Golf pro Terry Decker knew he had his work cut out for him. "Have you ever played?" he asked as I sliced a shot off the driving range. "Just Congo River," I answered. "That doesn't count," he said. "I mean 18 holes?" The answer was no. In fact, I had never been on a real golf course, except to fish for largemouth bass in the middle of the night. But that's another story. Most of what I knew about the game I picked up from watching the movie Caddyshack. "So we'll start from the beginning," he said, and led me to the golf cart.
Starting from scratch
In my 47 years, I tried a variety of unusual sports — cave diving, gator wrasslin', bungee jumping. I even swam with the sharks at Alcatraz and ran with the bulls at a cowboy rodeo.
But somehow I never got around to playing the links.
"You're going to get hooked," said Decker, a pro at the St. Petersburg Country Club. "Golf is the one game you can still play when you are old."
Driving around the course, Decker showed me the rough, the fairway and the green. I learned about par-3s, par-4s, birdies and eagles. He explained irons, woods, putters and etiquette.
Then he pointed out the snack bar.
"You get to stop halfway through the game for a cold beer?" I asked.
Decker smiled. "On some courses they have a cart that will bring it to you," he answered.
Sign me up.
Golf is customarily played with 14 clubs, but being a minimalist, I asked Decker if I could get away with two or three.
"No," he replied. "But for now, you can start with a 7-iron."
The driving range was empty, except for a fellow a few spots down who appeared a little frustrated with the way he was hitting the ball. That's me in 15 minutes, I thought.
Decker handed me the club.
I gripped it like a baseball bat and swung for the fence.
"That's good," he said. "Next time try to hit the ball."
My grip was too tight. I needed to relax, he said. Overlapping? Interlocking? Neither felt comfortable. I prayed I didn't let the club go and bean that poor guy swinging innocently a few feet away.
"Take your time," Decker said. "Not too fat or too thin. Relax."
I swung. Contact.
Zen and golf
When you start at the bottom, you have nowhere to go but up. After a half hour or so, I was hitting the ball 100 yards pretty consistently, with the occasional wild shot that could be considered a threat to public safety.
"Remember, rhythm and balance," Decker advised. "If you follow through, and consistently have a balanced finish, you will end up with a good golf swing."
Then Decker, a lefty, stepped in and swung right-handed, sending the ball flying down range 150 yards. His action seemed effortless, like those old-timers who can throw a dry fly 100 feet across a trout stream without moving a muscle.
This game would take time to figure out. The more I learned, I realized, the less I knew.