Sunday, July 3, 2011

Zen and the Art of Silent Golf

Golf presents me with a dilemma. I really should retire from "competitive" sports like basketball and even softball, since the serious injury question is not "if" but "when and how bad". The problem with golf is that I play pretty poorly and haven't improved much in the last 20 years. I can forgive myself somewhat, having only started to play in my 30's, and also because improving at golf takes learning the fundamentals and then practice and playing, and all of these take TIME.

I can't really play golf instead of working, and I don't want to regularly spend 5-7 hours on a weekend away from family and personal commitments. The only way to play more is to expand my day.

For me, this translates to "Back nine at Forest Park".

Some background about golf is in order (Note - If you are a golfer, you probably know most of these things. If you are not, please think of this as an anthropological study of a culture containing unique customs and rituals, existing right in your midst)

There are public courses and private courses. I am not a member of a country club, so I play at public courses. I have played at private courses as a guest, and at golf outings. Private courses are nicer.....everything is better groomed, the players are aware of courtesy and etiquette, and you don't have to wait around too much because everyone has some idea how to play the game. Just like in regular life.

A lot of people don't know this, but there are twelve public golf courses in the City of New York. I'm not talking miniature golf here, these are all 18 hole REAL golf courses. There are four in Queens (Forest Park, Kissena, Douglaston and Clearview), two in Brooklyn (Marine Park and Dycker), three in the Bronx (Pelham, Split Rock, and Van Cortlandt) and three in Staten Island (Silver Lake, La Tourette and South Shore). I have played all of these except Split Rock (I heard it had a lot of mosquitoes, so why take a chance).

On private courses they require you to use a motorized cart. These are provided as part of your membership. You hit your ball, you drive to it, you hit it again. The cart carries your bag of clubs, and your drinks and your snacks and other stuff. Sometimes they have a special GPS for golf. The GPS has the course layout, and can tell you how far from the hole you are, what hazards lie ahead, etc. (I know, you think I'm kidding, but it's true). Fancier private clubs require you to use a caddy (a person who carries your bag of clubs and gives you golf advice). Like in Caddyshack.

On public courses you can use a cart, and many people do. You pay extra for this, and it's not expensive ($20 - $30 for a round, and you usually split it with someone). You can also use a pull cart (you can rent these for about $5, but people who use them usually have their own). I have my own pull cart. You can also simply carry your own bag, which some people do.

All the public courses now have pretty good reservation systems. You can call, or make reservations online. Golfers go around the course in groups of four. However, it is very common for people to have a group of two or three, or to arrive as a single. When you do this, the "starter" turns the various groups into foursomes. I have no problem going as a single, and getting matched with a threesome (or a twosome plus another single). Sometimes it's one of the nicest things about golf. You meet some strangers, walk and play the course together, and talk while you play. Over the years I have played the NYC public courses with all kinds of nice people. I have played with firemen, retirees (male and female), fathers and sons, schoolteachers, lawyers who I didn't know, teenagers, and every racial/ethnic group.

A playing option I like is playing the "back nine only". To do this you show up early in the morning, and you can start on hole #10, and play holes 10 - 18. This is first come, first serve, but at 6 AM it's not usually crowded. The cut-off time for this is 8 AM (the time when the earliest golfers who are playing 18 holes would get to #10). It's busier for the back nine between 7 and 8, and you risk being shut out, so I like to go early. Playing when it's not crowded, one can play nine holes in two to two 1/2 hours. Starting at 6 has me done by 8:30. It feels good to get home at 9 AM, having already done something I really enjoy. The price is not bad either. I paid $19.25 to walk the back nine at Forest Park, plus $2.75 for parking.

My recent Forest Park back nine experiences have been a little different. I still go as a single, but I do not play with the variety of folks I used to. Now the answer to the question "Who did you play with today?" is always the same. "Three Koreans".

Last Fall, one morning after I had paid and walked over to the starter on the 10th hole, he said to me, "I hope you like silent golf". When I asked what he meant, he said "You see the people waiting to play? They won't be talking to you. I hope you can handle that". I looked at the people waiting and saw they were all Asian. I hadn't noticed before. I asked the starter if he was serious. He assured me he was, and I said I was there to play, so send me out.

I did not care for silent golf the first time I experienced it. It's not that my playing partners didn't speak, they just didn't speak to ME. They talked quite a lot, to each other, in Korean. Sometimes they also did this while I was getting ready to hit the ball, or to putt, which is a big breach of etiquette. A few times I stopped and stared when they did this, and they got the message. I made a few jokes to myself as I walked and played, but as that first morning of silent golf wore on, I must admit, I became upset. At the last hole, when the last putt dropped, I did what one is supposed to do, I shook hands with each member of the foursome. This is universal, and they were doing it too. Usually you say something like "Nice playing with you, or thanks for the round, or whatever......"All I could think to say was "Thanks for nothing". Not surprisingly, there was no reaction to my comment. After that day I didn't play for quite awhile.

Yesterday I really wanted to play. So I decided to try another Forest Park back nine, and if it turned out to be silent, so be it. I went one mental step further. While I did not assume it would be silent golf, if it turned out to be, I was going to enjoy it.

When I walked to the 10th hole at 6 AM, there were about ten people waiting. However, when the starter saw I was a single he said "A threesome is next, you can join them". I walked over to my three Korean playing partners and said "Good morning, I'm Barry". One said "I'm Choi". The other two were silent. Until I got ready to make my first shot, at which time they all started jabbering in Korean. I just laughed and hit my drive.

I saw that my playing partners were pretty good players. Actually, they were great off the tee, and all had the same swing. They probably all learned from the same pro, and probably spent hours at the driving range. They were not nearly as good on the short game and putting. I had plenty of time to analyze their games and talk to myself about it. They had an opportunity to observe my game too. I don't drive the ball very far, and I slice too much, but I am pretty good on the short game and putting. On the 14th hole I hit a drive that was not great, but better than I had done so far. At this point they all said "Guh-sha", which I know is Korenglish for "good shot". Of course, I also know that this really means "Good shot....for YOU." I just laughed and said thank you.

On the 16th hole, after my drive, Choi said to me "You slicey too much, should close stance to hit straighter". I said thank you, I'll try that. The last two holes my drives were better. I felt great after my rewarding nine holes of silent golf. I went home, had a great breakfast, and started thinking about my new stance.