From the Crow’s-nest: A Golfer’s Beginnings
“Dick, can you teach me to play golf so that I won’t embarrass myself at Laurel Valley next year?”
Perched in a midtown Manhattan loft, forty-eighth between Park and Madison, midst bustling yellow cabs, city noise, and pungent, sanitation trucks, it sits as an unlikely oasis. Behind the street entrance, guarded by a heavily armored, black door sported in six inch, white block letters: RICHARD METZ GOLF STUDIO, lays the staircase to a better golf game. Nearing the top of the staircase one heard cap-gun-like repetition, accompanied by slightly perfumed but unmistakably athletic scents, and, finally, the overwhelming scene of the beehive of golfing nonsense. There, in a row of individually partitioned, fishnet-draped torture chambers, labored chic, women athletes sporting lavender or creamy pink or powder blue polos, under silk and cashmere cable vests, legs half-decked with matching shorts or daring, placketed skirts. A closer look revealed sweltering businessmen, too, dressed in shirt and tie, whacking ball after ball. The netting, in addition to protecting from errant balls launched by each captive, helped create a false sense of privacy for this virtuous lunacy, called ‘practice’.
I had come to the Metz Studio after deciding to participate in J.P. Morgan’s 1977’s autumn golf ritual. Newly transferred into Morgan’s Pennsylvania group as the senior banker, I would just miss next month’s ‘76 outing, already scheduled. I did not know how to play the game yet, but next year, I would be ready to lead and play in skilled Morgan fashion.
Dick’s teaching technique was simple; he called it the “graduated swing method.” While addressing the golf ball placed in the middle of his stance, he would gently swing the clubhead back a few feet and, after pausing almost imperceptibly, return it firmly along the same path, through the ball, allowing the club to follow the ball along a gentle path, the club eventually stopping on its own. Elegant, no bodily contortions, no lurches; fluid motion, finishing gracefully, hands held high, torso perfectly balanced, back foot resting on its toes, they, in tensionless, vertical opposition to the floor.
After starting the video camera, Metz looked at me, smiling, “Your turn, Jim.”
Slowly, under his coaxing, the club came back to roughly the eight o’clock position; my eyes locked onto the back of the golf ball; left heel now firmly on the ground; right elbow brought in close to the body; very slowly. The club returned down towards the ball…stop! “Stop,” he said after fifteen of these routines, “and feel what is happening.” I pretended I knew “what was happening.” I knew that whatever it was, it was important and I must to do exactly what Dick said, and even to this day, during the swing, I don’t have a clue what was happening, other than I would end up striking the ball reasonably well most of the time. The backswing then moved to the nine o’clock position, repeating the downswing. Then to the graduated, ten o’clock position. I would come to know that the club and my body were engaging the “magic move” and finding the “slot.” When I would eventually be liberated to a full swing, I had to get back into this slot. My body would have to build total muscle memory of this unnatural position. Now, through the ball, slowly, to a high finish, elbows out front, head rising slowly, stopping, posing. No mistakes were possible if everything were done slowly. Over and over and over.
And so, my relationship with golf had begun.
Metz was a former tour golfer from Ft. Worth who turned to instruction to make a living after his competitive days were over. He had been modestly successful as a professional in the fifties and sixties, winning several times, but well before the big money days of professional golf. Dick was a stylish pro of modest stature, in the mold of Ben Crenshaw or Byron Nelson, handsome, powerful, yet not big, physically. His golfing game, as did theirs, bore the unmistakable imprint of the dean of Texas golf, the late Harvey Penick: the look of controlled violence. In semi-retirement, Metz disdained the life of the country club professional, the inevitable pasture of older, worn out tour members. He had said to Penick, dejectedly, that a club pro had to be half-mule (because of the long, grinding hours of the job) and half-slave (because of the ceaseless fealty at the bidding of the spoiled club members, however trivial their demands). Himself a club pro, Penick did not disagree.
So, in 1968, on a gamble with new technology (video tape), exuding the confidence of one who knew what he was doing and a firm determination to finally make some real money, he opened his studio in the lap of New York affluence. He was immediately successful, attracting wealthy, idle socialites who read his alluring ads in The New Yorker and Vogue, who responded as though Harry Winston himself had beckoned. In addition, from nowhere queued the seemingly endless chain gang of businessmen-pupils willing to pay dearly to become, at once, part of this special New York scene, searching for better skills to address the terrors of this exacting game.
Metz replied to my query of whether he could help me by saying that he could teach me to play and play reasonably well on any golf course, “but only you,” he said coyly, “could avoid embarrassment. I will teach you how to play this game, but you will have to teach yourself how to control and channel your energy and emotions.” Dick knew what he was talking about, for I would learn later that despite his golf prowess (prodigious driver of the ball, scalpel-like precision with his irons, genius touch around the greens) he was challenged in his own ways on the golf course. Notoriously emotional as a player, it was said that he had once swung a balky nine-iron at an innocent sapling at the Colonial Tournament in Ft. Worth, and had to leave it there as it wrapped itself, python-style around the tree, a monument to his shame.
Extending his hand of welcome to me to his studio, Dick accepted confidently his penance of tutoring yet another latecomer to this ‘ancient game’ and I could feel at once the surge of hope in my fingertips.
Laurel Valley Golf Club had been the site of the prestigious 1975 Ryder Cup and 1965 PGA Championship matches. This is a magnificent golf course with its rolling hills and valleys is the adopted home course of the great Arnold Palmer, the club’s setting and every detail is special. Its terrain has everything a golfer might ever want or dread: severely undulating and fast greens, narrow fairways seeded with verdant Kentucky blue grass, lined with choirs of coniferous and deciduous trees, meandering brooks and ball-hungry ponds, elevated tees, shots over water, mountain laurel every bit as fragrant and striking as the Master’s strutting magnolias at Georgia’s Augusta National. Famed golf architect Dick Wilson, designer of legendary Bay Hill and Doral’s Blue Monster (both in Florida), Cog Hill in Illinois, and the redoubtable Colonial in Texas, carved this course from a double-sized, five hundred acre corner of Andrew Carnegie’s boundary-less estate near Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Extraordinarily private and ranked perennially among the top fifty courses in the world, it was also the site of the annual Morgan Pennsylvania Client Golf Outing.
For the first of my fifteen lessons, we sat in Metz’ small office and just talked. “Any questions about your homework?” I had agreed to read the Rules of Golf when I joined the studio, and found them an irredeemably ambiguous recitation of do’s and don’ts, with breaches described in terms of “strokes,” a fitting name for the sudden pain so inflicted. “Nope, no problem,” as I practiced lying, a well developed skill among golfers.
Masterfully, he accepted my inexperience and applied the gentle firmness of instruction he gauged necessary: his knowledge of the tools, the rules, the steely mindset needed to play well, emphasizing simplicity, sensitizing me to clues for evaluating the root cause of screw ups and how to fix them.
It was easy to see why women flocked to the Metz Studio, and it had nothing to do with Dick’s good looks. He made his students feel special by letting them know that he understood their specific problems, and how to solve or work around those hurdles. To small, slight-of-build women, “how to bring the gorillas to their knees with deadly short games and accurate putting.” To more richly endowed women, “go on, get comfortable, and we’ll show you how “that equipment” will give you a few extra yards.” Only buxom Nancy Lopez, the great woman professional on tour would refer bluntly and publically to the “breast factor” in golf preparation and training regimen. Men, as most women, too, avoided discussing this topic like the plague. But Dick was bold and sensitive to confront nearly everything and the women loved him for it, and so did the men.
For me: “Jim, not many Black guys are out there. But let me tell you, after you find a course that will let on, and that may be a real adventure from time to time, your color will mean absolutely nothing. Nobody will notice or care about your color because they’ll all be so caught up in their own games that you could play naked and nobody would say anything to you.” He told me how former baseball icon Mickey Mantle used to golf naked at Preston Trail Golf Club in Dallas to nobody’s protest; that the first American-born club pro was Black (John M. Shippen, Jr. at Shinnecock Hills, Long Island); that a Black invented the wooden tee (Dr. George F. Grant). Working hard on his golf monopoly in Gotham, Metz helped us all pierce the veil of mysticism shrouding this game with special touch for calming anxieties of outsiders wanting in.
He stressed the essentials of routine, of ritual. Golf, to him, was a culture. Its rituals were important to him and he would do his best to teach them to me. I believed that all cultures require obedience to ritual in order to survive, and respect for culture and ritual had been inculcated in me at J.P. Morgan. Junius Spencer Morgan transplanted the House of Morgan, founded in London in 1838, 25 years later to New York. Its grandeur waxed to unparalleled dimensions under both his son, J. Pierpont Morgan, Sr., and grandson, J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr. Both senior and junior were distinctive giants of their eras, each with equally nefarious reputations, earned and unearned. Senior had the persona of the villainous robber baron who controlled world finance ruthlessly, while his son was considered manipulator of world leaders as though they were merely marionettes. History blurs their individual identity by invoking the name, “J.P. Morgan,” when talking about “that scoundrel,” though the name was that of the premier banking partnership that bore both their names, achieving preeminence that towered over the world of finance. Though seen as a rapacious juggernaut from the outside, and disliked by our competitors, internally things seemed quite different. It was a great place to work; clients’ interests were primary and well served. We were team-centered, competitive, knowledgeable, fit, and worked hard together and played just as hard.
Mutual trust was a cornerstone bond at Morgan. Memorable was an officer’s ritual known as vault duty. Each newly promoted junior officer served two weeks’ guard duty in securing the bank’s vaults in the evening and reopening them in the morning. The cavernous, meticulously polished steel vaults were located in the granite-shrouded, underground fortress beneath the bank, in the bowels of Wall Street. The vaults housed not only Morgan’s enormous, institutional monetary reserves, but were designed originally as the safekeeping place for the dozen original partners’ families’ priceless stockpiles of jewels, jade sculpture, Persian rugs, precious metals, and other transportable antiquities. With the passage of time came the centrifugal diffusion of family wealth and treasures, so that by the mid-1970’s (on my turn for “watch”), the vault served only their commercial function. No longer did processions of family members wander in and out of the vaults to store or retrieve possessions, though the lore of rituals persisted. I, as did each new officer, armed with sets of keys and combinations, supervised the cadre of armed guards with whom one secured the double-keyed vaults each night. I would then retire to special sleeping quarters, set my alarm clock, and awaken to prepare the vaults for another day’s ritual.
Dick’s cultural mission was to feed passionately the culture of golf from his studio nest as best he could, and the gods would watch over it all “out there.”
For my second lesson and first in my netted chamber, I looked just like the rest of the men. Unlike the stylish women, I wore pinstriped slacks, white shirt, rolled to the elbows, tie neatly tucked into the shirt, military style, leather soled, shined shoes set incongruously upon the hard, slippery Astroturf. Dick was a stickler on appropriate dress for golf. He disdained eye-assaulting flamboyance at one end of the spectrum, hog trough sloppiness at the other. Instead, neat, fresh looking, airy, athletic but loosely fitting garments, a must. He had excused his students from most of these guidelines, knowing that we had come directly from work and would perhaps return there after lessons. In those days, he had no shower facilities. “But, Jim,” he said, “when you play for real, please don’t show up at the first tee looking like you’re preparing for a day at the office or in the garage. Look like a golfer. Wear clean shoes, pressed slacks, tasteful shirts, loose vest, fresh glove, and wear a cap if you’d like. Mix with color, but don’t look like a circus clown.” I assured him that, on the course, I would always strive to look sharp, though my game might not follow suit. To this day, I have kept my sartorial promise, and my game has, predictably, retained its independence.
So as Dick called out, I took my turn with the graduated method under his watchful eye and that of his unforgiving camera. Swing after swing, lesson after lesson before my baseball-proficient form began to morph into a suppler, powerful, golfing form. It was a struggle to unlearn baseball’s motions of swinging the bat parallel to the ground in search of an attacking missile. I had two more lessons with the nine iron, two with the seven iron, two with the five iron, then another talking lesson, this time about playing with golf woods. The nine lessons, seven of which with the irons, gradually secured the basic mechanics of the Metz method. We were now ready for the dreaded driver and other woods.
Golfing woods were unique and Dick, as usual, insisted we discuss their special ergonomics before actually swinging them. They had developed their infamy as confidence sapping clubs. Some golfers would not use them at all. “Students must not accept this blasphemy,” he said. Rather, woods were instruments of golfing joy given to the sport by the golfing gods. Not that the gods were beneficent, but woods, when used with a good swing, will help mortals tilt in their favor the otherwise long odds against them in this tortuous game.
The wooden club heads are made from persimmon, an extremely hard, dense wood of the ebony tree family, a cousin to that used in piano keys. The club heads are as unique as the persimmon tree, the source of a stenchy “fruit” with a disgusting, prickly texture, and consumed only by the equally, odious opossum. When handcrafted by artisans from trees at least fifty-years-old, the hard, dark wood accepts a brilliant, finished lacquer and polish, producing a golf club that is a thing of beauty. Dick talked while cradled the head of his persimmon driver, its head polished in a deep-red hue and dark chocolate surface as alluring as a Tiffany ruby.
Persimmon clubs are used in the long game; the “one wood” (called the driver) for the longest plays, two wood (“brassie”), three wood (“spoon”) and down to the “baffy,” a wood for middle-distances for which long irons might also be suitable. Given a choice between the easier to use baffy and a three-to-five iron, the wise amateur should always use the baffy, larger and flatter than irons, and which slides through the longer grass with less effort.
But the overriding feature that makes the persimmon wood preferable for literally any full swing stroke is that its density and hardness permit a design, which, despite the incompetence of the golfer, has a built in, ball-flight correcting geometry that is a legacy from the gods of golf. The club’s face is not flat as an iron’s, but has a perceptible roll from top to bottom and side to side, producing the net effect of a slight bulge. Working in combination with a natural center of gravity deeply situated in the heart of the dense, woodenhead, the bulge is a masterfully engineered stroke-saver.
Because the full golf swing is so long and ball striking precision so elusive, golfers tend to hit the ball off-center, even with a near perfect swing. Hitting off-center creates unwanted sidespin, driving the ball sharply right (slice) or left (hook). The purpose of the bulge is (counter intuitively) to start the ball farther to the right on toe shots and farther to the left on heel shots to compensate for the unwanted slicing or hooking sidespin. The source of compensation occurs when a shot is hit on the toe of the club, the head rotates counterclockwise around its center of gravity and (during the millisecond of contact) hook spin is imparted to the ball, to defeat the push to the right. A shot hit on the heel of the club rotates in the opposite way around its center of gravity and slicing spin is imparted to the ball, to defeat the pull to the left. Thus, the bulge, a gift from the gods, starts the off-center shot farther to the right or left and allows the ball to spin back towards the target line. This self-correcting, gearing-effect has not been duplicated or improved by any other golfing innovation, including the use of metal club heads, up to the present day.
Metal clubs have largely replaced the woods because golfers have always been enamored with the prospect of hitting the ball farther. Absolutely, the metal club will deliver extra yards, never mind neither as straight nor with the earthy thud of wood-on-ball. Not straight, because the head is hollow and its center of gravity is directly behind its face instead of deeper within the head; consequently, there is no gearing-effect. The metal club has no effective “heart,” regardless of its modern, enormous size, and no correcting rotation is possible. No matter, for the wonders of aggressive advertising and tireless marketing, the lure of machismo at thoughts of horizon-shattering drives, and the lack of true understanding of the gods’ gift, metal’s dominance is assured. In addition, metal clubs are more expensive to buy and much cheaper to manufacture than hand crafted persimmons, allowing makers substantially higher margins and profits to pay advertising to pros (who have much less need for gearing because of their superior ball striking). Nearly thirty years after my betrothal to persimmon in Dick’s loft, I remained faithful to the gods’ gift, for in golf, straight is better than long, until Lucifer (age) comes out of hiding to frustrate everything.
Following three swinging lessons with the woods, one each with the baffy, spoon, and driver, we spent two complete lessons on putting. This difficult aspect of golf is unique. Ben Hogan was said to feel that putting did not belong in the game, that it was like croquette, a separate game in itself and not a measure of a golfer’s true skill. But learn it I did. In this difficult phase of the game, we struggled to find “me” within my physical and psychological boundaries. I was too “handsy” and “wristy” and aggressive, but we overcame those tendencies through drills and review with the unforgiving video recorder. This was time well spent, as I reflect on my putting success over the years with this devilish game. Before Lucifer came knocking, my putting had been superior because of Dick’s patient work. I would win two putters as prizes for longest putts holed in competitions over the years, and aided many teams in aggregate scoring against par in innumerable tests where my putting prowess had been my contribution to the teams’ efforts.
The final lesson would be a “playing lesson”, indoor style: Dick would pose a situation to me (325-yard par 4, dogleg right, trees and creek left at the elbow…what would you do, Jim?). I would answer, he would correct as needed, then and I would play out the hole, videotaped. Hole after hole…Laurel Valley, by-gosh!! He knew the course and we played it by proxy! How to shoot par at Laurel Valley! But Dick did not let me fantasize about par for too long after we “played.” He told me that it was going to be so much harder that I could imagine. However, he guaranteed that I would do better than most golfers if we played by the rules.
Dick explained that Laurel Valley was as beautiful as it was diabolical. Explaining that a golf course’s difficulty is ranked by its resistance to scoring, on a scale from 55 to 155, and Laurel Valley was in the nosebleed range at 147. Though its par is 72, average pros play closer to 75 there. Long, well over seven-thousand yards, easily one-thousand yards longer than courses most men play at their clubs. The hills and water further magnified its length and playing pain. Amateurs there will attentively undercount strokes, as they do on most difficult courses. Most even lie and cheat on their home course, he said, by playing to mutually agreed upon, ad hoc rules (fair to each other, and damn the gods).
Pros, on the other hand, force each other (with officials close by) to play by the Rules. Their scores are real. Their golfing prowess is so vastly superior to that of typical amateurs that there is little comparison between a pro and an amateur’s games. Pros hit the ball with forces at once so ferocious and precise that amateurs cannot begin to duplicate them. Pros launch the ball higher, longer and straighter. They execute their putts and short games so proficiently that amateurs can only marvel at the results. But amateurs do compensate quite effectively for their deficiencies. They cheat and lie. They play “mulligans” (i.e., second ball allowed in place of an undesirable first ball, without penalty); or “gilligans” (second balls played that ended up worse than the first ball and therefore ignored, allowing play of the first ball without penalty); or “nixons” (deniable balls, for truly outrageous shots that were clearly mistakes, therefore deniable that there ever was a good swing, played over without penalty). Amateurs roll slightly buried balls out of indentations to assure easier next strokes, calling the practice “winter rules” (regardless of the weather). Bastardizing a football phrase, they refer to long, disabling grasses as “unnecessary rough” (“Just because the groundskeepers did not cut the grass, why should we suffer unnecessary lost ball penalties?”). The result, he said, produced scores that belied reality. “Jim, please don’t go there, okay?”
The true “bogey” golfer (one who scores one over par per hole), with no cheating, would normally shoot mid-to-high nineties and roughly ninety on a very good day, on a well-kept, country club course of slightly above-average severity. The “ninety” would represent the approximate mean of his most recent, lowest ten scores. By definition (Dick at this point sketching a bell curve on his blackboard), the bogey golfer’s average score of all rounds, not just his best last ten, would be considerably higher and on a “normal curve”, about one hundred, plus or minus a few. Due to the unusual severity of Laurel Valley, the bogey golfer having an average day could not break one hundred, and if playing by the Rules, one hundred and ten at best. Dick encouraged me to see that we play by them in our tournament.
With my new found framework of scoring I asked meekly, “Dick, what am I likely to score there?” He thought a bit, smiled, and responded that he would not want to put a number on it. “Jim,” he probed, “I would score around 75. Are you only one stroke per hole worse than me, and shoot a 93? Of course not. Two strokes, and score 111? Not yet. Five, 165; no you’re not that bad. If you play the game you’ve learned here, I’d give you two or three strokes per hole, and you just might beat me. Next year we’d cut that spread, but for now, it’s fair.
“Moreover,” he continued, “don’t cheat and don’t be afraid to ask them why they aren’t counting all their strokes. Intimidate, act dumb, let them see you reaching in your bag for the Rules, and track their strokes.” If they ask for “gimmies” after their putts end up near the hole (suggesting you “give them” the score without their having to actually make the putt), say, “Sure,” and reach down, put a ball marker at their ball, and give them their ball (“you said gimme, right?”). That will surely piss them off, and you’ll have secured the advantage of the gods. I smiled.
My lessons were now complete and he sold me a set of clubs from his shop, beautiful Spaulding “Legacy” clubs, which included ebony-finished woods. I thanked Dick for teaching me the game. He wished me luck and told me to stay focused, adding, “play it as it lies, always replace your divots, for the gods are watching from the crow’s nest.” I now had several months until the outing, and he encouraged me to take my practice outside instead of into his nets, to go often to a real driving range. “Test your game in good weather and bad, in wind and baking sun, in dews and dusk’s shadows, go get ready!” So, off I went.
The nearest outdoor range was in New Jersey, over the George Washington Bridge, at Nelson’s Driving Range and Miniature Golf. The over-the-bridge trek and ball beating, continued for the rest of the summer. I got used to the oafs with whom I shared the range. Their dress was sloppy and manners vulgar, the rhythmic cursing to the downbeat of miss-hit balls. I kept thinking “straight” but was seduced by the increasingly greater distances I could hit my ball as the summer wore on, kidding myself into thinking that it flew even farther than it did. That was fine, of course, for all golfers possess a measure of self-delusion when it comes to properly assessing their skills, so why shouldn’t I, too?
My golfing “convocation” had now arrived. Following the flight from New York, and driving east to Ligonier from Pittsburgh, the lush hills of the Laurel Highlands hinted at the unfathomable wealth of the super-rich of America’s past. Unlike that of today’s rich, the barons’ largesse expressed itself not only in ownership of stocks and bonds and companies, but also in landholdings whose scale challenged the imagination. In addition to paper assets, the Rockefellers’ majestic land stretched far up both sides of the yawning Hudson River and deep into New Jersey and New York. And the Vanderbilts owned mountain ranges in the Carolinas whose crests exceeded the reach of eager eyes straining to identify them. So it also was as I drove through the seemingly interminable Carnegie estates in Western Pennsylvania, and entered the private grounds of the majestic Laurel Valley Golf Club.
In a cacophony of early autumn colors, stretching left was the panorama of lush golf real estate, midst sentinels of soaring oaks, sycamores, pines, and maples; to the right the expansive club house, a white-trimmed, brick edifice as imposing as a baronial mansion, thrusting up and out from its mooring in pink and green laurel-sheltered grounds. Tomorrow morning, the other sixty-odd golfers would arrive for the tournament and my long-awaited test would commence. This evening, my Morgan assistant, good golfer, Williams College-Harvard B-School educated banker (who had piloted his own plane from New York) and I would meet with the club staff, tour the facilities, including the endless displays of golfing memorabilia scattered throughout this cathedral of golf. Together, we would preview tomorrow’s sequence of events, and bed down in the reserved sanctuary upstairs where the Ryder Cup captains (Arnold Palmer and Tony Jacklin) had slept the year before. But now, we relaxed and took a beer in the Men’s Grill, which overlooked the practice putting green, this was the first real green I had ever seen. It resembled a giant billiard table stretched seemingly over half an acre of deeply buried elephants. Dominating the wall behind us hung an oversized mural featuring the sweltering athletes, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, striding, glaring into the sun, locked in competition that only one would win. Ned, my colleague, called them “sweaty gladiators in combat,” adding imperiously that the symbol of the Olympics is laurel foliage.
We raised our steins to the mural in a fitting toast to Jack and Arnie and the battle before us!
The Laurel Valley staff showed us the “royal” upstairs suites. And so we went.
That evening, as I lay in my bed, visions of Morgan’s vaults arose from my mind’s catacombs, and later dislodged by thoughts of Dick’s aerie, alive with conversation and gay, ball-smashing, as I freewheeled into sleep to the imagined sounds of dancing, ebony piano keys.
At morning’s break in the Highlands, the staff returned and preparations for our outing would begin in earnest. While the clubhouse was being readied, my colleague and I reviewed one last time the foursomes’ pairings. Pittsburgh’s sons, the financial leadership of most of the major, locally based, corporate clients of J.P. Morgan would attend. Tee times were scheduled to begin (me first) at Gary Cooper’s high noon, finding me as nervous as he though he had guns and I, unfortunately had nothing but my golf clubs.
The enduring truths of that day are few but memorable.
My attire: I dressed in natty golf clothes: brown on brown snake print shoes; tan, cuffed, straight front trousers; burgundy polo and beeswax yellow vest; and topped off with a pale blue, Laurel Valley member’s cap with the pink and green, floral club medallion. Dick would have approved.
My first swing: As leader of the first foursome, and playing my very first round of golf ever, I trembled over my first tee shot, the foursome’s first ball. Two of my three partners were bogey golfers, and one of which was a member of the club; the third was “bogey plus” member. I mused, silently, “plus what?” The hole lay 396 yards ahead, green sloping upwards, front to back, flanked by white sand. Wielding my persimmon driver and making the magic move into the indifferent ball, I smashed it, sending it away, first slightly left of center, then, under the eyes of the gods, smoothly back to the right, coming to rest finally about 220 yards away, near the middle of the fairway. Cheers, cries of “sandbagger” (a golfer feigning to be worse than professed, in order to attract foolish bets), my denial, smiling. Then, in quick succession, my partners each drove their balls well past mine, each ball feeding the rising levels of testosterone and noisy approval from the cigar-smoking combatants. We were off, four golfers and four caddies, striding, to the unfamiliar, rhythmic rattling bags of clubs, and I was quite sure that no one else’s heart was pounding like mine.
Being the farthest from the green, I took my second shot first, chose my baffy and smashed the ball to the green side sand bunker, over 175 yards away, an unforgettable, gold standard fairway wood shot, which would likely take me years to replicate. Given the distance and the pressure, I was more than pleased. My partners then stunned me as each put his second shot on the putting surface, leaving me stranded, alone, in the bunker. As I stood behind the bunker, surveying my lie and wondering just what in the world was I to do now, my caddy asked me what club I wanted to use. Within earshot of all gathered, I responded, “ten iron, please.” They burst into laughter, ten iron? Who in hell uses a ten iron? Jim, you need your sand wedge. What? You don’t have a sand wedge? Want to borrow mine? No? Ok! Use your *****ten iron.
“Play it like it lies,” the guardian angel whispered in my ear.
I had never before been in a real bunker. However, I was familiar with sand. During the summer, when I took the family to Long Island’s Jones Beach, I would leave them playing to go alone to a scraggly area. There, alone with abundant fragments of seashells and driftwood having made walking barefoot and sunbathing impractical and uncomfortable for anyone other than one seeking to be alone, I would learn ‘sand play’. Scandalously attired in golf shoes and swimsuit, I would drop a handful of golf balls and practiced my sand shots with the ten iron, which Dick had put it into my bag. I timed my shots to the predictable ebb of the back-sweeping Atlantic Ocean, just before the next wave’s heave, with sea gulls as the only witnesses of my ignominious trials. I created my ‘sand game’ in this way that summer.
Thus prepared, I trudged into the bunker, with trusty ten iron in hand, and delivered an unlikely, though absolutely perfect, shot, one bounce, into the hole, to raucous cheering rocking the first green. I was in shock, as was Mephistopheles, lurking as always. Into the par 4 hole in three shots, I was suddenly leading my foursome when no one made his first putt. My “bogey plus” foursome partner had stroked his first putt about six inches from the hole. “Gimme?” he barked. “Sure”, I said, bending over, placing a marker at his ball, then ‘giving’ him his ball to his utter shock. Under the astonished glares of the other golfers and caddies, he barked, “Oh! Rules of Golf, eh?” And, thus, I had established the standard of play for rest of the day. The message “play by the rules” raced around the course by caddy-word-of- mouth. The gods would surely rule the day!
At day’s end, I finished third in my foursome and my score, 117, ranked in the middle of all scores for the day. I had beaten as many golfers as I trailed. I had yielded forty-two shots to Dick’s theoretical score, comfortably between the two-to-three strokes per hole he had spotted me. The balance of the successful day’s events remains a meaningless blur.
Nothing was sweeter than visiting with Dick soon after I had returned to the city. He reached for my hand, smiled, and said, “Jim, great job, but never score that high again, you hear?”
Those were my marching orders for the rest of my golfing life, and to this day, I have never scored that high again.