Posted by: Dave | March 30, 2010

My Peace With Golf


“…and by the way, we’re going to play a round of golf with some friends, so bring your clubs.”

Those words, spoken over the phone by my brother-in-law and close friend of nearly 30 years, rang in my ears like a guilty sentence. I protested profusely, but he wouldn’t relent. I was going to be forced to play golf, again. I was filled with dread about my upcoming weekend visit.

I have spent most of my life hating golf and the people who played it. Golf was a game I could not play and a club I could not join. It always represented a barrier – a bridge too far in an otherwise successful life. It’s not that I haven’t played the game before. I have. But I wouldn’t exactly use the word “play.” I worked at golf, and golf responded in a manner of a boss who could never be pleased – frustrating and humiliating me to the point that I eventually left it.

Before I ever touched a golf club I held the game and those who played it in deep disdain. I was predisposed to it – trained by my father at an early age that the game was meant for other people.

He was born on his dining room table to a less than prosperous family in West Virginia in 1922. My grandmother died when my father was 11 and he and his two other siblings were farmed out to relatives because, in the wisdom of the day, a single father couldn’t be expected to raise a family. The kids worked for their keep. They hoed tobacco, plowed fields, and cared for farm animals. Later, when my grandfather acquired enough money to take his children back under his own roof, my father, as the oldest, became responsible for a plethora of domestic duties. He cooked dinners and washed clothes, and supervised my younger aunt and uncle. With the depression as a backdrop, he grew wise beyond his years as the motherless family struggled. Liberated by the draft and World War II, he spent the first four years of his early adult life at sea, fighting the Nazis. Because of his difficult and stoic upbringing, I do not think that the concept of recreation ever made its presence known to him.

Like most of the Greatest Generation, he returned home, got married and started a family. But unlike many of the rest, he never experienced the professional nor financial prosperity of others. It’s not that he didn’t work. It is, quite frankly, all he knew. He was loyal, dependable, and extremely trustworthy. But for a myriad of complex reasons I cannot begin to understand, he never advanced. So he and my mother raised four children on a shoestring budget, and we all learned to work.

In our family, weekends were meant for working on chores or my father’s huge projects. Over the years we almost doubled the size of our modest home by adding rooms ourselves, all while tending to a very large vegetable garden and, at one point, raising rabbits for food. We all had jobs, from paper routes to mowing grass to babysitting. Everyone knew how to work.But play was something different. It just wasn’t done. We saw other people enjoying the concept of leisure. We saw the boats, and knew of the little league sports, but also knew that those were not for us. There was no money for it, and no reason for it, either.

My father was a quiet man who was extremely uncomfortable in any setting that could remotely be called social. He could no more imagine walking into a golf clubhouse and joking it up with the guys than he could imagine riding a rocket to Mars. He didn’t play cards, didn’t hunt, fish or go to ball games with other guys. There was no group of guy friends, no men’s night out, no raucous laughter and slaps on the back for my father..We were all, therefore, miserable at team sports. I was the only one who even attempted it, running track and cross country, but only for a short while.  Like many young men, although I had deep respect for my father, I wanted to be nothing like  him, and I wanted a radically different life than the one I knew. I entered the Army through the ROTC program at a small university. Upon graduation, I found myself in the “club” of commissioned officers, many of whom played golf. As one of the many benefits of military service, military posts almost always have nice golf courses. Military members and families can play for ridiculously low greens fees, enjoy reduced prices for golf equipment, and even get lessons from the club professional. But that was the farthest thing from my mind when I arrived at my first duty station in Fort Benning, Georgia. The drive onto post is flanked on both sides by a beautiful golf course, with long, scenic fairways and table top greens. But it wasn’t golf I imagined as I would drive past as a young Second Lieutenant, but rather firing positions, avenues of approach, and kill zones.

I continued to run “recreationally” through my adult life. Running is the antithesis of golf. A runner is normally alone, running before work, sometimes in the dark, solitary in his thoughts. Runners, unlike golfers, have little to talk about. There are no pristine courses, challenging holes, or expensive equipment; no “running” holidays at plush country clubs. Time spent running isn’t wasted. The runner is training his body, always improving his fitness. It is time well spent, and is the perfect recreation for one who doesn’t really recreate.

On the contrary, golfers wear stylish clothes to play in. They pay lots of money for expensive clubs and they hang out in places with fancy names like Burning Tree, Sand Ridge and Oak Lawn.

They can spend a day out on the course, devoted to nothing but themselves, concentrating on their ability to hit a little ball into a hole in an idyllic setting of manicured fairways while riding around in an electric cart, followed, of course, by drinks in the country club. The good ones do it with great regularity. I will never forget one Easter Sunday watching our neighborhood golfer walk out to his car, deposit his clubs in the trunk, and proceed down the street to play eighteen holes of golf, just as he had done the day before. He won the “long ball” driving competition at his country club, but, strangely, his marriage was on the rocks.

It is reasonably accurate to say that some of the most successful people in business and in the military are golfers. I do not agree that most business deals are made on the golf course, but I do submit that those who are comfortable in a golf clubhouse and out on the course are probably comfortable in most business and social settings. Those qualities pay dividends in the business world and in the military.

Throughout most of my military career, surrounded by inexpensive golf courses, I avoided the game. I saw only those examples of the stereotypes I wanted to believe, and used them as an excuse to deride and criticize golf and those I knew that played it. But I was quietly jealous and harbored deep insecurities that prevented me from pursuing the sport.

One morning I joined some of my fellow officers as they started a game. They had their clubs and golf shoes, and they laughed and bantered as they sauntered up to the first tee. I had never been on a golf course before. I watched them as the three teed off and followed their balls down the fairway. I bid them goodbye, got in my car, and drove home to my young wife and daughter, where, like my father, I knew I belonged.

But I wanted to play. A few years later, I bought a set of very cheap clubs and took night lessons at a local high school. My swing seemed to be reasonable, but I would normally hit balls that simply rolled across the grass.

Later, in Germany, I met a friend who assured me he could teach me the game. He had introduced me to skiing, so, why not teach me golf? So, with the strong encouragement of my wife, my friend and I proceeded to the driving range, he with his camcorder mounted on a tripod, and me with my used clubs. We worked on my swing for many sessions. We analyzed it on film. It looked good. But the balls still had no lift. Maybe it was because I was left handed but I swung right handed. We didn’t know. We finally thought I was good enough to approach a course and play a few rounds, which I did. But it was anything but fun. It was a grand struggle, where I fought to keep my frustration below the boiling point. The balls rolled down the fairways regardless if I used a nine iron or a five wood, and I worked harder and harder.

More determined than ever, I paid for a few lessons from the local golf pro. I don’t like golf pros. They make a living teaching people how to do something that is totally pointless and has few redeeming benefits to society. They probably grew up in a nice neighborhood, their parents belonged to a country club, and they learned about leisure at an early age. After all, that’s what they were doing for a living.

The golf pro pretended to observe me while I swung away intently. He made a few pointers, said I was doing great for a beginner, took my money (twice) and returned to the clubhouse. I saw no improvement.

But I approached the game just like I had approached everything else in my life. I worked hard, very hard, to at least attain respectability. After work, several times a week, I would hit 3-4 buckets of balls. Gripping the club tightly in my hands, I would swing with a vengeance, analyzing every aspect of my backswing, my stop, and downswing, trying to determine the mystery that made my balls stay so low to the ground.

Occasionally, almost rarely, did the balls behave as I would see others do – nice long, high arcs, then bouncing a few times to their destination.

I bought a very nice set of Taylor Made clubs, and continued practicing. I even bought a book by Harvey Pennick. But I didn’t purchase a driver. Seeing good golfers use their drivers with erratic results, I thought I should stay conservative and hit off the tee with a more forgiving three wood. Besides, I hadn’t earned the right to use a driver yet. I wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t deserve it. The same applied for golf shoes. I wouldn’t buy any until I earned them, and they look stupid anyway. My running shoes were comfortable and would suffice for now.

I accepted a few invitations to play with some of my friends and acquaintances, but I was miserable. Never able to really keep score because I played so poorly, the recreation was drudgery. I felt guilty for playing so poorly, for swinging so many times, and with such intense effort, but all the while dragging the group down with my rate of play and my obvious frustration that I tried so unsuccessfully to hide.

Everything I have attained in life has been through hard work. I am the type that goes through obstacles rather than around them – works harder but not always smarter, and with great determination.

But golf would not relent. It fought me and tortured me and it would not permit me to glean a scintilla of enjoyment from it.

Finally, it just faded away. I never decided not to play anymore, but I just quit.

Like a headache that just isn’t there anymore, it just disappeared from my life.

My nice clubs sat in the garage for five years without being touched. I never intended to play again, and focused my anger at the game and golfers, imagining that they were predestined for enjoying the pursuit, and I was predestined to watch from the outside.

That was until last July.

I found my golf bag in the garage, adorned with spider eggs and dust. Mouse droppings lined the pockets. A blank scorecard left over from the last round I had played was still hanging half way out of one of the pockets. No score was recorded. I cleaned my bag, wiped off my clubs, and placed them in my trunk. I didn’t even take a few practice swings. Maybe I would get lucky and we would get weathered out or we wouldn’t have to play for some reason.

Upon arrival at my brother-in-law’s, I protested that I didn’t want to play, but the protests fell on deaf ears. Saturday night I slept fitfully, overwhelmingly anxious about the miserable day of my destiny. Finally, the dreaded Sunday morning rolled around, dawning bright and sunny, perfect for a challenging game of golf. My brother-in-law had repeatedly assured me that we would hit at least one bucket of practice balls before the round. With that, and a few puts on the practice green, I would do fine, he assured me.

We ran late. And driving to the course, in between all of my whining, my brother-in-law informed me that our golf partner lived on a golf course. Great, I thought. We’re playing with a real golfer who will have no patience for the ungifted.

Our friend drove up in his convertible BMW and we exchanged niceties. I worked hard to be relaxed and jovial, and present the appearance of anticipation of an enjoyable morning.

We proceeded into the clubhouse to confirm our tee time. In my anxiety, I had led our threesome toward the counter, not realizing that they had left their clubs outside.  Before I could inquire about our tee time, I was scolded by the golf pro, who informed me that clubs and bags should be left on the sidewalk and were not welcome in the pro shop. It was going to be a long day.

Our next surprise was our tee time, which was an hour earlier than we had expected, due to some level of miscommunication. We were to tee off in fifteen minutes.

I grew pale and flush, and was almost apoplectic with fear. I would not be able to practice, not even hit one ball, before I would be required to enter the perilous territory that awaited me. 

The weekend being beautiful and sunny brought out the golfers in droves. The tee times were behind schedule, and there was a large crowd around the first tee. Golf carts were stacked up behind the tee box, and a dozen or so golfers were hanging out in groups, awaiting their turn.

The most nerve wracking moment in golf is the drive made on the first tee. Usually executed in front of a crowd and often miffed, it can be horribly humiliating. If a poor player is in the group ahead, he gets blamed for the slow play – identified from the beginning by the miserable shot off the first tee. It sets the tone for the rest of the game.

We tossed the tee to determine who went first, and of course, I “won.” My moment of dread had finally arrived.

As I approached the tee box, I made an important decision. I didn’t care anymore. I hated this game and the people who played it so much, I didn’t care what happened. The club could miss the ball entirely, or it could roll no further than the women’s tee box, and it didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t coming back, I was only being nice to my brother-in-law, and after today he wouldn’t ask me anymore. I was done.

I stepped to the rear of the tee box, took a few practice swings with my three wood, and approached the ball. Reminding myself that nothing I did today mattered, I relaxed my grip, took an abbreviated backswing to reduce the chance for error, and repeating in my head the reminder to “relax and swing slow” I hit the ball.

Then, as my club proceeded past my legs and continued through a nicely controlled follow through, I watched the ball as it climbed skyward, almost straight into the air toward the fairway – like a fly ball destined for short center field. My club continued all the way around behind me as I watched the ball in amazement as it continued in a nice parabolic arc, bouncing to the ground, and coming to a halt on the first few yards of very short grass known as the fairway.

I’ll take it,” I said, with a smirk, and not wanting to take my eyes off of the amazing site of my ball sitting in the short grass, retrieved my tee, and proceeded toward my assigned golf cart, staring at the little white ball that was winking back at me a little over a hundred and fifty yards away, in the short grass. This was hardly a tee shot that would make a real golfer proud, but it wasn’t humiliating, it wasn’t frustrating, and it was, well, respectable enough to be unnoticed among the gathered critics awaiting their turn.

My other partners teed off, and using their drivers, proceeded to hit very long balls, one being lost in the trees, one in the rough, and the other nicely placed in the fairway. For the first time I can ever remember, I wasn’t “away,” didn’t have to shoot first, and more importantly, didn’t hang my head.

On the ride out to the course, I had made another critical decision. I had decided that once I made it out of the tee box, I would only play with a nine iron. I decided to do that because there was no point in using a six or a five since they only rolled across the grass anyway. At least if I swung with a nine, the ball might get a little height on it and, even though I would be ridiculously shorter than everyone else, I might get to enjoy the site of my ball silhouetted against the sky, even if it was only traveling 110 yards to everyone else’s 150. At least I could play, and at least it would be some semblance of respectability, if they didn’t look too closely at my club selection.

I was rewarded with nice, low arcing shots, that although short, behaved somewhat in their intended manner, and enabled me to stay on the course, not killing worms.

Our friend proved to be a long ball hitter with no control, and had to take numerous mulligans and lost many balls, while I plodded along, using my three wood and nine iron, my putter when I was on the fringe of the green, and if forced, a sand wedge.

And our partner wasn’t critical of our play. He lost a lot of balls, but didn’t seem to care. I played my game, reminding myself to relax and swing slowly – real slowly, and keep the ball where you can find it. And most importantly – tell yourself you don’t care.

To my astonishment, I had enjoyed myself!

On the way home, I was giddy with excitement. I had played golf – even kept score, for the first time in my life. Had I finally knocked down the demons? Is it possible to enjoy this maddeningly frustrating enterprise? Is it possible to be in the club?

But what had I done wrong all those years? Was it so simple – just remind myself to relax? Was that the key – the overwhelming barrier that had prevented me from playing this game before?

I have since played numerous rounds of golf, occasionally being the instigator – calling friends to organize a game. I still haven’t been to the driving range and don’t own a driver, but I have conceded to buying golf shoes.

I even keep score, but I don’t pay much attention to it. Its not that I don’t care – I do, but I will not let the temptation to improve become an obsession – indeed a barrier. I‘ve learned that most golfers aren’t really that good, and take multiple repeat shots, mulligans, and gimmes. I even meet in the clubhouse for a few beers. Frankly, I get along fine, and am quite comfortable in this imagined forbidden territory. I have reached a level of contentment with the game and myself that I could have never imagined even a year ago. The demons are gone, as are the stereotypes.

Thoughts of my father crowd into my soul when I play. I know that I am experiencing something he could never dream of for himself. But in his own way, he strove to make it possible for us, even though in his stoicism, he couldn’t express it.

Every now and then, when I’m enjoying a round in the company of my friends, and I happen to make a nice shot, I say to myself, “thanks, Dad, that one’s for you.”

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Responses

  1. You brought back a lot of memories. One of the reasons I don’t belong to a Senior Center is that they play games: bridge, pinochle, hearts etc. I do not know how to play a game!! I can play a little bit of scrabble, but Like you were in your first years of golf, I do not enjoy it. I guess we had a hard life. I remember when I had gone to work and Daddy brought a couple of hampers of green beans to can at night. I threw up my hands and said ” I am not a farm wife! I can’t work and do this.! He didn’t do it any more. Have fun w/ your golf, it is certainly in a beautiful setting – a whole lot better than the Sr. Center!

  2. A wonderful piece…I’m reading a good book, Wild at Heart and your writing (this article in particular) reminds me of this book. I really enjoyed reading this! Keep it up!

  3. I bet that my dad, a scratch golfer, always wanted me to play golf. I rejected the “sport” for most of my life except for a brief five year period where I can proudly say I played consistently in the 80’s…high 80’s. I understand and have felt the uncomfortable feelings which result from medicore tee shots or holding up the group while conducting a search and destroy mission for my ball.

    Dude I currently live on a golf course and can’t stand golfers but my old friend, I invite you to Kentucky and Pine Valley Golf course for some drinking and good times coupled with an occasional good shot.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and look forward to the next one.

    Don

  4. Thanks Dave for giving me a new perspective on golf. I had the exact same personal experiences and attitude toward golf as you did. I haven’t touched clubs since 1998. Maybe its time to try again. Of course, finding the time with three little girls in my life might prove the bigger challenge than chasing the golf demons from my past.

  5. Bubs,

    I loved this artice. Keep up the writing. I’m your #1 fan!

    I bet all those frat rats at JSU were big-time wanna-be golfers.

    Killing worms? I like that!

    GDI forever. (Gosh-darned Independent)

    RAS


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