“Swing Like You Would Dance” Remembering Ben Davis

The weather is starting to change for the better these days, and all of us start thinking about getting outdoors.

When I think about getting outdoors, I think of golf. As you know from some prior blog posts, I do think of golf as a metaphor for many aspects of life and a window into our culture and society.

Ben Davis

Detroit Golf Legend Ben Davis

Golf also offers insights into how people respond to challenges and life events.

Just as real quality is what occurs when no one is looking, the self regulation of penalties in golf is an incredible reflection of character. If a person cheats at golf, what do you think they do in business or in other aspects of their life?

The reason for this post isn’t to convince you of the metaphysics or tangential aspects of a sport that has someone trying to hit a small ball into a cup; it is to pay tribute to a great golfer and even greater man, Ben Davis.

Mr. Davis recently passed on at the age of 101.

On May 9, he was memorialized by the naming of the street leading to Rackham Golf course in Huntington Woods. Forever, golfers will drive down Ben Davis Drive to play at a course that plays a significant role in Detroit history.

Rackham Golf Course, off the westbound I-696 service drive near the Detroit Zoo, opened in 1923 as a gift from the philanthropist Horace Rackham. Incorporated in the deed for the property, it was stipulated that the course would be open to anyone, of any color. Most golf courses in Detroit and in the Nation were restricted to African Americans and people of color. Rackham broke down this barrier .

It was only fitting that Mr. Davis, who learned the game as a caddie, became the first black person to be appointed as a head professional of a United States golf course.

People weave in and out of our lives, especially in medicine, and my relationship with Mr. Davis was just so.

The Detroit Free Press would have a free golf course clinic for beginners back in the 1960s and 1970s. My father thought it would be a good idea for me to learn golf, I think mainly because he knew my career as a baseball player was going to be limited by my inability to hit a curve ball.

So my mother took me to stand in line of about 50 teenagers and children, learning how to hold a golf club from a smiling and spry professional, Ben Davis. He took time to look at all of our grips. To this day, I remember his hands, moving mine on the club: “Hold it like a baby chick, young man.”  And, “Swing like you would dance.”

Lindsey Mason III, the current head pro at the New Rogell Golf course in Detroit learned the game from Mr. Davis. He was quoted in the Free Press saying, “He made a great impression on a lot of young people. If you messed up, he’s just say, ‘let’s move on to the next shot.’ ”

I learned to love the game, but the time constraints of a few other activities, like medical school and residency, put my game on hiatus.

After being on staff for a few years, I was advised to take up a hobby other than reading the New England Journal of Medicine, and thought about starting up to play golf again.

I bought some clubs at a discount store and tried to hit the ball again. As any of you who took up the game know, it is humbling even when you play well and frequently, but it is most humbling at the beginning or at a new beginning.

One afternoon, a patient named Ben Davis was on my schedule.

I walked into the clinic and immediately recognized the hands. Big hands for a man his size, soft, lithe. I asked him what he did for a living, and he confirmed to me who he was: “I help people find pleasure in playing golf.”

I told him about the Free Press clinic that I attended. In a soft voice and smiling face, he said, “Doctor, I think I remember you.” He made me believe he did. I told him about my struggles returning to the game, and he told me, “remember what I do.”

He saw me for a few lessons at the Rackham range, a small range with the lessons interrupted periodically by the train whistle from the zoo. When I told him I thought my clubs were a problem, too long and too hard to hit, he took my six iron and hit an elegant draw over the 150 yard marker. “Clubs seem OK to me Doc. Might be that swing.”

I had the privilege of seeing Mrs. Davis, as well as hearing the stories about their life together. How they met in a club, love at first sight, dancing together.

Golf is about history, and Mr. Davis told me about his history.

How he loved the game, but was told there was no future in it for people like you. What it was like to be excluded because of your color, judged by your skin not your talent. How you needed to hide your abilities from certain other pro’s and golfers to not “show them up.”

No bitterness, just facts.

He told me about the games he would play with the legendary boxer, Joe Louis, some of them away games for big money, where he didn’t have to hide his skills. Joe Louis called him “my pro” and many a game was won by Joe Louis’ pro. He, like Louis, was a legend.

Over the years, I lost touch with Mr. Davis, but thought about him recently when I missed a turn and got off the I-696 ramp by Rackham. Within a week, my assistant saw a column in the Free Press talking about the memorial.

So this summer when I walk outside, with the smell of cut grass and the warm sun on my face, I will think about Mr. Davis.

I hope you will too, even if you aren’t a golfer.

“Swing like you would dance. If you mess up, move on to the next shot.”

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4 thoughts on ““Swing Like You Would Dance” Remembering Ben Davis

  1. Thank you for honoring such a great man, one that struggled to play the game he loved, and touched the lives of so many.

  2. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful human interest story about a man, just a man, who shared the love of his sport and his talent with everyone.

  3. A great note. I am passing this on to my son, a 16 year old budding golfer whose love for the game is simply unparalleled by any other pasttime. Also sending this to his golf coach. Thanks!

  4. My 95 year old father, Stanley Smaka–Rackham marshall, worked and played with Ben Davis for many, many years. They were friends who would share the links and the love of the game. Ben Davis’ clubs were bought by my father who in turn passed them to my son when he stopped playing at 85. Thanks for sharing!

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