No one believes that the calm and unusually competent golf professional that we hired to teach us the game would risk, after only six lessons over eight weeks, introducing me for the first time to a golf course of any kind, let alone a world-class course, on Friday the 13th.
In order to understand rough, sand, pitching, chipping, putting, course management, it is essential at some point to leave the relative safety of the practice range and venture out onto a course where the game is actually played.
We began early in the morning on the 10th hole, as there were no players in front of us. Number 10, a long par five, requires the club I fear most, the driver. It is exponentially easier to whiff, top, stub and otherwise humiliate yourself when confronted with a need to move the ball 535 yards through magnificently wooded terrain, than it is on the largely non-threatening practice tee.
Five lost balls and a mediocre drive forward allowed me to hit three irons and two putts ending the unhappy, first ever, golfing experience. It never got worse, but only occasionally better until the final hole, a fairly short par 3, where I relaxed long enough, swung slow enough, squeezed gently enough to hit a solid seven iron to within twelve feet of the flag. That it took three putts to hole out in no way negatively impacted the profound joy associated with a first, first class golf shot. In many ways that seven iron exceeded the pleasure of my first sexual experience.
I have become so obsessed with mastering the swing that I wouldn't trade a long weekend with Angelina Jolie for a half a dozen consecutively well struck woods.
Having treated golfers and golf with contempt (see earlier column), I now find myself taking mythical practice swings in restrooms, at bars, on airplanes, in my office, in the shower, constantly searching for a reason to explain why it is so much harder to hit well a ball which never moves, than it is to hit most other balls that are always moving.
While there appears to be nothing athletic about golf – look at Craig Stadler – my shoulder, right knee and lower back are reacting poorly to the hundreds of balls hit each week. My interlocking pinky is swollen and I have raised a ditch digger's blister on my left hand.
Golf is totally at odds with the Type A - take no prisoners – rush the net – victory at all cost personality which others tend to use when describing my approach to life. It now appears that to reach a level of proficiency required to convince the average golfer to let me tag along, not only requires a very high level of disciplined practice and profound introspection, but in my case a complete makeover, at age 60, of what little remains of my soul.
My associate, Alisa, who has managed brilliantly my business and much of our personal affairs for over 15 years, plays a pretty good game. She commented after reluctantly reviewing the Friday frustration, "It's only after you have given up that you hit a good ball." I now find myself looking to chat up anyone who might be able shed further light on what has become more of a spiritual quest, than an interest in learning a new game for which I now have available time. As nearly all of our friends and associates are golfers, there is a real danger that the mechanics of the swing may come to dominate my life, and ultimately alienate these long-term friends.
Sailors accept the fact that to go from point A to point B often requires hours of tacking in other directions in order to utilize enough of the wind to ultimately reach their destination. Power boaters would rather risk sinking their boat than alter a course to avoid heavy seas.
Stepping back, slowing down, relaxing, accepting ineptness, smiling as your ball finds the sand, woods and water, ignoring the smirks, barbs, and chuckles of others when the only thing hit is the turf, laughing when the two-foot putt lips out, complimenting the otherwise wreck of a playing partner who does everything better with less effort and no athleticism, applauding the five foot 12-year old girl who is a hundred yards longer off the tee, rejoicing in financing the 19th hole celebrations of the victors – if this is the price to be paid for the occasional perfect shot, than so be it. Play on!