And we slipped out onto the first tee with just a hint of dew remaining over the old course. We flipped a coin in that glistening green pasture and I called heads. Heads it was. I pulled a white tee out of my pocket (superstitious; I never would use anything but white tees) and leaned over to position my Titleist balata ball at the right edge of the teeing ground. I placed it there because my normal error would be the hook, and the water ran down the left-hand side of the fairway on Number One at Eagle Hill.
I placed the driver behind my back and did a few bending stretches. I grabbed the seven and eight iron from my walking bag and rested the driver while I swung those two clubs to limber up with some weight in my hands. Then I took the driver and got down to business.
Golf is like a business to those who know it well. Your first investment is the most important. In a game of golf, your first investment is the tee shot from Number One. This will set the tone for the entire day.
It was early in the morning and we were the first and only twosome on the course. I'd known John for years, and we were close friends. Once the ball was teed on the first hole, however; the past history of our relationship was gone. Now the game was on, and heaven help the one who folded first.
There are very few games like golf, and the ones I've played which were similar weren't similar at all because they took place in a small enclosed area. I am speaking of pool and darts. Both involve the target skills and Zen-like involvement which golf requires, but neither of them occur outside in a huge arena which must be traversed on foot as the game plays itself out.
The other eye-hand coordination games I had played outside as a kid all had one thing in common. (I am speaking of baseball, basketball, football, etc.) The ball was already in motion when you got to touch it. This single dynamic makes the interaction with the entire experience totally different from golf. No one pitches or hits or passes or dribbles or kicks or laterals or centers or fumbles the ball toward you in golf. It just sits there. On the ground. . . Patient. . . Awaiting. . . You. . .
There are only two places you can decide what the ball looks like before you hit it on a golf course. One is once the ball is on the green. You may have noticed, if you care, that Tiger Woods and some other real golfers on the Tour are now drawing a perfectly straight line on their balls so that they can line the ball up to the line on which they wish the putt to begin once they are on the green. I never bothered with that little trick. My theory about putting was this: If you assume it's already in the hole before you hit it, there is no other place it can go. Admittedly, that's a hard trick. What happens when you miss? I assumed I didn't assume correctly that time and I'd just have to reassume for the next one. Putting is the most Zen-like part of golf. You can't explain it. You just knock it in the hole. Or you don't. It helps a great deal if you don't look up until you hear it fall into the hole.
The other place where you can decide what the ball looks like before you hit it is the teeing ground.
This fine fall morning at Eagle Hill, on the first tee, I put the Titleist logo facing me at a 45o angle with the two black dots on either side of the logo looking back at me like hoary mementos of players past. I used those two eye-dots to make me concentrate; as if looking on the face of golf itself on this, the most important shot of the day.
It would be around noon before this round of eighteen holes would be complete. There was a beginning and an end. I was now at the beginning.
I positioned the ball inside my left heel and adjusted my grip to weaken it slightly, in order to avoid my common error (the hook). Then I did whatever was in my power to think of the exact spot I wanted this ping pong ball with inverse zits and mass to land after I'd hit it. I picked out a spot exactly 273 yards from the spot where the ball would begin, and I envisioned how it would land there and then roll (bouncing to the left, using that natural draw I woke up with one day, several years earlier, after a dream about the grip and the backswing) another 14 yards, leaving me exactly 145 yards to the first green. With the wind slightly behind, that would be a perfect 9-iron. And I loved my 9-iron. A lovely club with just enough loft to throw that little missile high into the puffy blue sky, but not high enough to cause the backspin to move the ball very far from the spot where it would land.
After looking at that perfect spot one more time and expelling a deep breath, I took the 8.5o Callaway Great Big Bertha War-Bird back slowly and made sure not to let my weight get to the outside of my right foot. Making sure that I didn't go too far past parallel (my worst swing flaw), I planted my weight and brought the club down (hopefully on the same plane) to meet the 45 grams of substance wearing that face of golf itself on my superstitious white tee.
As with all of the best shots you'll ever hit while golfing, this one felt like hitting a marshmallow. When you find the sweet spot on the club, it feels as if you're hitting air when contact is made with the ball. Bad shots hurt your hands and your back and hurt your feelings. Good shots feel effortless. I could feel the ball compress on the club face and I kept watching the ground as the white tee flew up out of the ground, in slow motion, and hit me right between the eyes.
There was no need to even look at where the ball was going. When the tee hits you in the face like that, it's a sign from the golf gods that your ball has gone exactly where you'd planned. There are several style points awarded if you can catch the tee in your teeth when this happens. Moments such as that are what make golf so terribly addictive. You might live a lifetime waiting for another perfect moment like that. Or, you might have so many similar moments that you'd never be able to reconstruct them all.
I played golf from the time I was a kid (around 12 or 13, I guess) until I was in my late twenties. I became frustrated because I didn't seem to be able to "get better" at it. When the time came that a round of golf gave me more distress than it did pleasure, I quit. Then, when I was in my mid-30s, I started working at a place where my boss and his buddies played golf all the time. I decided to give it another shot. How glad I am that I did. I had around 20 more years of the real experience of golf after that.
I've played this silly game all over the world. It would be insane to add up all the money I've spent on golf. I played one round at the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda a few years ago that cost me more than most folks spend on their clubs. Some of those rounds around the globe were played with John. He and I have taken golfing vacations before. And, if we've just taken regular vacations, there was always golf. We've played under the Golden Gate Bridge, at Kemper Lakes in Chicago, on at least 3 Hawaiian islands, in Arizona, at several courses in Florida (golf Heaven), and others.
In Petaluma, CA, one afternoon, we were on the second eighteen of the day. That's always fun; you know you're having a good time if you want to "play again." It was getting late in the day and several dead soldiers were lying in the back of the cart. (They won't let you walk on a lot of really fancy golf courses. They say it's to speed up play. They're lying. It's for the extra revenue from the cart rentals. And every time I rent a golf cart, it has a half a case of beer in the back, on ice. I don't know why or how this happens. But it's one of the main reasons I like to walk if I can. I'd rather play sober.)
So we got to this par 3 hole toward the end of the first nine. It was a 190 yard carry over a small lake and we'd hit 5-irons earlier in the day. The green sat at the edge of the lake, on the other side. And someone had built a beautiful house overlooking the green, about 40 yards beyond, with a huge picture window on the second floor. John was first to hit and he somewhat unsteadily pulled out an old 5-wood he always carried at the time. That club was ancient. It didn't match any of his other gear, but he called it his "baby." I said, "What the hell are you doing? Put that ancient beast up. It's only 190 yards. You know you hit that club around 230." John put his finger up to his mouth, as if to make the hush sign. Then he said, "I'm going to ease up on it. Watch."
He teed the ball up very low and hit the ball dead center. The old wooden head on the 5-wood came loose and as we watched the club head go sailing out into the perfect center of that body of water, we then saw the golf ball continue to rise as it flew over the green (right over the flag, to John's credit). At the exact moment that the club head hit the water with a tiny "splash," the huge window in that beautiful house shattered with a thunderous clank. You know how sound travels so well across water? I wish you could have heard it.
We played on and finished the round. We assumed that someone would contact us about the damage. They never did. I guess the house was unoccupied during the time we were there. Oh, well. I've always said that folks who build a house on a golf course should not bitch about what happens next. It's only natural.
But this day we were on our home course and I'd just hit a perfect drive. John asked me if I'd like to take the usual Mulligan on the first tee. I said (as I always did after teeing off first and hitting a good shot), "There will be no more of this Mulligan shit, my friend. That's for pussies and Bill Clinton. We're real men playing real golf. Now it's your turn. Shut up and hit."
The rules of golf are not that complicated. You'd think that anyone who could afford to play would be able to understand them. But in this world of fast food and cell phones and golf carts and ambulance chasing lawyers and scoundrel businessmen and Hollywood hypocrites, you have to look long and hard to find folks who will play a game of golf by the rules. John and I are two such guys. The only time we ever cheat is when we sometimes give ourselves a Mulligan on the first tee. Otherwise, it's play it down and putt it out and count every stroke.
At the time of this round, his handicap was 6. Mine was 9. I was slightly intimidated by that fact, and the need to best him on this hazy morning was strong in my soul.
He teed it up and hit his patented low draw almost on the same line that my shot had held. It took a little nose dive at the end, however; and hit the lower branch on the one tree sitting in the middle of Number One fairway. The branch kicked it straight down, taking off about 50 yards. He immediately turned to me and started to protest my alteration of the Mulligan rule. He could see by my stern glance that it would ruin the day. Hell, he'd done the same thing to me for years. I'd never said a word about it when it was me, and he knew better than to start now.
We slung our bags over our shoulders and began that walk down the first hole of the day. There is no way you can enjoy golf from a golf cart. You need the time to breathe deeply as you either savor the last shot (or try to get over it) and ready yourself for the next one. It's one shot at a time. It's life. One could write a whole book about how life was different when one could not enclose oneself in an automobile and travel from here to there without saying word one to his fellow journeymen.
We talked about the beautiful day and the damp grass and we wondered about the speed of the bent grass greens today. The last time we'd played, they'd been brutally fast.
We arrived at John's ball underneath the tree. He had a nice lie in some fluffy grass, but the tree trunk was hampering his shot. If he were to get it on the green, he'd have to play one hell of a hook from right at 200 yards. He pulled the 2-iron. That's a club that scares me to death. You put a 2-iron in my hands and I've got the confidence of Michael Jackson in bed with a real live grown-up girl. But John is not too bright and, thus, fearless. He takes that 2-iron just inches to the right of the tree trunk and hooks it perfectly. The ball bounces just in front of the right hand bunker by the green, jumps over the bunker, and rolls up to within 6 inches of the cup.
My business just went bankrupt. Regardless of the drive, I've been played. I'm done. I feel like a stock trader who told his clients 6 weeks ago that the market had hit bottom, for sure. No doubt. And, to make matters worse, when I get to my perfect drive, I find the ball is sitting in an old divot. Now I can't play that 9-iron I imagined. I'm going to have to choke down on an 8-iron and try to run the ball up to the green. The green where my friend's ball is sitting in tap-in range from 200 yards out.
The day was downhill for me from there on out. Every bounce that could have helped, hurt. Every ball that should have been found easily was lost. Every shot that could have only been close to the hosel turned into a shank. I shot 92 and lost over a hundred dollars and I told John something I'd been thinking about for a long, long time. I said, "I'm giving up this game."
He laughed and said he'd heard that before. I told him he'd never heard me say it. He agreed that this was true and said, "But you're just having a bad day. You'll be back."
I told him "no." I explained, as well as I could, that I'd been through this before, in my late 20s, before I knew him. I told him that golf was not making me happy any more and I was going to find something to replace golf which would make me happy. He asked what the hell that might be, at my age?
One week later, I was surfing the internet and logged on to this site called Everything.