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Sadistic Spring Ritual Called 'Golf'

Bill Summers Columnist

In a few weeks eight of us will fly south to spend four days beating the ground with clubs and uttering ear-rattling screams.

Some may call this primitive self-expression. We call it golf.

It's true that golf is made to look easy by the dozen or so people who play it well. But for the rest of us this sport is a cruel trick, a seductive invitation to delusional thinking that traps even its most grounded participants.

No other sport has so much capacity to devastate the ego. It starts with that evil little word, "par," which players aim for on each hole. While the dictionary defines par as "an accepted standard or normal condition," for most golfers a par is anything but standard or normal. Most serious players are thrilled on those rare occasions they can jot a par on the scorecard. Many even smile at a "bogey" or one shot over par, making bogey the most cherished bad score in sports.

In fact, most players, no matter how many lessons, no matter how much devotion to the driving range, routinely exceed 100 strokes on a par 72 course. As if a three-digit number is not painful enough, these players are tagged with a "handicap," or the number of strokes the player is expected to shoot over par.

No wonder that when a golfer is asked his handicap, the most common answer is, "l really don't play enough to have one."

Logic would suggest that after countless rounds of sliced drives, blown sand shots and foiled putts, the aspiring golfer would pick up and move on a kinder pursuits. A toddler, after all, has to bang its head on the wall only once to know not to do it again. But a golfer who has rapped his ball into six trees in one afternoon knows only to go looking for that next tree.

We should know that any game that spells' flog'' backward is a sadistic ritual to be avoided at all costs. But we don't, because golf is the ultimate tease. Somewhere during those 18 holes, some place over that 6,800 yards, the player manages to hit the one shot that keeps the delusion alive.

It often happens on the 18th green after the player has lost 11 balls, the score card and most of his self-esteem. Standing over the last ball he owns, he buries a seven-foot putt, pumps his fist and strides triumphantly off the green. He knows that he is now on the cusp of mastering the game. His next stop is the pro shop, where he will buy new balls and get a tee time for later that day.

This wasn't supposed to happen this year. No more trips to warms places so we could flog ourselves for four straight days before the home course opens. No more bouts of delusion over the winter, when painful memories of rounds gone awry give way to blind hope for the season to come.

With a handicap stuck like a kite in a stiff breeze, I swore last fall that I would sell my clubs and be done with it. But golf has a way of sneaking up when your defenses are down. Just when I thought I had put the game safely behind me, the holidays arrived. A new putter, new shoes, a video, a dozen new balls.

My first instinct was to say, "Thank you, but I gave up the game." But how could I turn these gifts away, shun my family? No, I must graciously accept them and show my appreciation by putting them to immediate use.

Come to think of it, I was using old balls last season. Probably cost me a few strokes. And my shoes were so small I had trouble shifting my weight from the back foot to the front, the way the video instructs. As for my old putter, I never did replace that faded grip.

Hey, with this new equipment and insight, I'll be a new golfer. Bet I can knock at least five strokes off my score, maybe even lose that handicap all together.

When does that plane leave?

(Editor's Note: The writer a corporate communications consultant, is a resident of Basking Ridge and a member of the Coakley-Russo Golf' Course at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Lyons. To send him news about extraordinary local athletes, coaches or volunteers, write to "Sports Watch" at this newspaper at 17-19 Morristown Road, Bernardsville, N.J. 07924.)


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