Last Sunday, I played golf with my friend Dave and his 21-year-old son, Kevin. It was Father’s day, and Dave is one of the best fathers I know.
It was a pleasure to watch him patiently instruct Kevin, praising him for the good shots, encouraging him when they were errant. And on the drive back, to listen to Dave reminisce about vacations he’d taken with Kevin and his older brother, Ryan, while Kevin nodded agreeably.
Dave has done everything with his sons from lifting weights and tennis to rock-climbing and camping. My wish, as I listened, was that I might some day share my own love of golf, that oddly civilized form of masochism and hope, as Dave has with his sons.
This is just my second year at the game, and I was somewhat prepared for jokes such as, “Why do they call it ‘golf’? Because all the other four-letter words are taken.” What I was not prepared for was the kindness and affectionate regard with which good golfers readily offer alms to the halt, the lame and the ugly.
My first set of clubs came from a good-hearted friend, and it may have been his first set. The bag was drab and discolored, the shafts were steel, the woods small and persimmon, the grips desiccated and worn. I soldiered on with them until another friend, a very good player, acted as if he were going to helicopter my 7-iron into a nearby river.
“These aren’t even good enough to be bad,” he said. “Get rid of them.”
Replacing them did not put an end to the hooks and slices, the pushed drives and topped shots, the overpowered chips and feeble putts. But I love it nonetheless, and I have been abetted in my passion by the generosity of strangers and friends alike.
And no one more so than Dave, who loaned me his Harvey Pennick book and his David Leadbetter swing device, and who took the latter back without complaint about the new scratch on it. He also gave me a homemade driver, coached me through innumerable rounds, took me to a driving range in hopes of curing my frustration and offered comfort and encouragement that was downright, well, fatherly.
But there have been others. One day Dave and I were chipping at a practice green. Nearby was an old man in plaid shirt, khakis and suspenders. He had an extra-long putter with a pink shaft and a cup on the handle that allowed him to pick up balls without bending over. He couldn’t have been an hour less than 80.
The old man watched me for awhile, a frown furrowing his forehead, and finally said, “Your arms are too tight! You’ve got to relax your arms!”
He was right. So was Chris Ahn, a quiet, self-effacing builder who joined our threesome one hot Sunday afternoon and sent booming drives down the fairways with his new TaylorMade RX7. When he realized I was a beginner and open to correction, Chris overcame his reticence and became almost effusive as he coached me to my best round ever
And just a few weeks ago, I spoke with Phil Reed, the consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com while working on a story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He said, “Are you a golfer.”
“Oh, no,” I said, “is it that obvious?”
Phil is an ardent golfer and has written a wonderful book about a larger-than-life character named Mike Austin who still holds the record for the longest drive ever hit in a PGA event: 515 yards. A record, by the way, set in 1974 with old-fashioned equipment when Austin was 64.
Not only did Phil send a copy of the book (“In Search of the Greatest Golf Swing”), he also has sent several emails encouraging my pathology.
“Learning golf is a mysterious journey, just like life,” he wrote, sounding like a cross between Yoda and a fortune cookie. “I envy the fact that you are just setting out. You have a lot to learn and will make rapid progress.”
He also introduced me to John Marshall, an Atlantan and the current senior Long Drive Champion who teaches the Austin swing.
The timing could not have been better. My game was so horrible that I’d been refusing all invitations to play, and I felt as if my oxygen supply was slowly being choked off. My lesson with John went well beyond the hour I paid for, reviving both my game and my outlook on life.
Golfers reading this would no doubt shake their heads and say, “Poor fool,” but they would also understand. After all, they’re the ones who’ve encouraged me all along. When my grandchildren are older, if they show any interest at all, I will happily introduce them to this genteel and hopelessly romantic cult.