Sweetspot, Confessions of a Golfaholic

Excerpt from Chapter One: The Sickness

    

    

 

 

     “What’s not to like?” Tom wished he had a nickel for every time he’d heard his father-in-law say that. Using the toe of his shoe, he teased another ball onto the mat, set up and swung at it. “God Almighty!” he said and almost threw the asinine 7-iron out onto the range. 

     There’s a secret to this stupid game and I’m not getting it!

     In an effort to distance himself from the other golfers on the driving range–people who looked like they knew what they were doing–Tom had taken the farthest open slot down the line of hitting stalls. But there was no hiding his swing. Dressed in his business attire, highly polished Cole Haan loafers, pressed slacks, and an open collar button-down white shirt, Tom stood slumped over his pile of practice balls. His arms hanging limp at his sides, mouth agape, he was breathing hard and beads of sweat were popping out on his face. He’d just hit twenty shots, one after another, and each one had flown about four feet off the ground—and dead right.

     Looking up he noticed that the other golfers, protected only by a knee-high plastic guard separating each stall, had all stopped hitting. In fact—holy shit—they’d backed away from their mats and were clustered in a protective herd at the other end of the range. They were all giving him the evil eye and muttering amongst themselves. Did someone just say “douche-bag?”

     You need to take lessons. That’s what he’d been telling himself with every bucket he’d flailed his way through in the two months since Larry had laid down his command, but he’d resisted. It wasn’t just the money. Yes, Carol would let out a roar if she thought he was dropping a hundred dollars an hour on something as frivolous as golf lessons, but there was more to it than that. He was athletic. He’d been on the track and soccer teams in high school, and fairly competitive too. But you’re not getting it, the voice boomed in his head, you’re clueless, just-take-a-fucking-lesson.

     What was wrong with him? It wasn’t rocket science after all. Everyone around him seemed to be deriving great pleasure from their buckets of balls. Now and then he’d hear a soft moan, “Oh yeah baby… nailed it!” from someone down the line. A few days back the guy next to him had hit a tremendous blast with his driver and while holding his finish pose whispered under his breath, “Oh…yes, Jesus, yes,” like he was having a religious experience. Christ, it sounded like the guy was getting a hard on.

     For Tom however, each swing was a lesson in humility. It was time to crawl back to Larry and admit defeat.

     Bending over to pick up the half bucket of unused balls, he was aghast to see Marty, the Head Pro, striding toward the range and staring directly at him. Shit, shit, shit. Butterflies pinged in his stomach and Tom felt his face go flush. Someone must have gone into the clubhouse and complained that there was a psycho on the range. From all the buckets of balls Tom had purchased in the pro-shop over the past few months, he knew Marty well enough to say hello to, but never, not once, had he ever seen the tanned and handsome Pro make an appearance on the driving range.

     As Marty marched forward in pressed, pleated sports slacks and a snug fitting polo shirt that accentuated his muscular physique, the group of golfers parted, allowing him to pass like royalty cutting a path through scruffy peasants. Marty came to a stop directly behind Tom’s hitting station and looked straight at him. With his arms folded across his chest and topped off in a black golf cap with reflector sunglasses, Marty looked like a cop. He nodded once and then demanded, “Let me see your swing.”

     Like one of his toddler sons on the verge of tears and about to be sent to his room for a time-out, Tom’s breathing became shallow with a little hitch in it. He felt like he’d been pulled over by a State Trooper for reckless driving, and with other golfers rubbernecking, he was being forced to take a field sobriety test. Surprising himself, he pulled a fundamental tenet of Carol’s spiritual beliefs out of thin air, something she had said to him many, many times. “When encountering a difficult task, take a deep cleansing breath, concentrate, and find the Zen of the moment.”    

     Focusing as hard as he could, Tom took a deep inhale, swung, and promptly skittered another ball low and forty five degrees to the right. Christ, it almost went backwards.

     Marty winced. “Oh, my God,” he sighed and walked toward Tom, shrugging his shoulders and holding his palms up to the sky as if to ask, “What?” What the hell was Tom doing? What was he trying to do? What the fuck?

     The Head Pro stepped in close and spoke in a low, professional manner, close enough for Tom to get a whiff of Tic-Tacs and a pungent men’s cologne. “I’m going to take mercy on you. I’ve been watching you out my window for the past fifteen minutes and I can’t take it anymore.”

     He gently pried Larry’s ancient 7-iron out of Tom’s white knuckle grip and guided him backward, off the mat and out of harm’s way. For a moment Marty held the iron in front of him examining the nicked clubface and worn out grip. He twirled the shaft in his finger tips a few times, then, with a delicate flick of the club-head, culled a ball from the half-empty basket at his feet and positioned it in the center of the mat.

     His practice swing was so slow and smooth, it looked like a motion someone might make while under the influence of a healthy dose of valium. Marty set his feet apart in a deliberate stance and set the club head behind the dented and scuffed skin of the range ball. Then, as if motored by a gentle breeze he turned and lifted the iron behind him.

     The downswing appeared to be powered by gravity alone.

     Like a rocket, the ball left the clubface arcing high to the right and then drawing back in toward the left. It seemed to hang in the air forever…then landed a foot from a small flag in the center of a target green about 140 yards away.

     Marty turned to Tom and as he handed him back the iron he said, “Well, it’s not the club, we know that much.”

     For the next ten minutes Marty made “a few adjustments.” He began by changing Tom’s grip and stance, then went on to demonstrate in a curt but professional manner that Tom’s takeaway was completely wrong and his swing plane was non-existent. Marty ended his instruction with, “There’s no point in my showing you the follow-through ’til you learn how to take it back.”

     “Thanks, Marty,” Tom gushed, “I appreciate it.”

     Marty looked at Tom and raised an eyebrow. “What have you learned?”

     Tom thought about it for a moment then smiled. “I need to take some lessons.”

     Marty gave the slightest of nods, “That, and you need new clubs. I’ll take the ones you have on a trade-in if you like. Those are real antiques you know.” He made a start towards the clubhouse, but then stopped and looked back at Tom over his shoulder. “Saturday, ten a.m. Don’t be late.”

     By the time Marty had returned to the shop and closed the door behind him, Tom was already at work on his new grip and swing motion, trying to memorize what Marty had shown him. After a few minutes, he summoned the courage to give his new skills a try and for the first time ever—yes, the first time ever in his life—he made solid contact. His timing of stepping through the shot and releasing the club-head was perfect and something clicked deep inside. It felt fantastic and resonated through his hands and arms, his entire torso flexed with pride. Tom wouldn’t be able to admit it to himself just yet, but the sensation of resonance went much deeper. The physical after-buzz of flush contact pulsing through his mid section had an almost sensual tingle to it. The very place–Carol would insist it was one of his chakras–that had shrunk when Larry threatened him, was now warm and glowing.

     As he admired the flight of the ball soaring into the twilight he heard the distinct sound of a wooden match striking and flaring, followed by a gravelly voice. “That’s the ticket.” The voice sounded as if it was right in his ear and it made him jump. “What have I been telling you?” the voice spoke again.

     Tom spun around to see who it was, and sitting on a bench behind the mats, on a slight rise of turf overlooking the range, was a dapper, gray-haired gentleman. He was wearing a collared light brown shirt that shone like silk under an exquisite white cardigan sweater, topped off with a classic short-brim, Herringbone golf cap that matched his attire. Normally, Tom was not one to pay much attention to the way men dressed, but this guy looked sharp right down to his lustrous brown golf shoes. The look was way retro, his father’s idea of cool, but sharp nonetheless.

     Sitting and facing the soft amber light of the evening sun, the gentleman seemed to have a golden aura coming off him. His head was shrouded in a faint haze of tobacco smoke from the non-filter cigarette he held, and as an ex-smoker himself, Tom felt a momentary tug of the nicotine urge. The man was nodding his approval at Tom while twin jet streams of blue smoke poured from his nostrils.

     Tom looked up and down the driving range and saw that it had cleared out. He and the gentleman on the bench had the place to themselves. Although Tom did not know the man, there was something familiar about his features; and that voice, that too seemed to ring a distant bell. The man spoke slowly with a slight southern twang, Texan perhaps.

     Thrilled with the dramatic improvement of his swing, Tom’s natural inclination to hit his balls and hurry home before Carol made a stink abandoned him. Instead he felt the urge to talk to someone, to share his excitement. He strolled over to the bench and sat down next to the gentleman, then stuck out his hand and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Tom.”

     The gentleman shooed Tom’s hand away with a dismissive flick of his cigarette. “I’ve been telling you to take lessons and now you have. I think you’ll be quite surprised at what happens next.” Then he smiled and wisps of smoke filtered through big, yellow teeth.

     Tom felt immediately off balance and his heart began to race. What does he mean he’s been advising me? Tom’s whole body twitched hard for an instant. It was like what happened to him sometimes in bed at night just before drifting off; the sensation of falling, then a jolt of panic, and catching himself at the last second. In that moment something fell into place. He almost recognized the face, the voice, the outfit. I don’t know this guy, he thought, but I’m supposed to.

     Tom let his eyes pass over the gentleman’s face repeatedly and watched, envious, as he sucked in a deep puff from his cigarette and blew another cloud of smoke out of the corner of his mouth. The man continued to smile but said nothing. There was a smear of magenta sky on the horizon and Tom could see maroon specks reflected in the old man’s eyes. “Hey,” he said suddenly, “you’re somebody famous, aren’t you?”

     The old man nudged his head toward the remaining pile of balls in Tom’s stall and spoke, his words punctuated by puffs of smoke. “Let me see you hit a few more, fella.”

 

 

     “How’d you make out?” Marty asked.

     After finishing the last of his balls Tom strolled through the golf shop towards the parking lot as Marty was closing up.

     “That was great Marty, just great; I can’t thank you enough for the help.”

     “Don’t mention it,” Marty said, pulling the last of the window shades.

     Tom was about to leave the shop, but then hovered by the front entrance. “Marty? Did you see the old guy I was talking to on the range? Any idea who he is?”

     “Can’t say as I did,” Marty was at the register now, pulling out wads of cash and wrapping the bills in a rubber band. “What’d he look like?”

     Tom described the man as best he could; hat, clothes, cigarette, but Marty shook his head.

     “To be honest, I have no idea. I don’t know anyone like that.”

     Tom glanced around, hoping to offer Marty some further clue. There was just something so familiar…Tom’s eyes flicked around the shop.

     In an attempt to make the cramped space more festive, Marty had antique golf equipment mounted on the walls: a hickory shafted set of irons, a small glass encasement of weird looking golf balls from the distant past, a framed sweater vest once worn by someone named Gary Casper. Each exhibit was individually lit by special track lights in the ceiling. There were half a dozen black and white photographs of old time professional golfers: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and a few others Tom didn’t know. One wall had a poster-size picture all to itself. It was a blown-up photograph of a golfer who looked–snazzy was the word that came to mind–a cigarette dangling from his mouth, adoring fans lining the fairway, a dead ringer for the old man Tom had spoken to down on the range.

     “He looked exactly like that guy.” Tom said, pointing to the picture. “In fact, I’m pretty sure it was that guy.”

     Marty looked over his shoulder at the picture and when he turned back to Tom he was laughing. “Jesus,” he said, “I don’t think so, Tom. That’s Ben Hogan.”

 

 

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  © 2019 John O'Hern