You’ve probably heard that your hometown golf course is hilly, which means you play a hole that’s several hundred yards downhill, which makes the ball carry forever, and makes you think, “You know, I’m pretty good at this.”
Then you take a sharp turn to play the next hole, which is 400 yards uphill, and even if you grip-it-and-rip it, the ball hardly goes anywhere. You aim your next shot at the flag, but it lands 40 yards short, and, if the golf gods made note of your conceit 10 minutes ago, they’ll toss in the extra humiliation of making you watch your ball roll back down the hill, away from the flag, as you look up at the sky and cry, “That’s not supposed to happen!”
But of course it’s supposed to happen, because, as seasoned players are fond of repeating, “That’s golf.”
Healdsburg Golf Club at Tayman Park’s hilly design has the vicissitudes of golf built right in—it’s up and then it’s down, the perfect metaphor for the most maddening of pastimes.
If the Scottish game is the sport of kings, then the kings are mad. I played the course for the first time last week, and by the fourth hole I found myself saying, “This isn’t even fun.” But fun isn’t the point, and I ought to know.
I’m a Sonoma County native who laughed at the sight of golf on television and never dreamed I’d take up the sport. That’s until I left the land of perennial sunshine and countless courses and spent a dozen years in New York, where, at age 42, I became obsessed with this exquisite form of mental and lower-lumbar torture. According to one lifelong victim, in the past 300 years more has been written about golf than any other human endeavor, including Christianity. This could very well be true, since here I am contributing another 800 words on the subject.
I fall for new hobbies fast and hard, but golf brought this to a whole new level.
I learned to play indoors on a $60K simulator on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, which was located on the sportswear floor of the iconic Brooks Brothers emporium, the gentlemen’s clothier founded in 1818.
It was seldom used, and with a freelance writer’s flexible schedule, I’d pop in for an hour every time I had a meeting nearby—and even when I didn’t.
What’s more, my apartment was a two-minute bike ride to the Triboro Bridge, 10 minutes over it to Randall’s Island in the middle of the East River, then three minutes across the island to a golf range.
Then there was the girlfriend, a charming Japanese woman who played the sport because the Japanese idea of unwinding is getting up at 6 on Saturday to play a maddening sport with business associates.
Everything in life seemed to have aligned in order to decree that I learn this sport, presumably that I may in turn learn some things about life and myself.
And it didn’t take long for me to realize that golf is not a game of fun.
That’s how I put it in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal back in 2014. The sport was suffering from declining interest, and a public-relations campaign had been launched aimed at making golf more fun, with gimmicky proposals that caused stern players—the kind who call penalties on themselves while playing alone at twilight—as much consternation as missing a two-foot putt.
Golf is beyond mere “fun,” I argued. Is the game of chess or playing the violin “fun”? These are some of mankind’s most difficult endeavors, that when mastered confer feelings of satisfaction that are borderline mystical, as time and again one goes beyond oneself to pull off the impossible.
“You know, I’m pretty good at this,” you conclude. And you are. There’s more potential in you than you’ll ever know, but, in the end, this is golf.
Back in Sonoma County and playing Healdsburg’s delightful nine-hole course for the first time, I remember hitting two approach shots—both uphill—that landed within five feet of the pin. Amazing result, except that the contact was “thin,” as we call it, and I wasn’t happy with how the shot felt.
One ball landed less than three feet from the hole; naturally I missed the putt, and blamed it on the fact that it was a downhill breaker and it was too hot. But those are just the excuses we make to ensure we keep coming back.
In my first wrestling match with the hills of Healdsburg, I parred the first hole, the last hole and one in between. The other holes were not so good. In other words, it was “fun” in a root-canal sort of way—like one of those root canals that turns out to be not as bad as you imagined.