Monday, January 24, 2011

Making the Turn

I like to play golf alone.

It’s a social game, that’s what everybody says--nothing like being out there in the fresh air with your best buddies--but for me some of the best times are when it’s just me and the ball. My dad taught me the game fifty years ago. He’s been dead for thirty-five years now, and I’m still playing with him. Sometimes I think there’s just not room for anyone else in our twosome.

We used to go out on summer evenings, when the shadows of the big oaks lay upon the fairways like the first footprints of night. Sometimes we only finished a few holes before someone came out in a golf cart and called out that my father had to go to the hospital to deliver a baby. I think that’s why to this day I don’t like golf carts. Our time playing together was adolescent love, rushes of adrenaline bordering on lust that regularly overcame my good judgment. I wanted so badly to hit every shot perfectly for him that I practically quivered as I stood over the ball.

My blue-eyed dad and me
Being too anxious always made me swing too fast, which, given my swing mechanics, resulted in big hooks. I was close personal friends with the sand traps on the left side of every green. Dad was patient with me, or not. It’s hard to say which. At the time, I thought not. I thought he was pushing me to be perfect. With every snap hook he would toss another ball onto the close-clipped bermuda grass and tell me to hit another. After three or four shots, I would settle down a little, maybe from fatigue, and not rush the shot and hit a beauty.

I say I don’t know whether he was impatient or patient. With him, it was hard to tell the difference. He was insistent. Which is that? Patient or impatient? He gave me golf pointers, but the do-overs weren’t for swing diagnostics so much as execution. He wanted me to see that I could do it, I think, to have that confidence. But the way it felt to me was that he wanted to see for himself that I could, and it left me feeling that I could never do it well enough for him.

We would talk about our rounds over dinner, replaying every shot. It’s no wonder my poor mother went mad. When I played alone, as I did often those summers when I was thirteen and fourteen, I rehearsed those dinner table recaps. “I was three over after fourteen,” I imagined telling him. “All I had to do was par in for seventy five.” I had never had a seventy-five at that point, at least not one without a lot of mulligans. I thought he would be so proud. He was right there with me on those last holes, and the quivering and the hooking began.

When I play now, I go late in the day, as my father and I did, walking alone with my bag in the slanting light. There aren’t many big oak trees on the local municipal course, but the air has that same lazy softness, with a hint of the cool weight that will come at dusk. If the sun is at my back and the ball as I address it is in my shadow, it is my father’s shadow as he stands behind me, watching. He had deep blue eyes and a perpetual squint. He was quick to laugh and quick to anger, but his eyes always looked the same, as though they were trying to see something they could not quite. I used to think it was some part of me he was looking for, but I was never sure just what.

If I am playing alone, I don’t think about anything but golf. Everything else is gone. I am ageless. It’s not about the score for me, it’s entirely about the shots, the feel of the club in my hands, the tempo and balance of a good swing, the rise of the ball off the tee, maybe a little draw at the end, just enough to give some extra roll.

I don’t play often, haven’t since I was a boy. I’m not sure why. Work, kids. That’s what I’ve always thought, although maybe it just isn’t the same if I can’t hit that perfect shot for Dad. Besides, it’s only a game.

When I was young and practicing law, I put one foot in front of the other and marched down a path I thought was leading somewhere. I imagined I was a master of the universe, but I see now that I was merely a cog in a great commercial wheel. I had fun, but anybody could have done it, anyone could have taken my place at the oar.

Somewhere along the way, the narcotic of youth, the drug of immortality, wore off. I always knew I would not live forever, but not really. You don’t feel your own mortality until you do, and then there is no going back. You can see a future without you. Such a thing never existed before in my imagination.

My grandfathers both lived to be a hundred. Maybe I will too. With all those years ahead of me, if I am lucky, what should I do? Get better at golf? No, I don’t think so. There is still time to make a difference in the world, and the lingering residue of my youth is stubborn hopefulness, an enduring conviction that if I drop another ball and take another swing, I will hit it perfectly.


  1. Well well. That was great.
    Apparently we had the same father on the golf course.
    Well done.....I'm speechless.

  2. How do you do it, Mac? This one has a slow, magnetic pull to it. Tears in my eyes by the end, and yet how you write this with so much thoughtfulness and absolutely not one iota of sentimentality --- well, my hat is off to you.

    I must also say, David's comment above is a rich addition to this post!!

  3. What David said. I think you should write a whole book about this. Really.

  4. That was really a very nice essay.

    -- Cord