Flog

golf_ball-4843At the end of a tough, emotional day in Phoenix last week, my brother-in-law Cal idly flicked on the DVR to a pre-recorded golf tournament. The two of us became interested, but we were still able to talk to each other, like you can at a baseball game. My niece Stephanie, who was managing a five-week-old baby, happened to walk in front of us. I yelled, “Steph! Get out of the way! The ball’s about to drop!” She was startled for a nanosecond, then realized I was playing with her. But really: how could two grown men invest that much attention into golf, the most potentially boring of all televised sports?

Aside from the fact that it was the final round of the Buick Open and we were watching perhaps (though I’m perfectly willing to strike that qualifier) the greatest golfer who ever picked up a club, performing in the prime of his career, it’s a valid question indeed. I too once found tv golf the dumbest thing you could possibly broadcast. Then I started playing the game.

My friend Stanley Graham did it. He’s the kind of guy who lives to encourage; you could screech your way through Jack Benny’s violin scales and he’d say, “You’re getting much better.” It’s possible, but very difficult, to get Stanley mad. Over many weeks, he coaxed me onto a golf course, then he and Phil Allen patiently taught me the rudiments of the game. Keep your head down when you strike the ball (it’s counterintuitive: you want to watch your ball’s flight, but if you lift your head, you’re almost guaranteed to muff the shot. Watching your ball is what your partners are for). The ball farthest from the hole is played first (a moment’s reflection will reveal why). Bad luck is part of the game; you have to “play it as it lays,” though in non-competitive rounds (that is, no money on the line), I’ve witnessed the devilish use of a “foot wedge” to improve a lie. Foot wedges aside, you can’t touch your ball until it’s on the green. It’s rude, and potentially injurious to your fellow player’s putt, to walk across the line from his ball to the hole. The lowest score on a hole carries with it the “honor” of hitting first on the next tee. Stanley and Phil wisely refrained from cramming a lot of “swing thoughts” into my head; too many can paralyze you, even if you’re a seasoned pro. “Keep your head down” was plenty for me; it took several rounds to sink in.

Golf is a gentlemanly game, even if some of the world’s best players these days are women. Some of the rules seem Victorian, which is part of the charm. The thing I admire most is that a golfer is expected to police himself. Just last weekend at the Bridgestone Invitational, a pro moved his ball marker the length of his putter’s head to get it out of another player’s line, and failed to replace it (that’s a relatively rare occurrence which interrupted his routine) before it was his turn to putt. For this infraction, he was penalized two strokes, potentially representing many thousands of dollars. But get this: he called the penalty on himself. As performance-enhancing drugs fill sports with shameful asterisks, from football to cycling, pro golfers still respect the rules and, for the most part, each other.

As it is with most pursuits, the pros play a different game from you and me. They can all hit it a mile, on a trajectory that looks like a jetliner taking off. They don’t amble along in their electric golf carts to the next shot: they walk so fast that sometimes you have to do that little half-skip to keep up with them. They want to spend those precious seconds standing over the ball and figuring out what to do now. And when they squat down to read the twists and turns of a green, they’re actually evaluating it, instead of copying a pose they saw on TV.

Because of the leisurely pace and close proximity, you can learn a lot about people by playing a round of golf with them. The experience unerringly reveals character in everyone who tees it up. How competitive are they? Do they get angry when things don’t go their way (and they can’t always, not for four straight hours)? How many foot wedges do they use? Are they supportive of the other golfers? (As in friendly pool games, you usually hear sincere compliments on a good shot from the other players.) More than once, I’ve evaluated a club-thumper or –tosser by thinking, glad I don’t have to do business with this loser. I even declined one copywriting assignment, back when I made my living that way, for no other reason than my would-be client’s behavior on the course. Keep yer money, pal.

Stanley and Phil’s best efforts failed to produce a competent golfer in me. Phil used to call the sport “flog,” which is basically all I do. But I’ve never, ever, played a round that I didn’t enjoy, and I always can’t wait for the next one. The rap on golf among non-players is that you hit a little white ball as far as you can, then you go find it and hit it again. Haw haw haw. What you actually have to do is hit the little white ball toward a hole that you’re usually not close enough to see, being careful to avoid the sand, water and trees that are in your way, then develop a much softer touch as you get closer, and finally undergo a precise and nerve-wracking test of hand-eye coordination, on a surface that might resemble a pool table, provided that table had curves, ridges and undulations. You can’t put yourself in the professionals’ place unless you’ve tried it. Then, once you understand how truly difficult golf is, you enjoy watching a world-class player display his character. That’s why I’m going to be tuned in this coming weekend for the PGA Championship, golf’s final major tournament of the year. As in tennis, the majors really rev up the players – and, despite skeptical nieces, a revved-up golf pro is a beautiful sight to see.

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11 Responses to Flog

  1. Robin Rushing says:

    I’m glad it’s hard to get Stanley mad. Can you imagine the damage he could do?

  2. Tom Dupree says:

    Yes, Stan’s a living “gentle giant.” He’s a bit like Hagrid, only *far more patient* and *much, much, much smarter*.

  3. brenda says:

    I never golfed in my life, nor held a club, except for a little putter. I was terrified at a young tender age by the fierce harridans at the Vicksburg Country Club—they would stride into the ladies’ dressing room after a round, cussin’ like teamsters. Wanted no part of that world!

    As for watching golf on TV—bless your heart, isn’t it a bit like watching paint dry?

    Speaking of all things Graham—I notice that New Stage is doing *Cat on a Hot Tin Roof* this fall. Didn’t Margaret play Big Mama years ago? Will she reprise the role?

  4. brenda says:

    PS—one exception to boring golf onscreen—the scene in *Sideways* in which TH Church and P Giamatti are impatiently urged to hurry up by the foursome behind them.

  5. Tom Dupree says:

    Re New Stage: I continue to have no idea. I don’t live there any more. When I first moved back from GA in 1975 there was a production of CAT, and Marg may have been Big Mama. I know Dora Carl was Maggie. Can’t remember who was Big Mama in the Millsaps production of my youth (I had a cameo). Was that Marg too? Ann Latham was Maggie. I guess I tend to remember the young lovelies prancing around in a slip.

    Re TV golf: wow, I thought I explained the attraction clearly a bit higher on this very page.

  6. brenda says:

    You did explain your attraction to TV golf, and eloquently. It’s just not one I share, so I was being snarky. I really don’t like watching any sport while sitting idle in front of a TV. Makes me feel I need to get out and move my butt!

  7. Tom Dupree says:

    You must have missed a *swell* Olympic Summer Games about this time last year.

  8. Phil Allen says:

    I also taught Stanley how to play which probably explains why none of us is worth a damn. The greatest thing about Stan’s game is his maniacal laugh when he hits worm burner or a fatty. I have not played in a couple of years due to crappy knees but still watch on the tube (much to Sharyn’s disgust). How ’bout the ladies in “The Cup” this past weekend. I’m a big Paula fan. For the non-pro golfer, it’s much smarter to copy the LPGA. I actually used to be able to hit it as far as they can, just not as well.
    PR

  9. Tom Dupree says:

    Phil, I agree. My golf partner (Doug) said that in his experience women learning how to play are better than men, because they reproduce their practice swings EXACTLY. Once they finally step up to the ball, guys tend to try and kill it after all that practicing (I know I do!). The girls just judge it, practice it once, then swipe it with a ball. No big deal. Linda can hit it about 80-120 yards *each time*, directly down the middle of the target area. She’s never played golf before in her life, but she did what I just decribed on a 9-hole course in Conway, NH, more than 10 years ago.

  10. Phil Allen says:

    Hi! It’s Sharyn sneaking in. Many years ago Phil bought me a set of clubs, bag, shoes, etc. He said I had a really good swing and once the pro caught me kneeling on the ground praising the golf gods cause I has just hit a phenomenal shot (for me). I was in yellow slacks that never lost the grass stains. I determined that golf was not my game. I played in the 70s (degrees only). Found out I really preferred the 19th hole with a good book. As for watching it on tv… I’d rather sit on the screened porch, glass of wine in hand and again, read a good book. But I do miss him going out and playing with the guys.

    And tennis togs were always much better looking!

  11. Tom Dupree says:

    I’ll now retire the following golf joke and let you share it at *your* family reunion:

    My Uncle Buddy: Golf? I shoot in the low 80s.

    Me: You’re kidding!

    My Uncle Buddy: Naw! Any hotter than that, I don’t even go out!

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