Craig Stanley Cliver plays golf. He’s a pro. He’s also partially blind. You’ve probably never heard of him.
It’s Saturday and another gorgeous day in California. The sun and a cool breeze keep the temperature in the low eighties. I’m standing on the tee box overlooking a long par five. The fairway’s clipped clean in perfect manicured lawn-mowed stripes. The green sits some five-hundred plus yards away; a slight dog-leg right, obscured by eucalyptus trees. And I’m a happy man in my obnoxious spectator golf shoes, argyle socks and khaki shorts.
I’m with three other guys. A pro with a golden Don Johnson tan. A young kid with perfect hair and expensive threads. And the head pro of Valencia Country Club, Craig Stanley Cliver.
I’m first up and shank my drive left into some trees. “I normally don’t play this well,” I joke. “So you’ve played before,” Craig says. This cracks everyone up.
Next on the tee is “Don Johnson.” He sends a respectable shot down the left-side. The kid also hits a good drive and lands his ball near the center of the fairway.
Finally, Craig steps up. He takes one practice swing, lays the face of his driver along side the tee and SPANKS the ball. The ball doesn’t so much climb as rockets into the sky, hitting a speed and distance I think NASA would respect. Eventually it begins a descent, cutting the corner out entirely and easily out-distancing everyone’s drive by nearly seventy-five yards.
“Beauty,” I say. And immediately want to go home.
Moments later Craig pounds an iron stiff and holes it. Double-eagle. He’s partially blind, I mention that?
At twelve, Craig was hit in the right eye by a baseball putting a hole in his retina. “It’s like looking at a movie screen with a giant black hole in the center,” He says.
Craig’s forty-one now. He’s six foot something with an athletic build and handsome. He has one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard. It’s not quite a snort, not quite a snicker, rather it comes out as one long drawl and tugs at you to join him. He’s also one of those rare characters with dual opposing personalities. While he can be charming and gregarious one minute, he’s quiet and detached the next.
“Man, you’re good,” I tell him.
“I normally don’t play this bad,” He says grinning.
“Why aren’t you on tour?” I ask. Craig says nothing. But then –
“You know, this isn’t what I wanted to do,” he says.
“What did you want to do?” I ask.
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot. My dream was to be like my dad,” He says.
Craig’s father retired a Two Star General in the Air Force. As a kid, he’d bring his dad to every show-and-tell. He was his hero and Craig wanted nothing more than to be his duplicate. And who can blame him?
The uniform, shades, call signs and fearless bravado. Fighter pilots embody a veritable force of cool. They defy gravity and death. They put their lives on the line to save ours. Name another career where you ride the wind, pierce clouds and break the sound barrier. Superhero comes to mind.
As it was, providence had other plans. When Craig was struck in the right eye by a baseball, the impairment to his vision killed any chance he had of becoming a pilot.
“I got fat. I was depressed and found comfort in food,” Craig says. “I felt like if I ate as much as my dad did, it was a way I could still be like him.”
Craig became an outsider in school and his family. So, he took up golf.
“It’s a loners game. It was an escape.” He says. Craig would hit the links alone. He would walk the course and talk with God.
“When did you reconcile the fact you would never be a pilot like your dad?”
“Not until college. I went to Auburn University and majored in Aerospace engineering. I figured I’d make planes I could fly,” He says. “Problem was, Aerospace engineering is hard. Really hard.”
Craig changed his major and graduated with a degree in finance. And yet all through college Craig continued to play golf. His skill and natural ability was not lost on others. Some offered golf scholarships. Craig turned them all down.
“I knew what it took to become a touring pro and I didn’t care enough about me or the game to do it,” He says.
Years went by. He tried other career paths, but none stuck. Eventually a friend convinced Craig to try out for the PAT or Player’s Ability Test; a test you have to pass should you want to become a PGA professional.
Craig passed. After a brief apprenticeship and working as an assistant golf professional, Craig was offered the much coveted head pro position at Valencia Country Club located in Southern California. It’s a beautiful and exclusive course and Craig’s a bit of a celebrity there. He’s loved and respected by both the members and staff.
On the second tee, I approach the ball and Craig jokes, “Just swing as hard as you can in case you make contact,” and then, “We’re all counting on you.” Snickers follow.
Later I ask Craig, “Do you believe it was God’s will to take you on this path rather than one similar to your father’s?”
“I thought about this a lot. I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t know. I know I believe in God’s will,” He says. “I believe God’s in control of all the random moments in your life…I believe there’s a God that cares about me.”
Craig’s skill with a golf club is legendary to those who have seen him play. With a little time and dedication, Craig could stand up to the best the touring pros have to offer. He’s the golf equivalent of a Seabiscuit. So, what’s stopping him?
“Ironic, you end up in a career that demands you to be social, in a game you initially took up to be alone,” I say.
“Yeah. Funny thing is I don’t like golf.” He says.
“I don’t. Not really. It’s making tents. Serving. I just show up everyday.”
“But you’re good. Really good.” I say.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to find my worth in that,” Craig says.
“But you would have found your worth as a fighter pilot,” I say.
“I guess. Thank God I didn’t become a pilot,” Craig says smiling.
On the eighteenth hole, he crushes his drive. And this time I swear the heavens will open up and swallow the golf ball whole. It will disappear into blue sky. It will never touch earth again. The looks on the other players tell me I’m not alone.
“Wow,” Says the kid.
A perfect word to sum up the day. And a guy, like Craig Stanley Cliver.