Saturday, December 27, 2014

Golf, a personal odyssey

Why write about golf today?  The idea started in a post on Marissa Meyer and Yahoo last week that tangentially mentioned golf and it has germinated into a full blown thought in recent days.  I fully realize that those who tell long golf stories, or worse yet detail their most recent rounds hole by hole, can, mildly speaking, be grinding bores.  Maybe this will get the idea out my system and maybe, and this may be a stretch, it could be amusing or familiar to some readers.

At times, I really liked playing golf, really loved it.  Playing with friends, playing on a well planned course, being outside on a beautiful day or even a challenging day, golf could be beyond enjoyable. Hitting a perfect slightly hooking drive bending down the middle of the fairway, putting an iron shot on the green in some proximity of the hole, or sinking a putt with some interesting break were to me like that occasional feeling on the basketball court when before the shot went up I knew it was in. There were great feelings to be had in golf, but almost any but the best golfer knows the flip side of this.

Golf here began at the age of 11 when my father's antique refinishing hobby seemed to come to a natural end when the house was full, and he decided somehow that golf would be his next off work obsession and in turn should be mine as well.  He worked as an accountant at a textile mill that had its own picturesque hilly hardscrabble golf course and we joined. The textile mill also had its own YMCA at the time, and we took lessons there from a mill worker and former low level pro golfer and skilled teacher, Fred Main.  Actually moving from the cage at the Y to the course was an embarrassment of huge proportions at first, but we settled into an adequate style of pathetic play within a few months.

The table is now set for the highlights and lowlights of my golf career.  Well, almost set, as it took about a year and a half of determination, useless anger, and adolescent club throwing before a round could be relaxed into.  The first real highlight was playing in Florida on our once every two year August trip to the Daytona Beach area, actually Ormond Beach.  Near there was a course built by the Rockefellers that was open to the public for a reasonable fee considering how beautiful the course was, built just beyond the dunes and a two lane highway from the ocean.  It was heaven.  Never had I imagined such lush fairways and perfect and true greens.  With the ocean breeze and the, at the time, welcome bright sun my game improved dramatically and my temper all but vanished.  That was my introduction to the seduction of nice courses.

Then came Christmas of 1962 when my "Santa" gift was a set of new Haig Ultra woods.  I already had a used set of 1957 Haig Ultra irons, and this was a completely unexpected gift of some new and top of the line golf equipment.  These helped my game and my attitude, and led to participation in the 18 and under city tournament at the oldest and most traditional developed golf club in town.  I have a newspaper clipping that shows the scores after the first round and as a 14 year old my score of 85 was better than the middle of the pack.  Names behind me have now dedicated much of their free time in life to the game and long ago surpassed my skill, but I like to look at those scores and think "yeah, you may joke about my game now but..."  By the way, I had an eagle on the third hole in that round, a completely unexpected and lucky first.

Soon, however, came the decision that was the point of no return for becoming an accomplished golfer.  In our huge high school, 2000 students, getting the right to a sports "letter" for jacket or sweater, or both, was a huge motivation.  In my mind at the time, if possible in sophomore year it would be a coup.  There was no chance, absolutely zero, to get a letter in golf as players from the prominent country club had a great teaching pro that they had been working with from a young age.  He was an influential teacher because he created both great golfers and for the most part really fine people. They were shooting rounds in the mid-70's in the tournament that I just mentioned, and several were younger than me. The fact was that there would never be a "letter" in golf for me, and maybe not even a spot as a substitute on the team.

That leads this extended golf comment to a brief mention of tennis, which became my letter sweater salvation that year.  I switched sports to tennis early that spring before matches began.  I had played tennis since seven years old, as there were some wonderful city maintained clay courts within less than two short blocks from my house.  I had never taken a lesson, but when our high school had good teams many of the best players, much older than me, hung around those courts.  I watched, and they occasionally gave some tips, briefly, very briefly.  Our school no longer had a strong team, so I tried out.  Through athleticism, stamina, and a competitive streak rather that any well developed tennis skills, I ended up as fourth man on the tennis team that season.  Tennis became my primary spring sport, and my primary tournament sport at any time during the year.  Golf would never again get so much of my time although I did play in the 18 and under golf tournament each year  and stayed in that middle, while several friends improved their games markedly.  I still enjoyed it.

I won the local 18 and under tennis tournament two years in a row after that first year competing, and then played as the number 4 man on a strong freshman team in college.  That was ok, but with both academic demands and an active social life there was not enough time in college to play a sport so that ended.  A distinct benefit of tennis was that teaching it was my job each college summer at a well financed camp in Brevard, North Carolina.  Among the other teachers was the former tennis coach of Clemson and the future tennis coach of Davidson.  They continued my tennis education as we all taught the youngsters.

With the tennis conversion I only played golf casually and infrequently, but when moving to Kentucky for a job in 1972 my clubs were packed with me.  There I played maybe eight rounds a year of unspectacular but pleasant golf with friends, usually scoring in the high eighties and rarely embarrassing myself.  Off to a master's program in Arizona in 1979, again my clubs were stuffed into a small totally cram packed Toyota Celica.  There were a few games in the desert and there I had my first and only hole in one.  It was on a dead straight 110 yard hole with a table top flat green.  The hole was so boring that I didn't make a peep and just walked ahead.  My friends were aghast.  "Why no shout, why no celebration?"  I was thinking "why did this simple hole on this lousy course get to produce my first hole in one."

The next major event in my golf life occurred in 1982 when working in New York and living in Manhattan.  I did not play at all at that time, as my position was not yet high enough to require client golf and my interest in the game was not such that I would take the time and money to play in the suburbs somewhere.  As a vacation, pre-marriage K and I drove down to the Outer Banks in a rental car for five or six days in the late spring to relax, swim, see the sights, play miniature golf, and eat fresh seafood. She went with me to the driving range a couple of times but golf was not natural to her, and I mostly whacked a basket or two of balls.  After the Outer Banks, K flew back to New York and I drove on to my hometown in the Piedmont area of Virginia.  My father of course wanted to play golf when I arrived there, so the next day I went out with him and two of his regulars to the mill golf course, our home course.  I had not played a round in two years.  What I was, was physically fit, as my New York job was not yet too demanding and I played in a regular basketball league right across Park Avenue from my office most weekdays.  That was the St. Bartholomew's church gym.  K and I also rode bikes most weekends at her family home on Long Island.  As play commenced that day my first drive went straight down the fairway and ended up about 50 yards from the par four green.  I was unexpectedly hitting the ball well and longer by 30 or 40 yards than ever before.  By the 17th hole I was at even par.  Before that I had only broken 80 once to the best of my recollection, and that was a 78.  The 18th was a long dogleg left over a creek.  I botched the hole and had a double bogey six.  At least I could still use the phrase that it was "par for the course" in my golf life.

In the mid-eighties I played quite a bit of client golf in Ohio, the corporate territory that I was covering.  None of it was remarkable, but a few of the courses were.  Client golf with investors in the late 80's the 1990's was not usual but it was necessary at times.  I once played the famous Winged Foot course in Westchester with a relatively poor result.  Those small undulating greens were a big problem.

There was one investor outing that did turn into a remarkable experience.  With a small investment bank as our host, in 1993 I had arranged for the CEO and the CFO(my direct boss) of our company to go with me to Edinburgh for an outing with a large number of Scottish investors.  It was not difficult to convince my seniors to do this, and we took the Gulfstream.  We played the round with investors, with related after golf social time at the Caledonian, and that was a day of mediocre golf for me on the Gullane course.  The following morning we were scheduled to fly to London for more investor meetings, but the Chairman decided to change that's day's meetings until later and wanted to stay and play another round at Gullane that morning.  I at first tried to defer but you don't say no to the Chairman.  The course on a bluff overlooking the Firth of Forth was colder than the day before and the winds were whipping up to 50 miles an hour.  On the first hole, a 300 yard par four neither into or away from the wind, my low hooking bouncing drive ended up just to the back left of the green.  I played probably the best golf that I have ever played from a ball striking point of view on that day, and in that unrelenting wind had a spectacular 91 that included my not uncommon last hole debacle, a quadruple bogey as a high drive that was hijacked by the wind led me to beating through two foot high weeds for several strokes. Going into this little hut at the end of the course for a pint of lager, I remember the 6'7" CEO's big smiling bright red face with what hair he had sticking straight up.  So that was real golf in Scotland.  It was exhilarating.  "Golf in the Kingdom" by Michael Murphy, my favorite golf book, had prepared me well for that day.

Golf was rare after that.  I worked too much and when vacation time came it was always family trips, many overseas, but several to Hawaii where I played the seaside courses that were part of the Maui Prince several times and those were terrific outings.  Still golf was not on my agenda for the most part and my clubs were becoming prehistoric.  I distinctly remember my last three rounds of golf. First, in 1996 I played a round at the well known Baltusrol in New Jersey with a loquacious company acquaintance who was a friend of Bill at Georgetown and two of our stock specialists. I was playing really well on that difficult course and was eight over par after 16 holes, when we got backed up behind players dealing with a challenging 17th hole.  As we waited my counterparts all lit up their cigarettes and offered me one which I occasionally accepted and did this time.  I may as well have taken heroin.  After the wait I had an abysmal 11 on the par five 17th and a 7 on the par 4 18th.  That was it for golf I thought at the time.  I've had it.

The second to last round was at a gathering of about 20 senior members of the finance department of the company in 1997 at the CFO's home course in New Jersey.  The early Saturday morning drive there from Long Island was tiring and it was a damp and foggy day to start.  With the CFO joining my group for the first nine, I had a hopeless nine of 50 and just wasn't in the right mood.  The CFO moved on to another group for the back nine, the sun came out from behind the clouds and I had a 37 on the back nine, hitting a seven iron stiff to the flag just behind a deep bunker for a birdie on the final hole.  That was satisfying and I said to myself, "that's it for sure for my golf life, a nice way to finish".

Five years later, in 2002, I was lured back into a game by three of my close college friends at Georgetown, again in New Jersey where my golf life must be buried.  Again a long ride, but on a beautiful day, I arrived somewhere in that state to a beautiful, long, but not too imaginative course, and joined my friends.  Two of them had all of the latest clubs, snazzy golf bags and head covers, they had spent some serious money and must know how to play I thought.  I still had my mid-20th century clubs while the fourth had some clubs that he may have inherited from his father as they looked older.  We were a banker, a lawyer, a high tech equipment leaser, and a CFO of a New Jersey executive recruiting firm.  The CFO kept score precisely.  I had a few memorable shots during the day but was overwhelmed by the sheer length and mind numbing monotony of the par 5's.  In the end I holed a ten foot putt on the 18th for a 99.  My three partners were in the 120's.  Why play?

That's simple.  It's a wonderful game if it fits with one's life.  The camaraderie can trump all if a group is cohesive.  There are hurdles to playing that are not insignificant, such as other competing interests, family, work, and last but not least temperament. Playing golf well takes some consistent commitment, and here playing golf poorly when it happened was rarely enjoyed.  In short, I loved it when it worked but was never ready to buy a new set of clubs.  Could that time come?

It is easy to see a tinge of nostalgia in these comments that is not so subtle.  In a different location and with a wrinkle in my health ironed out, who knows, I may move back into golf with a focus only on who is played with and whether it is a nice day to be outside.  It's unlikely but not unthinkable.



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