MADISON, Minn. -- Little boys toddle into the world pre-programmed for play. A senior men's golf league in Madison, Minnesota may offer the best evidence yet, that desire never goes away.
Ole and Lena jokes fly before golf balls as 16 members of The Duffer's League meet each Wednesday morning at the Madison Country Club.
In golf parlance "duffer" describes someone of questionable ability. It is the first indication that the skills of the 16 members - average age 81 - may no longer match their competitive spirit.
"Regardless of what I make or do not make there are not comments about how bad I am," says Cliff Linde, 88, when asked what he loves most about the league.
Filling the roster is never an issue. The challenge for outsiders is living long enough to get in.
"There's always been a waiting list to get in," says Myron Haverson, 73. "You really can't get in until somebody dies."
Carlyle Larsen, 85, is the league's founder and only surviving original member. "It was my idea, I guess, back in 1990," he explains.
Larsen decided the aging men of Madison needed their own league - and then capped membership at 16.
Don Ess was among those who waited on the list for a spot to open. In September he'll turn 91. He started golfing before he left for military service in 1942. "I haven't run out of balls yet," he laughs, "probably because I can't hit 'em that far anymore.
Last month Ess became the oldest member of the Duffer's league, on the same day Graylan Carlson, the former Lac qui Parle County sheriff, became the youngest.
In The Duffer's league, sadly, a new-comer generally means that an old friend has passed away.
"They were supposed to golf that day, but they cancelled the day and went to the funeral instead," say Angie Tennessen, whose husband Victor golfed the day before he died while in his chair, watching a Twins game.
His death opened a roster spot for Carlson, who first put his name on a waiting list five years ago.
"Wednesday was his favorite day of the week," said Kristi Kuechenmeister, Tennessen's daughter. "He couldn't get up early enough" to golf with The Duffers.
That wasn't always the case. For 45 years Tennessen toiled on his farm, with no time for the golfers who played the course two miles down the road.
"Remember when he used to drive by here before he started golfing?," asked Kuechenmeister as she turned to her mother. Angie Tennessen responded in words she heard often from her husband, "'those stupid idiots, they're chasing that golf ball around with a stick.'"
If anyone wondered if the Duffers made a difference in Tennessen's life, their question was answered at his visitation, where a golf ball shared space with a rosary in his crossed hands in the casket.
His widow requested that his friends from The Duffers serve as honorary pallbearers.
"We all carried a golf club," said John Strand, 84, "and when we left the church we stood there and lined each side of the coffin with our golf clubs -- present arms."
Angie Tennessen said she's heard several people say "it was the most beautiful funeral they'd ever seen."
Then Victor's name was crossed off the roster on the clubhouse wall, and Carlson's name hand-written next to it. "Victor was here on the 6th week and I started the 7th week," said Carlson. The natural cycle of The Duffer's continued, just like summer turns into fall.
"We realize we're getting on in years and we're gonna have a lot of fun in the remaining years we have," said Strand.
The Duffers will think of their old friend when they cross from the 3rd hole to the 4th. There, in a pond, a fountain will be erected with Tennessen's memorial money - planted at what eventually became the farmer's favorite place.
"That way his legacy lives on out here," said his daughter, "and it will make the golf course look really pretty. "
If we're looking for life lessons, the Duffer's offer many. Try our best. Laugh at our mistakes. Until the day arrives when we give up our place.
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)