I play golf for one reason, and one reason alone: to escape. When I sling that bag over my shoulder, I'm looking for nothing but a couple of peaceful hours free of the trappings of my high-tech, pressure-filled, status-seeking everyday life. But from the moment I drove through the gates of a private club as the guest of an old friend, I knew that, on this day, I wasn't going to find any refuge.
To start with, the golf shop in the brand-new clubhouse, an antiseptic Taj Mahal still smelling of new paint, was brimming with the latest hybrid clubs, the latest GPS devices, the latest weirdly shaped, pregnant-looking putters. (My putter, with a head that my neighbor made in his basement, does me just fine.)
When we got to the range, the ivory-white balls were arrayed in gleaming pyramids that would have made the Mayans envious. (I prefer my range balls scuffed and striped.) We'd just started to warm up when an attendant trotted out in a panic, to ask if we could tee off immediately. No doubt, an Important Foursome had booked an online tee time, and someone had slipped up on the scheduling. (Why would you want to book a tee time online? Online is for booking exhausting business trips, or paying overdue bills. The last thing I want to book online is my leisure time.)
When we got to the course, attended by an army of gardeners, the layout bore as much relationship to real nature as my short game does to Mickelson's. Then, on the third hole, my usually convivial friend -- having just taken a high-priced lesson with the club pro -- sliced two consecutive shots into an artificial pond, and promptly went ballistic.
*This isn't golf, I thought. This is more intense than the real world. *
My real world is way too serious already. As a teacher of history, English and drama at an exclusive private school, I get my daily fill of pressure -- from preparing the lessons to being badgered by parents who all think their progeny should be headed for Harvard. My off-campus gig as an author and journalist is no less rigid:
*"Magic Johnson's publicist will call at 3:45, sharp."
"The next six chapters must be filed by Tuesday as an Adobe-friendly attachment." *
Golf is my only sanctuary, and I like it simple. My idea of booking a tee time for the perfect round of golf is pulling off the Interstate at the sight of a weathered billboard reading "Maple Oaks Public Course, Exit 43," then walking 18 with a retired grocer from Indiana, swapping stories and listening to the silence.
Online golf lessons? An LCD wristwatch that analyzes my downswing? No thanks; I get my swing analyzed for free by my partners, like the jazz bassist who told me, "You're moving your butt too much: Imagine it's been pierced by a javelin that has you rooted to the ground." (I'm paraphrasing just a bit.) Then there was this from a fellow teacher: "Your hands are too high on your iron shots. Grip the club like you're holding yourself to pee." (I'm paraphrasing more than a bit.)
Hardly the usual club-pro advice, but they've shaved a good five strokes off my game. The last pro I lessoned with sent my score ballooning -- which makes him the last guy I'd call for help on my cell phone if my game falls apart midround. That's if I carried my cell phone in my bag, which, of course, I don't. I'd sooner bring a bullhorn to a Buddhist monastery than a cell phone to a golf course.
Speaking of technology, why do I need a laser to tell me the exact yardage to the pin? I can already see the green. If I'm close to the pin, I let Lady Luck do the rest -- as she did this June, when I made an ace, planting my backspinning 7-iron a foot past the hole. I didn't check the distance; from the tee, it just looked like 7-iron distance to me, with the headwind -- and it obviously was.
Now, this is not to say that I won't do anything for a competitive edge on the golf course. For instance, not long ago I sized up the distance to the flagstick and knew exactly what to reach for to help me outscore my foursome: another Corona. The other three guys had already moved on from beer to Jell-O vodka shots. I figured if I stayed with the lighter stuff, I'd have my edge.
Despite my three-putt bogey, I was thoroughly ensconced in my personal heaven, playing primitive golf.
Don't get me wrong. Do I want to get beyond my mid-20s handicap? Of course. Do I wish I could hit a 1-iron 240 yards into an October-morning wind at Royal Dornoch, like my friend Eric did a few autumns back, as I stood gaping in awe? Well, sure.
But did I have more fun later that day, 10 kilometers up the road, playing a seaside 18 where you don't need a tee time and you stuff your £10 note in an unlocked wooden box?
Damned straight. However you slice it.
Is your cell phone on during a practice round?
Yes 76% / No 24%
Peter Richmond is the author, most recently, of Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, just out in paperback by Picador.