Final SayJuly 2, 2012

Driving Ranges Aren't Just Places Where You Learn About Your Swing

"My favorites are the guys who come by after work or during a lunch break, borrow one of Scotty's drivers and slash away at the ball like a 19th-century serf scything hay outside Kiev. I want to go over and say, "It's not all about how hard you swing," but the etiquette of the range -- another lesson -- forbids that..

"My favorites are the guys who come by after work or during a lunch break, borrow one of Scotty's drivers and slash away at the ball like a 19th-century serf scything hay outside Kiev. I want to go over and say, "It's not all about how hard you swing," but the etiquette of the range -- another lesson -- forbids that..

There is a roadside driving range not far from our house, and I'll occasionally stop there for half an hour when I can't get out to play a full nine or 18 holes. It's nothing special -- a dozen mats with grass areas to either side, a few flags stuck in flat ground at various distances, the usual mix of balls that have been battered nearly to death and balls that are about to be. But stopping off there for 50 swings, I sometimes imagine this book title: Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned at the Driving Range.

The place is bristling with lessons. First of all there's the guy who owns it, a youngish part-time cop named Scotty. True, Scotty could maybe put out a few more targets for the masses to take dead aim at, change the visuals from year to year. And, true, the food he cooks in the adjoining building won't win any Healthy Heart awards. But the shakes and burgers are made with care and served by his polite young crew.

On days when he's handing out the balls himself, Scotty will ask about your kids and occasionally throw a free bucket your way. Once, after a torrential rain, I stopped in to see if the place was open. It wasn't, not for golf, but he let me hit balls into the one dry corner anyway because he knows I'm a fanatic and I don't spray the ball too badly. MBA candidates attending the university across the river could do worse than stop by and see how Scotty runs his show.

And then there are the clients -- a motley crew of traveling businessmen with suits hanging in the back seat, country boys in work boots, families there for an ice cream and some fun, and at least one very fine middle-aged woman with a swing like a club champion. There are kids having their first frustrating encounter with a golf ball, Mom or Dad or Grandpa helping out. It's a beautiful thing to watch an elder introducing a child to the game, bestowing that gift. And nice to see that most of them are wise enough to refrain from extinguishing the spark of passion with a torrent of advice or criticism. Isn't there a lesson in that?

And isn't there something to be learned from the young couples? Some of them display such a mature tenderness in the way they give or receive suggestions & and others are already locked in a kind of too-proud competitiveness, man versus woman, that doesn't appear to bode well for long-term harmony.

My favorites are the guys who come by after work or during a lunch break, borrow one of Scotty's drivers and slash away at the ball like a 19th-century serf scything hay outside Kiev. I want to go over and say, "It's not all about how hard you swing," but the etiquette of the range -- another lesson -- forbids that. Whenever I have that urge, I remember a nattily attired man in the next stall who said he was a teaching pro and proceeded to offer me unsolicited advice while ripping screaming duck hooks, one after the next, into the creek that cuts across Scotty's range at the 80-yard mark.

Humility, courtesy, generosity, consideration -- the range is a soul school. A guy short on time brings half an unused bucket over and says, "Here, hit these, man. I gotta run." The resident pro, husband to my girls' fourth-grade teacher, sees one of them struggling, gives her a 15-minute lesson, puts a smile on her face and won't take a dime. Strangers tell you about a course you should visit, or see you having a rough day and peel off a "Been there, pal," as they're going by. Customers carry an empty bucket back to the booth to save the kid an extra trip on a scorching afternoon. And then there are the bitter, the dour, the curse-mutterers, and the inattentive parents who let their kids wander out into harm's way.

It's not a driving range, not really. It's an institution of higher education. Every once in a while I even learn something about the golf swing there.