Zen Golf

I’m a writer and have been for a long time – and in that time I’ve written about everything from Online Dating to Pina Coladas. But I have yet to write about golf. At least I don’t recall writing about golf (see reference to ‘long time’) and that’s odd, mostly because I’ve been playing the game for decades.

I can’t tell you when first I was exposed to the sport, it could have been with Dad when I was a kid. Or it may have been in phys-ed class at high school. I don’t know, but I do know when I started to develop an actual interest in the game.

I enlisted in the Air Force when I was 18. When I got to my first base I was assigned a room with a kid from Ohio named Troy Ferber. He was a golfer, and a good one. Troy talked about golf a lot – even had his own set of clubs – and he made golf seem cool. I guess that’s because he was cool. And funny. Plus he could drink a lot of whiskey without falling over. He had attributes that I wanted to have. He was a guy I looked up to… and he golfed.

There were the cultural influences too. I could tell you I got interested in golf because it had an air of affluence to it (there was a time I was pretty impressed by that sort of thing) and I guess I aspired to be somehow more than I was?

However the interest got going, the actual playing of golf didn’t happen right away. It was a few years before I took club in hand and tried to hit anything with it. But what I did start doing was watching the sport on TV. Despite the military’s rough and tumble image, what you actually do a lot of is domestic type stuff. There’s lots of laundry and making beds and ironing – oh man is there a lot of ironing – and what I began doing when I ironed my uniforms was turn on a golf match. I’d mute the TV, turn the stereo up, and, as I pressed lapels, creases and collars, I’d watch men hit balls across colossal lawns in search of holes in the ground.

And I liked it.

After my time in the service I moved back to California, started college, joined the reserves and, with the help of a re-enlistment bonus, bought my first set of clubs. The irons were perimeter weighted (a recent innovation) and the woods were, misnomer of all misnomers, ‘metal woods’. And man were they cool! And man was I cool, with my very own set of brand new golf clubs.

Only trouble was, I couldn’t use them very well – which was disconcerting. I mean golf looked so easy on TV. As I ironed my uniforms and watched guys take elegant swings at dimply balls, it all looked so effortless and graceful. But the foul words that jumped from my lips as I thrashed angrily at those tiny wicked balls had very little to do with grace.

If you know what the term ‘slice’ means in golf, then you can guess at my frustration. A slice is when you swing in such a way that the clubface isn’t square to the ball and instead of hitting ‘flush’ it contacts at an angle, thereby ‘slicing’ the ball and imparting a wicked spin on it, sort of like a curveball in baseball.

And I had the slice to end all slices.

The harder I swung (like if I was still a long way from the hole and needed a great shot) the worse my slice would get. I swear, that ball would travel about a hundred yards forward and then, when the spin I’d imparted to it via my crappy technique took over, it’d hang a sharp right turn and head the next hundred yards away from the fairway and into whatever woods or ponds or sand traps were over in that part of the course nobody ever seemed to go but me.

I considered quitting the game.

But after a time (and after my wife bought me golf lessons one Christmas) my swing straightened out and I began to hit pretty well. And golf actually got quite fun there for a while.

I started playing in those insufferable golf tournaments that my, or someone else’s, company would put on. You know the ones, where you’re stuck for hours with three other people you’ve never met. And invariably they hold political, social and whatever other opinions they might have that are in direct contradiction to yours. But, because they are your customers, you bite your tongue just about every time they start flapping theirs.

After a while, I started finding reasons (excuses) to miss those tournaments – seemed all of a sudden I was too busy that day, or I had a family function to attend. I think what happened is the social part of the game didn’t much appeal to me. I get why it works for others, but I know myself well enough to understand why it doesn’t appeal to me: I’m actually a bit of an introvert. That isn’t to say I don’t like people, I do, I just don’t like being with a group of people for four-plus hours at a time.

So I started playing alone.

I was living in the town of Hollister at the time, and Hollister had a golf club named Ridgemark way down the south end of town, where the low rolling hills that surrounded us started. Ridgemark was a semi-private Club, with two separate courses that “alternated”. Here’s what I mean: On one day, the North course may be open to Club members while the South course was open to the public, and on the next day, vice versa. But what I found was that most of the golfers out there were members so that the public course was seldom very crowded. And about the time cocktail hour started that course would just about empty itself of frustrated hackers who gave in and headed to the bar.

Which left me and my clubs out there pretty much alone.

There were times I’d see maybe a handful of golfers my entire round. On those evenings a round of golf, which normally takes upward of 4 hours, would take me 2 ½ – and that was on foot. I’d get up to the tee box, tee up, and send that ball screaming. Then I quickly walk to its landing spot and send it again. Pretty soon I’d be up near the green, and then I’d be in the hole.

I happily, and peacefully, repeated that sequence of events 18 times, then headed into the clubhouse for a beer or two myself. Though often, I’d just walk straight to the car, and drive the 10 minutes to my house. All this was usually on a Friday evening, typically after a long week, and during a time in my life when I was working two jobs (one Monday through Friday and the other on weekends) in order to afford to keep my wife home with our kids. And it was good – and it made me feel good.

You know what was funny? That night, after my solo round of golf, as I lay in bed starting to relax toward sleep, I’d replay each shot in my head – every single one of them. It was like I was getting a second round for free. Then I’d drift off.

I loved those days of my Zen Golf.

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Runner…

Eddie and Me

I’ve been running for as long as I can remember.

My parents are from Ireland, as in everybody I am related to, who aren’t my parents, siblings or kids, still live there. So every other summer or so, Mom and Dad would put me on a plane in San Francisco headed for the homeland. And when I say me, I mean just 12, 10 or 8-year-old me, to fly for hours and hours, and then change planes at JFK in New York, and then fly a bunch more hours.

Personally, I loved it. I’ve always been, how do I say, a little on the solitary side. I like my own company and am totally cool being alone for long stretches of time, and distance, so the five thousand miles to Ireland was no big deal to me. It was to others (like Mom) so I was typically placed in the charge of some group of adults, I assume known to my parents, who were headed the same direction. Sometimes it was the Irish Club that Mom and Dad belonged to, one time it was an order of nuns, and this other time it was Sister Michelle (the principle of my parochial school, and boy was that a long trip) but whoever it was, I always made it there, to the landing strip at the little airport in Shannon.

Remember how in the old days they’d roll a set of steps up to the plane and you’d walk down to the tarmac like you were coming down the stairs of a two-story house? Well it was the old days in Ireland more recently than it was in most other places, so that was still a thing when I was there. And when I got to the bottom, there would be Grandma, and her husband, Eddie O’Hanlon. Eddie wasn’t my grandfather (that guy had passed away many years prior, after a life spent mostly on the lam) but had married my Grandma after one of those later-in-life romances.

And Eddie was a character.

“Eddie” was short for Redmond, his namesake. Redmond O’Hanlon had been a highway robber who, legend has it, took from the rich (English) and gave to the poor (Irish). Think a local version of Robin Hood and you’re probably pretty close. You’re also pretty close in guessing that such generosity origninated from trying to keep said poor from sharing one’s identity with said rich, but that doesn’t make for as good a story – and in Ireland, it’s all about the story. I liked Eddie from the time I met him because he didn’t treat me like a kid – in fact he’d let me do things my parents wouldn’t dream of (nor later be told of) like fetch his drink at the pub (blackberry brandy with a beer chaser) or run his bets down to the bookie. I think he had me run bets because I could always get there in time to place them, even if he’d spent a little too long picking his ponies.

After collecting me at the airport in Shannon. Eddie would drive us back up to the north of Ireland to Grandma’s house, just outside a little village called Poyntzpass. Ireland’s funny in that just about everywhere that’s anywhere has a name, so the plot of land where the old house was had a name too: Corcrum. I loved Corcrum, with its sloping green hills, it’s rabbit and fox populated fields, and the little stream the ran through the bottom of the small valley below the house.

It was that same small valley where Eddie would have his eight greyhounds run up the steep slopes of the fields. They were chasing the rag constructed ‘rabbit’ I was rapidly retrieving via the tire-less back wheel of an upturned old bicycle I was pedaling – by hand – as fast as a boy could. Of course, the rope being wound onto the wheel that was tied to the rag rabbit kept jumping off track, so that scheme didn’t pan out as planned. But that was okay, as Eddie was an idea man. When some connivance didn’t quite come together, he typically had the next one ready to go.

And the next one after ‘fast dogs’ was, apparently, ‘fast boy’.

As a boy I was always the fastest kid in my class, and usually the fastest in the whole school. My Mom was a runner too, of the caliber that took her as far as training for the Olympics at one point, and I got a good helping of those genes. Between Mom’s genetics and the small mountain in my home town I spent summers running up, I was fast. Really fast.

And at some point Eddie O’Hanlon figured that out.

The little towns in Ireland typically held a fair in summer, and Poyntzpass was no exception. At the fair there’d be music, and baked goods, and prize animals and the like – and then there’d be stuff for the kids to do. One of which was a 50 yard dash. Which Eddie entered me in. And which I won.

After collecting that medal, just about every weekend to follow included Eddie driving me to another village’s fair, invariably in time for the 50 yard dash, which I invariably won. This went on until I had more medals than I could hold in one hand. It also had gone on to the point where it wasn’t really that fun anymore. I’m always up for a car ride, especially to somewhere I haven’t been, but the rides were getting longer, and then we’d just stay for the race.

And that’s how it went until one weekend Eddie took me to a big race in Belfast. This was no fair, this was a sanctioned sporting event. There were flag poles with the colors of different countries flying, and the kids I’d be racing against were accompanied by their trainers and were wearing track suits with their names on them – and the names of their sponsors.

And I was in my usual blue jeans and Keds sneakers.

I won a race or two but got eliminated pretty early on. I thought wow, these kids can really go, and I admired their athletic ability. I would have liked to stay and see some more races, and would have been interested to see how far the kid who beat me got. But we didn’t stay. We got back in the car for the long ride home, and that was the last time Eddie entered me in a race.

Which was fine by me.

After that it was back to fishing, which I adored, and playing in the fields chasing the rabbits, and riding the bike that Eddie and Grandma bought me. And on work days sometimes Eddie would take me with him, and then somedays we’d just ride around and find a little adventure or two. I loved that old man, and I know he loved me, though back then, back there, you didn’t really say stuff like that.

I feel silly admitting it now, but it didn’t occur to me until years later that Eddie likely bet on each and every one of those races. I hope he made a lot of money, and I hope he didn’t lose too much on that last one. I was older when I heard that Eddie died. I hadn’t been back there in quite some time, and it’s not like we wrote each other – still, that charming old rogue played a part in who I’d become.

When we got the call that Eddie was gone I went up to my room, to the top drawer of my desk where I still kept all those medals, opened it, looked at them, and smiled…