I sat on my hotel bed the night before the opening round and read about notable players including a golfer from Shreveport named Hal Sutton who had already won the Western Amateur that summer. I’m playing with Hal Sutton who would win the PGA in 1983 and was Ryder Cup captain later in his career. And so on the biggest stage in amateur golf I would be playing with one of the best amateur golfers in the world.
The first hole at Canterbury Country Club in Cleveland is a par four dogleg right that demands a power fade to follow the shape and contour of the fairway. My friend George Johnson caddied for me that day and he handed me my driver, a laminated wood Power-Bilt with a titanium shaft (rare for the time). I teed my Titleist ball and ripped it straight down the left edge of the fairway but the ball flew rifle straight and bounced through the fairway into the left rough. A man in the gallery behind me exclaimed, “He didn’t cut it.” To which my Mom, taking offence and not knowing the subtleties of maneuvering a tee shot on a U.S.G.A. course set up for the National Amateur or of golf shot commentary and terminology, replied, “That was a gooooood shot.” Thank you Mom, but I knew. He was right. I didn’t cut it enough. The ball was in deep U.S.G.A. rough and I gouged it out with a 8 iron, then chipped past the cup to 30 feet and drained that long putt for par. I shot 78 with bogeys on the last three holes. Distraught, disappointed, I realized my chances of shooting a number in the sixties the next day to reach the next round of match play were very slim.
The second round was just down the road at Shaker Heights Country Club and Sidney Roper would caddy for me the second day. Sidney was full of vinegar and enthusiasm and he always walked fast and had this energy about him. He couldn’t wait to get started caddying in the U.S. Amateur and even though I had a disappointing first day he was excited, he believed I could come back and play well the second day.
On the first tee, Sidney gave me my driver and hustled down the hill of the tee box heading to the landing area some 280 yards out and stationed himself in the trees peering back at us. Hal hit first and smoked his drive 290 yards all carry center cut in the middle of the fairway. Then Sidney, fidgeting behind a giant maple tree, awaited my first shot. I swung hard and barely caught a piece of the ball. It may have been the worst shot I’ve ever hit. And Sidney craned his neck looking…but never saw a ball because it simply dribbled off the tee some 30 yards into the thick grass in front of the tee and I walked slowly, head down, embarrassed. I sheepishly waved at him to come back… he had overestimated the ability of his player. But Sidney never lost faith in me. I shot 74 that day. It wasn’t good enough. But it was for Sidney. Sidney is one of the reasons I never quit or give up…and to always dream bigger that you can imagine. And to not only be a person of faith…faith in yourself and in God…but faith in other people so much so that you make them better people. Sidney was that kind of encourager to me…he made me a better person because of how he perceived my talents and valued me as an athlete and as a person. In 1981, I finished tied for 5th in the National Collegiate NAIA tournament and was named to the All-America Team that year. I still compete. It’s good for me. It keeps me humble to play against “kids”. But much of success at competitive levels is about believing. I can see it in the eyes of college kids. You can easily see it in their eyes…the ones who believe…and have people who believe in them. But I’m much prouder of my family, my kids, my faith in God…than in what I’ve accomplished in golf. Still, golf has taught me about belief. Belief in hard work, belief in my talent, belief in abiding by the rules of the game and belief that what we do makes sense. Sidney was one of those who taught me about those things through the game of golf and through the game of life.
I think about Sidney every time I sing Abide With Me because it was the first song I ever led congregationally and he taught me that song along with how to beat 4/4 time, how to pitch a song and about tempo and public presence. I was sweaty-palm-scared about standing in front of a church to speak or lead a song. But he gave me the tools to lead with confidence. I think about how he abided in faith and believed…he believed in an unimaginably wonderful and gracious and boundless Creator. And not only did he abide in the holy sense of God and Church, Sidney abounded in the world, always taking interest in the hearts and souls of those he touched. He taught me about life and about golf and about a God who loves me and is proud of me, no matter how far he had retrace his caddy steps on the first hole of the U.S. Amateur in 1979. He still believed in my power to overcome a poor start on the biggest stage I ever competed upon.
Sidney died in October of 2011 at the age of 92. A day or so after he passed, his son, Sidney Roper Jr. called me and asked if I would lead some songs at Sidney’s funeral. I told him that it would be an honor. I wanted to tell the story about the U.S. Amateur and how Sidney believed in me but I thought it too long and out-of-place. So I told the story about how he taught me to lead Abide With Me and Joe David Roper, the younger son, asked me to lead that song to close the service. Sidney taught me to abide, to abound, to believe. There is nothing greater in this world than to live a life filled with hope and belief. Sidney was one who helped me see that, about myself, about other folks, about the whole of creation.
Sidney was 59 years of age when he caddied for me in Cleveland. It never seemed odd to him to pick up the bag of a 19-year-old kid and lug it around a golf course raking sand traps and tending flags and replacing divots. He did it naturally with grace and deference and class. It’s been seventeen months since I didn’t tell that story at Sidney’s funeral. I guess it was just time to say it out loud. Sidney was one of my heroes in that great cloud of witness, a faithful man who believed, an encourager who made me a better man. It’s seventeen months late, but I’m glad to share the story of how Sidney putted out every putt, walked every fairway, and when required, turned around and walked backwards. Or to paraphrase 1st John Chapter 1, “But if we walk in the fairway, we experience a shared fairway with one another, even in those moments we can’t drive the ball off an elevated tee box in moments of extreme pressure.”
Hebrews 11:40 God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.