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FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN AMERICA IS TAKING UP GOLF BIG-TIME. BUT LEARNING THE GAME MEANS FINDING JOYS AMID THE FRUSTRATION

The first time I swung, I missed. Same for the second. And the third.

But I wasn't out.

I hung in there.

So did the extremely patient and positive golf teacher, Marcia Maracle, who was presiding at the Springbrook Driving Range.

Welcome to my first golf lesson.

Though I had resisted for a long time the idea of learning to play, I finally succumbed at the urging of my husband, who has enthusiastically taken up the game in early retirement after being away from it for many years.

Even so, I had my doubts. I wondered whether it was really possible to learn to play at age 50-plus. And I didn't want to look silly out there or embarrass myself.

I started by placing my hands on the training grip, a device that forced me to hold the club properly. I stood on a mat that kept my feet in position. At one point, Ms. Maracle held her club against my right hip so that I couldn't do the "big swingout," a common fault with women.

I tried to simultaneously relax some body parts and straighten others.

"Being comfortable doesn't necessarily mean it's correct," said Ms. Maracle, who saw some good in my efforts. That advice was wasted on me -- I never felt comfortable.

I learned some things that are minuscule in the cosmic world of golf. Halfway through the lesson, for example, I realized that I didn't have to bend my knees first and then stick my backside out -- I can do these motions simultaneously.

While going through half a bucket of balls, I hit five or six shots that would have held up on a golf course, meaning that they were straight and in the air and went sailing 100 yards.

Next step, the driving range, which I like because no one is nipping at your heels and the only pressure is self-generated.

What amazes me, in my short acquaintance with a golf club, is how erratically it performs. One day when I was at the Brighton Park Driving Range with my son and daughter-in-law, I sliced, I whiffed, I clonked. I burned worms (which means that I skimmed balls across the grass). Mostly, I guess, I choked. I probably wanted to show off the little bit that I could do and ended up unable to do much of anything.

Three days later, I got back onto the driver that had thrown me. I hit some shots that were straight and true, more that weren't, but I left the driving range on an upswing that day.

And then for the big test, the golf course.

I went to Orchard Park's Bob-O-Link, a par 3, known for attracting beginners and juniors. Here, there are shorter holes, no rough areas and no sand traps.

I didn't get nervous until my husband and I pulled into the parking lot and I saw two young men walking in ahead of us. I was apprehensive that we'd be teamed with them, as is commonly done when two twosomes show up at the same time. That would have obliterated the concentration I needed.

By the time we signed on and I rented clubs -- a yellow bag with "rental" brightly printed across it -- they had already teed off.

So it was just me and my husband.

My goal for this outing was to hit the ball. And I did. Was I terrific? No. But on each of three holes I had six strokes (the pros are expected to do it in three). I putted in two or three strokes on those holes.

By the eighth hole, my game started falling apart, but I didn't. When I took three swings and missed the ball on the fairway, I picked it up, walked up to the green and tossed it on, getting away from a shot that was frustrating me. I know it isn't the proper thing to do, but I think beginners need leeway, and I took it.

On the ninth hole, I donated a ball to the water gods. (The worst thing was that I did it on a practice swing.) After that, I played alongside the pond instead of trying to go over it. It's known as "course management," I've learned.

What I liked, especially, was getting over the mental block of thinking that I could never play golf.

And to find out that my husband and I can go onto a course together and both feel good about the experience. I know this is warned against in all quarters, but he's just as pleased as I am.

Once we got going, I didn't feel pressured by the three women who were behind us. I reminded myself that I had paid my $6 and had just as much right to be there as any other golfer.

After we finished, we sat on a hillside watching others come up to the ninth green. I saw a man splash two balls into the pond and watched a woman sink a beautiful chip shot into the hole. We applauded.

Those two shots -- the agony and the ecstasy -- symbolize the game of golf, I think.

And my specific game?

"The long and short of it," as my husband said, "is that your drives were too short and your putts were too long."

There's only one way to cure that.

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