I went golfing for the first time in a decade the other day. After I had to take three swings at my ball before I finally hit it on the first tee, I knew why I could take a ten year hiatus from the game and not miss it in the least, which is probably going to sound a little weird because I love the game of golf.
There are a few of reasons why I decided to play golf again. First of all, I have an endless amount of time on my hands now that I’m retired. I have a set of golf clubs, and I already confessed my love of the game.
Most of my irons were my dad’s at one time. I bought his old clubs after he had custom made clubs built. My woods used to belong to Don Nelson. He sold them to me when he upgraded to metal woods. My woods are actually made of wood, not metal. I’ve never liked the sound a metal wood makes when it hits a ball. And I have a random assortment of clubs that I bought at Goodwill for a couple bucks a piece.
One of my former golfing buddies said he had one club in his bag that cost more than all of my clubs combined, plus the clothes I was wearing, and if I ever beat him, he’d beat me to death with his very expensive club.
Given my level of play, I doubt I was ever close to that type of death.
Another reason I took up golf again is there are no bowling alleys in Mexico, not that I’m an avid bowler. There are basically two types of bowlers, the kind who have their own balls and shoes and stuff, and the kind who don’t. Most of the latter probably love bowling. The remainder go bowling in lieu of committing suicide.
I think I’ll kill myself… Well, I guess I could go bowling…
I probably fall into that spectrum when it comes to bowling.
Golf, on the other hand, is something I love doing even though I suck at it.
* * * *
Golf is a good walk spoiled. Mark Twain may or may not have said that about golf. And for me, the quote has no bearing on my game. I ride in golf cart. Unlike many people who play the game, I’m not interested in exercise or fitness. A guy named Merle Williams is credited with inventing the modern, motorized the golf cart, and all I have to say to Merle is, Thank you!
After some of my drives, I don’t need a cart to transport myself ten feet to hit my ball again. Other times, I need an ATV or a bulldozer, not a cart, to get to my ball. Most of the time, I don’t even bother looking for those balls. I’ve gotten very skilled at taking a stroke and hitting another ball. I have hundreds of golf balls. I’m not afraid to lose one. Or ten. Or twenty.
The game of golf was invented by the Scots back in the 1400’s apparently because living under the repressive rule of the English just wasn’t frustrating enough. And like any sport, the rules of golf have been renovated and modified over the years, not that I’ve ever read them. I’m confident if I ever tried to play golf the way it was intended, I’d never play.
I am a mostly terrible golfer. I have about five good shots a game, and they’re rarely consecutive shots. I rarely play the fairway, but not by design. I think it’d be safe to say that nothing I do on the golf course is by design. When I hit the ball, the best I can do is hope it’ll go in the general direction I want it to. If there is a tree within one hundred yards of my ball, in any direction, I will probably hit it. If there’s a water hazard on the course, I will find it.
There are three skills essential to golf: driving, chipping and putting. I’ve never been very good at any of them. If I’m having decent drives, I can’t chip. And vice versa. My putting skills are somewhere in the abysmal range. I totally suck at putting.
You might then wonder why I play? I certainly do. And the answer to that is simple. It’s my dad’s fault.
My dad was an avid golfer, and he pretty much lived on the local courses around Little Falls. That’s why I started playing. Well, that, and the fact that I could drink beer and smoke cigarettes while I played. Those two things were really the only two things I liked about golf in the beginning.
* * * *
Rannulph Junuh: That’s right, Hardy. You see, every drink of liquor you take kills a thousand brain cells. Now, that doesn’t much matter ’cause we got billions more. And first the sadness cells die so you smile real big. And then the quiet cells go so you just say everything real loud for no reason at all. That’s okay because the stupid cells go next, so everything you say is real smart. And finally, come the memory cells. These are tough sons of bitches to kill.
* * * *
I’m not a great golfer, but I was once a great alcoholic, if that’s an achievement that can be considered great. Like any great alcoholic, I had a plethora of reasons why I drank, and like any haunted human, I had a closet full of ghosts and skeletons and traumas that could only be kept at bay by drinking them into oblivion.
In retrospect, my ghosts had the power to terrify me only because I gave them that power. If I only knew then what I know now… I could tell Rannulph Junuh that it didn’t make any difference how much you drank, you could never kill those memories. Those sons of bitches never die.
* * * *
There was another reason why I decided to start playing golf. It was the only way I could talk to my dad. I wasn’t all that keen to talk to my dad when I was in my teens and twenties. We didn’t have that much in common. And then I married my lovely supermodel wife, and if we didn’t have anything else in common, we were both married men, so there was that.
And there was golf. Golf is a beautifully simple, frustratingly complex game. Much like bowling, you either love it or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground when it comes to golf.
I love golf. Golf courses are almost always scenic, green and serene. There might be some competition between players, but it’s essentially you, the course and your skills, or lack thereof, and that’s all. You don’t need anyone to set a screen for you. You don’t need anyone to block a defender.
I know my dad loved the game of golf, but I don’t know if he actually enjoyed playing golf. You wouldn’t know by playing with him. He was intense on the golf course. He rarely displayed that level of intensity anywhere else in his life.
For example, we were golfing at the Little Falls Country Club one summer weekend. My dad hit a shot he wasn’t pleased with, and then he hit the roof.
“Jee-sus Christ! Why in the hell did I ever I ever take up this goddamn game? Son of a bitch! I should take all of my clubs and throw them in the fuckin’ river!”
“Hey, dad. It’s just a game. Lighten up, man. Have a little fun.” I said. That’s more or less my philosophy about golf, among other things.
“Who the hell asked you? Shut the fuck up!”
Clearly, that wasn’t my dad’s philosophy, nor would he ever embrace that kind of attitude. Not when it came to golf anyway.
I played many rounds of golf with my dad. There was a time when I didn’t totally suck at golf, and I merely kind of sucked. I challenged my dad a couple of times, and almost beat him once. It wasn’t until age and poor health had taken away most of his skills that I actually had a lower score than him. But I hardly count that as a win.
On the day I almost beat my dad, I was playing the best round of golf I’d ever played, and my dad was playing one of his worst. I had a two stroke lead heading to the ninth tee.
My drive was right down the middle of the fairway. I had about one hundred yards to the green. All I had to do was chip my ball onto the green, and sink a putt. Even if I two putted the green, I’d still beat my dad. His tee shot was mediocre, and his second shot landed in a sand trap. I could almost taste victory.
If that was a day that I had temporarily found my swing, I lost it when I tried to chip my ball onto the green. I hit that ball so fat. It didn’t float through the air and drop neatly onto the green. It tore off down the fairway about a foot off the ground, moving at the speed of light.
I knew it was wrong the moment I hit it. I turned to my lovely supermodel wife, and asked if she saw where my shot landed. I knew it wasn’t going to land anywhere near the green.
“It’s still rolling across the parking lot.” she replied. The parking lot was on the far side of the ninth green. “And it just rolled down the hill. That’s where the eighteenth green is, isn’t it?”
Yes. Yes it was. And that’s where my ball ended up, and any chance of ever beating my dad ended. My dad chipped out of the bunker and sank a long putt. I left my ball sitting on the eighteenth green, and shook my dad’s hand. And then we drank a lots of beer, laughed and talked about how I almost beat him.
Almost a decade ago, I golfed with my dad for the last time. He died the following year. I hadn’t been golfing since, and when I went golfing last week, I became acutely aware of his absence, and how much I missed my dad.
And then I hit a tree with one of my many errant shots, and I smiled. My dad would’ve gotten a kick out of that.
* * * *
I talked a lots about going golfing before I retired. People asked what I was going to do after I quit working, and I figured I’d need to do something. Golf seemed like the perfect retirement activity, and a lots of retired guys spend their time on the golf course. My dad did. If he could do it… And I secretly kind of hoped if I spent enough time hitting a golf ball, I might actually get good at it someday, many years from now. I suppose that’s still theoretically possible.
There have been many movies made about golf. Caddy Shack. Hard to find anyone my age that doesn’t love that movie. There are so many great lines from that movie, and none of them have anything to do with golf, except one.
* * * *
Ty Webb: I’m going to give you a little advice. There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.
* * * *
Billy Madison. The only thing I like about that movie is the scene where Bob Barker beats the shit out of Adam Sandler. I don’t like Adam Sandler. Or his movies.
The Legend of Bagger Vance. My personal favorite golf movie. It’s a beautifully filmed Zen movie about golf, and the most important thing about being Zen isn’t whether you win or lose, just that you look cool in the attempt.
I am just about the coolest looking golfer you’ve ever seen, until I actually play golf. I have a beautifully smooth swing. You’d think I’d be a much better golfer than I am. I have no real idea what’s wrong with my golf game, other than almost everything. I lift my head, I don’t keep my shoulders square. If I do manage to accomplish those two things, I certainly don’t do either of them consistently. Perhaps, like unto Rannulph Junuh, I just need to find my my swing.
* * * *
The movie is sort of about golf, but it’s mostly a movie about redemption and restoration. Being who I am, I’m pretty much a sucker for stories like that. In my case, I wish golf was an integral part of my recovery process. It might imply some sort of personal proficiency at the game. For that to be true, I most definitely would need a Bagger Vance in my back pocket.
If you didn’t read the book, Bagger Vance, and the story of his legend, are based on the Hindu epic and scriptural poem, the Bhagavad-Gita. In the epic, Bhagavan is the Supreme Personality who helps his follower, Arjuna, understand life.
In the movie, Bagger Vance is a caddy who appears in the middle of the night to help Rannulph Junuh find his golf swing again, right after Junuh agrees to play a golf tournament sponsored by his totally hot former girlfriend. And there was that whole World War I thing, too.
Before the war, Rannulph Junuh was a very good golfer living in Savannah, Georgia. He had a beautiful girlfriend, a life of privilege, and a future that could only be described as bright. After the war, he was a drunken gambler living on the fringes of society. He had no one in his life, and his future could only be described as bleak.
Bagger takes Mr Junuh under his wing for the price of five dollars, guaranteed, and what follows is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. For a caddy, Bagger rarely spoke about golf in golfing terms. He described the game in esoteric terms. “The rhythm of the game is just like the rhythm of life,” he says, and describes the game as one that “can’t be won, only played.”
For me, that is is an undisputed truth. For my dad, it would probably be the biggest crock of shit he’d ever heard. My dad played golf like he was landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Perhaps life was a battle for my dad. I don’t know if anything came easily to him. My dad became a very good golfer not by talent, but by determination, and a ridiculous amount of practice.
See? I told you we didn’t have much in common.
On the other hand, I’ve become the lackadaisical duffer that I am by not applying myself to master the game to any great degree, which I’m afraid is also the way I’ve lived most of my life. Almost everything I’ve ever done came easily to me. The biggest battles in my life were the ones I created.
When I first started playing golf, I was far more interested in keeping my beer cold on the course than I was in the game, and one of the most surreal experiences for me was golfing sober for the first time.
* * * *
* * * *
I’m trying to think of one thing I did once I quit drinking that didn’t evoke a sense of panic inside me. I can’t think of any. Fear can certainly be a great motivator, but it’s hard to even breathe when you’re in panic mode.
Making any great change in your life can be a terrifying prospect, even if it’s a change for the better. And for many, the greatest hurdle to overcome is that fear, that overwhelming sense of panic you feel. Rebuilding your life requires a whole lots of hard work. It’s so much easier to maintain the status quo, however much it sucks, than it is to try something different.
* * * *
* * * *
Bagger Vance wasn’t around when I decided to quit drinking. Sobriety wasn’t an easy thing for me to achieve, and I had a major relapse just before I reached one year of sobriety. That had to have been one of the lowest points in my life, and that’s when I realized the full extent of what I was doing, and that it would be a lifelong task.
That’s when I had to make a decision. Was I going to see this through to the end, or would I quit trying and settle for a life I had nothing but loathing for.
Once I was able to see quitting wasn’t a viable option, my path suddenly became clear, and I felt at peace for possibly the first time in my life since I was seven years old.
I live an incredibly idyllic life now. I am truly at peace, and generally at one with the universe. I feel the rhythm of nature, and life, and I am content on level that I never would have dreamed was possible.
* * * *
Bagger Vance: Yep… Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing… Somethin’ we was born with… Somethin’ that’s ours and ours alone… Somethin’ that can’t be taught to ya or learned… Somethin’ that got to be remembered… Over time the world can rob us of that swing… It get buried inside us under all our wouldas and couldas and shouldas… Some folk even forget what their swing was like…
Put your eyes on Bobby Jones… Look at his practice swing, almost like he’s searchin’ for something… Then he finds it… Watch how he settle hisself right into the middle of it, feel that focus… He got a lot of shots he could choose from… Duffs and tops and skulls, there’s only ONE shot that’s in perfect harmony with the field… One shot that’s his authentic shot, and that shot is gonna choose him… There’s a perfect shot out there tryin’ to find each and every one of us… All we got to do is get ourselves out of its way, to let it choose us… Can’t see that flag as some dragon you got to slay… You got to look with soft eyes… See the place where the tides and the seasons and the turnin’ of the Earth, all come together… where everything that is, becomes one… You got to seek that place with your soul Junuh… Seek it with your hands, don’t think about it… Feel it… Your hands is wiser than your head ever gonna be… Now I can’t take you there Junuh… Just hopes I can help you find a way… Just you… that ball… that flag… and all you are…
* * * *
I’m not overly anxious about improving my golf skills. I figure I’ll get better if I play more often, and even if I don’t, it won’t be the end of the world. I’ll still love playing golf as much as I ever did. And the world will still be just as beautiful.
Perhaps it will happen this year. I’ll step up to my ball. The leaves in the trees will be dancing on the wind, and laughing in the sunshine. The birds will be singing, and then everything will grow quiet. And still.
I will see it, and know it, and there will be no mystery.
I will find my swing, and be the ball. And great things will happen.