The Golfer

Although it is difficult to remember exactly when it began, there are clues in certain memories: wet peso bills spread to dry on the table, a hacking cough from the chill, the sting of rainwater running through my eyes. Gunther was to blame for all of it — at least at the beginning. After a while, I guess candor requires me to accept personally some responsibility.

It was one of those moisture-infused days in the tropics that gives definition to the concept of humidity. It was not just that the rain came; it rains almost everywhere in the world, and in one way or another all rain is the same. The totality of water was the defining emotion; the heated air itself carried a heavy burden of wetness, and the horizon blurred in thinning mists. Walls of the hotel, whitewashed against the sun, toned grey to echo the sky, and the palm fronds dulled toward blackness as they waved in the gusts.

The weather had been threatening for two days, and the tourists lolled in the wet heat, buying Mexican handicrafts and waiting for a beach day. The front desk assured me that the rains never stayed very long in Cancun, but the lush jungle visible from the balcony gave lie to his words. Although just being away from the city at first was vacation enough, by the time the drizzle settled into a constant pattern that third straight morning I had accumulated enough unspent energy to be tempted by misadventure.

Gunther was well over six feet, and in much better shape than my office-flabbed body. When we met at the bar, he lifted a lean gin and tonic to click against my foamy fruit concoction, and the pineapple slice and umbrella jostled against each other in my glass. His clothes were of the lean variety also: simple white pullover, khaki shorts, white tennis shoes and no socks. My Hawaiian shirt hung as an embarrassing flag over my paunch, draping down towards my orange shorts. I was a caricature of myself, and myself was none too pleasant a reality. We had shared two uncomfortable drinks at lunch and quickly parted; he babbled on about diving and fishing for tuna, and I confessed that my souvenir shopping was not quite complete.

I had just settled down to my book on the balcony, feet up on the other chair, dangling just out of the rain’s reach, when Gunther called on the house phone and invited me to golf. My protests seemed irrelevant; if you have never played you had to start sometime, if it was drizzling there was no wait for tee times, if you lacked clubs they could be rented. Thirty minutes later I was in a taxi, speeding down the causeway, palm trees waving at me through the wipers. Gunther continued his elated patter: the rain would refresh us, he was pleased to be my teacher, he just appreciated the company, the greens would be very slow because of the showers.

It was mid-afternoon when we stepped from the taxi, and as I trotted into the clubhouse my backwards glance caught Gunther strolling slowly after me, drops of water already beaded on his visor. No there was no delay, yes we could tee off, yes I could rent shoes and clubs. A mere eighty-seven dollars later found me standing on a grassy rise, club in hand, ocean wind carrying the drizzle around my glasses and into the corners of my eyes. Rain coated my lenses, and before the very first ball was hit it became clear that my handkerchief was inadequate to the job of absorption. Rain ran unobstructed down my forehead, tickling my nose before it plopped off my face and onto my shirt. The wind pasted my clothing flush to my body, and the first shivers introduced themselves to me notwithstanding that by then I should have been par-boiled. My body vainly pumped some heat up to my chest; I coughed once, then pretended I had just cleared my throat.

Gunther hit first, and when I lost sight of the white arc and turned to him for guidance his face was pointed down the fairway, his weight forward on the balls of his feet, blue eyes tracking his ball as it landed six or eight feet from the flag. He smiled as he described the splash of impact: wetter than he had thought, but no problem.

Having hit his ball, Gunther turned to me. Oblivious to what had become a driven, near-soaking downpour, he patiently positioned my hands on the club he selected, and guided my arms and head through the seemingly simple steps of hitting the ball. He ignored the rain, making me too embarrassed to take notice of it myself. We pretended in our own ways that the sun was shining, that soaking day, that day when it never stopped drenching us, that day when after ten minutes you could see the outline of my underwear through the plastered sheet of my clothing as they hugged my frame in bulging outlines and flabby crannies, and we trudged up and down the hills and around and over water and sand pits, all the while he matching par on that deserted golf course as if he were playing some national tournament on some sun-saturated afternoon.

His patience was astounding; I dug deep furrows in the tightly growing grass, the metal edges of my clubs cutting into the saturated sod; I hit over and around the greens, used infinite putts and strokes and hits or whatever they were called as my ball rolled around the holes, each elusive hole, each exasperating infernal hole, each unattainable tiny wet secret hole, each damnable damned and Goddamned hole; and each hole became transmuted, from something I cared not a whit about into some essential quest, some desire tempered though my anger, forged through my burning of eyes and shivers of flesh, transcendent beyond all real worth, a sheer physical dedication to the exclusion of all other reality. By the eighth hole the rain had stopped in my mind, my bitter burning maniacal mind, the water no longer reached my skin, the wind slithered around me as I stood hacking on the top of each grassed ritual alter of a hill, cursing my balls as they skittered left and right, rolled down wide expanses of lawn in faint imitation of Gunther’s majestic arching strokes.

I cursed and sweated through the heat-soaked all-encompassing moisture of the afternoon. I injected my own moisture into the great flow of wet air, added my contribution to the Gulf Stream of hot wetness being brewed that afternoon over the Yucatan, a steamy froth to be pumped Northward on the boiling oceans to bathe those thousand palm-treed islands that depended on that wet blast, yes I was part of the heat and energy and struggle and wetness that became the Gulf Stream, an energy so large that it would not die except five thousand miles Northward in a cold and ice-strewn sea; and each ball I hit and hacked and beat and cursed and yes kicked and coaxed was all part of the design, all necessary to this broader task, and it was wonderful that Gunther had known, had always known that fact and had been willing, in his own controlling eager way, to share it with me.

Six o’clock found me naked in my room, my clothing collapsed in a leaking pile on top of my sneakers, merging their precious moisture with the rug, unchecked by me, fastidious me. God I was a mess, water dripping from my hair onto my peso bills I had pulled from my pocket and spread to dry on the small night table.

I stared at the chunks of me, the blobs of me, in the mirror, the meaty hunks of wet flesh, bright red through abrasion and wind and water, patches of roughness and worse shivering under the air conditioning that I could not control; my eyes still burned when I blinked, a shallow pain that verified my suffering. Outside, the Gulf Stream was still being born in a twirl of wind and water; inside I held the yellow golf ball, shivering in front of my mirror, and smiled.

* * * * * * * * *

Lately, for some reason, my game has been off, even the guys at the club have noticed. While I still carry my six handicap, and last weekend led my partner and me to another low net score and yet another small brass-plaque trophy, there is an unmistakable loss of crispness. My tee shots are too fat, they do not carry; my chips don’t bite the green but roll out of control across the grass; my putts hang on the lip and defy me.

Billy, the club pro who taught me a dozen years ago and has been gratified by my progress, can’t understand it; he has suggested that I may be just a little stale. I do play five or six times a week, with thirty-six holes each Saturday and Sunday. Since my divorce – Helen complained of being widowed by golf and there was much truth to what she said – I had taken only two or three vacation days, to coincide with nearby golf clinics, and the pressure of the office was intense of course, having to fit all my work into a four a.m. to noon workday, no breaks. The lack of promotion has long ceased to bother me, and the office and I have reached an easy truce; I pay it Caesar’s due and it respects the balance of my life.

Today I was out at the thirteenth hole, which happens to be the furthest from the club house, working on my short irons. The thirteenth is ideal for this drill, an attractive and slightly elevated hole closely protected on the left by bunkers and on the right and behind by various water hazards. It was a chilly early December afternoon, no one else was out on the course, and I hit baskets of balls for longer than I realized I guess because I found myself straining to see the balls as they bit into the putting green a few dozen yards away. I was annoyed, no doubt about it, but I continued to hit; I felt my groove coming back, and the yellow-ness of the balls still could be picked up against the sky before they arced downward.

In fact, the later it got the better I hit.

I hit faster and faster, hit through the third bucket of balls, went up to the green and collected another buckets-worth under the dim moonlight, went back down and hit those balls also. Each stroke felt better, surer, truer. I never had realized that before, how when you practice you are looking for your groove, and just when you may find it, just when the flow of your body becomes the idea of the motion you seek, then something happens and you have to stop. It’s lunch, or tee time, or you’re out of balls, or some other really quite uninteresting reason, and all of sudden, in defiance of logic, you have to stop.

And once you stopped because, perhaps, it was getting dark, then all that extra time afterwards, that just always goes to waste. Or at least, it used to.

* * * * * * * * * *

It has been about seven months since I started to practice each night. At first there were the typical difficulties; the club was not sure they were happy with the arrangement, what with insurance problems and all, and the office had to come to terms with the new schedule.

If I don’t get off the course until, say one a.m., it is not reasonable to expect to do your best at the office if you start in only three hours. But the new half-time schedule from eight to noon is working fine; you know how part-time work is, you get so much more productivity from your grateful workers and the employer makes out like a bandit. Although my new apartment is small – who can afford a house on half-pay? – it is positioned just between the club and downtown, so I no longer waste a lot of time commuting. And if it’s been a really tough night of practice, I can always save a few minutes by going directly to the office and sleeping at the foot of my desk, although I have to be sure to awaken a few minutes before eight because the girls really seem to be upset if they come in and find me stretched out under my blanket.

Interestingly, a few months ago, I found myself thinking of Gunther again after all those years. One night I was out on fifteen, working on my sand wedge, and it began to rain, rain really hard. Not the warm tropical variety, more a Northeastern wind-blown shiver-your-timbers variety storm. In a minute, my windbreaker clung to my chest, and I could barely see my phosphorescent golf balls as I pitched them up towards the green. The beam of light from my miner’s helmet illuminated a tunnel of flowing drops of water, but could not penetrate as far as the flat atop the green. I shook my night goggles every thirty seconds, but visibility was hopeless.

I took them off, and then took off my regular glasses also. The wind was cold, my cheeks ruddy on the verge of rawness. If it didn’t know better, I would have thought that a drop or two was frozen into sleet, or perhaps even hail. Early Decembers in Boston can be chilly and mean-spirited.

Without glasses and goggles, I was more comfortable, and I found that if I shut my eyes the stinging went away. My swing, on which I could then concentrate, immediately became more fluid. The balls wocked and splotched off my club, although I had to suffer no small number of mis-hits, what with the darkness, the rain, and my eyes being shut most of the time. In fact, it seemed not to make any sense to place the balls on the grass anyway; I was losing a lot of them and besides, it was the flow of the swing I was working on.

This approach showed much promise; golf balls were very expensive for my half-time salary, not to mention the cost and time painting on the phosphorescent paint.

The truth of the matter, I won’t deny it, is that I spent the better part of ten hours out on that golf course that evening, just swinging my clubs. As my arms got tired I alternated woods and irons to feel the different weights, and every half-hour I’d putt for a few minutes until my circulation improved.

Well, I guess that was around the time that I started missing work altogether, even on my new schedule, I won’t deny it. It wasn’t really unfair when they laid me off. I had my thirty years, so my pension was fully vested, and my medical benefits were continued which proved to be a good thing; all that swinging out on the course late at night through that winter caused no small number of chills, and twice I had to deal with a slight touch of pneumonia. Nothing serious.

* * * * * * * * *

I have no family, and after a few months the few people who remembered me from the old days in the office lost interest and stopped visiting. I cannot say that I hold them to task for it; I always stayed to myself, particularly after I learned that none of them golfed very well. I guess it’s a case of “live by the club, die by the club.”

Helen never came, although I particularly asked that she be contacted. Too many years and too few good memories I guess, although I like to believe that I would have visited her under similar circumstances.

My bursitis doesn’t allow me to swing a club any more, and my legs don’t work well enough to carry me up and down even the shortest of courses, but I don’t mind. About twenty years ago, when I gave up hitting the balls and just concentrated on my swings, I began the slow liberation of my game from tiresome convention. The task was finished a few years after that, when I found that I didn’t really have to swing the clubs themselves, I could just close my eyes and sense the flow and rhythm of my swing, trace the straight arms and snapping wrists, sveltly imagine my hips and shoulders moving through the stroke and conveying my power and life force into the ball, dream that ball skyward and then downward, a neat and self-satisfying downward swoop.

Although originally I found one drawback to this ultimate form of my game — even my oldest golf partners and friends seemed agitated to hear about my rounds, my difficult approach shots and clever club selections — the advantages were so overpowering that I long ago ceased caring, and marked off their agitation to nothing more than a good deal of sour grapes. After all, I no longer needed to buy golf balls, or even clubs; I could surrender my club membership and, in fact, the savings on dues came in handy because all that golfing had been keeping me broke what with my small pension and only a single earner’s social security.

And, best yet, finally I discovered how to take my world-wide life-long golf tour and vacation, and that was one happy day I tell you. It happened that I was walking past my local library when the idea hit me. Rushing inside, I signed up for a card and asked for directions to the golfing section. Although shocked to see that it only occupied half a shelf, and was designated part of some other category entirely, leisure or sports or some such, I was able to find just what I needed anyhow: several large picture books of the great golf courses of the world, complete with photos, schematic layouts of the holes, distances in yards and meters, and narrative describing the unique problems of each hole on each course.

That first afternoon, seated unobtrusively in a simple wooden chair at a library table, I chose the legendary main course at Saint Andrews in Scotland, the holy birthplace of all of golf. I studied the layout, absorbed the view from the tee, closed my eyes, grabbed my two wood, and stood tall in the Scottish breeze as I drove straight down the fairway. A smile spread across my face as I chipped up to the green, and that smile became a peal of laughter as I sank a thirty-five foot putt to birdie the hole.

The librarian jolted me with her touch; it seems that I had talked through the hole, consulting with my caddy about the crosswind. I checked the books out and took them home; no need to disturb the library routine.

I have played all the great courses these last few years, all the great courses of the world. The rugged European courses are hardest, the California sweeps of sensuous green the most lugubrious, but I must confess a partiality to the courses of Mexico. When I close my eyes I can feel the moist heaviness of their air; I remember to adjust my club and stroke to compensate. When I putt I must make provision for the dense tight grasses nurtured in the intense rainfalls. The wind from offshore pushes my tee-shots, and I turn my body precisely enough to counterbalance the force.

Today the nurse has propped up my favorite, an old but verdant friend of mine in Cancun, near the top of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. I recall that once, long ago, I have played this course. Oh, not in my mind. I mean by standing on the ground and whaling and hitting and actually playing the game in physical life.

It is an odd feeling, this memory, and it merges with a face, the face of a man taller and trimmer than I am, old but not stooped and not bedridden like me. His voice is flat in that mid-Western near-twang that tells you that patience is virtue, and his eyes are startlingly clear and blue. We are standing on the first tee, and I think it is beginning to rain. I do not mind.

As I swing through my first ball, I remember. A smile fills my face as I rest it against my pillow, and I turn to speak to Gunther, to thank him.

But he is gone.