I am the worst collegiate golfer in America.
Woe and naught, this rank I here posit with neither pride nor melancholy nor mirth; rather these are social coordinates on which to ruminate in a dreadful isolation, on which to lie oneself prone, ebb into the continuum, that perhaps a sort of panoptic clarity may yet emerge.
My mind is taken to Green Lake pitch and putt, where in innocence I romped, and then to Jefferson pitch and putt, where I have never once paid for a round. Jefferson is a lazy summer afternoon, with a Rainier tall can and a joint tucked away in the golf bag. My friend Evan emerges from his soccer-mom Honda Element in his polo shirt and reflective Aviators. His swing is tight and serious. Calvin borrows my clubs and swings in a long swooping vertical pendulum. Patrick just athletically smacks it and somehow the ball flies true. The fairways are red and hard as rock. We don’t keep score, but the eighth hole is the fry hole. The loser buys fries in the clubhouse, and we eat amongst the jolly old black men with their cigars and their plaid, who are shooting the shit, collecting on bets. Word is that Bill Russell occasionally rolls through. We sit in the corner and discuss the next move.
I join the Garfield High School golf team senior year. Tavish and I are co-captains, and our enduring accomplishment (I’m not actually sure if it literally endures) is presiding over the advent of the Hawaiian shirt uniform, which both has a collar (as per golf course dress regulations), and illustrates a spirit of cultural enterprise which distinguishes us city-folk from the vapid Eastside legions against whom we play.
The team practices at Jefferson, occasionally gets nine holes in on the full size course there. Our only good player isn’t actually a Garfield student; he attends a private school in the north end which does not have a team, and through some obscure districting rule he is placed on ours. He is no fan of the Hawaiian shirt thing because, he claims, the shirts are tight around his shoulders and inhibit his swing. Tavish and I do not budge on the matter, and somehow he obtains a stretchy and pink golf shirt with a Hawaiian floral pattern. After a brief quorum, Tavish and I grant our approval.
At three in the afternoon at Central Oregon’s Eagle Crest Resort, youth play free. Thin penetrating heat and minty pine and domesticated deer along the Deschutes, and Mt. Jefferson in the distant sky, and crisp fairways manicured into the dusty bosom of the high desert. Here, my cousins and I learn to play.
On one occasion, I claim to have scored a six. My brother, who has been secretly keeping meticulous tally, calls bullshit. He precisely recounts to me my every shot, noting that, while in the tallgrass, I twice jabbed at the ball without moving it. I call my brother an asshole. Not two holes previous he took consecutive mulligans after jonesing one ball off a condominium rooftop and shanking the other into the water on the left. On the short par-four seventeenth, my brother will top a ball through the rough, just short of the women’s tee, which means that, in accordance with family rules, he must complete the remainder of the hole with his pants at his ankles. He refuses, and his penalty is that he has to walk home after the round. As we return to our condominium by car, I look back and emit a smug triumphant grin. His silhouette, lanky and hunched, shuffles under the weight of his clubs down the ridge.
The invitation to join the Div. III Whitman College golf team stemmed from a freshman year conversation with golf team friend Will, in which I expressed my wish to be a better golfer so that I too could play on the golf team. The team was tired of having only four members (the best four scores count, but you can submit more, so there is a buffer from a particularly bad day); I was reticent, but a kindly phone call from the coach sealed the deal, against my parents’ advice that it would be stupid and a waste of time and prepare me only for the good ol’ boys club and aren’t I actually kind of bad and don’t I have better things to do with my time anyways? No, I replied.
I filled out the NCAA paperwork pledging to avoid steroids, and so assumed my place among a long and dignified line of Garfield High School student-athletes — Tony Wroten, Isaiah Stanback, Brandon Roy – who have represented The Town at the NCAA level. This fall, I would take my talents to Walla Walla.
The first tee in a golf tournament is occasion for much pomp and fanfare. They announce your name – from Whitman College… Andrew Schwartz! – and the tepid claps of your supporters pepper the hollow air, and you are alone on the tee box, and you take stride behind your ball with a firm clasp on your driver, the most masculine of athletic appendages. The claps fade into the wind, and the polite silence is suffocating. The men with whom you’ll play have effortlessly, casually, smacked perfect rising drives. And now it is you, and you walk up to your ball, sweat the technique on a practice swing (to show your competitors you mean business), pull the club back – arm, torso, and… you forget to leave the rest to gravity, you throw your flailing limbs at the ball in fear (don’t slice it don’t slice it) of slicing the shit out of the ball as you always do, and as it happens this time you don’t; what happens is you pull the ball in a low liner forty-five degrees to your left, off a tree, and your mind tenses in frozen horror before the ball softly touches down on the adjacent fairway. You look back and flash a cool what-was-that-all-about smile at your supporters, who have each taken acute visual interest in their own respective tree, shoe, watch, etc.
And then, in a compensating weird, unnatural, vaguely creepy swagger, you trundle over to and swoop up your bag and head off down the fairway (of your present hole) with your playing partners, chatting it up, exchanging pleasantries – what grade are you in – as if you are all equals, as if they hadn’t just smoked three hundred yard dimes down the middle of the fairway, and you hadn’t just pulled a knuckle-balling liner off a tree. Then, at the last moment, you nonchalantly veer off towards the fairway (of the hole on which your ball currently sits) where you will intend and fail to reclaim your dignity.
I go into every round fully expecting to shoot the best round of my life, which is either an aggressive benign (though seemingly ineffective) form of visualization, or the product of a deranged mind. Coach McClure here certainly fans the flame. With few exceptions, I consistently had the worst score in every tournament this fall season of collegiate golf. Coach, who is a deeply un-cynical man, believes in my potential far more than I do. I shoot a nine on a hole that my competitors all birdied, and he comes up to me before I tee-off and tells me that “each swing you take is part of the path to a better you,” or something to that effect, and I silently smile and nod and say something about what a lovely course this is, unsure how to respond to such earnest and kind words, so incongruous with the reality I am experiencing.
Before the last tournament of the year, the Fall Classic in Sun River, Oregon, I told some friends that my goal was to not come in last place. One friend encouraged me to aim higher, perhaps go for third to last. I decided to wear my Sony Dynamic Stereo Headphones during warm up, which made me feel like I was the subject of one of those pre-event television shots of Richard Sherman or Michael Phelps or something, bobbing to a beat that no one else can hear, my beat, my swagger, my moment focused inward, a leaf on the wind.
I laced my final warm-up drive down the range and Aquemini cast psychedelic vibrations. I whispered along with Big Boi – “I’m talking gifts, but when it come you never look the horse inside his grill.” I removed my headphones, and walked to the tee, and the wind was strong, and the trees swayed wild. I stood behind the ball for a moment, breathless, and then I closed my eyes and swung.
I completed the round by topping a short wedge-shot directly into the water two yards in front of me, in full view of the spectators and my resolutely supportive teammates, who had congregated around this final hole to see the dramatic finish. I shot a 118, which is what a child shoots. They recorded it as a 122 on the big board for all to see next to my misspelled name – “Andrew Scwartz” – but truly it was a 118.
The next day, I played with a man who kept angrily referring to himself as “a faggot.” Like he would hit a mediocre but honestly probably okay shot, and yell out something like “you fucking faggot” (again, to himself) and bang his club on the ground. He misread a putt and proclaimed that “that slope is so stupid,” and “this green is so gay” and then picked his ball out of the hole and threw it into the lake. He made six on that hole and I, through a series of misfortunes, shot a twelve. I finished with a 116 on this day. “An improvement!” said Coach McClure.
Coach McClure tells me that golf is a noble sport. Your score is your score, and respect for the game, its institutions, its history, its beauty, is all that keeps you honest. The game is manipulative; the devil of it wants you to cheat, or get angry, or try and punch the ball through a dense thicket when you know you would only make that shot ten percent of the time, but the good one’s don’t let it get to them.
I think my odd mix of misplaced, borderline delusional confidence (this round I’ll break ninety), and blithe compensatory mocking nihilism as to the tenets of the game of golf is getting to me. Of course, it is worthy of mockery: back-slapping corporate bromides fertilize tee-boxes the world round; Yemeni children are thirsty and the Walla Walla Country Club is greener than your mama’s guacamole.
But there ain’t nothing like the moment of contact on a fine golf swing on a fine summer morning when the crack echoes fast and the ball flits mute and the dew sprays soft, and perhaps no one understands this more than those jolly old black men who sit around the Jefferson clubhouse, who slap backs the authentic way, who, after a long day on the links sit back, slide on their sunglasses, take pulls of their cigars, and jabber with courtly grace as the setting sun casts pale orange beams upon their present domain.