Golf is an integral part of my life. Not just a mild preoccupation or a hobby, rather a calling that pulses deep within my veins. Golf is a lot of things for me not just a score. The game is my living link to my past; those that have gone before me who shared this obsession, which taught me gratitude for golf. It’s the air early in the morning, new dew on the closely mown grass, the sound of a good pass made club compressing a ball neatly against the turf, a connection between mind and soul exhilaratingly pure. Golf is the unbreakable link, the bond between father and son, grandfather and grandson. When I’m on the course and flowing with the game, I know that they are there with me, in spirit and indelible memory.
Percy Marshall Sr.
Percy Marshall Sr, is my great grandfather and one of the great men I’ve been lucky to know in my time on this earth. He is 103 and still ever the golfer in spirit. His love for the game transcends a selfish affection. Never would he hoard greedily the beauty of golf. This man was moved to share the game with those that otherwise would never have had the opportunity to be exposed to its majesty. The good lord gave us this game to share and experience happiness, fellowship, and an undeniable kinship regardless of race or economic status. He made it his mission in the great city of Cincinnati, Ohio. His aim was the youth as he loves to see the children playing golf. For that matter, he would never hesitate to chat up the merits to anyone regardless of age, race, or gender. Play the game! It’s the greatest game ever invented. He championed an ambitious initiative to get clubs in the hands of the inner city youth. The only donation he was looking for were those old clubs nobody was using. It’s estimated he was responsible for collecting over 2000 sets of clubs. Talk about success.
Mr. Marshall, who was inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame based in Winston-Salem, N.C., started from very humble beginnings. The legend of his homemade golf club he fashioned from an old steel washtub still astonishes me to this day. His fever for the game glowed hot after a brief exposure caddying for an English cotton salesmen. It was 1928, the days of legal racial equality were still decades away. A man with a beautiful swing and an accepting heart for a boy of color ignited a passion that has been passed on at least 4 generations. Think about that for a second, let it soak in. The human condition was radically altered by an act of benevolence in a time when that was unheard of, mind bogglingly unexpected. The ripple effect spanning at least 4 generations directly, yet exponentially the reach is beyond measure. The gift of golf was given to so many, by one man, directly influenced by the humanity of another. I can’t begin to fathom that kind of impact.
Personally, I’m a direct benefactor of his impact. After all, Mr. Marshall taught my grandfather Solomon, who in turn taught me, his grandson. Grateful is often an overused word, but true to the definition I am eternally grateful for the times I’ve been blessed to spend with Percy on the golf course. When I was just starting my golf journey with some great tutelage from Solomon, my great granddaddy happened to be coming through Atlanta. He wanted to ride with me for 9 holes, heard I’d taken up the game….actually, I think he insisted, not that I needed much coercing. I was nervous because he has an eagle eye for the swing. He loves a “good move” into the ball and I was hopeful that my rather longwinded whirlwind pass would meet his approval. Thankfully it did, he just needed me to make sure I set my hands right “every time,” and stop trying to hit the ball so hard. The second time we played was in Cincinnati at his beloved home course of Avon Fields. It’s a muni at its core and Mr. Marshall was the patriarch for those local players for many years. Everyone gave him a hello as he made his way slowly through the clubhouse. He was 95 then. Didn’t play much, but loved to come and watch. This day was exceptionally special as my 7 year old son was playing with us. When we made it to the tee box, I asked Mr. Marshall if he was playing from the forward tees….I mean he was 95 at the time so it seemed to me a reasonable assumption. I’ll never forget the fire in his eyes as he assessed me proper, gave me a little look up and down and proclaimed with a real sense of indignation…..”Those are the ladies tees….and I ain’t no lady.” I pray to God I still have that kind of vigor if I make it that far. We had one of those days that I and my son will always remember. Mr. Marshall was smitten with the sweet natural move of a baseball playing 7 year old. Making a rather bold and prophetic statement to me without a shred of doubt…”that boy is going to be a golfer; he could be a great golfer.” Still remember trying to temper his assessment with, “maybe, but he’s a baseball player granddaddy, that’s all he wants to do.”
The last time we were out was a couple of years ago. Percy hadn’t been out to a golf course in some time so we made a trip up as a family to Cincinnati. We took him out to another local course in the fall as Avon Fields was closed for an event. Health at 100+ is tenuous, so I tried to set the expectations low for my son who was beyond excited to be on the course with great great grandaddy again. Sounds weird just writing that…..how lucky we are. I made the arrangements, got him a cart and he rode nine holes with his caretaker with a smile miles wide. Father time has taking a toll on him physically, but the soul knows no age. The weather was perfect, the day legendary. He was watching, living the shots he used to hit through his 14 year old great great grandson. We live in a completely different world from the one he grew up in. Times have changed as they say; staggering progress yet so many things stay the same. The one chord tying a century to the next is a mutual love for the game. Imagine that with any other sport? Just imagine the generational ties taut with living life, not just words or fragile memory, but through action.
I felt the need to write these words today as Percy is 103. Happy Birthday, great granddaddy. I’m proud of him and thankful for him; a man amongst men whose influence and sphere radiate with a still powerfully provocative force. Sure, he might not have been the president or some CEO of such an such, or wealthy by the standard set by society. But, you see, that’s the point. His passion for golf filled him with the intangible that those he touched grab hold of and are filled with today. A passion set in motion, given to others that will live long beyond his years. Golf. That itch on a Saturday morning, to go hit it, go find it, go hit it again; a soul feeding endeavor that only demands your respect. I’ll leave this post with a few words of wisdom from Percy Marshall Sr: