Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Beaver Golf Newbie: Why I Love the Game.

Sometimes, people are surprised to find that I’m a golfer. Their point is that I don’t fit the stereotype. “Isn’t that a little…you know, lily-white suburban elitist rich guy for you?” This was especially true before you-know-who came along and changed it all. And I suppose, taken that way, they’re right. I don’t much care for country clubs, or for some of the stereotypes of golfers, for that matter. But it wouldn’t be surprising that I love the game and play the game if you knew how I was introduced to it, and how I grew up in it.

Golf, to me, isn’t private membership organizations and $500 drivers. It’s about my dad’s Tuesday night after-work league. That was my indoctrination to the sport, and, while I’ve moved several hundred miles away and don’t necessarily follow exactly in the footsteps, it’s the spirit in which I play. I grew up around Cincinnati, in a working/middle class suburb. I didn’t even know country clubs existed until I was in high school. This was a public course, about 15 minutes from the factory where my dad worked.

Everyone there loved golf as much as any golfer, but there was a different feel to it. It was 300 pound guys in Jack Daniels t-shirts with the sleeves cut off and dirty work jeans, pulling their bags out of the bed of their trucks. The 20 year old leather bags (yes, kids, they used to make them out of leather) were filled with knockoff clubs that a buddy of theirs made, and you know they’re just as good as the real thing ‘cause he orders the parts right from the same place the real club makers do, they just don’t have the brand names on them. And he did me a set for $100, if you want I can get you some, but he usually charges $150, but I did some work for him couple years back, so he cut me a deal. The only other thing in the bag is a handful of the Top Flite X-outs he buys out at the flea market for $30 for 5 dozen, and whatever’s left of the giant economy sized bag of tees his kids put in his Christmas stocking last year, even though he never finished last year’s bag. There’s no glove, no head covers (except maybe a novelty Bengals one on the driver…this was the ‘80s, they were pretty good back then), no little multi-tool gadgets, rain gear or golf shoes. The only gadget was the telescoping ball retriever, because hey, $30 for 5 dozen doesn't mean free.

It was two-man teams, playing against each other in a scoring system that I remember, but don’t know the name of. The foursomes were made of two teams, and your “A” player played against their “A” player. You played a point per hole (net…handicaps were strictly tracked), with another point (or maybe it was 3 points) for overall score (meaning it wasn’t match play, you putted out every hole). You didn’t “win” or “lose” the week, you just got X number of points toward the league title. The last night of the season was “position” night, you played against the team immediately above or below you, depending. There was money involved, but a) it wasn’t much and b) it really wasn’t the point. After the last night was the awards banquet, the one night a year my dad didn’t come home before my bedtime.

They started teeing off about 4:00 or so, since first shift at the factory was over at 3:30. Hitting a quick bucket to warm up meant stopping at the KFC drive-through because you’d had lunch at 10:30. If you had the early tee time, you went right from the parking lot to the first tee, unless you were renting a cart. If you had the late tee time, you went into the clubhouse for a beer before the round.

The golf itself; you’d have to see it to believe it. These big guys who spent all day on the factory floor operating heavy machinery would take out their drivers, and with the cigarette still dangling on their lips just absolutely murder the ball with a swing that would make John Daly choke and make Hank Haney cry. It sounded like Thor hitting a boulder with an I-beam. It had roughly the same effect, too. The ball would scream down the left side of the tree line for a good 320 yards, then slice wickedly into the right rough until it stopped just short of the green. Then they’d skull a chip over the back, uttering profanities that would emotionally scar a sailor for life. Then they’d chip back on and three-jack it for a 6, before unleashing hell on the next tee box. My dad was revered for his short game, which is to say he had a short game (a trait that, sadly, is not hereditary).

As you’d expect, a thick skin was necessary to play there. I learned all my essential trash-talk, from “does your sister play golf too?” whenever a putt got left short to “nice shot, but you know the hole’s over there, right?” pretty much every other shot. God forbid you show up with a hybrid club, a specialty wedge, or a gimmicky putter, or you’d get “hey, do they also sell men’s clubs where you got that?” every time, or at least “brought your wife’s clubs by mistake again?” Twenty-some years later, it still doesn’t get old.

You might think a league like this was a free for all, with scores fudged and liberal use of the foot wedge, but you’d be dead wrong. You could count on someone in each foursome to have a rulebook, and while they occasionally played “winter rules” when conditions were less than optimal, proper etiquette was universal. On those rare occasions when someone could get a 7 iron in the air high enough to leave a ball mark when it came down, you’d better believe it got fixed. Bags and pull carts never touched the fringe of the green, and transgressions were never ignored.

The course was nothing special. Not too long, not too short. Water here and there, but not a lot. A ton of trees, but plenty of fairway in between them. It was always neat, and the greens were pretty good, but the rough was mostly crabgrass, and the fairways were…well, shorter crabgrass. They shut down the course a couple of years ago to build condos that, thanks to the housing collapse, are never going to be built. But they probably can't re-open the course,because they'd already torn it up pretty well. I secretly hoped that if they ever got around to clearing the land, they would set aside the things they’d find among those trees. My guess is they’d find several dozen rusted out, severely bent knock-off clubs, primarily short or medium irons; a few sets of truck keys; far too many empty cigarette lighters, and thousands upon thousands of Top Flite X-Outs.

Though I never actually got to play in my dad’s league, I consider it my introduction and education in golf. I played that same course a hundred times, usually with my dad, often with others from the league. When I was little, Tuesday night golf league meant we (my mom and sister and I) got to eat stuff for dinner that dad didn’t like, like McDonald’s, or the boxed kind of Mac and Cheese (as opposed to that Velveeta and shell pasta abomination my mother perpetrated on us; but that’s a story for a culinary blog). Once I was older, we’d sometimes go down to the course and bring Dad a sandwich, especially if he had the late tee time. That’s when I got to see it in action. And that’s why I never understood why people thought it was a game for snobs. Snobs? Rich people? Doing this? Are you kidding me? This…this is golf.

(Read Don’s thoughts on other stuff at his blog, Aggressive Lethargy)
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