A beautiful game

Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
JSpencerRogers@msn.com  

Gene and I started playing golf, or some bastardized slash-and-burn version of the game, when we were about 15 or 16 years old.

I don’t remember why we started playing. Gene was a baseball player; they called him Hoover, like the vacuum cleaner, because his long, gangly arms sucked up baseballs left and right before they could slip past the infield. I played basketball, which would have been a very short career with my height, or lack thereof, and my tectonic plate-like speed, but they instituted the three-point shot while I played high-school ball, and I wasn’t afraid to launch the ball from the hash mark, or even halfcourt, if given a chance.

So I don’t know how we ended up on a golf course. Gene’s dad played occasionally. My dad and older brother dabbled a little, but I think golf for dad was little more than a temporary escape from four young sons, and a chance to slip into the deep contemplative hole he is prone to visiting. For my brother Tom, a real man’s man, hitting a golf ball was an exercise in brute force and vein-popping pressure release. He swung like the world was one big, boundless driving range; so when he found himself on a golf course, it was more like earning a Scout badge in orienteering than playing golf.

As for me, as long as there was a basketball or a fishing hole nearby, there was no need for any other distraction. I did not have the old “golf is an old man’s game” attitude, I just never gave it any thought. Golf was no more on my teen-age mind than a home mortgage.

But somehow, somewhere along the way, Gene and I stepped onto a golf course, and the game has been a part of our lives ever since. I still have some of the scorecards from those early days. One card shows that I gave Gene a real drubbing; I took only 122 strokes while he took 135. On another day I got him 124 to 140. He got hot another day, shooting 111 and beating me by 15 strokes. I don’t think my scrapbook paints a very accurate picture, though, because most of the scorecards show me beating Gene, and we both remember that he was the better player in those days.

So there we were, a couple of fiercely competitive, bushy-headed boys making a complete travesty of the gentleman’s game. In the summer, we’d get up early and drive, when we were finally able to, down to Wicomico Shores in Southern Maryland. It was a fairly nondescript course that sat in a big, scalding bowl next to the Wicomico River, but they had a daily fee, and we knew we could get in 45 holes before the sun got tired of watching us and clocked out for the day. By my math, 45 holes would have meant more than 300 swipes each, over 11 hours, in 95-degree heat, walking and carrying our bags. It really wasn’t golf; it was some sort of epic battle, as much about endurance and testosterone as physical skill.

They were the kind of summer days that wrap around you like a hot, damp towel, heat reflecting off the burnt fairways with that shimmery, mirage-like effect, and eerily quiet, as if all the birds and insects were too busy panting to belt out a tune. There we were, trudging along, the tall, skinny one and the shorter, less skinny one, like modern-day Quixote and Sancho, and we were almost as deluded, because we thought we were golfers.

To make it all worse (and I hope none of my young students read this), Gene and I usually played for a ridiculous amount of money, something like $10 per hole. Not that we had it. I think after a few months, Gene had to forgive my debt, which had escalated to about $400. I hesitate to mention it now that we have all the expenses of the real world to worry about.

Despite the antics and foolishness, Gene and I were living some of the best days. We tried to kill each other on the golf course, but it was our battle together, our two-man fraternity, our first days of driving 40 minutes away from home, doing as we please; and it was quickly becoming our favorite way to pass the leisurely days of youthful summer. There’s no self-awareness of the beauty of those days while you live them; only when middle age lurks around a short bend in the road do you look back with bemusement and fondness.

Last weekend I flew to Orlando, where Gene lives with his wife and two kids. I stayed with him, and we drove down to Disney to see one of my students play a tournament there. We walked the Palms Course at the resort and watched all the teen-agers play. My student, a young lady, 13 years old with a beautiful swing, was in second place when I arrived. But she was distracted by my arrival, so Gene and I walked back to the pro shop and asked about the possibility of playing. The Magnolia Course, where the big boys play, was closed for renovations. All they had was a nine-hole, short course that was for walkers only.

So we dutifully rubbed on some sunblock, turned the cell phones to vibrate mode, slung our bags over our shoulders and headed for the first tee. Orlando is hot. And humid. And we would have struggled to make 18 holes, but for a little while we were boys on a lazy summer day. As I mentioned, Gene has a wonderful wife and two amazing kids now, and a job as a meterologist; I ended up with a career in golf. So I gave Gene a shot per hole, and off we went. Now that we have some money we only play for a dollar per hole. But there’s always something else riding when we play golf. There are grudges unsettled.

My hair is gone, and Gene’s back hurts. We both have mortgages and a little more thickness in the torso. But even Orlando’s mid-day heat could not bring us down, especially with a water fountain at every tee box. Gene beat me pretty bad with the handicap, but I did not care as much as I used to. It was good just to join the battle again.

A good friend and a beautiful game. I won’t wait 20 more years to look back and appreciate it.

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