Some people are beyond help. But thankfully there are those who are still willing to try to help them anyway.
Many moons ago — more moons than I care to recount at this point — I was on the golf team at Abbeville High School. Notice that I said I was “on the golf team,” not “a golfer.” It’s an important delineation because, to be abundantly clear, I was, and remain, very bad at golf.
But a bunch of my friends — many of whom were quite good — played, and they talked me into going out for the team. While I was far from accomplished on the course, I was just good enough to not be a complete embarrassment, so the head coach at the time, Phillip Boyles, let me join the squad. I think he just kept me around so I could crack jokes to keep the real players loose before big matches.
But I’m thankful I had that opportunity, in part because I had a chance to hop on a bus with my friends and ride all over South Carolina and play some of the best — and worst — golf courses in the Palmetto State.
It was an experience that was made richer because David Ayers was involved.
Ayers was the assistant coach, and he was beloved by the whole team. I don’t use the term “beloved” lightly here. D.U., as we called him (his middle name was Underwood), was part coach and part friend, the type who could provide instruction and well-placed inspiration, but who could also fire off quips and barbs with the players that would send us into fits of laughter. He was what a good assistant coach was supposed to be: A sort of bridge between the players and the head coach. He was serious and light at the same time, and we loved him for it.
It’s part of why I was so saddened, then, to hear of Ayers’ recent passing. He died on Thursday at the age of 69.
I mentioned earlier how some people are beyond help. Well, that was, and is, me on a golf course. Oh, I can do a couple things here and there, but no one will ever confuse me with Rory McIlroy.
But that didn’t stop Coach Ayers from doing his best to help me. In fact, when I was on the high school team, he went out of his way to make sure he gave me his time and attention out there. On the putting green and driving range, he’d pull me aside and offer tips, and we’d work and work on certain aspects of the game. In particular, he definitely helped make me a better putter.
Here’s the thing: He didn’t have to do this. I was not among the starting lineup of golfers on the team. This was a serious team. We went to the state tournament my junior year, and multiple guys in the squad would go on to play in college. My best friend, Justin Fleming, was on that team and went on to play four years at Southern Wesleyan University and would later pair with legend Vijay Singh in a pro-am out in Texas. There were real players on our team. I was not one of them.
And yet Coach Ayers always took time to help. To encourage me and give me pointers. It was only later that I truly appreciated it. He saw value in everyone on the team, from the best player to the worst.
To be certain, D.U. was no wallflower. He was a former railroad man, and he kept the players in stitches with an endless stream of off-color jokes and comebacks, which I’ll keep off the record on this Sunday morning. Honestly, Coach Ayers helped define those teams in the mid-to-late 1990s, squads that competed for region titles and in state tournaments. He was gruff but caring, hilarious but competitive. Those were fun times.
Not too long ago, I called Coach Ayers to give him a little hell about Tiger Woods and his improbable return as a serious contender on the PGA Tour. D.U. always wanted to argue about Tiger and his place in golf’s pantheon.
But after a couple minutes of trash talk about Woods, the conversation turned sentimental, with Coach Ayers asking about my family and my daughter. He went down the line asking about many members of our golf team long ago. “How’s Justin doing? How many kids does Jeremy have? Have you seen Tripp lately?” and so on.
It was a conversation that summed up coach Ayers: It started with jokes, but ended with genuine thoughtfulness. That was D.U.
We’ll miss him.