Tee to Green: Give thanks for tradition

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Updated: 11/29/2013 10:20 am

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Harry and Jim played golf together every Thanksgiving for 25 years. Same course, same time: West River, 2 o'clock, without fail.

Harry was always the first to arrive. Jim had moved away after high school, got a job and started a life. He flew the family back every year to visit his parents, staying in the same house he grew up in. Jim's mom still made Thanksgiving dinner and it always took him longer to break away for the afternoon round.

Still, in keeping with tradition, Jim always teed off first.

It typically took a few holes for Harry and Jim to return to form, the old friends hooking and duffing a few in relative silence.

Harry's game had gone a bit. He no longer had the distance, his shots now burned close to the ground with a pronounced bend. But he was crafty around the greens and he always hung in with Jim, who, if anything, had gained distance over the years.

They talked.

Generalities in the beginning: "How's the job?" How's California?" By the turn, they found their stride. They reminisced: how mad Harry's dad would get when they played football in the back yard; how they used to golf this course by day and drink on it by night. They talked about family: how Harry had lost his, not to any unspeakable tragedy, but to apathy and neglect. They talked about regret. And they played.

Harry loved coming down the stretch on Thanksgiving. Jim usually had him by a stroke or two, but that was OK. Harry loved the way his breath turned to smoke when he dug out a tough shot. He loved watching the sun dip low behind the bare branches. He loved the long shadow of the flagstick as he and Jim approached the green. But mostly, he loved the tradition.

Jim would always invite Harry back to his parents' house for a beer afterward. It had been years since Harry had seen Jim's folks, or his family, but Harry always declined. The day was just fine as is. No need to get greedy.

This Thanksgiving, as always, Harry arrived first. He stretched and cracked a beer. He teed one up for Jim. And he waited. By 3 o'clock, Harry was convinced Jim wasn't coming. Jim was typically late, but never this late. Harry wasn't mad, but he needed to know why. Jim hadn't missed a round in 25 years. So, as uncomfortable as it made him feel, Harry made the short drive to Jim's parents' house, a drive he remembered well from his youth.

He was greeted at the door by Jim's mother, her face only slightly aged by the passing years.

"Mrs. Madsen, I'm not sure if you remember ... It's Harry Cross. I know this is somewhat unusual but I was wondering if Jim was in."

"Of course, I remember, Harry," said Mrs. Madsen. "Of course. Why don't you step inside? I figured you might be coming by today."

"You did?" Harry remained on the landing.

"Yes I did, it being Thanksgiving and all. Jim was always scarfing down his turkey so he could make it to West River." Harry nodded, but said nothing. He had no words, so he nodded and waited. "Harry, Jim passed away a few months ago. He had a heart attack at the office. There was nothing anyone could do."

Harry went on nodding.

"Harry, we'd love for you to come inside. Jim's family is here for the holiday and they'd love to see the man who meant so much to their father."

Harry stood on the steps in silence. The languid hum of conversation and the smell of fresh leftovers drifted from inside.

"Thank you, Mrs. Madsen, but there's somewhere I have to be. I'm sorry for your loss."

Harry got back in his car and drove to the only place he could think of. He drove to West River. He walked to the first tee in the fading light. The sun was just dipping low behind the branches.

Harry teed one up.

"This has always been my favorite time of the day, Jim. We're coming down the stretch. Your honors. Swing away."

Harry blasted one long and straight down the fairway.

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