as I played from tee to green. I’d tee it up and hit the drive, then scoop up the tee and take off running, sometimes barefoot, on the rain-soaked fairways. I loved the feeling of playing golf that way, so free and unencumbered by the rules and etiquette of golf. Instead, I’d catch up to my golf ball and toss the clubs down on the ground, line up the seven iron and hit it as far as I could with the iron, then chase after it again. I’d play nine holes out of sight from anyone on earth. The golf course was my own. That was the right kind of No Man’s Land.
The caddy life
As I grew old enough to caddy for other golfers, the money seemed irresistible. I quickly found out how stifling it was to carry a golf bag for stuffy members trundling around with their stupid clothes and rotten swings. Frankly, I hated it. I didn’t caddy much at Meadia Heights, but at least I learned the skills needed to carry it further.
Once we moved to St. Charles, I started caddying again and wound up assigned to carry for the pro one afternoon. He was a terse gentleman about his game. Obviously, it was serious business for him to play well. It didn’t bode well for the club pro to get beaten by any other members. So I hauled his giant golf bag around with the best intentions, but it was a hot day and I kept getting distracted by my own thoughts. Such is the life of a young man with a mild case of ADHD. That was the last time I carried for the pro. He tipped me well, but I wasn’t asked back again.
So I didn’t caddy all that often afer that, and found myself in a sort of no-man’s land with no paper route, no other job and a month to use up between schools and school years. I didn’t have anyone urging me to run some summer miles at that point, so I played basketball, rode my crappy bike around town, and played golf for hours on end.
One late summer afternoon, Rob and I were done golfing and wound up on the west end of town where the Dairy Queen stood on Route 64. I think I’d made a few bucks carrying a golf bag that day. The weather was hot and muggy, so I ordered a giant chocolate shake at DQ. Then we walked across the street to the high school and stumbled on a practice for the St. Charles Track Club.
The club was coached by Trent Richards, my soon-to-be cross country coach and formerly my baseball coach in Elburn. He spotted Rob and I walking on the sidewalk outside the track and called us in. “Come on in here, Cudworth,” he yelled in his raspy voice. “We’re doing 400s. Come show these people what you can do…”
By that point, I’d already downed half the chocolate shake. I could feel the cold liquid in my stomach. It was hot and humid outside, warm enough that just walking made you break a sweat. I was wearing a set of jean and a pair of worn-out Chuck Taylor shoes. A few sets of eyes were upon me as I set down the milk shake and stepped out on the track. “Cudworth here is going to run for me this fall,” he announced to a band of track athletes gathered near the starting line. “You ready, Cuddy?”
I was not ready. I was feeling thick and slow with a gut full of milk shake and fully out of shape. But Trent wasn’t one for patient considerations when it came to sports of any kind. He raised his stop watch and called out, “Go!” I took off running on the smooth cinder track with that milk shake gurgling around in my gut. At 200 yards, I was ready to barf.
At the finish line, he called out my time in his barking voice. “67…68…69…. Then he intoned, “Hell, Cudworth. I’ve got girls here that can kick your ass with that time…”
“I just drank a milk shake,” I complained.
“That shouldn’t bother you,” Trent replied. “You should come here more often.”
He was right. That would have been a good thing to do.
The St. Charles Track Club had some of the best athletes in the region, both men and women. Trent was especially far ahead of his time in terms of encouraging women runners. I recall women runners breaking 60 in the 400. High jumping 5’8″. I remember being intimidated by their athletic shapes that afternoon. He coached some of the finest female athletes in the region in that summer track club.
There were quite a few leading men runners involved as well. To be truthful, I was a bit scared to come run with them. I hated getting my ass kicked, and there were runners far better than me in the STC Track Club.
The team traveled across the state to cities like Rockford, Moline, Bloomington, Belvedere, Chicago and Aurora to compete. Trent helped build the careers of Junior Olympic champions. Many went on to place in Illinois state meets and even win national AAU championships.
But that summer, I’d had enough change for one year, and I was new in town and reticent to join the traveling track club party. That was a missed opportunity. It would have been good for me to get involved in a track program where it didn’t matter what school you attended. Plus the girls were active, smart, athletic and fun. It would have been healthy to meet women that were defined by effort rather than their social order
The following summer, I did involved.
But for a kid in No Man’s Land during that summer of 1973, that quarter mile interval with a milk shake in my gut followed by insult was enough to keep me away from the track until August. When cross country practice started, I’d meet a whole new crop of runners from other schools thanks to Trent’s connections. That first few weeks would prove to be a testing ground like none I’d ever experienced before.