My Life in Golf So Far

My father had a canvas golf bag in the basement of our house with a few hickory-shafted clubs in it. I was 8. They fascinated me. I understood that you used them to hit a ball, but I didn’t know where you might do this, or what would happen if you did hit a ball.

A few years after that, I don’t remember which came first, lessons or TV. There was a par-3 course less than two miles from where we lived, that had a driving range and a pro. My father signed me up for a group lesson. I was a weird kid. I was there to learn, and when the pro told me to do something, that’s what I did. My reward was, it worked. I could hit the ball somewhat straight and in the air.

In those days there were shows on TV named All-Star Golf and Celebrity Golf. All-Star Golf featured two touring pros playing a match, the winner getting to play another challenger the next week. Celebrity Golf was Sam Snead playing a round with a Hollywood celebrity. I watched those shows all the time.

But all that set the hook, and I was a golfer.

I lived on the other side of the school from everyone else. There was no one to play with during summer vacation, so I hit golf-sized plastic balls in my front yard all day. There was an unused patch of ground between the front lawn and the driveway that I could chew up as much as I wanted to. The ball flew just about the length of our property.

Our telephone line came in from a pole across the street to the house at about 10-12 feet in the air, and close to where my practice station was. My favorite game was to take my wedge and see how close I could get to the wire and still hit a ball over it. All on my own, I developed this very wristy pitch that gets the ball high in a big hurry, and sits when it lands. I use that shot today, and guys I play with don’t really understand what they just saw.

I was the only kid in my grade school who played golf, so I played with my father. He could get the ball around the course, but he was out there mostly to see that I got a chance to play. He’s gone now, but I still thank him for doing that.

When I got to high school, I found out there really were other kids who played golf and some of them were pretty darn good. One of them named Ernie played at an exclusive private club in town — if they want you to be a member, they’ll call. He was the gold standard until my junior year, when a kid named Mike Spang transferred into my high school.

Now I had been going to a tour event for the past few years and I had a very good idea what a professional golf shot looked like. During tryouts for the high school golf team (which I never made) I watched Mike hit and found myself looking at something very familiar. Mike tied for the NCAA Division II individual title in 1969. A few years later he made it through Q School in the class that included Tom Watson, Bruce Fleischer, Lanny Wadkins, Steve Melnyk, John Mahaffey, Forrest Fezler, and Gary Groh. About ten or so years ago, that class had a reunion, but Mike could not be located.

One year during team qualifying, I got serious about playing as well as I could and broke 100 for the first time — 98. I still have the scorecard.

I spent about a month in Denver in summer the next year after that, staying with my aunt and uncle. I had my golf clubs with me and played the Willis Case golf course about every other day. You can hit the ball a long way in the thin air. I was getting on the green of a 195-yard par 3 with an iron. That made me feel pretty good. One day I went to the Wellshire course and got hot. Shot an 84. I still have that scorecard, too.

After high school, golf tailed off due to college and military service, though when stationed at NAS Jacksonville in 1971, I played on the very fine base golf course in the evenings. That was my last concentrated time on the course.

Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I went to Europe for the summer with my roommate. We got to Edinburgh for some reason, and while we were there, convinced him to indulge me with a day at St. Andrews, which we got to by hitchhiking, walking and bus.

Things were different then, 1968. I went up to the starter’s shack, paid my green fee, rented a set of clubs and bought a sleeve of Slazenger golf balls. The starter said, The first tee is over there. As soon as that group has played, you can go on. The course ate me alive, very fast greens, and I had no idea what I how to play a course like this. But I did know about the Road Hole. I got to the 17th tee and told myself I hadn’t come all this way to chicken out. So I hit a 3-wood over the corner, hit a 3-iron onto the green (Road Hole bunker? What’s that?) and sank the 20-foot putt. My claim to fame, better than a hole-in-one will ever be.

When I got out of college, I went into the service, and after that, graduate school, got work, got married, started a family, and in the next 30 years played maybe ten rounds of golf. No time.

But when the boys grew up and left home, there was time, and I began to play again. I wasn’t very good, as you can imagine, but I had foundation of having played in my formative years, so it didn’t take too long for a good swing to come around. The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to learn how to play golf is to start when you’re ten years old.

After I retired in 2004, I played much more often. I took a few lessons, and experimented endlessly with ways to get better. Along the way I wrote my two golf books and started up this blog.

I joined a men’s club at a local daily fee course so I could get a USGA handicap. I wanted to be come a single-digit player. I heard one guy say once that you can’t be a single-digit player if you only played once a week. Since that is all I could manage, I thought to myself, “Oh, yes you can.”

Playing in the high 80s, I did two things: learned how to hit the ball straight, and got really good at approach putting and chipping. That got me to 9.5, playing only once a week.

In 2012, I had two spine surgeries which cut deeply into my playing time. Last year I started treatments for cancer, which continue to this day. One tumor is in my lumbar spine, so golf is out of the question for a while. I chip and putt, and swing few times, just enough to remember how to do it, but I haven’t played much golf since 2011.

Someone who doesn’t play once asked me what is so fascinating about golf. Rather promptly I said that golf is a puzzle to be figured out. There is a defined problem with every shot and the goal is to find a way to face any challenge the course can give you and have a solution for it. I have fun figuring out those things. Then there’s the part about having fun with friends in beautiful surroundings.

I started taking my grandson out to play when he was 8, and we went out regularly for the years I was able to play. Hopefully the hook has been set in another generation. My sons? They grew up in the Michael Jordan era and all they saw was basketball. They younger one plays now, but the older one realized his temper doesn’t tolerate bad shots, so he doesn’t.

I’m working gently on some new things that will make my swing productive, yet much easier on my back. I can’t wait until 2017 to get back on the course and try them out. Of course, I’ll let you know how it all goes.

That’s my life in golf so far.

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