Drop the Book, Pick up the Club
Recently, I vacationed with my girlfriend's family in Florida, which included a round of golf with her younger brothers and dad. Upon hearing of the golf outing, I was touched, excited, and slightly nervous. It wasn't that I didn't get along with the guys. I did and then some, even if my love for New York teams shook them—Philadelphia loyalists—to the core. I didn't expect to be grilled about my intentions with the family's glimmering jewel, which had been spelled out to her mom and dad with the passion and optimism of Obama’s campaign speeches.
The reason was much simpler: I had never played golf.
I knew the rules and I had flailed at a driving range or two, but I hadn't played a full eighteen holes. The game’s appeal came to me late, but golf is built on large and small costs—clubs, shoes, balls, gloves, shirts. Even a trip to the driving range or a public course has a fee attached. My life is built on the less publicized economic principle of scrimp-and-save, so I tend to favor sports that don't require grants. Walking is free. Basketball, once you acquire a decent pair of shoes, is a better investment than Brooklyn real estate in the 1970s.
Everyone assured me that there was no pressure to excel, that I could struggle and strain to my heart’s content. It sounded a lot like karaoke, which definitely meant a last-minute trip to the library to avoid total embarrassment. There were a few requirements in finding the right how-to book. I didn’t want something with the heft of the Manhattan Yellow Pages. I didn’t want anything written by John Daly or Tiger Woods. Daly, whose partying and misbehaving have always overshadowed his talents, wasn't professorial or proven enough, while Woods’ greatness doesn’t seem conducive to teaching. It’d be like asking James Brown how to attain soul.
I was initially intrigued with The Secret of Hogan’s Swing, by Tom Betrand and Printer Bowler, until I came across the following preposterous passage: “In a decade of civil unrest and accelerated social change [the 1960s], public interest in Hogan’s fundamentals and the secret gradually declines.” Really? Should people have focused on their short games instead of the Vietnam War or women’s lib? Ben Hogan wasn’t Gandhi or some fallen prophet whose lessons got lost in societal tumult. He was a goddamn golfer, and I refused to read any book giving an athlete such lofty status.
That left me with Jack Nicklaus’ My Golden Lessons, which seemed a perfect choice. It was slim but packed with information. The man’s qualifications—eighteen majors and a life devoid of public stupidity and affairs with Perkins waitresses—were unimpeachable. He was all about the game, and had become golf’s stately ambassador. If anyone could put me on the path to success it was the Golden Bear.
I read through the book at the library, then on the plane, and finally by the pool. What I learned is that golf is both simple and complex. Nicklaus offers a clearly stated tip per page, featuring lush illustrations suitable for framing at the most fancy diner around. He’s refreshingly candid, admitting to taking "start-over sessions" after his fall/winter layoff, and devoid of condescension. There’s a significant issue, though. There are 119 tips in the book; the lessons inevitably ran together. Eventually, I gave up studying and admired the artwork, wondering why Jim McQueen’s illustrations occasionally featured Nicklaus’ handsome face hovering over a golfer like some Sansabelt slacks-wearing angel.
Golf day arrived sunny, warm, and cloudless. I lined up for my first shot and instantly forgot everything I read. I hacked and whiffed and left Grand Canyon-sized divots in the manicured green. The first four to five holes made me feel like I was a freshman in high school again, utterly and hopelessly lost in a world that wanted no part of me. As the day wore on, a funny thing happened: I got better and I looked forward to the next hole. Despite ending up 800 strokes over par (a rough estimate), I had my share of Masters moments: a tee shot that cleared a water hazard; a mighty blast out of a sand trap; some impressive chipping. Those memories supersede every other self-inflicted disaster.
The guys were forgiving and jovial and full of advice, especially the girlfriend's father, whose good nature never faltered. It was a fun outing. Now that I have reached hacker's status—as decreed by my future father-in-law—I'll revisit Nicklaus’ book for quick advice. Knowing a sport by reading about it is impossible. You must stumble and bumble toward a comfort zone. Along the way, however, you may discover that though your abilities pale to your companions’, you fit right in. That means much more in the long run than who wins or loses.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.