Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Whenever one of the victims of my on-course reporting finds a tree between his or her ball and the hole, I often identify the leafy offender for the benefit of the folks at home. Occasionally, I am asked why. Having spent rather more of my career than I should have in the trees, it's no small wonder I recognize so many of them. But a few years ago, there was one incident in particular that sparked my quest for arboreal knowledge. It felt like a mishap at the time, but seems like a blessing these days.

Like many of my stories, this one is lavatorial in nature, but this one, for a change, has more emphasis on the nature than the lavatory. I was playing the Buick Classic at Westchester and was called upon by the aforementioned nature, whose timing (as usual) was appalling. I was in my flaming downward spiral toward mediocrity, then to the relatively safe haven of broadcasting after completing the round, and had just thrown a hat trick of bogeys at the grand old course. I found myself pondering this great misfortune and my trouser-shrouded ankles at the same time, while in a players-only porta-potty on the inward half. With my elbows on my knees, I massaged my temples with both hands, and let out a heavy sigh. The chance of making the cut was down the toilet, my career in ruins. How, I wondered, could it get any worse?

A few moments later, after discovering an empty toilet roll holder, I knew the answer. I weighed all the obvious options, none of which were any good. I needed three birdies, had only one glove, and wasn't wearing a hat. At this stage, one dead birdie would have helped. Then, a shaft of sunlight burst through a crack in the door, illuminating my solution with a ray of hope. On the floor, there were three leaves, attached to a slender green stem. Not great, and they could have been drier, but better than nothing.

At least it would have been better than nothing, if I had only known what poison-freaking-ivy looked like. Here is the official description from the Peterson Field Guide, along with my own translation:

"Poison Ivy grows as an erect shrub, trailing vine, or climber." It might not get you in the woods, but it's perfectly capable of chasing you down the fairway. "Leaves may be stiff and leathery, or merely thin, somewhat hairy or not, shiny or dull, coarse-toothed and wavy edged, or neither." We haven't got a clue what it looks like, either. If you're reading this, hunkered down somewhere in a quiet woodland moment, stay completely still and look around you for a rock. A smooth one preferably...no, actually, never mind, just tear out a few pages. This book is about as useful as a broken bottle in your situation.

(While I'm on the subject, I remember a colleague of mine who, some years earlier in Africa, had found himself in a similarly nightmarish position, and thought he had found his salvation in the form of a label from a nearby beer bottle. Unfortunately, there was a tiny sliver of glass still attached to it, and I don't want to talk about it any more. I'm sorry I even brought it up.)

I felt like an idiot when I realized what I'd done, and as I recall, for some considerable time afterwards. Today, though, I realize that I shouldn't have, because virtually no one knows what poison ivy looks like! Of course, I believe the average dolphin is probably 100 times smarter than the cleverest human, which is probably me. Dr. Kevorkian is in jail, and Dr. Laura isn't. No dolphins were involved in that process, I noticed. Meanwhile, we humans are still trying to figure out what bears do in the woods. I have no idea, but I'd be willing to bet there has never been one dumb enough to wipe his arse with poison ivy.

Anyway, after that day six years ago, I vowed to educate myself on the subject of any growing thing I might encounter between the parking lot and the scorer's tent. If I live to be 100, I might get through Peterson Field Guide, by which time I'll have forgotten the names of everything and everybody, but I won't care. Golf courses have become more fascinating and beautiful places to me since I started to notice the gorgeous, living things that burst from the ground upon which they are built.

Now, before any of you start calling me a shrub-hugger, let me elaborate.

Okay, so I'm a shrub-hugger. I'm coming out of the woodshed, and I feel better about myself already. From this day forward, I'm going to hug my shrubs in public! Now, if I can just get some of these golf course designers to join me around the campfire, perhaps we can address a problem that, unfortunately, many of us will live to see. I'm talking about the wrong trees, and the amount of them that are being planted on many new golf courses.

Most developers have the desire to see their property look as pretty as possible, as quickly as possible. Only natural of course, but it's kind of a quick fix if you ask me. Which you didn't, but then again, I have the pen. High-dollar developments are usually planted with great stuff, but on some golf courses, I'm seeing more and more fast-growing, closely planted, butt-ugly triangular conifers, in places that deserve slow growing cedar elms and walnuts, or ashes and willows and oaks. These are trees that will eventually grow into graceful giants, with showy canopies, that might fill 20 to 50 yards of space and have plenty of room underneath for idiots like you and me to find our ball, and then take another ill-conceived swipe at it.

All great architects try to design around the great trees that are already there, but sadly, economic pressure is sometimes the greater force, and for the sake of a better hole, a plant that has been rising slowly and relentlessly from the dirt for centuries is lost. This always makes me want to barf, especially when the hole is filled with something like a ratty bald cypress, or a clump of doucheberries. I mean, don't get me wrong: A bald cypress is okay, in fact they are very beautiful when rising from a swamp, but when a tree has knees, it's just that I prefer them to be covered in brackish water, thank you.

The other major problem I see is that very few golf clubs invest the amount of time or money to properly care for the good specimens they already have. The problem isn't confined to golf courses, either. Just take a look around your neighborhood, and you will likely see great trees slowly dying from neglect. In Dallas, where I live, as I drag my ghastly corpulence around on the dreaded morning jog, I notice that virtually every cedar elm I lean up against is also gasping for oxygen.

They are being choked to death by mistletoe -- parasitical clumps of it -- clinging to every limb. I hate mistletoe. Good neighbor that I am, I was going to show the guy down the street how to get rid of the stuff with a couple of shells from my trusty 12-gauge, but after seeing me standing on his front porch grinning, he barricaded himself in and called the law. I tell you, some people have no sense of gratitude. I don't think that guy's from Texas, either.

The thing to remember here is how some of our great old golf courses looked shortly after they were built. Old photographs of Winged Foot, Augusta National, and Riviera, to name but three, show what would appear at first to be pretty ordinary-looking places, with a few small trees and some stumpy looking bushes.

When I think of what they look like now, I'm thankful for the men who had the foresight, the patience, and the generosity to plant and nurture these great giants, which they knew they'd never live to see. Most great artists leave their masterpieces behind them. These men left them in front, for us to enjoy, and presumably, to give poison ivy somewhere to hide.

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