This past week, with an election season down to a few sunsets and a governor in peril, Republicans in north Fulton County should have been glued to their Twitter feeds, sweating each and every poll as it rolled through.
Instead, the dominant topic of conversation was the single, mystical swing of a golf club.
They held the wake for Mack Burgess on Thursday at T.J.’s Sports Bar and Grill, up the Ga. 400 corridor. At least, it was partly a wake. And partly a get-out-the-vote rally.
Burgess, a 25-year-old avid golfer and campaign aide to Gov. Nathan Deal, died last month in a car accident. He was the son of Banks Burgess, one half of the Banks & Shane singing duo that has rocked local audiences since Richard Nixon was president.
It was Banks Burgess’ idea to turn the memorial service into a political affair. ”I just want to finish the drill, as Coach Richt says,” said the father, with a Deal cap on his head and a starched Deal shirt on his back.
A WSB Radio guy, some Swedish-American who works the 5 p.m. window, was broadcasting from the site. The Banks & Shane band played the commercial breaks. The governor, kept downstate by his campaign schedule, would phone in a greeting.
We were in a quiet corner. I had come to hear the story of the round of golf that Banks Burgess had played three days after laying his son to rest.
But first the father wanted to glory in his lost boy.
Mack Burgess had been on a golden career arc in the world of politics.
Banks Burgess has solid GOP connections, but his son’s Republicanism was a destination, not an in-born trait. “He made the dialectic. He made the circle that so many of us make,” the father said.
Mack had been a go-fer for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss in his 2008 re-election campaign and a driver for Karen Handel in her 2010 race for governor before he graduated from the University of Tennessee.
Mack received his diploma on a Friday, and on Monday was the campaign manager for Stan Wise’s 2012 bid for re-election to the state Public Service Commission.
This year, Mack Burgess managed the 11th District congressional campaign of Tricia Pridemore, a Marietta businesswoman who lost in the May 20 primary.
The next day, Mack got a call from Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, drawing him into the Deal campaign. It would be Riley who would personally deliver the news of Mack’s death to his parents.
We had yet to reach that round of golf when Pridemore, the ex-congressional candidate, approached. She had organized the wake-rally, and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson had arrived to pay his respects.
After Isakson, the music intervened. Banks & Shane played “Rocky Top,” took the load off Annie, and dusted off a Kingston Trio favorite, “M.T.A.,” the story of a fellow named Charlie who disappears into the Boston subway system. “He’s the man who never returned,” Banks Burgess crooned.
But returning is what this story is about. Eventually, the singer-father pulled me aside to yet another quiet spot. The Burgesses, father and son, shared passions in politics, music – and golf. His son “truly appreciated the glory of the game,” the father said.
Mack got his first set of clubs when he was two years old. Eventually, they would play Augusta together, at the invitation of Charlie Yates, the Atlanta civic leader and amateur golf champion – schooled by Bobby Jones.
And so we come to a beautiful Monday after a Friday funeral in mid-October. “I got my best friends, including Paul Shane, my partner, and we went up to play up at Chestatee,” Banks Burgess said. (The Chestatee Golf Club is in Dawsonville, on the banks of Lake Lanier.)
It was too soon. “I was just doggin’ it around. I couldn’t play dead,” the father said. “After six holes, I was six over par. I had one par, I had one double-bogey. I was just miserable, and I was going to pack it in.”
Banks Burgess tried one time. “We’re standing on the seventh tee – it’s about a 150-yard par three, and I look up into the sky. It was absolutely beautiful. And I said, ‘Mack, come on, buddy, help me find my swing. I need you,’” the father said.
He swung one more time. “And I knocked it in the hole.” Plunk.
“There was a stunned silence for about 15 seconds, and then we were all laughing and crying,” Banks Burgess said. He texted his wife Missy: “Mack and I just hit a hole-in-one.”
Burgess Banks describes himself as unchurched but religious. He knows a moment when he experiences it. “It was one of those mystical things, one of those ‘Golf in the Kingdom’ things that happens,” Banks Burgess said. “I doubt if I’ll ever get over it.”
That was the subtext at T.J.’s on Thursday. Election Day is now 48 hours away. Deal’s supporters say it won’t happen, but for the first time in Georgia history, we could see an incumbent governor dragged into a four-week runoff.
So on Monday, if you see Deal quietly mumbling, “Mack, come on, buddy, help me find my swing” – well, you’ll know who he’s talking to.
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