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I have to get to the range.

I haven't touched a golf club in about two months, and there's a hit-and-giggle scramble I'm signed up to play in a few weeks. I don't want to embarrass myself (like there's anything to be embarrassed about playing bad golf; a sound game is probably counter-indicative of good character) so, if the weather lets me, I'll spend a few hours between now and then repeating a motion I first made when I was about 6 years old. I'll turn my back to the target and let my hands drop inside and finish high. After a few passes, I might hit a couple pure.

I started playing golf because I wanted to go with my father on Saturday mornings. He'd let me walk the course with him; it was at least two years before he let me hit a shot that counted. I'd "caddy" for him when he played with his buddies. Sometimes, if there was no one behind us, he'd drop a shag ball, hand me his seven iron and let me try to clear a water hazard.

I don't remember the first round we played, but early on we played a public course in Augusta, Ga. It was narrow, its fairways lined with tall pines dropping needles in the rough. Whatever wherewithal and confidence I'd brought with me that day leached away as I struggled to make good contact and, when I did, socked my cheap Gene Littler Ram 90 balls deep into the woods where they rattled into unfindable lies.

After three holes, I wanted to quit. But I didn't, and we wrote down every stroke. The only consolation was that after I'd lost all of my Littlers, my dad loaned me a sleeve of the MacGregor Tourneys that he (and Jack Nicklaus) played. I'm sure I cut up the balata covers of those balls pretty good.

(Allow me to nerd out on the MacGregor Tourney: Though it had the reputation of being an absolutely terrible ball, with Ben Hogan famously refusing to play it at all and many of its endorsers swapping it out for a Titleist on the second tee after satisfying contractual obligations, Nicklaus did win all 18 of his major championships playing it. Or, as is often said, in spite of it. Nicklaus believed that, for him, the Titleist was 15 yards longer. As good a golfer as my father was--and I remember him on occasion breaking par--he was a not a terrifically long hitter. It probably mattered more to him that a dozen Tourneys were a dollar or two cheaper in the air base pro shop.)

Golf was the first sport in which I could compete with him; I became a pretty good junior player. Though he'd taught me the game, I played nothing like my father. He was a grinder, fairways and greens, always pin high in regulation. He rarely had bad holes--he might record a double bogey every third round. He had a black-headed persimmon five wood he seemed to use for every other shot. Off the tee it might fly 210 yards. Then in the fairway, he'd open its face slightly and throttle back his swing to feather it 160 yards. Sometimes he'd chip with it.

I didn't carry a five wood. I had a one iron--a fat tab of steel on the end of a yardstick. There is a joke about the club that suggests if you are caught in a thunderstorm you should hold it above your head to ensure your safety, because not even God can hit a one iron. But when I was 16 I could, or at least I could swing hard and hope.

Swinging hard is important. I've heard lots of bad golf advice imparted to beginners over the years and the worst thing you can tell a would-be golfer is to "swing easy." To really play the game you have to move the clubhead through the impact zone with as much speed as you can muster, and "swinging easy" is no way to do that. What you need to do is to learn how to use your big muscles--your back, your legs--to whip the club through the ball. You'd needn't furiously jerk and thrash, but you have to be violent.

I swung hard from the beginning. In case, as my father said, I hit something.

At first I was trying to keep up with my dad and the other grown men I played with; later I was trying to impress them. I had some success: In a junior tournament I drove the green of the 350-yard 12th hole at Andrew Querbes Park thanks to a lucky bounce that carried me across the canal that guarded the front of the green. But I didn't win.

I played a little for money, sometimes as the 15-year-old range rat partner of a possibly corrupt Bossier City politician. He'd slip me a $20 bill after a match and I was OK with that. I never wanted to know the stakes.

I thought I was hot stuff for a while. Then I got to high school where I ran into Hal Sutton, whose routine shots had a quality my best ones never achieved. And I realized, as almost all of us do, that there are clubs to which we will never be admitted.

As a kid, I could go on runs but rarely put two good nines--much less two good rounds--together. Playing golf against my father was like playing blackjack against a casino. I could win, big even, but given enough time his steady rhythm of pars would beat my eagles and triple bogeys. Golf was the only sport at which I never bested him.

And when I returned to the game in the mid-'90s, just before newly crowned Masters champion Tiger Woods emerged to make people care about the game, I found in myself something a bit steadier. Not steady like my dad, but my game was decidedly different than when I was a kid. Technology had made the game easier. (I still have my old one iron; maybe God can hit it flush, but then why make the hybrid?)

I was probably playing the best golf of my life about 10 years ago, when I was at an age my father never attained.

I've slacked off a lot the past couple of years; I feel a grinding in my back I never used to feel. I'm impatient with crowded munies and increasingly uncomfortable with country clubs. I might not win any more long-drive competitions. I wonder if they'll let me move up a set of tees.

But there is that butter pat sensation, the silver fluid feel of the ball compressed and for a moment weightless on the clubface before vaulting up and out. A dragon to be chased.

I need to get to the range.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 04/16/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: To chase a dragon


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