I was five or six the first time my father took me golfing, at the Kendrick Municipal Golf Course in Sheridan, Wyoming, where he had landed a job as a sixth grade teacher. I fell in love with the game from that first time, at first because it meant time alone with my dad. But there was something about trying to make solid contact between a bent club and a tiny white ball that appealed to my perfectionist nature. I was challenged.
That course still had sand greens at the time, so once you putted, you had to drag a big rake and smooth out your footprints. I even loved that part of the game. What I didn’t love in the beginning was keeping score. After each hole, my father would ask how many times I hit the ball, and I could never remember. I would try so hard to concentrate and count. But the fact was I didn’t care how many times I hit the ball. I just loved being out there, on a quiet, dew-covered expanse of green grass, me and my dad.
When I was twelve, my parents bought me my first set of golf clubs, at a garage sale. I think they paid $75. I cared for those clubs with the kind of love that only kids show for the things that are most precious to them. They were a treasure to me. My friend Bob Hanson, who lived across the street from me, was just as obsessed with golf as I was, and we figured out a way to crawl through a hole in the fence at Hiland’s Golf Club, which was about a half mile from where we lived. So we would get up before dawn and walk to the course, crawl through the fence, and play nine holes before the members arrived. We did this for a couple of years before we finally encountered a guy hitting balls on the driving range one day.
“Are you kids members?” he asked.
We couldn’t lie.
“Well you better pack your marbles and head on home then.” We were too scared of getting caught to ever go back.
Later that year, I earned a pair of golf shoes, and I felt as if I had become a real golfer. They were red saddle shoes, with the big tassles on top that you wove your laces through. I had a red shirt, and some blue polyester pants (hey, it was the 70s), and when I wore that outfit, I felt like I fit the part. So when my dad noticed an ad in the Billings Gazette one day, announcing a golf tournament for kids, I begged to sign up. I had become a pretty good player, shooting in the 40s for nine holes on a regular basis. So I was eager for a chance to play with other kids. Kids who were members at Hilands, or Yellowstone Country Club, the most prestigious club in town.
I showed up in my red and blue uniform, and immediately realized that I’d made a huge mistake. The other kids, even the country club kids, were all wearing jeans and tee shirts. I got a lot of strange looks, sticking out like a stripper at a librarian convention. And I became incredibly nervous, because I knew that by showing up with this ridiculous garb, I had established a certain expectation. I had better play well, or I was going to be a laughingstock. It was also clear that most of these kids knew each other. They had an easy banter, and seemed comfortable. I was not comfortable.
“Hey, are those women’s clubs?”
This question from one of my fellow players, standing on the first tee, solidified the deal. I was a fraud. Trying to fit in with a crowd that wasn’t my own. I was embarrassed that anyone noticed, and angry my parents couldn’t afford the shiny black clubs these other kids carried around.
The pressure proved to be too much. On the first tee, my drive bounded down the fairway, a pathetic grounder, and it never did get better. I hit a few good shots, but my confidence was too shaken to play anywhere near my usual standard.
There is a Darwinian aspect to the game of golf that isn’t apparent unless you’re in the middle of it. Players who are slow, or not as good as the others in a group, get the message through subtle and not so subtle means that they’re holding everyone up. That they aren’t really welcome. So if you’re playing badly, even among friends, the others are quick to move along once you’ve finally hit your shot. They whisper while you’re hitting. You become ‘that’ guy. It’s a dynamic that can affect you in two very different ways. It can either inspire you to improve so you don’t have to endure that shit again. Or it can crush you. In my case, it did a little of both.
This experience did nothing to dampen my love for golf, but I became much more selective about when I played, and with whom. My father remained my favorite playing partner, until he died in 2013.
We also introduced the game to many of our friends, and I enjoyed playing with them. I tried entering more tournaments, but it seemed that no matter how well I was playing before the day of the tournament, I always fell into this mental place of feeling like I didn’t belong. I never played well, and I eventually stopped entering.
Over time, I also became more and more uncomfortable with certain aspects of the game. First of all, there is perhaps no other game that is as egocentric as golf. Go into any clubhouse after a round of golf, and you hear it at every table, people talking about ‘their game.’ Recounting every shot, especially the good ones, or the ones where they got robbed. The ball that hit a divot and bounded off into the rough. Their score would have been better if not for that unlucky break. Golfers love to talk about themselves. I have often said that the worst part of playing golf is that you have to hang around golfers.
I have also become disillusioned with the environmental impact of the game, especially the amount of water devoted to these playgrounds for the rich. The fact that our alleged president owns many of these facilities has also made me increasingly uncomfortable with supporting the game, even all these thousands of miles away from his courses. There’s something about him and his ilk, and their devotion to this game I’ve loved my whole life, that has made the experience much less enjoyable.
I was always puzzled that my father loved the game so much, because he wasn’t that kind of guy. He hated talking about himself. He also had a real problem with rich people, especially successful men. They intimidated him. So I always found it interesting that he would choose to hang around a place inundated with them.
But he had his own way of subverting the image. He wore loud clothes, and rather than buy one of the fancy golf carts that were popular, he built his own out of a runner’s baby buggy that mothers use to run with their kids. He looked out of place on purpose, which kind of fit his personality. But his love of the game was also puzzling, because he was never good at it. My father was a gifted natural athlete, quarterback on his high school football team. He ran hurdles and set a state record in the triple jump. But he was awful at golf. But that never dissuaded him from joining a league, and playing as much as he could. Oddly enough, he figured something out about his swing just a couple of years before he died, so the last year of his life was probably the best he ever played the game.
In 2018, I played in a league for the first time. It was at a pretty exclusive country club, and the friend that invited me to be part of his team was someone I enjoyed playing with, so it ended up being a pretty fun experience. But the last two days of the league were the playoffs, made up of the top sixteen teams. Another tournament.
This tournament focused entirely on your individual scores, and when I showed up for the first day, I was surprised how much it felt like I was twelve years old again, standing there in my polyester pants and my red golf shoes.
I did some quiet meditation to try and calm myself, and by the time we started, I was feeling pretty good. Not that nervous at all. And it showed. We started on the hardest stretch of this golf course, and I parred the first three holes. Because I got a few strokes for my handicap, and because we had an app on our phones that told us how our team was doing, we could see that our team was in first place for those first three holes, all because of the way I was playing. For three holes, I had arrived.
I bogeyed the next two holes…also tough holes, so that didn’t discourage me too much. But it was the next hole, one of the easiest on the course, where things started to fall apart. I won’t recount what happened shot-for-shot, for reasons that should be obvious. But I got an eight on this short par four hole, and although I pulled it together for the next two holes, my confidence was shaken, so I shot 18 over par on the last nine holes, after finishing the first nine in six over par. The next day I was all over the place, playing well for one or two holes before completely blowing up on the next hole. I finished with almost exactly the same score as I did the first day, and my self-esteem was completely punctured. That day, I knew that I would never fit in with these people.
I have a couple of friends that I like to play golf with, but somehow it’s not the same as playing with Dad. The way my father and I encouraged each other, and almost tried not to beat each other, was symbolic of so many things about our relationship. My father and I almost never fought. In fact, I don’t remember a single argument between us. We both sensed each others’ relative lack of confidence, so we found the golf course an easy place to try and help each other overcome that. I became a pretty good golfer, with a 12 handicap, and my father was more proud of that fact than I ever was.
But it was only with him that I ever experienced that feeling. I shot the best score of my life with my father, a 74 on a par 71 course, about five years before he died. And part of me thinks that I should take that experience with me and be satisfied. That there’s nothing left to prove. Nobody else cares how well I play the game. Nobody ever will care as much as my father did. And I have questions almost every time I play about why I’m there. Do I really have four hours to spare once a week? Or am I really benefiting from it enough to justify that much time?
Without my father, I think the answer has become no.
© 2019 Russell Rowland. All Rights Reserved.