The Unforgiven: Ruminations on a Sissy Game that Came Back to Bite
It has become clear, as years creep by and my drives keep coming to earth closer to the tee box, that golf is the ointment of life.
Wasn’t it Arnold Palmer who said, so wonderfully, that you know you are getting old when you can hear your tee shots landing?
Yes, unless you are Gary Player, your game shrinks as your wrinkles grow. Still, with encroaching age comes the realization that golf is much more than long drives and short putts.
It is the salve that treats the wounds of the week.
I used to make fun of it. In my long run as sports editor of The Los Angeles Times, I held much more fervor for the action of the NFL, NBA and MLB. When you are a certain age, life moves faster and you seem to want your sports to, too. My good friend and recently retired Times sports editor, Mike James, a low-handicap player, reminds me of that constantly, as he hears me waxing poetically about a course or a round or a player.
“Weren’t you the guy who called golf a sissy sport?” James will ask, rhetorically. And often.
The answer is yes, and I was wrong.
Currently, I am being punished for all those bad things I said. Golf has never forgotten. It reminds me with bad bounces, impossible sand traps, putts that stop the width of a butterfly wing away from the edge of the cup. Golf knows where I am every moment that I play. It is my George Orwell, my 1984, my Big Brother watching over me.
The game is the sirens from Greek Mythology. It beacons and I follow. I know better. I know the 73 that I once shot was a tease, a loss leader, a shell game. It was the email from Nigeria, saying I just won $2 million in a lottery. All they need is my social security number.
Yet, there is nothing like the thought of that next tee time.
I once did a column on a recently retired man from Sun City, who played all but one day in a calendar year. I tracked him down and interviewed him after one of his rounds. He was the happiest guy in the world. I don’t think I even asked him about his scores. They didn’t seem to matter.
Playing golf every day is nuts, of course. But only because it infringes on the time needed to anticipate and reconstruct. The best way is to get a tee time about two days ahead, allowing for time to visualize every hole. That needs to be followed afterward by a mental review of the round, hole by hole, shot by shot. If I have a decent round, I will haul out my scorecard at home and ask my wife if she wants to go hole by hole with me. She always rolls her eyes and leaves the room.
It is necessary to have someone with whom you can share this.
My Sunday date is my best friend Barry. Professionally, we are apples and oranges. He runs a chemical coating company that mandates an understanding of molecules and oxidants. I spent a career making commas into periods and pounding on a laptop. Personality-wise, we have little in common. He is quiet and smart and can fix anything. I am a babbling storyteller who considers it a great technological achievement to balance my checkbook.
But we have golf. We share an affinity toward it. We both have little competitive fires still burning from our youth and golf satisfies that. At our age, it is all that is left that can satisfy that. But when we no longer can play, we will remain close because, at least partly, of all those Sunday afternoons on all those fairways. And in roughs, and sand traps, and behind trees and …
Certainly, other sports create camaraderie. But the nuances of years together in nature, being tortured by a little white ball and, every once in a while, conquering it, is lifetime bonding.
I have made one hole-in-one. It was years ago at Primm Valley near Las Vegas. It was into the sun and hard to follow. We walked to the green and saw one ball, Barry’s, near the back of the green. As he walked to get it, he went past the pin and, with nary a pause, pointed to the hole and said, “Yours is in there.”
You never forget moments like that. Who needs brass bands? I had the best witness in the world. Even better, I can anticipate being there when Barry gets his. I’ll tell him the ball in the cup is a Spalding Three Dot.
Payback is hell.