on the course

While I rarely golf these days, I used to do so quite a bit.  In 2008, I saw that Golf Digest was soliciting stories for an extension of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.  Here is the piece that I sent in.  (You’ll find out what happened to it at the end.)

For me, golfing starts with walking.

The root of it is a journey on foot, at times over ground that is new and full of surprises, and at times along paths I have trod over and over.

The mystery of it unfolds differently for each quest, with the natural environment changing in response to the season, and my psyche riding the moods of the day and the relative success of the calling.

With weapons strapped upon my back or carried by a helper, I seek to capture a prize by dint of skill and strategy, just as my father did in his prairie boyhood when attempting to claim the ducks or pheasants.  As with the hunt, golf may be a solitary pursuit or a communal one, done in the heat of competition or just for fun.

When my father shot three birds in rapid succession and his dog Brownie laid them at the feet of the big-city businessmen that he was guiding, he was busting with great pride, no different than I am in those rare cases when I pull off a shot for the ages.  Sometimes I say it out loud, but I always think it, “Did you see that?  Did you see that?”

But that is the ego, getting in the way as it often does.  Unlike hunting, where the elusiveness of the prey and the danger of the weapon enforce a certain discipline, golf soon enough reminds me of my failings and brings me back to earth.

Dirt, grass, sand, water.  The basic elements form the playing field.  At times it is “found ground,” mostly natural except for some trimming of the growth, with a hole cut in the distance as a target.  More typically, the hands of men carry the responsibility for fitting the test to the land.  The skill of the craftsmen involved determines how real a course feels to the feet and to the eyes.

Wind, sun, sky, rain, darkness.  The game is played outdoors, and from day to day (or hour to hour) the turf itself doesn’t change very much, while the challenges presented are vastly different.

All of this unfolds for the walker with each step.  Not only in the sense of “don’t we live in a beautiful world” or “what a day is today” (although those kind of feelings may be most accessible to those that walk), but in a fashion that sensitizes you to and familiarizes you with the golf mission at hand.

As the best hunter knows the flow of the land and the prime spots to be in given the conditions, so does the golfer on foot get a special feel for what is in store and how to proceed — the thickness of the rough, the amount of dew on the ground, the feel of the breeze as it fluctuates from moment to moment, the changing tilt of the fairway.  If I am transported to a spot, I have to figure those things out when I get there, and don’t seem to do as well at it.  It’s like the advantage that accrues to those masterful putters of the ball who can feel the subtleties of the green through their feet — the walker has the benefit of being connected to the course throughout the round.

On foot, the surprises, good and bad, unfold slowly.  I’m OK, I’m not OK.  From here it looks like I’ll have a shot.  In ten paces it may look like I don’t.  Oh well, I’ll have to wait and see.  I’ll have plenty of opportunity to imagine the best and worst that could happen, and the unusual luxury of time to think of any number of other things along the way.

For the walking game stands apart from the hurly-burly of the modern world.  It can be played without contrivance, fulfilling our instinctual longing (just as it did for those on the ancient links) to have a bit of sport that gets us away from it all.  Hit the ball, find it, hit it again.  Minimal in concept, but full of great space and time in which we can discover much about ourselves, our mates, and the world.

According to those charged with scoring such things, I have been lucky enough to play some of the greatest courses ever created.  I can recount feats of wonder and woe from my rounds, and I cherish the memories of those experiences.  Yet they don’t define my golfing interest or sensibility, which amounts to a simple and less-heralded craving.

I yearn for an expanse of land to walk and a chance to give it my best shot.  Should it be under a prairie sky and have a few pheasants that get scared up, it will remind me who I am and from where I came.  If I happen to get a birdie or two of my own along the way, I will love it.  But for me, walking along, the day is about much more than that.

Alas, I didn’t make the cut.  But I had told my friend Maxie about it, and he submitted a story, “The Twenty-Seven Year Challenge,” which was published in the book.  It told the story of an unusual match with his father.  While I was disappointed that fame eluded me, I was happy for Maxie.  He’s always had more soul than me.

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