I am a big golf fan. My grandfather lived across the street from a course. My father has been an avid player for 60 years and I started playing when I was 11 years old. In 40 years, though, I have never broken 110, I have never had a birdie and I have never finished even nine holes with the same ball I started with (although I did finish 18 with the same tee once.) I have never taken a lesson and I have never had a set of clubs that were fitted for me. I love to watch the game on TV and I have attended several major championships in person.
I have quit playing golf forever five times.
The first time I gave up golf, the head of my club went 30 yards farther than my ball. I was a senior at Penn State and I was playing the Blue Course with a couple buddies. None of us were any good, but we were competitively bad so we were having a good time. I was using the 1960s era Ben Hogan clubs my father had recently handed down to me. Apparently, they didn’t care for the change in ownership. Somewhere on the back nine I had about 180 yards to the green with a creek 35 yards in front of me. As I hit the ball with my 5-iron, I felt the club get lighter and heard a strange “whup-whup-whup” as the club head helicoptered up in the air and landed dead in the middle of the creek. I looked up and the ball had squirted 15 feet forward. We all got a good laugh out of this until my 7-iron came apart on the 17th and went sideways into a cart. I decided I was too dangerous for the game and vowed never to play it again.
The second time I gave up golf, I hit a negative drive. It was three or four years later and I was working in Hartford, Connecticut. There were a bunch of us twenty-something newly minted professionals starting out together and golf was a natural way to bond, so it wasn’t too hard for them to talk me into trying the game again. It didn’t hurt that one of them had an extra set of clubs he was willing to lend me. Coincidentally, this is around the same time that I renewed my love for fishing. Not coincidentally, this was when I developed one of my credos for life: “If it’s nice enough to golf, I’m going fishing.”
I’ve never found playing golf relaxing or enjoyable. I find it endlessly frustrating, annoying and embarrassing. On this particular Saturday, one of my friends had gotten us early afternoon tee-times at a course about two hours away in Massachusetts. This was a much nicer (and harder) course than I was used to, and I was nervous on the entire drive out. The first hole is a medium length uphill dogleg left with the tee right in front of the clubhouse patio and a huge oak tree in the elbow of the dogleg. I let my friends tee off and took my time to hit a good first shot.
I have never developed a consistent swing over the years. If I hit four balls off the tee I’ll hook one, slice one, top one and hit one 300 yards more or less down the middle. I hit one of the better drivers I had ever hit and as the ball rose gracefully I saw that it was heading for the one oak branch that was sticking out into the fairway. Of course it hit it and dropped straight down onto the conveniently placed cart path. The ball rolled down the path past me and into the parking lot, much to the delight of the lunch crowd. I grabbed my bag, threw the borrowed (and soon to be returned) clubs into my trunk and drove back to Hartford. Two hours each way, $40 and one swing. I promised myself that I would never put myself through that again.
The third time I gave up golf I watched a guy who was lying eleven on a par 4 plumb-bob his putt like he was Arnold Palmer. As frustrating as I find playing the game, I am actually more concerned about holding other people up. I don’t generally take a long time with each shot but I tend to take quite a few more shots than most people and bad eye-sight and no control over direction means I kill a lot of time looking for my ball. It had probably been seven or eight years since I had last played; I had moved back to Pittsburgh and found a job in a company where just about everybody played. After some cajoling and another offer of a loan of a set of clubs (this time with an option to buy) and the assurance that “with you there, how could it not be fun?” I agreed to try again. We played a few rounds at the nine-hole municipal course I had started out on 20 years earlier and it wasn’t too frustrating, so when they suggested another two-hour drive to a nicer club I was up for the challenge. At this time I was also playing in a blues band on weekends and the combination of a Friday night show and a 6:30 Saturday morning tee-time in Wheeling, made me decide the best way to do it was to just stay up and “iron-man” through it.
I was paired with a co-worker named Will who had been playing par 3 courses for a few months but had never played on a real course. When his tee shot on the first hole bounced off our cart and hit me in the shin, I should have gotten the message. I never score well and don’t care about my score so, in an effort to keep things moving, I’ll usually pick up at double-par. Will would have none of it. Not only was every duff, flub and air-swing counted, he would loudly announce each of our counts after each swing. “I’m lying 8, you’re lying 5!” I could probably have survived that if not for the elaborate pre-swing ritual before every stroke. Every effort to hurry him along was met with a stern “Shhh… don’t rush me!”
It all came to a head on the 11th hole. We were the first two groups on the course that day and we had already let about five foursomes play through and after hitting one in the woods and one in the water and a couple aerial reconnaissance missions over the green Will was lying 11 with about a 16-foot putt. There were people backed up behind us and yet he did two slow laps around the green, then knelt down and plumb-bobbed the putt. The lack of sleep and my lack of patience finally got the best of me and I left my ball on the green, grabbed my bag off of the cart and walked the full length of the course back to my car, muttering unkind things about his ancestors, and then drove the two hours home. Will and I never spoke of it again and I was done. This time for sure.
The fourth time I gave up golf, I lost 11 balls in nine holes. I stopped playing the game but never stopped telling the stories about why I would never play again and because I still loved watching the game I talked about it all the time. A couple of the older guys in the office told me that the reason I didn’t have fun playing was because I wasn’t playing with the right people. “And, you’re not drinking enough beer!” I was finally convinced to go after work for a quick nine with these guys. Once again, loaner clubs were offered and the carts were well stocked with beverages. On a side note, I have never borrowed clubs from anybody who is over 5’6”. I’m 6’3”. I’ve always found it hard to stay down on the ball when I’m bent in half. Another note: I can’t hit across water. I don’t know if it is my love of the water or the water’s hate of me, but if there is a 180-yard lake or a 3-foot stream between me and the hole, my ball will find it. I’m not making excuses, these are just facts.
On the first hole I duck-hooked a ball into the woods. On the second hole I sliced one into a big woodpile. I was told I needed to relax, and to that end I should chug a beer for each of those losses. The third hole was a par 3 across a 75-yard-wide pond with an elevated green. First ball, water. Second ball, water. I decided to roll the ball around the cart path to the green but was told that I couldn’t let this hole defeat me. “Chug a beer and hit it again!” This time the ball made it two-thirds of the way across on a low trajectory and skipped to the other side, where it promptly hit a tree and bounced back into the pond. I gave up and took a six.
Jump ahead to the ninth hole after three more balls had gotten away and I was on pace to lose a ball a hole. We had started at 5 p.m. and it was late in the season so it was pretty much impossible to see the ball at this point. “We’re not quitters,” I was told. I never saw any of the next three balls. I did, however, hear two of them strike wood off to the left and one strike wood off to the right. Eleven balls in nine holes. I asked my friends to kindly not ask me to do this ever again.
The last time I gave up golf I hit a plane. I have often hit my balls into unusual places over the years. In high school I hit an errant wedge into the back-seat of a moving Cadillac convertible. I believe it may be hereditary. My father is the only person I am aware of who has knocked a duck out of mid-air with both a tee-shot and a well-cast crank-bait.
About 10 years ago I followed a job opportunity to the middle of Iowa. Once again, most of the people I worked with were avid golfers. Luckily many of them also fished, bowled and played poker. I chose those three activities. I must admit, I find bowling almost as frustrating. This leads to another of my credos: “The only reason I like bowling better than golf is that I’ve never lost a bowling ball.” I avoided golf for a couple of years here, but since the annual outing with my department is a “Best Ball” I was once again coerced into picking up the clubs. The American Legion course that we have the event at is very nice and well maintained and along the first fairway is an F-4 Phantom on static display. It’s out of the (normal) line of fire and surrounded by a 10-foot fence. But they hadn’t planned on me. I not only managed bang one off of the fuselage but it bounced high enough that it cleared the fence on the other side that “protected” traffic on a consistently busy road. I finished the round but hit no more off the tee and swore off the game for life.
I still really love to watch the game. I’ll take days off for the Masters and watch most Sunday afternoons regardless of the event, but I can’t see myself ever picking up a club again. I don’t want to be completely anti-social, so for the last couple of years I attended the company event but volunteered to drive one of the beer carts. Two years ago my friend Chris and I drove one together, complete with water pistols, marshmallows and noise makers (yeah, we’re those guys.) I also brought a couple of ultra-light fishing rods. After making sure everyone was adequately supplied, we stopped at a little pond next to the 10th hole and tossed a few casts. I caught a lively 12-inch bass. At the banquet after the tournament I was presented with a (hastily invented) award for “Largest Fish.” I’m fairly certain it is the only Golf Trophy I will ever receive. — Mark Petruccelli
Copyright 2012 Mark Petruccelli