The Proof is in the Putting


Four months after quitting golf for life, for at least the fifth time, I found myself hosting my cousin, Eddie, on my community’s championship golf course.  I ended up beating him decisively… on one of the eighteen holes.

Golf is an activity that remains mysterious to me.  If I can hit a moving tennis ball or baseball or soccer ball, why is the stationary golf ball so infuriating?  Each swing presents an opportunity for something wonderful to occur, but a fortune could be earned betting on the opposite result.

Eddie is the “patriarch” of the nine cousins in my extended family.  He is sixteen years older than I, eight inches shorter and proof that those metrics mean nothing at all in golf.  Eddie has lived most of his life in Chicago where I have rarely visited – we’ve seen each other sparingly over the years.  The last time I played golf with him I was sixteen.  Eddie did not even remember that event so forgettable in the pantheon of his golf experiences.  We played at a Philadelphia public course that barely qualified as a “real” course.  In fact, in most of the country, particularly in North Carolina where I now live, the course would long since have become a housing development or alpaca ranch.

We had a lovely time during Eddie’s visit.  Meals were delicious, Scrabble victories over his wife, Sherry, were mine.  A long ago defeat at her hands on the ping pong table (she took out my pacifier before we played) was avenged.  We introduced them, or subjected them, depending on your viewpoint, to Carolina barbecue, the Durham Bulls and the local version of a traffic jam, the occasional red light.

It was interesting to discuss family events and personalities with Eddie from our disparate ages and geographical perspectives.  He knew different versions of the same people – a mutual uncle, for instance, whom he knew as young, hopeful and fun to be with and who I knew, a generation later, as burdened and somewhat embittered.  He described his own mother’s deep intelligence while my memories are sadly clouded by her later bouts with illness and anger.  On the other hand, Eddie was able to describe to me the transformation of a contemporary I once met in Chicago and thought of as unstable and troubled; as a middle-aged man, he has built an admirable life for himself.

One subject I cannot discuss comfortably with Eddie is politics.  Somehow, though spawned in the same genetic line, we may as well be from different planets.  All we could finally achieve was a reasonably respectful impasse.  We each conceded several points, namely:  I agreed the President is not all I’d hoped for in 2008 though I still share most of his viewpoints.  Eddie agreed with the President’s dithering on Syria.  Basically, “stay the hell out of there.”  We both agreed that the recent retirement announcement of the shrew from Minnesota is a good thing; me because she is insane and a liar and dangerous; he, as far as I could comprehend, because she is a distraction from the core of Republican values.

Golf, fortunately, is a politics-free zone.  I have enough to worry about without arguing tax policy and the right to choose.  First, we went to the practice range.  Eddie’s shots all went straight and for distances that he had in mind.  Mine were as varied as the menu at a New Jersey diner.

“Feel free to make any suggestions,” I invited.

He observed one shot.

“I’m not going to say much, since it will be confusing,” he started, “but:  keep your left arm straight, cock your wrist at this point in your backswing, don’t put the club so high on take-away, follow-through, and make sure your feet and chest are lined up properly.”

I tried to accession all of that information and hit three consecutive grounders.  I switched to a different club and smacked a few more balls off to the right, then overcompensated with a grip adjustment and blasted several to the left.  Meanwhile, various golfers who know me to be a star of the tennis courts, at least in the dimness of the local constellation, were probably delighted to see me hacking away so futilely.

“Perhaps we should try putting,” I said, noting that we were scheduled to tee-off in fifteen minutes.

“Sure,” said Eddie, before smacking one last perfect shot.

My luck did not change at the practice green.

“I have the yips,” I said.

“I have them too,” said Eddie, with touching empathy.

“Mine are worse than yours,” I said.

“I’ve been known to miss a four-footer,” said Eddie.

“I commonly hit a four-footer so it ends up twelve feet past the hole,” I said.

“You win,” he conceded.

I yanked a ball to the right of the hole.

“I think that hole is cut too small,” I said.

“I’ve never seen anyone slice a putt,” said Eddie.

“Is there anything I can change?” I asked.

I could tell that Eddie was holding back some thoughts; he did not want to overwhelm me with suggestions moments before we went to play with two other experienced golfers.

“Just this,” he said, demonstrating with his putter.  “Put your left thumb here, your right index finger here, square your shoulders like this, bend over the ball like this, be sure your eyes are above the ball, be sure the backswing is exactly as far as the fore-swing, don’t move your head and don’t bend your wrists.”

“Is that all?” I asked.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” he said.

We went to the first tee and met the two friends who filled out our foursome.  Both are accomplished golfers and fine gentlemen.  Still, their participation may have initially struck them as charitable – playing with non-golfer Stuart and his unimposing-looking cousin from out-of-town.

The first hole gave no particular indication, as Dennis hit a par four, Eddie and I both managed fives and Hayes scored a six.  On the second hole, however, as I settled over my tee-shot, one of the men decided to suggest a change to my grip.  “And roll your wrist over,” he added.  “Like a cross-court shot in tennis.”

His effort to relate the suggestion to something I could understand was appreciated, but there are no trees in the middle of a tennis court.  I lost two balls so far into the woods that we did not even bother to look.  I was embarrassed even amidst the easy camaraderie of the golf course.

“What if every hole is like this? I said.

“Don’t worry,” said Eddie.  “I have a lot of extra golf balls.”

“Do you have thirty six?”

“Not that many.”

My play improved from that point.  Perhaps, I was freed from the modest illusion of competence I had gleaned from the successful first hole.  At least I never lost two balls on one hole again.  And on a short hole that required a tee-shot over a lake, I somehow managed a par that beat everyone else.

Eddie, too, was rallying.  I was proud, and a little relieved, to see how his flawless form impressed the men, along with his ability to master a new course.  By the end of the round, Eddie’s 83 had nearly caught Dennis, a renowned local star.  I scored 102, which is nothing to brag about, but was politely lauded by everyone.

“If I could just have you for three weeks,” said Hayes, twenty or thirty modifications to my swing doubtless coming to mind.

Eddie and Sherry departed the next morning and we all look forward to seeing each other again.  In this case, if I can stay away from politics as though it is a sand trap, the course is a pleasure to play.