Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My Life in Golf

Golf, I will love you forever, I will never play you again.

My relationship with this bitch goddess of a pastime started when I was 16. I desperately wanted a job that didn't require my attendance on Friday and Saturday nights--when all the partying was happening--and I got a job at the Indian Bluff Public Golf Course in Milan, Illinois, where my grandpa golfed every day. I washed carts, filled soda machines and generally did what was asked of me, as much as any teenager does what's asked of him.

The people who worked at the course didn't take a shining to me. I'm not sure why. My wardrobe of Van Halen T-shirt and cut-off shorts--not to mention the earring I got shortly after being hired--probably didn't impress anyone. This hurt a little, but I was too concerned with what was going on on Friday and Saturday nights--girls, beer, playing music in my cover band--to care too much about it.

One of the fringe benefits of working at Indian Bluff was that I got to golf as much as I wanted for free (golf cart included). If my namesake meant anything, I would become quite a golfer. My grandpa, Art Edwards Sr., was good enough to once flirt with playing professionally. My dad, Art Jr., was a big hitter. I marveled at his long drives, even if they weren't always straight down the fairway. I'd golfed a little before I'd gotten the job at Indian Bluff, enough to know I needed practice. Now I had a free pass to golf every day. It was my chance to get good.

And I had one marked advantage in this game, according to my grandpa. I was left-handed, which meant if I golfed right-handed, my strong hand could sit at the top of the club, allowing for more torque during my swings. It was about time being left-handed--which my dad had tried to "cure" me of at one point--proved an advantage.

I enjoyed taking my whacks that summer, walking the course. I liked trying to figure out which club would yield the best result. I'd often duff or “worm-burn” shots off the tee, only to lambaste the next one from the fairway. My chipping was a nightmare, often resulting in two or three jerky strokes to get the ball onto the green. On my first hole of my first round at Indian Bluff, I sank an eight-foot putt, which led me to believe putting was the best aspect of my game. I estimate one out of every three of my shots went the way it was supposed to go. The others veered in some random or unbecoming direction. I averaged 110 per round.

Any golfer will tell you 110 per round is not something you want, and everyone tried to help. Once, during a particularly bad round with Art Sr. and Jr., it was discovered that my wrong, lower, right hand took over during my swings. When golfing right-handed, the right hand is supposed to “just sort of come along for the ride,” my dad said. My hands were doing each other's jobs. So much for my left-handedness helping me.

That fall, when Indian Bluff closed for the year, I told my boss I wouldn't back the next spring. No one begged me to stay.

I didn't give golf much of a thought for years. I graduated from high school, went to junior college, played rock music, moved to Arizona, got involved in the Tempe music scene, graduated from A.S.U., got married, and became a founding member of a band that signed a two-album deal with Mercury Records. 1996 found the single from our first album on the radio and the band touring the country. In 1997, waiting for our second record to come out, the band had a lot of time on its hands. Our drummer, P.H., was quite a golfer, and someone came up with the idea that we should all golf together. This was, after all, the Hootie decade.

We golfed a few times as a foursome that summer. I don't know how we got Brian, our guitar player, to go along with it, but he dutifully showed up in trucker's cap and soul-concealing sunglasses. Roger, our lead singer, seemed uncomfortable with the whole concept of golf, but he played anyway. P.H. put his golf shoes on in the parking lot. Hearing his spikes crunch the pavement, I realized too late my sandals probably weren't the best choice for the day.

We were all pretty bad, except for P.H., whose hits were all elegance, an old-money swing bred in Chicago's suburbs, his fairway shots yielding the correct amount of arc, his pitches landing with a thump on the green. Roger seemed befuddled by the game, taking swings that sometimes yielded nothing but his ball trickling to the left or right. Brian cracked his first Miller High Life by the second hole.

I was stoked to get another shot at the links. It'd been ten years since I'd quit Indian Bluff, and I felt like being married and somewhat settled might translate into a quieter, less neurotic game.

It was not to be so. I still had a weirdly excited swing that yielded worm-burns or worse from the tee. I remember once hooking a drive so drastically it threatened cars driving by on Dobson Road. My pitching was atrocious, despite following to the letter P.H.'s instructions about a more open stance. And I couldn't back up my earlier bravado on the putting green. One time in the fairway, I missed the ball entirely, causing an embarrassed silence amongst my foursome. That summer I once again averaged 110 per round. It was a relief when our second record came out and we had to hit the road. There would be no room for golf bags on the tour bus.

In the wake of this period, I took a more contrarian view of the game. Who cared if I wasn't any good? Golf was evil anyway. What activity better symbolized the gross extravagance of our society? The Phoenix area has 132 golf courses. All that water to keep those fairways green, an environmental travesty. If you're going to suck at something, it might as well be something that's just plain wrong in the first place. I quit the game, losing my clubs in the junk corner of our garage and all but forgetting about them.

My band broke up in 1998, and my wife Kel and I moved to San Francisco, where we both worked day jobs while taking art and writing classes at night. When I finished my degree, we moved 350 miles north to Ashland, Oregon, where I spent my days writing and Kel making and selling her art work. In 2007, business was going well enough that, when an artist friend asked me to go golfing, I said yes.

By this time, golf had intrigued me on a different level. In 1999, while combing the fiction shelves of a used bookstore in Sausalito, I came across the U section, which was dominated by John Updike. I'd been avoiding Updike's work for years, believing--without actually reading any of it--there was something staid and conventional about it. He seemed boring compared to the modernists, who got more lip service in college classes. Still, I knew Updike's fiction had been ubiquitous during the last half-century. That day in Sausalito, I gave in and bought a copy of Rabbit, Run.

It would not be an exaggeration to say the next decade of my reading life was dedicated to reading Updike from end to end. Among the thousands of things Updike wrote well about, he was a master at writing about golf, teasing out the game's beauty with his words. I was somewhere toward the end of my Updike phase when my artist friend asked me to play and, my head full of Updikean tropes, I couldn't wait.

So, did my game change? Was it any different at 36 years old than it had been at 26 or 16? The sad part of this story is that my golf game altered not one lick during any of these decades. I still hit worm-burners off the tee. I was hit-and-miss out of the fairway, and I couldn't find my asshole with a pitching wedge. My friend of course helped, and I did my best to do what he said. Nothing seemed to work. Once, I got so mad I launched my three-iron boomerang style into the distance. It went farther than most of my shots that day.

Still, my frustration didn't come without a consolation prize. During one round, I discovered my problem with golf: It's all in the divot.

When I swing a golf club, I have a natural, instinctual aversion to causing a divot in the grass. For some reason, I'm squeamish about digging out a chunk of earth. It's not some hyper-environmental concern or anything like that. I just don't like the way it feels to dig up the earth with a golf club. This causes me to pull up ever so slightly when I swing, and this adjustment drastically affects the way I hit the ball. All those worm-burners--I was topping the ball because of my aversion to hitting the ground. Repeated swings proved my theory valid. It's an ingrained flaw, and it pretty much means I'll never be a decent golfer. As time has passed, I've learned to accept this. The golf gods aren't my gods, and that's okay. It's going to have to be.

Still, I look on fondly when I drive past courses, watching a golfer ease back his club, head down, nice follow-through. It's like a poem written in a language I'll never understand, but the sound of the words no less beautiful for that reason.

Yours in laying down the law,


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