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Drive of a lifetime

ImagineGolf via Getty Images

This essay appears in ESPN The Magazine's Aug. 20 issue, the College Football Preview.

My grandfather's idea of paradise was playing golf and smoking cigarettes. He found them both meditative practices, not that he would ever call them that. Golf was "exercise and fresh air," especially where we played, on the hilly, worn public courses of Appalachia, where carts did not exist and a lost ball meant extra shifts at the factory or the mill.

As we walked, my grandfather lit Camel after Camel and coached me on the finer points of the game as he saw them. He was not one to use three words when two would do, so most of my instruction consisted of head shaking and the odd, firm order. "Eyes on the ball. Head down. Relax your grip. Don't force it."

My grandfather's swing was a circle of easy grace, more like ballet than the pugnacious hacking I saw from other men on the fairway. His clubs moved like silk, like an exhale, like tai chi, and his ball traveled accordingly, as if it were grateful to be hit, lofting and landing exactly where he intended.

I struggled to inhabit the same comfort, to not punish the ball. When you're an adolescent -- dragging limbs that feel alien to your body, skin seconds from flushing red with the mortification of simply being alive -- inhabiting physical coolness is as likely as taking flight.

So it was one afternoon as the sun was setting on the course. My grandfather had just sailed his ball straight down the fairway. I was up. Behind us, a group of older men approached in shorts and spikes, eyeing me with annoyance, one player audibly sighing, preparing for what he clearly expected to be an unacceptable wait from a kid holding up their game. A girl, no less, wearing cheap sneakers and using borrowed clubs that rose to her sternum.

I looked at my grandfather, slim in his work trousers, polyester button-down tucked in the front. He said nothing, nodded me toward the tee box. I pulled out my loaner driver, dug into my pocket for a ball, hands shaking slightly. I turned again to my grandfather. His expression remained flat as the men behind him began shifting their weight and muttering.

"Maybe we should play through?" one asked.

My grandfather pivoted to face him.

"Let her tee off first," he said matter-of-factly, swiveling back to me as I nervously plunged the wooden tee two fingers high into the firm-packed dirt, any grass long scalped off by golfers before me.

I balanced my ball, praying to every god I'd ever heard of that it would stay put while I positioned myself behind the tee, cheating my stance to the right the way my grandfather did. I gazed at the green, then back to the tee, exhaling slowly. After a beat, I lifted the driver behind my head, pulling it through in a generous swoop, sending the ball soaring more than 200 yards and bringing with it the most flawless sound known to man, the beguiling ping of perfect connection.

"Well, I'll be," I heard behind me, as the men watched my drive rocket down the fairway. My grandfather said nothing, tossed a cigarette butt into a nearby bin. "I think we'll keep on," he said flatly, nodding to the men as we passed them by.

Over the years, there were many lessons my grandfather taught me about golf: Replace divots and re-rake sand in the trap because cleaning your messes is not someone else's job. Don't kick your ball from the rough when no one is looking because the dishonesty will curdle your insides like milk in the sun. Hazards happen, embrace them. Stay humble. Golf is a game of infinite challenge and myriad elements beyond your control, so control what you can and walk tall through the rest.

He taught me all of that and more by example, by radiating decency and composure and pride, qualities often overlooked when you are poor in West Virginia and the world sees you as nothing, if it sees you at all. But it was that day at the tee that mattered most. Because I discovered I was capable of excellence, if only for an instant. And if I could be excellent once, maybe I could be again, no matter where I came from, or what the odds, or how little people expected from me.

"Golf shows you who people are," my grandfather often said.

That evening, with his help, golf also showed me who I could be.