Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Member of the Club

For thirteen years I’d been waiting. For a word, a call, a sign. Any indication that there was still hope. Then, finally, a letter came.

It gave me two choices. I could pay all the money right away or over the next two or three years “in semi-annual installments.” Whichever I chose I’d have to come up with at least $53,000. Generally, I don’t keep that kind of cash lying around. I called my mother.

"Mom,” I said, “I need $50,000 right away."

"What for?" she asked. "Are you buying a house? Do you need a down payment?"

"No," I told her. “We still can’t afford a house.”

“Then what is it?” she asked. “I hope it’s nothing serious.”

“We’re all fine,” I reassured her. “It’s just that I’ve been offered membership at the Stanford Golf Course. And they’re not giving me much time."

“Oh,” she said, “That sounds like a worthy cause."

"So,” I said, “Can I count on you?"

"Sure," she answered. "For golf balls."

The letter I had received from then Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland urged me “to act quickly. If you do not accept this offer,” he wrote, “or fail to respond, we will assume that you are not interested and would like to be dropped from future consideration.” That didn’t quite describe my situation.

Thirteen years earlier, when membership at Stanford cost $3,500, I put my name on the waiting list. Each year I dutifully sent in my check for five dollars (and later ten) to keep my name alive. When any of the course’s 400 members moved away, or gave up golf, or died, my name moved up a notch. Finally, after 13 years, I was one of 30 alumni invited to join.

Keeping my name on the waiting list over all those years was as much an expression of my interest in golf as a long-term bet on my financial future. After all, I have an MBA from Stanford. Certainly a decade or more after graduation, when so many of my classmates have become multi-millionaires, I, too, would be able to look at $3,500 - or $50,000 - as pocket change. It was not to be.

I called Stanford and asked if they could simply keep me at the top of the list. I would continue to pay my $10 a year and when my financial circumstances improved I would take them up on their offer. That, they told me, was not possible. When I suggested that $50,000 was still a large figure to some alumni I was informed that memberships at the nearby Los Altos Country Club had gone for as much as $290,000. Stanford, I was told, was a bargain.

When I was a student, a round of 18 holes at Stanford cost four bucks. That still represents the best value I got out of my education on The Farm. Although I played the course occasionally no one ever mistook me for Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, Notah Begay, or any of the other student-champions. Still I loved playing at Stanford. The first hole where you must drive over a road to reach the fairway. The twelfth where two well-placed trees make the second shot a risky gamble. Even if I couldn’t come up with the fifty grand (let alone the annual fee of $3,150) I wanted to play there once more. I called to reserve a tee time.

“No problem,” I was told over the phone. “Green fees are $100 for graduates. Just bring your alumni membership card.”

I called the alumni association. Could they fax me a membership card? I asked. I wanted to play right away.

“Sure,” a woman in the alumni office said. “It’s $750. Which credit card would you like to use?”

“That must be for a lifetime membership,” I stammered. “How much does an annual membership cost?”

“I’m sorry but annual members aren’t extended privileges at the course,” she explained.

I come from a long line of golfers, almost entirely undistinguished. My mother’s father twice made the front pages in Chicago for being the first golfer of the season to hit a hole-in-one. Since then it’s been all downhill. My father was blind in one eye. My mother had one of those pathetic half swings better suited to beating a dog than to playing golf. I grew up hacking away with her old Mickey Wright signature clubs at mangy public courses. I simply hadn’t been brought up to pay $850 for what was likely to be a single round of golf. I politely thanked the lady at Stanford for her time, knowing that I would never play the course again.

In fact, I hadn’t played in years. Not anywhere. I didn’t even own any clubs. Someone had broken into my car ten years earlier and stole my old, steel, impossible-to-hit-unless-you’re-a-pro-on-the-tour Wilson K-28s. (I was glad to be rid of them. I hope they made the person who stole them as miserable on the course as they had made me.)

But Ted Leland’s letter rekindled my interest in the game. I was determined to play again. I took a lesson at Silverado. I reread the only golf book I own; Arnold Palmer’s My Game and Yours, copyright 1963. Arnie titled his first chapter “Golf is Easier than You Think” and he stated that “Any man without a serious physical handicap can learn to shoot in the 70s.” Clearly, he never saw me play.

With a set of borrowed clubs in the trunk and a spring storm clearing the blustery skies above San Francisco, I headed to my favorite course. It may not present the challenge of Pebble Beach or Stanford, but it sits alongside the ocean, and its fairways are bordered with massive cypress and Monterey pine. At seven in the morning, I was among the first on the course.

I teed up a ball, lined up my shot, and swung.

At that very moment what occurred to me was the infinite number of thoughts that can simultaneously pass through the human mind. Knees bent, left arm straight, head down, shift weight back, grip club as though holding a bird, shift weight forward, pick up groceries, cancel doctor’s appointment, head down, did I floss, follow-through, whatever-happened-to-Rachel (an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen in 20 years), did I lock the front door, call mom -- and the list goes on and on. If it’s true that during normal activity humans only use 10% of the brain’s capacity, then during the two seconds it takes to stroke a golf ball, 100% of the mind must be fully engaged -- though only a small fraction of it with the game of golf.

My next thought was of Longfellow’s poem The Arrow and The Song.

I shot an arrow into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where...

For like Longfellow’s archer, I had no idea where my projectile had flown -- until I heard the smart THWACK of Titleist hitting tree. Knowing myself to be a consistently inaccurate golfer, I teed up a second ball and watched it arch far to the left -- where I found my first ball nestled neatly in the rough. I felt lucky to escape with a quadruple bogey.

Still, with every hole I grew more and more at ease. Each swing became a two second game in which I challenged my body to relax completely while I tried to keep my mind fully concentrated. Like The Little Engine Who Could I kept telling myself, “I can play this game. I can play this game. I can play this game.” I double bogeyed the second and third holes and bogeyed the fourth.

With one hole left to play, I was 18 over par. Not bad I thought for not having played in a decade and then doing so with borrowed clubs.

Brimming with confidence I hit a colossal drive down the final fairway. The sun was now fully up and the course itself had begun to steam as the morning dew burned away. It was one of those transcendent golf moments that we all live for but don’t often talk about. Watching the ball complete its lovely arc felt so good I teed up a second ball and played them both out, the latter one giving me my only par of the day. More importantly I still had the ball with which I had begun the round. That alone felt like victory.

As I retrieved both balls from the cup, I caught the sound of waves crashing on the shore. The brisk smell of eucalyptus filled the air. I could even see the arms of a windmill turning. It was a beautiful, beautiful morning. I thought, “How good to be alive, in California, and golfing again.”

I finished the round with a 46, 19 over par. The windmill arms aren’t located on a miniature golf course. They are the ones that turn above the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Gardens in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. You see the nine holes out near the Pacific Ocean end of the park are my favorite course. Par is 27. At the time, green fees for San Francisco residents were six dollars.

Inspired, the next day I went out and bought a set of clubs. I used the stash I’d built up over the years by hoarding the check my mother sent me each year for my birthday.

My new clubs are like magic wands. Graphite shafts. Hollow-back, off-set irons. Sweet spots the size of tennis rackets. Maybe Arnie is right. Maybe I can learn to play in the 70s.

But it won’t be at Stanford or Pebble Beach or Los Altos. For the $53,150 Stanford would have cost me for the first year alone, I could play the course in Golden Gate Park eight thousand eight hundred fifty eight times. That’s once a day for the next 24 years. And I can finish my round before 8 AM. Even after all those years of waiting, passing on Stanford’s offer turned out not to be such a tough decision.

Still, I owe my alma mater a favor -- for bringing me back to the wonderful game that I abandoned so long ago. Perhaps it’s here that the closing stanza to Longfellow’s short poem best applies:

Long, long afterward, in an oak

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, from beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend.

So if there’s no fog tomorrow morning, look for me out in Golden Gate Park, out near the windmill, just as the sun is coming up. I’ll be the one on the first tee -- looking for a song, and for poetry, in a small white ball.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 4, 2000 edition of the San Francisco Sunday Examiner Magazine.

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