The greatest golf course on which I’ve ever played involved sheep. About halfway down the western coast of Ireland lay the farthest point west that one can travel prior to falling into the ocean. The town there is called Dingle and the journey to the golf course requires driving toward the sea on rutted roads flanked by very confused-looking wool-bearing creatures munching on overgrowth. After such a relatively inauspicious start, I admit that I expected little from the course. I was wrong and should’ve known better, considering how far I’d come.
My grandparents were late bloomers where learning to golf is concerned. Within a couple years of taking up the game in their thirties, they proceeded to annihilate other people in competitions around Iowa, as if the state’s golfing population had somehow wronged them and they were exacting sweet vengeance. A job transfer sent them to Ohio where they continued their dominance, etching their names for multiple consecutive years upon plaques naming present and past club champions. My grandmother still holds the course record for 9 holes, an effort motivated by the kind of furious anger that can only rise in the bosom of a woman whose load of laundry had been ruined that morning by a stray ink pen. I recall seeing boxes of trophies in their basement, but none upstairs visible for public consumption. They played for enjoyment and because they loved the challenge. They started teaching me when I was four.
It wasn’t until I was eleven that I really began to look at the game as anything more than a distraction from a crappy home life. If it’s possible for a preteen to have clout in the eyes of adults, then I had it by virtue of not only sharing a name with my grandparents, but also because I was quite good. I would regularly spend weekends from sun up to sun down on the course; it was both my escape and my home, as far as I was concerned. Looking back, I now view the simultaneous progression of my game and my personality, both honed primarily through trial and error and without formal instruction, as a minor miracle.
What I lacked, however, was any understanding of how to think my way around a golf course. Playing well is one thing; the world is full of golfers who can beat their friends on a Saturday morning. Playing well when one has to, in competition, is another thing entirely. Success or failure begins and ends in your head before every swing, but I didn’t learn this until much later. I’ve competed at all of the various levels that mark people like myself who grew up obsessed with the game. High school, college, mid-amateurs, amateur qualifiers, etc. I’ve won competitions and also played embarrassingly poorly in others. The mental side of the game has always been my downfall and the handful of times in which I’ve played well (by my own nearly unattainable standards) were so gut-wrenchingly nerve wracking that ‘enjoyment’ was nowhere to be seen at the time. I tend to think that my competitive issues stemmed from discomfort at the thought of other people benefiting from my self-destruction. No one should benefit from my self-destruction, but me, thank you very much. You’re always playing against yourself in one way or another. Therapeutically speaking, you can learn a lot about a person by playing golf with them.
I’ve lived a charmed life from a golfing perspective. I studied abroad in St. Andrews in the Spring of 1997 and as a student, paid the obnoxiously tiny sum of 119 pounds sterling (~$175 at the time) for one year’s unlimited play on all of the courses in the town. St. Andrews is mecca for the golfing world, the Old Course being where the game began and from where it continues to be administered today (the rules are written, reviewed, and updated there annually). From then until 2005, I proceeded to play courses throughout Scotland, England, and Ireland. Playing has been sporadic since then and neither I nor my grandmother play much these days. She’s 89 and unwilling to feebly swat at the ball with a fraction of the gusto that she once could. I’m a graduate student with mouths to feed (hairy, collie-shaped mouths, but still…). As for my grandfather, I still have the scorecard from the last round I played with him before his death about eight months later. He played well without much effort and my 14-year old self shot the best round that I’d ever shot in his presence to that point. I don’t know why I kept that scorecard over any other; there was no indication that it would be the last time we’d play. I simply recall having a feeling that I might want want to keep it. It’s easy to assume that people will always be around, so we sometimes rely on intuition to remind us otherwise. I’ve been accused of being too young to spend so much time wrapped up in nostalgia, the argument being that there’s too much life left to live to spend so much of it in the past. It’s true, I suppose. Point made, point taken. I’ve also lived a lot, however, occasionally in spite of myself, and there are some memories that are worth the time and the effort.
Tempo is the key to a good golf swing. Slow and controlled movement with every part of the body working in concert, culminating in the hands, wrists, arms, and hips reacquainting the head of the club with a ball that’s waiting for instructions. When your timing is on, thinking is unnecessary. You can see the club make contact, you follow through, then watch the flight of the ball along the trajectory you’d visualized right before starting the swing. When I was young, golf helped me to slow down and appreciate the beauty that surrounded me wherever I played. I’ve taken a lot of things for granted over the years, but when I first arrived in the UK, I slowed down in order to appreciate where I was playing and what it meant. It was a little overwhelming when I first got to St. Andrews in 1997, but when I moved to England in 2001, I started heading north regularly. I played the courses so frequently that I can still remember the layout of the holes, the shots, the views. I never took any of it for granted, never rushed, swung slow and easy, and played some of the best golf that I’ve ever played in my life in a place that a lot of golfers only get to see in pictures.
When the gorse blooms in the spring, the courses in St. Andrews go from being merely beautiful to breathtaking. Links courses are married to the sea, as they say, and are consequently full of undulations formed by wind, sand, and time. We’d often play toward the end of the day to avoid the crowds. When you make the turn from the outward nine inward on some of the courses, elevated tees allow a full view of the landscape with the town as the backdrop, coupled with the early evening sunlight thrown over the rolling topology of the fairways. A clear, late spring afternoon in that town, on those fairways, is my version of heaven. In the absence of actual golf, memory is good enough for the time being. I owe my grandparents an eternal debt for teaching themselves, almost as an afterthought, how to play a game that makes little sense and provides frustration and happiness in equal measure. Had they not done so, a club would never have been placed in the hands of their grandson, who has his grandfather to thank for teaching him, in the only way possible at the time, how to slow down and take nothing for granted. Tempo is the key.
Sir @ April 15, 2010