A/N: Except for a small bit of editing, this chapter was practically complete when I posted Part I, but it's been a wretched month and a half at work and I've finally scraped together enough motivation to get it done. Also, I should have mentioned at the beginning of Part I that this golf vignette is dedicated to the lovely Mosteyn, who knew it was coming for a long time and encouraged the idea (thanks!). Finally, thanks to all who continue to read (I know golf isn't everyone's gig)!
"You're only here for a short visit. Don't hurry, don't worry.
And be sure to smell the flowers along the way." ~ Walter Hagen
THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP, PART II
St. Annes-On-The-Sea, June 24, 1926
That evening, fresh off a new recording in Hollywood, Fred Elizalde and his band had, with their first set, siphoned most of the wallflowers onto the dance floor. By the time the Bransons and Matthew arrived, Edith and Michael, freed from the tittering gossip of London, were jazzing along to the Boneyard Shuffle. Sybil couldn't resist twitching along with the beat herself and turned to Tom, tongue set in her teeth, and nudged him with a barely clad shoulder.
He surrendered with a knowing grin.
But after one tango, a quickstep, and an excruciating foxtrot, his feet went numb, and it was all due to his bloody shoes. His old pair had cracked at the seams months ago and, in a rush to pack for the trip, he'd bought the first pair he could find in his size at the cobbler's in Ripon. Animal traps would have made a better fit. He finally retreated to the bar where Matthew was holding court with other golf enthusiasts, placing bets on the morrow's outcome. When Tom limped up, the line favored Hagen two-to-one.
Matthew greeted him with a slap on the back and a glass of liquid gratitude. "For your timely assistance at the billiards table this evening!"
Assistance? I saved his feckin' bacon!
For the moment, though, Tom wasn't in the mood to fight his brother-in-law's delusions. Sagging onto a barstool, he nudged off his shoes, sighed as the blood pulsed back into his feet. And then his eyes immediately swept over to the goddess across the room. Just a few hours before, Sybil had been in his arms, the pair of them quite literally inseparable. By the end of it, he'd been exhausted – no delirious – and now, watching her, bedecked in a dress that accentuated her curves, her cropped hair bound by a gold ringlet one of her sisters no doubt gifted her, he felt a stirring below his waist.
Damn bloody shoes.
Sybil bedazzled every man in her orbit, puppy-faced youths and old toffs alike. Even young Bobby Jones singled her out for his first dance of the evening, obliging the sportive crowd when the band struck up Sweet Georgia Brown. On occasion, she'd slither a glance over her shoulder and blow her husband a kiss, a quiet reminder that they'd finish their own dance card in private.
God, she's beautiful, he mused, absently sipping his drink.
"…between the sheets," Matthew was saying beside him.
Tom snorted liquid through his nostrils.
"All right there, old chap?"
"What the…" He coughed as Matthew thumped his back. "…bloody hell…is it?"
"That's what I was just telling you. It's called Between the Sheets. Rum, cognac, triple sec, and a bit of lemon juice."
Before he could brave another sip, a bespeckled man pushed up beside him. "Guaranteed to put a man on his back, young fella, in one form or fashion at least!" He winked at Tom, motioned to the bartender for one of his own, and chugged it with relish. "I'll say one thing for the English, you've got brains enough to not make booze illegal." Swiveling round on his stool, he narrowed an eye toward the dance floor.
Tom couldn't help but smile at the American. "Enjoying the scenery?"
"These English gals are a bit stiff for me. But there's an occasional rose among the thorns." He tipped a freshened glass in Sybil's direction before taking a sip. "That's a lovely one there."
"That's my wife, thank you very much."
He spat his drink. "My apologies," he muttered, wiping droplets from his lapels.
"At least you've got good taste."
"So does Sir Walter, it seems."
Tom followed his gaze to the floor where the famed golfer was making a calculated path. Sans plus fours and clubs, the man who'd battled the golf course that day looked primed for another conquest.
Sybil was rather flattered that Bobby Jones had singled her out. She found him to be an unpretentious young man, soft-spoken with a charming wit. But as she probed him on his interests beyond the game of golf, she wondered if he were actually human. He'd graduated with degrees in mechanical engineering and English, the latter obtained at Harvard, and planned to begin law school later that year. As if university wasn't enough, he was married with a child, and another on the way.
"Golly," she laughed after a moment. "When do you have time to practice?"
"It certainly requires a bit of time management, but I love the game so much that it's hardly a drudgery."
"Does your wife travel with you?" she asked, as the band reset between numbers. "I mean, when she can."
"On occasion, but I have my wet nurse for company." Jones nodded towards the bar and a bespeckled man sitting next to Tom. "Pop. He's traveled with me since I was still learning the ropes, offering counsel, keeping the press at bay, knocking sense into me when…"
"Madam." The interruption came out polished, a half-purr, as if luring prey out of the herd.
Sybil found a pair of twinkling green eyes bearing down on her. Brawny and tanned, with the chandeliers glimmering against the liberal coating of brilliantine on his hair, Walter Hagen cast a large and dapper shadow.
"I hope you don't plan on quitting the dance floor just yet."
Jones chuckled softly. "She's married, Walter."
"Aren't they all?"
Sybil'd gathered enough gossip of Hagen's reputation to be wary. "I was just going to fetch my husband for one last dance."
He followed her nod toward Tom, who was perched on the edge of his stool, eyes vigilant in primal warning. "You've the rest of your life to dance with your husband, but you've one night only to dance with the Open Champion of 1926."
At that, she laughed. "Mr. Hagen, I've indulged most of your competitors this evening – even Mr. Jones here – so the odds of my having danced with tomorrow's winner are quite good."
"Not as good as they can be." As a waiter traveled by with a tray, Hagen deposited his half-full glass and, without releasing her eyes, offered a hand. "Why chance it?"
"I'm afraid my toes are rather on strike at the moment. The gentlemen in this room, while aces at golf, lack any sort of coordination from the knees down."
"Then you're in luck, madam, because I am no gentleman."
His undertone reminded her somewhat of Larry Grey, polished and demanding, yet Hagen's insistence was coined with a boyish smirk that hinted at more fun than foul. Once she'd conceded a single dance, like a fox unleashed on a fat hen, he'd ensnared one after another until she'd all but forgotten her aching feet. She'd almost forgotten about poor Tom as well, who aching feet or not seemed ready to strike at the first inappropriate twitch.
But Hagen was a professional, not just at his sport, but in life as well, and swept her through several jazz numbers with an intoxicating litany of stories. She learned he came from a poor immigrant family in some cold uninhabitable place in upstate New York called Rochester and as a lad he caddied at the local golf course to help support his parents and siblings. For a brief time he even considered turning to baseball.
"I think I made the right decision," he said. "God knows the sport couldn't handle Babe Ruth and myself at the same time!"
"My sister has become rather an enthusiast of golf," Sybil told him. "She said at one tournament, when you were refused entry to the clubhouse, that you parked your motor in front of the building for the entire week and used it as a dressing room."
"Guilty as charged," he chuckled, sweeping her round in a twirl. "The British have this...archaic practice of disallowing professional men like myself into your posh clubs. Amateurs such as Mr. Jones are given preference."
"I play for money, Mrs. Branson, and they play for…"
"Love of the game?"
"Oh, we all love the game, madam, but it doesn't always love us back."
"I find it rather difficult to believe one could make a living at it, especially if you don't win every time!"
"One can certainly scrape by on tournament prizes alone, and they certainly build a resume for exhibition play. That's the real windfall – that's my game."
"Exhibitions? Like monkeys on display?"
He belted out a laugh. "That's certainly one way of looking at it! No, madam, the matches are set up between two, perhaps even four golfers, all of whom have a certain talent or..."
She smiled knowingly. "Panache?"
"So you consider yourself a showman?"
"Oh, no-no-no. I'm a businessman with a product to sell."
"That product being entertainment."
"Where's the value in watching a nobody play?"
"So, your – and pardon me for saying this, but it's only what I've heard – your erratic play is by design then?"
"I'm afraid that's my natural talent! As is recovery – the Houdini of the Heather! Three bad shots and one good one still make a four, and quite a memorable one at that. Not to mention a profitable one."
"So you criticize the British for being snobs, but you're well on your way to being a millionaire?"
"And yet you equate the two?" Hagen let out another boisterous laugh as the band transitioned to a tango. "You misunderstand me entirely, Mrs. Branson! I don't want to be a millionaire…" He winked, pulled her close, and whispered cagily in her ear. "…I just want to live like one."
Once Matthew realized their American bar buddy was none other than O.B. Keeler, the famed sportswriter who'd covered the entirety of Bobby Jones' career thus far, he couldn't bump Tom out of the way fast enough. The Irishman was all but clinging to his stool as Matthew bombarded the writer with questions: Steel shafted clubs are all the rage now – why hasn't Bobby switched over yet? What's your honest take of his chances tomorrow? His putting was shaky all day – seemed as if he were hunching a bit much, maybe suggest he straighten his stance? Will he play in the U.S. Open?
Keeler's face puckered like a warthog sucking lemons, obviously loath to spill the beans on his famed protégé. "Kid's come too far for me to jinx things now," was his crabby reply, but his eyes glimmered when Matthew ordered him a scotch.
"Since you're going through a liquid drought in the States, perhaps a spot of Talisker will tide you over?"
Keeler sipped judiciously, let the drink settle on his palate before humming an approval.
"What about Hagen then?" Matthew pressed. "I've read a lot of stories – many of which you wrote," he stealthily dropped in. "Are they true?"
Keeler's eyes flitted between his drink and the meddlesome Brit, grumbled under his breath about the bane of a sportswriter's existence, and then shifted on his stool with a heavy sigh. "Color, no matter how it's spelled, is gold for the newspapers. And Sir Walter Hagen has more color than a lawn full of peacocks."
He took another thoughtful sip of his scotch, swirled it round, as if filtering the best lot of stories, or at least those fit for public consumption. "He drinks the finest liquor, stays at the swankiest hotels, throws the best parties, and he doesn't have a cheap thread on him. He's also a damn fine golfer, even if he does swing like a wounded duck."
Matthew was almost giddy at the insider's scoop and settled attentively on an adjacent stool.
Tom propped against the bar, half-listening as the sportswriter rattled off a series of lurid tales. Apparently Hagen was a womanizer – Marriage is not his forte, Keeler explained – which did nothing to ease Tom's mind. Nothing to worry about with Sybil, though, the reasonable part of his brain argued. She was perfectly capable of swatting off bothersome tom cats and would promptly unsheathe her claws if her own Tom treated her like a damsel in distress.
"He's broken all eleven of the ten commandments," Keeler told the swelling assembly of spectators. The volume of his voice – not to mention to color of his stories –increased proportionally to the row of empty glasses on the bar.
"One time, before an exhibition match in Tampa, I went to his house for an interview. I arrived to find his secretary – at least that's who she claimed to be that day," he added wickedly, much to the crowd's delight. "She was on her stomach in the middle of the hall, propped up on her elbows. And there was Hagen, clear at the other end, practicing his putting. He looked up at me, grinned and…" Keeler motioned a stroke of the club, then whistled as his finger dipped in front of his chest. "…the ball went right between her…well," he remembered fondly, "It was a sizable target! My dear, Sir Walter told her, did you ever stop to think what a wonderful bunker you would make?"
As the crowd burst into laughter, Tom threw back his drink, ordered another, and pointed at Matthew's back when the bartender inquired about the bill.
Sybil wasn't naïve to Hagen's intentions, but the flirting was rather fun and a dark part of her anticipated the moment when her husband appeared and she could boldly announce, Ah, Mr. Hagen, may I introduce my husband? You're not the only man in this room who's yanked himself up by the bootstraps. Every ego, especially those as inflated as Hagen's deserved a good pop now and again. It wasn't until that last tango, as she was nearly standing on her head in a deftly executed dip, that her husband finally came into view.
"Having fun, love?"
When Hagen whooshed her upright, she swerved, stumbled into the golfer's arms. "Easy kid," he laughed, steadying her. "Ah, you must be Mr. Branson."
Tom eyed the proffered hand suspiciously but then gave it a firm shake.
"Mrs. Branson was just telling me you're quite the automobile aficionado. Just so happens I'm a collector myself."
"I'm not a collector," Tom replied. "But I've driven a few over the years."
"Ah! Racing then?"
"No, I was a chauffeur."
Hagen's brows arched expressively. "I have a fondness for chauffeurs. Employed several over the years." He swiped a glass from a nearby table, glanced down at a glowering Sybil. "And there's no shame in it, certainly," he swiftly added. "We all have to start somewhere. I began my own career as a caddy. Nothing wrong with a man working his way up in life, wouldn't you agree, Mr. Branson?"
"Up?" chuckled Tom. "Earning a living by playing a game? Seems an escape from honest work, if you ask me."
"Tom!" Sybil hissed.
"Don't pretend to disagree, love. You said so yourself this morning on the course – It seems a rather primitive sort of entertainment, watching grown men swat a ball with a stick."
If she could reach her husband's shins, Sybil would have centered them with her toe. As it was, Hagen had yet to release her waist, which Tom had suddenly noticed. A flush slowly burned its way north of his collar.
Fortunately, Hagen was more amused than insulted, and laughed in spite of Tom's jabs. "If it were that easy," he said, sipping his drink, "everyone would do it." Then his eyes lit. "Perhaps you'd care to give it a try?"
Tom seemed momentarily intrigued, before waving him off. "No, I don't think so."
"I insist!" The golfer snapped his fingers, called for a set of clubs.
Hagen scanned the room. "I've certainly played better venues," he said, which earned an offended harrumph from the hotel butler who'd scurried over to inspect the hubbub.
The butler, a tall, wiry man, with an ill-proportioned nose and a thick mop of hair, was a wisp of well-dressed straw in Hagen's shadow. He stammered in protest, first at the prospect of having his ballroom blitzed by a flurry of golf balls, and then more vehemently as Hagen flipped open his wallet, offering a handful of bills.
"Tom!" Sybil snapped as he shrugged out of his jacket. He dropped it in her arms, followed by his waistcoat. "What's got into you?"
"Just a bit of fun, love." Free of his confines, he stretched, popped his braces and turned to Hagen. "Perhaps a little wager as well?"
"A man who appreciates beauty and chance!" Hagen counted a fresh set of bills from his pocket, frowned, and then snapped one back from the still-sputtering butler. "Fifty pounds?"
Tom opened a hand toward his brother-in-law.
Matthew clutched the billiards winnings in his pocket. "Are you mad? After what we had to do to win this back?"
"If I recall, it was me who won it back!"
Behind them, someone was opening the veranda doors and two other men were pulling a rug in front of it at Mr. Hagen's direction. Another man hurried in, a bag of rattling clubs hooked over his shoulder. The curious crowd swelled quickly.
"Change of heart, Mr. Branson?"
"Of course not!" Tom called, and stubbornly prodded Matthew in the stomach.
Fifty pounds lighter, the future earl grumbled his way towards Sybil, who met him with a severe glare.
"How much did he have to drink?"
"Too much or not enough," he crossly replied, and retrieved a glass for himself as a busy waiter supplied the crowd.
The band had long since stopped playing, but much to the throng's delight, offered a drumroll when Hagen and Tom took their positions at the makeshift tee. Beyond the open doors lay the Hotel Majestic gardens, equal to any of England's finest estates, which stretched from the ballroom veranda toward the dunes.
Hagen perused their options, much as an architect envisioned his next masterpiece. "The garden," he finally said, pointing toward the starlight array of flowers and shrubs. "That bullet of roses in the center, at the end of the path. Closest wins."
Tom made a show of judging the distance, peered into the bag and inspected several clubs. "Which one do you want?"
Hagen, barely giving any of it more than a glance, turned aside to light a cigarette. "Oh, I'll do battle with most anything."
Tom shrugged, selected the largest he could find.
His opponent quirked a brow. "A driver?"
"Is that what it's called?"
Matthew wedged over. "You can't use that!" he hissed.
"Why not? Surely I can't miss with this thing!"
"That's precisely the point! If you make contact – provided you don't blast it sideways through the window or kill someone – you'll knock it onto the bloody beach!"
"Gentlemen," Hagen politely interrupted. "While the evening is still young, if you please." Dropping a ball on the rug, he waved through the open doors. "After you."
"Why don't you go ahead?" Tom waved. "I'd like a moment to practice." As he made a few circuitous swipes, the crowd shuffled back to safety.
Laughing, Hagen stepped forward, clamped down on his cigarette. His eyes flitted from ball to target and back again, jabbing the club to and fro, visualizing the perfect swing. Then, with a hush having fallen on the ballroom, he made his stroke.
The ball shot through the open doors and, landing on the walkway shy of the target, bounced straight over into the far flowerbed.
The crowd groaned in collective disappointment.
"So close," one man said.
"Not s'bad," another shrugged, "only ten feet past."
"Not a chance the Mick can knock it closer."
Despite the smattering of applause, Hagen frowned, clearly expecting better of himself.
Grinning, Tom exchanged the driver for the smallest club in the bag, the putter, and placed his ball. Hagen's face fell.
"What's he doing?" he heard Sybil ask Matthew.
Tom glanced up and winked. "Slight of hand, love."
With just the smallest of strokes, he gently tapped the ball, which trickled across the veranda and over the first step, bounced down the rest one by one, picked up speed on its way to the bottom where it rolled down the paved walk to another set of steps, and bounded forward like an exuberant puppy before diving straight into the garden's centerpiece of roses.
As the crowd burst into applause, a gape-mouthed Hagen was utterly crestfallen. But after a moment of nursing his wounded pride – eased somewhat by the good-natured ribbing of his competitors, including young Bobby Jones who inquired whether the old magician needed help dislodging the dagger from his heart – he began to laugh and graciously admitted defeat.
"Well played, Mr. Branson," he said, offering a hand. "It's not often that I'm outsmarted."
"And it's equally rare for me to be accused of such a thing," Tom replied. He politely rebuffed the winnings, until the golfer insisted a deal was a deal.
Once Hagen wandered off – straight into a gaggle of fawning women – and a menagerie of well-wishers had clapped Tom on the back, his family sidled up for their own round congratulations.
"Well done," offered Gregson, pumping his hand.
Sybil and Edith flanked the blushing victor, each kissing a cheek.
"That was bloody brilliant, old chap!" declared Matthew. "How did you know to do that?
Tom gave the putter a twirl before replacing it in the bag. "Are you suggesting a poor Oyrish Mick can't know a t'ing or two about the game of golf?"
"But you said you'd no interest in it!"
"I don't," he said, and then winked. "But any fool can swat a ball with a stick."
Matthew squinted a daring eye. "Prove it."
Tom pulled another club, along with a ball, which he bounced twice on the parquet floor before dropping it onto the rug by the seaside facing doors. He stretched a time or two, taking long, fluid swings before squaring up. He coiled in what Matthew would later remember as a backswing of impressively natural form and took a mighty swipe.
"Gently – gently!"
Matthew frowned at his sister-in-law and swallowed an indignant response. After all, it wasn't his fault Tom wrenched his back and collapsed flat to the parquet. Having lugged the Irishman across the ballroom, into the elevator and now down the endless hall, his own back was starting to feel the strain.
"Gregson," he groaned, when they reached the Bransons' door. "Take a bit more of his weight, would you?"
Sybil fumbled with the key. "Don't twist him – darling, can you move your feet at all?"
Tom's face paled as he tried shuffling one foot past the other.
"Never mind…just let Matthew and Michael do all the work. Put him on the bed," she said, flinging back the covers.
Tom yelped as he was hoisted onto the mattress and again when Edith and Sybil each tugged a shoe.
"I know it looks rather easy, Tom," his sister-in-law said, dropping his foot, "but golf isn't a game for the unfit. You really should get out and exercise more…"
He sputtered an Irish curse.
"Anything else we can do, Sybil?" Matthew asked. "Fetch a doctor, help with his clothes…"
"Don't touch me!"
"Bit like tending a wounded bear, isn't it?" Gregson muttered to Edith.
"No, thank you, Matthew," Sybil said, and then patted Tom's cheek. "Unfortunately, this is old hat for us, isn't it darling?"
Tom winced demonstratively as she went to the bathroom for her kit.
"I'm sorry to have egged you on," Matthew told him, once Edith and Gregson left. "I do feel rather wretched about the whole business..."
"No harm done...at least…at least not permanently. Just a bit…bleedin' Jesus!…" He attempted to shift and gritted his teeth. "…a bit of rest is all it needs. I'll do my best to make the morning match, though."
Helplessly, Matthew twisted his hands when Sybil eased her groaning husband into a sitting position. Tom slumped over her shoulder, ghostly white as she doused his back with liniment oil.
"Perhaps you should sit out tomorrow," Matthew suggested.
He missed the little smirk on Tom's lips, but not Sybil, who felt it against her neck, along with a gentle tweak of her backside.
"Oh, these things usually work themselves out fairly quickly," she assured him. "And I'm an excellent nurse – he'll be tip-top in no time."
When they were finally alone, Sybil shoved her patient onto the mattress. "Tom Branson! You scared the life out of me!"
His fingers slithered beneath her hem. Her hand coiled and struck viper-like against his knee.
"Ow! I banged that when I fell, thank you very much!"
"Why on earth would you fake such a thing?!"
"You heard Matthew. Tomorrow, we'll stay here…"
"That's what you think," she muttered, shifting to swoosh off her dress. She swatted at his persistent hands. "Stop that!"
But he'd already wiggled up behind her, playfully pawing and kissing exposed patches of skin. Then he tugged at her slip and nibbled at her waist.
She squealed, turned with a scowl. "Tom!"
He reclined back, hands tucked beneath his head, and flashed that infernally smug grin.
"All right," she sighed, tossing her dress over the footboard, and settling back beside him. "Out with it. I know you're dying to tell me."
"Golf is a game of wit, milady..." He sat up to stretch out of his clothes. "You remember that I was chauffeur for Lady Delderfield?"
She snatched his tie when he flapped it at her nose and flung it aside.
"One summer, she went to Austria with her family, and her son-in-law Mr. Clarke – the one who ran the estate – told a few of us on the staff, those that he deemed superfluous, that with the family out of the country, our services weren't required and therefore we weren't to have a salary. We would be allowed room and board though because the mistress was so attached to all of us." He wiggled out of his trousers, and flopped back against the pillows. "The bastard said we should be grateful for such a generous offer."
Sybil couldn't imagine such a thing – Papa would never have slighted his staff that way and she knew very well that work continued with the family away. Even the chauffeurs helped with errands and they were always attending visitors who required the estate's hospitality.
"I'd enough pride left in me that I couldn't sit around and do nothing, so I hired out at the Portmarnock Golf Club that summer."
"Don't tell me you were a caddy!"
He belted out a laugh. "God no! That was their busy time of year and they needed an extra hand to drive the toffs around. But mornings were slow and I spent a lot of time with the caddies and we swatted a few balls about for fun." His mouth twisted again. "They said I was a natural."
"All this time, and you never told me?"
"It was long ago. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't important enough to tell."
Stretching out beside him, she propped on an elbow, arched a threatening brow. "I bet Matthew would love to have a new golf partner..."
"Don't you dare!"
"My silence for a price, Mr. Branson!"
"Blackmail is it?" He flopped to his side, wormed a hand up beneath the edge of her knickers. "And just what does milady demand?"
"You abandoned me on the dance floor this evening and my feet are rather done in…" She flashed a wicked smile. "…a foot massage would do nicely."
Tom pounced her over, eliciting a squeal, both of them teasing and tickling the other out of remaining clothes. Settling into the welcome vise of her limbs crawling around him, he felt the dampness between her legs hot against his arousal, felt the feathering of her fingertips between his shoulders as he fell into her kiss. "Your feet will get plenty of rest tonight, love," he nibbled against her mouth. "It's the rest of you that will be begging for mercy before I'm through."
After spending that night and the following morning doing what lovers do, Tom and Sybil napped off their fatigue, and grabbed a quick lunch on their way to the course. Arms linked, they wandered through the crowds again, Sybil cheekily reminding him of his 'bad back' and not to look so spry once they found their traveling party.
"Any miraculous healing, love, is down to my own private nurse," he teased with a kiss, "despite her insistence on riding the life out of me this morning."
He chuckled again, thankful that they'd found a lonely path, with little else than their playful conversation mingled with the distant sea. Slipping an arm around her waist, he stopped, bent to kiss her again, whispering, "And what a pleasant way to go it would be."
As the warmth of his mouth enveloped her, she was near suggesting they go straight back to their room. But then from somewhere on an adjacent hole, the crowd exploded with a boisterous cheer. They pulled apart with a mutual sigh.
"We'd better find Matthew," she said.
Their brother-in-law saw them coming from his perch near the sixteenth green, where he stood watching one of the matches alongside Edith and Gregson. He waved them over with a frown.
"Well, you've all but missed the best of it," Matthew scolded, and then scanned Tom over with a wary eye. "How's your back?"
"A bit sore, actually."
"I'll bet," he muttered, returning his attention to the priority at hand.
Bobby Jones holed out to a round of applause, strode purposefully toward the next tee. Matthew led his family onward, slapping a hand atop his fedora as a stiff wind whipped through the dunes.
"You're just in time," Edith explained to Tom. "Jones and Watrous are tied for the lead – with two to play!"
"It's been back and forth all afternoon," Matthew added above the murmuring crowd as they trudged onward. "Bobby had a rough time of it with his putter early on – couldn't make a thing! He was fortunate to be tied at the start of the inward nine, but then Watrous took a two shot lead at the thirteenth…"
Tom and Sybil exchanged a smile, listened patiently as the match was described in rather animated detail: Jones' steady par on the fourteenth against Watrous' bogey, and then the latter's shaky three-putt on the fifteenth, which put the warriors back to square. They'd just equaled each other at the par three sixteenth and now stood ready to battle over the closing two holes.
Standing on tip-toe, Matthew craned his neck to watch their tee shots on the seventeenth. Healthy back or not, Tom was less inclined to strain himself. To his right, he could clearly see what lay ahead: a menacing fairway that turned sharply right-to-left with. Its dogleg was peppered with a minefield of pot bunkers. A challenge, to be sure, here so close to the end.
Up first, Watrous drove his ball down the right side, leaving a perfect angle into the green. Jones played next and "swung over the top," at least according to Matthew's post-mortem analysis.
"Bloody hell," the future earl snapped, storming off in a solitary cloud of disgust.
Tom and Sybil followed through the heather, saw the reason for his dismay. In the distance, a marshal was standing guard over Jones' ball, which seemed to have landed in one of those nasty little pot bunkers.
Matthew was positively devastated, resigned now that Jones stood no chance. "An impossible shot," he grumbled, climbing atop a dune for an unimpeded view of play.
But Bobby Jones' had been given a smidgen of luck. His ball had avoided the deep bunkers and came to rest in a flat sandy patch, which at least offered the option – to the wise or the foolish, depending on one's point of view – to go straight at an unseen green. The young American stood over his shot in solitary contemplation.
According to Edith's whispered explanation, five years previous in his only other Open Championship, nineteen year old Bobby Jones had, after suffering through half a round of wretched play, succumbed to his bad temper and stormed off the Old Course at St. Andrew's. Tom now wondered if the young man's reddened neck might be a warning sign of another impending fit.
Out in the fairway, Watrous played first, a long safe shot that landed cleanly on the green and was met with polite applause. Back in the nether regions of the dogleg, with the windswept heather, blowing sand, and the sense of being engulfed by nature, the crowd had grown ominously silent. Tom heard every shifting foot, every hand jingling pocket change, and the murmured conversation between golfer and caddy as they selected a distant chimney top toward which to aim and, hopefully, hit the hidden green.
Jones wasted no time in planting his feet into the sand, twisting them down for a solid grip on Mother Earth. And then he swung.
Tom had lost all interest in golf since his days at Portmarnock, but standing there in the dogleg of the seventeenth hole at Lytham and St. Anne's, he held his breath in rapt anticipation. Jones' ball barely cleared the nearest dune, clipping the top few strands of grass as it sliced straight ahead.
If it's the right distance…
The crowd at the green went mad.
Jones' ball had not only cleared the wilderness, but it landed ten feet closer than his opponent. The miraculous shot must have utterly shaken Watrous, who took three putts to finish. Jones only need two, which meant he had a one shot lead heading to the eighteenth hole.
Both players managed passable tee shots and seconds and, as they were following the pair toward the final green, Matthew couldn't stop babbling about what they'd just witnessed.
"I still can't believe it!" Keeping up with the trotting crowd, he was nearly out of breath. "With the championship on the line, blind shot out of sand – with a mashie of all clubs – and clips it cleanly." He shook his head again in disbelief. "Why, if he'd taken just a teaspoon more of sand it could have been disastrous!"
On the eighteenth green, Watrous three-putted again and when Jones made his par, he held a two shot lead over the field. Only Hagen, still on the course, had a chance to best him.
"And if anyone can engineer a miracle," said Matthew as they waited, "its him!"
But Sir Walter stumbled down the stretch and arrived on the final hole two shots back. He'd have to hole his second from the fairway to force a playoff. The remaining crowd encircled the green. Matthew, the Bransons, Edith and Gregson, all watched as the golfer approached his shot in the distance, paused momentarily and then started forward to the green.
"What's he doing?" asked Sybil.
"I've no idea," Edith replied, as Hagen turned round at the green and then walked back to his ball, making a show of counting his steps. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say he's pacing off his shot."
"Don't be ridiculous," Matthew laughed. "He's one hundred fifty yards out and…"
From down the fairway, Hagen bellowed to the official standing by the green. The man merely shrugged, cupped a hand to his ear.
"I WANT YOU TO HOLD THE FLAG!"
"He's gone mad!" Matthew declared.
The official looked equally baffled, but wandered onto the green, reached for the flag as if it were a lightning rod.
Like a good showman, Hagen waited for all eyes to settle on him, allowing the tension build before making his final swing.
"Well, if he pulls it off," muttered Matthew, "it would be a….Good Heavens!"
Hagen's ball dropped out of the sky, nearly landed in the hole on the fly, but skittered beyond the green into a flower bed. The crowd went through a procession of gasps, muttering and finally a cheer, once they'd realized that young Bobby Jones was officially the new champion.
A tie for third place was of little consequence to Hagen, and he took three more to finish for an indifferent bogey, but he graciously awaited for the new champion to make his way front and center for his prize.
The Royal and Ancient members presented Jones with the Claret Jug at a table draped in the Stars and Stripes. Despite the grumblings of a few old British stodgies who'd hoped the recent American assault on their championship would be repulsed, he was clearly the crowd favorite. Matthew wormed his way through for a prime spot and, pointed out the small circle of former Open Champions standing behind the young American.
"I'll wager there are at least forty national championships right there," he said, and whistled noisily when old J.H. Taylor, winner of five championships himself, spoke the sentiment of the crowd.
"We have just watched the greatest golfer in the game win the game's greatest prize."
Young Jones accepted the trophy, humbly adding, "My greatest honor is simply adding my name to a trophy that already holds so many who have done so much."
Standing beside Tom, O.B. Keeler whipped out a handkerchief, swabbed his nose, and sniffled noisily.
"Bobby hit a rather brilliant shot out of the sand," Tom said. "Even Mr. Hagen couldn't have pulled that one off!"
Keeler nodded proudly. "I wish I'd seen it."
Tom was rather astonished. The old man had been at Jones' side the entire tournament. "You didn't?"
"No," he sighed. "I followed him through the thirteenth hole when he was still two shots behind. And then I retreated to the clubhouse hoping against hope that if I quit watching, his luck would change. And it did! I was at the bar, taking on a liberal dose of antifreeze when the news came in." He dabbed his eyes again. "It was a hard sacrifice to let him go it alone, but worth it, wouldn't you say?"
Tom glanced down at Sybil, who was applauding as the champion finished his speech. His arm slipped around her waist and he offered Keeler a quick nod.
"Yes, I would."
Once the champion was crowned, St. Anne's began dwindling to its normal population. Extra trains struggled to keep pace and the roads were jammed with patrons honking their way out of town. With them went Edith and Gregson, off to Liverpool for an interview early the next morning. And, after bumping into a club chum from London who issued an invitation for tomorrow's auto speed trials at Saltburn, Matthew cut his own trip short a day.
Tom was rather jealous as he bid his brother-in-law a safe journey, but as Sybil slipped an arm around his waist, kissed him slowly right there by the course gate, the prospect of cars was suddenly forgotten. Except for the one that bleated its horn in the middle of their reverie. In his chauffeur-driven Daimler, Walter Hagen whizzed by delighting the crowds as he flung tees and golf balls from the open top in a self-made ticker-tape parade.
Tom laughed. "It's hard not to appreciate a man who can lose and find enough grace to make an exit like that."
Rather than dinner beneath the soaring doric columns and coffered ceiling of the Hotel Majestic dining room that evening, Tom and Sybil opted for lighter fare down at the St. Annes pier. Hand-in-hand they wandered through the brick and half-timbered entrance toward the wood-decked promenade that stretched out into the sea. On the far end, where the waves lapped the pilings even at low tide, were the Moorish Theater with its turrets and prominent onion dome, and the concert hall, home of the St. Anne's Pier Ladies Orchestra. On that Friday evening beneath the amber glow of a clouding sunset, the famed pier was alive with vendors, tourists and the lingering patrons from the tournament. It was too crowded, in fact, for the Bransons taste at least for their remaining time together, and after they'd finished their fish and chips, Sybil suggested a walk on the beach.
Nearing the water's edge, they paused only to bare their feet. She removed a golf ball from her pocket, tucked it in her shoe for safekeeping. Bobby Jones had presented it to her in the hotel lobby as he was checking out. Give this to your Bobby, he'd said. And tell him he can accomplish whatever he sets his mind to.
"That was nice of Mr. Jones," Tom said, tugging off his shoes and socks. "Though I'm surprised he didn't want to keep it as a memento of his victory."
"Oh, I imagine he'll have lots more before the end of his career," she replied and rolled off her stockings. "Speaking of loot, what of yours from last night?"
Taking her hand and leading them over the sand, he said, "I'd like to buy a wireless for Bobby, as a homecoming present when he finishes his course."
He braced himself for the inevitable scolding for spoiling their children, but instead a smile teased her lips. "For him or for you?"
"For both of us," he admitted with a grin. "I saw an advertisement for a new station in York and I think we could pick it up in Downton. It's the future, Sybil. A one-time investment and you can listen whenever you want for free. The news, local reports, music, and I understand they have a children's hour with stories and such."
"You don't have to politic me, Mr. Branson! I think it's a lovely idea." She leaned into him, steered them toward the crawling tide. "And what of the rest of the money? Do you plan to have mercy on your brother-in-law and replenish his pride?"
"No, the remainder is for you, or for your new clinic, rather, if you still plan to give it a go after your training is through." They paused at the water's edge, letting the wavelets lap briskly over their toes. "I believe in you, Sybil," he said, toying with her fingers as they stared out at the endless horizon. "These past few months…it's been a long time since I've seen you so passionate about your work." He squeezed her hand. "You're going to be a wonderful midwife, love, and the women of the district will be lucky to have you."
When she finally glanced up, eyes glistening, he said, "I'll admit, early on in our marriage, my greatest fear was caging you again, or that somehow, unknowingly, I would hold you back, and you'd come to resent me…"
Sybil pulled him to her, silencing him with a kiss, until he melted willingly in her embrace. "Darling, from the start of it all, you're the only one who's ever completely encouraged me to pursue my work. And every time I begin to doubt myself, you're there, nudging me on." She held his face, brushed back the windswept locks at his brows. "I couldn't do it without you. Nor would I want to. Together, remember?"
The corner of his mouth twitched. "Always."
Sybil released his hand then and, undaunted by the chilly surf, wandered out above her ankles where the waves snagged at her hem. She wandered further still to her knees and stopped, gazing over the Irish Sea, its gray waters churning and fizzing with an amber-kissed mist. Clouds were creeping in, high and thin, creased with vibrant golden bands. It gave the sand and dunes an inviting ethereal glow, but, Sybil knew, one that was short-lived. Night – and tomorrow's inevitable separation – lurked ever closer as the palette of brilliance retreated with the setting sun.
She turned, waved for him to join her.
Tom smiled slowly. Who was he to deny her a bit of fun?
He shed his coat, waistcoat and tie, dropping them into a lump safe beyond the crawling tide, and rolled his trousers. The cold wet sand squished between his toes but a warmth pulsed through him once their fingers twined, followed by arms, mouths, tongues. Beneath their feet, the sand eroded away, shifting with the rocking tide, leaving them hopelessly imbalanced and laughing into increasingly frantic kisses.
Tom dislodged a foot, which slurped out of the muck. When Sybil tried the same, she gasped against his lips. "Oh…I think I'm stuck."
As he bent for her ankle, she seized the opportunity and slid a hand over his backside. Tom didn't mind the playful assault on his privates - indeed he was rather accustomed to it - but he certainly wasn't prepared for the tidal wave from Mother Nature. He swallowed a bucket of seawater and tumbled backwards like a stunned fish.
He scrambled to his hands and knees as the tide ebbed, the current sucking sand beneath his fingers, and he coughed and spat. "Ack...ugh..."
"Darling..." Sybil was giggling so hard, her thumps on his back were missing wide. "Get up...before you get another mouth..."
But it was too late, except this time the Irish Sea shot up his nose.
Once Tom found his footing again, and regained a somewhat sodden composure, he feigned a scowl at at his giggling wife. "You're far too dry for me, milady!"
"Oh, I assure you that's not the case," she giggled wickedly.
She tried to dodge him as he darted through the waves, but the current and her drenched hem snagged at her legs. He caught her just before she took a nose dive and easily hoisted her like a sack of grain over his shoulders. "Tom, put me down!"
As he carried her deeper into the surf, Sybil screeched through half-hearted objections, shrieking when he reached up beneath her sodden dress to offer a few playful pinches of his own. Tom trudged out as far as his waist when, breathless from laughter, he dropped her in his arms, rocked for momentum and then gave her a mighty fling. Laughing as he was and struggling against the tide, it was more of a flop. But Sybil didn't seem to notice or care and, beaming, arms wide, she splashed back into the Irish Sea. Tom was at her side when she floated up on a wave, sputtering and swiping at the dark locks snaking over her face. The water was cold, but she wasn't, not with his arms encircling her waist, the warmth of his chest flooding into hers.
"Are you all right?" he gasped.
Bracing his feet against the tide, his mouth went to her shoulder, laid bare from the force of the waves. Her foot hooked around his calf, pressed her more fully against his arousal. Tom moaned into her skin, took her mouth roughly until she had to pull away for breath. "Take me back," she gasped. Even through the rush of the waves, he heard the hitch in her voice as she tried to laugh. One tear mixed with the seawater on her face, and then another, and he instinctively pulled her tighter.
She shook her head, fisted the back of his sodden shirt. "I'm back to York tomorrow and right now I don't want to think about it." She pulled him down, cursed herself for the sob that escaped through her kiss. "I just want you, every part of you...every moment I can get."
Long A/N2: I had a lot of fun with this, chiefly because I could work in my sports (and home state) hero, Mr. Bobby Jones. During the late 1920s, Jones dominated the game, winning ten major championships, including all four in 1930. That feat, known as the Grand Slam (a contemporary journalist called the Impregnable Quadrilateral), hasn't been matched since. After his victory at the U.S. Open that year, he retired from competitive golf at the age of 28. Despite many encouraging him to do so, he never turned professional and was, in my opinion, the greatest golfer to ever swing a club.
The countless stories of Hagen's outlandish behavior are probably more legend than fact – even the dramatic finish at St. Anne's has been liberally embellished over the years – but he also understood the economic power of persona and rarely contradicted such tales. However, the story of his hiring an Austro-Daimler limousine to serve as his dressing room in front of the Royal St. George's clubhouse is very much true. Several of his more colorful quotes (e.g. about living like a millionaire) and those about him ("wounded duck") are not mine, but blatantly snatched from contemporary writings.
Minor bits of interest: Oscar Bane Keeler was a brilliant sports writer for the Atlanta Journal and covered all of Jones' victories. His statement about taking a "liberal dose of antifreeze" during Jones' miraculous shot was taken from his own writings. Also, though not mentioned here, during the final round, Jones forgot his badge when returning from lunch for the afternoon match. The gate attendant didn't recognize him, so he paid the half-crown entrance fee (arguably the best money ever spent). For those interested in a decent rendition of Jones career and his relationship with Hagen, I suggest "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" with Jim Caviezel and Jeremy Northam.