(ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.) Aug. 29, 2012 — Why golf, an old friend asked after we reconnected after 30 years. “You weren't a golfer when I knew you. Golf just doesn't fit with who you were.”
It was an insightful question from a career journalist. We'd worked together as young newspaper reporters, chasing bad guys, gunning for a couple of two-bit political kingpins. In the crooked world of Richard J. Daley's Chicago, these were mere vassals, petty crooks, really.
It's who we were. That time in my life was about public documents, late-night phone calls, cigarettes and coffee, sitting through dreary public meetings under fluorescent lights, hours spent at the copier, making copies of contracts, minutes and agendas, banging away later on an IBM Selectric typewriter.
So, trying to respond to “Golf just doesn't fit with who you were,” required some explanation She didn't know I'd played as a kid, fopr one thing.
I played the way most kids play. Swing away, go find the ball one fairway over. Swing again. Harder. Repeat from two fairways over. I bought my first set at a local supermarket the way people of modest means in the 1960s sometimes bought dinnerware — a salad plate one week, dessert plate the next. I bought Northwestern irons for $3.95 apiece, Kroydon woods for $5.95. Fourteen weeks later I had a set.
In Pittsburgh, where I grew up, at the muni we played, kids like us would be paired with singles — sometimes steelworkers in their green or gray mill clothes, wearing grimy steel-toed boots, their faces still red from heat, the stench of the mill still on them.
These men would play with remarkable seriousness, getting angrier and angrier through the round — at us, because we were kids, we first thought — while we simply wanted to blast the ball as far and high as we could. They were playing golf. We were hitting the golf ball. We didn't give a crap if we made a birdie or a snowman. Looking back, I realize we were in parallel universes.
In college, my grocery-bought clubs rarely came out from under the bed. In adulthood, working as a reporter in Chicago, where it seems good weather lasted all of three weeks, they were shoved away into a closet for good. I stayed away for 10 years.
With 310 days of sunshine, it's almost always sunny in Albuquerque, where I was next hired a reporter. Casting about for an antidote to the stress of threats and lawsuits of what I did at work, I returned to golf. Nobody sues or threatens you for what you do on a golf course. I figured it would be a walk in the park.
But it wasn't. The golf course became a stage for my silent rage. What had been fun as a kid became unbearable as an adult. Angry lashes. Chunks, thins and shanks. A fitful, fuming walk into the next shot.
As I became better, I became more intolerable and an awful partner. I took to playing as a single on days when no one else likely would go out. I was a ghost, haunting the course, howling at my own moon.
I had become those angry men in their mill clothes — lashing the ball around the golf course, seeking perfection but getting imperfection, planting seeds of relaxation but reaping rage.
And then I played with John Dear, retired coach of the University of New Mexico. He was in his 70s that one day, the only one we shared.
Just two weeks earlier, I had never heard his name. Then, suddenly, it was in my ear. Yanking a tee shot off the UNM 9-hole course, over the fence and across the street into a front yard, the other single said, “You just hit John Dear's house.”
A few days later, I passed two guys huddled by the clubhouse door, one pointing to an old photo on the wall. “That's John Dear.”
This happened several more times. I went into the newspaper's clip library to find out who John Dear was: The guy who got UNM to build an 18-hole course in 1966; the golf coach in 1954, when Arnold Palmer and the NCAA championship came to town; a talented player tied to the history of golf in New Mexico.
So, surprise but no surprise, while storming solo around the 9-hole course on a weekday afternoon, getting ready to storm around again, I'm met on No. 1 tee by an old man. “Mind if I play along? I'm John Dear.”
By the end of that round, this wizened Zen master had calmed my silent rage. It was dramatic, but subtle. I recall he reproved me only once, for dragging my pull cart across a tee box. “Never have anything suspended while another player plays. They can feel it.” Treat the golf course well and it will treat you well, he said. He spoke quietly.
I remember his favorite: “Not far away, but fairway,” after drilling another 150-yard drive, then getting up and down for par for an even-par nine-hole round, even though almost never on in regulation. I saw him just that once.
It was maybe two years later and John Dear was dead. I told the sports desk about my round with him. Go ahead, write his obit for the paper, you're as well-qualified as any of us. The piece was well-received. Next, they said, how about a regular column for sports? I said I would because it didn't involve politics and wouldn't get me sued again.
Later, Bill Clinton came to UNM's 18-hole course on a day I was there. I saw him hit play an adjacent hole. My column about his mulligans that was picked up by the wire. Within 24 hours, I had been interviewed by phone by a half dozen conservative talk radio hosts who basically said, “So, if I'm hearing you right, you're saying the President is a cheater?”
Over time, I came to treat golf — the game, the industry, the pros, the maintenance people — as a new beat to get away from the people I covered in my day job. I learned everything I could about the game, the water, the turf, the business, the rules, the history and lore — everything except how to play really well.
I made TV shows about golf. I caddied for some top players, including two on the LPGA Tour's Futures Tour. I ran a golf magazine. I became a better golfer. I realized that unlike softball, golf would take me into old age.
Non-golfers see golf in cliches (beer, the 19th Hole, wearing checked or plaid pants), but they miss the point about the beauty of the game itself, the pure joy of hitting the ball, the marvelous walk in a manicured park, the kind Andrew Carnegie might have built for himself; playing a game with its own intricate history, rules and absolute insistence on equity.
In Ireland and Scotland, I've seen golf played as a leisure activity uncorrupted by competition — a family out for a walk after dinner along the beach, each with a couple of golf clubs, dropping a ball here and there on the turf to play a hole, or maybe just a shot or two, then picking up and moseying farther on, looking for shells, enjoying the summer evening.
You can find enjoyment in the game, if only you take a moment to look for it. Or if someone like John Dear opens your eyes and lets you see it.
— Dan Vukelich