Having conquered Congo River and frightened my fellow golfers on the driving range, I thought it was time I played with the big boys. At 47, I was about to play my first full round of golf. "Are you ready?" asked my instructor, St. Petersburg Country Club pro Terry Decker. "No," I said. "But that hasn't stopped me before." Golf, I decided, was a lot like skydiving. The first step is the scariest, and I was determined to overcome my fear and play my first round on a regulation course. As Times Outdoors Editor, I've been in plenty of sticky situations while researching stories, so how scary could golf be? Besides, a little public humiliation now and again builds character. And just to make sure I was sufficiently humbled, I teamed with Decker and invited my boss and my big brother along for the ride. Here are 10 things I learned during my first official round of golf:
1. Safety first.
Always make sure the golfers in front are clear. "Wait … you might hit him," my brother Tim warned as I readied my third shot to the green. "Hit who?" I asked. "Your boss," he said. Point well taken.
2. Never step on or walk through a golfer's line on the putting green.
This is particularly important when you play with people who actually keep score. It may not seem like a big thing when it takes you six or seven swings just to make the green, but when you are looking at a birdie, a simple footprint can ruin a friend's day.
3. Keep care of the course and leave it in as good or better shape after you play.
Every Boy Scout learns to "leave no trace" in the woods. The same holds true with golf, especially when you hit the ground as often as you hit the ball. Replace those big chucks of earth called "divots,'' and if an approach shot lands hard enough to dent the green, repair that as well.
4. No putt is "good."
Tapping the ball in only takes a second. And why deny your friends the chance for a good laugh as you miss from less than a foot away?
5. Be ready to play when it is your turn.
If you hit the ball in the woods, don't make your pals stand around and wait. Take the penalty, hold up your hands and say, "The first round is on me."
6. Allow faster players to play through.
Even if it means your friends leave you on the fifth hole and you have to walk home, not that it actually happened to me. But if you're slow, get on the green and wave the group behind to play through.
7. Don't blame the course or a fellow golfer for your bad shot or round.
You know who is responsible. Point to the sky, curse the Russians and blame those darned spy satellites.
8. Work on your swing at the range.
Instruction on the course usually will only make it worse. And whatever you do, don't play with your boss, big brother or any other know-it-all, unless you have a good bail bondsman.
9. Know the game and protect the field.
If someone is breaking a rule, call it on the spot. For example, if you hit the ball in the water, everyone knows you buy lunch. It's right there on page 37 of the International Golfer's Guide (or so I was told).
10. Golf is a Game and it is supposed to be Fun with a capital "F."
Relax and approach the sport with an open mind. Don't take it too seriously. Many golfers, like my boss and my big brother, play for years and still shank a shot.