Attack of the Wild Golfs

My friend John and I are thinking about writing a book entitled “Golf As Insanity.”  The subtitle would be either “That Elegantly Maddening Game” or “That Maddeningly Elegant Game.”  Either would be appropriate.  There are few games we know of that are both as elegant and maddening as golf, and that’s why we look upon the playing of said game as a form of insanity.

I say elegant, because there are few things more pristinely beautiful than the flight of a small white ball as it cleaves laser-straight through a Carolina blue sky and settles exquisitely on a green next to the pin.  And I say maddening because there are few things that will try one’s soul more profoundly than one’s repeated failed attempts to extract a little white ball from a sand trap.

Let me tell you about sand traps.  Golf instructors, who make good livings pretending that we amateur golfers actually have a glimmer of hope of playing the game decently, admonish us to refer to those bottomless pits of white misery as bunkers.  But the way my friend John and I play bunkers, they are sand traps.

My friend John is a woeful example of what can go wrong in a sand trap.  He once wagered on a round of golf with a good friend – no money involved, but whoever lost would mow the other guy’s lawn.  John was leading by 14 strokes as he approached the 17th hole, a par 3.  He put his tee shot in a small, unassuming sand trap next to the green.  17 strokes later, he coaxed the ball out of the sand trap.  The other guy’s lawn got a nice grooming, and the owners of the golf course presented my friend John with a nice plaque naming the sand trap in his honor.  John and I will repeat this story in our book about golf as insanity.

But sand traps are not the most insidious hazard my friend John and I encounter on a golf course.  Sand traps are insignificant compared to the wild golf, a rodent-like animal that lurks on the edges of fairways and greens.  A wild golf is lightning fast, so fast that one has never been photographed, and can only be seen as a blur of motion out of the corner of a golfer’s eye.  If a golfer hits a slightly-errant tee shot that lands somewhere near the edge of a wooded area, a wild golf will race out, grab the ball, and fling it into deep woods.  The same applies to balls that land near a body of water.  You can hear the faint cry of the miserable creature: “Errant!  Errant!”  My friend John and I have experienced this many times.

Wild golfs also burrow deep into sand traps.  If a golfer hits a shot that lands anywhere near the sand trap, the wild golf will dash from its hiding place, grab the ball, and drag it into the sand trap, burying it deep enough that only a dime-sized portion of the ball peeks out.  My friend John and I have also experienced this many times.


And then there are the wild golfs that lurk just under the seemingly-benign surface of greens.  The unsuspecting golfer lines up his putt and strokes the ball toward the hole.  The lurking wild golf, upon hearing the ball rolling overhead, will arch his back just enough to make a tiny alteration to the surface of the green that will cause the ball to veer slightly off-line and miss the cup by a sixteenth of an inch.  My friend John and I have lost count of the times we have experienced this.

John and I were heartened not long ago to read of the 103-year-old golfer in Florida who recorded the eighth hole-in-one of his career.  His first ace came 75 years ago, in 1939.  That he is still playing golf at the age of 103 is remarkable, but that’s not why my friend John and I are hoping to interview him for our book.  This guy either plays golf courses with no sand traps, or he has discovered a way to tame the wild golf.  Either makes him a hero, and when we reveal his secrets, we will all get rich and build our own golf course.  Guess what it will not have. 

The Danger of Saying Too Much

In my previous life as a television person I was fortunate to work with people with far more experience and wisdom than I, and I tried to learn from them.  Two in particular stand out because of the way they approached their jobs.

Clyde McLean was the long-time weatherman at Charlotte’s WBTV.  He wasn’t a trained meteorologist, he was an announcer who did the weather at 6:00pm, but his many years observing and reporting on the weather in the Carolinas made him vastly knowledgeable.  His trick was, he didn’t burden the audience with that vast knowledge.

Clyde told the story of the elementary-age kid who had to do a report for class on weather.  He went to his father.  “Dad, what’s weather?”  Dad replied, “Go ask your mother.”  And the kid said, “I don’t want to know that much about weather.”  Clyde took the same approach.  He figured if you tuned in at six o’clock, you wanted to know the basics.  Rain or shine, sleet or snow, fair or foul?  Clyde worked in the days before fancy computer-generated graphics; he physically drew on a big map with a marker, showing you troughs and fronts, high and low pressures.  But he never over-did it.  He stuck to the basics.  Here’s what it looks like tomorrow, and the next few days after that.

Clyde knew that weather forecasting, especially in the years before a lot of satellite stuff and computer modeling, was an approximate thing.  He loved to tell the story of the winter night when he predicted partly cloudy skies for the next day, only to get a morning call from a fellow who said, “I’ve got six inches of partly cloudy in my front yard.”

The other colleague who comes to mind in this regard is Jim Thacker, the best television sportscaster I’ve ever been around.  Jim not only anchored the sports desk for WBTV, he was – along with superb analyst Billy Packer – the play-by-play man for ACC basketball, and a regular on CBS-TV’s coverage of pro golf, including the Masters Tournament.  I once sat in the tower with Jim as he worked a tournament in.  He was first of all meticulously prepared.  He had constantly-updated note cards on every PGA player.  He knew the course like the back of his hand.  But his genius, I think, was in knowing what not to say.  Jim told me, “Never tell the viewer something they can see for themselves.”  Like Clyde McLean, he never over-did it.

I’ve been thinking about Clyde and Jim as I’ve watched college football bowl games the past few days, and thought how the announcers violate their principles ad nauseum.  The play-by-play guy tells us everything we can see for ourselves, and the analyst rattles on about the intricacies of the game that add nothing to our enjoyment of the action.  They just can’t seem to shut up.  And it’s not just in college football.  A few announcing teams across American sport get it right – i.e. Jim Nantz and his crew at the Masters – most don’t.  Thank goodness for mute buttons on our remotes.

I try to apply Clyde and Jim’s wisdom when I write.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that less is more.  Words are the waves on which a story rides, and if I pile on too many words, the waves get choppy, and pretty soon you’re more concerned with the chop than the story.  My job is to give you a few hopefully well-chosen words to trigger your imagination, and let you become a partner in the story-telling.  Like Clyde, I need to keep the details at a minimum; like Jim, I need to let you see for yourself.  I need to know when to just shut up.

Another role model is Ernest Hemingway, who once said, “I know the twenty-five cent words, therefore I can use the nickel words.”  I like nickel words, and as few of them as absolutely necessary.  I wish sports announcers did too.