Golf in the Jungle
Local golf pro Gilbert Freeman returns to the Mexican jungle where he spent his boyhood summers perfecting his swing. But this trip is to spread the ashes of his father, a renowned lepidopterist.
The bamboo suspension bridges at Club de Golf Covadonga sag at the ends and wiggle in the middle, making a crossing feel like a particularly difficult field sobriety test. So you throw out your arms like a tightrope walker and try not to look down into the muddy tributary of the Rio Valles six feet below.
Covadonga and its thrilling bridges doze in a clearing in the rain forest between Tampico and Mexico City. Its holes are nine tunnels in the jungle, its greens putt like shag carpets saturated with honey, and the indispensable tool of the grounds crew is the machete. An air of mystery and secrecy pervade the place. There’s not a word about it on the Web, in phone directories, or in history books. Even people in the nearest town, Ciudad Valles, swear it no longer exists. Yet despite its crumbling concrete entryway, and the gray-green moss and peeling paint on its eerie, abandoned hotel, Covadonga lives. But barely. Although it is the only course in a 75-mile radius, tourists can’t find it, and only 40 pay the 600-peso (about $55) monthly dues. Its pro shop holds a pro, Andres Morales, but no shop.
What Covadonga has in abundance, however, is mariposas. Butterflies. Butterflies are what brought Gilbert Freeman to this place every summer when he was a kid. And butterflies took the Lakewood Country Club pro back for the first time in 32 years.
Avery Freeman, Gilbert’s father, was the Tiger Woods of lepidoptery. "Few individuals in recent decades can match his contributions,€VbCrLf writes Andrew D. Warren of Oregon State University. "Our current knowledge of Mexican hesperiid diversity is based on his groundbreaking research. €¦ The excitement generated in the community of North American lepidopterists by Avery’s early publications on Megathymini cannot be overstated.€VbCrLf Living on grant money from foundations such as the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian, and the Carnegie Institute, and driving a stick shift Chevy station wagon, the biology teacher at Hillcrest High School collected widely and well on his annual hajj to South Texas and Mexico. A meticulous and thorough scientist, he identified 107 new species during his career-so many that he could afford a little whimsy when asserting the discoverer’s right to assign a Latin name. He named three butterflies for his wife, Louise, including Megathymus yuccae louiseae; one each for daughters Linda (Amblyscirtes Linda) and Julia (Nastra Julia) and two for his son, Gilbert (Astraptes gilberti and Agathymus gilberti). Even his Covadonga caddie, Benito Reycendes, was bestowed a piece of obscure immortality (Poanes benito).
During the family’s fourth summer at Covadonga, 13-year-old Gilbert discovered the game they played on the nine-hole course outside the hotel. Almost immediately, he put down his net, and golf became to him what butterflies were to his father. Gilbert played every day and entered his stats and a succinct analysis in a diary ("hit number four in two but bogied five again!€VbCrLf), mimicking his father’s careful end-of-the-day notations in his butterfly logbook. His parents took up the game the following year, and summertime acquired a pleasing rhythm: golf at dawn; butterfly stalking for father, precisely 100 practice shots for his son; lunch and a siesta during the hottest part of the day; more butterflies and practice balls; and then all three played a final nine holes before dinner. The best days of their lives, they all say.
Louise Freeman can close her eyes, she says, and see her husband disappear into the jungle to the right of the ninth fairway, looking simultaneously gentle and fierce, with a long-handled net in one hand and a machete in the other. Avery Freeman had a mustache, large, luminous brown eyes like his son, and leather boots laced up to the knee to protect against snakes.
In February 2006, Gilbert returned to Covadonga. He carried his father’s ashes in a black Hogan shag bag.
Gilbert had never been to Mexico in the cool part of the year. He remembers only summer in the jungle, when heat attacked in shimmering waves, and big hats and siestas were more a necessity than a choice. But his father never rested long after lunch; the flapping of butterfly wings kept him from dozing. So while the others slept in hammocks or on rumpled sheets, with ceiling fans turning lazily over their heads, he’d be lacing his boots and checking his pockets for the little waxed paper envelopes he used to store specimens. He’d grab a net and his jungle knife and out he’d go.
"The best collecting is to be done around the irrigation ditches and canals and along the Rio Grande River,€VbCrLf Avery wrote in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society of a 1960 trip to the Tex-Mex borderland. Gilbert would have been 5 years old when this adventure took place, and, as his mother recalls, he was there.
In the ’60s, as their youngest child got older and more adaptable, the Freemans ventured farther and farther south, past the giant hook of the Yucatan Peninsula all the way to Guatemala and Belize. Their Spanish improved, and they got to know where to get a Coke or a cerveza in a variety of exotic locations-Veracruz, Tamazunchale, Tabasco, Oaxaca. For years they rolled in a rust-colored ’63 wagon, then a yellow ’67 with a black interior. Neither had air-conditioning because Avery didn’t trust the technology. Despite the skin-adhering vinyl coverings and the noise from the open windows, Gilbert loved that yellow car. Its rear-facing backseat allowed him to alternately watch the wild country recede and to look down to read the science fiction that was his addiction. Wrapped in reverie, Gilbert felt like the king of the road.
"We’d stop anywhere, at anytime, and Dad would grab his net and disappear for an hour,€VbCrLf he recalls. When the father returned to the car, his son helped locate the cigar boxes in which they stored the dramatically colored, recently deceased mariposas. "I was sure I was going to be a scientist like him, probably an archaeologist.€VbCrLf Gilbert got an A on every science project and the subject of every project was butterflies-their migration, their anatomy, the beautiful miracle of their existence.
Then golf happened. Gilbert and Louise learned in the usual way, with a little professional instruction and practice. Not Avery. Back home in Garland, the middle-aged biology teacher applied the scientific method to the project, testing various swing hypotheses by endlessly hitting whiffle golf balls against the house. Whack-thump. Whack-thump. Whack-thump. Torture for people inside: "A-very!€VbCrLf Louise would yell. "Could you please stop that racket!€VbCrLf
Despite the thorough experimentation, Avery Freeman’s swing remained a faintly agricultural chop, as if he was holding a machete and not a 5-iron. He had a too-strong grip and a short game that could explode at any minute. No lessons-he didn’t believe in the technology. He got the job as the Hillcrest High golf coach and kept it for 10 years, but the resultant proximity to golfers and golf courses didn’t help his own game much. He shot a 39 for nine holes once, at Eastern Hills in Garland-his high water mark. Usually, he was all bogies.
At age 18, Gilbert stopped going on the trip to Covadonga. He had a big-time junior golf career going by this time, with college coaches wanting to give him a scholarship, and a job in the bag room at Dallas Athletic Club. Father and son enjoyed golf separately from then on, unless Gilbert had a tournament, when Avery would watch quietly, stealthily, as if he was hunting something.
Gilbert travels back to Mexico with an odd feeling of excitement and nostalgia. Behind the wheel of a rented Suburban, he observes dogs aimlessly wandering the streets of the muddy little towns between Tampico and Valles. There are speed bumps instead of traffic lights, and open-air grills emanating delicious smells. A funeral halts traffic. The coffin is on a pickup truck, and a few score of mourners follow it on foot. A mother wheels her small child on a dolly, like a mover. The people on the street stare at the pale faces in our car. We stare back.
"It’s like hunting any other animal,€VbCrLf Gilbert explains during the two-hour, 75-mile drive. "Skippers are real fast. You sneak up from behind, get them in your net, then flip it, quickly, so they can’t fly out again. Then you’ve got to kill them right away, to keep them from beating their wings up.€VbCrLf
Skippers are what?
"Slightly smaller butterflies, with different veins in their wings and different antennae.€VbCrLf
And you kill them how?
"Pinch their necks. There’s an art to it.€VbCrLf
While Gilbert drives, one of his fellow travelers, Dan Strimple, another Dallas-based golf pro (and husband of the model Jan Strimple), tries to form his first-ever Spanish phrases. Dan tends to wing it when he’s out of his element, so he’s thrilled to discover that a number of Spanish words can be formed by simply adding an "A€VbCrLf or an "O€VbCrLf to the English word: credito, cemento, sexo.
"How do you say, €˜I want’?€VbCrLf Dan asks. "How do you say, €˜with you’?€VbCrLf
He digests for a moment, then: "Yo quiero sexo con usted.€VbCrLf
In Valles, Gilbert turns south on Ruta 85, passing a huge statue of Emiliano Zapata. Dodging speeding trucks comically overloaded with sugarcane, he drives unerringly to this place he used to know, but now he doesn’t know it. Covadonga’s face has changed beyond imagining, like a long-lost friend who has let himself go. "Jeez,€VbCrLf Gilbert mutters. "Wow.€VbCrLf Tree branches with big white flowers scratch the sides of the car, and saplings tickle it underneath. The hotel is a phantom amid the aggressive jungle. At the end of the path is Andres Morales, the caddie who never left, now the pro.
"Heel-bare?€VbCrLf he says. "I can’t believe you’re here.€VbCrLf
They hug. Benito esta aqui? No-Gilbert’s caddie is dead. Too much cerveza, too much fumar, Andres explains. And Mundo? No, lo siento-sorry-Avery Freeman’s caddie also is muerto. But Raymundo, Gilbert’s mother’s caddie, the credit manager at the Ford dealership in Valles, has been alerted by cell phone of the miraculous appearance of Heel-bare, and in a few moments, he pulls up on his motorcycle. They exchange hugs and laughter. Back in the day, Raymundo would find tees to match the color of Louise Freeman’s outfits and hand her a color-coordinated peg with her driver. His English remains excellent. He wrote the Freemans a letter every year at Christmas.
Green parrots screech in the giant India laurel above our heads, and the conversation stops. Andres observes the sadness in Gilbert’s eyes: is it the death of the caddies, or the fingers of rust and rot grasping the once white clubhouse, or the bamboo and palms trying to suffocate the hotel? "Covadonga,€VbCrLf Andres says softly. "Almost gone.€VbCrLf
The last part of a butterfly’s four-stage life, the flying part, usually lasts only a week or two. A generation of butterflies is called a flight. In the tropics, in the summer, there is flight after flight, and death and life mingle constantly.
Every butterfly meal is sipped through the straw of its proboscis, and every species will take nectar or the juice from rotting fruit if it can get it. Plenty of both at Covadonga: along its fairways grow mangoes, bananas, lemons, and limes. The jungle has taken over the orange grove by the ninth hole, but, still, no caddie or butterfly ever goes hungry.
And no golfer feels bored. You’re stymied from the tee on both the par 3s, with a 3-iron in your hands. Virile trees virtually surround the green of the mystifying fifth, a 234-yard par 4 from the back tee (only Andres has the proper shot-a karate chop with a laminated Stan Thompson 6-wood). The bunker sand is not sand but-this is only a theory-the stuff the ants throw out when they dig their homes. And to say the greens are slow doesn’t really capture the feeling. They are glacial. They are an old man walking uphill underwater in lead boots. The ball rolls on them as if it were a wet sponge. In short, it’s a course to make you grit your teeth, especially when the local experts-Andres, Raymundo, and a part-time caddie named Luis-are kicking your ass. Even after playing it for three days, Covadonga remains an unsolvable puzzle, like chess in the dark.
But Dan will not allow anything but laughter. More cerveza, he says at lunch, then more. When someone notices how the sunscreen on his face contrasts with his pink skin, he begins to call himself El Diablo Blanco. "How do you do,€VbCrLf he says in his awful pidgin to a new, very surprised-looking acquaintance. "I’m the devil.€VbCrLf At a bar, in keeping with his vowelization of English to make, he hopes, Spanish, he asks for a glass of Coca-Cola with rum-a. At a party in honor of the Americans under twinkling Christmas lights in the front yard at la casa de Andres Morales in Valles, El Diablo Blanco declares the whole thing-the food and the drinks and the golf course and the company-to be awesome-miento. Most of all, Dan the morale officer keeps an eye on Gilbert. Is his friend feeling for his father, gone now for four years, or for his youth, gone now for much longer? And when, and where, will he spread his father’s ashes?
On the morning of the third day, when Gilbert carries his clubs to the first tee, he’s got the black Hogan shag bag in his left hand.
He nails his tee shot-he’s an excellent player; he twice qualified for the Byron Nelson Classic-but he doesn’t leave the tee right away. He hangs back and walks slowly to the dark jungle thicket to the right of the first fairway. He opens the bag and opens his hand. Some of the ashes of Avery Freeman hang in the air.
Gilbert repeats this ceremony a few more times, and we leave him alone. Luis, who putts like a safe cracker and has the strongest grip on the planet, knows what’s going on. He talks for a minute about fatherhood, and his own father. He and his wife Maribel have only two ninas, he says, Karla and Zaira. His own padre was much more prolific, fathering eight boys consecutively, then five girls in a row. The 12 siblings of Luis talk about his small output, he says with a smile. That’s one of his brothers over there, Magda, the man with a gray mustache and a rake standing by the creek in front of the fourth green. Magda has six children. The Martinez brothers smile at each other and wave.
"I go twice to United States for work, cemento, and use that to buy the, the, tierra? The land-for my house. I build the house,€VbCrLf he says. To make ends meet when he’s not carrying a bag, Luis tends bar in Valles.
After this, our final round, we all walk through the abandoned hotel, the empty, echoing space that was Gilbert’s home for eight summers. That was the bowling alley, Gilbert says-two lanes. I used to skateboard down that ramp. I hung my hammock on those hooks. My father used to come in here for a Covadonga cocktail, which was red. There were snake skins on the wall, there and there.
No guests have checked in since the early ’80s, Andres explains. That was when the government decided that Covadonga should be the center of a giant lake. The administration paid off the owner and condemned the place. Then a new group came to power in Mexico City and forgot the lake idea. And that’s why, Andres says, we’re left with-this.
Gilbert gives Luis his watch, and Andres his clubs, dozens of golf balls, gloves, golf towels-almost enough to stock his shop. Hasta luego, amigo, hasta luego. As the car threads through the crooked path to the highway, Gilbert isn’t sure if the pleasure of the last few days has outweighed the pain. It has seemed at times that the fun from the golf and the reunions had only sharpened a dormant sadness. Yet he had come close to crying only once, when he carried the shag bag to the jungle bordering the ninth fairway and scattered the last of Avery’s ashes. But at that moment the son thought that his dad would live on, in a way, in this out-of-the-way place. As a butterfly floating over slow greens.
Excerpted from Golf Dads: Fathers, Sons, and the Greatest Game (Houghton Mifflin, May 2008), by Curt Sampson. In our July 2007 issue, he wrote about a country club golf pro’s shot at the PGA tour.