Football is over. Baseball hasn’t started. Basketball is in full swish and pucks slide effortlessly across frozen water and spilled blood. It’s a transition time of the year when sports fans flip through the TV channels searching: searching for something. More is needed than sitcom reruns and dreary news headlines. Something important is missing in life.
There is walking, hiking, skiing and skating. Ice fishing can use up an enormous amount of money, time and energy. Shoveling snow, chipping ice and hauling wood are pastimes with lifestyle benefits. Vacuuming, making bread, cleaning bathrooms and doing laundry keep the winter hours from piling up, but there’s a dark room in the back of your head. Something is absent.
You’re not sick, but you’re not right. You’re busy, but haunted with an absence of purpose. You’re not lopping off people’s hats that you meet on a sidewalk, following funeral processions or contemplating going to sea. It’s grey in your being. Frowning is easy.
You’re afflicted. Nauseated. Hamstrung. Hogtied. Lonely. On edge. You can do anything you want, but struggle starting anything. You know your illness. You’ve been repressing the presence of this affliction since your last beer and shared laughs with buddies rehashing shots and scores on the 19th hole. It has happened before.
The affliction is golf. Yes, golf. It’s what’s missing.
Golf is the ultimate four-letter word. Hate and love stewing in the same pot. It is barnyard muck and grandchildren’s hugs mixed together. It repels you and transfixes you in the same moment. It is past (memories), present (longing) and future (playing St. Andrews) all mixed together. It’s people, places and things all in a blender. It’s sickness and health. It’s life. It’s death.
Driving by a winter-closed golf course is extremely sad. Greens are covered for protection. Sand traps rest hip deep in snowdrifts. Whitetail deer sleep in the middle of brown fairways: no one playing through their simple contentment. It is almost as sad as driving by an open, lush green summer golf course with people playing, laughing and swearing while you drive to an appointment to have your oil changed. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right.
It’s easy to remember that first successful swing at 10 years of age that propelled an old Blue Max golf ball onto a green. It is still fresh in your mind. A favorite uncle put the club in your hand, placed your hand in the grip and showed you the simple swing.
Hooked. Afflicted for life.
As kids, we neighborhood hooligans snuck on to a local golf course with regularity. Parked our bikes in the bushes and waited for an opening on the back nine. Our golf clubs, “borrowed” from our fathers and mothers, rattled against our rear tire fenders while dangling from our shoulders on our way toward cow pasture larceny. An understanding golf marshal never kicked us off, but made sure we didn’t interfere with paying customers. Real golfers. Ones that knew golf etiquette.
The memory of an attempted robbery and felony assault that happened on a golf course can stir me. A drunk stumbled out of his car with a knife in his hand and demanded money from our foursome. A flurry of 2 irons turned him back quickly. Now, thinking back on how much money has been won and lost through “friendly wagers” on golf courses, I should have paid that robber up front.
Then, there are the memories of playing the game of golf with my father-in-law. Over the years, it became a regular and appreciated occurrence. We played as often as distance and health allowed. It is missed. But, the first time was a bull-headed test of endurance. The golf course in Columbus, Mont., when there were still sand greens, provided the setting. It was late February or early March.
Our oldest daughter had just been born and Grandma and Grandpa came to meet her. They stayed a few days. Within a few hours of their arrival, the suggestion that a round of golf could be had seemed an essential outing. My father-in-law was a Marine: First Marine Division — the Big Red One. He had survived the first wave landing at Peleliu and second wave landing at Okinawa. Unscathed. He was hardcore. Compared to him, I was a liberal nobody — just married to his daughter and the father of his granddaughter.
My set of clubs would be shared. We were walking. It wasn’t a bad start. It was breezy and cloudy with winds coming in from the north. By the sixth hole, snow was falling sideways. Neither one of us would stop the madness. We located our golf balls in the fairway and continued to hit as the snow piled up. Kept hitting. Forged on. Head down. Persevered. By the time we raked the snow and sand on the ninth green, our right ears were plugged with snow. The right side of our faces and clothing covered with snow. Hands that were close to frozen formed a bond.
We had a beer at the New Atlas before going home. Talked over our game. Melted.
My wife was with him as he lay in hospice. I talked to him by phone. He couldn’t talk and wasn’t supposed to be able to hear anyone due to the drugs keeping him comfortable. He was almost gone. After talking to him, my wife told me in a later conversation that he smiled broadly and seemed to laugh.
“What had you talked about?” she asked.
I told her: “An affliction.”
The snow is deep outside. The clubs need a good cleaning. Checking the condition and quantity of golf balls, tees and gloves is on the to-do list.
Spring is just around the corner. Better get ready.
Larry Olson is a retired librarian who lives with his beautiful wife, Lin, in Big Timber. He is mostly a happy guy.