Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Lessons of Golf

By George Shadroui and Phil Campbell

JUNE 21, 1999:  Up North they are dusting off the golf clubs and trying to find their swings. Not me. I play year round. I love the game.

Three years ago, you could not have paid me to say that. I thought of myself as a blue-collar athlete. I played basketball on the streets of North Carolina and D.C., played tennis (but without respect for fashion), shot pool, and bowled in smoke-filled lanes that smelled of oil and beer. I climbed some mountains, sailed in the cold, sometimes rough, waters of Lake Champlain, and hiked Civil War battlefields.

But golf? No way. Golf was for guys in khakis and polo shirts who drove BMWs, could afford private memberships, and counted their investment income after playing a round with clones of themselves. Golf had nothing to do with my world and I wanted nothing do with it.

And I was wrong, oh so wrong.

The old-timers, I know, will not find my story amusing. I am an interloper of sorts. I did not cultivate a love for the game as a child who caddied for local legends. I did not hit rocks or cow pies with sticks to learn my swing. I did not play during the down years (before Tigermania), when you could walk on the course and find it barely inhabited (or so I am told).

No, my love of the game begins with a poem. Actually, a movie in which golf was compared to a poem. Just as Bull Durham was a great film for baseball fans, Tin Cup, Ron Shelton's romance with golf, opened my eyes to the game's possibilities.

I knew I had to give golf another chance. I bought a cheap set of clubs at Overton Park -- $25 for a set of old blades, as they called them. The folks at Overton Park still remember me and politely ask how my game has progressed when I play there now. My first weekend out, I played Overton and Riverside and shot dutifully 45, 47, 49, 51 for my first four nine-hole rounds. I have never looked back.

Since then, I have played on more than two dozen golf courses -- in Memphis, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Vermont, California, and Las Vegas. I have read two dozen books on golf (more on that later), taken a couple of lessons, and played into the dark many a night, on freezing days, in rain, burning sun, and at 2 a.m. under a full moon. I once played 36 holes in one day, 54 holes over a weekend.

Having competed in sports a good part of my life, I found myself daydreaming about one day playing the senior tour. I have from time to time fooled myself into thinking I was in control of the game.

Two years ago, I shot an 85 at Memphis Oaks and actually thought I was ready to play sub-80 golf. It took me all of that two years to actually shoot a sub-80 round at Galloway, one of the easier courses in Memphis.

I have gotten mad, frustrated, angry, and downright hostile on a golf course. I also have experienced nirvana, holing out for eagle at Wedgewood and hitting rare approaches that fall on the green softly and cuddle up to the cup. Most of all, I have learned.

1. I learned philosophy.

A good game of golf, a friend told me, is always borrowed, never owned. All too true. No game I have played ever reduced me to absolute humility quite as quickly as golf. It is not only that on some days you do not play well, it is that on some days the game is foreign to you. You actually whiff your drive. You shank, slice, pull, push, duff, blade, yank. These twilight-zone fits of incompetence come unannounced and leave just as quietly. I once hit six balls in a row into a pond. Recently, playing a very expensive golf course in Vegas, I lost my drive. Literally. I couldn't find it. I looked for it in the deserts, in crevices, in rocks, in my bag, under the cart. "Anybody seen my drive?"

Golf is not conquered, it is accommodated. You play the game for the joy of walking the course. Some days you will hit it well, some days not. The less you worry about the bad days, the more you enjoy the game. Remember, even the best pros will manage only a half-dozen really good weekends a year. Let them get mad if they want. You pay to play; the least you should do is enjoy it.

2. I learned physics.

I can hit a golf ball the diameter of an inch or so and manage to strike a solitary tree limb, the diameter of a few inches, hanging over a fairway. I can do it over and over again when that tree limb is surrounded by hundreds of yards of open air. A remarkable feat that would awe the scientists at NASA.

3. I learned compassion.

A few years ago, I walked a golf course with a few friends, one of whom, in a fit of rage, threw his club in the air. It went into a tree; it did not come down. I laughed. And laughed and laughed. I fell down laughing. What goes around comes around. After shanking a 5 iron off the tee a few months ago, I turned to the tee marker, made of metal, and struck it -- not that hard -- but hard enough to sheer the head of my club right off. The guy playing with me smirked. That little fit cost me $20. And if you want to ensure hitting a terrible shot, the next time the guy down the fairway duffs or throws a club or hits one into the water, laugh. Laugh and get ready for disaster.

4. I learned patience.

Easy swing, easy tempo, easy does it all the way around. Watch Payne Steward and Fred Couples, not Tiger Woods. Woods has the power and ability to play himself in and out of rages. Most players who become impatient play worse. Laugh at the bad shots and you will be a wise person indeed, especially the shots that wind up underwater or in someone's backyard.

5. I learned a new language.

Fore is a very useful word. I learned as well a series of words that feel as ugly as they sound: shank, duff, bladed, lip out, slice, worm burner, bogie, double bogie -- ugly words all. But there are beautiful words, too. Green in regulation has a nice sound. Birdie. Eagle. Even par sounds good to me.

6. I learned a culture.

Every sport has its own culture -- its legends, its mythologies, its heroes. Golf culture is an interesting world. What is the story behind the old guys who hang out in the clubhouses, smoking cigars and playing cards, as if outside the rules of time? They seem to be there all the time. Either they are not married or they have been married so long their wives beg them to go to the golf course. Either way, I envy them some days.

Then there are guys who have that "could have been a contender" persona. In the basketball world, they were the legends of street ball, guys who, with a break or two, might have been in the NBA but wound up playing on big-city street corners for spending cash. One day I was watching a guy hitting iron shots of a hundred yards or so. I have rarely seen such a sweet, beautiful swing. He would hit a ball, take a drag of a cigarette, hit another, take a drag -- an easy, simple tempo, and every ball rose gently and fell within a few yards of the others. Naive beginner that I am, I found myself thinking, How can anyone with such a perfect swing not be playing competitively? He had a pro swing, no doubt about it. I asked him. I get the yips, he said (another nasty word). I did not recall what "the yips" were. "I can't putt under pressure," he explained, a little sheepishly. "My hands shake."

This sounded strange to me at the time, a player of his ability struggling to stand over a putt. I understand him better now. I don't have the yips, but every now and then I do stand over a putt and seem to lose complete control of my hands, pulling left, pushing right, powering the ball 15 yards by the hole because the putter suddenly sprung from my hands like a hard-wire trap. The yips were his tragic flaw, and most of us on the course have one, else we would be playing Augusta, not the nearest public course.

7. I learned integrity.

Golf is a self-regulating game. In most sports, cheating is not only okay, it is demanded if you can get away with it. A lineman who holds and isn't called for it hasn't cheated. He is clever. A basketball player who bumps the opponent in mid-shot and doesn't get called for it feels no guilt at all. In baseball cheating is a way of life for some players. But in golf, cheating is hollow. You are simply lying to yourself. So unless it is the rules of the round, I don't move my ball except under extreme conditions (a concrete patch of dirt in the middle of the fairway does seem a little unfair, especially since I seldom see the middle of a fairway). I count strokes -- all of them.

8. I learned forgiveness.

Sometimes I hold up counting all the strokes, in particular on the first hole of a round when I double-bogie and have not taken a warm-up other than a swing or two before my first shot. I will give myself a bogie -- why ruin the day before it is started? I usually put the stroke back on when I tally the score, but in some strange way it relaxes me to forgive myself a bad shot once in a great while. I ain't playing for a living, after all.

9. I learned topography.

I have spent many a moment in the woods, on the edges of lakes and ponds, in the middle of wrong fairways, on canyons, in crevices. I have studied the root systems of trees, dug into dirt and weeds, even explored neighborhoods adjacent to the golf course. I was once tempted, only for a moment, to climb a tree that grabbed my ball and refused to drop it. That ball is probably still sitting up there, perhaps in a nest, befuddling the bird population.

10. I learned humility.

Forget that I am humbled by the precision it takes to play the game well. How could I, educated person that I am, have waited so long to take up so sublime a sport? Walk a golf course in the middle of winter, or as the sun is going down, or in a soft rain, or when a light mist lies over the rolling hills and soft green fairways. There are few sights more beautiful in the man-made world. Golf is really about a great deal more than scoring -- there is peacefulness about the game if you allow it to come and put your ego where it belongs, away for good.

11. I learned to forget.

Every lesson, every tip, every thing I learned playing golf, sooner or later I forget. The upside is that you will never stop learning, even if it is for the 100th time. G.S.

From the Other Side of the Bag

"Buddy, you wanna go out today? I'll get you out twice, you'll see, doubles both times. Or you wanna caddy for Charlie Pohl's group today?"

Tom, the middle-age caddymaster, had broad shoulders, perennially sunburnt skin, and a hard, nasal accent. Male or female, Tom called each and every one of his caddies "buddy."

When I was 13, I knew plenty of kids who were lying about their age to become golf caddies at Inverness Country Club, the most elite course in Toledo, Ohio. Too young to work at McDonald's, too blue-collar to find our way into an unventilated sweatshop, we donned dark-blue pants and white polo shirts every morning and headed to the caddyshack. All we needed was a clean white towel and the stamina to carry a heavy golf bag for four miles in occasionally blistering heat.

All in all, caddying was relatively easy, as long as you had an easygoing golfer to caddy for. You had to clean the golf balls, hand the golfer his clubs, clean the clubs, measure yardage to the green, replace big divots, rake the sand traps, walk ahead of the golfer at all times, and keep your mouth shut unless you were addressed. A nice golfer made the work pleasurable. A mean or arrogant golfer could make the next four hours a living hell.

I preferred caddying for senior citizens or the physically disabled. Only they were allowed to use carts. When cart caddying, you never had to carry a club. You just ran behind the cart for four miles. I had good legs, so it wasn't too difficult. The fat caddies tended to avoid this type of work.

We all had one assignment that we dreamed of getting. Charlie Pohl was the thirtysomething executive of a local electric company who, unlike 99 percent of the other members, knew how to have fun. He and his buddies would yell, holler, and carry on as if the course were their private backyard. Pohl's caddies didn't have to work too hard, unless Pohl wanted a refill on drinks for his group. Then the caddy had to go back to the clubhouse to fetch more beer. This alone made him a living legend, as we caddies sat around the caddyshack during off hours, inflating tales beyond possibility over how much we saw Pohl or one of his guests imbibe the day before.

And Pohl tipped big, like $20 a round. The average tip was $5, sometimes $10. Some golfers, like the decrepit Mr. Bland or the cantankerous Dr. Holloway, would shell out a paltry $3 tip for our hard labor. When we saw their names on the schedule, we would all slink away from Caddymaster Tom, hiding until those golfers were assigned to someone else.

Golfers like these hated Charlie Pohl, and it was here that I learned a major lesson about people. These club members, who paid thousands of dollars a year to be members of Inverness, were resentful of Pohl because he always got the best caddies, despite the fact that he was only a so-so golfer. According to what we heard, they censured him during a members' meeting, forcing him to tip less and ordering him not to drink so much on the course.

I believe Pohl did eventually cut back on his golf-course shenanigans, but he refused to stop tipping well. Instead of putting our fee on his club account, he gave us hard, under-the-table cash. Pohl's popularity only grew.

These were my summers growing up: trudging down long, verdant fairways, producing honest sweat, and learning high-minded lessons about getting around the system to pursue what one believes is the right thing to do. P.C.

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