I was 12 the first time I swung a golf club. After three years of Little League baseball, this new game looked easy. The ball didn't move.
It just sat there in front of me on a wooden tee, defenseless. I took three vicious cuts. Whiff. Whiff. Whiff.
Finally, I managed to dribble one down the fairway. I topped another. And another. I was frustrated, bewildered, embarrassed.
The ball was just sitting there, for God's sake.
And then, midway through my very first round, it happened: the delicious thwack! of a 5-iron catching a Titleist in the sweet spot.
It felt so pure, so satisfying -- infinitely better than swatting a fastball with a wooden bat. But the best part was watching that little white speck climb gloriously into a cloudless sky. At its apex, it seemed to hang directly above an evil-looking spruce standing sentry at the dogleg. Then it fired afterburners, landed well beyond the tree and bounded down the fairway to the edge of the green.
At that precise moment, I was hooked. In years to come, I would skip my sister-in-law's wedding, risking my wife Susan's wrath rather than miss the annual tournament in the small Mississippi town where I grew up. It took a solemn delegation of strong-armed friends to yank me off a golf course in time to make my own wedding. (Hey, I was 1 under par through 12!)
Once, after we had planned a family vacation to Scotland, I abruptly canceled it and informed Susan that I was taking seven golfing buddies to play Scotland's British Open courses instead. It's been 46 years since that instant when the 5-iron sent the Titleist soaring over the deadly green boughs of the little spruce. I remain just as enamored (some might say insane) about the game as I was then.
It's hard to explain exactly why.
That's what I'm doing here on the seventh fairway of the Wellington Country Club a few miles west of West Palm Beach, my bony white legs already pink from the Florida sun. My plan is to play a round of golf specifically to ruminate on why I love it so: Perhaps I'll discover truths that I had taken for granted, or simply never recognized. Perhaps then I can explain myself. And so far, it's working.
I'm mumbling madly to my playing partner about the immutable beauty of rolling fairways and mammoth trees, how the golfer is dwarfed by the immensity of his playing field, how it becomes a nearly religious experience. I'm talking about the manly smell of tacky leather grips, the coldly efficient, spear-like design of irons, the camaraderie of competitors battling against the game and themselves, one against another and both against par. I speak about how the game mirrors life with all its quirky ambushes, its soaring successes, its perennial hope, its cruel disappointment. About the thrill of striking a ball with a driver and watching it curve around a bend in the fairway and gallop 250 yards or more.
And it explains nothing. Non-golfers hear that stuff and stare blankly.
They don't get it.
And, frankly, I don't care.
Because I have a problem. I'm standing at the crest of a small hill, an annoying little breeze in my face. A tiny marker on a sprinkler head six inches from my ball teases me with the news that a very average drive has left me 188 yards from the pin, which sits on a slope guarded by sand traps right and left. Just the kind of shot I don't need.
It requires a full swing with a long iron, stretching out the main tendon in my left forearm, the one that's been plagued by tendinitis for two years. I wear a wimpy-looking brace just below my left elbow, but when I pound the firm turf with a long iron, the tendon gets inflamed. It's why I haven't played much lately, only four rounds in the last six months. It's why I vowed to take it easy today, enjoy the weather, not try too hard.
I will my body to ignore the pain and swing, trying hard to sweep the ball cleanly off the grass. The second I strike it, I know I've found a swing I lost 30 years ago. I can actually feel the ball spinning off the face of the 4-iron. I know it's going to speed toward the right sand trap, then slowly draw toward the center of the green and land softly. It makes a small depression in the firm putting surface and stops 12 feet right of the flagstick.
For one glorious second, I am Tiger Woods. With pink legs.
I casually step back into the golf cart, a half-smile on my face, and drive to the green as if I do this every day. I am a god.
The putt is a challenge. Struck too firmly, it could easily run away on the slick green and leave me an even longer second putt. Hit too softly, it would spin hard left and leave me outside gimme length. To make it, I need to stroke it to a point three inches above the hole and let it die there. Then it should take the slippery downhill slope and slide slowly into the hole. And that's exactly what happens. Birdie.
Suddenly, I'm only 1 over par. Now I'm not thinking of explaining the game to anyone. I'm thinking of doing something I haven't done in many months. Conquer par, the Holy Grail of amateurs the world over.
High on adrenaline, I stride confidently to the tee of the 466-yard, par-5 eighth. Crack! A perfectly struck drive 270 yards down the middle. But on the next stroke I swing a little too hard with a 3-iron (there's that twinge of pain in the elbow) and leave it in a greenside bunker, 80 feet away. The sun's glare off the white sand makes it hard to see the ball. I squint, dig in and slash at a sand wedge, splashing the ball out in a fine spray of sand and dropping it softly on the green, 27 feet below the pin. Just before I pull my putter back, I know I'm going to make it. I know it. It's called "being in the zone," and I'm there. I hear the pleasing rattle of the ball settling into the bottom of the cup. Birdie. Even par through eight!
Tiger couldn't have done much better, I think. Oh, he would have been more impressive. His shots would have been longer, his irons higher, his backspin stronger. But he would have been very happy to have my score for those previous two holes.
What other sport allows a 58-year-old (or, for that matter, a 13-year-old) to hit a shot that Tiger would be proud of? In what other sport could a rank amateur conjure up "the zone" and beat a professional golfer on any given hole?
Of course, that cuts two ways.
Shortly after we got married, my wife joined me for a round of golf for the first time. She had taken golf in physical education class her last year of college, solely to prepare for a lifetime with me. I was touched.
I hit first, blasting one so far I was left with a mere flip wedge to the green. Susan took a long, lazy upright swing and hit a worm-burner 120 yards down the middle. Not bad for a beginner, I thought. Then she topped her second shot about 50 yards. And dribbled the third. This was going to be one very long round of golf.
"Try the 5-iron," I shouted, a bit impatiently. She pulled the 5-iron and topped it yet again. It was an ugly shot. But the ball kept rolling.
Through the fairway, onto the green . . . and into the hole. Par four.
I was excited for her. I yelled, pumped my fist. Susan smiled sweetly, strolled onto the green and lazily took her ball out of the cup. She was relaxed, pleased that I was happy but not exactly overcome by her feat. She had no concept what she'd done.
Still so happy for her, I walked over to my ball to show her how to get a par the correct way. I pitched my wedge to the front of the green, but I put just a tad too much backspin on the shot. It hit a few feet short of the pin, spun backward and rolled off the green into a swale. Now I had an awkward little pitch, which I hit six feet past the hole. And then I realized something.
I have to make this putt, or my wife beats me on the hole.
I felt the sharp first pinches of fear in my gut. I could barely breathe.
My hands began to tremble. I squeezed the putter in a white-knuckled death grip and yanked it left. Bogey.
I love my wife. I would die for her. But in that instant, I wanted to throttle her.
There was no logical reason she should have been able to beat me -- a 2-handicap golfer at the time -- on the first hole we had ever played together. But she did.
This is why they have divorce lawyers.
But now, starting the back nine at Wellington CC, a peaceful alley of Kelly green surrounded by polo fields, horse farms and people who keep their airplanes in their garages, I am living the dream, halfway to 18 holes of golf in even-par 72.
I start the 10th hole well, lacing a driver 280 yards over the crest of a hill. I'm left with 131 yards over a bunker to a tight pin. I decide to hit a light 8-iron. I'm thinking birdie. After all, that's what Tiger would do.
And then something occurs to me: Why haven't I been playing like this day in and day out? It is a bad thought. It speaks of self-doubt. I quickly banish it and focus on the tricky little shot at hand.
Inexplicably, at the start of my downswing, I become an alien. My body, so smoothly coordinated for nine holes, lurches spastically, and I pull-hook the 8-iron left of the green. Rattled, I rush my chip, leaving a 10-foot putt, which I misread and miss. Bogey.
That begins a series of comical disasters. Sand traps. Rough. Trees. My driver, so dependable all day, deserts me. (Notice how golfers think: It must be the driver. It can't be me.) Every drive is a smothered hook into the high grass. Every iron a push. Every putt begins with a nervous tic of a backswing. Doubts flood my mind. I analyze and reanalyze my swing.
Bogey. Bogey. Par. Bogey. Double Bogey.
As I walk off the 15th green, I realize I'm 6 over par. Now I'm just trying to break 80. For a golfer who has tasted par, there's something about 80 that reeks of defeat.
It's one of those unofficial dividing lines that we use to identify how good -- or how bad -- we are. True, tens of thousands of American duffers are happy to card an honest 100 on Sunday. But for the serious amateur (and I've always been as serious as a heart attack about golf), when a stranger asks how you play, you'd much rather smile deferentially and say, "Oh, in the high 70s" than admit, "Argh, I can't even break 80." A man who shoots consistently in the 70s has some hope of attaining par. But 80 is merely a score of frustration, a score that says you have no hope of playing the game in regulation. But let's face it: 80 has been my lot of late. And as I sink deeper into these desperate mind games, I recall why I'm here -- not to impress, but to reflect -- and I chuckle at how easily I fell into the amateur's trap of playing a few good holes and believing that is my usual game.
I pull an 8-iron from the bag. It's the same club I butchered a few minutes ago, but this time I feather a magnificent towering shot that soars over the lake and lands six feet left of the cup. And stays there.
A sure birdie. I fret over the putt, stalking it from all sides to be sure of the line, telling myself that if I make this, I'm back to 5 over, back in contention. I can barely make the putter head tap the ball. And I leave it half an inch short.
I laugh, the golfer's bitter medicine.
But I seem to have righted the ship, and I par the next hole, perhaps the toughest on the course. Then I stand on the 18th tee needing only a bogey to break 80. But I don't make it easy. First I find sand, then shaggy rough, then the water. I end up 10 feet from the hole, needing to make the putt to break 80. And in my mind, this putt becomes a thing of drama, the most important putt I've ever struck. I am helpless to stop myself from building it up that way, even though I know full well that if I just relax, it'll be easier. But that's the thing about golf. More than any other sport that requires striking a ball, it is a game of the mind, not of strength. Even the John Dalys of the game must negotiate a million little dramas, factor in all the risks, all the rewards and make sound decisions. It is, more than anything else, a game of choices.
And mine have left me with this 10-footer to salvage some semblance of pride.
The wind blows harder, cold rain starts to pelt my back, lightning flashes in the distance, thunder rolls. This is ridiculous.
And then, a pure stroke.
The nerveless 18-year-old kid returns, the one who used to putt against the men for money, for hours, and never get the yips.
And the ball runs straight and true into the center of the hole.
And a miracle occurs.
A moment ago I was slogging across the course in sackcloth and ashes, enduring endless self-inflicted torture.
Now I am golden. I have made the last stroke of the day, a difficult one, a shot that required skill and nerve in the face of intemperate nature. I stood up to adversity and pulled victory from the ashes. That is the stroke I will take away from this day. That is the memory I choose to dwell on.
I throw the clubs in the car and head home to ice my elbow. Susan meets me at the door. I tell her about the putt, regaling her with details of the vicious storm that rolled in and how I stood up to it, steely-eyed and sure. I tell her how I have rediscovered my swing, how I've got my game back.
That's nice, she says. She kisses me on the forehead and walks away as if I have just recounted an obscure and difficult-to-understand dream.
And in a way, I have.
Bill Rose is the managing editor of the Palm Beach Post.