Paradise Lost

What’s a guy to do when his golf game starts to look more like tennis and he’s scorching sod?
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Illustration by Pete Ryan

I stand on the driving range at San Clemente Municipal, blasting long drives, chipping wedges with a deft touch, prepared for course conquest. My sister from Eugene, Ore., recently mentioned their fifth month of rain. A tornado just blew south of my old graduate school in Iowa City.

Here? Temperature in the low 70s, a slight sea breeze. My three fellow retired high school teachers are loving a Monday without bells. Sunblock applied, Advil kicking in. All systems go.

Giving up golf was not part of the plan this morning.

I give a quick wave to Bruce, the club pro a few mats over, with whom I have invested more time and money over the past year than my financial advisor. He’s sipping an iced tea, sitting under an umbrella while his pupil sprays golf balls in every direction. He smiles at me, shrugs, then pats his left elbow to remind me to keep mine straight. Free of charge.

Now on the course at the first tee, I reach into the lowest sleeve of my golf bag to pull out the sacrificial Nike Mojo ball. I draw my driver back slowly, left arm extended, then strike at the ball like a swatter after a fly, sending it 100 yards forward and 100 to the right, over the fence, and into the range. This used to bother me, but I now look at it as recycling, especially when I see my ball with a stripe around it on the range next week. I manage to score a 6 on the opening par 4.

On the second hole, a par 3, I pull out my Titleist Pro V1, tell myself to relax, then swing and shank the ball into the left sand trap. I say “sand” even though underneath a top layer of dust it is nearly concrete-solid. I try to swing behind the ball, but no luck. I bounce the club, sending the ball 25 yards over the other side of the green. My partners settle in to watch my private tennis match, golf balls flying back and forth past the hole until one shot clanks into the flag stick and dribbles five feet away. “That’s good,” they all shout, conceding the putt and allowing me to head to the next hole, already 5 over par.

Crankiness settles in, right on cue. Where else does it make sense to feel subpar by shooting over par? Who can enjoy a game where it’s not rude to ask, “What’s your handicap?” They should mark all the spots in the parking lot with blue signs and wheelchairs.

No one I know shoots par, and anyone who does would never play at Muni, so why is the par for this and every public course 72? We call those who shoot par scratch golfers, which is what I do to my head while I watch them on TV every weekend. Their commercials promise me that someday, if I take enough lessons, buy the right equipment, play enough rounds, and move in with Bruce, I can break 90.

As I look down the tree-lined, par-4 third hole, I know that my par will disappear with me into the grove on the right. I step up and smack my tee shot into the trees, then repeat my weekly joke—“Hey, look. I’m Tiger in the Woods.”

By the fourth hole, I’m exhausted. Not only is my golf game shot, but we men, whom our wives deem as conversational as rocks, have already discussed enough aches and pains, hearing aids and skin cancers, and joint and organ replacements to fill an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Club in hand, I defy aging muscles and sinews by coiling my front shoulder back, then forward for the proper swing rotation, only to produce what we affectionately call a “worm burner,” scorching the sod for 75 yards up the fairway.

For men, trash talk translates as sympathy. The time for beating my distant ancestry arrives. “Go ahead and take a mulligan,” one partner says, offering a do-over. “Hey, St. Patrick. Looks like you’re trying to drive the snakes out of Ireland,” another chuckles. I feel like pulling out my last Callaway golf ball, but I instantly picture a nun from elementary school standing here with a ruler and saying, “Surely, Michael, you don’t want to put an end to that clan, do you now?”

“I’ll play my shot where it lies,” I say, refusing the golf cart, starting my walk of shame to the ball, and beginning to think about a cold Guinness awaiting me in the clubhouse.

The fifth hole is a dogleg left. That’s a pleasant picture, isn’t it? Who came up with that one? The same guys who yell at their balls like pets as they hit the green—“Sit, sit, sit. Bite. Bite.” And while we’re at it, birdies and eagles? Since most of us gravitate to double or triple bogeys, why didn’t they name them vultures instead? I slice my tee shot 100 yards to the right and create my own dogleg, which, yes, I know, puts me in the deep “ruff.”

By the sixth hole, I’ve stopped keeping score. Instead, I draw happy or sad faces into each box, determined by my last shot on the hole.

Enough of this. All those lessons at the range, the slow-motion videos on YouTube, the Golf Channel schools, and the pros revealing their tricks in Golf Magazine. I have to rally.

I settle into my stance. I check my grip. I look at the ball. Then, the voices start.

“Keep your chin down, head steady, good, stay on plane, straighten out that left elbow, whoa, glue that right elbow to the body, now lead back down with the hips first, no, you’re leaning too far forward, wait, don’t swing so hard, let it flow, hey, don’t open up, follow through, thar she blows!” The ball sails high into the air, drifting right, over the asphalt and lampposts of the adjoining street, descending on a line of million-dollar homes. I close my eyes, wait, listen … thud … then sigh with relief. A rooftop. No shattered glass.

By the eighth hole, the entire course seems to be on Orange Alert. On the adjoining fairway, the lead foursome of the ladies tournament crouches behind carts. The rickety old-timers on the other side shuffle among the thickest trees. As I step up to hit the ball, my three colleagues stand behind me, ready to yell “Fore!” in chorus. I’m numb. I don’t think. I just swing and hit it 250 yards straight down the fairway. Through the stunned silence, I strut off the tee box. “Now we’re talking,” I say.

It takes just one shot to get a golf game going or to make a round memorable. When we reach my lengthy drive, I pull out my 5-iron, smile at everyone, stroll up to the ball, swing, and take out a divot that would make a gravedigger jealous. I walk the 10 feet to the ball, and hit it smack into the parking lot, where it bounces across the street onto the practice putting green.

“I’m done,” I declare. I unstrap my golf bag from the cart and walk off to my car. No one objects.

As I drive off, I know that saying goodbye to these Edenic surroundings will be difficult. But when stately trees, glistening water, and finely granulated expanses of sand morph into hazards and traps trying to entice each of my errant shots, it’s time to quit. I know I should just stop to smell the roses, but when I’m being pricked by thorns as I’m reaching for that wayward shot I sent into the undergrowth, that’s it.

At least until next week.  It’s tough to shake a handicap.

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