It's officially summertime, though the calendar may not concur for another few days. But the call to a glorious pastime beckons to us from the links.
Of course, I'm talking about golf as millions of people drop what they're doing, neglect family obligations and responsibilities, hop in their cars, and drive to their favorite golf courses, where they proceed to play a round (some without even bothering to put their cars in park upon arrival). To the faithful, it is bliss.
You might think, if Charles Barkley can golf, so can I. Sir Charles, though a regular on pro-am circuits, looks like he has a neurological condition when he swings. His most recent YouTube exposure came when the head of his club flew farther than the ball.
On the surface, golf is really an easy sport to play. You set your ball on the tee, hit it with your driver, curse like a sailor, and search for it in the woods until your friends shout, "Just let it go; you're holding up the group!" And then you do that 17 more times and you’re done. See. Easy.
But it's not really about the rules of golf. Nestled among all those directives of play are unwritten rules, or rules of etiquette about which you may know very little. Many of us learned all we know about golf from watching "Caddyshack" and/or "Happy Gilmore." We think that all we have to do is "be the ball."
But these unwritten rules –- don't show up in a T-shirt and cutoffs; don't tee up any shot after your drive; leave the flagstick in the cup when shooting from off the green; don't send texts or leave voice messages for a dozen mistresses when you're married to a Scandinavian woman -– are equally as important. Golfers are notorious sticklers for etiquette, and the last thing you want to do is defy custom with a golf zealot nearby.
As a precaution, before I went out on a beautiful afternoon overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes this past weekend, I made sure to brush up on my knowledge. I spoke with Ken Altshuler, the author of "Golf Foreplay: Everything You Need to Know About the Game – Before You Try to Hit the Sweet Spot" (Sellers Publishing).
The lawyer-by-day, golfer-by-every-other-waking-minute resident of Maine didn't set foot on a golf course until 1997 when attending the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers convention in Cancun. (Cancun? And you thought getting into law would be unrewarding?) Up until then, he'd only been to the driving range and played mini-golf.
He was paired with the president of the organization who said, "Just hit the ball, and have fun." Ken remembers, "He made me feel so relaxed."
Now, he loves golf. He wants everyone else to love golf. But first, you have to know golf.
His book explains everything from A to Z and includes a glossary of terms so you'll be able to talk with and understand the other golfers.
For instance, before you read the book, if you come upon golfers speaking of hazards throughout the course, don't try to contribute by saying, "I know what you mean. I had the perfect putt on eighteen until the windmill knocked it out of there at the last second. Caused me to lose to my nephew by one stroke."
Avid golfers also frequently compare handicaps. "What's your handicap?" to a non-golfer takes on an entirely different meaning.
"Well, I have a tendency to be too self-deprecating on first dates," the golf novice might respond.
I want to be "in the know," so I listened intently as Ken taught me what might as well be the Greek language with all the enthusiasm as a morning radio show host (which he also is).
In a nutshell, a golfer's handicap is the average of your best ten rounds out of your last 20. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, that's where all hell breaks loose.
If you shoot a 95 at Torrey Pines, a more difficult course than your basic municipal locale, your handicap will be better than a 95 at Gus' Pitch n' Putt.
But the proper term isn't even "handicap" at all, but rather, "handicap index" as your handicap depends on the course. And each course has its own rating and slope, as determined by the United States Golf Association (USGA).
The first nine holes of an 18-hole course are ranked in odd numbers from 1-17, from hardest to easiest. The second nine are ranked in even numbers from 2-18.
Ken continued to break it down for me as I began to get dizzy. "Uh, it was my understanding there would be no math ... during the interview," I thought, an allusion to classic Chevy Chase as President Ford.
If you are a nine handicap, you would get a stroke on the nine hardest holes on the course. Subsequently, if you are a ten handicap playing against a nine handicap, you will get one stroke on one hole. So if your opponent, the nine handicap, gets a four on a hole and you get a five, you tie.
My brother-in-law, an avid golfer, is also a certified public accountant. It's almost easier for him to figure out your taxes than it is for him to calculate a handicap. This whole thing is like trying to figure out a baseball player's VORP or PECOTA rating.
And if that wasn't confusing enough, Ken told me that your handicap is usually better than you are. (Oh, that's good. Then my handicap is anywhere from one to a hundred.)
Ken's handicap, by the way, is a very respectable seventeen, yet he still cannot hit a 3-wood. That should say something about this game.
What is the lure to this intricate, mathematical, and abundantly frustrating activity? One thing non-golfers should understand and never question is a golfer’s spirituality and Zen love of the sport. When I asked Ken to explain it to me, he didn't hesitate, rattling off a list of amenities – "Playing in a tournament makes you a friend for life; you can play at any age; men and women can play at once; you're on the most beautiful environments, challenging yourself; it's exercise; you're away from the world and no one can find me."
(I couldn’t agree more with that last one. Sometimes, after my tee shot, even the people I'm with can't find me.)
Still, it's much easier on the mind to spend the day lapsing into "Caddyshack" references. “Cinderella story ...," "Noonan, miss it!" and "Don’t sell yourself short, judge. You’re a tremendous slouch." As long as you know those quotes, you're good to go.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I was wiser toward the proper behavior on the course. One of the main rules I learned, with my wayward drives alternating between slices and hooks, is to yell "Fore" anytime my ball approaches another foursome. My question is, what if you drive a ball 200 yards, but can only yell 150? (Fortunately, or not, I never had that issue.)
I understand the problem if I neglected to yell "Fore!" It’s somewhat of a faux pas to answer the question of "How'd you do on the course today?" with "I shot two birdies, a bogey and an actuary from Simi Valley." (You'd be all right as long as there's not a golf nut on the jury. A humorous gaffe to one is a cardinal sin to another.)
The game of golf has been called a "good walk spoiled" and that's true. We played a "scramble" (which I learned the definition from "Golf Foreplay") and by the end of the day, we were content to play any balls that were in the vicinity of the fairway, thus shortening our walk.
Ninety percent of the game is mental and perhaps 90 percent of the people who play it are as well. It can be exhausting, to say the least, but thoroughly fulfilling. Such is the lure. It is you versus the ball. But at the same time, you must be the ball. Hmm, very philosophical.
The U.S. Open, going on throughout Father's Day weekend, is "the greatest tourney in the world," per Ken's opinion, "because anyone who qualifies is allowed to play." You missed your chance this year, but with a little bit of luck, you can make the cut for 2012. So get chipping! Or else, "you’ll get nothing and like it!"