Golf, a Game of Knees
Jude Wanniski
March 23, 1999


Memo To: Website golfers
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Father Handicap

The top story on the front page of the Morris County (NJ) Daily Record of February 25 was about a friend of mine, Father Mark Olenowski. The headline read, "Same Priest, Very Different Parish." It's about how Father Mark, who had been at my parish, Assumption, in Morristown, for a decade, then a few years in nearby Randolph, was transferred by the Newark diocese to Trinity Catholic Church in Passaic. In Morristown, Father Mark had a congregation of country-club golfers. At Trinity, he has a congregation of Hispanics who did not show up until he did. The story is about how the dwindling congregation of 85 Germans could not hold the parish together until Father Mark opened the church to the Hispanics with a "Mariachi Mass," and now there are a thousand regulars. The article notes that Father Mark, 44, was on the golf team of his high school, and would give golf lessons to the kids of his Morristown parish, one of the wealthiest in the nation.

In 1986, or thereabouts, I met Father Mark when he first arrived at Assumption Church. In his first Sunday sermon, he laced the homily with golf metaphors, so of course I knew we had more in common than Catholicism. After mass, I introduced myself and invited him to be my guest that afternoon for a game of golf at Springbrook CC. He instantly agreed. All I remember of that first game with him is how he bent the 13th hole to his game. He is roughly 5' 9" and 140 pounds. But he tackled the par four 13th, 435 yards around the lake, with a driver and a seven iron!!! In twenty years at Springbrook, I'd parred the hole only four or five times! Holy Smokes, I said. He joined the golf club and we soon began calling him "Father Handicap." He remembers the day a decade ago when he was in a playoff round for the club championship with Bob Farrell, who is 6'4" and weighs 220 at least. I got to the course as soon as I could and found they were just finishing number 6, and my friend the priest was down two. It was hellishly hot and humid, and I arrived with a few cans of Diet Pepsi. I gave him one and he guzzled it. When he won the championship on the 18th, he came over and told me the tide had turned when I showed up with the Pepsi.

Last summer my golf game had deteriorated to the point where I hated to think about it. Years ago, Richard Nixon told me he had decided to give up golf on the day when he realized he could never get any better. It was getting to that point with me. I'd been playing since I was 30, in 1966, and had worked myself down to a 15 handicap when I could get out twice a week. In recent years, I was lucky if I could get out a dozen times a year, and my handicap had ballooned to 19. In September last year, I shot scores in excess of a hundred for the first time since I was a beginner. Time to give it up? In late October, on a mid-week afternoon, I broke away from Polyconomics and drove the two miles to Springbrook. I would play by myself and concentrate completely on my game, I decided. There were people at the first tee, but John Lee, the starter, sent me off by myself off the tenth hole. I'd intended to play 18, but after nine decided I should follow Nixon into golf retirement. My game was horrible and I shot something like 54 for the nine. I drove the golf cart to the clubhouse fully intending to give it up.

Lo, who was there on the first tee but Father Mark! All by himself. He called to me and asked why I looked so miserable. When I told him I'd had it with golf, he offered soothing words and suggested I join him for the front nine. Okay. He had hammered his drive out 260 yards, center cut. He asked me to set up and take my cut. I did and sliced off into the woods on the right, barely missing the parking lot. Father Mark asked me to set up again, but this time point my right knee at the golf ball, and keep it pointed there throughout the swing, I did so, feeling slightly uncomfortable, but watched my drive fly almost 250 yards, landing a short distance behind his. WHAT? WHAT? Father Mark told me that I had swayed on my first shot, and that I was almost trying to hit the golf ball from a surf board. With my knee pointed to the ball, I had anchored my body and there was no sway.

We went to our balls and I now hit a seven iron, my right knee pointed to the ball. Up it flew, 150 yards later coming to rest 20 feet from the pin. The two of us parred the hole. It was only the second time in two years that I had parred No.1 at Springbrook.

WOW! I did not have to give up golf after all!! What a great tip Father Mark had given me. I was overjoyed!! I turned to him and said, "Father, I've been playing this game for 32 years, and only now do I realize that THIS IS A GAME OF KNEES! He came back immediately: "Of course it is Jude. Why do you think I spend so much time on mine?"