Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Taking Up Golf after Sixty: Soothe the Soul and Vex the Intellect

Oh dear! I seem to have shanked my last drive into Lord Vader's BMW.

I've spent most of my life avoiding golf. I've never been very sports-minded, probably because neither of my parents were. Mom thought sports were trivial, and Dad carried a pronounced and physically limiting limp, the result of being struck by anti-aircraft flak in the belly of a B-17 during World War II. My best, and perhaps only, sporting triumph was a fluke home-run during a pick-up softball game on the last day of 8th grade. As to golf, the prospect of chasing little balls around in an electric cart with a bunch of yahoos in gay-palette pants and silly shoes didn't hold a lot of appeal for me.
I have almost always worked for men who played golf. A few of them were passionate about it. Several of them cheated at it. I figured if I spent 5 days a week, and often 6, being abused and swindled by these men, why would I add a 7th day of misery to my lot by taking up their sport, which undoubtedly I would have to play with them. Sunday was sacrosanct. Sunday was my day not to be abused, cheated, or otherwise taken advantage of.
Even so I have always been interested in golf for the simple reason that golf stories are fascinating to me. At some level, all golf stories seem to stand for something larger and more significant than the mere hitting of balls, looking for balls, and hitting them again. Some of the best jokes I know are golf jokes. That golf is philosophical is evidenced by the fact that the best of the golf jokes contemplate the availability of tee times in the afterlife and the fact that God Himself is a player, although perhaps not so good a one as Tiger Woods before the fall.
Best-selling novelist and environmentalist, Carl Hiaasen's, book, Downhill Lie, an account of his year-long quest to get game, is a fascinating compendium of humor, tragedy, and Stygian complications. Hiassen gives great credence to Arnold Palmer's assertion that golf “satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect.” Golf resides somewhere between physical and mental activity. Golf's difficulty seems rooted in the inability of the mind to consistently get the body to do what it wants. Even though golfers focus relentlessly on as many of the structural components of the perfect swing as they are able to keep in mind at one time, every bad stroke seems the natural consequence of a mental deficiency and every good one seems a happy accident.
Golf is custom tailored for over-thinking. Hale Irwin once said: “Golf is the loneliest sport. You're completely alone with every conceivable opportunity to defeat yourself. Golf brings out your assets and liabilities as a person. The longer you play, the more certain you are that a man's performance is the outward manifestation of who, in his heart, he really thinks he is.” How can you help but be overwhelmed by the gravity of a belief such as that. This explains, I think, why so much has been written about golf and why so much money is spent by golfers trying to improve their games. They are not primarily interested in the golf so much as improving the inner person for which golf provides the best testimony. The problem of golf is that, when it comes to this evidentiary testimony, even incremental improvements are elusive...and maddeningly so.
I bring all this up because I went to play golf for the first time in my life last week-end. I'm not counting miniature golf, computer golf, or the two times I found myself on a par three course in my late teens. I should probably concede one round played on a full size course at Sheppard Air Force Base in 1970, but that was more than 40 years ago and I did not go willingly or happily. I took twelve strokes on the first hole, which was my best hole of the outing. Even last week-end I didn't really play golf. I went to a driving range with my brother-in-law, and hit two buckets of balls.
My wife gave me a gift certificate to the range to do this because I happened to mention in passing a couple of weeks ago that I had been thinking of taking up golf. She is a good wife to indulge me like that, although I suspected for a time that her reason for giving me the certificate was to ensure that I never actually took up golf.
It has been my fate since we met to give up the pursuit of anything for which my wife ever gives me a gift. So when she gave me a bowling ball one Christmas, I never went bowling again. When she gave me a set of panniers for my bicycle on my birthday, I never rode that bike again. When she gave me a set of stackable airfoil kites one year, just because she knew I would love them, I flew them one time. They have been in a box in the garage for the 20 years since their maiden flight.
So I suspected, quite naturally I think, as she had seemed less than enthusiastic about my announcement that I might take up golf, that she might have been taking out some insurance, as it were, against my throwing myself headlong into the misery that is the greatest game ever invented. She denies any such intent, and I'm inclined to believer her, but it would be just like her to manipulate the fates like that in order to protect me from myself. She does know a thing or two about golf after all, and its attendant sorrows, as both her dad and her ex-husband were avid duffers.
Saturday morning we packed a bag of clubs and headed out to the range. The range itself was unkempt to the point of shabbiness. The cost however was $17 for the two of us for a whole day and an unlimited number of balls. For that kind of money, a little shabbiness does not dampen the fun. My brother-in-law hit his new titanium driver. I hit his number one wood. In a short time we had whacked ourselves into a state of relative contentment.
After I got into the rhythm of it, I began to think that I was doing rather better than I had a right, given my advanced age, diminished fitness, and general lack of experience. I was consistently hitting the wood about 220 yards in the air, and a couple of balls sailed out around the 250 marker. Some of my shots were flying straight as arrows. I had a tendency to slice, but I'm told this is a common problem, and my slice was not as bad as some I’ve seen from guys who spend a lot of money and time at golf. All in all I was pretty satisfied.
After about half a bucket of balls each, we switched clubs. The driver was longer but lighter than the wood. At first I didn't like it as well. I had gotten acclimated to the wood. Its shorter shaft and heavier head felt more natural in my hands. I kept after it with the driver, and soon I was hitting it as far as the wood. No further, though, which I found curious but not unsettling.
I was still having fun. There is something innately satisfying about hitting a golf ball, repeatedly, as hard as you can. It is a calming thing. It soothes turmoil and renders one all placid within. It is meditative and relaxing. I decided, my wife's gift notwithstanding, that I wanted to do it again. That was before the pro showed up.
The pro came by to drum up a little business. He was in his seventies, a lifetime PGA member and teaching professional. He was blessed with the gift of gab. He was originally from my parents' home town in Ohio. That meant he came with a familiar way of expressing himself and a familiar set of Midwestern sensibilities. I liked him immediately—even before I knew where he was from. That was before he tried to teach me how to improve my swing.
An effective golf swing is a rare and wondrous thing. It is composed of many small bits of posture, motion, and timing—some of them physical, some of them mental, and most of them completely unnatural. Yet when they all come together properly they look to all the rest of the world like they are fluid, organic, and cohesive. For the person swinging the club, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
Some anonymous wag once remarked that a proper golf swing only requires that you keep about 300 things in mind as you perform it. My guess is that this is a very optimistic estimate as to the actual number. I say this because I have, just in the past week, noted at least that many things in Internet posts about golf that I need to adjust in order to get rid of my slice. If you need to be aware of that many things just to fix a fade, imagine how many more you need to keep in mind to perfect an entire swing over a range of clubs, lies, and circumstances.
You can find a computer that will process the millions of possible moves in a chess game to come up with the sequence to beat even pretty excellent human opponents. You cannot, however, find a proper humanoid robot that can swing a golf club with good results. The reason? You can't get enough memory into one robot to process all the things it needs to remember correct its swing. Modern science is capable of sending C-3PO into deep space, but it can't give him a 5 handicap.
The pro wanted to prove to me that it would be worth my while to take some lessons from him. To make his case that he could help me, he had me hit a ball. I actually hit a pretty good one—about 220 yards and straight as a Rotarian. He got a little twinkle in his eye.
“You sure this is you’re first day hitting a golf ball?” he asked.
I thought he was going to tell me I had the greatest untapped natural ability he had ever seen in a 62 year old fat guy, and that with a little work and some expert coaching, he could have me on the senior tour in a few months time. He didn’t tell me that.
Instead he said that he thought I had an okay backswing, but I wasn't getting any power in my drives because I was hitting flatfooted. I needed to get my hips into play, he said, and I would be hitting the ball a lot further. He stayed to work with me until we saw some results from his instruction. By this point you probably will not be surprised to hear that this took longer than either of us imagined.
Before the pro arrived, I was only thinking about one thing when I swung the club, and that was to pull the stroke through with my left arm. I don't even know where I came up with the idea that I needed to do that—probably from a magazine I picked up in a doctor's office back when I had medical insurance. I don't even know if it was sound advice. I do know that when I remembered to think about it, my slice disappeared and my drives went straight. I thought it was pretty remarkable how that one little half-remembered tip was paying off for me.
The pro started adding new things for me to think about. He wanted me to swivel my left hip forward at the end of my back-swing, and to follow it forward with the rest of my body during the swing on the ball. He wanted me to pivot on my right foot and lift my right heel in the follow-through. He wanted me to square my shoulders to the ball and keep my left arm stiff. He wanted me to allow my arms to follow my body around. He wanted me to be natural and fluid. He said that if I felt unnatural and uncomfortable, that would mean that I was finally making progress. It would mean that I had actually changed something. I made quite a bit of progress by this reckoning. By another reckoning, the less ethereal and more objective reckoning of hitting the ball further, I made no progress at all. After I started processing all this new information, my average distance diminished to the point where I was lucky to hit one out of my own shadow.
In the pro's defense, he did eliminate one thing to think about. He said I didn't need to worry about where the ball was going. The swing was the thing. The ball was meaningless. It's a good thing he told me that because, had he not, I would still be concerned about the fate of some of those balls. They disappeared off the tee as if by magic, and I have no earthly idea what direction they took. I never saw them again. My wife might as well have given them to me for Christmas.

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