In celebration of Golf Digest’s 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.
Massachusetts is a tough address to call home. Rocky Marciano, Marvin Hagler and John L. Sullivan came from there. So did golfers like Paul Azinger, Jane Blalock and the Bradleys—Pat and Keegan. It’s not just the home course of Harvard and MIT; it’s where lobstermen, shoe-factory workers and Boston cops play their golf at courses like Sun Valley Golf Club, which sounds like a mountain retreat but was on the milk route of the hero of our story.
At Sun Valley in Rehoboth, Mass., designed by Geoffrey Cornish in 1959, Dana Quigley was the first club pro. The course had a loyal clientele and fairways lined with weeping willows, but 300 trees were taken by Hurricane Bob in 2001, and many golfers went with them. It has since been revitalized and reopened as Hazelton Golf Club, but in this column by Tom Callahan published in September 1995, Emil Kijek was playing the old course. —Jerry Tarde
This is the story of a retired milkman name Emil Kijek, who wound up his life in the arms of a friend in the middle of a fairway on a Thursday afternoon.
The setting is southeast Massachusetts, on the rim of Narragansett Bay, where stories this small are usually thrown back. Lizzie Borden hailed from Fall River, right next door; Ishmael and Ahab sailed from New Bedford, just down the road.
As a center of drama, Rehoboth is not quite in their class.
It’s a pretty little town, though. Driving through, you might take it for hunting country if John Pellegrino weren’t there to set you straight. “Shoot my deer,” explained the owner of the Sun Valley Golf Club, “and I’ll shoot you.”
Pellegrino’s operation is similarly unvarnished. Starting with the arrow sign on the highway, everything at Sun Valley could stand some paint. The roof wouldn’t mind a little leveling. The clubhouse is mostly a bar. But the gray-haired men crisscrossing with pullcarts look well satisfied. The senior rate is $13 for 18 holes.
Ron Collett, Morris Dumont, Jack Alexander and Emil Kijek were teamed up that Thursday in a tournament. Collett and Dumont were not Kijek’s regular partners, although both knew “Ky” well. Everyone did. “He had a spirit about him, I tell you,” said Dumont, a retired piano tuner. “Ky was the type who enjoyed the day better than the golf, who took the good shots and the bad shots as they came, always hoping the next one would be perfect.”
Alexander, on the other hand, was Kijek’s customary golfing crony and his closest friend. They served together in Hawaii during World War II, though they didn’t know it at the time. Kijek had gone in and out of the Army before the war broke out. When it did, he came back as a Seabee, a builder, and eventually saw Saipan.
On Oahu, when Alexander only knew of him, Kijek was also a boxer, a middleweight. He was one of the staple attractions in the Friday-night fights at Schofield Barracks, a model of that paradoxical gentleness you so often find in boxers.
His father was the same way. Back in Warsaw, Jacob Kijek had been a weaver’s foreman preoccupied with keeping a certain loom operating, the one run by Caroline. Falling in love and emigrating to Pawtucket, Jacob and Caroline raised their boy in the weaving business. As he had been an only son, Emil grew up to have an only daughter, Sandra. Her childhood memories are of spontaneous picnics, Sunday rides and a father whose only rule was kindness.
It was in the early ’60s that he embraced golf, when a cardiologist’s first warning gave him four months off. After he retired—especially after losing his wife, Mabel—the golf course became home. He was a good, straight hitter, an 11- or 12-handicapper who held to that number (even as his distance waned) with increasingly better putting. This phenomenon is unheard of in the pros but well known in places like Sun Valley.
As a cardplayer, Kijek was a scratch, a legend at gin but even more partial to “pitch,” the working man’s rhapsody of high, low, jack and game.
“Deal the cards, old man,” Alexander would say. Kijek would smile like a handsome child, and everyone else would laugh. At 75, Jack was only four years younger, but lately they were telling years. Ky was losing his edge with the cards.
He could still putt. At the first hole that day, he made a 20-footer for par. At the fourth, he knocked in another. “You’re saving us, old man,” Alexander said. The day looked bright.
The sixth hole at Sun Valley is a 155-yard par 3. Kijek took a 3-wood.
“He hit that thing so beautifully,” Dumont would say later. “It had this amazing trajectory.”
“Emil, I can’t see the ball,” Alexander murmured after a moment. “I think it went in.”
“Naw,” Kijek said. He’d never had a hole-in-one.
“Old man!” Alexander sang as they reached the green. “Come get your ball out of the cup!”
Dumont recalled, “Ky was really happy, but there was no jumping up and down. He was such a humble man.”
After driving nicely at the seventh, Kijek wavered over his second shot. “Emil, let somebody else hit first,” Alexander suggested gently. “No, no, I’m OK, Jack,” he said.
In the next instant, Ky started to fall, and his friend caught him. They settled softly in the grass. As the others ran for help, Jack said, “Emil, squeeze my hand. Don’t stop until I tell you to.” But Ky gave him that smile again and let go.
Who was he? He was a man who enjoyed the day better than the golf, who took good shots and bad shots as they came, always hoping the next one would be perfect. And it was.