Monday, November 05, 2007

I vaguely remember the range. In my brief prime, if a player spent three hours on the range after his round, maybe 30 minutes would be spent hitting balls. The rest was frittered away playing grab-ass, telling jokes, releasing stunt flatulence, fiddling with new clubs, watching other players hit balls and generally trying to find any excuse not to hit any yourself. Players would covey up behind anyone who was actually trying to work, either to poke fun at him or to toss in their two cents' worth of genius.

Nowadays, the range is a row of much grimmer professional athletes, plus superstar coaches who pinch off mean little loaves of inaudible encoded information for their protégés. Not that there's never any fun out there. Finding the electronic controls to the irrigation system and setting off the sprinklers is always a lark, and who wouldn't enjoy being goosed by Sergio Garcia? But it's not like it used to be.

Dear God, I'm starting to sound like every old fart who ever wrote about the good old days. Maybe it's because I never really understood the kind of pervert who actually enjoys practicing. Because the fact is, practice blows.

Of course, I am from a place that was hardly ideal for honing a young man's game. The practice area at Bangor Golf Club in Ireland was a tiny mudflap wedged between the ninth and 18th holes. I'd dump a shag bag of chopped-up Dunlop 65s and begin irritating grumpy old members who sliced and hooked their way into the shabby pattern of dung-encrusted pills I sprayed in front of me. Vijay Singh wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes at Bangor--they'd have tossed him out on his ear for some grass-ackward turf violation.

Back then, hitting balls before a round was almost unsportsmanlike, and for a child to do it was evidence of bad parenting. But things were different in America- by the time Davis Love III was a tyke, his dad was parking a golf cart by a green so little DL3 could practice pitches. "Under the steering wheel!" DL2 would shout, or "Over the roof!" and the Lovelet would adjust his ball position and setup to hit the shot. Which was nothing like my own experience. My father would park himself on a stool in the men's bar while I was out practicing, and he'd shout to the bartender, "I'll have one more, Jimmy, and then I'll stay."

Today, alas, I am sore from not hitting balls. All those muscles I once used every day are thrust into violent action about once a month, and then spend the next month recovering from the shock. Maybe that's why Vijay keeps hitting balls long after the next-to-last player leaves the range. He's afraid to stop. Hours later, under cover of darkness, Joey the trainer leopard-crawls onto the range, heaves Vijay over his shoulder and sneaks him into his room through the fire escape at the hotel. Because golf is like a lot of schedule-3 drugs: You have to ease your way off. Vijay can't even stop when he gets back to his room. It takes several hundred short swings with the weighted stick and a CD soundtrack of tearing Velcro to bring him down so he can go out for dinner. Even then, you can be sure that if a pea ends up in his mashed potatoes, whoever ordered the calamari rings can expect some kind of miniature explosion shot, played toward his plate with a modified fish knife.

Vijay Singh will force you to have an opinion of him. Some say he's overly cool and standoffish, but my theory is that shooting people the bird is just his way of saying, "Have a nice day." He may not have much time for the media, but the hardest worker ever--he makes Ben Hogan look like Fred Couples--always has time for his fellow players. He's a throwback that way, and maybe the greatest compliment I can offer him is to say he reminds me of Payne Stewart, always willing to watch and offer tips to anyone who asks.

Vijay's legendary practice sessions aren't just mindless nut-crushing, either. He'll hit bags and bags of full shots from fairway bunkers, just to ensure he makes perfect contact. Christy O'Connor Sr. used to do something like that--he'd hit so many drivers off the beach at Royal Dublin that you could have shaved with the baseplate on his wooden driver--but even he took a break now and then to go to the bar. Vijay just keeps on swinging, swinging, swinging. And getting better. That's bad news for the guys spending extra hours on the range to keep up with him, but hey, it leaves more room at the bar for the writers.

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