When I say “my family belonged to a country club when I was growing up”, it sounds a little pretentious. So when I talk about it, I tend to talk about “my home course”. In my own mind, it seems more vague and mysterious so people won’t question it. Then again, maybe that sounds worse. Either way, when Belinda Carlisle sings that “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, she is right. She just didn’t know that it resides in Crown Point, Indiana.
Youche Country Club is a relatively modest place on the outskirts of Crown Point up in The Region. My first memories and thoughts of Youche actually focus on family gatherings and not golf. My grandfather has been a member for a long time and for most of my childhood, it was the place for the family to get together every Easter and Mother’s Day for brunch. When you are a kid who likes to eat, you remember the first time you discover that there are places you can have both breakfast and lunch an unlimited number of times. We did it for so many years that all of the memories blur together. I can’t pick out one specific moment, it is just a haze of dress clothes, family members, Chicago Bulls basketball on the TV in the Card Room (aka overflow area for the small Dining Room), and a 4 foot tall chocolate bunny. During all of the years that we lived in Illinois, I also can remember the interminably long drive that preceded going out there. I think that was part of the initial charm. It was so far away, in the middle of distant corn fields that it must be heaven. (Or at least Iowa.)
At that time, it barely registered that golf existed. Back then, golf seemed to be something my dad, my grandfather and the uncles did on vacation. As we got a little older, I remember summer days where we would head to Youche to swim in the pool and they would join us after they were done golfing. It was around that time that I began to become aware that there was something more important than food and swimming that went on there.
Somewhere towards the end of grade school, my dad took the family to a place where we could buy used golf clubs. My mom, my brothers and I all picked out a mishmash of clubs in order to make a simple set, including a bag. I remember picking out a driver, a 3 wood, odd numbered irons, a pitching wedge, a putter (the same putter I use to this day, the only putter I have ever used) and a cool looking grey golf bag with black trim (the same tiny bag that I had until I finally bought a new one after graduating from medical school). My obsession with golf had begun.
I wasn’t very good (some people might argue this is still the case) and we only played golf courses that matched my skill set. But I knew that some day, if I got better, I would be allowed to play at Youche with everyone else in the family. And that seemed so far away. As time went on, there were plenty of times when I got close, but those close encounters only fed into my mind even more about how special and hallowed the ground was there.
At first, it was wandering over to the Pro Shop after brunch with the men as they talked to the pro. From there, you could see the first and last hole, as well as the driving range and the putting green. What lay just beyond my vision, I did not know. But I was sure that it was glorious. A few years later, greatness was almost in my grasp. My grandfather’s company held a golf outing there for suppliers, vendors and other people that the company had built relationships with. One year, when I was about 15, my moment had come. They wanted me to go out there with them!
Well, no one wanted me to play. They wanted me to videotape each golfer as they teed off on the first hole, so they could show them later on at dinner. But I was going to be out there, on the grounds, checking things out. Plus, after the initial morning rush of golfers I could go and hit balls on the driving range, which was next to the first tee. I could get my job done and have fun at the same time. What could beat that? The day went by in a blur and soon enough it was time for me to go home.
Despite the glorified place that Youche has in my mind, I can’t actually remember the first time that I actually got to play on the course. I think I got to go out with my dad during the golf outing the next year. He would play once in the morning as his serious round and then he would take me out in the afternoon, once most everyone had gotten to play. I don’t know if I just got to hit a couple of shots, play a few holes or if I got to play all 18. What I do remember is that the course just as I imagined it would be. The grass was so green and perfectly taken care of. I had never seen such a thing on any of the other courses I had played before. Those courses were brown and beat-up and there wasn’t much of a difference between the fairway and the rough. I was so in awe of the course and of the beauty of the fairway that the one memory I do have is of being scared to hit the ball on the rare occasion it was in the fairway. Scared because I didn’t want to have to try to hit the ball from there and risk gouging the immaculate grass with some as ugly as a divot.
From there, the memories have only gotten better and better. Around this time, we moved from Illinois to Indiana and my dad became a member of the country club. The doors to heaven were thrown wide open and a poor golfing soul like myself was allowed inside. I haven’t played the course nearly as many times as my dad nor my grandfather, but I have definitely played at Youche more times than I have played anywhere else. I know it like the back of my hand. I have vivid memories and inside jokes about almost every hole on the course. I have shared a wide variety of moments with my dad and my two brothers on the course. While at first, my love for Youche came from my love of golf and the pristine nature of the course, over time it has become more than that. Memory and delayed gratification initially built it up to impossible heights, but it has continued to play an such an important role in my mind because of how it keeps me connected to my family. It almost feels like a sixth member of the McKenna Family.
That might sound crazy or silly, but it is true. And it was never more true than last May. My cousin was getting married and her family was having a get together on Friday for friends and family and then the bridal shower was going to be on Sunday. With the ladies otherwise occupied on Sunday and with all three McKenna brothers together again, it was only natural that we would play a round of golf at Youche. In fact, we had all been looking forward to this for a month or two.
However, on Friday night my mother won four tickets to see the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday afternoon for the Game 4 of the playoff series against San Jose. If the Blackhawks won that game, they would go on to play in the finals for the Stanley Cup. This was a huge game, with unbelievably good tickets that also happened to be FREE. The game was during the shower, and there were four of them which equalled the number of McKenna men who would be free that afternoon to go to the game. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Thousands of hockey fans would have been ecstatic at such an opportunity. And yet when I first received the phone call from my mom about her “good fortune”, my first thought was of sadness. Unlike when we were kids, opportunities for the four of us to play golf together at Youche were few and far between. If we didn’t play this time, who knew when we would get to do it again?
In the end we went to the game and had a great time. But I still think we would have had an equally good time playing golf at Youche, just like the old days. Golf, family and Youche. Heaven on Earth indeed.