Attending a funeral recently I ran into a friend I had not seen for decades. He had moved out of the old neighborhood to another state when we were both 15, which was the last time we had spoken. We reminisced about those days from our youth that now seem so long ago, and soon comparisons with today began. We figured that 1972 was the last time we had seen each other, and I reminded him that was when we had both been hooked by the golf bug, when our parents during those hot summer days would take us out to the muni course for an early morning clinic, with thirty or so others like us, and where we first tried to see if our skills were at all compatible to the difficult game.
As we laughed at the image, the smell of dewy, fresh cut grass came to me, and I saw mounds of white balls piled along a row down near the cart storage shed where many station wagons unloaded more future hackers for another day of fun.
After being dropped off, we stood around sizing each other up, in our colorful Converse tennis shoes, wearing untucked T shirts over cut off blue jean shorts, with perhaps a wooden tee sticking out of the corner of our mouth for effect, and balancing our weight with canvas bags, filled with clubs of chipped persimmon and rusty irons that had made their way to us from dusty attics, damp basements and garage sales.
Some of the lucky ones wore real golf shoes, and the sound of their spikes on asphalt gave them an early advantage in intimidation.
If we had a golf hero in 1972 it was most probably Jack Nicklaus, who would win two major championships that year, as opposed to one for Gary Player and one for Lee Trevino. The Bear also was the leading money winner that year with $320,542, about what they get for a sixth place finish in a tournament these days.
My friend and I talked and laughed about those times when we first tried to find a swing, and somehow, through timing, grace and precision, got the ball to fly onto a straight line to our intended target.
We remembered standing in the early morning sun and listening as the old pro went over what he called the “pre-shot routine.” Then he would turn us loose on the pile of balls below, and we would begin swatting away, often catching it on the top or on the side, and sometimes missing all together. The old pro would walk behind us, stopping a moment at each boy for advice and needed corrections.
Once, when he came up behind me, I addressed the ball, and after my imitation of the little waggle I had seen Nicklaus do on TV, I took a backswing and stayed down enough to send the ball out and away like it was supposed to go.
“Nice smooth swing son,” I heard from behind. I was hooked.
Even from those beginning days I always loved to play. Practicing was another thing. But like most things in life you want to do well in, or at least stop embarrassing yourself, hours of repetition are vital. I usually ended up getting mine while I was out playing nine holes by myself, not by standing on a driving range trying to “dig it out of the ground,” as Hogan recommended.
My old friend told he had at last been released from golf’s strong hold, that after moving away his interests had been diverted to other pastimes, like fishing and cars. And looking closer, I thought he seemed more at peace than I did.
We said our goodbyes and I watched him walk away, thinking once more about the past, during those days remembered mostly for things like Vietnam, Watergate, Black Panthers and Olympic terrorism. For me it was more my Stingray bike, Bologna sandwiches and sandlot football. And of course golf, always golf.