The word is, to my friend Gregg Lemos-Stein and I, what "Aloha" is to Hawiians.
It's a greeting; it's goodbye. It's excitement for the game and for the friendship we've shared for more than 20 years. It's affection and admiration. It's a way we say to one another, "I don't care if our politics are different -- and oh yes, we're going to talk about that -- but our bond as friends is deeper and stronger than whatever might divide us." It's how most of our conversations begin ... and how most of them end. It's, "I'm so glad to see (or talk) to you." And it's, "I can't wait to see (or talk) to you again."
Together, Gregg and I have shared some really wonderful times playing some of the really great courses of North America -- Pinehurst No. 2, Bedford Springs, Bethpage. And we've played some really forgettable courses, too. We've played well, and we've played ... well, let's just say that sometimes it's fun just to get together and knock the ball around.
We've played on days of great joy, like the morning of my second wedding, in which he served as my best man. (Here I am, pictured above, with most of my groomsmen on the morning of my second wedding. From left to right: Mike Taylor; me; Gregg; and my brother, Mike. And there we are below at the ceremony that afternoon -- me on the left and Gregg on the right.)
And we've played through some difficult times, like the cold April day we both drove 2+ hours to meet in Rocky Gap, Maryland, and play 36 while he offered an understanding ear, comfort and counsel as I went through a difficult divorce from my first wife.
The interesting thing about our friendship is that it almost certainly wouldn't be what it is without golf, yet when our work brought us together in 1999, he had basically walked away from the game. Poor play -- and, particularly, an unshakable slice -- had driven him to lose his appetite for it. He'd thrown himself into marathon running at the time and shoved his clubs into some dark corner of a closet. Fortunately, I convinced him to visit a driving range with me, where I promised we could make some progress.
By spring 2000, we had a standing arrangement every Wednesday evening to meet at the now-defunct driving range behind the now-defunct Parkway Center Mall in Pittsburgh. We jokingly called the place Shinnecock Hills Driving Range, when in reality it wasn't much more than a giant hole in the ground with about 50 astroturf mats on a ridge and a bit of flat grass from which you could hit balls at the random collection of targets out in the pit. The view from the tees was pretty, though, looking out over the trees at the city skyline. We looked at it and imagined something more grand while we worked out the flaws in our swings. Then, depending how we'd hit 'em, we'd either drown our sorrows or celebrate our athletic prowess over sodas and wings at a local corner bar called the Obey House, where Wednesday night was 25-cent wing night ... starting a tradition of golf and then wings that continues to this day.
It only took a handful of swings to help Gregg figure out some things that would help him hit a straighter ball. And soon, he was eager to take his new game out on the course. To this day, one of my proudest moments in golf was the moment late in the summer, on the 11th tee at North Park (a decent little muni in the Allegheny County parks system), when Gregg struck a pure drive with a little bit of a draw into the middle of the fairway and turned to me to say, "Thank you for giving me back the joy of golf."
He probably gave me more credit than I deserved, but I loved that he loved playing the game again. We played a lot of golf that summer -- until Gregg moved back to New York City. Fortunately, the friendship we forged that year has spanned both distance and decades.
I had the chance to get together again with Gregg recently for a round at the wonderful Golf Course at Glen Mills in Glen Mills, PA. And I was reminded -- as I always am -- of the terrific times we've shared on the links and of the great conversations we've had over many, many wings. So, I thought I'd share some photos here of some of the fun we've had and some of the courses we've played together through the years.
Pinehurst No. 2
In 2004, Gregg and I met up in North Carolina for an overnight stay and a round on the famous Pinehurst No. 2 course -- the course on which Payne Stewart won his second U.S. Open championship five years earlier. Holy smokes do we look young in this picture!
Gregg and Payne.
I don't remember what I shot that day, but I do recall that I birdied three of the four par-5s (all but No. 16), and had eagle opportunities on two of them. I'm going to have to try to remember where I misplaced the length that I used to have off the tee!
I also remember that I tipped our caddie extra because he had to carry my ridiculously large bag. I hadn't learned yet the value of a lightweight carry bag -- a change I made soon after this golf trip. I'm posting this picture, though, really just because I remember striping this drive down the fairway. I was having a really good driving day. And our caddie said to me, "I like you ... you don't make me walk in the rough."
No. 16 ... possibly my favorite hole on the course and, ironically, the only par-5 I did not birdie that day. As it happened, I hit a terrible drive into that ugly fairway bunker on the left, hit an incredible 5-iron out that just barely cleared the bunker wall, hit a wedge in tight and somehow slid the birdie putt just by.
I really wish I'd taken a picture from the 18th fairway looking up past the green to the clubhouse. Back in those days, I didn't take as many pictures as I should have. But one of my favorite memories of Pinehurst was the clubhouse porch, where a bunch of old-timers sat and sipped iced tea, lemonade and probably a few adult beverages.
As we stood in the 18th fairway, waiting for the group in front of us to clear the green, we could hear the old guys in the rocking chairs on the porch offering commentary and giving odds on the action. They joked about each player's chances of sinking the putt. And then, when it was our turn to hit our approach shots, they speculated about the likelihood we'd hit the green. It was all good-natured and in fun, and when we holed out on the 18th green, they applauded kindly.
Following our round, Gregg and I took our places in a couple of those chairs to watch a couple of other groups come in, and it might have been my favorite time of the day.
After golf, Gregg and I had a longish drive to meet up with a friend and his buddies in Myrtle Beach for a few more rounds that week. But before we hit the road, we found ourselves a little bar in the Village of Pinehurst, where we could get some wings and watch some golf -- the perfect ending to a wonderful day.
Following Pinehurst, Myrtle Beach was a blur of courses we played over a couple of days. We made some great memories, though.
My six-year-old son saw this picture from our Myrtle trip in my office recently. I keep it on the wall above my desk in a frame that says, "Legends of the Fairway." And it alarmed him to think I could have killed Gregg with that swing. Thankfully, no golfers were harmed in the filming of these shenanigans.
Bethpage Black (And Red)
Gregg and I played together whenever we could through the years ... including a 5:24 a.m. tee time at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx in 2001, where we teed off in the dark and famously played with a twosome the starter referred to as "The Deuce." But one of the best courses we ever played was the beast that is Bethpage Black.
Wait ... now that I think back on it, we didn't play the Black together. I did the whole camp-in-the-parking-lot thing, which was really a fantastic experience ... while Gregg was home in his nice, soft bed in northern New Jersey. The plan was for him to drive out in the morning, but once I got our tee time -- 6:48, if memory serves -- we knew he wasn't going to make it. So, I went it alone on the Black in the morning. Gregg drove out to meet me for lunch and then a second 18, where we opted to play the Red with its luxurious carts (because I think I might have died if I'd had to walk another 18 on the Black that day). On the negative side, we didn't get to experience the Black together. On the positive side, I got to play two of the great courses of North America that day, with the Black on every list of top courses and the Red solidly ranked among Golf Magazine's Top 100 You Can Play.
Here are some of my favorite shots from the Black.
Every round on Bethpage Black begins with a warning. The sign might as well just say "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
I don't know why, but I love the uphill second shot into the green on No. 2 at Bethpage Black ... maybe because I stuck a wedge about six feet from the hole. Don't worry about whether or not I made the putt.
Hitting the small sliver of green from the white tees on No. 3 -- which were playing about 175 yards that day -- was not in my game that day.
Back in 2011, I didn't hit many fades. A nice draw was my go-to shot on a good day, and a snap-hook was my default when the driver and I were not on speaking terms. But I love the look of the 5th on the Black, and a perfect fade was exactly what I dialed up -- a real beauty that started out over the bunkers and settled in the short stuff about 150 yards from the green.
I made a real mess of the pretty little par-3 hole that is the 8th at Bethpage Black. Line drive into the tree that then shot across the green, one-hopped and embedded itself in the downhill far wall of that giant bunker. After it happened, we were all silent on the tee until my caddie said, "Nope ... I've never seen anyone do that before."
No. 10 ... I swear to God there's a fairway out there somewhere.
Good lord does the fairway look narrow from the 16th tee!
With the end in sight, and my legs feeling like jelly, I stepped to the tee on No. 17 ... playing 205 yards uphill that day.
And pured a 3-iron to inside a foot. Barely -- and I mean BARELY -- made the birdie putt.
On a beautiful June day, there are few views better than from the 18th tee at Bethpage Black. From the whites (which measure nearly 6,700 yards, by the way) just 394 yards stand between you and the hole and the right to forever tell the world that you took on the Black and survived.
Saved my worst drive of the round for my last hole. But it made for a pretty picture. Double-bogeyed the hole, but made some incredible memories.
Gregg joined me in the afternoon for a much less-strenuous round on the Red. I don't recall if the battery in my camera died or if we were just having so much fun that I forgot to take pictures, but this is the only shot I got of the Red course that day -- the first hole:
The Old Course at Bedford Springs Resort
Not long after my wedding in 2012, Gregg and his family moved to London, and it would be eight years before we played together again.
Finally, though, we were reunited in the summer of 2020, after the Lemos-Steins returned to the U.S., and we picked up right where we'd left off.
In October 2020, looking much ... wiser ... than we did all those years ago, we met up for a round on the Old Course at Bedford Springs Resort, in Bedford, PA -- a gorgeous course whose design is the result of architectural work by Spencer Oldham and a couple of guys named A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross. It looks especially stunning amid the changing of the colors mid-autumn.
The opening hole at Bedford Springs sets the tone. Anything in the fairway is a good tee ball here.
A gorgeous look back at the third from the green.
My first fairway and GIR of the day, at the 5th.
The colors, conditioning and the course layout just make for an absolutely incredible setting for a round of golf in early October. Gregg and I didn't score well, but we had a lot of fun.
About to tee off on the long 11th. The smiles were obviously before we hit our tee shots.
My ball found this patch of "light rough" to the right of the 11th fairway. Anybody have a machete, so I can hack my way out of here?
Probably my best hole of the day, on 15 I hit a huge draw to cut the corner and left myself with just a little wedge into the green. I missed the short birdie putt, but I still felt good about the way I played the hole.
No. 18 at Bedford Springs is intimidating off the tee, but a long drive can clear those bunkers on the left -- as I fortunately discovered -- and set you up for a nice approach to the elevated green. Just don't screw it up by hitting a fat 8-iron from your pristine fairway lie because those bunkers that guard the green are brutal. Take it from me.
Swings And Wings To Look Forward To
Playing great courses is a lot of fun. Playing any course with a great friend is even better, as every round Gregg and I play together reminds me. I'm looking forward to dragging him along to play as many of the great courses on my list as he can join me to play ... and I'm looking forward to finding whatever hole-in-the-wall bar I need to find where we can get a great order of wings after each of those rounds.
Speaking of which, let me end this post with my absolute favorite picture of Gregg, ever: