I have never played golf. So why, oh, why, did I start now?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Sept. 18 2007 12:04 PM

The Most Dangerous Game

I have never played golf. So why, oh, why, did I start now?

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Ben showed me the grip, then tutored me in the fundamentals of the swing: head down, wrist cocked, follow through, etc. He got me feeling surprisingly comfortable swinging, then he undid me by placing a ball in front of me. "It's the swing, not the ball," he said. "If you do the swing right, the ball will simply get in the way."

Bob Wright was right—the hardest part of golf is that the ball doesn't move. In most sports you react, in golf you act. The ball just sits there, showing off its dimples, taunting you. Golf has surely inspired more literature than any other sport—schlepping from one hole to the next gives golfers too much time to think. Much golf writing is about how golf is like life, or life is like golf. But I came to feel there was no sport less lifelike than golf. After all, what is life but a long series of reactions?

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The worst part of the lessons was that I wasn't as bad as I thought I would be, which made me that melancholy creature: a golfer with hope. I usually at least connected with the ball, and on random occasions I even hit one decently. Of course, each good stroke was followed by 20 lousy ones. I dutifully came out during the week to practice, and though the manic-depressive nature of the game started to wear me down, I was amazed to look up once and find five fawns eating the greens. Another time I was distracted by a brood of gobbling turkeys.

By the end of five classes, I knew a whole bunch of new things, like the difference between an iron and a wood, a drive and a chip, a birdie and a bogey. I was satisfied and felt ready to join the ranks of the millions of Americans who no longer golfed, when Ben told me for my graduation class I actually had to play a hole. It was 280 yards and a par 4. I thought I might have a chance if instead it were four yards and a par 280. Nonetheless Ben told me to tee up and hit. The ball went 80 yards toward the hole. My next shot advanced me 70 more yards. By my third stroke I was 25 yards from the green, and I switched to a pitching wedge (OK, Ben pulled a club out of the bag, told me it was a pitching wedge, and handed it to me). I meant to hit it high—instead the ball bounced along and landed only six feet from the hole! I overshot my first putt, and the ball went into the grass, so it took me three more putts to get in the hole for a total of eight strokes. I was elated.

And why, oh, why, didn't I retire then? But no, I agreed to play nine holes with my giraffelike colleagues. I actually misled them by starting decently at the first hole, making a par 3 in five strokes—for me, a double bogey was the equivalent of a hole in one. From there I quickly degenerated and started taking 13, 15—who could count?—strokes to get to the hole. By the time I lumbered up the hill with my bag, I often found my ball was in a better position than where I'd hit it; I was so pitiable my partners moved it for me. Because of me the group behind us rang a bell—like at a spelling bee contestant who's just been eliminated—indicating they couldn't wait anymore. I couldn't take it and started skipping holes. By that point I would have preferred being strip searched by the TSA to having to hit the ball.

Finally, the round came to an end. Yes, I was a "miserable wretch," but as I left the course, I found myself flooded with a feeling of relief and gratitude: I had played my first round of golf, and I had survived. I will never risk it again.

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