Shanks for the memories: A lifetime of terrible golf

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 7/28/11]
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, comedian Larry David describes his lifelong struggle with the game of golf. He compares his experience to the various stages of grief, from self-loathing anger at his lack of skill to ultimately accepting that he will never be a good golfer.

I’ve been on a similar path with the game myself. The difference is whereas David powered through and embraced his inadequacies; I simply gave up and have never looked back.

My struggle with golf began one summer early in high school when several friends andI decided we wanted to give it a shot. We entreated our parents to pay our junior memberships at the Rutland Country Club until they acquiesced, considering it an enriching experience (or whatever it is parent tells tell themselves when they know their kids are fleecing them, but don’t want to admit it).

It really was a grand vision we (or at least I) had: Mornings spent on the links in our pastel polos followed by leisurely lunches in the clubhouse — waffle fries, cheesesteak sandwiches and Cokes, charged to our parents’ accounts. Primordial movers and shakers in training we’d be, gleaning affluent affectations from the well-heeled clubhouse sages as we quoted “Caddyshack” with great effect.

Other than the waffle fries, it didn’t work out quite as planned. It turns out golf is hard and the one lesson, and handful of trips to the driving range, hadn’t adequately prepared me for a round at Rutland.

However, I remained undiscouraged.

“It’s a tough course,” I told myself. “Fast greens,” I said. (I picked the latter one up in the clubhouse and used it often to deflect my utter lack of “finesse,” another word overheard, which I later discovered could be applied elsewhere in life equally well.)

So I kept at it; through all the shanks and slices and lost balls — so, so many lost balls. I must have spent a small fortune on golf balls in those two summers at Rutland.

It got so bad, in fact, that I took to swiping a handful of balls every time I went to the driving range.

One time, I actually had to stop playing because I ran out of balls at the 16th hole.

Looking back, I had no business setting foot on a course like Rutland. My mere presence made other people play worse. I was cursed. Any foursome that was foolhardy enough to take me on suffered dearly. I was a living, breathing two-stroke penalty, a walking water hazard, a handicap-wrecking machine.

Despite all this, I was still deluding myself into thinking I could get better; that all I need was a little more practice — just straighten out my swing, keep my eye on the ball, slow down my putts — that’s all.

But it all came to a head one fateful summer evening when my friend and I set out to play the back nine. At the time, my friend was probably one of the best youth golfers in the state. For that reason, I had been avoiding this outing since I took up the game.

To his credit, he never pushed the issue. Though we never said it, both of us understood that the disparity in talent was too great. At best, the pairing could only result in humiliation for all involved: him, for being seen with someone as bad as me; and me, for having to endure his patronizing encouragement following every terrible shot I made.

At worse, it would be a disaster.

Short of death, our round ended about as bad as a round of golf can. We began (and ended) at the 10th hole.

My friend teed up first. With ease, he drove his ball high and straight down the fairway.

Approaching the tee box, I was confident that I could do the same. Head down, arms straight, knees bent — he made it look so easy.

As I made contact with the ball, I knew I was in trouble. I shanked it hard and to the right, a physics-defying 90-degree slice that disappeared in the tree line between the 10th tee and the ninth hole.

I called “fore” and took my mulligan as my friend stifled his laughter. (He had promised he wouldn’t make fun of me, and was trying hard to keep his word.)

My second shot was exactly like the first. Exactly — 90 degrees, right into the trees.

What happened next is open for debate. Astonished by my feat — I’m terrible, but at least I’m consistent — I may not have called “fore.” I maintain that I did, but honestly, I don’t remember.

Not wanting to go for the three-peat, I decided to drop a ball with my friend’s down the fairway.

Suddenly, an ominous form appeared from the ninth green. “Is this your ball?” she asked clutching one of my errant Titleists between her fingers.

What followed was a fairly sever berating — a bit excessive, in my opinion, since nobody was even hit (one of the balls only grazed her) — in which she demanded our names and implied that our days at this club were numbered. Eventually, she sank back into the trees, leaving us more slightly bemused.

On our slow march back to the clubhouse, I was certain the club pro would be waiting for me, ready to revoke me membership and confiscate my clubs to ensure I never bring shame to this or any other club ever again.

Surely, they had been keeping tabs on me for the last two summers. And this was it. I was done. At that very moment, my photo was being faxed to every country club from Augusta to Pebble Beach with the boldfaced headline “DANGER: DO NOT ADMIT.”

I haven’t golfed much since that day. Every now and then, I’ll play nine at Proctor-Pittsford or Stone-hedge, or hit a bucket or two at the driving range. I usually go alone — a Bruce Banner-like figure stalking the links in self-loathing solitude, no longer wanting to others to suffer from my curse.

Mostly, I go to remind myself why I don’t play anymore. But every now and then, I’ll hit a good shot and I’ll think, “Yeah, I can do this.”

But that optimism soon fades as recall my past crimes and realize my self-imposed exile is probably still for the best.


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