Fore! Play: The Last American Male Takes up Golfby Bill Geist
Bill Geist, who had never picked up a club before, sets off determined to learn the game and to uncover what accounts for America's infatuation with this "royal and ancient" sport. Geist's unique approach provides uproarious insight into the nuances of the game that will ring true for any golf lover.See more details below
Bill Geist, who had never picked up a club before, sets off determined to learn the game and to uncover what accounts for America's infatuation with this "royal and ancient" sport. Geist's unique approach provides uproarious insight into the nuances of the game that will ring true for any golf lover.
- Grand Central Publishing
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Meet the Author
Bill Geist is the New York Times bestselling author of Little League Confidential, The Big Five-Oh, Fore! Play!, and Way Off the Road. He has been a correspondent for "CBS News Sunday Morning" since he joined CBS News in 1987. He chronicles some of the quirkiest people and places in America for the broadcast and has won two Emmys for his work on the show. To date, one of Bill's greatest achievements is taking third place in the Illinois State Fair Bake Off in 1979. Geist lives in New York City with his wife. They have two children.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1A Life in the Rough I am from a golfdeprived background. No one taught me to play. I picked up the game in the 1950s on the hardscrabble streets of my hometown, Champaign, Illinois, first in my own yard where my brother Dave sank a number of tin cans, then at a miniature golf course across from a trailer park, and finally at a little 9hole public course between a cemetery and a pigpen.
Of the two forms of golf, little and big, I preferred the mini version, where there was always a lot of laughing, and where a really bad shotone that hit another golfer or another golfer's Buick, or one that skittered across the street and had to be played out of the Illini Pest Control parking lotwas always considered the very best shot of the day. It takes a certain skill to get some loft on the ball and drive it that far with a putter.
We played (for 35 cents, as I recall) on warm summer nights, the course semilit by dim bulbs strung here and there, accompanied by the sounds of crickets and top ten tunes like "Green Door" or "Tammy" that were trying to make themselves heard on the single raspy speaker attached to the shack. The balls were colorful and the clubs almost dangerously barbed and ratty, having the look and feel of spoons that had been dropped into a garbage disposalexcept those weren't invented yet. There were always friends there, and sometimes a group of cute girls in short shorts that would cause my friends and me to show offsometimes in ways that involved minor property damage and expulsion.
It was exotic. There was the little bowed bridge over a sixbyeightfoot pondprobably the largest body of water in the county. And there was the windmill. How clever. Turns out all minigolf courses have windmills, but I didn't know that. We didn't get around much. Provincial? Our high school foreign exchange student was from America. Hawaii. Who knew? Minigolf was fun. But big golf is not played for fun per se. You don't hear a lot of laughing on your standardsized courses. Oh, there was some laughing at that public 9hole course, where players were generally awful, not serious about the game, sometimes drunk, sometimes without any golfing equipment, and occasionally there just to make out. You never see couples making out on the country club course or at those golf tournaments on TV. Too bad.
My friends and I didn't know how to play, and we didn't know that the 9hole course was as bad as we were. A round of golf cost next to nothing and that seemed a fair price. Actually, I'm not sure we paid. I think if you started on the second tee you didn't have to pay.
The course had no landscaping as such: no trees, no berms, no sand traps, no roughjust the tees, straight fairways, and flat little greens. Like a sod farm. On one fairway, the designer decided to get a little tricky, placing across its width a foothigh, grasscovered hurdle that resembled an enlarged speed bumpalthough in retrospect that might have been a sewer pipe or the work of a large rodent.
That was all to the good. We were not accustomed to treesall of which had been wiped out by Dutch elm diseaseor topographical aberrations like slopes, knolls, or knobslet alone hills. We were flatlanders. The land was flat in every direction for hundreds of miles. My driveway was the steepest slope in town. The first time I saw hills and curves, I rolled my Volkswagen.
I inherited my golf clubs from an uncle killed in World War II. There were four in the bag as I recall: two putters, a driver, and an iron. My friends and I approached the game as just an enlarged version of miniature golf, really. We just swung harder and were pleasantly surprised to find there were no windmills to take into account on the greens. We played poorly, were uninterested in improvement, and laughed at ourselves and others.
Unfortunately, this was to become our overall philosophy of life. We approached everything the same way. When we bowled at the fabulous new automated Arrowhead Lanes, we imitated the mannerisms, nuances, and seriousness of TV bowlers, while depositing balls in the gutters. We filched the green, red, and tan bowling shoes with the sizes displayed on the backs, and wore them to school. The fad never caught on.
I don't know that we kept score on that golf course. When you start on the second tee, you don't get a scorecard. Par was probably three for each hole on the course, although I'm sure a good pro could do them all in two, with no hazards, other than the police, who were occasionally summoned when there were, say, fifty golfers on the course and no gate receipts. Our scores were probably in the 60s, respectable on the pro tour, not so hot on a par3 9holer.
It was here I developed my pronounced hook shot (something I never could do in bowling) and my noteworthy ability to play amongst tombstones. If your hook was severe, you could hit a drive into the cemetery, where my grandfather was buried. You had to hit for distance, though, to clear the street and the hedgerow. I did that only once, with the assistance of a strong crosswind, and I did have to go look for the ball because I could only afford the one. After paying my respects at the family grave site, I advanced my ball several plots with my iron, before electing to throw the ball back in play rather than trying to chip it over the hedge and the street. It was a decent toss (I played pitcher and third base as a kid), but still short of the green, leaving me two chip shots and four putts before holing out.
A slice on that course could be even worse. The course was positionedas are so many things in the Midwestnext to pig and cattle pens, and a severely sliced shot could mean wading through animal dung (actual bullshit!) to play your ball. If it were actually in actual bullshit, what to do? Pick it up? With what? Try to hit it out? This may be where the term "chip shot" was coined, I don't know.
For all the golfers playing the course, not just the ones bad enough to hit into the pens, a southerly breeze through that area turned a round of golf into a memorable odoriferous experience. Ever try to putt and gag at the same time? The first real golf outing I can remember was with a group of former college buddies a couple of years after we'd all graduated, on a weekend with our wives at a house on Lake Michigan.
Most of them had played golf throughout college. And bridge. I didn't play golf or bridge because my older brother played bridge and suffered from a dangerously low grade point average as a result. I didn't want to become hooked on those vices. So I began playing pinball machines on occasion and then for several hours every day. For five years (had the two senior years). We didn't have carpal tunnel syndrome back then or I would have died from it. On our outing, we left the house in the morning and didn't return until early evening, the great length of time owing to the number of strokes I required as well as to the vast amount of time I spent hunting for my ball.
I have tried to block out memories of that golf outing, but I do occasionally have flashbacks. Frankly, I prefer the flashbacks to 'Nam. I was in a kind of Jerry Lewis mode that day and there were a lot of laughs, all at my expense.
I recall having a golf bag slung over my shoulder, not like you're supposed to, with the clubs low and by your side, but rather with the clubs riding high behind my right shoulder like soldiers carry rifles. At any rate, when I bent forward to tee up my ball, all of the clubs fell out, cascading over the top of my head. That one had them rolling on the fairways.
I also recall stroking a ball and having a golf cart whir up behind me with a man shouting: "Hey, you just hit my ball!"
"No," I said, "I think I've been playing the Jim Jeffries brand ball all along."
"I am Jim Jeffries," he replied. I was unaware golfers sometimes had their names stamped on their balls.
It was on this day, too, that I performed a truly miraculous golf feat that defies both belief and the fundamental laws of physics. Let's just say if Jesus had done it (at Bethlehem Hills Country Club) they'd be teaching the tale in Sunday School.
I teed up the ball, and of course everyone in my group was staring at me, because they didn't want to miss something good. What they saw they will likely never see again.
I took a healthy backswing, whipped the driver through, and did manage to strike the ball, rather than pounding the turf behind it or going over the top and completely whiffing as is so often the case. My partners gazed downrange, but could not pick up the flight of the ball. About two seconds after my swing there was a dull thud as it came to earth not more than twenty feet from the tee.
Behind the tee! I had hit my drive backward, apparently stroking it almost straight up but with so much backspin that it landed behind me. This time my friends did not immediately laugh. They were dumbstruck... aghast... awed at that to which they had borne witness.
That was in the early 1970s. Since then I have continued to amuse others by playing my own quixotic brand of golf in which I keep striving to reach the unreachable par. For fifty years I have played pretty much Par Free Golf.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Bill Geist
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