The best moments in sports, the ones that give us chills or fill our eyes with tears, generally involve people for whom a certain goal has been elusive. We all remember John Elway finally clutching a Super Bowl trophy after three defeats in the ultimate game. I vividly remember the look on Dean Smith's face in 1982 as he cut down a national championship net after taking North Carolina to the Final Four six times previously and coming away empty each time. One can only imagine what it will be like in Buffalo when that city finally celebrates a Super Bowl win or in Boston or Chicago when the Red Sox, Cubs or White Sox finally win another World Series.
Of course all of these athletes and coaches compete at the highest level. Most are paid quite handsomely for their efforts, and when they do finally climb the mountain, they are showered with endless -- and richly deserved -- adulation. It may be difficult to imagine that an amateur athlete, one who holds down a full-time job and has no coach, no agent, no entourage and no endorsements, can feel the same pains and joys as a professional athlete.
He (or she) can. Because of what I do for a living, I've been lucky enough to know many of the greatest athletes of the late 20th century. I think I can say with complete honesty, and with great bias, that I've never known an athlete who worked harder to conquer his personal windmill than Bobby Feinstein. For those of you not steeped in Feinstein family lore, he's my younger brother.
Bobby is a very good golfer. His handicap hovers between 2 and 4. Like me, he grew up working summers at Gardiner's Bay Country Club on Shelter Island -- a tiny place tucked between the north and south shores on the eastern end of Long Island -- where he learned the game.
In 1982, Bobby made the club championship final at Gardiner's Bay for the first time -- and lost on the last hole. He made the final a second time, a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth. Loss, loss, loss, loss, loss. If Elway got sick of hearing about lost Super Bowls, I promise you Bobby got sick of people saying, "Now, how many times have you lost the final?"
On one memorable occasion, one down on the last hole, he hit his second shot into a greenside bunker, virtually ensuring another defeat. In the silence that followed Bobby said sadly -- and not all that loudly -- "Oh, Bobby, why are you such a choking [deleted]?" Under the circumstances, it was a fairly mild thing to say.
No matter. From out of the woods where she and my father had parked their cart so they would be out of Bobby's line of vision (they made him nervous) came my mother's voice, loud and clear: "BOBBY! "
Bobby was 29 years old. But when his mother heard a vulgarity, she reacted. It was Mom who introduced her three children to golf. She also introduced us to etiquette -- and warned us never to forget it.
While Bobby grew into a good golfer, I grew into a mediocre one. Four years ago, brutally overweight and out of shape, I began to swim again. Hundreds of years ago, I was a reasonably good swimmer. But I had stopped for 20 years and gained about 50 pounds in the interim. The first day I attempted to "work out" (shortly after a "you are going to die if you keep this up" lecture from my doctor), I could not finish 200 yards without stopping. Slowly, I worked my way back into something resembling shape. I began to swim in local Masters (25-and-up, divided into five-year age groups) meets. I lost 30 pounds and joined a team -- in part because I loved the name: Ancient Mariners. I made new friends and ran into old ones. I got better.
On a late August weekend, at the U.S. Masters National Long Course Championships, held this year at the University of Minnesota, I swam the butterfly leg on the Ancient Mariners 200 medley relay. My partners on the relay were Jason Crist, a consistent top five finisher in any event he tries at the nationals; Michael Fell, who won the 50 and 100 backstroke events; and Wally Dicks, who just happens to hold the world record in his age group (35-39) in both the 50 and 100 breast stroke. I may not be a great swimmer, but I know how to pick relay partners.
We won. Proving that fear is the best motivator, I swam out of my mind.
And when Jason hit the wall 37-hundredths of a second ahead of two heavily favored teams, we were all jumping up and down and high-fiving as if we had won an Olympic gold medal. I promise you, no famous athlete ever enjoyed a victory any more than we did.
Two days later I flew home and raced to the golf course. Bobby was playing in the final at Gardiner's Bay for the seventh time. At one stage, he was 4 up. With six holes to play, the match was even and I could feel all the memories bouncing around inside his head.
But this time was different. Bobby won four of the next five holes, closing out the match on the 17th green, no more than 100 yards from the spot where my mother made her memorable comment.
Mom died six years ago. But her presence on that green was palpable. A number of her friends were there and they all had tears in their eyes. They were not the only ones. As I hugged Bobby, who was sagging with exhaustion, relief and joy, I could almost hear my mother's voice saying, "Way to go, Bobby. Now tuck in your shirt before your victory speech."