When I was a lad in my 20s, as carefree and debonair as any other underpaid newspaperman, I happened to be a golfer who could flirt with par fairly often, and I was adventurous enough in those days to play any known or unknown thief who showed up at Goat Hills for whatever amount he fancied. Then I'd break the shaft on at least two clubs in my bag if I didn't shoot close to 70 and swoop all the cheese. But now, 50 years later, I don't even want to hit a green -- it'll mean bending over to mark the ball.
I can live with the quick hook, the one that dives into the Rough of No Return. I can live with the diseased slice that soars into Sherwood Forest, where Friar Tuck can have it with my compliments. I haven't looked for a golf ball since mulligans were free, which was a law I passed in 1995.
But this stooping-over-to-mark-the-ball thing. Every time I'm forced to do it today, I tend to stagger a few steps and mumble, "Paging Mister Ritis ... Mister Arth Ritis."
Mr. Arth Ritis is the title of one of the medical books I'm working on. Some of the others are titled: Gall Your Own Bladder, Something's Leaking Behind the Retina, Get High with Your Blood Sugar, The Ulcer That Couldn't Bleed Straight, The Hearing Aid That Didn't Speak English, Whose Cataract Is It, Anyway?, The Hip and I, and Bypass Bubba and the Chest of Doom.
Let me make something clear before I go on. I do love the game, but I've never played golf for the joy of it. I've always played it to compete -- and bet. But now that I can't compete as I once did, thanks basically to age and the fact that today's modern, magical, nuclear-advanced equipment seems to laugh at me more than it helps me, I play golf only at gunpoint.
This means I no longer play gambling golf, client golf, charity golf, pro-am golf, friendship golf or family golf, and it goes without saying that I don't play geezer golf. It means I play golf only if it's not too hot or too cold outside, if there's absolutely no hint of wind, and if some pal or relative comes to town with a lifelong ambition to play Colonial -- OK, fine, I take him out to Colonial.
But I start hating myself for agreeing to it the minute I'm struggling to put on the golf shoes. Putting on the golf shoes has become almost as pathetically exhausting as marking the ball.
Of course, after the shoe ordeal, when I'm out on the course, I'm in my pocket half the time. Even from the whites. Plus I'm instantly paranoid about whether the cart has enough juice to get me all the way to 18 and back indoors where I belong.
Really a fun time. But I don't know that it was ever fun, even in my youth. It was a competition, a challenge, a test. But fun? Fun was a car date with a cheerleader.
Nowadays, I run into these golf lovers in my age group everywhere I go. Fellows who have come late to the game -- the worst kind of sicko golf nut, in my opinion. They play twice a week without fail, and some play seven days a week -- particularly if there's the barest threat at home of having to go to the mall or Costco with the missus. And invariably these people want to tell you about the 96 they shot the other day, their personal best, and how it should have been an 87.
They hit dribblers and pop-ups with equal regularity. They hit blazing, half-topped line drives that have been careening off bulkheads, rock walls and condo patio furniture for years.
They achieve great distance on their short putts but very poor distance on their long putts. This is true even though they study them from all four sides and plumb-bob the line into a two-lane farm road and methodically take 14 practice strokes before they pull the trigger. You might know similar people. They play in the same group every day, have the same tee time every day, and they've never lost a ball. "Naw, it's here somewhere. I saw it skip across the water, hit that tree trunk over there and bounce off the fence post. I think it rolled into this ditch. Help me move these rocks, Floyd."
Worse, they play by the rules. They find improving your lie in the fairway comparable to armed robbery. Tee it up slightly ahead of the markers, they'll call a priest for you. Boundary stakes and ground under repair are their favorite vacation spots. They also have a tendency to squat in a sharp-eyed position, poised to pounce on anyone who plays a shot out of turn.
One of these golf-nut friends was my houseguest not long ago. An old pal from Houston. He plays only five days a week with his wife, then two days a week with somebody who can break 124. If that doesn't qualify him to be buried someday in a suit of Tiff 328, consider that he knows all about equipment, river sand, lateral hazards, Arron Oberholser, and he even watches the senior slugs on TV.
The first morning after his arrival, over coffee and the papers, and after knowing I'd set him up to go hit balls somewhere, he said, "You sure you don't want to play today? It's beautiful outside."
"I've never been more certain of anything in my life," I said.
"What will you do today?"
"You mean aside from sitting around?"
He said, "You really don't like to stop and smell the flowers, do you?"
I said, "If I wanted to smell the flowers, I'd buy myself a corsage."
THE PRIME GOLF YEARS
It wasn't always like that. Growing up in Fort Worth -- the town that gave you Ben Hogan, the ice-cream drumstick and the washateria -- I played golf almost every day of my life from the age of 8 to the age of 30.
In the beginning I'd be taken at least once a week to play a round with an aunt, uncle or cousin on a real golf course, to Goat Hills, maybe, or Katy Lake, a tricky nine-hole public layout with sand greens, the course where Hogan started learning the game as a kid. But when I wasn't doing that, I'd play on the six-hole course I designed, built and maintained in the neighborhood where I was being raised by loving grandparents while my mom and dad spent several years trying to decide whether they liked marriage or divorce the best.
The course was laid out on the lawns of my grandparents' home, and on their yard next door, and across the street in my aunt and uncle's yard and on their side lawn and garden.
It was easy to obtain permission to design and build this course, seeing as how the entire neighborhood knew I was starring in the human family drama, "Only Child, Spoiled Rotten."
The greens were Bermuda, roughly five feet in circumference, carved out by a hand-pushed lawn mower, watered by garden hose, and closely cropped by scissors. The cups were Campbell's vegetable soup cans sunk into the ground, and the flagsticks were just that. Sticks. With discarded dishcloths attached and fluttering in the enchanting breezes of Fort Worth's south side of town.
The fifth and sixth holes were as tough as any 8-, 9- or 10-year-old ever went up against. They required a shot across the street, over to the fifth, back to the sixth. But it wasn't enough to have to negotiate the row of full-grown sycamores along the sidewalks and the telephone wires stretching above the treetops. There were Mrs. Rose's flower beds and Mrs. Tarlton's shrubs to worry about, and I can tell you that those ladies were not golf lovers, boy.
Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead played a good many three-man National Opens on this course, me hitting a ball for each one. Being brought up a huge fan of Ben and Byron -- the hometown heroes -- I have to confess that the time Snead captured one of my majors with an accidental chip-in on the last hole, I suffered a heartbreak that could only be compared with the day I found out that dogs were colorblind.
So much for junior golf. Well, junior golf back in the day when juniors had to be more creative than today's robots.
High school golf, college golf and the decade that followed all come back to me now as one big raucous, goofy gangsome. The years when you learned how to bet, and how not to get out-bet. Guys going for their rent, their gasoline money, their lungs, their kidneys. Winners telling jokes, losers thinking up get-even games.
Cod Yrac Ffocelddim.
That about sums up those times for me. That's Doc Cary Middlecoff spelled backward, and correctly pronounced "Cod E-rack Fockledim" by those in our elegant gangsome.
Moron Tom, one of our leading intellectuals, started it. He had a talent for pronouncing names backward, and he always wanted Cod Yrac Ffocelddim when we'd bet real whip-out on the weekly PGA Tour results.
I speak of a PGA Tour on which the events were known by such exotic names as the Los Angeles Open, the Western Open, the Motor City Open, the St. Petersburg Open -- you get the idea.
Not a Deutsche Bank Acupuncture Cell Phone Snickers Bar Invitational in the bunch.
When we weren't betting on the tour results, we might well be betting on what color shirt Weldon the Oath would be wearing when he showed up at the course later in the day.
Because Weldon the Oath quit the game in anger just about every time he played, you could bet on something else where he was concerned. You could bet on whether he'd show up at all. Weldon, No Weldon.
As for betting on the tour, I always wanted Matnab Neb Nagoh, Bantam Ben Hogan, but he rarely played back then -- the accident, you see -- so I was often left to choose between Dyoll Murgnam or Nek Irutnev while others would ride along with someone like Mas Daens, or those up-and-comers, Dlonra Remlap and Wod Dlawretsnif.
Yeah, it was silly, but you have to understand how bored we were.
Soon enough, we all tended to speak in the shorthand of Moron Tom, who spoke in a combination of rhymes and old West Texas sayings, be it on the golf course or in the greasy lunch room where we'd sit around after golf and play gin, poker, fan-tan, crazy eights, whatever. Anything to win or lose more for the day's efforts.
I can still hear Moron Tom in a poker game announcing a "cramped cottage" -- full house -- and laying down what he called "threckings and twoquins." Three kings and two queens.
Standing over a putt out on the course, he'd say, "Think I can't, Cary Grant?" Then if he sank it, he'd stride toward the cup, saying, "There he is in all his might, the big raccoon'll walk tonight."
QUITTING GOLF, PART 1
The first time I quit golf, it wasn't because of aches, pains, illness or surgery. It was because of New York City.
I quickly discovered that trying to go play golf while living in Manhattan was about as easy as trying to grab a taxi while standing out in front of Saks Fifth Avenue in the freezing rain on the last shopping day before Christmas.
It involved finding a place to rent a car, renting the car from someone who spoke in an unknown tongue, driving back to the apartment to collect the golf clubs, fighting traffic to get to Westchester, Long Island, Jersey, wherever you were going, getting lost two or three times, finally arriving at the country club, finding out that nobody at the club had been told to expect you, and then having some assistant manager follow you around and stare at you like you were there to steal the silverware.
So I quit playing for 10 or 15 years. But it wasn't like a total divorce. I was always around golf, watching it, listening to it, covering it. For a while I'd still be conned into playing three or four times a year, and for a while I could still break 80 from the blues on just about any course I played, thanks to muscle memory.
Then one day I couldn't break 80 from anywhere, or 90, or even 95. It was all gone. Power, timing, pride. Hello, Rust City. But no big deal, I thought. I was still around the sport, and I had cocktails, the reliable Winstons, typing for food, and memories of occasional birdies on nine and 18 when some thief pressed to get even.
It wasn't until I was living part-time in Florida and Texas, and had seen so many old friends give up whiskey for golf, that I started trying to play again.
If you haven't picked up any golf clubs for a number of years, you have no idea how heavy they are. For weeks, my driver felt like I was trying to swing six feet of sewage pipe.
Then something else happened. Once I got used to it and was advancing the ball forward somewhat regularly, I noticed that all the other recreational golfers were using strange equipment. Drivers with bowling balls for clubheads, and big, fat irons with holes dug out of the backs.
I could only watch in awe as 75-year-old midget lepers would out-hit me 100 yards off the tee. And others would rifle their 4-irons past me by 60, 70, 80 yards. More embarrassing, they kept doing it even after I'd bought the same equipment.
I considered blaming it on the sudden inconveniences of a bleeding ulcer first, and then on an attack of pericarditis, a heart thing, but I didn't really feel bad. In fact, I argued with my wife that I wasn't sick all the way to the hospital.
"What is pericarditis?" I asked the doctor. "It sounds like a Notre Dame linebacker."
"It's not a heart attack," he said. "It's an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. We'll treat it."
"Fine," I said. "Can I go now?"
Roughly a year later, if I remember correctly, after I'd worked my way up to a prodigious 215 off the tee, I was forced to give up distance forever.
I don't know that you can realistically say the three angioplasties and the ultimate bypass were responsible any more than you can say it was the three packs of cigarettes a day for 45 years.
What I clearly remember is the cardiologist saying, "Here's why I think we need to go ahead with the bypass: You've never had a heart attack, but if you ever do, it'll be the only one you ever have."
Maybe you can guess what my immediate response was. This comes close: "Can we do it today?"
So they cut me open a couple of weeks later and eventually located my heart tucked in there between the enchiladas and the chicken-fried steaks. It was supposed to have been a quadruple bypass, but I birdied one -- it wound up being a triple.
Happily, I never heard the noise the thing made when it cut open my chest, and I never had any recovery pain. And in five weeks I was back out on the golf course, once again challenging for pie plates in member-guests and various geezer events.
Frankly, the gallbladder removal a year or so later hampered my grip, timing and distance more than the ticker deal, but in one way it turned out to be more thrilling than the bypass.
During my recovery in the hospital on that occasion, all I ever wanted was a grape Popsicle, but it would take from six to eight hours to get it because the nurses couldn't manage to tear themselves away from their soap operas and Krispy Kremes.
But the real fun started when I was sent home. I turned the color of French's mustard and began to hurt like a run-over dog. What had happened was, the surgeon had forgotten one of the things he had explained he was going to do when we had our little pre-op meeting. He forgot to make sure he didn't leave something inside of me. I think it was a Titleist.
After I requested a different surgeon to come to the rescue, I returned to the color of a human being, and I even forgave the first guy. Figured he'd only been in a hurry to close me up because he had an early tee time.
THE RULES OF ENJOYMENT
It wouldn't be right if the dental implants, the hearing aids and the cataract surgery didn't come in for their share of the credit for helping me develop a set of rules that would enable most sensible people to play enjoyable golf awhile longer in their lives:
*• Mulligans are free.
• Roll it over everywhere, especially in the rough.
• Take relief from behind any tree or other obstacle.
• One free throw in every fairway.
• Lift and toss from all bunkers.
• It's not out-of-bounds if you say so.
• Red tees if the hole seems longer than it was last week.
• If it's your honest opinion that a putt should have gone in the cup instead of lipping out, by all means consider you sank it.
• Never keep score entirely.*
Two years ago, however, before all of these rules were set in place, I played what my two grown sons and a close friend still describe as my career round. We played from the whites at Colonial, and naturally it was on a day that wasn't too hot or too cold and there was no hint of wind.
I might add that it was before the cataract operation and before I'd paid four hundred million dollars for the new hearing aids that worked.
Everything I did seemed to go right that day, although I hardly saw any of it. A lot of the conversation went like this:
"Where'd my drive go?" I would ask.
One of my kids: "It's in the fairway."
Me: "You're kidding!"
Then I'd hit an approach shot somewhere.
I'd ask, "Where'd I wind up?"
My friend: "It's on the green?"
Me: "It's where?"
My friend: "IT'S ON THE DAMN GREEN!"
It was somewhere on the back nine that my oldest son, Marty, a pretty good player, said in utter disgust, "Can you believe this? He can't hear and he can't see, but he's on the green and I'm in the river!"
They say I broke 80 that day. I said I'd take their word for it -- and might even play again sometime.
One thing I know for sure. Going back 10 or 12 years, I'd never have swung another golf club if I hadn't taken the advice of my cardiologist.
The two best things I could now do for my heart, he said, were one, stop getting so hot at three-putts, and two, stop cussing traffic. I've done it. Life is good in the declining years.