I played golf last week. For the first time in almost a decade.
Prior to that I had played off and on since I was about 14 years old. In my first round ever I shot a 72 for nine holes. That’s double par. (Which reminds me of a joke: Lebron James may be a thousand times better than me at basketball, but Tiger Woods is only twice as good as me at golf.)
My late father was an enthusiastic golfer. At his best, he managed a 10 handicap (which means if par for a round of 18 holes was 72, he was likely to score an 82 or so. Not too bad!) A civil engineer by profession, he was good at math and always kept the scorecard for his weekly foursome. The men would team up, two against two, and play for money (or for lunch). Dad would mark in advance those holes where one player or another deserved an extra stroke, depending on everyone’s handicap. During the round, in addition to everyone’s score for each hole, he would keep track of how many strokes ahead or behind his team was.
I remember asking him, as he readied a scoredcard, if he ever played golf without some kind of bet involved. He said he could remember playing only two or three times without any kind of stake in the game. And, of course, a round of golf always meant 18 holes, not nine.
I learned how to play — adequately, if not skillfully — from my father. In addition to what clubs to use and how to swing them, I learned golf etiquette: for example, where to stand when another player hits (never in their field of vision), how to play fast so you keep up with the group ahead of you and don’t hold up the group behind you, and what to do around the green, like gripping the pin with the flag, so it doesn’t flap in the breeze and distract whoever’s putting, and not letting your shadow (or footstep) fall between someone’s ball and the cup.
Whenever we played, it would be with Dad’s friends, who were always nice, or, occasionally, with his brother, who I really enjoyed. I was always the least experienced and able player in the group, which meant I usually took the most strokes to finish a hole. As a result, I would put pressure on myself to play faster to keep up with everybody else, which would lead to frustration and, inevitably, even poorer play.
Of course, there were good moments, too, but I ultimately convinced myself that to enjoy golf (i.e., play it seriously) I needed to play it better, and to play it better, I needed to play it more. I decided it wasn’t that important to me, so after playing in a charity tournament in the fall of 2007, I put my clubs away and made no effort to play again. It so happens my golf-loving father had died of cancer the year before (at age 81), so that may have contributed to my decision.
Anyway, one year led to another and, after a ten-year hiatus, I got an email invitation from a work colleague that said, “Hey Non-Serious Golfers – wanna play next week?” That sounded like me. He said the people he plays with don’t keep score and are there just to have fun. I felt a weight of pressure lift off of my resistance to ever playing golf again and agreed to try a return. I made up my mind I was going to enjoy myself no matter how poorly I played. Golf this day would NOT be “a good walk spoiled,” as Mark Twain has been credited with saying.
Well, it went even better than I thought it would. It was a beautiful afternoon in May (the prettiest month in New England, in my opinion), the course was well-kept yet practically empty (so no one was behind us, pressuring me to hurry), I packed plenty of balls with the mindset I wasn’t going to care if I lost any, and I carried a bag half-filled with clubs to reduce my options and quicken my decision-making. I mostly played my ball where it lay, but a few times I lifted it out of trouble, without imposing a penalty, to give myself a better chance of enjoying the round. I pretty much hit it straight, sometimes well, and we limited ourselves to two putts per green, after which we pronounced the next stroke as “good.” I ended up with a very generous score of 55, with one lost ball. My only par of the day was on the ninth and final hole, which is what the game of golf tends to do to you to keep you sucked in.
True, I was pleased with my play for such a long layoff, which helped my attitude. But I WAS grateful to be outside, on green grass bordered by lush green trees, in perfect weather, and in good company.
The pint of ice-cold summer ale afterward didn’t hurt either.