STARBUCK — There were no hordes of ravenous bugs bombarding Larry Robinson and Robin Henderson earlier this week as they took a stroll on the fiercely long par-four sixth hole at Bridges Golf Course.
Not like 50 years ago on the nine-hole track in Thompson, newly carved out of the dense woodland along Mystery Lake Road, just a few kilometres outside the northern Manitoba mining town.
In their teens, Robinson and Henderson spent just about every waking hour playing golf, plagued by black flies and mosquitoes. The onslaught of itch-inducing insects made even a routine two-foot putt a health hazard.
"We were in love with the game and would easily play every day until midnight in the summer," recalls Robinson, whose father ran the restaurant at the Thompson Inn. "The mosquitoes and black flies were beyond belief. No one in the world has any concept of what that means. We'd have to run between each shot.
"There were guys who played with full netting around their heads. Musk oil was my choice, just lathered right up. But they came up your nose and into your eyes."
Henderson had similar recollections of head-to-head battles with Robinson that finished well past dark — with stakes so high quitting seemed inconceivable.
"The concentration it took when you're putting with apple pie and ice cream from the clubhouse on the line and there's a half-dozen mosquitoes biting your hands. You'd be twitching but you had to keep going because even if you stopped, they'd just come back," says Henderson, the son of an Inco miner.
Riding bikes to their chosen playground, repeatedly touring the course, settling the score with dessert and a soda and bending the ears of the Thompson Golf Club's premier players.
Just being rural kids with a passion for golf.
Back then, a deep bond was formed — a friendship spanning six decades. Fifty-five years after Henderson's family moved right next door to the Robinson clan and boys began capturing frogs together in the nearby swamp or wielding branches in imaginary sword fights, they're still as thick as thieves.
Poignantly, they learned the game together and now they get to see each other every day at Bridges, teaching others the rules, etiquette and the finer points of the golf swing.
Robinson, 63, the head pro and director of golf, just teed off on his ninth season at the public course, and he recently hired Henderson — who's taught golf for more than 30 years — as the club's director of instruction for the newly formed Bridges Golf Academy.
The two previously worked together (1984-91) when Henderson was an assistant pro in Steinbach, when Robinson was the longtime head pro there. Henderson, who moved over to become the head pro at nearby Quarry Oaks in 1992, says he shanked badly when he declined the job when it was first offered and took a position at Glendale last season, instead.
"After I parted ways with Quarry Oaks, Larry called me and asked me to come and start a golf academy here and I thought it'd be a lot of fun. I'd get to play golf and teach," says Henderson, just a few days shy of 62. "But a job at Glendale came up and I actually got it. It wasn't a good fit and I was done there in mid-January, and Larry again contacted me. So, here I am.
"It's been weird, because the last month I've been helping move my mother into a personal care home, so work here is just getting into the swing of things. But I know I'm going to love it."
Robinson says the addition of his chum has been a seamless transition. There's no groundwork to be done to develop a close, trusting relationship because they've shared one since grade school.
"We've stayed pretty darn close all these years. We can say anything to each other, the sarcasm, the humour. We can be totally direct with one another and nothing fazes us at all," says Robinson. "He's giving me wonderful advice about so many things. I just love the connection."
Henderson was the best man at Robinson's wedding in 1983. The marriage didn't last, but But Robinson has a 23-year-old daughter, Meg. Henderson has been married for 22 years and has no children.
"We've been through a lot together. A lot of life has gone on since we were kids, but we've stayed pretty tight," says Robinson.
There were dark days, too, the kind that swallows a person whole. That's when the power of the friendship shone brightest.
Battling alcoholism, Robinson hit rock-bottom in 2003. The drinking destroyed his marriage and his career and financially ruined him.
"It's a long story. I was so very sick," he says. "Robin was at the hospital with me and he helped save me. I'm not afraid to say that. I didn't have to ask for help, he just stepped in.
"I remember like yesterday how I was mentally shaken, fired from Steinbach, going through a bankruptcy and living at the Salvation Army for a short stint. I remember sitting down with you (looks at Henderson) at a restaurant and you said, 'Well, you just start over.'"
Robinson celebrates 14 years of sobriety June 19.
"It's touching to hear him say that," says Henderson. "But it's just something you do for your friend."
Henderson says if it wasn't for his buddy he might have actually worked in a deep hole in the ground instead of firing golf balls at tiny holes in the ground.
"After university (U of W), I wanted a career in golf. But it looked like I was going to return to Thompson and work in the mines. Then Larry offered me that job (in Steinbach)," Henderson says. "It got me into the business. It was the turning point of my life."
Save for trading a few 50-yard pitch shots to the green on the 450-yard, par-4 sixth hole for the Free Press photographer, they haven't ventured out for a game of golf together in two years. It's the irony of being a golf pro — after all the hours in the pro shop, the behind-the-scenes administrative duties and full slate of lessons, seldom is there time to actually play the game.
But they've vowed to dedicate a few hours every few weeks to get in a game together, even if it's just a quick nine just before the sun goes down.
"Robin's a better player than I am, so I'll have to knee-cap him with my sand wedge when he's not looking, just to beat him," jokes Robinson.
They're running the 18-hole course — located about 20 kilometres west of the Perimeter and McGillivray Boulevard — so they can set their own tee times.
But both vividly recall the days when sneaking on — but rarely finishing the full nine — the course in Thompson meant evoking the wrath of members whose words stung just about as much as those voracious northern 'skeeters. (Henderson's dad was actually a member so he was allowed to play there, while Robinson's trespasses would, ultimately, be forgiven when an older member, seeing the kid had a knack for the game, marched him into makeshift pro shop one day and paid his junior dues for him.)
They also just shake their heads recalling the time that, as 16- or 17-year-olds, they hitchhiked the nearly 800 kilometres south in hopes of playing the finest courses the big city and surrounding regions had to offer.
"We had our golf clubs, (travel) bags and several dozen Star Flite golf balls and we came down to Winnipeg because the golf season was open much earlier than ours. How our parents ever allowed us to do this... we lived out of the airport. Stayed there, slept there," Robinson says, laughing. "Robin was the navigator with the map and he'd be like, 'OK, we're going to try to get to Falcon Lake today.'
"Well, we got out there (on Fermor Avenue) but nobody would pick us up. We were raggedy boys from Thompson. We never made it to Falcon. So, Robin goes, 'I can see Windsor Park Golf Course straight that way,' so we head down the road with our stuff, run through the bush, jump the creek start and playing."
Or the time they left a local tavern at 2 a.m. and started whacking ball down Thompson Drive in the centre of town and up the hillside — a narrow two-kilometre "par-10" as it were, featuring trouble down both sides of the concrete fairway in the form of parked cars and store-front windows.
"You're trying to hit it straight down the boulevard but it bounces a lot," Henderson says, grinning.
Memories like those can't be erased by time, and Robinson and Henderson say they're hoping to scribble down many more aces on the nostalgia scorecard.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).