Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue Moon

Like so many other pursuits, golf makes you wait out the ordinary to experience the phenomenal.

This morning I got the papers in the dark, turned and saw the full moon hanging low in the western sky. Two full moons in December, this second one punctuating the end of the decade. I threw back my coffee and checked the headlines, grateful knowing that no matter what names I may be called, I'll never be known as the Underpants Terrorist.

It hadn't hit 50 degrees when I pulled into the parking lot at Rancho and each exhale instantly became a cloud as we marched up the first fairway.

The round was unremarkable except for the day unfolding, first a thick mist, then bright shafts of sun slicing low through the trees, the warmth arriving about nine. Then it stopped being unremarkable and started being downright eerie.

On the sixteenth tee box, Tom said (and this is nearly an exact quote), "You know, it's inevitable that one of us is eventually going to shoot a hole-in-one." Now, Tom is a high handicapper and not given to wild prognostications of this sort. His present golf goal is to break 90 at Rancho and, given his recent improvement, I'm sure he'll do it. However, he really has no business tempting fate on a 170 yard nasty par 3 like the 16th hole. I've been playing for over 40 years and never had an ace.

I had already played my ball left of the green and was stowing my bag on the adjacent fairway when I heard the screams, not shouts, mind you, but screams. I turned to see Tom and Richard, arms aloft and, in Tom's case, hat askew, bellowing wildly. I was excited, we all were, and I was embarrassed to have missed it. Upon arriving at the green, I crept on all fours to the cup to see the ball tucked against the bottom of the pin.

Golf Digest reported that the odds of an amateur shooting a hole-in-one are roughly one in 13 thousand.

What do you suppose the odds are when preceded by a statement that it's inevitable? Impossible?

They're still debating whether Babe Ruth called his shot in the 1932 World Series. There is no argument about this heroic feat. Tom Patchett called his own hole-in-one.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Always Tomorrow

Greetings, fellow golf slave. I come before you not knowing how I reached you, or that I did at all. But I trust I'm more like you than different-- that I've been playing this game for as long as I can remember-- that my relationship with it covers a manic range of emotions and swings wildly between the extremes-- and that what I don't understand about its pull bothers me not one bit.

I'll be honest, I'm writing out of desperation and self-interest.

I'm a muni player who three years ago set out on a quest to shoot just one round at level par or better. While I was beating my brains out trying, my professional life was in free fall due to a disloyal business partner, a pending recession, and plain old bad luck. When my job went away, I filled the empty hours with short game practice, some not completely constructive self-loathing, and the writing of a book, my first, that chronicled my efforts to shoot a 71 at Rancho Park Golf Course in Los Angeles.

Last week, after shopping said book for only a month, my agent, Beverley, thought she'd hit pay dirt. An editor at a major publishing house actually tossed around some very rough figures which led me, in my inexperienced and impulsive way, to believe I had a deal. I shared the news with friends and family, feigning modesty but secretly thinking I was above the unseemly groveling other first time authors succumbed to.

I can say now with absolute certainty. I've eaten crow and it tastes remarkably like chicken.

Which brings me to self-interest and desperation. You see, without a "platform", a means by which a publisher can see that there already exists an interest in an author, I'm cooked. The book could be as brilliantly written as a Cormac McCarthy novel, and sadly it's not, and it would remain in life's dust bin unwanted and unread.

So I begin this blog. As hopeful (and wary) as I was in the spring of 2006 when the quest began. Hopeful that this exercise can somehow magically open a door through which I must walk if my book is to have a life. 

Like they say after a round that got away, and perhaps about blogging, there's always tomorrow.

I'll write about my golfing life and include excerpts from the book, tentatively titled Rub of the Green,  and welcome your comments. Here's the introduction:


I’ve been at this game for as long as I can remember. Today, just as I have for years, I’ll take a fresh scorecard, carefully fold and crease it, pencil my initials and enter my scores. I’ll circle the pars and, if I’m lucky, etch a neat tiny triangle around the birdies. When the last putt rolls in, I’ll sum up and write down a total. And like always, perched in the upper right hand corner will be that number that seems forever out of reach. You know the one I mean--even when you’re not looking at it directly you see it out of the corner of your eye . . . like Venus. Countless times I’ve glanced at it longingly, like I did Pamela in second grade, and never once considered it a reasonable goal.

Par? In 43 years of playing golf, I’ve never done it.

I’ve got plenty of company. According to the United States Golf Association, one amateur golfer in a thousand will record a round of par or better. In a lifetime.

I’ve set, and met, plenty of other more modest goals along the way. I broke a hundred when I was a teenager and without hesitating turned my attention to the next target. Two years later the ninety-barrier gave way. Bring it on, I thought. Seven presidents and thirty-odd years down the line a five-foot putt was all that stood between me and my first round in the seventies and mercifully the ball fell in. I may have cried.

The jubilation was short lived. I hadn’t done it on my home course, a truer test, so I set out to repeat the feat there. Two months later, needing a birdie on the par-five eighteenth to card my first 79 at Rancho Park, I holed out from 165 yards for an eagle and a 78.

On the way to the green I ran through my entire repertoire of fist-pumps and cowboy hollers as goose bumps shimmied down my limbs. There, I thought, I’ve done it. And then I got to the hole.

With every golf goal met another is born. As I pulled the ball from the cup, the thought came to me fully formed.

You know what’s next, don’t you pallie?


I wasn’t looking for another quest. Quests are a lot of work and an invitation to heartbreak. Given that the last one took over three decades to fulfill, a prudent person might well think twice before embarking on a new one he might not have years enough to complete. Breaking 80 is accomplishment enough; can’t I just enjoy this for a moment before bolting another yoke around my neck and slogging back to the field?

A part of me says no, you can’t. It says that this is a good quest, maybe the best one ever. Go ahead, it says, enjoy it for a moment. But we haven’t had a fresh challenge in a long, long time. You have to do this, it says, you need to do this.

Its tone is sharp and unforgiving. This part of me is a little disgusted we’re even having this discussion. It asks—and I already know what’s coming-- don’t you remember that kid running the bases--- stretching a double into a triple---everybody screaming—the total mayhem— the errant throws— stealing home? Don’t you miss that?

Shit, man, you’d swim the last lap never taking a breath rather than come in second. What happened to you? Don’t you want to feel that way again?

Remember when you got kicked in the face in the game against Ossining? You got up to your knees and smiled open-mouthed at the perpetrator, blood trickling from the space where your right incisor had just recently hung. He got sick right there and had to leave the field. They called that game one of the great games ever. Don’t you remember?

Yeah, I reply reluctantly. I remember.

This other part of me, the one responsible for making sure I don’t push myself too hard or deny myself a momentary pleasure, doesn’t enjoy being spoken to like the coward it is. So it shuts up and skulks off.

The truth is I’m not sure I’ve got it in me. I’m 53 and well past anything you’d call a physical prime. No one has ever looked at me and suspected steroid use. Although I once pushed six feet, as of my last physical I now stand a hair shy of 5’ 10’’ and if I don’t weigh 200 lbs. try me after dinner. I still walk the course but unless I’m playing particularly well I finish foot sore and bone tired. I suppose I’ve got as good a chance as most people out here to post a low score, but frankly that’s not saying a hell of a lot. Somebody shooting par around here happens about as often a meteor shower. 

Besides, I’ve learned to live with a bit of compromise over the years. I’m a songwriter and composer and while I once held rigidly to the notion that there were some gigs no self-respecting person would consider, let’s just say I’ve had to cast my net a bit wider over the years to catch sufficient flounder to feed five mouths. I don’t hold out for a number one record or the end title song in the summer blockbuster movie. Do I miss hearing my tunes on the radio and having my name mentioned at Grammy time? Uh, yes.

But anyone whose job it is to provide food and shelter, not to mention the garageful of goodies a family comes to consider essential commodities, has learned that some rules regarding one’s personal integrity do, in fact, bend. Each time I prepare to write another score promoting some gory forensic drama or idiotic sitcom rather than trying to pen the next great Broadway musical, I feel more than a little disappointed in myself. I try, sometimes successfully, to take solace in the idea that there’s no shame in putting the needs of one’s family before one’s own. I may even believe it.

If I never shot a round of level par I could live with myself, just like the other 999 amateurs do.

But I’ll admit it. That voice has a point.

You see, I remember it all. And I miss it.

Maybe it’s the compromises I’ve made in music that make this par quest seem so important. Come to think of it, a number one song might be the easier challenge of the two.

There isn’t a hole at my home course on which I haven’t made par. It has to be said, however, that given the number of times I’ve played it, this is not a big deal. Even a blind squirrel, given a healthy enough appetite and a sufficient number of opportunities, will eventually find a nut. I have even managed birdie on every one, however, never more than three a round and often times none. Combined with the dreaded double bogeys or worse, I have, until recently, had no difficulty maintaining a healthy two-digit handicap. The same is true for the friends with whom I regularly play. Our scores differ and fluctuate, but no one shoots par for an entire round. Not one of us. Not ever.

Okay, I may be done whining.

Not quite. Assuming I did eke out a par round, what would it prove? If someone is looking for a challenge, some sense of accomplishment, there are countless other pursuits that would have far more impact on the greater good. You could argue that par is just a number, arrived at arbitrarily and you wouldn’t be wrong. But then you wouldn’t be a golfer who is smitten, and somehow defined, by this game.

Rancho Park Golf Course is where I play nearly all my golf. It’s a beautiful old and storied place on the west end of Los Angeles that once was home to the LA Open, a regular stop on the PGA Tour. Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Palmer, and Nicklaus are just a few of the golf greats who have battled its breezes and barrancas. Given its proximity to the movie studios, the place has seen its share of stars over the years, among them Oliver Hardy, Johnny Weismuller, and that most famous of threesomes, Moe, Larry, and Curly. These days, thankfully, it’s just a municipal track populated by working-class people and retirees, some of whom I readily call friends though I see most of them nowhere but here. Par is a miserly 71.

A fourth marriage is said to be the ultimate example of the triumph of hope over experience. Golf does not rank far behind. It yields its secrets begrudgingly and yet always keeps them tantalizingly in view. Despite years of evidence to the contrary, I keep thinking that one of these days it’s all going to come together. What does it take to crack the code?

Generations have stared down this road that stretches from fifty to dotage and asked similar questions. They are of no help whatsoever. Each of us has to answer for ourselves what will make the journey memorable and possibly even meaningful. We listen to the conflicting messages and, depending on our level of resolve, make choices. Some of us may even hear voices. I’d like to tell that one of mine to take a hike and let me get on with the business of surrendering to my weaker self, but it wouldn’t do any good. It had been a while since we spoke but some people you never forget.

Are we done now, Socrates?

Yes, I reply, let’s do this thing.

It’s springtime 2006. I have no idea how long, if ever, it will take. In the pages that follow, I will chronicle my efforts to do so without embellishment, leaving out none of the indignities that are sure to follow. Perhaps you’ll recognize something in the telling of your game. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even take up the quest yourself. Good luck to you if you do.

Here goes. I’ll see you at the green.