By Kathleen Hirsch
I played a respectable game of golf in my youth. I wore pompom socks, hauled my clubs around the Cherry Hill Club in Ridgeway, Ont., swooned when Gary Player strode the same fairways, and after a round felt a modest stab of accomplishment, sitting with my iced tea overlooking the 18th green.
As a matter of feminist principle, I left country club golf behind as I entered adulthood, confident I’d not wax nostalgic for those summer afternoons, or rue that my swing is only adequate to putt-putt. How could I have known that in one of fate’s perfectly ironic twists, I would come to share my life with a husband and son who are golf fanatics? Fans who cry at the last strokes of the Masters. Who faithfully follow the rosters in the run-up to the U.S. Open. The British Open last week meant my leisure hours were spent glued to the drama of small white balls and titanium sticks being wielded in Argus, Scotland, half a world away.
I hear of women who are obsessed with the game, who take every vacation they can on the links, or join their mates for hours under the blistering sun. But my limited laboratory suggests that for men the game holds a mystique that constitutes, arguably, the last great gender divide. I get blowback from my politically correct women friends who tell me that golf has become gender neutral, but I’m not buying it. Golf is the male passion without peer.
As evidence, I point not to the grand contests, but to what happens once they are over – when, in that contagion of sympathies only fellow golfers understand, we hit the driving range.
Grown men and their sons queue up at the window where a bucket can be had for seven bucks, the boys wide-eyed with anticipation. Not far off is the sound of the dull thwack-thwack-thwack, the occasional pause, as feet are repositioned, hips wiggled.
From a row of conveniently placed benches, girlfriends, daughters and wives observe these rituals with the patience of paid babysitters. The youngest eat ice cream from the stand attached to the ball dispensary. Thwack.
Ahead lies a 5-acre graveyard of near misses, failed sinkers and a few bold witnesses to the strokes of perfection.
But these are mere atmospherics. What is the spiritual essence of the driving range, this accessible simulacrum of Carnoustie? The range is a man’s open-air sanctuary. His meditation room in camo. What looks to be a limbering up for the next game is not about the 18 neat little flags beckoning like sirens from velvet greens. It is about life itself, for which one can never sufficiently sharpen one’s focus, inner flow and the quelling of negative self-talk.
For 20 minutes at the range, a man enters a pocket of solitude and silence that it would be sacrilegious to try to describe. He becomes oblivious to everything around him – the ice cream, the birds, the waiting women, the barbecue later that night, the diapers he has to stop and buy on the way home, the meeting with the boss the next morning. He is holding a stick, aiming for a hole in a well-groomed field. A place as primal and as compelling as the Pequod, Everest or a deserted island.
Thwack, thwack, thwack.
The balls dwindle in the bucket. There are others behind him, waiting their turn. Men at the range demonstrate an uncharacteristic sense of justice. They know without saying a word what is at stake.
Balls spent, he stores his clubs, takes the buckets back to the window and turns to the woman. Giving away nothing of what he has just experienced, he will ask, as if it is he who has been waiting all this time, “Ready to go?”
I wonder occasionally if I took a wrong turn, and have missed out on one of life’s great, permissible addictions. But then I realize: For me it would always, and only, be a game.
Kathleen Hirsch, a Buffalo native, is an award-winning journalist in Boston.