Crazy Return to Golf
September 7, 2015
I didn’t know whether to blame Jason Day or Davis Love so I rebuked both for casting a curse I thought would never return. Only in hindsight did I realize I should’ve blamed myself. I’d chosen not to write or go out and do something fun on a recent Sunday, and instead reclined on the sofa and told the world to entertain me as I watched Day, a young Aussie, split narrow fairways with monstrous drives and shell greens with accurate approaches and titillate holes with precise putting as he won the PGA, his first major title, scoring a major championship record twenty under par. I enjoyed beholding such excellence, and thought it cool he gave his caddy and friend an “all right I got it now” shoulder punch after reaching a long par five in two. And, somehow, lazy on this fantasy afternoon, I envisioned myself playing a casual golf game that at least modestly resembled what Day was doing. I didn’t factor that I’d played but once in twenty years, and had been a poor player for the year I played in the early nineties, and before another twenty-year hiatus starting in the early seventies I’d also been a hacker, a duffer, a hooker, a slicer, a sunburned club thrower, and banshee screamer. I doubt any of those characterizations are relevant to gallant Jason Day or magical Jordan Spieth who seemed to have only his B game yet finished a sizzling seventeen under, and had already won the Masters and U.S. Open this year. Sure, I told myself, I won’t do what these guys do but this time I’ll do enough to maintain the enthusiasm of a decent casual golfer.
Self-delusion should have there ended but the following Sunday I again lacked energy and resolve to either work or move forth into the world, and stayed home and watched another golf tournament, the second tier Wyndham Championship. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t know this tournament was taking place, as the highest ranking pros generally skip it, but Tiger Woods had played well for three rounds – the first time in two years – and trailed by only two shots entering championship Sunday. I’ll unapologetically watch any tournament Tiger’s got a chance to win and, encouragingly, have never believed I could even modestly imitate some of the things he used to do. But I can do something he did the final round: make a triple bogey and depart from center stage. So, who was hot, who shot six under par that day and minus seventeen for the tournament, who at age fifty-one years and four months won the damn tournament? It was devious Davis Love, encouraging all retired hackers to retrieve their sticks and take to the links.
A generation ago I’d been farsighted enough to sell all my golf clubs, save my driver and putter, so I couldn’t reflexively dash onto a course. Today, I grabbed my wife and said let’s go buy two sets of clubs. Since she had never played, she thought this a fine idea. I decided to control expenses and went first to Goodwill and then the Salvation Army. Both were closed and, anyway, neither appeared to have the goods. Fine, we drove to Target which had some pretty nice looking stuff but, stunningly, the irons only went from wedge to five iron. Where were the four, three, and two irons? And what was this strange looking “hybrid” club that looked like a shrunken and deformed fairway metal? There was no one to ask. No problem. We’d go to Big 5 sports and talk to some specialists. If we got clubs soon, we could still play nine holes, which I’d already vowed would always be my limit. Big 5 offered two fine looking sets of clubs, including the bags, on clearance, a hundred fifty for mine and ninety for the little lady. I tried to slip future property over my shoulder but was hindered by small, bizarre straps connecting not only the regular large shoulder strap but another large irregular strap.
I held the bag up and asked a salesman, “What’s this. I can’t put this bag on my shoulder.”
“You have to wear it like a backpack. That way the weight’s evenly distributed and you won’t strain either shoulder.”
“What’s been happening in golf? This set also lacks four, three, and two irons.”
“Most people don’t use those anymore. They’re too hard to get off the ground.”
“Do you play golf?” I asked.
“Do you have a hybrid?
“Can you hit it?”
“Sure, a lot better than a three or four iron.”
“Okay, I’ll try it, but I can’t use this bag. I’m going to be packing my clubs and lose some weight.”
He found a nice traditional bag that could easily be slipped over the shoulder. Maybe that backpack style is fine if you’re young and flexible and high tech enough to reach back and slip both arms through the correct straps. We also bought a large bag of recycled balls and another of tees and were ready to swing except my limbs felt rather tight and weak so we decided to wait till sunset and hit under lights at the driving range.
I bought a massive double-wide bucket of balls for eleven bucks and, this being my first day back, went to the synthetic mats rather than real grass. Warming up I detected that my home calisthenics program had not kept me golf-loose, and my muscles threatened to rip and the clubs felt like telephone poles. And I was already getting tense trying to tell my wife how to grip a club and swing. Blessedly, on the range swung a man hitting one beautiful shot after another, and, seeing us, he came over to say hello. Like my wife, he was a Filipino. “Sir,” I said, “please give my wife a few pointers.”
He agreed, and I selected a mat and started swinging my driver. Now, I’m not making excuses, but on those damn mats there’s only one rubber tee and it stays the same height. I should’ve considered that as I used my old driver crowned by a metal head that had once seemed fairly large but was tiny compared to my new driver head. I hadn’t figured out why the tee was so high and consequently grunted and cursed as my old driver repeatedly went under the ball and, I report without exaggeration, nudged at least ten drivers less than five yards off the tee. Have you ever looked in front of your practice area and seen so many balls that close? I hope not.
Next I tried some irons and was quite consistent. Whether swinging a wedge, nine, eight, seven, six, or five, I generally hit the ground first – not the ground but a spiky green mat laid on cement – and the clubs felt like they might break. I examined the heads and saw recently-smooth surfaces already scratched and marred. I decided not to further imperil those implements and pulled out the new driver featuring a head the size of a ham and a big sweet spot helpful to inept golfers. I actually hit a few decent shots. They didn’t soar as they once had, but they carried perhaps a hundred eighty yards and rolled about forty more. I’ll soon be hitting some of my drives three hundred yards again, I concluded, and would’ve been correct if I’d had a rocket launcher.
Meanwhile, my wife – on the first swings of her life – was matching some of my five-yard efforts but soon, with her ham-head driver, was hitting some decent shots, albeit to the right of the fairway. Her irons were like mine, rolled across the turf, frightening gophers in the region. I frequently took breaks not only to watch her but her countryman, a sweet swinging man of sixty-seven who said diabetes would’ve killed him had he not taken up golf and started getting the necessary exercise.
“You look like you shoot in the seventies,” I said.
“Not very often. I usually shoot eight-two to eighty-five.”
“That’s damn good. I only broke ninety three times in my life, and my career best is eighty-seven.”
He gave my wife his phone number, and promised to hook up for a real round of golf, once the missus and I were ready for the links. Two days later we returned to the range, this time far from the mats, on the real stuff, bona fide green grass. At least now when I struck the ground with an iron, the latter didn’t reverberate off cement, it ripped out a divot, and that’s why a giant bucket is thirteen bucks on grass, two more than on artificial turf.
When you haven’t been playing golf since the first Clinton administration, it’s difficult to follow the flight of your balls, especially as they sail into night not completely lit in the distance by lights that, behind you, are much too bright for comfort. I kept thinking I hit that drive at least two-sixty and soon really will be at three hundred yards. I still felt like I was swinging something much heavier than golf clubs, but some of my iron shots flew reasonably high and soft and not terribly off line, though not good enough to actually land on greens. My wife struggled and improved a bit, and I knew next we’d be swinging on a golf course.
Two days later, it was a merciless Thursday. A hundred degrees baked the Bakersfield shade, and I was nervous and bored at home. I knew I had to play. I needed to find out what I could do. After improving so much the second day at the range, I might go out there and smoke the ball and drain some putts, which we’d also practiced on the shaggy green at the range. There would be no excuses. I slapped on enough sun screen for three men, told my wife to be sure to put on hers, and about five-thirty drove through our neighborhood to a place that surrounds us, Sundale Country Club, now a semi-private place accepting anyone after 10 a.m. The young assistant pro, upon learning this was my wife’s maiden voyage, granted her free access, and I paid twenty-five for nine holes and ten for the electric cart.
Before taking a practice swing on the first tee, the hellacious sun reminded me why I’ve always fled golf. Even under sunscreen and a useless baseball cap, my face was already burning and sure to soon become rawhide. My first drive flew weakly and very far right, about a hundred yards and onto the driving range, except I didn’t know it was the range and agitated a few swingers when I retrieved my ball. I’ll be damned if I’m going to take a two-stroke penalty for that, I concluded. It’s irritating enough that I’ve got to hit over or under all these trees. I tried to go over but duffed and rolled under and on this par four was close to the green in three and chipped on and four putted for a quadruple bogey eight. My wife would’ve needed a computer to count her strokes. What the hell? This wasn’t about scorekeeping. This was for fun. I also quadruple bogeyed the second hole and the next hole improved a little to a triple bogey and then I got a double, and eventually registered my first and only bogey. Pars, birdies? Get real. I was amazed at how narrow the fairways seemed – what was this, the U.S. Open? – and how damn many trees there were on each side of the fairway. I didn’t hit more than two or three balls in the fairway, despite starting to play two balls on each hole of the deserted course. Most civilized people are too prudent to play golf when mercury hits a hundred.
The cut greens, unlike the shaggy practice green at the other driving range, were quite fast and I often rolled the ball almost as far past the hole as I’d been on the other side. This was not fun, especially when preceded by fluffy drives behind trees, either chipping out into the fairway or carrying it there, and doing this with two balls per hole, twice the suffering, and hitting irons about three clubs shorter than I used to. And the hybrid, that wonder designed to surpass two, three, and four irons? If you’re good enough to hit this bizarre creation you’re good enough to hit long irons. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t hit anything but the water on the eighth hole. I hope the people watching from their backyards thought I was aiming there. I pretended not to see them. On another hole I’d shouted at my wife, “Move,” as she casually walked fifty yards in front of my upcoming shot. She probably assumed I couldn’t hit the ball that far and even if I did it wouldn’t be straight. Another time, on the tee, she hit her ball straight to the side and almost beaned me on the second bounce.
Two great things were happening as the round progressed, the sun was setting and the misery expiring. The ninth hole was a glorious release. If I’d played real golf and tabulated my strokes, I wouldn’t have broken sixty. The little lady would have exceeded eighty.
My lifelong solar enemy won another battle, burning my skin, frying my brain, destroying energy, and making me irritable for several days. My poor petite wife had red cheeks amid a brown face because she’d ignored my call to put on sunscreen. She, too, was haywire for days.
I don’t think we’ll play any more golf. “Maybe in winter,” she said. I pray not. Modest success and comfort in winter would inevitably tempt another masochistic effort at summer play. But I do think we can at least return to the driving range and hit some balls under sunless sky illuminated by irritating but nonfatal electric lights. I just hope my back stops aching.