Someone wrote—possibly John Updike—that only optimists persist at golf. They always believe they will play better next time. Diehard duffers don't dwell on lost balls, penalty strokes, and the difficulty of mastering this sport. The lure of a vast verdant park, undulating with velvet curves, and designed just for this sport is irresistible. To play well, total concentration is required. And such devotion will reward a player with an escape from worries of her day. A round of golf is a slice of vacation without lost baggage or flight delays. It's a 3-D daydream. Golf grants adults permission to play like children for a few hours in a grassy paradise.
Growing up in a non-golfing family, I was curious about this sport. It belonged to a lifestyle to which I aspired. So, in the interest of furthering my education, during my last semester of college, I stepped onto my first golf course—either the Maize or the Blue course in Ann Arbor and was paired up with Jim, the man who would become my first husband. We didn't play much golf together after that, but seven years later my career choice brought me back to the fairways. As a sales representative in a male dominated field, I took up golf in order to fit in with my peers and as a socially acceptable way to spend time with male clients. Before cell phones, a round of golf afforded an uninterrupted four hours to get to know someone outside of the business environment.
While on the job, my cardiac surgeon customers rarely spared ten minutes for a coffee break, so an afternoon on the golf course with them was priceless. Most were mediocre players, since they didn't take time to hone this particular skill, though I met a few who were natural low-handicappers. In the late 90s, a Lexington cardiovascular surgeon entangled me in an expensive round where we played against his referring cardiologists for cash. Money riding on the game seemed to elevate everyone's performance and it was painful for me to hand over my hard-earned dollars to wealthy physicians who had probably played weekly rounds of golf since kindergarten. I preferred friendlier stakes of lunch, dinner, or a round of drinks at the nineteenth hole.
At corporate sales meetings, time was often set aside for golf. It was viewed as a team building activity, a bit of relaxation, and a reward for long hours spent on the job and away from home. Along the coasts and nestled in the mountains, some of the most beautiful places I've visited have been golf courses. I've dodged deer on the Spyglass Hill fairways near Pebble Beach and alligators in Mickey's mouse ear sand traps at Disney World. While trying to stick a chip shot on a slippery elevated green of the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, SC, I learned new golf course vocabulary. Golf has its own language and it's not always proper. After driving a fifth consecutive ball into a water hazard, I've heard fellow players speak in tongues.
In the mid-1990s, my employer took advantage of off-season rates, and booked a national sales meeting in Tucson during August. We crazy golfers did our best to survive the 115-degree heat by dumping water over our heads from coolers at each tee box. If anyone tells you that the desert's dry heat is tolerable, they've not spent more than a few minutes outdoors in this climate. Desert dwelling wildlife is an additional challenge to the game. We lost errant balls down snake tunnels and fled in golf carts from javelina—wild boar that roamed the property. My pal Cathy and I endured five holes, decided it really was too hot for golf and joined non-golfers in an outdoor pool, where we felt like shellfish simmering in a broth of bouillabaisse. We begged to deaf ears for free time at night. Why not a round of lighted golf using glowing balls and flag sticks?
Only the rep from NYC was driven to enjoy July desert golf. Crimson-faced Mike finished 36 holes and survived to tell his tale. “It's not easy to play golf in Manhattan with few courses and expensive fees. So I play as much as I can when I'm out of town.” That evening at dinner, he looked as if he had spent the day in an oven and I worried that his brain might have been hard-boiled by the experience.
Another sales meeting took our gang to the mountains of Colorado in late September, where we competed with lightening, thunder, rain, and finally snow during one memorable round at Breckenridge. There's a reason why the rates are lower in off-season, though I've enjoyed some wonderful winter golf outings.
Golf buddy Linda treated me to a December birthday round at Valhalla Country Club where several PGA events have been held. About a mile from my former Louisville home, this course with its challenging reputation and mandatory caddies who oversaw every shot, had been on my bucket list, but a lack of confidence in my abilities had me putting it off. Since it was off-season, our ladies' three-some, was allowed to play un-caddied. Wearing long underwear, two gloves, and carrying our own bags, we braved winter's chill on the deserted masterpiece, which lived up to its rave reviews. We finished 17 holes before darkness swept us indoors for hot toddies. Having experienced first-hand the ups and downs of the layout, it was a thrill to watch a subsequent Ryder Cup championship there.
Golf is the most difficult sport that I've attempted to play predictably or well. On my lucky days it seems that a golf goddess escorts me around the links. She points out breaks on the putting surface, provides lift over water hazards, and directs my tee shots to the center of fairways. It's bliss. Other times this fickle friend disappears without saying goodbye and my clubs behave as if possessed. Black holes invade the course and gravity deposits my ball into hazards. Trees jump into my ball's flight path and competitors' phones ring during my back swing.
Geese leave messy messages on tee boxes and landing zones from where I need to chip to the green. During twilight golf at Lake Forest CC, a skunk sits besides a ball in the left sand trap like a kitten in a litter box on #5, the most difficult hole of the course. Without consulting the rules committee, we allow a free drop in a trap on the opposite side of the fairway. With a pond beckoning on the sloping right approach to the hole, I prefer to hug the left edge, but who is going to argue with a small black creature sporting a white stripe and aromatic anal glands?
We invade Mother Nature's garden, manicure it to our specifications, and attempt to deport natives from their native land. Just because developers built a subdivision and threaded a lush golf course between miles of McMansions, we are not absolved from sharing this slice of paradise with mammals and reptiles, who were born here. I have found it to be helpful to carry a nine-iron while searching for far-flung golf balls, since sneaky snakes lurk in the rough on many courses. It's difficult to ascertain which ones are poisonous. They all look guilty to me. I once hunted for a ball just short of the green on #17 at Lake Forest. I forded a creek and scaled a terraced rock approach to the tiered green. In my determined quest for a round, white dimpled sphere, I nearly tripped over a huge snake, who was midway through swallowing a furry lunch of rabbit.
One summer afternoon my sales manager, John, invited Bob, a pacemaker sales rep, and me to join him at his country club for a round of golf. He phoned the clubhouse and reserved an afternoon tee time. When we arrived there was a problem. The pro had heard John say, “I'm bringing two of my salesmen over for golf.” He'd not expected me, a woman, to tread on his holy course during “men's tee times.” After some chest thumping and head scratching by the men, I tucked my blond ponytail under a baseball cap and offered to bind my breasts with an Ace bandage. The blushing pro shooed us out of the clubhouse and off to begin our assault on the back nine where we may draw less attention. “Don't try it again,” John was warned or he would “be in trouble with the members' committee.”
Making the turn after nine, we stopped at the clubhouse for refreshments before teeing off on the front nine. While I waited for John and Bob outside the Men's Grill, my pager buzzed. Since this was before the advent of pocket-sized cell phones, I entered the grill and picked up an idle phone on the reception desk.
“This is the Men's Grill.” I was told by an icy voice. “You're not allowed in here.”
“Why? I see a woman waiting on tables and the men are fully clothed. Since it's not the locker room, what is the big deal?”
There were a few overweight fellows killing an afternoon smoking, drinking, and playing cards. Though I was not offended by their behavior, they apparently required protection from feminine eyes. John rushed over when he saw the confrontation and said, “Susan, please wait outside. Bob and I are having a drink with Dr. Carlson.”
“So why can't I join you? He's my customer too.”
“This is the Men's Grill.”
“So I've been told. I have never heard of such a thing outside of the Dark Ages. What's up with this Neanderthal custom? This is frigging 1987. I'd never join this club.”
“They wouldn't let you. Only men can be members. Their wives may play golf during off times or on the par three course, but they are members only through their husbands. If a man leaves the club due to death or divorce, the wife loses her privileges. There's a nice Ladies Grill upstairs where you can wait for us.”
Grrrrr. How am I supposed to make business contacts when customers hide from me in this antiquated establishment? What a handicap—nearly kicked out of Hurstbourne Country Club in Louisville because as a female I lack proper equipment.
On another occasion I was invited to play in an annual fundraising tournament for the American Heart Association. Before the 1 p.m. tee time, a luncheon was offered in the Men's Grill at Big Springs Country Club. Entering the grill, I observed black waiters clad in white jackets and white gloves rustling up burgers for white guys in golf attire.
“Where's Susan going to eat?” John asked the clubhouse manager.
No one had made a provision for women playing in the tournament so by default I was permitted to dine in the Men's Grill. I felt uncomfortable in the place. It seemed to be a throwback to an era when black waiters bowed and shuffled and “yes-sir-reed” as in old movies. As a transplanted Yankee, this type of Southern hospitality was an eye opening experience for me.
When I decided to get serious about golf, I joined a new country club under construction in my neighborhood. Arnold Palmer designed the course, and members were invited to walk an inaugural round with Arnie in the flesh, while he played with our club pro. What a treat to see one of the greatest golfers of the twentieth century land in the same hazards that we mortals did. Up to his ankles in sand on a difficult hole he asked the gallery, “Who designed this course, anyway?”
Lake Forest Country Club does not discriminate against women or minorities although some male members complained whenever a ladies foursome scored an eight a.m. tee time on Saturday or Sunday. Since a few female members held full time jobs, we played makeup rounds together on the weekend for the Wednesday morning eighteen-hole league. We frequently rushed our shots to make sure we didn't slow down men who breathed down our necks. They often drove balls toward us while we were still putting. After the first few holes, however, it was apparent that men more often than women slowed the pace of play. They often placed bets, and with money on the line, they studied their putts from several angles, took multiple practice swings, and seemed to misplace more balls in the rough from their booming though inaccurate drives. They seemed oblivious to the backup of players behind them.
I learned a lot from female golfers in our club. Some were sticklers for following the rules of golf, which make the game fair for all levels of players. They patiently explained golf etiquette to newer players, though were quick to correct anyone who forgot a stroke when announcing her count to the scorer. The men I'd played with in the past were full of Mulligans—a “do over” shot without penalty, gimmies—where the putt was deemed in the hole even though it was a few feet away, and an overall fudging of scores. Men seemed to measure their masculinity by their golf handicaps with a low number being most desirable. Single digits were oh-so-manly and guys with the lowest handicaps often drove the flashiest sports cars. Lake Forest CC ladies referred to this as “Porsche envy”, perhaps referring to some men's need for a showy vehicle to make up for a perceived deficiency.
The women didn't seem to mind carrying high handicaps and most counted every whiff—when the club did not contact the ball but the intention and the swing occurred. Penalties were assessed at every opportunity, such as unintentional grounding of a club head in a hazard. The nit-picky rule keepers were referred to as The Golf Gestapo. They materialized during tournaments when they kept track of other players' scores and handicaps and acted as if we played for high stakes rather than a pair of socks or a sleeve of balls. Some even talked trash as if on a basketball court. I was appalled to hear chants of “white trash” when Cheryl addressed her ball in a tournament playoff, though she didn't flinch. Someone reminded me of her family's lucrative waste hauling business and she owned one of the largest homes on the golf course.
I loved to see women of all ages from young mothers to great grandmothers play the sport. Young, athletic women displayed long, graceful swings with arcing drives and a sweet fade—an often desirable left to right curve on the ball's trajectory. Older, less flexible ladies finessed the short game from inside a hundred yards. Great-grandma Betty's chips and putts were grace personified. Rarely missing her target, she made it look easy. Most golfers spend too much of their practice time at the driving range, trying to launch missiles. But they would be better off on the putting green or practicing chips from the rough or escaping sand traps, as the short game is where the money changes hands. The old adage “drive for show, putt for dough” is spot on.
It seemed to me that many men appeared to derive more enjoyment from talking about their game than actually playing it. They spent hours in the clubhouse, pounding down beer or bourbon and reliving individual shots. A four-hour round might be discussed for five or six hours in mind-numbing details. I avoided these conversations unless it involved “business golf” where I politely feigned mild interest.
A professional golfer carries no handicap, which means that she will shoot on average par for a given course. Par is usually 70-72, depending on the length and layout of the course. An amateur carries a handicap based on previous scores where the number of strokes over par is averaged. Someone who is a bogey golfer carries a handicap of eighteen, which is an average of one stroke over par for each hole of an eighteen-hole golf course. Most of the men at LFCC claimed handicaps under eighteen and most of the women over. Joe, my (second) lawyer ex-husband, declared a handicap of six. I don't know how accurate this may have been as he and his brother Bruce, with whom I played on a regular basis for a couple of years, awarded one another gimmies and mullies often during a round.
On an unseasonably warm December 3, 1994, Joe invited me to play golf for my birthday. He presented me with a gross of Titleist golf balls emblazoned with my name and the club's logo. Though I enjoy golf, I would have preferred a bicycle ride in the hilly countryside that day but the lawyer always prevailed. After playing a few holes, I challenged him on the par three #6 hole: “Closest to the pin gets to choose if we play nine or eighteen.”
From the men's tees, Joe hit a short iron and landed on the green about fifteen feet from the flag. Determined to do better, I walked up to the ladies tee, nailed a full wedge, and my ball disappeared without touching the green.
“Son of a bitch,” said Joe.
“Where's my ball?” I had kept my head down for once and it paid off.
“I've never seen one before and it had to be you, a rank beginner.”
Stunned, I walked up to the green and found my ball hiding in the hole. When we made the turn between nine and ten, we stopped in the temporary clubhouse, a white trailer with limited amenities. Joe said, “Make way for the ace.”
The pro said, “Congratulations, Joe.”
Joe turned and said derisively, “No, it's her.”
I was lucky that the clubhouse had not yet been built, as anyone who makes a hole in one is bound by custom to buy a round of drinks for the entire crowd in the bar. My handicap had not yet been established, but it would have been very high, somewhere near double bogey. The single digit guy was annoyed rather than pleased with my performance and my suspicions were confirmed about this man. He couldn't be happy for another person's success. He had no empathy.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way he behaves on the golf course. Since it's only a game, it should be played in the spirit of fun. Anger and jealousy undermine one's game. Though skill and effort are important, luck trumps everything. When the golf goddess smiles on the greens, it's generally not raining and we are at play in a pretty park. So why not be happy?
Joe and I played the back nine that day and the next spring I joined both nine and eighteen hole ladies' leagues at LFCC. I met new female friends who were athletic, outdoorsy neighbors whom I would never have met without golf. There was friendly competition but most ladies were genuinely happy for other players who made great shots and broke 100 or 90 for the first time. Golf is all about sportsmanship, camaraderie, and enjoyment of the game. It was a suitable way for me to spend time with my customers.
The crisp ping of a well-hit club, a perfect chip onto the green, and the satisfying thunk as the hole embraces the ball, are all music to my ears. When the rhythm of a golf swing flings my ball like a heat seeking missile towards the pin, I grin. If it were easy, it would be boring. As I return each spring to this challenging sport, I recall past triumphs and anticipate the next great shot. Yes, I'm an optimist. As long as I can swing a club and pick up my ball, I'll keep trying. Maybe one day I'll get the hang of it.