Keep Your Eye on the Ball

By Joel M. Vance

Golf is not considered a life-threatening sport on the order, say, of bull riding or NASCAR racing.  But that’s discounting the way I played it for a couple of disassociative years.

I was manic about the game which was enough of a mental health risk without the physical trauma.  “Mania” is not too strong a word to describe my obsession. If I were Catholic I would go to the confessional and say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have golfed.”

There are no golf courses in Heaven. It is a cruel promise of the Devil that when a golfer dies he goes to Innesbruck.   Instead there are numerous tees in Hell where, for eternity, sinning golfers are fated to hit drives that alternately shank into a rough inhabited by water moccasins and spiders, or into mephitic water hazards.  There are putts that hang on the rim of the cup and tee shots that you barely tick and the demons and imps howl and point at you as the ball dribbles 20 yards down the fairway and the girl of your dreams looks at you as if you had vomited on her shoes.

W.C. Fields’ famous golf lesson skit where he growls, “Stand clear and keep your head down,” would be good advice for anyone contemplating committing golf.

Golf courses are as omnipresent as political corruption and potentially just as destructive.   I was consumed by the sport for several years before I came to my senses and underwent a curing process that reminded me of Frank Sinatra withdrawing from heroin addiction in the movie The Man With The Golden Arm.

My father had been a golfer in Chicago, but we moved to a town of 250 non-golfers and area golf courses were as rare as Isod shirts among the soybean farmers, so he gave his clubs to a nephew by marriage.  Then I became a sports editor and was exposed to golf, an event like being exposed to plague.

“You mean you don’t play golf!” exclaimed Gary Filbert, the basketball coach at Mexico High School.  Gary doubled as golf coach.  How could I possibly cover his team if I didn’t understand the sport?  He didn’t understand, nor did I, that golf like most sports requires athletic ability.  Coaches had it or they wouldn’t be coaches.  There was no such prerequisite for a sports editor–working cheap was far more important.

The various coaches played together at the local public course and it would be a chance for me to hang out with my sports page contacts, be one of the guys.  But I needed clubs and buying a new set was out of the question.  With two young children, a young wife and a fledgling bank account, golf clubs were far down on my list of Things We Really Need.

I pleaded with my father to reclaim his clubs and he asked for them from the nephew who returned them with ill grace.  The clubs were an assortment from the Bobby Jones era, not exactly state-of-the-art.  A couple were wood-shafted.

But it didn’t matter.  They were golf clubs.  I haunted weekend estate sales for months, filling the gaps in my golf bag with second hand clubs.  It never occurred to me that there seemed to be an unconscionable number of beat-up old clubs for sale.  If golf was indispensable to a complete life, why were so many golfers getting rid of their clubs?  Some clubs showed evidence of having been pounded against hard objects–not golf balls, but perhaps a nearby tree.  That this indicated a violent dissatisfaction with the game also never occurred to me.

I practiced putting into tipped-over water glasses on the living room rug while Marty occasionally paused to watch with a bemused look.  She had seen me go through agony trying to tie fishing flies (and the family dog, a multi-colored collie, suffered too from being a repository of raw materials).

Now I was stuck in another obsession and she sighed and decided, with endless patience, to ride it out.  Golf would come to be a source of marital friction that in some testier folks would have led directly to the divorce court.  Only Marty’s uncanny forbearance got us through the several years when golf consumed me.

The public course in Mexico was that aberration, a sand green course.  The greens, instead of being meticulously-maintained grass were sand.  There was no roll. You pitched onto the “green” and the ball instantly stopped, as it would in a sand trap.  There were no traps–what was the point when the greens were traps?  Once on the green, you measured distance to the pin with a string attached to the flag pole and swung your ball around to a putting lane filled with oily sand (the oil allowed the sand to pack hard enough to allow a rolling putt).

It was a goofy way to end a given hole, but far less expensive than grass greens.  Since I was playing on the cheap, might as well carry penuriousness to its conclusion.  There was a local grass green country club, but given my meager newspaper salary we were as far from membership there as we were from membership in the French Foreign Legion.

Once I played the grass green course in Marty’s home town, Macon.  By then I had developed my trademark drive, known as The Mystery Ball.  I didn’t know if it would be a straight shot down the fairway (rare), a hook or a slice (common).  Most golfers have a given fault that they can work on, but when you never know from shot to shot where the ball will decide to go it’s tough to develop control.

The ninth tee on the Macon course parallels U.S. Highway 36, a busy route.  I was far above the highway (the course is hilly and the ninth tee was perhaps the highest point on the course).  I teed up, took my stance which much resembled a person getting ready to projectile vomit, and whacked my shot.  The ball rose higher and higher, began to curve ever more to the right, off the fairway, over the low trees and down to the highway.

It hit just in front of a speeding car, which fishtailed slightly as the driver slammed on his brakes.  The ball ricocheted off the pavement and was gone before the driver had a chance to identify the unidentified flying object.  And I was gone before he had a chance to sort it out, storm into the clubhouse to look for the author of his near miss.

A few months later I hit a line drive while trying to blast out of a sand trap and nearly crippled a lawyer.  He did not sue, recognizing you can’t squeeze blood out of a golf ball, but he limped off the course and would not play with me again.

So far I had threatened the life of a couple of fellow humans.  It only remained for me to put myself in jeopardy.  That was not long in coming.  Tagalong was a developing course near my mother’s home town, Birchwood, Wisconsin.  Frank Stout, a lumber baron, built Tagalong between 1916-1919 as a playground for him and his guests.  It wa duplicate  St. Andrews in Scotland.

After Stout’s death the place fell into disrepair and the nine-hole golf course had become an extended pasture for dairy cows.  The bent grass greens, supposedly imported as sod from Scotland, had given way to clover and pasture grasses.

Then a resort development outfit began to resurrect the old golf course. The fairways still contained cows, but aside from the occasional fecal time bomb, they were in good shape.  The greens were mostly clover, but had flags and were reasonably level.  The place wasn’t open for business and I probably was trespassing, but there was no caretaker security or workers, nobody but me and my anachronistic golf bag.

Red Cedar Lake is adjacent to the first fairway.  I know because the first drive I hit began its long journey straight down the fairway, then like a lefthander’s curve ball began to slice, over the bankside trees and far out into the lake, where it splashed down like a misdirected space capsule.

I invited Marty to walk around with me and perhaps she envisioned it as a pleasant walk in a sylvan setting, but she soon found that it was like being an unwilling member of the Manson Gang. Golf taught me to swear with the inventiveness of a mule handler.  It wasn’t so much the indivdual words, which everyone knows, but the creative verb and adjectival constructions which would have awed a Parris Island drill instructor.


Golf as it was developing in my life did not serve as a release from job stress or a challenge to my athletic ambitions.  Rather, it had released a latent nasty temper.

The inconsistencies of my game gnawed at me like intestinal wharf rats.  Between gobbling Rolaids and swearing I threw my battered clubs after each drive that went somewhere it wasn’t supposed to.  The Holstein s mooed apprehensively and trotted awkwardly in front of us, their pendulous bags swinging side to side.

I laced another drive into the trees and snarled at Marty as if it were her fault.  I knew I was being unreasonable and downright nasty, but couldn’t seem to help myself.

Marty stuck it out for a couple more holes but my near constant stream of verbal abuse finally exhausted her patience. .  “Maybe the cows can put up with it, but I can’t,” she said.   She hiked toward the car to wait and perhaps contemplate a life in which I did not play a part.  Fuming, I teed up and tried to unleash my fury on the little white ball.

It was a solid hit that screamed off the tee,  low and slicing, the kind of shot that normally rises as it curves and becomes a 200-yard plus drive into the deep rough.  But this one centered a tree trunk about 20 yards to one side of the tee and rebounded with the velocity of a rifle bullet.  I both felt and heard it whisper past my ear.  If it had hit me between the eyes where my brain allegedly resided,it would have killed me.

The ball skipped up the hill behind me and came to rest about where the present day Tagalong Clubhouse is.  Then there were a dozen or so cowpies where the dairy herd had been sheltering from the sun.   The ball gleamed amid their dank presence.   It seemed prophetic.

I sat heavily, my legs weak, and took a shuddery breath.  It was time to hang up the battered old clubs and find some other obsession–like defusing old land mines.






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1 Comment

  1. Michael Patrick

    March 11th, 2011 at 10:53 am


    I had many of the same frustrating and funny experience when I tried to play golf. I gave it up years ago. I agree there are no golf courses in heaven. As Mark Twain said, “Golf is a game that ruins a good walk.”

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