February 25, 2004

Golf Lessons

I have finally figured out the three secrets to a happy life.

The first is to spend most of your time with people who make you think. The second is to spend some of your time doing things that you are not good at and – this is key – have no intention of ever becoming good at doing. In this Get-Ahead Age when everyone is committed to success, striving for excellence and focused on quality, occasionally aiming for mediocrity is a refreshing, life-saving change of pace. The third secret is slightly more complicated and came to me recently when I was spending time with someone who makes me think – the writer Robert N. Georgalas – doing something in which we both, happily, lack even the pretense of ambition: hitting a bucket of golf balls at the driving range.

“I’ve got to warn you,” Bob had said when I telephoned a few days before, “I’m a lousy golfer.”

“Perfect,” I replied. “Me too.”

We went to the Family Golf Center, which is one of Chicago’s hidden treasures, tucked near Lake Michigan between the mouth of the Chicago River and a row of high-rise condominiums and office buildings that line East Randolph Street. This 9-hole, par-3 course features a patchy, balding driving range that looks increasingly like a victim of neglect; the course will soon be developed into a new downtown neighborhood complete with wide streets and its very own public school. But while the course still stands, it is a convenient and even cozy place to swing a club, hit a hundred balls and, with every stroke, contemplate life and death and the meaning of existence.

For most of the afternoon, Bob hooked and I sliced. Or maybe I was slicing and Bob was hooking. I have never been able to remember which is which and I certainly do not care to have it explained. We tried different clubs – drivers, sevens and nines – but the results varied little: We hit some solidly, but we had more than our share of whiffs, as well.

“Strike two,” Bob said after managing to completely miss the ball in back-to-back tries. He was equally nonplussed when I somehow clipped the ball and missed his head by a matter of inches. “I’m just worried that I’ll inadvertently get you back,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

We took our time and often stopped to talk: about work, about recent movies, about people we had known and decisions we had made and mistakes we had survived and dreams we still maintained. We laughed and grimaced at some of our reminiscence. We wondered whatever became of so-and-so and such-and-such. A few times we even told stories we had told before just because they were worth hearing again.

We never offered each other any advice about a better way to hit the ball. In fact, it occurred to me that throughout the years Bob and I have known one another we have always offered more encouragement than advice.

The day was cool but the sun was warm and, after a while, our faces and forearms began turning red. I looked around from time to time and saw several better golfers, which was oddly reassuring. I also paused at one point and surveyed the doomed, open space before us, trying to imagine the new neighborhood that will soon rise from where we stood – a neighborhood of crowded shops and busy offices, with well-furnished apartments, narrow sidewalks, parkway trees and street lamps. I realized the new neighborhood, though still just marks on an architect’s drawings, will last much longer than either Bob or I will probably be remembered.

“That’s a nice one,” Bob said as a ball I clobbered arched high into the air. Then he swung, connected and launched one equally far into the range. I returned the compliment. Not surprising, our remaining drives were the usual mix of duds and misfires.

After a while, I was placing my last ball onto the tee. Bob had just finished and turned to watch me. As I planted my feet, straightened my arms and concentrated on a smooth final swing, the ball fell off the tee. Bob laughed. I bent over and replaced the ball, only to have it wobble off once more before I could even stand straight. Bob shook his head and I simply spread my feet and wound up to hit the ball from where it rested on the green. I felt the cleanest, lightest touch of the day. I pictured the ball sailing high and far but, in fact, it dribbled onto the scruffy grass, kicking up a small puff of dirt about 18 feet away.

“That’s the thing about golf,” Bob said, picking up his empty bucket and stepping closer to shake my hand. He was smiling again. “It teaches you not to expect too much.”

"Golf Lessons" is reprinted from Sport Literate, Father's Issue 2003


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