Feelin' Golfy

I keep coming back to this post and adding more, always wandering farther away from the point I'm trying to make about the cost and difficulty of playing competitive amateur golf. I guess I've got a lot to say before I get there, so I'm posting this as-is with the intent of continuing the thread when the mood strikes me. One day, I'll get it said.

In a posting a few months ago I mentioned a plan to play competitive golf over the summer of 2010. And while I ultimately chose not to act on this plan, I still think back to it from time to time and imagine what that undertaking would entail, the sacrifices it would have taken, and the joys I would have felt by plying myself to that task. I am of the mind that hard work and dedication toward a worthy goal with a solid plan will always pay off in one way or another. And this was a good plan.

During the spring of 2010 when I was between Chicago and NorCal, languishing in Orlando, not quite sure where travel and grad school would land me come summer or fall, I fell back into the routine of playing golf a few times a week. Often, the rust would show and my game felt weak from the atrophy of not playing; but other times, when the drives came off straight and long, the irons flew the right distance, the short game shone and the putts rolled in, I allowed myself to ruminate on claiming further golfing glory. 2007 was the last time I really "hit it hard," as they (I) say, and found some success on the golf course. These days I feel like I'm a better player--more consistent in the bad rounds and shooting lower scores on the good rounds, with a better demeanor all around--but I just don't play as much as I did three years ago.

Back then, I had just graduated from college, had a job in the cart barn at Winter Pines Golf Course, and a job serving tables that was very lucrative, especially since I had minimal monthly expenses. Having the job at the golf course meant I could play free any time I wanted and had access to unlimited range balls. At first, I wasn't all that good, but I was capable of hitting the odd brilliant shot--always enough to keep me coming back. I spent countless hours on the practice tee in the humid Florida climate, banging balls into the damp, heavy air, sweat soaking through my hat and saturating my shirt and shorts, until a manageable and repeatable ball flight began to take shape (high and to the right, but consistent, like Bruce Lietzke). On the practice green, I spent whole afternoons bent over putts, playing games with myself to keep the practice interesting, while the sun beat down on the back of my neck, arms and legs, giving me the best farmer's tan of my life. I became a solid and intimidating putter, and other good players at the course began to take notice of me and my game. Soon enough, I was playing money matches against those players, and having success.

I possessed a steely drive and a focus on winning. Nothing proved more fun than playing good golf, especially in the company of other good golfers. After about nine months in the cart barn, I quit. It became apparent to me that I could make much more money serving tables and working less hours, meaning I would have more time for golf. Plus, I could maintain my playing privileges at the course as I had made friends with everyone who worked in the pro shop. Those afternoons under blue Florida skies, with access the all the carts and all the holes, playing with frenemies of roughly equal skill and age, having money to gamble, a degree in my pocket, and no responsibilities, gave me experiences that I count among the most fun I've ever had in my life. Sometimes I'd laugh and smile so hard my cheekbones hurt. Then I'd step up to the tee and slam a power fade out in the fairway, take some ribbing from my competitors who swore a draw was the correct way to play, and hole a putt to take the money. Or watch them hole a putt to take my money. Either way, it was fun as hell.

Every Friday, the Pines hosts a skins game. It's a two-man scramble with everyone throwing $18 in the pot. I played in the game every week, and my putting prowess made me a good partner for anyone. Often times these skins games boil down to a putting contest, and a good putter always proves a good partner. With such a short course, and with the scramble format, every group should have a bunch of looks at birdie and eagle. The winning team holes those putts. My pool of friends at the course grew from the cart barn and others in their early twenties to the senior players, the dirty old men who play every Friday because of a rule allowing players of their advanced ages to play from the ladies tees, therefore hitting wedges into the par 4's, and even 5's. After the game they sit in front of the clubhouse, telling stories that grow more perverted with the more Miller Lite's they down, which they tote around in plastic bags full of ice .

"That Michelle is one hot piece of ... somethin'," J.B. would say, his pin-striped shirt tucked into his knickers, his hat a fancied-up version of what Gilligan wore.I went to high school with Michelle, who was always a good looker, and was taking lessons from the pro at the Pines.  J.B. had about 40 years on her, but he wasn't concerned about the age discrepancy. Without shame, he played those neon green golf balls with the translucent covers designed for extra-slow swing speeds to hit the ball an extra-bit farther. But they feel like rocks on the green. Trading distance off the tee for touch around the green is a sure indication of a player more concerned with flash and glam--i.e. hitting it farther--than he is about getting the ball in the hole.  J.B.'s  swing was sort of an up and down karate chop, followed by a pirouette finish way up on his toes, head held high to track the ball. Often, he'd mishit his shot and scuttle it along the ground, turning away in disgust.

"Boy is she," J.B.'s skins partner Bob would reply with a shaky voice, a sufferer of Essential Tremors. "She is one hot number." Not only his voice, but his hands would act up as he tried to tee up the ball. In those moments, we'd sit patiently in the cart beside the ladies tee box, trying not to stare as the ball fell off again and again. And again. Finally, as his big, old body leaned over the ground, his hand flapping like the American flag flying from the pro shop, the ball finally, almost by accident, or by the law of averages, found its perch atop the tee. Bob stepped back and, in a fluid whoosh recalling none of the tremors moments earlier, smacked the ball down the fairway, positioning his team inside 150 yards on the par five, whereas my partner and I after good drives from the back tees looked at a 200 yard approach. Ridiculous.

"I'll tell you what's wrong with Obama's plan," I heard Jerry Keene say as I putted on the practice green one day in front of the 19th hole. "And this is the reason--" his voice failed and, cigarette in one hand, Miller Lite in the other, he hacked up for a moment, clearing his throat. "--The reason he won't get elected." The rest of the old bastards nodded their heads in unison. Jerry could really play, though. One Friday he and I paired up and shot nine under on the front, taking home the whole pot.

And Lionel. Oh god. You've never seen a golf course regular more difficult to look at. He smoked cigarettes constantly, and his teeth had become crooked and yellow, though he showed them often as he seemed to carry out a comedy routine from the moment he got out of his car. "You ready to play 18 holes of championship golf today? Well I'm sorry you have to play here." He had a wide, sagging gut which hung out over his chicken legs; his shorts came way up above his knees; and skinny, wrinkled arms. But he could make a foursome laugh like none other. When he found his comedy groove, those one-liners could lighten the mood, and you began to forgive him for his gangrenous appearance. You know, I kind of miss that guy.

I befriended those old bastards, and other characters around the course. Ranger Randy, who collected the beer cans from the bastards and the rest of the players on the course, took them home, bagged them up, and recycled them for money, became my friend. He took endless ribbing for his can collecting, but everyone knew the last laugh was his. It's amazing to see just how many beer cans one of the most-played golf courses in the United States can go through in a day, a week, a month. If you asked him he'd tell you he payed off his truck with those cans. He also used to shoot his age a couple times a year, for which he received no ribbing, rather adulation. Few of these adulators had actually seen him play, however. And I knew that a man who hit a persimmon driver, from tee, rough, or fairway, from any yardage beyond 140 couldn't really shoot his age. I would often remind him that the par was 67, and not until she shot four or five below his age could he really have something to brag about.  Boy was I a bastard.

Then again, I could spend thousands of works telling you about the characters I befriended at Winter Pines. There was the maintenance crew, the ladies behind the snack bar, mini tour players, the high school golf team, odd hackers and good players always eager for a friendly, competitive game on the course or on the practice green. The atmosphere of the Pines truly mirrors a social club, and I can always go back and rejoin that community, but I may never be the player I was in in 07-08 when I was there daily playing free of cost and free of care.

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