Monday, September 20, 2010

My Dad, The Pimp

When I caught the golf bug at the ripe old age of ten and began swatting balls around Harrington Field in Cuyahoga Falls and on my made-up course in my parent's back yard, I envisioned being a PGA Tour player, beating Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. A typical scenario that kids do in order to spice up the experience. I wasn’t very good, but I had an unquenchable appetite for hitting those golf balls. Hithithit…JERRY! DINNERS READY!…hithithit….JERRY! IT’S DARK OUT!….hithithit…As a result of nothing but this robotic repetition, something interesting happened when I got to be around the age of fifteen. I got good. I was shooting in the low 80's and getting the attention of people, like the local high school golf coach. At the age of sixteen I made my first hole in one.

I would go to a driving range armed with two buckets of balls, would sequester myself into my mental cocoon and start hitting them. After 25 or so shots, I would take a break, turn around, and there would be people standing there, watching me practice. “You have a very fine swing, young man.” Uh, thanks. “Have you ever thought about trying to play right-handed?” Uh, no, why would I?

This was 1973, and the sight of a left-handed teenager smacking 250-yard drives was a bit of a circus sideshow. Until that point, only one lefty had won a tour event, Bob Charles, the 1963 British Open. And many spectators to my practice sessions could not wrap their heads around this odd sight – left-handed golfers were rare. I cannot tell you how many times it was suggested that I jump to the other side of the ball and play righty. You might as well have asked a bear to recite Shakespeare.

A year earlier, I was playing baseball at Harrington Field after school when my dad pulled into the parking lot & hollered to me. “Jerry! Get over here!” In typical teenage slacker form, I ignored him. “Goddammit Jerry! I said get your damn ass over here!” I slunked over. What, Dad. He opened the trunk of the car, and there was a brand new set of left-handed Dunlop Bob Charles (1963 British Open Champ!), matched set of woods and irons in a pristine Dunlop Airliner red white and blue golf bag. Driver, three, four and five woods, two through 9 irons, pitching and sand wedge. A complete set. Up until that point I was playing with a starter set of crappy off brand department store sticks.

“What do you think of those, son?” The slacker attitude vanished. “Are..are…those MINE?”

“No son. I just lost my GODdamn mind and decided to start playing left-handed. Of course they’re yours. But you’re going to have to earn them.” At that point I didn’t care if ‘earning them’ would have consisted of feeding lepers in a diaper. Fortunately, Dad had other plans. Some real savvy plans. Cool plans.

He became my pimp.

When I got home, he laid it out. “Son, you started beating me when you were 12. For us to have a fair match you’d have to spot me four a side. I think it’s time we had some fun. I know some pigeons that we can fleece.”

Pigeons? Why would I want to fleece a bird? Why are you talking funny? What do birds have to do with new golf clubs….

Whenever I exasperated my dad I would get the same response from him – a deep sigh, followed with a salty phrase. In this case it was “Jeeeezuzchrist son. NO! I’m talking about playing golf for money. You and me against guys I know we can BEAT. We call people like that PIGEONS. Comprende?”

‘You mean I can make MONEY playing GOLF?’

(long sigh)…. “Yes son. Money. GodDAMMIT you are dense. But you can hit a golf ball like nobody’s business. We’re going to have a blast.”

J. Edward Good Park Golf Course is a fine public golf course on the west side of Akron. A stout 6,900 yards from the tips, it hosts the Summit County Amateur every summer along with a number of other events. Built in the 1920’s, it is an institution and has stood the test of time. To play there, you, as they say, ‘gotta have game.’ Narrow, tree-lined holes almost all of which dogleg either right or left. Lightning-fast greens. Ankle-high rough. Tough track. You have to work the ball both ways, hit it very straight, and have velvet touch around the greens.

It is also a Hustler’s Haven. Situated not too far from the ‘hood, Good Park is populated with older men in their 50s and 60s, smoking cigars, cussing up a storm, and eyeing easy marks. They literally hang out there all day looking for a game. My Dad used to play a Wednesday night golf league there and knew many of the regulars – “Jonesy! How’s the missus? Frankie! Fixed those yips yet?”

When Dad took me there I was in heaven. I stood there, mouth agape, staring at the lush fairways, the gentle doglegs, rolling terrain…just taking in the scenery. Dad was arranging matches - "Tellya what, Hoss. Me and my son will play the two of you, five bucks a hole, straight up. Look at my son….where in the fuck is my son…JERRY! Get your ass over here! Look at him. He's 125 pounds. You'd be crazy not to take that bet. What ? You want two a side? You’re smoking those funny cigarettes again, Hoss. My back is killing me, I’m getting over this cold..”

‘Dad, I don’t remember you being sick…’

He turned to me and hissed ‘shutyermouthgoddammitoriwillpermanentlyshutitforyou….’

‘Oh yeah, Sick. Bad. Diarrhea and all that stuff.’

“So what you say Hoss? Bet?”

Another unknown dynamic to these unsuspecting saps was that two years earlier my Dad got sober. A raging drunk, he was given a choice – drink and die, or quit and live. He made the wise choice. Now, two years later, his shaky hands were gone, and his touch had returned. Dad was never a ‘good’ golfer, but he could move it around at or near 90. A bogey golfer. But now, sober? That cut five strokes off his score.
“Hey Charlie, I’m gonna get us a couple of six packs for the round.”

“Uh, you go ahead Hoss. Im gonna lay off the sauce today. But drink one for me, willya?”

Dad was smooth. I swear, all he needed was a fur coat, fedora and platform shoes and he would be Huggy Bear.

So off we went. Dad would hit first and park one out there about 200 yards. Then I would step up, and with my interlocking, too-strong grip and exaggerated Reverse-C follow through, I would fly one past him by about 40 yards with a hard draw (which ten years later I got rid of) and with roll would sit out in the middle of the fairway, about 260 yards out.

The look on the pigeon’s faces were priceless, and they would grumble ‘Yeah, but I bet he can’t putt…’

Oh yes I could. That was the best part of my game. I had uncanny touch. I could get it up & down from the ball-washer. I had a great feel for distance with my wedges, and I had a silky-smooth putting stroke. I never three-putted. Never. Ever. Inside six feet I was automatic - you might as well concede the putt because I was going to make it. I knew I would and you knew I would. And it was this attrition-style of play, that, by the end of the match you felt like you just went through a five-hour Chinese Water Torture. You'd pay me just to get me out of your sight.

And at the end of those rounds, that’s exactly what they did. Huggy Dad would saunter over to the pigeon and out would come a roll of twenties wrapped in a rubber band, and my eyes lit up. “Twenty, forty, sixty….”

“Keep going” my Dad would say, “Remember, we pressed the 18th?”…”EIGHTY, one hundred…”

“I think you got it Hoss.”

The drives home were fantastic. “Holy SHIT son! GREAT playing! I am really proud of you! Here’s twenty bucks.”

Yes, I did the math. I realized Dad was making out on this arrangement. But I had just finished playing golf for free, and was handed a sawbuck. Life was good.

And besides, as they say, Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Brady Lake

I come from a somewhat large family. Youngest of four, born girl-boy-girl-boy. My mother was a bookkeeper, my father a plumber. Both worked very hard to provide us with everything we needed…and some of the things we wanted. We did not go without, but were hardly wealthy. We were very middle-class, living in a middle-class suburb of Akron, Ohio. My childhood was a breezy, trauma-free experience, save one.

Brady Lake.

Brady Lake was a nearby bucolic setting of woods, picnic areas and a nice lake. Popular summer spot. One summer day when I was six years old my extended family had a picnic at Brady Lake – fifty or so of my relatives for a fun afternoon of swimming, horseshoes, softball, swimming and lots of food. Very Norman Rockwell-esque. It was a great day.

I am a loner by nature. And on that day, late in the afternoon, I took a walk by myself into the woods. Picking up caterpillars, dragging sticks in the mud, just having six-year-old fun in the woods. Then I had the feeling that I should head back to the picnic site – it was getting late, maybe 7 in the evening or so. So I headed back. When I got to the picnic site, nobody was there.

Everyone had left. The picnic had ended. They packed up everything, got in their cars and left. They remembered everything…except me. My mom and dad had driven separately, and in the confusion of packing up, mom thought I was with dad and vice versa.

Of course, I did not know this.

I panicked. And what does a six-year-old do when he panics? He screams. Loudly. And runs and cries hysterically. And that is exactly what I did. I ran and I screamed…and screamed and ran…where’s my mommy? Where’s daddy? Why did you leave me? Was I bad for going into the woods? Was this punishment for eating my boogers or teasing Michelle Blocksom on the playground last week at school? Will I ever see them again? MOMMY! DAAAAAAAAAAD! WAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!

As I ran, I came across a parking lot. On the other side was a large fenced-in area where people with funny looking sticks were swinging away at small white balls. I ran towards that place, still crying, still frantic. A man who I later found out was the owner of this place, saw me – “What’s the matter little fella?” “MMM-MMM-MY MMOMMY AN-AND-ANDDD DUH-DUH-DUH-DDDADDY WEFT ME! WAHHHHHH!”

The man took me over to his driving range and tried to calm me down. And I distinctly remember my eye being caught by this odd activity taking place. I pointed at the people and asked the man “Wuhhh-whaa-whhat are dey doing?”

“Why they are playing golf. Would you like to try?”


That man gave me a golf club and a bucket of balls. And I started swinging. And suddenly, I wasn’t crying anymore. I wasn’t shaking anymore. By the tenth ball, I wasn’t lost anymore. By the twentieth ball, I had found something that, little did I know at the time, would fundamentally change my life.

Remember my mom and dad? I had forgotten about them. I was now having fun. But on the drive back home, mom had stopped for gas, when she noticed dad drive by and I was not in his car. Now panic gripped HER with the realization that Jerry was still back at Brady Lake. She burned rubber out of the gas station and high-tailed it back there. Pulling into the parking lot next to the driving range, she saw me and frantically ran over.

“Hi Mommy! I’m golfing!”

And that's how it started.

Playing Naked

Bobby Jones once said there is golf and then there is tournament golf, and they do not share much in common.

This is true.

When I caught the golf bug at the ripe old age of ten and began swatting balls around Harrington Field in Cuyahoga Falls and on my made-up course in my parent's back yard, I envisioned being a PGA Tour player, beating Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. A typical scenario that kids do in order to spice up the experience.

But then something interesting happened when I got to be around the age of fifteen. I got good. I was shooting in the low 80's and getting the attention of people, like the local high school golf coach. At the age of sixteen I made my first hole in one. My dad would take me with him to the local 'Hustler's Haven', Good Park Golf Course in Akron, and would set up money matches with me as his partner - "Tellya what, Hoss. Me and my son will play the two of you, five bucks a hole, straight up. Look at my son. He's 125 pounds. You'd be crazy not to take that bet."

They usually did, and we usually won.

I was deceiving. Being slight of build, at 5-foot-9 and the aforementioned buck twenty five, I basically looked like a Q-Tip. It was, after all, 1974, and I had my Starter Afro going. I didn't boom out prodigiously long drives. Instead I was adept at consistently finding the fairway off the tee, getting my next shot at or around the green, and from there I had uncanny touch. I could get it up & down from the ball-washer. I had a great feel for distance with my wedges, and I had a silky-smooth putting stroke. I never three-putted. Never. Inside six feet I was automatic - you might as well conceded the putt because I was going to make it. I knew I would and you knew I would. And it was this attrition-style of play, that by the end of the match would have you feeling like you just went through a five-hour Chinese Water Torture, that would end up putting some nice coin in my pocket. You'd pay me just to get me out of your sight.

So, naturally, I built upon these experiences and tried my hand at playing competitively.

Now understand - playing for money and playing competitively are two entirely different things. Playing for money is beating one person who is in your company. Beat him and you win. Playing competitively is trying to beat a field of unseen adversaries. The talent pool is much deeper, and psychology is not a factor. Fewest amount of strokes wins out of 80 or so competitors. USGA Rules strictly enforced - no grounding the club in hazards (paging Dustin Johnson), no seeking advice (What did you hit there? 6 or 7 iron?), play it as it lies (Hey my ball rolled into a divot mark. Can I move it?). Pressure. Pressure cooker pressure.

This is what Bobby Jones meant.

Jones retired from competitive golf at the age of twenty eight, after winning the Grand Slam in 1930. Many were shocked that such a prodigious talent would leave the stage at the absolute zenith of his career. But for Jones, it was a no-brainer. Publicly he would state that he was an amateur, and that he wanted to pursue a career as a lawyer (which he did). But privately, and later in his books, he revealed the true reason for his abrupt retirement. Pressure. In a typical tournament, Jones would lose anywhere from 15 to twenty pounds simply through nerves.

Golf is not a reactionary sport. By that I mean it is not played through instinct. For example, a Linebacker see the play begin and reacts - his instincts tells him where to put his body to make the tackle, and a half-second later, he reacts. Golf is not like that. The ball sits there patiently waiting for you to hit it. There are no Safety blitzes, no shot clock. Take your time, the ball is patient. So the pressure created by this dynamic can be stifling - if Ray Lewis is bearing down on you, that's not pressure. That's panic. A golf ball waiting to be perfectly placed between a water hazard and a bunker 250 yards away in a tournament situation? That's pressure.

So my competitive golf career began when Dan Costill, my high school golf coach (and Driver's Ed teacher) suggested I try out for the golf team. So I did. And then something funny happened. When I was announced to the first tee, with all the other recruits standing around, I went blank. Then I went numb. I suddenly forgot how to push the tee into the ground and place the ball on top of it. My hands shook, my mind started racing and some unknown phantom body snatcher spirited away with my cocky attitude and swing. I took a couple of deep breaths, scanned my brain for something...anything to latch onto. I addressed the ball and I swung...

I hit it 50 feet.

The guys snickered. Coach Costill turned away. Panic enveloped me. I concluded the best reaction would be anger, and I slammed the club to the ground with a 'That came out of nowhere' incredulity, then placed my hands on my hips. I then took out my 3-wood, stomped to my ball, and with a total abandonment of my pre-shot routine, took an angry swipe at my ball. I whiffed. Now I have been taken over by evil demons and just took a virulent lunge at the ball. It went about a hundred yards forward, fifty yards left.

In the span of about two minutes, I had totally forgotten how to play golf.

Now, unlike team sports, where if you make a mistake you have a coach on you eager to point out corrective measures, golf has none. It's just you. Naked. Raw, unvarnished nakedity. I had to regroup. I took out a 7-iron just to advance the ball. I did. A few swipes later and I had finished my first round of competitive golf with a smooth triple bogey.

I did not make the golf team.

Coach Costill suggested I play some local amateur tournaments. He also strongly suggested I work on my mental toughness, alter my grip, learn to draw the ball, and practice practice practice. I did. Two years later, as a Senior, I tried out for the team again. This time I made it.

I have done some golf teaching in my time, and I will relate those experiences in another story. But here is what I have learned and imparted on my students -

If you want to break 100, learn how to putt.
If you want to break 90, learn how to chip.
If you want to break 80, learn course management.
If you want to break 70, play tournaments.

Learn how to play naked.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Firwood Avenue Country Club

Many have spent the days of their youth playing some kind of sport. Boys and girls have imagined themselves to be the next Alex Rodriguez or Mia Hamm, and have pursued this obsession by throwing a baseball against a garage door or kicking a soccer ball until their leg fell off. How many of us have constructed scenarios such as “Fourth quarter…eight seconds left…fourth and 16….he must make this catch to win the Super Bowl…"

I never did.

Oh sure, I played sports as a youth. But I pretty much sucked at all of them. So there were never any delusions of grandeur that I was going to grow up to be the next Rick Manning (Cleveland Indians Centerfielder from the 1970’s). I was too small for football, too white for basketball, and I could not hit the broad side of a barn - let alone a strike zone - with a baseball. My brother got the natural athlete genes. I inherited the overachieving dork becomes competent through hard work gene. The other dynamic was that all the sports I stunk at were team sports. So I was not just letting myself down through my putridity, but there were a whole group of boys (and girls) that were going down with me. I will just say this about that - kids can be mean.

And then, at the age of 10, I hit my first golf ball. I was actually pretty good at that. So I hit another. And another andanotherandanotherandanother…and then it got dark. The next day I hit those golf balls until my hands bled. And by the way, I was hitting them left-handed with my dad’s RIGHT-handed five iron. I would turn the club upside down so that the toe of the club was touching the ground, and swung away. My dad soon noticed this (”Where in the hell is my five iron? JERRY!) and rectified this by taking me to Clarkins and buying me a set of left-handed Spalding Johnny (not Arnold) Palmer golf clubs. Starter set. Driver & three woods, 3,5,7 & 9 irons, putter. It was the most exciting day of my then-ten-year life.

But there was a problem. We lived in a suburban, middle class neighborhood. Modest homes on 40-by-120 foot lots. No real room to practice hitting golf balls there unless I wanted to expend my allowance on replacing broken windows. So I solved this problem with a bit of ingenuity that would, I think, make Lee Iacocca call a board meeting to discuss. I got a pack of plastic golf balls, the whiffle-ball types, and designed a course out of the front yards of the homes along Firwood Avenue, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

You know how, when kids play ball in the street, first base is the fire hydrant, second base is a paper bag strategically place in the middle of the street, third base is the ‘No Parking This Side Of Street’ sign & home plate is someone’s mitt? I did that, golf-style. Firwood was a water hazard. Hit it & you’re taking a drop, two club lengths no closer to the hole. What were the holes? Why, the elm tree in my front yard. The garage door. The neighbor’s cat if need be. And our driveway, which was actually a double-driveway with our neighbors, the Schreibers, was a vast, green fairway (in my mind) where I would launch shots, off the asphalt pavement, down towards Firwood. But not too far, as remember - Firwood’s a water hazard. I would then deftly launch a 9-iron OVER Firwood toward the birch tree on the Allen’s devil strip. The sidewalk was also a water hazard, so this shot had to be executed with Tiger-esque perfection. Hey, YOU try to hit a plastic ball off asphalt over the street & get it to land - and stop - on a 6-foot wide devil strip. I was a magician.

We had nasty winters in northeast Ohio. The snow would start flying in mid-November and you did not see the ground again until Easter. This created a challenge. I soon discovered that you could not make a full backswing wearing a parka. Also, the white plastic golf balls tended to blend in too well with snowdrifts. But on the plus side, hitting a ball out of snow is similar to hitting it out of a sand trap.

So I had that going for me.

Because, yes, I played my golf course through the winter. And Jack Nicklaus played alongside me. Remember the images I conjured up earlier about A-Rod and Mia Hamm? Well, Jack was my playing partner, my rival, my adversary. And I beat him every time.

Now, I would love to tell you that this led to a career on the PGA Tour and millions of dollars. Alas, no. But it did lead to a three-handicap and a love affair that exists to this day and will for as long as I am on this side of the earth. I have had occasion to play some pretty tough golf courses - Doral Blue, Firestone, Bay Hill. But I can assure you, that on none of those tracks have I ever had to face shots like I faced at Firwood Country Club, circa 1969. At Doral, if you hit it on the cart path, you get a free drop. On my course, the "cart path" was the fairway. Where was I gonna drop the ball - in Mrs. Schreiber's rose bushes? Not if I wanted to see my 11th birthday.

I soon became the buzz of Firwood - "There's that Bryan kid hitting golf balls off his driveway" - it would actually be kind of cute if it wasn't so inherently dorky. But I didn't care. I was playing with Jack and we were having a grand time. However, it did cause me some grief on the playground - "Hey! Arna Palmer! You gonna go play your stooopid game after school? Gimme your lunch money twerp." But you want to know the delicious irony of that experience? Those same kids that were chastising me then were asking for golf lessons from me 25 years later - "What's that John? You blew out your knee playing high school football and now you're taking up golf? That's a shame. What's that - can I teach you to play golf?"

And after I laughed my ass off, I did.