Because of my dad, I grew up around golf. Not so much as a player, but as an observer of life and the enduring rituals attendant to any game.
Recently, I found an old photo of my two older brothers (then just toddlers) with my parents, taken in the depths of World War II before I was born. Everyone was sitting on the grass, and in the foreground was a golf bag and clubs. It was a hint of his priorities.
When I was older, Dad started talking to me about the game, and I think he was hoping I would become addicted, as he was. While I was still in grade school, he somehow managed to arrange for me to caddy at a tournament on the women’s pro golf tour. I had the bag for a young teenage phenom (the estimable Judy Rankin), without knowing the first thing about what do to, where to stand, what to say. So Dad gave me a quick lesson in golf etiquette that included the following Do’s and Don’ts:
Talk softly, if at all, and never when someone is addressing the ball or putting;
Encourage your fellow players by acknowledging good shots;
Adopt a deferential comportment, so that whoever is furthest from the hole always shoots or putts first;
Never stand so that your shadow crosses the putting line of another;
Under penalty of death, never — ever — forget a club around the green. And so on.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were more then golf instructions; they were life lessons.
Later, I took up the game and to my Dad’s horror, I tried to play left-handed, which in those days was considered weird if not strange. Finding left handed clubs was like trying to locate a truffle in the woods. My fiance (now my wife), who is an elegant ball striker, tried mightily to help me become a better player, but I persisted in mediocrity. I struggled on fairways and greens, embarrassing myself and frustrating my golfing partners with erratic play and meteor-sized divots. About the only thing I was good at was forgetting clubs around greens and losing several sleeves of golf balls each round I played. The game also revealed something ugly in my nature, a fierce temper born of frustration. Successful golfers have a detached, almost ethereal attitude, like Gandhi, but outside the PGA Tour, most players are violent hackers who treat their clubs like cudgels and the ball as if it were a rampaging mole.
My temper also ruined for me what is golf’s most satisfying pleasure, the “walk in the woods” experience in which the breeze wafts through the pines, birds and squirrels dance across the fairways, and the camaraderie of friends more than makes up for skulled shots, awful putts and lost balls in the rough.
Life, kids and ennui finally brought a halt to my pathetic golf career. My father passed away (a golf club tucked in his coffin), leaving me without my admired mentor. Back surgery. No time. In fact, in retrospect, my dalliance with golf parallels a prolonged and now accelerating decline in the game’s popularity. All sorts of reasons are cited, from the excessive time it takes to play 18 holes, to the damnable difficulty of the game (the only one I’m aware of in which you hit a ball that is stationary), to the erosion of Tiger Woods’ excellence, which has brought a sharp reduction in TV ratings.
Many solutions have been offered. One guy wants to enlarge the golf hole to the size of a small tub. Others believe that soccer golf, in which players kick a ball up and down fairways, is the answer. Right.
I now participate in golf viscerally, as a silent gallery for my daughter, who has earned several high school letters in the sport. I am forbidden by my wife to impart to my daughter anything, anything at all, about swing mechanics, lining up putts or the correct club choice. In other words, I am politely mute.
What to conclude from this courtship with golf? I mentioned life lessons derived from the game, and here they are:
Praise is always appropriate, on the golf course and everywhere else.
Play by the rules and learn to relax.
Be polite, always.
Pick up after yourself.
Walk outside, no earbuds, and listen.
Accept from golf that it isn’t how you play the game, but what the game teaches you about yourself.