Archives for category: Golf passion

THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

We went retro on a recent southern sojourn. We took an old-fashioned driving trip, without a detailed plan, waking up in a different roadside motel almost every day, and seeing “the country.” It’s my understanding people used to do this sort of thing on a regular basis back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But my family never took such a trip when I was young and when my wife and I had children of our own, nothing could have sounded worse than piling into the car and driving for hours each day.
Now, unencumbered by jobs or small children, spurred by cheap gas and relatively cold temperatures, and chastened by the hassle of air travel, my wife, Katie and I opted to allot ten-twelve days to see the south. Of course, we didn’t leave everything to chance. Our first stop was Charleston, always a dependable spot for great food and sights. And our final destination was Savannah, also a guaranteed source of interesting and delicious things to enjoy. In between, however, we traveled the back roads of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And we got together with friends I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. As Robert Frost concluded, “And that made all the difference.”
*****
Several improvements have been made to car travel since the heyday of “the road trip.” First of all, our car is not a station wagon or van, but a BMW with heated seats and cruise control. Second, there’s no struggle to find something to listen to in out-of-the-way places; we have Sirius satellite radio, books on tape and CD’s. Finally, there’s no dealing with maps or asking for directions from strangers. Rather, our smart phone and a GPS combined to save us time and anxiety.
*****
Our first destination after Charleston was Aiken, South Carolina. A college friend, Scott, settled there thirty years ago and invites everyone on our mutual e-mail list to visit when they are in the vicinity. Given that Aiken is the definition of “off the beaten track” in the southwestern quarter of the state, I believe we were the first in decades to take him up on the offer.
Aiken, I learned, is the home of “The Bomb Factory.” It’s where the United States produced much of its nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Now, the same facility is the repository of millions of gallons of radioactive waste from that effort and Scott, a nuclear chemist, is in charge of devising methods for its safe disposal. While he indicates he is making progress, at the present rate, his employment is assured for several centuries.
Scott cooked a fabulous crock of chicken tortilla soup for lunch; it would have suited Charleston’s finest establishments. He introduced his wife, Deb and his son, Mark, who is a recreational food-eating contestant. I’m not sure if I could describe Mark as “accomplished” or “aspiring” in this particular avocation, but his You-tube account shows numerous triumphs in such disciplines as pizza and hot dog inhalation.
A third college friend drove down from Atlanta to join us for the day. Scott and I felt honored since Dan’s been visible only via Facebook and e-mail for the past three decades. Sure to stump any “What’s my Line” competition, Dan is an itinerant pediatrician, traveling the country on short-term assignments. He offers an amusing and insightful perspective on our healthcare system, parenting, and the difficulty of landing a fulltime position for a person determined to speak the truth.
Neither Scott nor Dan is defined by their careers or by having graduated from Dickinson College in the late 1970’s. Scott is a leading expert on the Three Stooges. He is published on the subject and owns a collection of memorabilia, correspondence and memories that would be the envy of any nine-year-old boy in the country. Women, not so much. In addition, Scott has the unique talent to make his shoulder blades speak and several less couth skills, if you can imagine.
Dan is renowned for having memorized the home address of every person in our entering class as of 1974. “Why?” one might ask. Some questions defy answers. The three of us had a great afternoon reminiscing while Katie and Deb endured. We communicated as easily as if we were back at our table in the rear of the cafeteria during the Carter administration. How could so many years have passed?
The visit stretched into dinner at a restaurant where I thought Mark might order twenty servings, given his eating skills, but he refrained. The next morning, Scott made blueberry pancakes, and we covered more meaningless but enjoyable trivia. As one might imagine of someone who can recite 400 home addresses after so long, Dr. Dan was particularly good at making one shake one’s head and say: “Oh, yeah, I had completely forgotten that.”
*****
After breakfast, Katie and I resumed our trip with Valdosta, GA as the day’s destination. Picked randomly as a place five hours due south, it sits just above the border with Florida. I can conclude the following about western South Carolina and central and southern Georgia: there’s not much there. Still, the ride was traffic free and the scenery pretty. To see it one time was interesting; if I had to take that drive on a regular basis, oy vey.
The weather was unseasonably warm, in the mid-70’s, and it seemed a shame to spend the entire afternoon in the car. Accordingly, in the town of Tifton, one hour north of Valdosta, we stopped at what a billboard proclaimed “The Third-Best Golf Course in Georgia.” The opportunity to knock off one of Katie’s least significant bucket list items was at hand. While I flailed my way around the course, which may not have even been the third best in Tifton, she drove the golf cart. She did a fine job driving and following the location of my shots. Her only serious breach of etiquette occurred in front of a large lake. As I stood over the ball, she said: “Don’t think about the water.” Do I need to complete this paragraph?
Also in Tifton, anchoring Main Street is “The Big Store,” owned by the family of a friend. It was Sunday, so the store was closed, but the exterior reminded me of my father’s store in Philadelphia. If he’d somehow settled in southern Georgia or the like, how different my life would have been.
*****
Following a planned two-day visit to Katie’s step-mom in Sarasota, we resumed our unplanned road-trip. Encouraged by the visit with Scott and Dan I e-mailed another college friend, Dave, whom I knew lives in Jacksonville, FL. Dave is like the three-toed sloth of our group of friends. We know he exists but is hard to see. Rare to weigh in on our email communications, I doubted Dave would be accessible for an impromptu visit.
An email elicited no response, and neither did an initial phone message left at his work number. But two hours into our drive, Katie texted Dave and he responded immediately. He agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant. My mind filled with recollections. Not only had Dave attended college with me, he had also attended the same high school and had shared my Washington apartment during my first year of law school. Yet, we’d hardly communicated in the interim.
The temperature fell from 79 in Sarasota to 54 when we arrived in Jacksonville during a fierce rainstorm. The billboard-dominated ride northeast featured orange groves and small towns dominated by trailer parks. We stopped to buy oranges and grapefruits but didn’t see other attractions unless one is a passionate about seeing baby alligators in cages. We aren’t.
Dave waited in the foyer when we arrived at PF Chang’s. An associate athletic director at Jacksonville University for eighteen years, he looked the same as I remembered except greyer. The same could be said of me. We enjoyed reviewing our shared history for several hours and vowed not to let thirty-five years intervene again. As to his lack of communication, Dave didn’t explain. Offering many memories but fewer insights, I accept that Dave is simply on the more private end of the human spectrum.
Jacksonville was a revelation to me. For no particular reason, I’d always assumed Jacksonville to be a sleepy backwater, surrounded by swamps and filled with trailers. Instead, it’s a vibrant city with over a million people. When the weather cleared the next day, we saw an impressive skyline, a river walk, beaches and museums.
*****
When we finally arrived home after two days in Savannah, Katie and I agreed it had been a good trip, different and interesting. Would we do it again? I doubt it’ll be anytime soon. Driving hours each day is tedious. But if we can catch up with old friends in new places again, you never know.

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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.


THE POST-MORTEM

The men recount their exploits like warriors returned from a campaign at Carthage. Each competes to be heard pertaining to their role in the heroic battles, the glorious victories and the ignominious defeats. The enemy, after all, does not play by the rules of man. No, the enemy is not reluctant to employ the diabolical: the seemingly invisible limb that hangs out over the fairway on number eight, or its kin, the root that sends a ball skittering into the woods, from whence it will never emerge. There is also the creek at twelve that is hidden from the tee box and the sand-trap at six designed to capture even the best-struck ball.
Occasionally, there is a triumph to relive. There was a putt that rimmed the hole at number seven and then fell in. There was the shot sent screaming off-line that was destined to end wetly but somehow skimmed the top of the pond and bounced out the other side, then rolled between two traps to the green. Mostly, however, the purpose of the discussion over post-play refreshment is to wallow – to wallow in the heat and to wallow in the struggle, to grudgingly concede to the wind and to the landscape and to the sun-drenched (or rain-slowed) speed of the greens, that somehow never fails to surprise.
What vestige of the hunter-gatherer mentality drives the urge to play golf? Did hunter-gatherers wear argyle socks and funny sweaters? In an average round in which one shoots 100, there are typically five shots that truly delight, thirty shots that are satisfying (though one always notes: “it could have rolled another ten yards,” or “it ended up on a bit of an incline”) and sixty-five that are somewhere on the spectrum between bad and horrendous. The activity is lengthy, costly and often sweaty. Based upon the foregoing, one might reasonably ask if golf is a sane activity.
A friend of mine named Steve recently turned to golf as his latest obsession. For him, this follows such temporarily passionate pursuits as piano tuning and platform tennis. Golf is an improbable choice, inasmuch as Steve’s approach to life is decidedly un-country club-like. He works as a mid-level technician in the field of water management. Considering that Steve has an MBA, he could be ensconced in the business side of things, as an executive. Yet, approaching his mid-forties, Steve has a deficit in the area of ambition, except for an unconventional desire to master golf. He favors knee socks to argyle and rock band tee-shirts to sweaters. With his red hair and fair skin, Steve wears headgear more reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia than Phil Mickelson.
Steve joined the local university course, as an alumnus, for $3,000. That is a meaningful sum, though minor in the world of private golf club memberships. He is a rare member who stops in at least once a day to play several holes on his way to or from the office. He is also known to drop in at lunchtime just to practice putting or hit at the driving range.
Though Steve is athletic, proficiency at golf is coming slowly. Considering the relatively manageable challenges of hitting a moving tennis ball or softball, he marvels at how difficult it can be to hit a stationary golf ball. Some shots go far, but not straight. Others go straight, but not far. Some go straight to the ground. Others pop into the air. Lessons are expensive and confusing and Steve often finds that he is worse for having tried new grips, stances, clubs, follow-throughs, or any of the myriad variables. For the amateur, or the person new to the game, consecutive successful shots are rare. Says Steve: “I used to always miss to the right. But after my lesson, I miss in all directions.”
In Don Quixote, it is repeatedly asked of Sancho Panza, concerning his relationship to the insane Man of La Mancha: “But what do you get out of it?” The question inevitably is posed to Steve in regard to golf. And, just like the squire, he is apt to respond: “Oh, I’ve got…” long pause. “I’ve got….” Finally, “I just like it. I really like it.”
I played a round with Steve the other day. He was excited I was willing to join him, knowing as he does that I retired from golf for life, for approximately the fifth time, several months ago. Though it was to be a friendly match, being male, it still seemed necessary for us to have some sort of financial incentive. We chose to play for a dollar each hole, plus lunch afterwards, and, as his handicap, he played from the championship tees (farther away from the hole, for the uninitiated) so that our match would be competitive. After all, he practices every single day whereas I had to wipe cobwebs off my clubs.
My approach was to remain calm, to refrain from imprecations, at least loud ones, and to further refrain from flinging my clubs in despair. This would be a new approach for me, inasmuch as my previous experience was contrary on all fronts, hence the retirement(s). I turned down Steve’s gracious offer of practice time at the driving range or putting green before we played. I felt I should accumulate as many excuses as possible for my likely defeat.
The first hole presented a fortuitous omen, however. My drive lurched far down the left side of the fairway, took several lucky bounces amidst some trees, and finally landed in a wonderful location. On the contrary, Steve’s first shot barely landed in play, and he was never able to recover. Play at the second and third holes continued in this vein and, by the end of the first nine, my victory was nearly assured.
Steve retained good humor throughout this ordeal, certain as he was that my play would implode at any moment. I expected that my overall score would eventually become worse than his, but as I accumulated victories and ties on a hole-by-hole basis, my newfound equanimity only increased. Lunch for the winner of the match was mine. Only in the last five holes, after I could not resist asking if he was planning to sue his coach for malpractice, did Steve put together a winning streak. But it was too little, too late. Final score: ten holes for me, six for Steve, two holes tied. Ninety-four strokes for me, ninety-six for Steve.
We retired to Jersey Mike’s sub-shop for what Steve cheerfully called the “post-mortem.” He showed himself to have a nearly-photographic recollection of nearly all of our 190 shots. While I consumed the winner’s tuna, he offered a monologue:
“I couldn’t believe that tee-shot you hit on seven that was nearly a hole-in-one.”
“That putt on sixteen was so lucky.”
“What were you thinking when you went between those trees on eleven?”
“My drive on eight was the best I hit all day, until it bounced into that gully.”
“I nearly caught you on the back-nine.”
“I may get some new irons for my birthday, or maybe a putter, or maybe a driver.”
I munched contentedly and marveled at his enthusiasm. His sandwich remained almost untouched while he pivoted from recounting our match to lining up the next one.
“Will you give me a rematch tomorrow?”
“How about next week?”
“This was so much fun!”
I had to admit that the day had been better than usual. I did not injure any body parts, I won four dollars, plus lunch, not taking into account that I paid nearly seventy dollars to play. I’d scored respectably, improving upon my usual ratio of decent-to-awful shots, and I never boiled over in frustration. Yet, in the face of Steve’s relentless good cheer, I could only muster the following concession:
“Yes, I will play again. No, I will not play tomorrow or next week. I want to savor this victory, this gift from the gods of golf for a while. In a month, perhaps, you may be able to convince me to play again.”
I did not mean to begrudge Steve his enthusiasm. In fact, I was envious that he derived so much delight from an activity so potentially dismal. I was afraid, for a moment, that I had hurt his feelings, or that he was disappointed the game he had shared so graciously with me was accepted so tepidly. But I did not worry for long; with my reluctant concession in hand, Steve resumed the post-mortem with relish:
“I just needed a little more spin on number twelve.”
“That putt on fifteen was really something, up and down and all around.”
“You were pretty lucky with that bounce off the rock at fourteen”
“I’m going to beat you next time. I’ll be calling. Yes sir, I’ll be calling you.”