There was a time when I would have shaken my head in wonder at the thought of writing a column about golf. Before my fall from grace--and onto the fairways of America--golf was filed in the same general area of my consciousness as Cabbage Patch dolls and pledge breaks on public television.
"Golf!" I was known to exclaim, whenever any of my high school friends dared breach the subject, "Golf is a game played by old men in pastel stretch slacks, whose only evident physical condition is Budweiser pregnancy and sunburn."
During such outbursts, I considered myself a bit of a crusader, defending the hallowed halls of true athleticism against what I regarded as a bunch of blond pretty boys running around in bowling shoes on weekend t.v.
I, by contrast, was the true athlete. In high school, I'd reveled in the pain of competitive swimming, and developed a distinctive way of discharging tobacco juice from between my teeth on the baseball diamond.
My first year at this esteemed institution was wholly given over to crew--a more macho sport, women included, there is not.
Despite these personal predispositions, a lifelong friend was able to convince me to accompany him to the links on my return home after freshman year.
He pointed out to me that with a very good drive off the tee, say 300 yards, a golfer hits his ball roughly twice as far as anyone has ever hit a baseball.
Anyone. Ever. That means Willie Mays. That means Willie Stargell. My heroes. I decided I could try golf.
I shot a 56 for nine holes that day. Those of you in the know about these things will realize that while such a tally hardly had the golf world buzzing about the next Nicklaus, it was a hell of a score for someone who'd only hit golf balls through broken windmills.
I'd been warned about the addictive nature of the game. My father used to tell the story of a fellow who shows up at his home three hours late and drenched with sweat after his weekly round with the boys.
His wife exclaims, "Herman, you look terrible! What happened?" He replies that his partner, Ralph, succumbed to a fatal heart attack on the ninth green.
"That's awful," she responds.
"No kidding. The back nine was hell...Hit a shot, drag Ralph. Hit a shot, drag Ralph."
Like Herman, I was hooked. I loved the open green space, the quiet, and especially--dare I say it--the athletic challenge of it all.
I even had a few glimpses of the agony bred by the daily combination of expectation and reality on the golf course. Once, my friend grew so enraged at not being able to get his ball out of a sand trap on successive shots that he picked it up with his mouth and dropped it onto the green.
Illegal, of course, but dramatic.
I played as much as I could again this past September, lowering my scores ever so gradually into the intermediate range.
I even caught myself passing up The Godfather and "10" at the video rental place for a tape called "Automatic Golf." The tape consists of a barrel-chested pro demonstrating a grip so convoluted that he swears it makes perfect golf swings inevitable.
I tried the grip, put two dents in my living room ceiling while practicing, and couldn't move my left index finger without discomfort for about a week.
But in general I try to keep my new addiction in perspective. I try to recall the common--but cheering--advice offered me early in my career by a wizened sage of the greens.
"The perfect golf swing," I was told, "is like true love. You search forever and hardly ever find it. But when you do--look out, Momma."
"And besides," my informer added in a confidential tone, "your odds are better with golf."
I'll buy that. Now I just need a pair of those funky shoes.