The Old Man and the Tee
On these pages and for the several minutes it takes to read them, our culture's enduring obsession with youth is officially suspended. Our subject is America's least exalted demographic: old men.
Old men play golf differently than the rest of us. Some play it well and some play it poorly but, as a class, their journey from the first tee to the last is worth studying. You can both improve your score and deepen the game's pleasures by paying attention when the elders lace up their spikes.
My own education began in a foursome that included three artificial joints: two hips and a knee. The orthopedic hardware was bolted to the bones of three men in their eighties, all residents of a gated community in Florida that includes my wife's mother. I joined them for a round during an annual holiday visit.
They eyed me warily as I walked toward them with the starter. I learned later that my own age was almost a deal breaker. As a reasonably fit "kid" of fifty, they feared I might disrupt the octogenarian rhythms of their round. We exchanged greetings, handicaps, picked teams and teed off. What followed was a post-graduate education in good manners, good fellowship and, in the end, what's so good about the game.
Like many retirees, they drove flamboyant golf carts: custom paint jobs, sound systems, flashy hood ornaments. There was the unmistakable echo of the Chryslers and Cadillac's they drove fifty years ago. One, apparently the group's quartermaster, had a year's supply of pencils and scorecards at the ready, wrapped in rubber bands and meticulously arranged in what, otherwise, appeared to be a medicine cabinet: Advil, prescription meds, band-aids, tubes of mentholated muscle cream, disinfectant and multiple grades of sun block. Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Everest with fewer provisions. Clearly, this would be no ordinary round of golf. This was a pilgrimage and the lessons unfolded on every fairway.
Golf Cartography - Old guys frequently have an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world. After all, they've spent seven or eight decades walking around in it. If you're lucky, they'll map out the golf course for you, its landmarks, landscape and wildlife. Learning that your ball has come to rest under a "bougainvillea" and not a generic "bush" may be small consolation but it will better connect you to the golf course and, as the details accumulate, sharpen your appreciation of its architecture. Knowing that the bird cart wheeling overhead is an American kestrel can turn an out-of-bounds tee shot into an occasion of wonder. Stop counting strokes and give more
thought to the canvas you're playing on.
There's No Swing Like An Old Swing - Their swings are miraculously constructed. In the best of them, there's a hint of the 50's Ben Hogan; in the worst, an homage to the same decade's Bob Hope. In all of them, you'll see ingenious compensations for body parts that don't work quite as well as they used to. Their swings aren't uniformly pretty but they're predictably consistent and give new meaning to the term "muscle memory." Remember, they've been tutoring their neuromuscular junctions since Ike was in the White House. Because their testosterone is taking flight, they worship at the altar of timing and tempo more than young Turks do. During your next round, genuflect with them and watch your score improve.
Splendor in the Grass - Because they grew up during America's first mass exodus to the suburbs, these guys love to landscape. They repair divots and rake bunkers unfailingly. They minister to ball marks on the green as if they were bruises on a granddaughter's arm. They know, from the hard-won experience of guarding their own health, that living things need looking after. Whether you play at a private club or a pockmarked Muni, leave every golf hole in better shape than you found it.
Take a Lesson - Remember, you're in the presence of men who have stopped
punching the clock and can still afford a tee time. They have more or less successfully retired. They may not be able to lead you to the next Google, but any elder foursome can be full of sage advice on money, marriage and generally managing your life. Ask them about their lives and careers, turning points and blunders. Take notes.
The Wonders of the Wager - With their business careers behind them, a golf wager awakens a slumbering will to win. It is a kind of business deal, isn't it? Strokes are ferociously negotiated and the stakes, typically small, are agreed upon. They started playing golf when Byron Nelson ruled the sport and a buck was still a buck. It's not about the cash, it's about the contest and the unspeakable pleasure of extracting another ten spot from the flinty, New Englander they've been playing with since '75. Bet smart, bet small, and play fiercely down the stretch.
The Killer Short Game - Every golfer has had a $5 Nassau slip from his grasp as some old guy gets up and down on a crucial hole. This is their wheelhouse, where they swallow the indignity of being out-driven by seventy yards, offer a sly wink and go one-up on the match. Because they're on life's final lap, they know that how you start matters less than how you finish. Inside 20 yards, this wisdom is decisive. It doesn't hurt, of course, to have memorized every subtle swale on the golf course and they have. If you're lucky enough to meet one of these masters of the short game, share a beer with him after the round and pick up a tip or two.
Enjoy the Journey - When you tee it up with a man in his eighties, you might well be witness to his final round. As fit a fellow as he seems, the basic laws of probability insist that next week's foursome may be a man short and he knows it. I thought more than once when one of my foursome made his way to the bottom of a bunker that he may never come out. And that he might not mind that at all.
This must explain, in some measure, the simple joy they take in the journey. They generally play without anger or angst and, in an age of ball caps worn backwards and brawling basketball teams, they'll connect you to a gentler time.
They are the game's true historians and the keepers of its enduring civility. That golf remains such a grand, old game is largely thanks to the grand, old men who continue to play it.