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.