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The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport

In the summer of 2005, I returned to golf after a much needed layoff of thirty-two years.

Attempting a comeback in my fifties wouldn’t have been so absurd if I’d been a decent player when I was young, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. At my best, I’d shown occasional flashes of competence. At my worst, I’d been a menace to all carbon-based life-forms on the golf course.

On the day I gave up golfing, I stood six-feet even, weighed a stringy 145 pounds and was in relatively sound physical shape. When I returned to the game, I was half an inch taller, twenty-one pounds heavier and nagged by the following age-related ailments:

• elevated cholesterol;
• a bone spur deep in the right rotator cuff;
• an aching right hip;
• a permanently weakened right knee, due to a badly torn medial
meniscus that was scraped and repaired in February 2003 by the
same orthopedic surgeon who’d once worked on a young professional quarterback named Dan Marino. (The doctor had assured me that my injury was no worse than Marino’s, then he’d added with a hearty chuckle, “But you’re also not twenty-two years old.”)

Other factors besides my knee joint and HDL had changed during my long absence. When I’d abandoned golf in 1973, I had been a happily married father of a two-year-old son. When I returned to the sport in 2005, I was a happily remarried father of a five-year-old son, a fourteen-year-old stepson and a thirty-four-year-old son with three kids of his own. In other words, I was a grandpa.

Over those three busy and productive decades, a normal, well-centered person would have mellowed in the loving glow of the family hearth. Not me. I was just as restless, consumed, unreflective, fatalistic and emotionally unequipped to play golf in my fifties as I was in my teens.

What possesses a man to return in midlife to a game at which he’d never excelled in his prime, and which in fact had dealt him mostly failure, angst and exasperation?

Here’s why I did it: I’m one sick bastard.


The Last Waltz

My first taste of golf was as a shag caddy for my father. He often practiced hitting wedges in our front yard, and I’d put on my baseball glove and play outfield.

Dad seemed genuinely happy when I finally asked to take golf lessons. I was perhaps eleven or twelve, too young to realize that my disposition was ill-suited to a recreation that requires infinite patience and eternal optimism.

The club pro was Harold Perry, a pleasant fellow and a solid teacher. He said I had a natural swing, which, I’ve since learned, is what pros always say at your first lesson. It’s more merciful than: “You’d have a brighter future chopping cane.”

The early sessions did seem to go well, and Harold was en- couraging. As time passed, however, he began chain-smoking heavily during our lessons, which suggested to me the existence of a chronic problem for which Harold had no solution. The problem was largely in my head, and fell under the clinical heading of Wildly Unrealistic Expectations.

My first major mistake was prematurely asking to join my father for nine holes, a brisk Sunday outing during which I unraveled like a crackhead at a Billy Graham crusade. This was because I’d foolishly expected to advance the golf ball down the fairway in a linear path. The experience was marred by angry tears, muffled profanities and long, brittle periods of silence. Worse, a pattern was established that would continue throughout the years that Dad and I played together.

Golfers like maxims, and here’s a good one: Beginners should never be paired with good players, especially if the good player is one’s own father.

The harder I tried, the uglier it got. To say that I didn’t bear my pain stoically is an understatement. Dad suffered along with me and so did his golf game, which added to my sullen mood an oppressive layer of guilt.

There were rare sunbursts of hope when I managed to hit a decent shot or sink a putt, but usually a pall of Nordic gloom followed us around the links. My father was a saint for tolerating my tantrums and sulking. He never once ditched me; whenever I asked to tag along on his regular weekend game, he’d say yes despite knowing what histrionics lay ahead. As I grew taller he generously bought me a set of Ben Hogans, which were so gorgeous that at first I was reluctant to throw them.

Interestingly, I have no recollection of my father and me completing a round of golf, with the exception of a father-son charity event (and the only reason I didn’t flee on the back nine was that I wasn’t sure how to get back to the clubhouse). I can’t recall our final score, probably for the same reason that victims of serious traffic accidents often cannot remember getting in the car. Trauma wipes clean the memory banks.

In high school some of my friends took up golf, and occasionally I joined them on weekends. Surrounded by retirement developments, the Lauderdale Lakes course was a scraggly, unkempt layout that was chosen by us for its dirt-cheap, all-day green fees. Despite the trampled fairways and corrugated greens, I actually started enjoying myself ––– the mood was loose and raunchy, and it was uplifting to discover that my friends stroked the ball as erratically as I did. We were the youngest players on that course by half a century, a disparity that every round precipitated one or two prickly confrontations with foursomes who were less agile and alert. That, of course, only added to the sportive atmosphere.

Occasionally we also played a chaotic par-3 layout, upon which I once bladed a 9-iron dead into the cup for an ace. It was a feat that I never replicated. My name (misspelled, naturally) was etched into a hokey hole-in-one plaque that was hung among literally hundreds of others in the funky little clubhouse.

My father was undoubtedly relieved that I’d found other golfing companions, freeing him to resume his regular Sunday rounds in peace. Unfortunately, bursitis was making it increasingly difficult for him to swing a club, and by the time I left for college he was playing infrequently, and in pain.

During my first semester at Emory University I got married and soon thereafter became a father, so for a time I was too preoccupied ––– and too broke ––– for golf.

In the summer of 1972 I entered the journalism college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where I reconnected with my high school buddies. The university maintains a top-notch par-72 that was in those days open to students for $2.50. It was there I broke 90 for the first and only time before giving up the game.

I was walking eighteen in a group that included a good friend, Al Simmens. He was hitting the ball well but I was all over the map, scrambling for bogeys and doubles. In the midst of butchering a long par-4, I improbably holed out a full 7-iron for a birdie. Exclamations of amused wonder arose from Big Al and the others. Then, supernaturally, two holes later I knocked in a 9-iron from about 110 yards.

This time Al keeled over as if felled by a sniper. Once before I’d seen him collapse like that on a golf course. It had happened when he was kneecapped by a drive struck by Larry Robinson, a member of our own foursome ––– the most astoundingly bad tee shot that I’ve ever witnessed, to this day. Al had been next up, standing dead even with Larry and seemingly safe, when Larry’s abominably mishit ball shot off the tee at a 90 degree angle and smashed into Al’s right leg. The impact sounded like a Willie McCovey home run. Incredibly, Al was upright within minutes, and resumed playing with only a slight limp.

But after my second hole-out on that morning in Gainesville, he lay lifeless in the fairway with a glassy expression that called to mind Queequeg, the Pacific Island cannibal in Moby-Dick, who’d lapsed into a grave trance upon seeing his fate in a throw of the bones. Eventually Al arose and rejoined our group, but he was rocky.

I completed the round with no further heroics yet I walked off the 18th green with an 88, my best score ever. That was in the summer of 1973, and by the end of the year I was done. The Hogans sat in a closet, gathering dust.

Richard Nixon was hunkered like a meth-crazed badger in the White House, Hank Aaron was one dinger shy of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, and The Who had just released Quadrophenia.

At age twenty, I was more or less at peace.


Toad Golf

My divorce from golf was uncomplicated and amic- able. When I came home from college on visits, my father and I would spend Sunday afternoons watching the PGA on television. Dad had always asserted that Sam Snead was the greatest player of all time, but he was gradually coming around to the possibility that Jack Nicklaus was something special.

Then, in February 1976, my father died suddenly at the outrageously unfair age of fifty, a tragedy that extinguished any lingering whim I might have had to tackle golf again with serious intent. Apparently I played a round later that year with a friend, although my memory of it is fogged.

Possibly I've blocked out other rounds, too. My brother, Rob, says that he and I golfed together one time not long after Dad passed away. "It wasn't good," he tells me.

The next time I recall swinging a club wasn't in any conventional, or socially acceptable, format.

It occurred one night that same year, when my best friend and fishing companion, Bob Branham, called to report a disturbing infestation. The culprit was Bufo marinus, a large and brazen type of toad that had invaded South Florida from Central America and proliferated rapidly, all but exterminating the more docile native species. The Bufo grows to two pounds and eats anything that fits in its maw, including small birds and mice. When threatened, it excretes from two glands behind its eyes a milky toxin extremely dangerous to mammals. Adventuresome human substance abusers have claimed that licking Bufo toads produces psychedelic visions, but the practice is often fatal for dogs and cats.

Which is why Bob had called. Every evening a brigade of Bufos had been appearing outside his back door and gobbling all the food he'd put out for Dixie, his young Labrador retriever. It's probably unnecessary to point out that while Labradors possess a cheery and endearing temperament, they are not Mensa candidates in the kingdom of canines. In fact, Labs will eagerly eat, lick or gnaw objects far more disgusting than a sweaty toad. For that reason, Bob expressed what I felt was a well-founded fear that his beloved pet was in peril during these nightly Bufo encounters.

When I arrived at his house, the onslaught was in progress. A herd of medium-sized toads hungrily patrolled the perimeter of his patio, while one exceptionally rotund specimen had vaulted into Dixie's dish and engulfed so much dog chow that it was unable to climb out. It looked like a mud quiche with eyeballs.

As kids, Bob and I had roamed the Everglades collecting wild critters, so neither of us wanted to harm the Bufos. Yet there seemed no choice but to remove them quickly and by force, before his dopey dog slurped one like a Popsicle.

Ballasted with Alpo, the toads would have been easy to capture by hand. That, however, would have presented two serious problems. One was the poison; the other was pee. Toads are prodigious pissers, and Bufos in particular own hair-trigger bladders. The instant you pick one up, the hosing commences and does not cease until you drop it.

Bob and I were discussing our limited and unsavory options when I noticed a golf bag in a corner near the back door. We had a brief conversation about which of his neighbors was the most obnoxious, and then I reached for a 9-iron. Bob chose a 7.

Before the PETA rally begins, let me point out that an adult Bufo toad is one of God's sturdiest creatures. Bob swears he once saw one get run over by a compact car and then hop away. I have my doubts, but in any case we purposely picked lofted clubs to effect a kinder, gentler relocation.

Aerodynamically, your average toad travels through the air with substantially more drag than a golf ball. This is because golf balls are usually round, and legless. A toad won't carry as far, or roll more than once or twice when it lands. Nonetheless, I soon found the range with Bob's 9-iron, chipping several beefy Bufos onto a window awning two houses away. Even at that distance we could hear the feisty invaders clomping across the flimsy aluminum before free-falling into the backyard of their new, unsuspecting hosts.

Purists probably wouldn't consider clandestine toad launching as true golf, but for accuracy's sake it must be reported that I took five or six swings with an iron that night. The next time I touched a club was in August 1977, while vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina. The trip stands out for two reasons: Elvis Presley died that week, and I got my first (and last) taste of genuine mountain moonshine. However, I was neither grief-stricken nor bombed when I accompanied a friend to a municipal driving range, which --- using borrowed clubs --- I chopped into wet clots of flying sod.

During self-imposed retirement I continued to follow the professional tour as a fan, and in 1978 I even attended what was then called the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in Lauderhill. On the afternoon that I was in the gallery, Nicklaus ran off five consecutive birdies on his way to dusting the field. His performance was so otherwordly that it validated my decision to abandon the game; the only way I belonged on a golf course was as a spectator.

Then, in November 2002, another slip occurred, and it ultimately set me on the cart path to perdition.

The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport
by by Carl Hiaasen

  • Genres: Nonfiction, Sports
  • hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307266532
  • ISBN-13: 9780307266538