I’m down on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the beneficiary, thanks to my wife, of a “Golf Widow’s Package”, which entitles me to play three rounds at the Harbourtowne Golf Resort while Lorraine does more sensible things, like shop. It’s late March, and by now the area should be free of winter’s grip, but there is a dusting of snow on the ground, and the green of the first hole twinkles with ice crystals. I am bundled up like an arctic explorer, and wearing Lorraine’s fur-lined gloves, which are three sizes too small for me. I can barely move my arms or fingers, which in theory should be a big disadvantage, but this is a sport where normal rules of physics don’t apply, and where last minute, self-defeating departures from the “muscle memory” of a grooved swing can bring disaster.
I have the course to myself. There is, literally, not a single other player, even though it’s Saturday. Jack Nicklaus, the auto-appellated “Golden Bear”, advises us to hold the club loosely “as if you were holding a bird”. Like everything else in golf, this advice runs counter to all our instincts, which in my case tells me to choke the life out of the “bird” – in this case my driver — which has betrayed me so many times before.
Yes, I blame the equipment.
On my first drive, I hit an ugly 150-yard bounder which comes to rest in the first cut of rough on the left side of the fairway, squarely behind a young elm tree. This forces the first decision of the round: start cheating now? No. I do not yet know what my final score will be, but I suspect it will be high (golf is the only sport where this is a bad thing), and better to be able to say I at least came by it honestly.
Now begins what we call “the short game”, where a variety of strange clubs come into play, most notable of these being the “lob wedge”. This is a highly angled club which, in the best of scenarios, will send the ball soaring into the air and dropping vertically onto the green, with no roll, inches from the pin (flag). Or, in a more likely outcome, squirting off the edge of the clubface and rolling into a sand trap a short distance away – which is what happens in this case.
My goal at the beginning of each round is to end up with something — anything – short of 100, and after just three holes, it is clear that, as an Indian friend of mine puts it, “this is what will not happen.” I am already 13 strokes over “par”, which means at this rate I will end with in the neighborhood of 140, which is the kind of score I used to card 50 years ago, when I was a novitiate. How is it possible, you ask, that a man can play a game for five decades and show no improvement?
Listen, and learn.
By the fifth hole, I have begun to throw clubs. Good thing I am still alone on the course, and there is no one to witness – or listen – to my tantrums. Or so I thought. I notice there is a crew of Salvadorans – groundskeepers – observing me from the green of the next hole. I share an epithet in their native tongue, and they laugh appreciatively.
On the next hole, I have to hit across an expanse of water; a drive shorter than 150 yards and I’m in the drink. I take an extra five balls from my bag. Then, the Golf God, in his whimsy, throws me a bone. Yes, I hit it short, but the ball actually skips across the surface of the water, like the “Bouncing Betty” bomb in the WWII movie The Dam Busters, strikes the stone embankment on the other side, and rolls another 30 yards down the fairway. What a joke! But I’ll take it. In golf, as in life, you take what you can get.
This is golf.
This is my life.