I’m a bad golfer. Pretty sure that’s the correct description. If I par a hole it feels like a birdie. I’d take a bogey on every hole. When I struggle on a hole a great debate ensues about whether the worst shot on it was the drive, the approach, the chip or the putt. I only play on trips back home to Janesville or during the every-two-year-trek to Cape Town and I’ve found that schedule is not the best way to find consistency in your game. My swing is all right, it seems fairly fluid, and I don’t embarrass myself on the course but I don’t exactly distinguish myself either.
That same old story played out Monday afternoon in Janesville, at Prairie Ridge Golf Course. So why do I always enjoy myself?
Janesville didn’t get a golf course until 1995. Before that we occasionally traveled to nearby Mankato or Freeborn or New Richland. My goals on the course have pretty much remained the same since the first time I picked up a club as a teenager: Dream of birdies, pray for pars, be happy with bogeys, accept everything else, never write more than 10. Early in my, well, career isn’t quite the correct word, I could never hit the ball off the ground, not even when the ball sat up on the tee, an infuriating habit I cured by…I don’t know. One day on the course I was simply able to get lift. Like Bubba Watson, I’ve never received a lesson or analyzed my swing. Unlike Bubba, I should have done both.
Monday afternoon I went out to the course with my dad, who braved the heat, humidity and his own early-season struggles. Prairie Ridge is known for being a reversible course. One week you play the North course, the next week the South. The first green you played on the par-4 opening hole one week is the 8th green on a par 3 the next week. On Monday, after four quick holes, we got stuck behind Kevin Na’s three uncles, who showed him how to play the game many years ago. Each elderly gentleman — and I have nothing against golfers in their 60s, I was playing with one — spent many minutes looking for every lost ball, and there were plenty of those. The walks from the green to their carts were painful to watch. They doddered. These delays messed up my rhythm. At least that’s the excuse I used when I hooked a tee shot into the trees on the second par-5.
Slow play saps the strength and enthusiasm of players faster than heat and humidity. I’ve always taken pride in the fact that even when I play poorly, I always play quickly. Or maybe I’m always playing poorly because I’m always playing quickly. Regardless.
When I play with my dad or another relative I employ Fury rules, which differ in slight — but crucial — ways from the USGA. For example, kicking a ball away from a tree isn’t normally allowed. My rules allow it and only take a penalty if you’re someone with a particularly guilty conscience. When I played a lot of golf with my old college basketball coach Mike Augustine, we played by Augie Rules, the most important one being you could take a mulligan on every hole, and on any shot. Want it on a drive? Go for it. On that bad approach? Fine. On a putt? Yes, take it. Yes, on a putt. Hit it a second time, because don’t you always find you actually make those second practice putts when you don’t really care and aren’t thinking too much about it? And shouldn’t you be rewarded for making that putt, even if it was on a second attempt? Why should you get two free throw attempts to win a tie game but only one putt?
As much as I dislike waiting for people in front of me to play, it’s even more nerve-wracking because of what happens in the rear. I can’t stand having other groups watch me swing. Doesn’t matter if they’re strangers or friends. I feel like they’re judging me. If I somehow uncork a perfect drive right down the middle of the fairway, I take pride in thinking one golfer in the group behind might turn to another and say, “Kid’s got game.” But if I flub the drive and send it 50 yards in front of me — on the ground — I picture the people passing rumors around town about the horrific drive “that Fury” hit out at Prairie Ridge. “You know who I’m talking about, right? The one that moved to New York. Christ, it was so bad.” Soon the story makes its way to the Post Office and then the grocery store and then the gas station and finally to the barber shop, where, weeks later, my dad hears it repeated when someone demands confirmation. It eventually reaches the ears of a girl I had a crush on in high school and she realizes that, yes, she was right to reject my advances. Can you imagine going out with someone that hit a drive like he did on the second hole at Prairie Ridge the other day?
These are the things I think about on the tee box with people watching.
Golf is about playing the course and improving on past scores and enjoying the environment, but when I play with my dad or nephews or uncles or friends it’s also about winning and losing, as it is when we compete in anything. Since moving to New York, I don’t know if I’ve beaten my dad in a round more than one or two times on trips back home. This shouldn’t bother me and it actually doesn’t an hour after we’ve finished and are back home. But as it happens and in the minutes after we walk off the course? Quite upsetting. I analyze each hole and find the big mistakes I made and the lucky breaks he received and wonder how I can change them the next time we play, whether that’s in 12 months or two days. He beats me by never having truly terrible holes, unlike the 10 I put up Monday.
But even during those defeats I have a good time. Maybe it’s because I know my limitations. If I was actually good at the game, my struggles would infuriate me. Yes, I occasionally swear on the course now but that’s when I turn a 4 into a 7 or miss a short putt. It’s not like I’m frustrated with my overall “game.” My game is what it’s always been: Hit some nice drives, club some terrible ones, connect on some towering 5-irons, drill more into the ground; flub some chips, put some close to the cup; drain an occasional 15-foot putt, miss a bunch of 5-footers. I pretty much accept this. And if all other rationalizations fail, I always fall back on, “How can I expect to be good by playing five times a year?”
So again, where’s the fun? The enjoyment comes from the company and the competition. It’s about pretending I’m a pro while providing Johnny Miller commentary on my dad’s putts (“One in five chance of hitting this. Choke.”). It’s about how the one good drive erases the memory of the previous four bad ones. It’s about killing my nephew for his short missed putt and bragging about my lengthy make.
And these days, it’s about knowing that when I’m out on the course, it means I’m home.