Life Lessons

by Tom Regan

Four. Three. Two. One. Seven-thirty, on the dot. We’re talking rocket science here. You can’t phone for a tee time before seven-thirty, the day before you want to play. And you don’t want to be back in the queue when the call goes through. So timing is everything. And what timing means here is: seven-thirty, on the dot.

A menu answers. If you want to have needles jabbed in your eyes, press one. If you want to have your liver seared on hot coals, press two. If you want to schedule a tee time at Pebble Beach, press three. I press three.

“You want to play Pebble Beach?” a Valley Girl voice answers. “You mean, like, today even?”

“That would be great,” I say, adding, perhaps a bit defensively, “Is there anything wrong with that?”
“No, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that, you know, if you’re staying at the Lodge, tee times usually have to be arranged six months in advance.”

I am tempted to reply that I have decided not to stay at the Lodge this time because I found the $1,950 per night two-bedroom suite overlooking the eighteenth fairway a bit too confining. But commonsense prevails, and I say, as cordially as I can, lust catching in my throat, “Thank you, but I’m not staying at the Lodge . . . this time. I was just wondering whether, well, maybe . . . I mean, perhaps . . . someone has had to cancel?”

“Let me check.”

She’s gone, lost in a shower of music. “Who’s kidding whom?” I’m thinking to myself. “The chances of walking-on at Pebble Beach? Today? Tomorrow? Any day? Get real.”

“What about eight-thirty? We have a cancellation. A medical emergency or something.”

“You mean eight-thirty today?”

“Yes. Eight-thirty. Today.”

“Let me think a minute.” I do some fast calculations. Here I am, in the middle of San Francisco. I have just gotten up, haven’t dressed, haven’t eaten, haven’t even woken dear Nancy. Plus I don’t know my way out of the city. But I figure if I forget about showering, forget about breakfast, don’t forget about Nancy, don’t get lost, and average, say, 260 miles an hour, I can make it. Dangerous, but doable.

“That’s cutting it a little close,” I say. “Do you maybe have anything later? Possibly?”

“What did you say?”

“I said, do you maybe have anything later? Possibly?”

That sweet voice speaketh not. Nor is there the need to. I know what she’s thinking. What she’s thinking is, “You’ve got to be an idgit. Someone gives you a tee time at Pebble Beach, on the very day you call, and you’re flotsam enough to ask for another one?”

“Sometime tomorrow would be fine,” I venture.

“Let me check.”

This time the music goes on, and on, and on. I figure the young woman is putting my commitment to the test. How much do I really want to play Pebble Beach? Well, she’ll see. There’s no way I’m backing-off this phone, even if I have to listen to most of the god zillion tunes recorded by the Beach Boys. Then she’s back.

“What about one-thirty tomorrow?”

“One-thirty? Tomorrow? Are you kidding?”

“One-thirty. Tomorrow. I’m serious. A medical emergency or something.”

“Oh, my God,” I say. “I’ll take it!”

The rest is about credit card numbers, proper dress, directions. I keep thinking, “This is too good to be true.” When, after a hearty breakfast and several wrong turns, I find Highway 1 heading south out of San Francisco, Nancy by my side, our children back home safe in their skins, a leisurely drive ahead, I see myself as the Lou Gehrig of golf. I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Beginnings

Golf has been a fickle part of my life, dating back to the early 50s. That was when I began caddying at Shannopin Country Club, about ten miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. A trolley line passed directly in front of our house and made a stop at the foot of a long, steep hill that led to the golf course. The trolley-run could take up to half an hour, depending on traffic; the trek up the hill, another twenty minutes. During the golfing season, if you wanted your name near the top of the caddy master’s list, you had to leave my neighborhood no later than six-thirty. Many were the days of summer, and on weekends in spring and fall, when I left home sleepy-eyed but full of anticipation.

Part of the anticipation was the money. Back then you earned 75 cents a bag for eighteen holes. Plus almost everyone would throw in at least a quarter tip. Caddies who arrived early enough to carry doubles twice could pocket $4, even more by also shagging balls or, if you were big and strong enough, carrying three bags at a time. I remember once carrying triples twice, with good tips all around.

But it was not only the money that motivated my younger self to rise when most boys my age were still in bed. There was something about a golf course, something about the game itself, that claimed my sensibilities at that early age and that continue to do so to this very day. Probably all golfers have experienced the same things I have, more or less; but none of us, I think, has found the words to capture what we feel.

* The mystical tranquility of so large a space, especially at sunrise, after the crickets grow silent and the birds begin their morning song; the grasses, thick as soup with dew, without a single human footprint breaking their pristine surfaces, shimmering in earliest light; and not a single human syllable shattering the earth’s mysterious silences.

* The sight of a ball well-struck: a Platonic dot of evanescent whiteness, rising resolutely into the wind, holding its line, searching for the place where it belongs, soaring without human will or whim to guide it; and then, like a bright after-image viewed against the darkness, the moment passes, the shot forever part of the past, to live only in memory, talked about in boasts and incredulity, the game moving inexorably forward, forever forward, the players crafting other shots, birthing newer memories.

* The jocular camaraderie of friends in fierce competition, none wishing ill to the other, but none any particular good either; their laughter and cursing; the words exchanged, in praise and denigration; grown men acting at being boys, and women, girls, bonded in an oasis of stolen time, away from home and job, finding space in life for play again.

Of such moments, of such times, are golf courses and the game of golf made, such the riches given to those who would receive them, something that, from the first day I sauntered down the first fairway at Shannopin Country Club, a single bag working its wages on my bony shoulder, I took happily, greedily. And then, for the better part of thirty years, for reasons I can give but not entirely understand, almost not at all.

Gathering dust

As is true of others who played the game in their youth, golf became something “I used to do” when (here come my reasons) I could no longer find the time to play it. It’s not hard to say when this happened. Nancy gave birth to our son, Bryan, in 1966; I took my first real job in 1967; we built a house in 1969; and our daughter, Karen, was born in 1970.

After these developments, except for maybe three or four rounds a year early on, then none at all for most years thereafter, I threw myself into being a good husband, a good father, a good provider, a hard-working teacher, a productive scholar, and a former golfer.

True, I continued to follow the game; but the passion and dedication were gone. I had too much else I had to do, too much else I wanted to do. At least that’s what I kept saying to myself even as, inside, I questioned my own veracity.

My first set of clubs had wooden shafts and bore names like Brassie, Spoon, and Niblick; they had been my father’s, given to him over the years by wealthy golfers for whom he had caddied in his youth. When golf was no longer part of his life, he gave his clubs to me. Blessed with a slow, graceful swing, characterized by an intensity when playing that made Ben Hogan look like Bill Murray by comparison, I have no doubt that he could have been a scratch golfer if circumstances had not prevented him from working at his game. “You have to practice if you want to be good.” My father never tired of sharing his simple wisdom with me, especially when, my Tommy Bolt temper venting steam, I took to cursing and throwing clubs. “Don’t expect to be good at this game,” he would say, “if you don’t take the time to practice.”

I don’t think he ever knew this, but I did take the time to practice. I all but wore the brass off that Brassie; snapped the head off that Spoon; callused my hands hitting that Niblick; all to no great purpose. Almost from the start, when caddies were permitted to play one morning a week at Shannopin, I had the skills to break 100; but try as I might, I could not get much better. I was, you might say, born to be a bogey golfer; that, and nothing more.

Which was why I was never comfortable with the reasons I gave for letting golf drop out of my life. When I was honest with myself, I had to admit the game had gotten the best of me. Here’s what I mean.

For as long as I could remember, I had a golfing doppelganger, another golfing self who embodied all that I was capable of — or, more accurately, all that I believed I was capable of. This never-seen-by-anyone-else friend of mine didn’t think in terms of failure. He always expected me to drive the ball straight and far; always expected me to hit fairway woods and irons long and true; always expected me to pitch and chip with accuracy and finesse; never expected me to leave a putt short or miss a two-foot come-backer.

Of course, all of this was relative to my game. My doppelganger didn’t expect me to hit the ball as far as Bubba Watson or putt as well as Steve Stricker. No, my doppelganger wasn’t that unreasonable. He just always expected me to play at the top of my game.

By way of example: more than once in my life I’d hit a drive over 250 yards. Well, having done this a few times in the past, my doppelganger expected me to do it every time I took the big stick in my hands.

Again, more than once in my life I’d hit a sand wedge out of a deep bunker to within a few inches of the cup. Well, having done this a few times in the past, my doppelganger expected me to do it every time I was in a greenside trap.

Logically, it didn’t make any sense. Ninety-nine percent of the time (at least) my drive did not go that far and my sand shot did not end up that close. When it came to my doppelganger’s expectations, however, logic made no difference. If I did thus-and-so in the past, then I should be able to do thus-and-so in the present. And if I should be able to do thus-and-so in the present, then by gum my doppelganger didn’t see any reason why I didn’t just do it.

As Joe Thiesman might have said, you don’t have to be Norman Einstein to see that my relationship with my doppelganger was not a happy one. The expectations never yielded. The sense of failure never weakened. Why play a game, I asked myself, that all but guarantees disappointment and frustration, not just a little but a lot? Why not find some other athletic pursuit — long distance running, for example, where you can spend an hour or two a day, with friends, everyone running at the same pace, with no winners or losers — except on race day. Which is the path I took for most of the next thirty years of my life, my golf clubs gathering dust in the attic. The game had gotten the best of me.

Try, try again

My father died in 1995. He was 85. He hadn’t touched a club in 20 years. Maybe more. Near the end, he was hobbled by Parkinson’s. He no longer walked, he shuffled; and he slobbered some, his speech slurring the more, the more the muscles in his mouth weakened. Over time he withered away, leaving a shell behind, brittle as kindling. You could have crushed his chest if you weren’t careful when you embraced him. Even so, even up to the moment he breathed his last inaudible breath, I never doubted that he could have thrashed me soundly, on any links of my choosing, still saying, “Don’t expect to be good at this game if you don’t take the time to practice.”

A few years before he passed away, I had made a futile attempt to return to the game. There I was, pounding balls on the range — hundreds of them a day — with the rapacious appetite of a famished vegan turned loose in a tofu factory. Did my game improve? Had my doppelganger exited, stage left? Don’t bet on it. The only thing my irrational exuberance earned me was not one, but two golfer’s elbows; that and (to my enduring gratitude) a two-year medical leave from my home course.

Then, after my father’s death, I decided to try again, one last time, only now with a more prudent sense of purpose and commitment. It goes without saying that I wanted to become a better player, and that I was willing to practice regularly and hard (but not to the point of physical destruction) if that was what it took. But I also wanted to immerse myself in the wonders and mysteries of the game, to rediscover, with the fresh eyes of maturity, what it offers to all who play it, whatever our level of skill. For a good six months, as time permitted, I worked at every phase of my game until, in 1999, not long after my sixtieth birthday, judging myself to be as ready as I ever would be, I found myself driving south out of San Francisco, destination: Pebble Beach.

Pebble Beach

Islam has its Mecca. Christianity, its Bethlehem. And Judaism has its Jerusalem. American golf? Golf in America has its Pebble Beach. Granted, the country’s cup runneth-over with remarkable courses. Merion. Baltusral. Oakmont. Augusta National. Olympic. Cyprus Point. There is no risk of being at a loss to name twenty-five great American courses. Or fifty. Or a hundred. But when all the “Best Courses in America” dust settles, there is only one consensus number one public golf course in this land of ours, and that is Pebble Beach. Merion, Baltusral, Oakmont, Augusta, Olympic: private clubs, one and all. As for Cyprus Point: Cyprus is so private, Bob Hope once quipped, “it had a membership drive, and drove out 40 members.”

But Pebble Beach? From its inception the course has been open to those paying members of the golfing public who could afford to play it. Every American golfer, every golfer anywhere, is eligible to play this fabled links, to stand where Palmer and Nicklaus, Watson and Miller, Mickelson and Woods have stood. And–at over $300 a round, when I played; $500 today, not counting cart or caddie fee–Pebble is one place where you want to take your time standing.

The course, which opened for play in 1919, is not America’s oldest. That honor goes to Oakhurst Golf Club, in White Sulphur Springs, founded in 1884. Even Oakmont is older, by fifteen years; Merion, by almost ten. But what it lacks in age, Pebble Beach more than makes up for in tactile, olfactory, auditory and just plain staring-you-in-the-face beauty, of the breathless variety, especially holes 6 through 11 (collectively known as the Cliffs of Doom), which work their way in-and-out along Carmel Bay, heading south, and 17 and 18, played into and along the Bay, eventually heading north to the Lodge.

Pebble’s remaining holes, while more difficult than their slumbering reputation would have you believe, lack the breath-taking blend of sky and water, rugged cliffs and crashing surf that combine to create Pebble’s aesthetic trademark. The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who walked these grounds, described the space now known as the Cliffs of Doom as “the most felicitous meeting of land and water in creation.” And this was before there was a golf course.

For his part, Nicklaus has said that if he could play only one round of golf in his life, it would be at Pebble Beach, not, I think, merely because of the many challenges the course presents, but also because of the mesmerizing prospect in which it presents them.

Pebble’s history, especially its US Open history, remains vivid in the memory-banks of scratch and high handicappers alike.

* 1972: The seventeenth hole; the final round. Nicklaus smashes a one iron into the teeth of a thirty-five-mile-an-hour wind, hitting the flag stick on the fly, the ball coming to rest inches from the hole, leaving a tap-in for birdie en route to his third Open victory.

* 1982: The seventeenth, again; the final round, again. Tom Watson, facing certain bogey, chips-in for birdie out of thick rough from behind the green on his way to defeating a stunned Nicklaus by a single stroke. There’s Watson — who can forget the scene? — dancing around the green, wedge held aloft, that gap-toothed grin of his big enough to garage an RV.

* 1992: No heroics on seventeen for a change; this time, it’s the seventh. Tom Kite, in the back bunker; a downhill lie; virtually no green to work with. Out comes the ball, heading non-stop to Tijuana. But wait: traveling full-tilt, the ball hits the flag stick, hangs in mid-air for an instant, then drops straight down the pole, into the hole. Birdie two. That miraculous shot saves Kite’s round, certainly. But that the bespectacled, owlish Kite had a round to save (he shoots even par 72 on a day when the average score is 77, in winds gusting to forty-five miles an hour) is the real story.

Having hosted the Open in ’72, ’82 and ’92, one would have expected to see the tournament back at Pebble in 2002. It says something about the hallowed status the course enjoys that the USGA would break the mathematical progression and have the Open’s 100th playing, and the first one of the new millennium, hosted by America’s course. (1)

A better idea

I arrive almost an hour before my tee time, feeling so pumped-up I could sign autographs: “May your putter be hot – Yours, Hulk Regan.” But here’s the wonder: The most impressive thing about Pebble Beach, for someone visiting for the first time, is how overwhelmingly underwhelming it is. At least at the start.

The scale and style of the buildings (the Lodge, the Pro Shop, the smattering of high-end specialty stores), despite the Bill-Gatesian prices associated with the place, are — well, “early Best Western” describes them best. The main entrance? That’s so laid-back-California, it’s hard to find. A putting green? It’s a short walk from the first tee to a small practice area. How small is it? Let’s just say that, if you have four people putting at the same time, you have at least two too many. As for a practice range: a shuttle bus takes you to a bush league, beaten-down facility where balls are dispensed by a coin-operated machine.

And about that first tee: it’s a narrow, squat affair, hard by the front entrance to the Pro Shop, eternally surrounded by legions of vocal golf kibitzers, and elevated so as to position those striking their tee shot directly in the sight-line of the good folks wolfing down hor’derves at the Lodge’s restaurant. Talk about a public golf course.

Even the first hole is something of a yawner: 338 yards from the white tees, slight dog-leg right, easily within the repertoire, I think, of the players in my foursome. Two are late-forties chaps, originally from Taiwan, who work at Pebble Beach and exult in the gift of beneficence they feel in being able to play the course, free, once a month. The fourth, who makes a point of flashing his custom-made driver, featuring a head the size of a Lincoln Town car, is a bronzed, blond, muscular type from somewhere down the coast. He is accompanied by his diminutive, buoyant fiancée, about the size of his lob wedge, whose job today is to prove her fitness to the fullness of his manhood by lugging his pro-sized leather bag, loaded with more than its full complement of clubs, for the next five hours, more or less.

The Blond Bomber hits first, smashing a prodigious duck-hook that registers 6.2 on the Richter scale. I allow myself the faintest of smiles. Nothing pleases me more than the public spectacle of too much Teutonic testosterone gone awry. Next, the two Taiwanese-Americans flail away, each hitting the middle of the fairway about 170 yards out. I smile again. The stage is set. It’s my turn.

I survey the milk-toast efforts of my playing companions. Most times I drive a ball 210 to 220. And straight. Everyone who knows my game knows that. I know that. But my doppelganger has a better idea. This is no time to leave the pedal off the metal. This is Pebble Beach. Visions of 250 dance in my head.
An anticipatory hush falls over the boisterous golf cognoscenti adjacent to the tee. Diners at the Lodge hold their canapés in mid-course. Left arm straight. Shift weight right. Full body turn. Swoosh! Crack! History! Ben Hogan hit from this very tee. Sam Snead threaded this very fairway. Now, fellow golfers, add to that illustrious list the name Tom Regan.

When the ball finally lands–and it takes a very long time for it to find the place where it belongs–it is maybe 100 yards out, nestled in a tangle of trees 30 yards to the right of the fairway. We’re talking classic pop-up here. I stare in amazement, limp as a Kleenex in a tsunami. The Bronze Bomber looks me over, contemptuously. The two friends shake their heads, knowingly. And Twiggy, the caddie, smiling beamishly, chirps, with a sincerity not to be denied, “Nice shot!”

Without a doubt, I think, I am in for a very long afternoon.

“I love this game!”

Lee Trevino once remarked that if you’re five over after Pebble’s first five holes, “it’s a good time to consider suicide.” Remarkably, standing on the sixth tee, I am only one over, having bogeyed the first and fourth holes, pared the second and third, and birdied the par three fifth, sinking a coiling, side-hill putt from twenty feet. This is followed by another par on number six, hard into the wind off Carmel Bay, where I manage to get up and down from just off the green. Heading to number seven, the memory of the fiasco on the first tee all but forgotten, I am brimming with confidence. I love this course! I love this game! I even love the Blond Bomber who, having declared that he is having “a bad day,” and who must be at least twelve over by now, has decided not to keep score.

The seventh is one of Pebble’s signature holes. It measures a mere 103 yards from the middle tee, 107 from the back. It requires a little dump shot from an elevated tee to a minimal green twenty feet below. A piece of cake. There’s just this small problem: that aforementioned green is almost completely surrounded by deep traps and crashing waves. Plus there is a gusting wind that blows in any direction, and at any rate, it chooses — straight into our face, at about twenty-five miles an hour, on this day. You don’t want to be short, which almost certainly puts you in one of the bunkers; and you don’t want to be long, which risks the briny deep.

Does the wind make a one or two club difference? Maybe more? It can be more. Ken Venturi once hit a four iron here, into gale force winds, and came-up short. I choose an eight iron. The perfect club. There’s just this other small problem: the ball lands in the kikuyu, a thick, clinging grass that has been compared to a nest of tarantulas, a good twenty yards left of the green, leaving a menacing bunker between moi and the hole.

No, I do not dump the ball in the bunker. Nothing that good. I chop my second shot short of the bunker, then hit my third shot forty feet past the pin before two putting for double bogey five. Sleepy old Pebble Beach is beginning to bare her nasty teeth. As for Herr Doppelganger: he is fuming.

“The most terrifying second shot in all of golf”

No words can prepare you for the eighth hole. The tee is adjacent to the seventh green and requires that you hit a blind drive up and over a steep rise. Hit the drive too far right, you are out of bounds. Hit it as far left as you can, you are in bounds but face an impossible shot to the green. Dumb luck has me hit the ball just about as perfect as I can, leaving me with what Nicklaus calls “the most terrifying second shot in all of golf.”

Try to picture this. You are standing over your ball, about 180 yards from a small, shallow green that slopes towards the water. Between you and the green there is a vast chasm that falls from the height of the fairway to a mix of craggy rocks and sand, a good eighty feet below, then rises maybe sixty feet to the level of the green. There is no room for error here. If you want your second shot to be on the green, you have to hit your second shot to the green. Anything shot at the green that is short of the green becomes part of the ever-churning ecology of Carmel Bay.

The eighth does offer a coward’s way out. This is to forget about carrying the chasm, forget about the green, forget about par; just play it safe by laying-up left, then hit a short iron on, take your two putts, and get out of there with a heart-pounding bogey. I take the coward’s way, and follow this with another bogey at the ninth. A front nine of six over par, forty-two, on a true test of golf. Not bad. Not bad at all. All that practice is finally paying off.

Sand . . . and more sand

My most vivid memories of the back nine are of sand, lots of it, having spent a good part of the rest of the afternoon in no fewer than eight traps. Sand, yes, but also wind and length, the second nine measuring almost 350 yards longer than the front. The result? Standing on the tee at seventeen, I am sixteen over. A bogey-bogey finish will put me at — well, you can do the math.

“If you finish bogey-bogey, you shoot 90. If you par one of those holes, and bogey the other, you shoot 89. It’s just one shot difference,” Nancy tells me on our next day’s drive. “What’s the big deal? It’s just one shot. I just don’t get it.”

“Hmm,” I think to myself, loving my wife dearly, calling her attention to the bilious clouds overhead, the blue waters of the Pacific below. Only golfers who have struggled with the game as I have would recognize the immense difference there is between two scores separated by a single stroke.

“Yeah, you’re right about that,” I remember saying.

The wind is howling directly in our face when we hit our tee shots at seventeen, the hour-glass shaped green some 180 yards away, guarded by traps galore, one of which I manage to find before getting out, then two putting for bogey four. As for the two friends from Taiwan, first one, then the other sinks an impossible sixty foot putt for par. Their only par of the day. They are both so happy, each doing a little dance reminiscent of the one Watson did on this same green in 1982. I cannot help thinking that they have never felt closer in their life, never more convinced that they belong in this game, both are so happy, the unbridled joy of one multiplying the unbridled joy of the other.

The Blond Bomber evidently has been saving his best for last, beginning with a prodigious drive off the eighteenth tee, followed by a no less prodigious 3 iron that stops some forty feet from the hole. “That’s more like it,” he declares, full of conviction.

“Nice shot,” the little one chirps yet again as the rest of us applaud, each of us genuinely happy for her man (he would go on to four putt for bogey) because of the good that golf has given him this day.

My story on eighteen begins less spectacularly. I hit a good (for me) drive slightly right of center, then a solid three wood that leaves me about 100 yards from the green. The pin is tucked behind a trap guarding the green on the right. You don’t want to hit it short. Better to be long. Any idgit knows that. So it only stands to reason I would hit it short.

Here’s what the day comes to, then. After a solid front nine, I have squandered away any hope of a decent round by giving my best imitation of Lawrence of Arabia on the back. What could have been a score in the low to mid-80s, now is at risk of becoming 18 over, 90. All I have to do is not get up and down out of this god-forsaken bunker, and that’s what I go home with. Bogey golf. Been there. Done that. More times than I want to remember.

My doppelganger takes charge. “Enough, already! You’ve done this before. You can do it now!” I dig my feet into the sand, open my stance, and try to get a sense of how hard I need to swing to blast the ball over the lip of the trap and onto the green. The tempo on the back swing is good; the distance behind the ball at impact seems right; the follow-through feels complete. When I look-up and see the ball drop gently onto the putting surface, then wend its way ever so slowly towards the hole, finally stopping only inches away, leaving a tap-in for an 89, I feel . . . I feel more than I can say.

“Nice shot,” says the charming blond guy from down the beach as he and the others join in a friendly round of applause, this time for me.

“Just don’t whiff the friggin’ putt!” my doppelganger hisses in my ear.

The Exorcism

Pismo Beach is several hours’ drive south of Pebble along the coast highway through Big Sur. Nancy and I have made the drive before but still marvel at the vistas of black mountains falling into blue waters. We spend the night at a motel perched precariously atop craggy cliffs. Arriving early in the afternoon, I play a nine hole course, Pismo State Beach Club, that measures less than 1500 yards and plays to a par of thirty-three. Green fees are $8 for nine holes, $12 for eighteen. No Lodge. No on-lookers loitering around the Pro Shop. Just the bare essentials: This is a tee; that is a green; there is a hole. Pebble Beach it is not.

I am paired with a husband and wife, who run a hot-dog stand, and a middle-aged plumber, Jason, who has taken the afternoon off. The concessionaires slice and dice their way around the course for nine holes, giddy with laughter, not giving their score a moment’s bother. The plumber, by contrast, is quiet; relaxed; a good striker of the ball; dutiful when it comes to course maintenance.

Jason and I play the nine holes a second time. Our conversation on our tenth tee goes like this:

“Play much?”

“As much as I can.”

“Plumbing must be hard.”

“Some days, yes; some days, no.”

“Lived in Pismo long?”

“A while.”

“Where’d you live before?”

“Folsom.”

“Folsom?”

“Yeah, Folsom. Folsom State Prison.”

“Oh, my God,” I think to myself, “what do I say now? ‘Nice place that Folsom, eh?’”

Fortunately, Jason has the good grace to fill the awkward silence.

“I made a lot of mistakes when I was young. A lot of mistakes. But I’ve paid for them and learned from them.”

“Yes,” say I, still not knowing what to say.

“And one thing I’ve learned, something that’s really obvious but a lot of people, probably even a lot of philosophy professors, don’t know. Know what that is?”

“No, what?”

“I’ve learned it doesn’t really matter how good you are at golf as long as you’re there when you play. Ever thought of that?”

“I’m nut sure I know what you mean.”

“Well, think about it.” For the first time, he smiles. “I mean, just to be out here, in the sun, feeling the wind, the grass under your feet. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Pebble Beach or Pismo Beach. The shots we hit. The shots we miss. That doesn’t matter. It’s about being there, wherever we play, whatever our score. Know what I mean?”

I try to understand him. I know he is saying something he thinks is important.

“You know what I mean?” he asks again.

“You mean not to think about golf but just golf?”

“Exactly.”

“That’s hard to do.”

“If you let it be.”

“Can you do it?”

“Sure. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Just let it go. Know what I mean? Just let it go.”
He smiles again.

“You still have the honor, by the way,” he adds, stepping to one side. “Just let it go.”

What happens next is hard to describe, and even harder to explain. All that I remember is that, at the top of my backswing, I felt like a tumbler had been turned and a lock had been opened.

After we finish (we both shoot 77), Jason says he plans to play about the same time tomorrow and asks whether I’ll be around. Sorry, but no, I say, my wife and I will be moving on in the morning.

“Well, that’s okay then,” he says.

“It’s been special, Jason,” I say. And mean it.

“For me, too. Never played golf with no philosophy professor before. Geez.”

In the parking lot, we shake hands and say good-bye, wishing one another the best of luck. On the drive back to the motel, I let my mind wander over the events of the last two days, still a jumble of impressions without a plot. One thing is clear, though, and clearer today than it was at the time. Some golfers I’ve met are good; many fewer are wise. That teacher I met back at Pismo, that Jason, he was one of the few.

It’s only after I park the car and begin to climb the stairs that I embrace the full measure of what has happened.

I’ve just played nine holes of golf without thinking about playing golf.

For nine holes, I was there.

Nine holes without so much as a word, without so much as a whimper, without so much as a snarl from my doppelganger. (2)

I think about barging into our room and shouting what I had learned, but decide against it. There are some things even those closest to us will never understand.


1. Tiger Woods won the 2000 Open, finishing twelve under par, the first player in the 106-year history of the event to finish 72 holes at double digits under par.

2. My doppleganger passed away at the Pismo State Beach Club in the fall of 1999. In late summer, when the ball is running, the author has been known to play to a single digit handicap.

Originally published in ‘Golf and Philosophy: Lessons from the Links,’ Andy Wible, ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. Reprinted by permission of University Press of Kentucky.

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