My grandfather was a dentist for 52 years just outside Boston. He opened his first office at a cost of $500 during the Great Depression and stepped away from the chair not long before computerized X-rays became part of fighting decay. But over that span, with children and houses and a lasting marriage, his focus was matched by a passion for golf that is undiminished to this moment.
He is in his eighties now, but his swing retains the grace he would never admit it had. This summer I watched him move from tee to fairway to green with a willed accuracy that I did not possess. His drives flared and bounced on direct sight-lines to the pins. Mine clattered into the woods and other unplayable lies. He let me pick up putts far outside the gimme range and turned penalty strokes into mulligans on my scorecard. Still, he beat me by a dozen shots over nine holes in the first round we'd ever played together.
I want to tee off with him again soon, but on a day last week at Glenn Dale Golf Club, walking on a course lit brilliantly by a fall sun, I felt very much on my own.
Not many things remain unaltered over time. To death and taxes I could add playoff failures by the Red Sox and the ubiquity of my family's golf clubs. More than two decades ago, my grandfather popped the trunk of his car and handed me a miniaturized driver. He'd had one of his clubs sawed off and reshaped to fit a child. It was the day after the Red Sox had lost Game 7 to the Reds, and I was still furious. The club carried like an awkward weight in my hands.
I'd often watched him tune his swing in the yard behind his white neo-Colonial, his wedge shots and drives caught by a thin-stitched nylon net that billowed out with the force of each spinning golf ball. I'd collect them for him when I wasn't roaming around nearby.
We'd go to open fields and walk end to end in pursuit of dozens of his practice shots. I can still see him out there. But despite this early example, golf did not become part of my life. The tiny driver vanished into the closet and then altogether. As I got older, the few times I went near a course usually ended in vandalism (golf cart skid-marks, unrepaired divots, etc.) or in absorbing beers and appetizers on my best friend's father's tab. I acted like an entitled profligate, feeding myself at the private club said to have rejected my grandfather years before because he was an Irish Catholic.
About midway through nine holes at Glenn Dale, I began to see how much I had missed by ignoring the skills and contours of the game. "Golf courses usually are the best real estate in any area," my grandfather had told me, and this held true for the public club I was moving through, with its stands of trees topped with fall bursts of oranges and golds. My green Dunlop bag was filled with hand-me-down clubs gathered from where my first driver had gone. These were adult-sized, though, passionately used and reused by others in my family, but I mistreated them across the early holes.
On the fourth the pattern changed, if briefly. My tee shot spun out high above the fairway and rolled to a stop not far from an intersecting pond. I walked the 150 or so yards with a deepening sense that, if I worked at it, I could make this turf my own. The shanks and hooks and the half-gruesome, half-vaudeville whiff fell away and were replaced by a daydream of making par on this hole. I thought of praise my grandfather and other loved ones would have given had they seen my drive and, flush with promise, I interlaced my fingers around an iron for the approach shot. The ball skidded a couple dozen yards. I looked around to see if anybody had noticed, but the course behind and in front was clear. There was no one there.
The shadows of flagged pins stretched across and off the greens as the afternoon wore on. I'd neglected to wear warm clothing and started walking more quickly. A drive lined into the peak of a tree would give way to an approach that landed in a hollow. Bogeys piled on bogeys.
I was making the kind of errors my grandfather would have fixed with extra practice. He was known for this. At a recent dinner one of his regular playing partners, a 91-year-old lawyer who still commuted to the firm he founded in Boston, made it clear that he knew my grandfather was spending extra time on his game. He conveyed this with the sense that he would not be edged by a younger rival.
Trailed by an afternoon and a ballooning score, I set up for the final hole in my half-round. The golf ball rested on a tee between two blue markers. The clubhouse perched on a hill above the ninth green, which seemed very far off. My drive veered left, bounced through the perimeter fence, skipped across a blacktop lane and came to rest near a thick tree rising over a bordering yard.
I got rid of my driver, ducked through the fence and made my way to the lawn that edged a white-painted house. The front-window blinds were opened partway--you could nearly see into the back--but there seemed to be no one inside. I paused. The sensation of trespassing mixed with the urge to play out of difficulty.
My golf ball was obscured by a scatter of leaves that would be raked off soon. I was standing in a yard that received meticulous care. Playing through and leaving a tamped-down divot did not seem reasonable. I collected my shot with my hand and returned to the bright, silent fairway.
Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Playing a Round
To get to Glenn Dale Golf Club, take the Beltway to Exit 20 (Route 450) toward Annapolis. Make a left at Route 193 North (Glenn Dale Blvd.) and turn right at Prospect Hill Road. Go up the hill and make a right onto Old Prospect Hill Road. Club entrance is on the left. Call 301-262-1166 for tee time information.
There are several other public courses in the area, including the Gunpowder Road Golf Course in Laurel (301-725-4532), the Paint Branch Golf Course in College Park (301-935-0330), the Potomac Ridge Golf Links in Waldorf (301-372-1305), the Twin Shields Golf Club in Dunkirk (410-257-7800) and Wicomico Shores Golf Course in Chaptico (301-884-4601).
CAPTION: Let's play fall ball: Sebastian Murry, of Silver Spring, gets into the swing of things on the 13th tee at Glenn Dale Golf Club on a sunny Saturday.