Friday, December 17, 2010

Work in Progress

It's a Thursday night in late June, nearly sunset, an extraordinary summer evening.  I'm walking up the 17th fairway, hurrying to finish my round before sundown, when I see them:  A young father, not much older than myself and his son, about eight years old.  They're getting ready to tee off on the nearby 15th hole. I watch as the father chooses a club for his son, lets him take a jerky practice swing, and points at the target in the distance.  The son hits the ball with all his might, a 50 yard screamer down the fairway, turns and high-fives his father.

I've heard this story before:  How a father picks up his son from kindergarten early on a Friday and drags him to the driving range to hack his first balls.  How that Christmas he buys a junior set of golf clubs, wraps it himself, and hides it from view behind the Christmas tree.  How the next summer they will talk their way onto the back nine of the local course just before sundown to secretly play a few holes. 

It's a good story.  But it isn't my story.

Though I have learned a great many lessons from my own father, he did not teach me the game.  I'm a self-taught golfer, never having had any formal lessons.  It's not something I'd wish on anyone wishing to play golf regularly.  Go take some lessons. Do it the easy way.  Still, it's a good feeling knowing that my own golf swing, both its faults and successes are my own.  No one has ever taught me to take a proper divot or explained to me the proper position of my right knew during the backswing. And that's okay. I figure it out, bit by bit, working on one thing at a time.  One day, I spend time working on my grip.  The next day, I work on my hip turn.  It's a formula that's worked well for my developing golf game, a formula I also followed with sorting out my own life after I got married too young, became a father, then got divorced.  One thing at a time. Day by day. Practice makes perfect. Insert your own cliche here.

My daughter is nearly 7 now.  Will we ever be out on the links, just the two of us, playing the 17th hole, just trying to beat the sundown?  We'll see.  I don't need to know the answer right now. It's part of me trying to be more patient, like when I go to the driving range and hit 75 straight 9 irons, knowing that one day, those monotonous practice shots will serve me well.

I'm left with the following question:  Has golf taught me patience, a humility that I can carry over into my own life?  Or has my life taught me patience, a perseverance that will positively impact my golf game?  Does the answer even matter?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I'm Better Than I Used to Be

To begin, 5 truths about my golf game:

1. When I hit what feels like a perfect shot, it almost always fades to the right.
2. I am not a stylish golfer, decked out in the newest microfiber collared shirts or pleated slacks, white belt.
3. Since May, I have played no less than 45 rounds of golf; my handicap has dropped 8 strokes.
4. I have found more balls than I have lost.
5. Golf is full of catchphrases and cliches, often imitating life's small lessons; nonetheless, they are mostly true.

It's 14 degrees tonight in Indianapolis.  Not exactly golfing weather, though with the season of golf I've had over the past 7 months, I can hardly complain.

After years of false starts and disappointing rounds, small bursts of steady golfing with the promise of regular golfing buddies, I've finally done it.  Settled down. Found a regular group of guys to play with.  No longer do I feel like a golf vagabond, playing a course here and there for a few years and then moving on to a different public course in a different state. It's nice.

For example, I can tell you that on my home course there is a hump on the back left portion of the 16th green, a fantastic place to hit an approach shot with a 5 iron if you want the ball to hold the green. I can also tell you how you never want to be above the hole on the 5th green, how there's a perfectly place old oak tree next to the green on the only par 5 on the back nine.  Jack Nicklaus and his disciples preach that we should visualize shots before we play them, that if we see each shot develop in front of our eyes then somehow our bodies will automatically understand what to do. I can visualize the sweeping drive from the tee, the slight fade with my 5 iron that will settle onto the green, stopped from rolling only by that generous hump at the back of the green. But that doesn't mean I can do it. Nevertheless, I think about those shots, the ones I might one day string together for a glorious par. I think about them all of the time.

One of my playing partners calls it The Fever.

What he means is that we've been playing so much golf, we're hopelessly hooked. We're intelligent, interesting, well-spoken men, but we talk in code, and nearly always about golf. We avoid work to watch cheesy online golf videos.  We text message silly taunts about the week's match. Just last night, in an effort to discover if I have the correct size grips on my golf clubs, I dug a plastic ruler out of my desk drawer to carefully measure the distance between "my dominant wrist crease and the web of my longest finger."  The good news? My grips fit just fine.

This past May, the faculty at the community college where I teach decided to gather for an after graduation drink at a local hole-in-the-wall pub.  It's no different than your local watering hole: ample fried food, a decent selection of American beers, several TVs on the wall. It so happened that the TV nearest our group was turned to the end of a golf tournament, no doubt being played somewhere in Florida.  One drink led to another, which led to another.  We were academics glad the semester was over. We'd have drunk a whole barrel if we'd had time. Naturally, we slurred our way into a conversation about golf.  Eagerly, I asked around if anyone played, a question I've been asking people for years in hopes of finding playing partners. Luckily, someone spoke up.

He immediately stated that he wasn't any good, but that he'd once shot a 39 over 9 holes and that he'd love to have someone to play with some time.  The semester was over and our schedules were free.  We tentatively scheduled a day to play at the end of the next week.   I was ecstatic.  But would this end up like other times? The times when I'd invited friends or friends of friends or strangers to play a round only to be stood up in the end?

I hadn't touched a golf club in nearly a year , but something told me this was going to be different.  Something told me I'd better find my clubs and hit the driving range. And where exactly were my clubs? In that storage unit I'd been meaning to clean out? Under some boxes in the garage, maybe?