Miracle on the 17th Green

A Novel


By James Patterson

By Peter de Jonge

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Just when we need some magic in our lives, bestselling author James Patterson brings us a stirring tale of life, love, and the power of Christmas miracles.

Travis McKinley’s life has drifted sideways. His job, his marriage, even his children all feel disconnected and distant. Has he really accomplished nothing of consequence in his life? One Christmas Day, Travis plays a round of golf and finds himself for the first time in the zone-playing like a pro. In astonishingly short order, Travis is catapulted into the PGA Senior Open at Pebble Beach, where he advances to the final round. And while his wife, his children, and a live television audience watch, a miracle takes place that changes Travis and his family forever.


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A Little Noise from Winnetka


IT WAS CHRISTMAS MORNING and a balmy 38 degrees. In other words, a perfect day for golf, and there I stood on the semifrozen mud of the 17th tee at the Creekview Country Club in Winnetka, Illinois.

My marriage was disintegrating. My three kids, whom I love more than life itself, didn't know what to make of me lately, and I had a terrible feeling that come January, I was going to be fired from my job at Leo Burnett. Who knows, if everything went as badly as it possibly could, there was a chance I might be one of the homeless after that.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

I bent down, teed up an old scuffed Titleist, and squinted through the wind at the long tight par 5, lined on both sides by towering black leafless elms.

Now what follows is one of those mystical, largely unexplainable, out-of-body experiences, so please bear with me. Or as Vin Scully used to say at the start of his golf telecasts, pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable. I admit that in sheer unlikelihood, this probably ranks right up there with Truman upsetting Dewey, It's a Wonderful Life, and John Daly winning the British Open.

What can I say? Stuff happens to people. Tragedies befall saints. Fortune smiles on cretins. Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. And this happened to me.

Since it is such a crucial number in this story, I should point out that I was starting my round on 17. Despite the unseasonable thaw, it was Christmas, the course was empty, and 17 just happened to be the tee closest to where I parked. Anyway, I knocked the cover off my drive.

Nothing unusual about that. I hit the ball farther than the pro here at Creekview. I even hit the ball farther than the current champ, Mark Duffel, who's twenty.

I trudged down the fairway, nudged my ball away from a sprinkler head, and hit my second shot, a 185-yard, 5-iron, stiff. Suddenly, I was feeling better. To hell with my problems. Golf can have that effect.

Now, here comes the weird part. This is where everything gets a little spooky, and I took my first step on this road—either to salvation or damnation.

I stroked that putt so clean and solid.


I put such a pure sweet roll on it, the ball traveled over the grass like a bead of mercury rolls across the floor after you break a thermometer.

The beginning of a miracle. A harbinger. A sign.

The little white ball dropped into the little white cup for eagle.

I was hooked.

I was elated.

I was doomed.

I must tell you right now, however, that this isn't the so-called Miracle on 17. Not even close.

I hurried to the next tee.


I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE THINKING. What's the big deal about a nine-foot putt in a practice round on a deserted golf course in the dead of winter, with the only witness a skinny red squirrel who had hopped onto the green in search of an acorn or two?

Let me give you a little quick background.

Except for tap-ins and your basic no-account three-or four-footers, I don't make putts less than twelve feet. My nickname, borrowed in a most unflattering way from the former world welterweight champion Roberto Duran, is "Hands of Stone." In spite of that, I've been club champ here at the Creekview Country Club in Winnetka five out of the past twelve years.

But it wasn't just that the putt on 17 went in. Every-body gets lucky sometime.

It was how the putt went in.

It didn't creep in the side door, or dribble in the front, or start off-line and get corrected by a spike mark. It was dead center from the instant it touched off my blade until it rammed home with all the subtlety of a Shaquille O'Neal dunk.

But even more important was the feeling I had as I stood over the putt. I knew it was going in.

Knew it in my hands, shoulders, legs, and bones.

Knew it with a degree of certainty that was almost spooky.

It was like something that had already happened, and all I had to do was patiently wait for the present to catch up.

For the first time in forty years, I could actually see the line. My nickname notwithstanding, my putting problem was never really my touch. It was in my eyes, or somewhere behind them in the plumbing of my brain. Does it break three inches or two? Does it break at the beginning or the end? Your guess was as good as mine.

But that morning as I stood with my eyes directly over the Titleist logo, my putting dyslexia was cured. It was as if someone from the Winnetka Highway Department had painted a dotted white line between my ball and the hole. Or better yet, had laid a small stretch of track about the size of my younger son, Noah's, train set, and all I had to do was get the ball started right and then watch it roll as if it were on rails into the center of the cup.

But, as I said before, this isn't the miracle I'm trying to tell you about.


LIKE A MIDDLE-AGED MAN who suddenly discovers Santa Claus is real after all, I raced to the next hole. I thumbed a tee into the cold dirt and smacked another solid drive out over the deserted course.

For the next few hours, I raced around the blighted landscape in a birdie-feeding frenzy.

After rolling in a fifteen-footer on 18, I jogged back over to 1 and played a full eighteen, then another nine, then nine more. In thirty-eight holes, I one-putted twenty-nine greens, had twenty birdies, and in four nines didn't post a score above 33. Time seemed to stand still.

During one unconscious stretch, where I birdied four holes in a row, my heart started beating so fast I had to lean against a tree and make myself take a few slow breaths.

I was afraid I was going to keel over and buy the farm right then, cut down—as it were—in my prime. And I don't know what would have annoyed me more—dying, or dying before I had a chance to tell anybody about these scores.

But my reverie was suddenly broken.

Standing on the 16th green for the third time that day, I happened to look out over the evergreens beside the fairway. There, wafting above the tree line, tethered to a nearby house, was a helium-filled Santa balloon.

In a panic, I fished my watch out of my bag. It turns out time hadn't stood still at all. It had kept right on ticking.

As I stood marooned in the middle of the course, a brisk fifteen-minute walk from my Jeep, a reckless fifteen-minute ride from my home, I was already two hours and twenty minutes late for my own Christmas dinner. Throwing the bag over my shoulder, I took off across the empty course like a Yellowstone camper pursued by a nasty bear looking for its Christmas dinner.

Or a man who had just seen a ghost. The ghost of Christmas past.


MY FAMILY IS not the kind that any man in his right mind stands up for Christmas dinner, or any other meal or occasion. But then whose is?

Sarah, my wife, is generous, funny, frighteningly accomplished, and stunning, and I have been hopelessly in love with her for thirty years. She is the leading obstetrician in Winnetka, and for the past eight years has been an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Medical School. She has always earned more than I have as a sort of midlevel advertising copywriter for Leo Burnett, but, at least until recently, neither one of us seemed to mind.

Our kids, to use one of Noah's current favorite words, are "the bomb." That's good, by the way. They are also sensitive, caring, beautiful, and brilliant. They take after Sarah.

Elizabeth, born the year after we got married, is really only a kid to me. That she is in fact twenty-seven now is something I always have a hard time believing. It doesn't fit with the indelible image of the first time I held her, seconds after her birth. Then again, neither did her first date, her second, her third, and her high school and college graduations. A doctor herself now, she is in her second year of a radiology internship at Yale.

Simon, a junior in high school, is probably my closest friend in the world—though we've been testing that relationship lately. The kid is just so alive and honest. He's a pure flame. Although he has never been interested in golf, he's also the family's only other jock. One of the top high school soccer players in the state, he has been invited to travel with the National Junior Team next fall.

Last, but definitely not least, is our great philosopher-king, Noah, who arrived unexpectedly four years ago, and whose absurd verbal precociousness has been causing jaws to drop practically ever since. Statistically, I guess he's a genius, but what really kills me about him is his ferocious loyalty to his older brother.

One day last fall, Simon surprised us at supper by arriving with three gold loops dangling from his right earlobe. His mother and I were not exactly congratulating him on his new look.

After about five minutes, Noah stood up and announced, "If you two don't stop it, I'm eating in my room." Then he looked at us, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "Besides, what's the big deal? He's a teenager." I'm not making this up. He's four years old.

Of course, Simon feels the same way about Noah. In fact, we're all pretty much crazy about one another, with the very possible exception lately of Sarah toward me. What's caused her to lose affection for me? I can't say for sure. She refuses to talk about it anymore.

If I don't get it by now I never will, she says.

What I do understand is that I've been in a rut, a rut that keeps getting deeper and deeper, and she's tired of what must seem like the Sisyphean task of pulling me out of it. As she put it once, "I already have three kids. I don't want to be married to one." The fact is she's doing great, and I'm not doing much of anything, I guess, except bringing her down. She also says I'm cynical about her friends, and she's probably right.

On the other hand, maybe I never deserved her in the first place, and it just took her twenty-eight years to figure that out.

At any rate, what I had just done on Christmas afternoon wasn't likely to heal and soothe.


WHEN I FINALLY WALKED into the kitchen, I was actually met by five pairs of angry eyes. I don't believe I mentioned Louie, our black-and-brown Welsh terrier, who also joined the group scowl, and may even have growled. This wasn't the first time I had faced this particular mob. I had let them down before, so much so that Simon had dubbed me the "late" Travis McKinley.

"Merry Christmas," offered Sarah, with exactly as much warmth and genuine Yuletide spirit as I deserved.

"I know it's inexcusable," I blurted. "I'm sorry. When I looked at my watch, I swear I couldn't believe it."

"No big deal, Old Man," said Elizabeth, who had flown in from New Haven the night before. "All you did is miss Christmas dinner."

"You're being too hard on the guy, Liz," said Simon, bristling with the kind of wounded sarcasm only a seventeen-year-old can muster. "He's just in that mild funk again. You know, the one he's been in since Armstrong walked on the moon."

Because we identified with each other so closely, I realize now that my long slump had hurt Simon at least as much as me. If I'd got my act together a little sooner, maybe he wouldn't have three holes in his right ear. Maybe he wouldn't have been suspended two days this fall for getting in a fistfight in the hallway with some goon on the football team. But Simon's going to be all right, I swear it.

"Don't worry," said Noah, who hates to see anyone looking miserable. "There'll be another one in exactly three hundred sixty-five days."

"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure of that," said Sarah. "At least not one that you're invited to."

I stood there with my face covered with mud and sweat, and dried blood where a branch had scraped my chin as I sprinted back through the woods. I stared hopelessly at Sarah, who was wearing a simple black dress and had her hair pulled back. She kept shaking her head, and the look on her face was about as pure as disgust can get.

"I know no one is going to believe this or be interested," I said, "but I was having a semireligious experience out there."

"What? You finally sunk a few putts?" snorted Elizabeth, provoking laughter all around and a particularly merry approving glance from her mom.

When am I going to learn to keep my moronic mouth shut? I asked myself in despair. The only good news was that my mad sprint through the woods had got me home in time to do the dishes and clean up. Noah, good soul that he is, stayed in the kitchen to help me dry. The work, and his company, temporarily took my mind off the paralyzing fear that I might eventually screw up one time too many and lose my place in this family.

Or maybe I already had.


THAT NIGHT, the Midwest got blitzed by the first real snowstorm of the winter. The town Billy Sunday couldn't shut down, was.

Although I welcomed the closed offices and the temporary interruption in the flow of junk mail and bills, I was dying to get back on the course and find out if I could still see the line on my putts. Was my improvement permanent, or just a blip in the cosmos, a one-day Christmas gift from God?

It was five days before the snow had melted enough for me and my regular golfing buddies, Ron Claiborne, Joe Barreiro, and Charles Hall, to drive out to Medinah, one of the best courses in the country, where Ron's father-in-law was a member.

Medinah is a long, narrow, nasty test of golf. When it hosted the U.S. Open in 1990, the best score all week was a 67 by Hale Irwin.

That's exactly what I shot. With all the bonus payouts for greenies, birdies, sandies, presses, and double presses, my winnings were more than enough to buy lunch and drinks in the Men's Grill.

That afternoon, we had the place to ourselves. As we sat in one corner of the huge wood-paneled room, shooting the breeze and stewing in our ripe middle age, I picked up a spoon and banged it on Ron's half-empty Amstel Light.

"Gentlemen, I'm glad all of you are sitting down, because I have a rather shocking announcement," I said.

"You're getting a vasectomy," said Ron. "Congratulations."

"Talk about flogging a dead horse," said Joe.

"I'm going to the Senior Tour Qualifying School." I said, interrupting the high hilarity. "Starts two weeks from today in Tallahassee."


On Sale
May 5, 1999
Page Count
160 pages
Back Bay Books

James Patterson

About the Author

James Patterson is the world’s bestselling author, best known for his many enduring fictional characters and series, including Alex Cross, the Women’s Murder Club, Michael Bennett, Maximum Ride, Middle School, I Funny, and Jacky Ha-Ha. Patterson’s writing career is characterized by a single mission: to prove to everyone, from children to adults, that there is no such thing as a person who “doesn’t like to read,” only people who haven’t found the right book. He’s given over a million books to schoolkids and over forty million dollars to support education, and endowed over five thousand college scholarships for teachers. He writes full-time and lives in Florida with his family.

Learn more at jamespatterson.com

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