Survival of the Fittest: Armchair Golfer
After taking lessons at the Adult School, the author becomes a golf enthusiast but, so far, only in the abstract.
When I play golf, my biggest handicap is that I am usually nowhere near a golf course. I am ensconced in a chair with a book about a middle-aged guy whose world is upended when he discovers golf. Or rediscovers it after having taken several decades off to have a life. Soon life is taking a distant second to the pursuit of the perfect club head, the physics of the swing (makes quantum mechanics seem easy), and the encouraging thought that, even if he did not get around to turning pro in his youth, the Senior Tour is not too far off.
Golf also provides its enthusiasts with a whole new excuse for travel, and it is at this point–as I read about all the exotic places where golf is played–that I really begin to salivate. Looking up from my book, I become, my kids tell me, distant, even abstracted, and in truth, I am no longer in the same room with them as they battle over whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher or feed the parakeets. I am playing the renowned Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. A kind of miracle has sent my ball soaring over a series of treacherous bunkers and landed it on the green. Now it is all up to my short game as I reach deep inside myself and bring the club back ever so gracefully. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse Tiger Woods and Tom Watson: they’re taking notes.
Of course, the fulfillment of this fantasy would represent quite an accomplishment for someone who only recently had his first golf lessons through the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School. This was overall a good experience and the instructor a patient man. Mostly, though, I recall the puzzlement and, at times, worry of the deer roaming the Millburn municipal golf course as my classmates and I took turns whacking shot after shot in the general direction of the fairway. (Fore, Bambi, fore!) At least the local fauna could relax with me. My favorite golf shot seems to be one that leaves a large divot of churned-up earth while barely ruffling the zen-like composure of the ball.
There are always more lessons to be had, swing remedies to be sought out, and pricey accoutrements to be purchased. Eventually, I might find myself at one of those clinics where they film your golf game from every possible angle, though in my case the finished product would be more horror flick than educational video: think “'Saw' meets 'Caddyshack'.” But the likelihood is that the rest of my 40s will be neither financially right nor sufficiently conducive to leisure for the kind of conversion experience that seems par for the course with the middle-aged golfer. Having missed the golf boat in my carefree 20s, I do not expect it to come around again anytime soon.
Still, I try not to let this hold me back. Not only do I always make birdies in my daydreams, but I make them in some non-traditional venues, once while standing in line at the South Orange post office and another time in the frozen vegetable section of the Pathmark on Valley Street. Both of these came after reading David Owen’s "My Usual Game," which recounts some of his own post-conversion travels as a correspondent for Golf Digest, and so I did not consider myself confined to my immediate surroundings. I’m not sure about the post-office birdie, but in the case of Pathmark, the icy breath of unsold broccoli had wafted me as far away as Florida’s Walt Disney World, where, sticky with perspiration, I was playing a hole at Eagle Pines. My caddy, a successful neurosurgeon when not moonlighting for me, had just handed me a driver and offered a final piece of advice: “Fade off the tee and draw onto the green!” I had no idea what this meant, but I nodded as if I did and readied my stance. Shoulders relaxed, hips ready to swivel. There would be no craters in the earth today. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed Pluto and Mickey, each giving me a big thumbs-up…
But should all this count as “playing” golf? Ultimately, this is a matter for golf’s official rulemaking body, the USGA, to decide. Detractors of the sport, however, would say that I am getting almost the same amount of actual exercise as many of those on the links. (Indeed, though my own experiences as a student of the game were too humbling for me to subscribe to this view, a lack of cardio-vascular exercise relative to other activities is perhaps golf’s greatest challenge to the time-constrained.)
Golf is also supposed to be a mental game, so, in a way, I have stripped it to its essence, avoiding in the process the danger that the reality might not over time measure up to the fantasy. But the bottom line is that I do not entirely trust myself with golf. The ranks of its aficionados seem to be full of those who never thought it could happen to them. If I’m not careful, I too could disappear into the same Bermuda Triangle where so many have disappeared before me. And Bermuda, I’ve read, has some pretty nice golf courses.
David Baker is a South Orange resident and an English professor at Rutgers-Newark. This piece is part of a series on midlife fitness.