GOLF. It's the game of fathers and brothers and uncles and mothers. It's just not my game. I've been on a golf course maybe six or seven times in my life. My form is quite good, actually, but I'm not sure it takes a lot of form to steer golf carts, write down scores, and sip Cokes. I'm the one who, while everyone else is plotting strategy and choosing irons, barrels along the cart path enjoying the breezes. I'm the one who says ``good one!'' after almost every shot, because really, they all look pretty good to me and I like to contribute what I can to the sport. And I'm the one who feels slightly guilty when it's all over, because frankly, I'm a bit exhausted, and I haven't done anything but drive (literally, that is) and scribble.
I'd like to be able to play. I've tried a few times - hit a few balls just to see how it feels. It doesn't feel good. Bend this elbow here, twist your back this way, contort your knee that way, oops, elbow in... now, do all that at the same time - and hit the ball! Who do they think they're kidding? I feel like a fish being told to walk: Other species (fathers and brothers, uncles, and mothers) may have evolved that far, but I certainly haven't. I am, I have concluded , the weak link in my family.
Being a golf bystander, however, is not all carts and breezes. The hardest part by far? Observer etiquette. There is a completely separate set of rules for observers - perhaps not quite as complex as those for players, but equally stringent in their application. Don't ask me what they are; I just know they exist.
FOR example: Does one drive the cart to a point just before or just beyond where the players are? Do I catch up to them or do they catch up to me? Do I stay inside or outside those little yellow ropes, which look like they've been set up specially for gopher tourists? Is the cart engine - I suppose it should be called a motor - disturbing that man in plaid two holes up? (Usually there's a man in plaid at every hole.) Should I get out and hand my father his 4-iron (I can read the num bers), or does he prefer to come and get it himself? And can I read a magazine while waiting for them to sink their putts, or is that too blatant a display of nonappreciation?
If you play the game, I imagine you absorb the rules by osmosis. You're raised in the culture and hardly even know that you're following rules. But if you don't play, you're completely out of the loop and cannot begin to guess at the intricacies involved. It's like walking into a roomful of people where everyone but you knows why it's so very important to knock three times on the coffee table before helping yourself to the chips and dip.
I still harbor dreams of learning how to play, of course. At least well enough to get through nine holes with a score under 400, and before nightfall. (In baseball, that'd be a more than respectable batting average.) I wouldn't mind being able to pull all those awkward moves together and produce, as club meets ball, that perfect ``thwok'' sound - not too brittle, not too mushy - that seems to bring a gleam to the eye of every golfer.
As it is, observer status has its benefits. And I think they may be just as rewarding as a hole-in-one. There's the glint of the sun on the greens and quiet winds sighing across the afternoon. There are squirrels dashing out from behind trees. Occasionally there are deer in the distance, who with their calm nonchalance seem to acknowledge and accept the presence of the plaid creatures going round in circles with iron sticks.
THEN there is the hush of concentration as my father prepares for a putt, and the pleasure that dances across his face when he sinks it. There's my mother's sigh of satisfaction when she hits a solid drive and sends the ball straight and far. And there's my younger brother's grunt of frustration as he kicks the ground with an obstinate look of determination after a ball has somehow gone astray, a look that reminds me of the days when he really was my ``little'' brother.
Underneath it all is the quiet joy of striving, the effort they each put into what they're doing: the practicing and the patience, the gathering and focusing of energies, the setbacks and the moments of glory. To a one-time literature major, who finds plenty of time to reflect while sitting on the sidelines sipping a Coke, it's a microcosm for the larger sport of life.