Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Chasing the White Ball

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together.

Chasing the White Ball

The “whack” of a driver smashing the golf ball in the warm spring afternoon, the flight of the ball rising from the club head in a high arch, climbing and towering to an apex 300 yards away, a white ball in flight was almost breathtaking, a flight that seemed to take minutes although in reality it was just a few seconds, a flight so graceful as it climbed- out over the fence line that ran down the right-hand side of the green fairway, and finally landing on the neighboring weed covered hillside. Golf, my athletic sport of choice in high school, was for the most part a frustrating love-hate experience, both then and for years to come, although there may have been a few bright moments along the way.

Younger brother David was a bit insane: high school football was his sport of choice, a physical battle each Friday night on the offensive line, keeping the other team’s tacklers away from the quarterback behind him. David was a big kid, lean, muscular, good looking, athletic, and a ham. His antics off the field were much more entertaining than those on. While I was chasing the white ball down the green grass fairways (and weed choked roughs), David chased the brown football down field. I loved to watch the football team, to cheer on the home team, and I still do 40 years or so later. I attempted to teach David how to play golf years later, after college, but it never really “took” with him, which always surprised me, given his athleticism.

My father tried to teach me golf in the spring of the 8th grade. He wasn’t very successful. I had a hard time hitting the ball, with any club, yet alone hitting the ball down a fairway. My birthday present that spring was 12 lessons with the golf club “pro” Boyd Walker. Mister Walker was in his 60s then, and he was a patient teacher. He was probably a perfect teacher for me at the time, because I needed patience.

I spent that summer learning how to play golf at the old Lewiston Golf Club. I say “old” because the golf course was converted to a residential subdivision in the 1970s. Prior to that, the golf course occupied canyons and draws above the Snake River, lush greenery in an environment of black basalt rock and copious amounts of knee high weeds that would turn brown with the summer heat. On one side of the course was a towering cliff that rose 1,200 feet or so to a plain that housed the county airport and more housing beyond that. It was a nine- hole affair, shared with ground squirrels during the summer months, squirrels that lived in the adjunct rocks that would feed and water on in the fairways. I never hit one with a golf ball, but some did. If you wanted to play 18 holes of golf, as is customary on most golf courses, you went around the course twice.

The course was not very challenging, but I didn’t know that then. I thought it was horribly hard to conquer in those first years of learning the game. There was just one other golf course in our town then, the Clarkston Golf & Country Club across the river. It seemed to be a nicer course, it had a full 18 holes, and it was quite a bit more challenging. It also drew the social crowd after its club house burned in the late 1950s and was then rebuilt as a much nicer social center to draw non-golfers to its facilities. In the late 1960s the city of Lewiston said enough, it counted two private courses in its purview and decided to open a municipal course on the plain above the Lewiston course. The Lewiston course couldn’t stand the competition from the social Clarkston course and the new public course, so its members decided to sell the old course to home builders and build a much more “grand” course and club house a mile or so to the South.

At the “old” course, Mr. and Mrs. Walker lived in a trailer house behind the club house. He sold buckets of golf balls to use on the driving range, he gave golf lessons to “juniors” like me, he over-saw the occasional tournament and the men’s and women’s golf leagues that ran most of the year, and he over-saw a small crew of maintenance workers who would keep the fairways trimmed and watered. Mrs. Walker ran the restaurant and bar -- the iconic “19th” hole.

The golf course only had about 250 family members then, a small number. As I recall monthly dues where in the $150 range, fairly expensive for the time. There were no green fees for members, but there were additional costs if you wanted to rent an electric cart (pull carts were free), get a bucket of balls for the range, or pick up a sandwich after your round.

For several summers I would go out to the course early, before the golfing day began. I would knock on the door of the Walker home, and Mr. Walker would come out with coffee in his hand to give me a bucket of balls. I would spend an hour or more hitting those balls, then go out onto the empty course to play a round with three or four balls. I would take a lesson from Mr. Walker one or two times a week in that first year. He would always say the same thing, ‘Slow down your backswing, it’s too fast.’ That was very good advice then, but it took me decades to learn it.

In the next several years I would hang around the club house on summer days waiting to find a party of three needing a fourth to play. It usually didn’t take long to find a group. Some of the groups I played with comprised of local business retirees whom I knew or should have known. What amazed me was how accurate these old guys would hit their balls down the fairways or at the holes.

Bob Newell, father-in-law to my cousin Butch Alford, said it best. Bob was maybe in his mid-70s then, an extremely nice person, intelligent, humorous, and retired after selling his tire store. He would hit his driver only 175 yards or so, not very far, but always straight. I asked him one day how he did that so consistently. “I don’t have the arm strength I use to have when I was younger,” he said, “and I can’t swing the club nearly as fast. I slowed down my backswing, not because I wanted to, but because I got old.”

Oh, that’s what Mr. Walker meant.

Once I reached high school and my golf game developed more, my father was draft me to play with him in a summer businessmen’s league when they needed a substitute, or he would take me along when a visitor would come to town and scrub to my father’s persistent, “Want to play golf this afternoon?” Sometimes it would be just him and me. And the refrain would continue both from my father and others on the course, ‘Slow down your backswing.’

The problem, you see, with a fast backswing is that the club head lags behind the club shaft, and once the head hits the ball, the ball has a tendency to fade out to the right, sometime developing a very pronounced “slice.” What does that mean? I was strong, and it hit that ball hard. I would hit that ball 350 yards in the air, or maybe further. But alas, I might also hit it 350 yards to the right, pushing that ball god-only-knows-where. That was a bit of a problem.

I got the slice in my game under control over time, and I played on the high school golf team where I won a few matches, I did well in state-wide high school tournaments, and I then played on a college team for a couple of years before other activities took my time.

While Brother David chased the pig skin for just a few years in high school – he was an all-state player for two of those years winning numerous accolades, he chose not to play college football even though several colleges recruited him – I continued to chase the white golf ball for decades.

But it wasn’t until much later, maybe in my late 30s or when I reached the old age of 40, after I had sat behind a desk for 15 or 20 years, did my backswing really slow down and my accuracy improve dramatically, a function of age, relative inactivity, and a bit of excess poundage around the gut. That slowed the swing down!

Once I moved away from Idaho to Phoenix, and then on to Mexico City for a number of years chasing a career, I didn’t play golf at all. Then 10 years ago, at the ripe old age of 50 and living back in Phoenix with Mrs. Steve, I took my sons to the driving range one day to show them how to hit a driver. As I recall I did that, and that was a joy to see that white ball flying far and straight again. Unfortunately I messed up my back with my powerful swings, so well I didn’t walk for about a week…. the result of a desk job, inactivity, and a few too many pounds around the gut. Now I see a semi-retirement coming at me in not too many years, and I feel the pull of the golf ball starting again. I’m sure my backswing has slowed; I just hope it hasn’t stopped!

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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H said...

My dad plays golf 3 or 4 times a week. He started just before retirement and it has been very good for him, physically and socially. He plays in a number of senior competitions and generally does quite well.

Judie said...

Steve, Rod used to be a teaching pro in our salad days, and even had a sponsor to go out on the tour, but getting on the tour back then had a lot of politics involved, and so he didn't make it. He thinks he just wasn't good enough, but I'll never believe that. It never stopped him from loving the game, though.
He taught me to play golf when I was 43 and we were living in Memphis. We were members of Colonial Country Club, where the St. Jude Classic used to be played before the TPC was built there. I became a golf fanatic, and at one point had my handicap index down to around 14. Those days are LONG GONE! Rod's handicap has gone up from a 3 to about an 8 or 10 these days. We are OLD--older than you and Jenny (but we're still a lot of fun!)
I loved reading your post! It was right up my alley, I mean FAIRWAY!

Pondside said...

I have never achieved the 'whack' of the driver hitting the ball - more like the 'plonk' as the club clips the ball and the ball goes on its wonky way.
Friends have recently bought a home in Scottsdale and I have a feeling that golf holidays are on the horizon - yikes!

Pat Tillett said...

I'm two years retired! I thought I'd already be on the senior tour by now. But alas, I haven't picked up a single club yet...