Forget failing eyesight and 2 a.m. trips to the bathroom; middle age truly began yesterday, when I accompanied my friend Teduardo to Golf Mart in San Bruno and came away with my own full set of Taylor Made clubs and a slick little black-and-white golf bag. That the clubs were an early Father's Day present confirmed it: I'm not turning into my dad, I'm turning into someone else's dad.
Okay, maybe that's a little premature, but don't deny that over half of you out there are splitting a gut right now because Mr. Oddball got golf clubs for Father's Day. Next year, I suppose, I'll get a tie. Soon I will develop an appreciation for Buick Le Sabres. My wardrobe of jeans and shorts? Cast aside for one comprised of Haggar slacks. It is all over now. You will find me at the driving range, lost in the rough or knocking back Old Granddad on the rocks at The Nineteenth Hole.
Sandra Bullock and I have been talking about taking up golf for several years. "It'll be our old age sport," she'd say in measured tones. Either old age came sooner than we thought or my invite to Teduardo's mid-summer Lake Tahoe golf weekend sparked in me a desire to follow a very small ball around beautifully manicured lawns, because there I was on Sunday afternoon, trying out different seven irons at Golf Mart while Ted offered instruction from the sidelines. "Make a wall behind the ball," he advised soothingly as I demo'ed two separate pitching wedges. "Widen your stance," he said as I gripped a driver.
When we arrived at the decision to buy golf clubs, I assumed it would work like this: talk about it for a few weeks, announce "I am going to do research" and go to a few web sites, then head down to Sports Authority and pick up the cheapest clubs I could find. The only reason why I was buying clubs instead of renting was because, as a lefthander, I figured it would be near to impossible to find clubs to rent. Also, Teduardo told me that a weekend of renting would end up costing not much less than buying.
My thinking was that, like with modern motorcycles, golf club technology had advanced to the point where the worst possible set of golf clubs were still well past the upper reaches of my talent. Though I rode a Ducati in the 1990s, I would have been just as well served by a Honda. So, too, did I think that a bottom-end set of Nike clubs would do the trick for me on the links.
We will never know if that theory works, just as we'll never know if I would have been just as happy on a Honda. Once Ted became involved, my throwaway approach to buying golf clubs was thrown away. There would be no trip to Sports Authority. Instead, we would drive to San Bruno, where Golf Mart awaited, big box retail, links-style.
The last time I set foot in a store devoted entirely to golf was 1983. Roger Dunn, the last word in golf in Santa Ana, California, was packed tightly with clubs, bags and accessories. You went in, you picked your set, you left.
The club-buying experience has gained immeasurable depth since 1983. Ted outlined a plan that included separate evaluations of each club, their pitch and depth (?), length and weight. "You don't want to get something that's too much of a blade," he cautioned. "Not for a beginner."
After that, he refused to call me a "beginner." Not only was Ted going to help me choose my clubs, he was also going to mentor me to the point where, come Tahoe, I'd be able to hold my own amidst a bunch of guys who'd taken this trip every summer since 1996.
Golf Mart had walls full of used sets. There was an entire rack devoted to left-handed clubs. Somewhere else were left-handed woods. I never saw where because instead, Ted simply emerged with armfuls of drivers as I stood in the fake driving range "stall," whacking neon green golf balls with a pitching wedge.
"Try this," he said. "This is the one I use."
Last time I had golf clubs, in 1983, the latest thing was woods made of metal. That, and not the fact of buying golf clubs in 2010, should make me feel old. The driver Ted handed me yesterday was absurdly big. The head looked like a sleek, metallic basketball. I took a swing. The ball jumped off the club. Twenty feet from the net, every shot looks great. "This is easy," I thought.
I began explaining to anyone who'd listen how I'd played baseball for so long, maybe there was some crossover between swing techniques, conveniently overlooking the fact that between my junior and senior years of playing high school baseball, when I logged some 75 innings on the mound, I had a combined total of six at-bats. They DH for you, even in high school, when you can't hit.
But that was forgotten. Remembered instead were the hours I spent as a little kid, swinging a bat in front of a mirror. It was all paying off in middle age. Irons and driver chosen, we picked out a bag and some gloves, then moved to the checkout line, where Teduardo was accused of looking like, A) the coach at Valparaiso and B) JFK, Jr. I, by association, was either, A) the coach at Valparaiso's bald friend who knew nothing about golf, or B) JFK, Jr.'s bald friend who knew nothing about golf. Figuring I had a better chance at survival, I went with A), which didn't stop the girls at the counter from finding a photo of JFK, Jr. on line and then looking from their computer to Ted and then back, which added to the general feeling of vertigo I was having.
From there we went to the driving range where I felt much as I imagine my forebearers must have felt upon landing at Ellis Island. Intuition no longer served me. I was in an alien land. People were speaking in a language I did not understand. I was constantly doing the wrong thing and had to be corrected at every step.
But like my great-grandfather Henry in 1908 (?), I was excited to be there, eager to soak up every nuance of the New World. I learned that golf guys always carry their clubs around in their trunk, ready to capitalize on any chance to "hit a few balls." You can't do this when you drive a station wagon.
New golf bags are designed to be worn like (very wide) backpacks. I figured this out only after struggling like Judge Smails' nephew to lug my back to the tee by grabbing onto whatever straps seemed most likely.
Golf Mart success does not translate to driving range success. My drives, so true and spot-on at Golf Mart, now hooked to the right in a teeth-gnashing imitation of every single slow-pitch softball at-bat I've ever taken. Decades later, having sworn off that game for life, I was still hitting line drives right at the first baseman.
Teduardo teed up his first ball, displayed a flawless backswing and uncorked a 300-yard drive.
"Uh, do you have a handicap?" I asked, feeling uncomfortable with golf lingo.
"I used to," he said.
"What was it?"
I don't know golf, but I know math. That means he shoots in the low-80s. What have I gotten myself into?
On a positive note, thanks to the range's Astroturf mats, no blades of grass were harmed as a result of my club head hitting the ground before it hit the ball. "Hit the little ball, not the big one," Ted said philosophically. "The big one is Earth."
The problem was my "disco feet." At one point Ted stood behind me, seven iron handle jammed into my right heel in an attempt to stop me from doing what comes naturally even to a guy used to being DH'ed for. Club head back, ready to swing, and I was stepping toward the pitcher. Thus the disco feet.
By the time I got home, my hands stung and my head was full of instructions about staying planted, addressing the ball directly and not two inches behind it, generating power from my hips (without moving my feet) and keeping my head down.
My new clubs are downstairs now, acclimating to a new life in which they will live not in a trunk but at least until August among boxes of Bar Mitzvah supplies. And I have edged ever closer to the part of life where my intake of pills perscribed to combat the combined effects of aging and bad genes far exceeds my intake of alcoholic beverages.