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What Am I Driving At?

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"Golf is a good walk spoiled." --Mark Twain

"Stupida fucking game." --Furio on The Sopranos

I've always thought an athlete's carriage, demeanor, and, of course, performance say more than the athlete could ever hope to put into words in an interview. In many ways, an athlete is the person he or she is in action; and while some selves are certainly divided--fierce competitors who are lambs at home, astute strategists who prove to be idiots in their personal lives--the persons they are in the field of play ought to be enough for any fan or writer to process. That, in fact, is the sportswriter's role: to put into words what an athlete typically cannot--or will not, in the case of an eloquent but reticent player like Greg Maddux. It's an approach I refer to as the New Criticism of sportswriting--treating the game proper as text and the text as sacred--and it's always been enough for me.

But if a great athlete suggests an essential character by his or her style of play--Ryne Sandberg's perfectionism, Mike Singletary's intensity--doesn't any athletic performer do the same, no matter the level of play? Doesn't clumsy or nervous play suggest a clumsy or nervous personality? For me the temptation has always been to read something about my current state of mind--something perhaps previously undetected--into my performance at golf, that most intensely individual sport. As a high school golfer I was a neurotic with an inconsistent game, just as I was a neurotic wallflower in the hallways. Yet I remember coming home from college one time, stepping onto the course for a quick nine with my parents, and shooting a calm, effortless 42 on a difficult course. What a criminally easy game it was when one was together in body and mind. There was also the time a couple of years ago when my father and I slipped out to a short, woody course on the western fringes of the city and I fired an 82, with a shot to break 80 if I hadn't had a 6 on the 17th hole. Yet there were also times (too many to count) when it was all I could do to break 100--such is the case when one golfs only a handful of times of year. While I typically affected a "Who cares?" response, just as often it chewed me up inside. If my mind couldn't control my body, how could it possibly hope to control itself? If the image of Bob Hope carrying a golf club called forth the song "Thanks for the Memories," the theme to my game was Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "My Mind's Got a Mind of Its Own."

Nevertheless, the golf bug was planted in me again earlier this month when I took part in a charity scramble. Now, a scramble is a different sort of golf pursuit altogether. A group of four or five or more players all shoot, pick the best shot, all shoot from there, pick the best shot, and continue on until someone puts the ball in the hole. It's low-key, fun, a team effort--and while a player can certainly reveal what a duffer he or she may be, there isn't the humiliation of hacking shots out from under trees or posting a snowman (an eight, for the unenlightened or the terribly skilled) on the scorecard. Besides, even the worst player can save a stroke with one marvelous shot or well-rolled putt over the course of a round. After the scramble I simply had to go back out and find out something about my true state of mind. Opting for the simplest golfing option available, I headed to the Chicago Park District's Waveland nine--formally known as the Sydney R. Marovitz Golf Course--for a round one recent Friday morning.

It had been years since I'd played Waveland--and for good reason. As one stands on the first tee and looks up at the east face of the clock tower, one notices that the clock doesn't work. It's a powerful symbol, for Waveland is the land time forgot. I don't mean this in a Jurassic Park sense; it's simply that the poor quality of the golfers slows play to a mind-numbing extent. Nine holes at Waveland can take three hours or more, though two and a half should be tops (sticklers would insist on two and a quarter or even a flat two hours). While the starter was in the pro shop a group of seven tried to go off together--a foursome is normally the maximum--and not one of them managed to hit a drive in the fairway. Fortunately, the starter got back just in time to split them up as they were walking off the tee, and evidently they stayed split, because play went surprisingly quickly.

In spite of an early morning storm and threatening weather--fog rolled up off the lake--it was fairly crowded around the first tee. I had walked up and gotten a tee time right away, but when one actually began playing bore little relation to the schedule. The starter teamed four of us "singles" and we went off a reasonable 20 minutes or so after my appointed time. I was with three older gentlemen--hypocritical as it might be at this point for me to call anyone "an older gentleman."

"I thought it was going to be empty this morning," said Nate, who resembled the affable character actor Charles Coburn, the father in The Lady Eve.

"So did everybody," said Rich, who wore an investment-firm polo shirt and had a cramped, restricted swing that seemed meant for a desk, or at least for a green translucent visor. Barry rounded out the group, a thin, wiry fellow with the most rounded game of any of us. All three hit their drives squarely down the middle. Then I stepped up and, trying to relax but hitting from the top with an overeager right hand, rolled a grounder to shortstop.

"It's a swing, not a hit," I reminded myself, and put a good swing on a fairway wood, only to hit the ball right, squarely into the lone pine tree on the hole. I pulled it out from under, took a drop, hit an iron nice but long, chipped on, and took two putts for a disgraceful opening seven on the par four. On the second hole, I did almost the exact same thing with my drive that I'd done on the first, hitting from the top and trying to compensate in the middle; I finished with a follow-through that suggested a spasmodic Arnold Palmer. This had all the makings of a long day. But the traffic hummed purposefully on Lake Shore Drive, while to the other side of the course sailboats in Montrose Harbor rolled out through the fog. The rain was holding off. How bad a day could it be? I hit another nice fairway wood, this one safe, followed with a nice, high nine-iron onto the green, and took two putts for a par five. Then I hit a three-iron to the fringe of the green on the par-three third, chipped on, and rolled in a ten-foot putt for a second straight par. I was back to respectable--for me--bogey ball after the opening seven.

If I could have gotten off the tee with my driver I would have been dangerous. But I dubbed another drive, hit a couple of ragged shots--the perfect rhythm was just out of reach--and took three putts for a six. Undeterred even after another hooked drive, I hit a fine wood out of the rough but then a fat approach, and a rainmaker of a sand wedge fell about 20 feet short. Then I rolled the putt up, just trying to lag the ball in the general direction of the hole, and it curled in for a satisfying par five. I was back to bogey ball more than halfway through.

The sixth hole at Waveland is a pretty par three, listed at 140 yards, with a pool of reflective water--two geese and their goslings made up the gallery this morning--in front of a kidney-shaped green. On this day the flag was toward the front of the green, between a sand trap to the right and another trap behind the first flange of green to the left. I hit what I thought was a good seven-iron and expected it to land just inside the trap to the left. But it went long--after all my ragged near misses, a well-struck shot proved too good--and hopped into another trap.

Though the condition of Waveland has greatly improved over the years, the traps are still like clumpy, worm-infested kindergarten bacteria pits. I knew I should just chip the ball out, especially with the pond long in front, but the one pro shot I usually can hit is the explosion, so I dug in and blasted out--only not quite. I hit another shot, then another, each time the ball fluttering up like a crippled bird only to land in a sand spray. I took seven shots before the ball was in the cup.

I laughed at each of those shots left in the sand, but by that time P.J. Harvey's new song "Shame" was humming in my head for some unknown reason. I decided to counter my hook by trying to hit a fade off the seventh tee, but was immediately reminded that the one thing one should never do on a golf course is think. The right hand countered the slice with a firm roll off the wrist, and my drive drizzled off to the left in the area of the ladies' tee. Then I dubbed one back into a fairway trap, caromed a low liner off the lip and straight up--it was all a mystery by this time; what was I doing out in some inner-city clearing with a metal rod in my hands?--then hit down the fairway, reached the green, and made a 12-foot putt to save a six. At least I hadn't carded a snowman.

Yet when I finally pounded a drive on the eighth hole--a high, arcing shot over the hedgerow to the right, beyond the fence, across the northbound traffic and into the southbound lanes, where the ball seemed to be making good time getting downtown--that meant a penalty stroke and distance. And when my next drive dribbled off the tee to the left, I was on my way to that first snowman of the day. Finishing up, I dragged yet another drive to the left, overcompensated with a shot back to the right, pulled my approach to the left--by now I was staggering from side to side--chipped on, and took two putts for a six. I wasn't about to add anything up, but the holes are there if anyone cares to take the time.

The thing is, it wasn't an unpleasant outing--if that's a recommendation. There was the unspoken camaraderie of golfers, in that none of us was very good--Barry did best at holding his own--but we all knew the game well enough to play quickly and efficiently if not well. Along about the seventh hole, Barry got to talking about how he'd been married 30 years, and how in the early years they'd lived just across the drive and he'd typically gotten together with friends for a quick weekday round at 6:30 AM, which allowed him to head home, shower, and get into work at the accounting firm where he was then employed at a reasonable hour--not something one could get away with every day, but tolerable more than once in a while. The unspoken key seemed to be that he was still married, and that a golfer needed to find devices like that to fit the game into his life.

Me, I wasn't so sure I needed to find a way to fit golf into my life, but there was and is something that makes the sport worthwhile. As we came down the ninth fairway, I looked up and noticed that the north face of the clock tower seemed to be working, and we were finishing before noon in a reasonable if not rapid two and a half hours. I was in time again, and it had felt nice for a while to be out of it, beyond reach, involved in the game and my own abilities, unflattering as they may be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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