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.”