The Golfers of Gotham: A Day For Father And Son

August 25, 2017

Photo by Alan P. Pittman

There's a scene in the movie "I Am Legend" where Will Smith is hitting balls off the wing of an old spy plane that sits on the deck of The Intrepid, a real-life decommissioned aircraft-carrier-turned-museum in New York's Hudson River. Will's character is alone in the city after a virus has wiped out most of mankind. His shots land and bounce eerily through the quiet, empty streets of Manhattan.

When you live on this tight little island of a million-and-a-half people, a humanity-erasing epidemic is about what it would take to find the space to really open up your driver like Will did that day. It turns out the parks department frowns upon you strolling out into Sheep Meadow in Central Park among the sunbathers, checking the yardage book to see how far you have to hit the front door of The Plaza, and then letting it rip. So to get our swings, we New Yorkers are left to grab the bag we keep in the corner of the living room behind the armchair (or in an expensive storage unit somewhere along the West Side Highway where we keep the sticks and our old CD collections) and schlep to the range at Chelsea Piers.

The sprawling sports complex sits on the Hudson about 30 blocks south of the Intrepid. It's the only place I know where you can hit golf balls, bowl, ice skate, play pickup basketball, have a laser-tag fight and attend a wedding under the same roof. I'm proud to say I've done all six. Not in the same day, though.

‘The image of a Manhattan golfer is a man or woman with a bag slung over the shoulder wading into oncoming traffic trying to flag a cab for the ride to Chelsea Piers. We do what it takes to get in a few swings.’

When I say getting to Chelsea Piers is "half the battle," I mean getting there is "98 percent of the battle." The iconic image of a Manhattan golfer is a man or woman with a bag slung over the shoulder wading into oncoming traffic trying to flag a cab for the ride to Chelsea Piers, or to catch a boat over to play in Bayonne. You'll see them on the subway, too—dressed like Jordan Spieth, holding a bag, and because it's New York, raising exactly zero eyebrows. We do what it takes to get in a few swings.

I took my 7-year-old son, George, down to Chelsea Piers on a beautiful day a few months ago. We're not huge golfers, so in hindsight I'm pretty sure he thought we were going to play laser tag. I might have mentioned the possibility, but let's not get hung up on my parenting. Chelsea Piers has a great facility and a range where we experience golf the way we live in this town: stacked on top of each other in tiny rooms. In fact, the stalls at Chelsea Piers have better river views, and more space, than many New York apartments.

Once we got our pre-paid card and found our spot, George was fascinated immediately with the automatic system that puts a new ball on the tee after every shot. It was enough to make him forget the laser-tag thing for a minute. Without regard for his form, accuracy, or distance, he knocked the balls off as fast as the Computee RC20000 could set them up. I realized quickly that my son was ignoring all that "Slow down. Check your grip ... put the hot dog in the bun" advice, so I said simply, "Aim for New Jersey!"

With cruise ships, sailboats, yachts, water taxis and barges crossing his line of sight in the sparkling water on a warm day, George reached back and unloaded like John Daly at an unsanctioned long-drive competition. George didn't quite reach New Jersey, but I sure as hell told him he did. He hit balls until he complained about that first blister on his hand. We stopped by the putting green on the way out ("Look, Dad! Mini-golf!"), grabbed an ice cream, and then stepped back into oncoming traffic with our clubs to go home.

Willie Geist is host of NBC's "Sunday Today" and co-host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe."