Each morning, as I sit for the light to change at 21st and Oliver, I cannot help but stare at what was once Braeburn Golf Course. Once a significant aspect of the campus of Wichita State University, orange construction cones now contain the high mounds and deep hollows of dirt, sparse trees, and the steel skeletons of what will soon be Innovation Campus. And while change and vision is exciting, the loss of this golf course resonates within my family, especially my father. It has nothing to do with sport and everything to do with opportunity and hope. On October 31, 2014, I met my father on the grounds of Braeburn to take photos of the course as he played his final round. I then wrote the following piece, in hopes of capturing that single moment tied to a long and unexpected history and the relationship between a game, some land, and a bunch of boys from the North End.
As is custom with my father and his golf buddies, their tee time was scheduled for 7:30 am. I’d just pulled into the parking lot when he called to tell me they were being delayed for possibly an hour. It was October 31, 2014 and Old Man Winter had decided to provide us with a preview. North winds buffeted my car as I pulled on my heavy winter gloves and wondered how I was going to manage a camera. I was meeting my father near the practice green tucked between two buildings on the campus of Wichita State University. Braeburn Golf Course would be permanently closing on November 3 to pave the way for an Innovation Campus, and my father and his troupe were scheduled for one final round.
My father was waiting just under the green awnings of the brick clubhouse, his tan and navy striped beanie crooked upon his head. We hugged and headed inside for Styrofoam cups of black coffee poured from the ever-present and stained coffee pot. I looked around at the black and white photos of championship golf teams, the now almost-barren pro shop, its racks like silver leafless trees. I stared out the large windows onto the golf course, for the first time noticing the unusual quiet. It felt less like a clubhouse and more like the visitation room at Old Mission Mortuary, located just north of campus.
“You want to take some pictures of the course before the guys get here?” my dad asked, gesturing toward the east entrance.
“Sure,” I said, setting my coffee atop one of the aged concession area tables to remove my gloves. Beneath the cloudy glass tabletops were old maps of the course from the early 1990s. Originally Crestview Country Club, Wichita State purchased the property in 1967 and in 1993, the WSU Golf Course was renamed Braeburn.
We walked in silence through the door and stood facing the pitching green, the sun peeking through the old trees that had weathered the straight line winds of Kansas, but would not withstand the vision of an ambitious university president. I took a few photos and stood sentry with my father, who was gazing along the path leading to the driving range.
“Right here, this is where the old clubhouse used to sit. Or, close to this spot. We’d line up and wait for our assignments or for the regulars to choose a caddy.”
I aim the camera in the direction he is pointing, trying to envision the old clubhouse. I’ve heard my father’s stories from his days as a caddy, at least a hundred times, but never before had I been standing on these hallowed grounds.
“A few of the regulars always picked me, like this really nice couple, the McMasters. I think that was their name. They were really good golfers. Taught me a lot about the game. They were good to me, even paid me a little extra,” my father says, his breath visible in the October air.
We stand for a bit longer before he heads toward the putting green. As I turn to follow him, I notice a sign taped to the glass near the east door, “Come Play Braeburn One Last Time.” I walk briskly to catch up to my father. He has left his monogrammed golf bag standing next to the green. Large and black with his USGA membership tag from 2008-2009 still zip-tied to his golf pushcart, it seems to be patiently waiting his return. My father pulls his putter gently from the bag and pauses. Again, he gazes toward the morning shadows where the old clubhouse used to stand. It seems as if he is listening for something. I push my own cable knit cap away from my right ear and listen, too.
“None of us caddies were allowed in the clubhouse, you know. But, whenever I earned an extra nickel or dime, I’d head to the back screen door to the kitchen where I could buy a pop and a bag of peanuts. I used to dump the peanuts into the bottle, making the pop all fizzy and salty. It was my favorite.” He takes a sip of his lukewarm coffee before setting it gently on the cold ground next to his bag. “We’d hang out back and wait for one another. You usually knew when a caddy was finished by the slam of that screen door.”
He grabs a few golf balls from his bag and begins to strategically place them on the green. He continues, “I don’t know if I told you, but Father Giles was one of the reasons I started caddying. He used to play with Frank Hedrick, who worked at Beech Aircraft. Later, he became their president. He and Father Giles always chose me as their caddy.”
I watch my father practice his putting, oblivious to the biting wind. This was the first time I’d heard he’d caddied for Frank Hedrick, who was president of Beech Aircraft from 1968-1982, which meant my father worked at Beech during Mr. Hedrick’s presidency. I bet Mr. Hedrick never knew one of his favorite caddies became one of his best assembly workers.
My father sinks a putt from four feet, then moves over to his next placed ball and easily putts out from almost seven feet. I recall the stories about the McMasters couple and how when they learned he walked to and from the golf course, almost four miles one way, they insisted on picking him up and taking him home on the days he caddied for them. The first time they drove him home, he was nervous about them finding out he lived “on the north end.” But, as he’d told me, “they didn’t blink an eye. But, I shouldn’t have been worried, because where else would a bunch of Mexican caddies live.”
I try to ignore the tingling in my fingers as I take photos of my father, a few of his bag, and the spot where the ghost of the clubhouse shimmers between the shadows of the buildings and trees. As my father continues to practice, I try to imagine what it was like being an eleven-year-old boy caddying for seventy-five cents for eighteen holes, especially a Mexican boy who’d recently lost his father in a train accident at a salt plant in Lyons, Kansas.
Oscar Castro moved to Wichita, Kansas in 1943, following the tragic death of his father. One of seven children, he wanted to help out his mother, who was devastated by the loss of her husband and fearful of what the future held for her and her children. Father Giles told him about caddying at what was then Crestview Country Club golf course, so my father walked the 3.7 miles and stood outside the clubhouse, hoping to be picked. The first time he showed up to caddy, the pro sent him home because my father was barefoot. My father saved his only pair of shoes for school or church, not wanting to ruin them. The pro was surprised when my father returned an hour later, his shoes shined and laces tightened.
But, my father was not alone, as the majority of caddies were Mexican American kids from his neighborhood, the north side of Wichita where the early Mexican immigrants gravitated for jobs with the railroad and meat packing plants. It also helped that the assistant pro at Crestview Country Club was Mario Renteria, whose influence encouraged the young boys to caddy. It was good money, but it was an even greater experience for these kids whose futures were as long and solemn as those train horn blasts along 21st and Broadway, their lives in sync with the shift changes at Cudahy Meat Packing Plant. Caddying changed my father’s life.
My father approaches me, “Did I ever tell you that Father Giles used to excuse me from school to caddy for him and Hedrick?”
“I guess it was easy since you were attending his Catholic school,” I say.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he answers, “It never bothered me since I figured if it was a sin, he could forgive me.”
We laugh, my father smiling for the first time that morning.
“Dad, was it on Monday the caddies were allowed to play?” I ask, knowing it was but wanting to hear him tell me, again.
“Yes, we really looked forward to Monday,” he answers, leaning on his club. “Mario would let us use the mismatched and worn clubs, and some practice balls. We’d go out and do our best by mimicking the golfers or coaching one another on the tips we learned. I learned a lot from my golfers, they showed me how to grip, how to follow the ball,” my dad begins to laugh. “We were awful in the beginning, but after a while, I don’t know, we just loved to play. We had fun and it was something different, something so different.”
My father and his friends would play together for more than forty years; forming a group they called Los Patos, or The Ducks. Depending on which golfer you ask, the stories vary on how they came up with the name. A few say it came from wading through water hazards to scavenge for shanked golf balls. Others say it came from their code name for those golfers who were cheapskates and didn’t pay their caddies well. Pato was a code name, as in “don’t get stuck with the pato, he’ll just lay an egg.”
However they decided upon the name, these men from hardworking backgrounds met every Sunday at one of the public golf courses where they picked teams, placed bets, heckled one another, and cheered the longest drive or putt. After bets were paid, they drank cold Budweiser fished from Coleman coolers, while seated under the shade of the trees in the parking lot.
They organized their own Mexican American golf tournament, which was held during the month of September on the Saturday closest to September 16, Mexican Independence Day. For 35 years, the tournament brought together these men and their families, creating generations of Mexican golfers from across the state of Kansas. Being invited to play with the Patos became a rite of passage for their sons and grandsons. I remember how proud and excited my brother was when he was asked to play, the honor bestowed upon him at the age of thirteen.
“They’re finally here,” my dad says, motioning toward the parking lot. Four of my dad’s golf companions are heading toward the clubhouse. As dad and I leave the green to follow them, I realize how small his golf group has become over the years. Many of the original Patos have died, while others have lost the mobility or strength to play. My father, at age 82, is one of the last of the caddies who still plays on a weekly basis. He hits balls at the driving range and practices putting three to four times per week, which is why he was still “hitting his age” in his late seventies.
Inside the clubhouse, Marion, Joe, and two others are paying their fees and grabbing cups of coffee. Only one of the golfers remembers me, which is not surprising since daughters were a rarity on the golf course with the Patos.
“I can’t believe we’re playing in this cold,” says Marion, “Loco, I tell you.”
“I can’t believe it’s the last time on Braeburn,” my father answers. They all nod and fall silent.
The silence remains until we head back to the practice green. There are two groups in front of them to preparing to tee off, but no one seems to be in a hurry this morning. Golfers linger in the entry of the clubhouse and along the cart path. The five of them putt around, catching up on the latest news regarding ailments of fellow Patos or the deaths of folks from the north end. I take photos of them, watching how familiar they are with one another on the green and I recall the one and only Patos golf tournament I attended.
It was 2001, the year of their 30th tournament and they needed someone to take photos of each group. A few of the Patos were in poor health, some already unable to walk the eighteen holes. I remember one of them saying, “We need some pictures before half of us are dead.” The mist was heavy upon the fairways that morning as I took photo after photo, listening to their stories. In each group was a patriarch or original Pato joined by his son or sons, son-in-law, or nephew. In one group, there were three generations of Mendoza men. One of my father’s favorite photos is the one I took of him, my brother John, my uncle Otis, and my father’s best friend, Ray, walking down the fairway into the gray mist. I remember watching them and thinking how this group of men was forever bound, not only by the circumstances of their lives and heritage, but by a game long identified with white males. As young men, they were not allowed to sit at the local drugstore counter, or even inside the clubhouse to order a soda, and yet, they walked those same fairways, stood upon manicured greens, and fell in love with a game never intended for the sons of Mexican immigrants.
“Let’s go,” says my dad. When we get to the tee box, I group them together for a photo. Their smiles are wistful and again, the silence descends. I watch them tee off, momentarily forgetting about my camera. My father is the last one to drive down the fairway. He outdrives them all. Marion and Joe buzz down the path in a golf cart, while my father slips his driver into its cover before walking with the others. He turns to me and waves, the smile of an eleven-year-old boy wide across my father’s face. As he pushes his cart and begins his final round on Braeburn, the sun fully breaks through the trees and I fight the urge to follow him. I raise my camera and take my last photos before letting him go to say goodbye to those ghosts, to walk this ground so entrenched in the hearts of these men, and maybe buy a Pepsi and a bag of peanuts for the road. From behind, the sound of voices and clinking of golf clubs reminds me another group is preparing to tee off. I tuck the camera in my coat pocket and head toward the parking lot. When I reach my car, I stop to see if I can catch my father in the distance, but he and his Patos are no longer visible. I realize I am standing, waiting, possibly to hear the slamming of a screen door and in that moment, somewhere on 21st and Broadway, a train whistle sounds, long and solemn.