“On the way down the hill we walked three abreast in the cobblestone street, drunk and laughing and talking like men who knew they would separate at dawn and travel to the far corners of the earth.”?Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary
If you are looking for some sort of analysis or critical thinking today, you can stop reading. This particular effort is not for you. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s a column or an article. It is more like homage…a strung together telling of tales to paint a picture. You see, I’ve just returned from a yearly trip I take with a good friend and colleague on radio, Robbie O’Bryan, to his home town for a golf tournament that raises funds for the University of Kentucky football program. I should note that I am not now, nor will I ever be, a Kentucky fan… ever. In fact, I look forward to my Georgia Bulldogs dropping 50 on them again this year. But this experience transcends the game of golf, football allegiances, or cultural experiences, and this is why I keep going back, in spite of that fact. The three days spent in eastern Kentucky for this shindig are unlike any other, and are more reminiscent of a James Still novel than anything I knew growing up. The cast of characters, the rough but bucolic setting, and the sheer insanity of it all…makes no sense…and yet seems so perfect. It is, quite simply, one of the most unique and quietly kept secrets in southeast regional sports.
Paintsville, Kentucky is a town of roughly 4500 people nestled in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. You want off the grid? You got it. It’s coal mining country, and has that kind of edge feel to it…pretty, but hard. The folks there are much the same. Generally speaking, there are many things one could write about them…friendly, helpful, giving…but one thing these folks are not is weak. You don’t see any weak sauce folks running around that place. Like most small towns they have a fierce high school rivalry, County vs. City, and folks are drawn along those lines (O’Bryan is still legend there for hitting “The Shot” that beat Paintsville City in Basketball. No lie…he really is like Jimmy Chitwood in the movie Hoosiers.). They have one place that stays open after 10 P.M., The Café, where karaoke can usually be found, and the walk home from there to the only recognizable hotel, The Ramada Inn, is as picturesque and home spun as 6 or 7 blocks could possibly be. It’s a screenplay in real life, and is the setting for this spectacle they call a golf tournament. Everything I’m about to relay, and all of the things I’m leaving out, are all true.
When you arrive on Friday evening, a huge card game awaits where everyone mingles and catches up. Usually, the majority of the UK football staff shows up for this thing, and it gives them time to glad hand and chum the waters, as it were. There’s always an air of expectancy that night, and in every corner someone is telling a story and laughing. Make no mistake, though, the card game is serious business. My 2nd year attending, an out-of-towner, like me, apparently had been big timing some folks and shall we say…talking a lot. Last time I saw him he was lying on the floor waiting on an ambulance. Needless to say, he hasn’t been back. I can imagine him getting a little nervous every time he sees clips from the 80’s film Next of Kin. It kind of had that vibe. After the card game, everyone, including the coaching staff, usually heads over to The Café for continued fellowship and Q & A sessions about expectations for the coming year. As a sports fan, that’s one of the more fun things about this affair…the proximity and accessibility to the coaches that these fans enjoy. They love their team, and the coaches show them love in return. It is fun to watch, and sometimes, even this Georgia boy meets a hero. Last year, I met Jeff Van Note, the lifetime Atlanta Falcon and UK legend. I wasn’t speechless, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to going “semi-Fanboy” on him. He was gracious and conversational, and I am still thankful. It’s not every day one meets a childhood idol. That’s what Friday night is about.
Saturday, on the other hand, is a completely different story. As my father likes to say, “Boys, business just picked up.” Upon receiving my first invitation to “K Day”, I practiced for weeks, with the expectation that, like most golf tournaments, the golf was the business. I had no idea how wrong I could be, and I’m wrong more than I’m right. Everyone arrives at the Paintsville Country Club around 8:30 A.M., with a hundred, or so, carts lined up. Before you can find your cart and scribble on the card, liquid warm apple pie and blueberry muffin are flowing freely and stoking internal fires. I had no idea that the breakfast of champions could be found in a mason jar. After a few instructions, the golfing hoards go to their assigned shotgun starting places, and the chaos ensues. Imagine to my surprise that first year, when we all arrived at our designated starting hole, and there were 8 in our group. That’s right…we played in an 8-some…and we had the smallest group there. 13 and 14-somes were weaving and racing all over the place. There are carts with stereos blasting The Steve Miller Band, a la Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack… men literally diving for cover all over the place upon hearing the echoed exhortations of “FORE!”, not knowing if it is directed at you, or coming from another holler…but you better move or you’ll get hit. This year was the first year someone in our group didn’t get hit. I’ve seen doctors, lawyers, and judges do things that would make high school seniors envious. One such person came riding out of a holler surfing on top of a golf cart like Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf only to be thrown off and almost killed by the very same cart. The liquor distributor guys that show up every year and truly believe that every day is spring break. They had a steel cooler that could serve as a bank vault. There’s a rickety wooden bridge, that goes over a not unsubstantial river, that looks and feels just like a replica of the bridge at the end of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. They drive carts over this thing. It swings…a bunch. Nervous doesn’t describe my yearly reaction. There are tents on the front and back sides of this par 72 course where you get all the food and beverage one can intake and still breathe. There’s this thing called Burgoo…it’s quite possibly the greatest soup/stew/brew ever created…it is chili, beef stew, Brunswick stew, Spaghettios, and anything else you can imagine…and it’s perfect. In fact, that stew is representative of the entire day…you get everything…it is full tilt…there is no holding back. After 6 or 7 hours of playing an 18 hole loop, everyone then heads up into “the holler” for a post-round dinner of steak and lobster…with prizes given out to players… and speeches by the Head Coach (I heard Rich Brooks give a speech that kind of made me want to put on a helmet…and reminded me of what locker room language sounds like.). In all…it is the wildest…craziest… and most unpredictable sights one can imagine…a cornucopia of people, their food, and their stories that creates new memories by the minute.
So, why am I writing all of this? Is this really a sports article? Probably not, but with all kinds of negative and serious stories in sports today…Donald Sterling, The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit vs. the NCAA, etc…it’s good to revel in levity. It’s good to breathe in the good and light. We need days of ordered mayhem and jovial insanity. Plus, those fine folks deserve a good word. Robbie and his parents, Matt, Eddie, Adam, Josh, Brett, Lee… and the rest of them…they’ve taken me in every year, and I’m thankful. The camaraderie that one gets from one day of this thing they call a golf tournament fills a person’s emotional cup for the rest of the year. It’s a special time, with special folks, in a special little place. It is a cliché…but you really have to see it to believe it. Just don’t talk too much during cards. Ever.
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.