Written Thursday, May 3, 2012
Walking onto the driving range this afternoon felt familiar. Sliding the token into the ball-dispensing machine was as natural as starting my car – something I do every day. What I hadn’t done for a year, though, was swing a club, or even grip one.
Would my fingers feel fat? I wasn’t sure whether to wear a glove, though I did the whole time. I walked to the far end of the grass tee, where no one’s treacherous swing could distract me. I was surprised how few other people had done the same, what with the lack of divots.
I plopped a small bucket down, tilted it toward me and let the yellow and white orbs crash into my left foot, creating a neat pile from which to drag my bullets. I set the most rounded and ineffective balls to the side for warm-ups, which mostly consisted of rhythmic wedge shots. Except for the first one, which I scalded over the edge of the upper tee into the valley below. Relax your shoulders, I remembered, wishing my first shot in 11 months hadn’t gone so poorly.
The next swing was redemptive. I slowed my takeaway, steadied my head and got my hands ahead of the ball. A crisp, exhilarating collision between my Cleveland and the X-out followed. It was a match made in purgatory. Even better, I landed within a few feet of the ball I was aiming for, about 40 yards down the hill.
I worked my way up to longer shots before graduating to a 7 iron, the one from my older set that I used for practice. I don’t like to hit many range balls with my tournament clubs. Not that I play tournaments anymore. The June 2011 Maryland Amateur, after all, was the last time I swung a club before today, and the result of the competition is the reason it’s taken me so long to get back. What piqued my curiosity – in what ability I had left, in addition to whether I could find some joy back at my old office – was the unrelenting requests my dad made earlier this week for me to play a scramble with him Saturday.
On the surface, it seems like the perfect scenario in which to make a return to the course. Any individual faults would be masked by a team score, no one in my group would much care how I played, and I wouldn’t have to spend weeks practicing to prepare. But I couldn’t help but fall back on the excuse I had been using the last 300-plus days: I was so competitive that I would hate to play - probably poorly - after so much time off, and resent the game more than I had when I gave it up.
It’s sad, really, that I would come to dread the activity that shaped so much of my life. Golf was the primary factor in my college choice, the means by which I learned my work ethic and the one release I had growing up. Now the tables had turned, and I was looking for reasons to avoid getting back on the course.
The 7 iron, though – it was performing better than expected. A couple toe-chunks and wind-cheaters, but more than enough satisfying full punches to give me the confidence to tee up some R9s. I had trouble not pulling those, but there was more to like than dislike in the way they came off the clubface.
I worked back to the 7 for the last few shots, to make sure the early portion of the session wasn’t a fluke. Lo and behold, I hit it even better. That is, until I got to the final two balls in the bucket. Neither was struck well, so I ran down a few yards down the hill of the range to collect a bonus ball. I hit it even worse. Same for the next one.
What happened? I wondered. Why had my swing, which I suddenly had such high expectations for, abandoned me?
I ventured even further down the hill to grab two more balls, head on a swivel in case I got caught. (Hell, I worked there for three years and it was a couple free range balls, what were they going to do if I was caught?) The first one I hit a little better, but the pressure wasn’t as high because I knew I had another ball remaining.
I went through my full pre-shot routine, focused on the target, waggled, and exhaled. I relaxed my shoulders and ran my swing thought through my head: Slow, Head, Forward.
It was my best shot of the afternoon, sailing 10-15 yards farther than any of the previous 7 irons. I recoiled, maintaining perfect balance as the ball landed some 165 yards away. I picked up my other two clubs and the empty yellow basket, put my cell phone back in my left pocket and grabbed my keys off the ground. I turned and made the long walk back across the range toward my car. I’m going to play Saturday, I decided.