January 5, 2010

Lessons From The Rabbit Group

A son still learns from a father's passion

It's a tough time for golf. Winter's days are short, money and time are shorter, and old certainties are in doubt. The last boom is long over, and now even Tiger Woods has fallen from grace.

Chances are you played less than usual in the last year. The question is, how do we keep the game meaningful in our lives?

I think of my father, who has integrated golf into personal happiness as well as any person I know. Nothing fancy. He didn't take up the game until his late 20s, but with an immigrant's fierce passion for belonging. In the 1950s, his job as a driver for RC Cola in San Francisco gave him his weekends free, so it was golf every Saturday and Sunday morning at Harding Park. When we moved to the East Bay suburbs in 1963, he began playing with a regular foursome at a new nine-hole course, Concord Municipal.

Soon there were 18 holes, and a bigger regular game with a blue-collar tinge. They named themselves The Rabbit Group -- several four-man teams, playing two best balls with no handicap, striving to accumulate "specs" given for birdies, closest to the hole, and, of course, holding "legs" on the elusive "rabbit." When any team won more than $10 each, it was a very big day.

When I began to go out to the course with my father, I knew it made him glad. But as much as he liked sharing the game with me, even then I could sense that golf was also his very personal thing. Although the Rabbits needled each other incessantly and the laughs were always big, he played intensely. When he returned home, usually by 1:30, he resumed family life seamlessly. He had gotten something he needed.

It's a much different time, but 47 years later, he's still playing at the same course, now called Diablo Creek Golf Course, with longtime Rabbit remnants and a few newbies. A wistful widower, at 80 he is now the Longest Member, if not quite the oldest. Instead of weekends, he plays four of five weekdays. And a $10 take is still a big day.

Only a few of his fellow Rabbits can still reach the par 4s in regulation, though ego keeps them from moving up to the most forward tees. To adjust for the dearth of birdies, the specs have been expanded to reward new designations: "sandies," "barkies," "chippies" and "all pars." My father's good drives go about 150 yards, tops, and the struggle against age and infirmities can turn him into King Lear in baggy shorts. But his hope is renewed whenever he gets to one of Diablo Creek's two short par 3s, just over 100 yards. He has 11 holes-in-one on those two over the years (he has 13 total), and nothing gives him more satisfaction than the spec bonanza that comes with getting the "closie" and converting the birdie. The last time we played, he did just that on the 17th, reducing our potential losses from double digits to $1.25.

I've always admired how my father could stand over an important putt and consistently hit a good one. In his head, I know he's still a kid in Spain consumed with excelling in soccer, which is all about making chances count. Through golf, he has never lost that boyish quality of losing himself in what he loves.

It's a quality I still struggle to find. But like my father, I know my life is better when I play golf, and that my now mostly Spartan interludes with the game do me more and more good. I generally play before dusk, when I can get in six or so holes on a pure Ellis Maples layout in the Sandhills of North Carolina. The course is invariably empty, so I pack my bag and head out alone, often playing several balls at a time. My last images before falling asleep are usually of the shots I hit a few hours before.

What do I think about out there? A lot of stuff, as the pine-scented air seems to help filter things down to their core. And lately, about the paradox of doing better by not thinking, for which I've gained a new perspective from one of the brightest minds in the game, Fred Shoemaker. As an angst-ridden tournament golfer, Shoemaker stubbornly tried to think his way to a better swing. But he would always wonder whether something was wrong, or if any of the myriad changes he made were ever good enough. He was getting in his own way. But through his friendship with Inner Game sage Timothy Gallwey, Shoemaker learned to accept that without the interference of conscious thought, the human body makes incredibly good "decisions" in its movements.

"What's hard for people to accept is that the mind doesn't have to run the show," says Shoemaker. "What's more important is being fully aware of the target, and trusting your body -- your real, undoubting self -- to take you there. I call it being present. It's what animals do instinctively. Our challenge to be better golfers, and to be better people, is to trust ourselves enough to be present."

My father always has, and it's what I respect most about him. In his dotage, he's the example I carry of how golf can be truly meaningful -- maybe the best place ever invented to learn the lessons that improve the quality of our lives. What better antidote to today's tough times?