As it is for baseball players, spring training is a ritual and a necessity for us Snowbelt golfers. A sojourn to a warm-weather locale is meant to shake off the rust of a winter-induced layoff. For many, it is an opportunity to test that new driver, wedge or putter that appeared under the Christmas tree. Most important, it is a voyage of possibility.
That was the thought, anyway, when the GG alighted in La Quinta, Calif., where one of my childhood friends has a home at PGA West. (I may not be able to pick the right stick, but I sure know how to pick my childhood friends.) I arrived on the same day that pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. I had not held a club since mid-November, when the season in New Jersey shut down. So my goal was the same as that of the ballplayers: Swing easy, make contact, get in my hacks. (Interestingly, after morning sessions spent in the batting cage, shagging flies or throwing on the side, baseball players often head off to…play golf!)
Caked in SPF 100 sunscreen, I drove to the range. After a few warm-up iron shots, I grabbed my driver, teed up the ball and swung. Boom! The ball soared into the desert air. Two hundred yards, right down the middle! Wow…this could be my best year of golf ever!
I swung again. The ball ballooned weakly to the right. Jeez…this could be my worst year of golf ever!
One more try. Where is it? Oh, there it is…a major-league popup that plopped down maybe 100 yards from the tee. Hoo boy…this could be my last year of golf ever!
Along with my friend and one of his buddies, I proceeded to play a round each at PGA West’s Tom Weiskopf course, the Nicklaus Tournament course and the Stadium course. (All will be familiar to those who watched the PGA Tour’s Careerbuilder.com Challenge) This is a little like a small-college football team starting its season with Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State. All three courses were a miasma of forced carries, diabolically placed bunkers and glassy greens. I got my hacks in, all right. Playing from the whites, I ended at around 110 each day. The nadir came at the Stadium course. The 16th, a par-5, features a 30-foot-deep bunker long and left. (The hole’s nickname is San Andreas Fault.) Every year, my goal is: Don’t hit it into that bunker! This year, I didn’t…only because I got stuck in a fairway bunker in which I flailed for four shots before extricating myself and landing just short of the green.
But hey, this is spring training—exhibition games!—so no use posting these atrocities and sullying my 22 handicap. Only on the fourth day, when we moved to Oak Quarry, a hilly and enjoyably challenging public track in Riverside, Calif., did I break into double digits with a semi-respectable 97. (That one I’ll post.)
In one aspect—masochism—I was in midseason form, bellowing, “I can’t play this game! I never could play this game! I’m going home!” and “I could have scored lower using a pool cue!” and, most often, “On the green in three…and I walk off with a @#$%& six!” In this regard, one of my playing partners proved tournament-tough, beating himself up on every hole. “GolfTEC claims a 96% success rate,” he yelled after one topped shot. “Well, I’m one of the 4%!”
But at our age—all three of us turn 65 this year—there is more in play than fairways and greens. How much do we concede to Father Time? From here on, many of us not only will not get better, but we also may get substantially worse. We must take stock of our losses, especially of distance, and try to figure out how to manage decline. Is this the year we move up to the gold tees? Every time I get out there, I am reminded of a line, which I may be misremembering, of the eminent 18th century British historian Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which he describes an emperor (Diocletian, maybe?) as having attained “the infirmities of old age without the wisdom.” (Hmm…did Gibbon play golf?)
No spring-training story is complete without a season preview. So here, based on the California trip, are the 2016 prospects for the Grizzled Golfer.
What Can Go Right: “Oh, s—!” frequently turns into “Good shot!” The GG stays within himself. He plays an intelligent, ball-control game that features accurate drives and well-struck hybrids and is predicated on avoiding trouble. From the fairway, he lets the club do the work. He focuses on (and maybe takes lessons for) his sand play and short game. He also concentrates on lag putting. He turns sixes into fives. Result: Happy bogey golf.
What Can Go Wrong: The GG stubbornly clings to the last vestiges of his misspent youth, going for uphill greens from 200 yards out with his 3-wood even though the next time he succeeds in getting it to the dance floor from that distance will be the first time. He is offline with his wedges and short irons. He breaks his own record for T.C. Chen-style double hits while faltering in the sand and out of greenside fluff. He cannot get off the three-putt train. Result: More double-bogey-caliber self-loathing.
Probable 2016 Finish: On Labor Day, the Grizzled Golfer will be six months older.