Sep 9, 2011, 2:42 PM EDT
It was Mark Twain who was reputed to have said that “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” But he never met our own Josiah Schlatter, a non-golfer who entered Twain’s iconic Sierra Nevada and came away with a new appreciation of the sport.
As I stepped off the airplane and first gazed at Reno’s angle of the High Sierra majesties that lay before me, I couldn’t help but think that if I ever turn old and grey, this is probably where I’d drag my family to live out my golden years. Behind me lay the drudgery and despair of Philadelphia’s skies, and ahead sat swirling clouds draped over the antidote for every skyscraper concocted by man. The mountains are tall, jagged reminders that nature’s beauties will always trump whatever humans whip up. I didn’t want to look away. Pretty hard to drive a car when all you can think about is how every sight line could probably be turned into a postcard.
I had just been offered the chance to spend a week golfing at the most prestigious resorts in the Sierra Nevada (Lake Take area of California and Nevada) and this was an opportunity you can never turn down. I accepted the task despite the fact that I had barely ever swung a club in my life. When I was 14 years old a buddy decided that we needed to add a little bit of class to our lives, so we went down to the local thrift shop and picked out some of the best looking club heads ten dollars could buy out of the derelict pile of rusted tools. We took the golf balls my father had collected over the years from hiking adventures near local golf clubs and decided that it was time that we learned to golf. Instead of heading to the driving range, we headed to the backyard of my house. A poor decision, as you might imagine, as I resided in a poorly planned housing development that was designed so that we basically shared our backyard with six other houses.
We were having a ball, imagining we were Tiger Woods, as we blasted balls left and right, none of them traveling more than twenty yards, until I finally got a hold of one and sent a screaming line drive that rose probably fourteen inches off the ground straight into a neighbor’s basement window. That was the end of my golfing career for awhile.
That is until seven years later when I got the call from Phil Weidinger about golfing the High Sierra. My golfing career was about to be reborn. Unfortunately, if you’re a golfer you might understand that it takes years of toil and repetition, and that’s just to not look like an idiot when you’re out on the course. And taking your baseball swing and attempting to turn it into a golf swing will be met with only disastrous results. The scenery may have been beautiful, but the swings I was uncorking were not. My inability to consistently make contact with a golf ball was exacerbated by the fact that since I had received the call from Phil, I had practiced exactly one time, when I dragged my old partner in window-breaking crime, Tony, out of his mother’s house to see what we were capable of on a driving range with 100 golf balls apiece.
Our first golfing expedition was at Gray’s Crossing Golf Course, and my first shot went sideways. I had been paired with Danny and Alice Scott to go along with Phil, and all I wanted to do was to look like I knew what I was doing. As I mirrored their stances and saw how they effortlessly were capable of hitting balls 200 yards and straight, I too took my turn. If you remember your first real golf swing, you’ll be able to conceptualize how screwed I really was in that moment. I took my backswing, focused squarely on the ball and uncorked my body into a whirling dervish of out-of-control fury that made the ball fly, oh, twenty yards up into the lady tees.
My swing was violent, the contact was not. As I stood holding my club in my closest approximation of that thing Tiger Woods does where it seems like he has the world on his shoulders and he’s the one they’ve counted on to do all their thinking, I looked at my partners and deadpanned, “I’ll take it.” I had a lot of work to do.
The rest of my day was spent hacking away at ten or fifteen strokes a hole as I struggled to keep up with my crew’s almost flawless attack. I had become the person I most feared I would become: the incompetent guy tagging along who needs four swings to actually make contact. By hole nine I had decided to cut my losses and head to the clubhouse, where I sipped a never ending Coca-Cola and listened to an old guy tell tales about how Clint Eastwood loved the way his mother played the saxophone. At least the view was beautiful.
My golfing fortunes changed the next day, however, when I woke up to find snow covering everything. It was June, but apparently when you’re in an area designed specifically to be lived in by the Gods, seasons don’t matter. As I sat on the porch of the cabin at Old Greenwood golf course, smoking cigars with my good buddy Terry Knight, a radio man who does a real estate show for Sacramento’s KFBK station, I wondered how the heck it could go from a perfect 65 degrees the night before to snow overnight. I took it as a sign that God did not want to endure watching me try and play golf again.
Lucky for me, the snow dried up and we were able to make our next scheduled tee time at the heaven-dipped Plumas Pines in Graeagle, Calif. And sitting in that clubhouse would be my golfing savior, club pro Brandon Bowling. I explained to him how I could barely hit a golf ball, and he said he could probably do something to remedy my sickness. We grabbed a bucket of balls, the fanciest golf clubs money could buy and got to work. All of a sudden, as if struck by Harry Potter, I became competent. He showed me how to keep my balance throughout my swing, and more importantly, stay within myself. I had been swinging my butt off trying to make my 5-foot-6 inch, 130 pound frame propel a ball that clearly hated me. All of a sudden I was sending out 120-yard flicks of perfection out onto the driving range, and I was celebrating every shot like I had just won the Masters.
It was amazing to see my body all of a sudden hit a golf ball in a fashion that could be deemed ‘competent’ in some circles, and I felt like I had been touched by Zeus himself. There may be no greater feeling than the one you get when you, albeit fleetingly, conquer something that you completely suck at.
We were having a blast and he was making me look great up until he had to attend to some matters inside the clubhouse. Without his tutelage my shot turned right back into the flailing arc of pity it was before he stepped into my life. Before I realized that without Brandon Bowling I was nothing, however, I had hailed down a fellow golfing tour denizen Jamie McWilliams and yelled at him, “WATCH THIS, I CAN GOLF NOW!” before uncorking five or six dying quails, one of which almost hit a golf cart that was 40 yards to the right of the driving range. That was pretty embarrassing.
Luckily, Bowling came back and I explained to him my predicament of only being competent when he was around. After turning down my offer of spending the week being my personal coach, he advised me to just focus on the ball and only the ball, and the rest will come naturally. Thankfully, it helped. For the rest of the week I’d only whiff on maybe 10 percent of my shots, which was cool because that meant I could just put my head down and try again while playing it off like it was a really dramatic practice shot. That guy’s good. If you’re ever trying to learn how to golf, I’d go straight to him.
My next day was much more fun, as we headed to D’Andrea Golf Club, where I was delighted to find thousands and thousands of critters running up and down the links. It was basically a half golf course, half zoo of marmots, bunnies and chipmunks. The marmots fascinated me the most, but with their stupidity. The driving range was filled with families of them lounging about as if they were on some rich man’s private beach in Miami, except they were in the direct field of play of the people trying to practice their golf swing. I probably saw 12 direct shots to marmots, who for generations have still not realized that twelve feet from golfers hitting nine-irons is probably not the wisest place to hang out.
I spent the rest of the day pretending to search for my “missing foursome,” and instead drove one of their state-of-the-art golf carts throughout the beautiful landscape, chasing rabbits and assorted creatures of the field around and around the course. My golf cart wasn’t fast enough to catch them, but it had just enough speed to get those rabbits a nice scare. I’m not proud of what I did, but I can tell you it was fun as hell. I don’t know if you’ll ever have the chance to chase rabbits with a golf cart, but if you have the opportunity, don’t you dare turn it down.
Later I finally caught up with my group, but exhausted from chasing bunnies in my cart and trying not to hit marmots on the driving range, I could only muster up the energy to hit a few golf balls here and there, so I decided to play a personal game of ‘try and hit it over the water hazards.’ Bloop.
Next on the schedule lay the beautiful if snooty Montreaux Golf and Country Club, where they made me change out of my preferred jeans and t-shirt into conforming white shorts and collared shirt. My golfing partner, Jamie McWilliams, who has put together an amazing video that chronicles every reason to golf the High Sierra, and I were each given a caddy for the first time. The two of them spent the time talking about various tournaments they had competed in. I could only sit back and brag about how many games of Mario Kart I’ve won over my roommates.
The real treat of the trip, however, was when we were given permission to golf at Edgewood Tahoe, a course right next to Lake Tahoe that plays host the annual American Century Celebrity Golf Championship. They had us do a phone chat with Charles Barkley, and Trent Dilfer (pictured above) came by to play some holes and talk to the journalists. I meekly hooked balls to the right for 100-yard driving range plinks next to a former NFL Super Bowl champion quarterback who was easily smashing balls 250 yards. That’s when I truly realized how small and insignificant I was in this world.
A cool feature in the Edgewood golf carts was their ability to shut down if a cart was driven into the wrong zone, which made me feel a little like I was being overridden by an all-knowing robot. A taste of the future, I guess.
Miraculously, as the week progressed, I steadily got better at golf. And my body was responding tremendously to the strain of hitting 400 golf balls a day (poorly). I had never felt so strong in my life! Who knew physical exertion makes your body stronger?! All of a sudden I was hitting a bad golf ball once in maybe ten strokes, and my fellow journalists were marveling at my transformation from the worst golfer they’ve seen in their lives into a guy who could hit a few greens every now and then. I was starting to get REALLY good at getting balls out of bunkers. But maybe that was because I hit so many bunkers. I even went 13 straight holes without losing a ball, though the secret to that was my friend, Alice Scott, had let me use one of her special silver golf balls and I was scared to death of losing it, as it was so shiny and beautiful.
That may be the secret to a good golf game. Use a golf ball you’re terrified of losing. Maybe get one signed by Michael Jordan and use that.
As my week came winding down, I spent my last day slugging the ball around a brand new facility called Schaffer’s Mill Golf Club, which was half construction, half inescapable beauty, and all givers of beautiful free hats. As I talked to the employees about how they planned to acquire steady members in an area already flooded with amazing golf courses, I stumbled upon a fundamental flaw in their system; with the economy the way it is, new members are extremely hard to come by. In fleeting conversations across the many golf venues I visited, I heard the same thing. Membership is down. The people just don’t have the cash-flow anymore to keep an expensive habit like golf around.
A solution is needed, and that solution could be “Flogton”, which is Not Golf spelled backwards. It’s a sport created by guys who just wanted to go out there on the golf course and not have to think about the arcane rules created by golf’s magistrates many years ago to keep the sanctity of the sport alive. They just want to have fun. As young people are straying away from the sport in favor of cheaper sports like basketball and soccer, golf has seen its popularity diminishing. It’s just too expensive. Flogton’s tagline blares, “Calling all who wish golf could be played in less time, for less money and with less agony than the game as we know it.”
Peculiar rules make the game more fun and expand the scope of what you can do to make golf an easier game, such as allowing the use of a tee on any shot if a player wants, or placing a ball anywhere on the green for your tee shot. Think you’ll have more fun if you teed off one hundred feet from the green instead of three hundred? Go for it. By allowing for more free form creativity while playing golf, it could entice youngsters who just want to slap the ball around, and bad players who want more extreme handicaps besides the ladies tees and men’s tees.
It’s an idea worth thinking about.
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