The Old Men and The Tee
For the minutes it takes to read these lines, our culture's enduring obsession with youth
is officially suspended.
Our subject is America's least exalted demographic:
Old men play golf differently than the rest of us. Some play it well and some play it
poorly but, as a class, their journey from the first tee to the last is worth studying. You can both improve your score
and deepen the game's pleasures by paying attention when the elders lace up their spikes.
My own education began
in a foursome that included three artificial joints: two hips and a knee. The orthopedic hardware was bolted to the bones
of three men in their eighties, all residents of a gated community in Florida that includes my wife's mother. I joined
them for a round during an annual holiday visit.
They eyed me warily as I walked toward them with the starter.
I learned later that my own age was almost a deal breaker. As a reasonably fit "kid" of fifty, they feared I might disrupt
the octogenarian rhythms of their round. We exchanged greetings, handicaps, picked teams and teed off. What followed
was a post graduate education in good manners, good fellowship and, in the end, what's so good about the game.
many retirees, they drove flamboyant golf carts: custom paint jobs, sound systems, flashy hood ornaments. There
was the unmistakable echo of the Chryslers and Cadillacs they drove fifty years ago. One, apparently the group's quartermaster,
had a year's supply of pencils and scorecards at the ready, wrapped in rubber bands and meticulously arranged in what, otherwise,
appeared to be a medicine cabinet: Advil, prescription meds, band-aids, tubes of mentholated muscle cream, disinfectant and
multiple grades of sun block. Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Everest with fewer provisions. Clearly, this would be no ordinary
round of golf. This was a pilgrimage and the lessons unfolded on every fairway.
Golf Cartography: Old guys frequently have an encyclopedic knowledge of the
natural world. After all, they've spent seven or eight decades walking around in it. If you're lucky, they'll map out the
golf course for you, its landmarks, landscape and wildlife. Learning that your ball has come to rest under a "bougainvillea"
and not a generic "bush" may be small consolation but it will better connect you to the golf course and, as the details accumulate,
sharpen your appreciation of its architecture. Knowing that the bird cart wheeling overhead is an American kestrel can turn
an out-of-bounds tee shot into an occasion of wonder. Stop counting strokes and give more thought to the canvas you're
There's No Swing Like An Old Swing: Their swings are miraculously constructed. In the
best of them, there's a hint of the 50's Ben Hogan; in the worst, an homage to the same decade's Bob Hope. In
all of them, you'll see ingenious compensations for body parts that don't work quite as well as they used to. Their swings
aren't uniformly pretty but they're predictably consistent and give new meaning to the term "muscle memory". Remember,
they've been tutoring their neuromuscular junctions since Ike was in the White House. Because their testosterone is
taking flight, they worship at the altar of timing and tempo more than young Turks do. During your next round, genuflect with
them and watch your score improve.
Splendor in the Grass: Because they grew up during America' first mass
exodus to the suburbs, these guys love to landscape. They repair divots and rake bunkers unfailingly. They minister
to ball marks on the green as if they were bruises on a granddaughter's arm. They know, from the hard-won experience of guarding
their own health, that living things need looking after. Whether you play at a private club or a pockmarked muni, leave every
golf hole in better shape than you found it.
Take a Lesson: Remember, you're in the presence of
men who have stopped punching the clock and can still afford a tee time. They have more or less successfully retired.
They may not be able to lead you to the next Google, but any elder foursome can be full of sage advice on money, marriage
and generally managing your life. Ask them about their lives and careers, turning points and blunders. Take notes.
Wonders of the Wager: With their business careers behind them, a golf wager awakens a slumbering will to win. It
is a kind of business deal, isn't it? Strokes are ferociously negotiated and the stakes, typically small, are agreed upon.
They started playing golf when Byron Nelson ruled the sport and a buck was still a buck. It's not about the cash, it's about
the contest and the unspeakable pleasure of extracting another ten spot from the flinty, New Englander they've been playing
with since 1975. Bet smart, bet small, and play fiercely down the stretch.
The Killer Short Game
- Every golfer has had a $5 Nassau slip from his grasp as some old guy gets up and down on a crucial hole. This is their
wheelhouse, where they swallow the indignity of being out-driven by seventy yards, offer a sly wink and go one-up on the match.
Because they're on life's final lap, they know that how you start matters less than how you finish. Inside 20 yards, this
wisdom is decisive. It doesn't hurt, of course, to have memorized every subtle swale on the golf course and they have. If
you're lucky enough to meet one of these masters of the short game, share a beer with him after the round and pick up a tip
Enjoy the Journey - When you tee it up with a man in his eighties, you might well be witness to
his final round. As fit a fellow as he seems, the basic laws of probability insist that next week's foursome may be
a man short and he knows it. I thought more than once when one of my foursome made his way to the bottom of a bunker
that he may never come out. And that he might not mind that at all.
This must explain, in some measure, the simple
joy they take in the journey. They generally play without anger or angst and, in an age of ball caps worn backwards and brawling
basketball teams, they'll connect you to a gentler time.
They are the game's true historians and the keepers
of its enduring civility. That golf remains such a grand, old game is largely thanks to the grand, old men who continue to