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The Old Man and the Tee
How I Took Ten Strokes Off My Game and Learned to Love Golf All Over Again
By Turk Pipkin
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Turk Pipkin
All rights reserved.
The Beginning of the End
That last perfect moment is frozen in my mind, a crystalline memory of how the world would never be again — the rising sun painting halos on the treetops, the spray of morning dew as a ball came rolling through the fringe, the scent of pine trees and sea air on the day's first breeze.
It's tournament week at Pebble Beach and life is good. A smile on my face, I'm on the putting green trading jokes with players and caddies alike. Since I was a scrawny kid learning to play golf in bone-dry West Texas, I've longed to be here for the Crosby Clambake. My dad loved Bing, Bob, and Arnie, and the two of us always tuned in for the broadcast.
I was seven or eight, watching the Crosby on TV, when Bob Hope told the first golf joke I ever heard.
"How come a golfer wears two pairs of socks?"
"In case he gets a hole in one."
Okay, it's not much of a joke, but to an entertainment-deprived kid in Hicksville, it was practically hilarious. I told that joke to everyone I knew, starting with my dad, who'd missed it on TV, and I've never forgotten that he actually laughed. Who knows? Maybe that first laugh from my father was part of why I would later spend a decade of my life telling jokes in comedy clubs.
Even though the tournament name has long since changed to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, I still feel like a big kid in a dream as I walk the putting green with Furyk and Fluff. I've got a rented red convertible, a press pass for the week, and an assignment to write a story about — and this is almost too good to be true — those age-old nuggets called golf jokes.
So what if the jokes I'm hearing are lamer than a one-legged kick-boxer? Jokes aren't about setups and punch lines; jokes are about the people who tell them. For the next four days, the people telling them to me will be Bill Murray, Ray Romano, and just about everyone else who knows how to skate into a big-time golf tournament on a good laugh.
Perhaps it is too perfect. Or perhaps the golf gods simply have other plans for me, because just as Fluff starts to tell me a joke, the cell phone in my pocket vibrates its silent ring. I ignore it, but in a few moments the phone begins to vibrate again. Stepping to one side, I answer the call, listen a moment, and then I'm gone.
I don't even say good-bye.
Five minutes later I'm driving like a madman, doing seventy in a forty-five zone as I race toward the airport, hoping to make the next plane to Texas and praying my father will live long enough for me to see him again.
I didn't have any idea how much that morning would change my life. I'd never known the kind of loss I faced that day, didn't have a clue how lucky I'd been so far or how determined I could become.
I certainly didn't know that phone call would lead me to the doorsteps of golf's greatest teachers, or that I would throw myself upon their mercy, saying, "Help me become a golfer my father would have been proud of."
I didn't know I'd dream up the crazy idea of trying to take ten strokes off my game in just a year, that I'd ignore my kids in order to hit practice balls in the hot Texas sun until my lips bled, that I'd become so obsessed that my wife would wonder if she even knew me. I didn't know that I'd come to doubt who I was and what my life had been about. All I knew was I had to go fast.
* * *
This is a story about the love for your father that is inherent in all of us who are lucky enough to have known a father's love. It's a story about the love of a game that seems to have an almost mystical hold on those who come under its spell. It's a story about repaying love that can never be repaid, about forgiving a broken mind and mending a broken heart. It's a story about turning a broken machine that was flawed in the first place into a thing of occasional beauty, then laying it all on the line for no particular reason other than to say, "Thanks, Dad. Wish you were here."
Ultimately, it's the story of what it takes to hit the ball in the sweet spot and launch it with a perfect rising arc toward a distant flag. A story about how to hit the right shots at the right times, and the wrong shots when they won't hurt you.
Though I'm hardly qualified to preach or teach the gospel known as golf lessons, it's also quite possible that this story may teach you what you've always wanted to know about man's most exquisite game.
Considering all that, I suppose I should start at the beginning.
I was just a short-stuff when my father first took me to the sunburned links of West Texas and taught me how to carry a bag and tend a pin. I was too young for the work, and I think he knew it, but I was determined to give it a try, and he gave in to my pleas.
Even though his bag occasionally dragged the ground that day, I still managed to slog around eighteen holes without falling too far behind. That night, completely exhausted, I fell asleep dreaming of my day in the company of men as we walked on playing fields of green. Who knows, perhaps I've never stopped dreaming of that day.
How else can you explain that forty years later — though still not much of a player — I was more obsessed with golf than ever? Having given up the world of stand-up comedy, I'd started writing for a living, turning out books, scripts, and magazine stories. Somehow I'd managed to write about whatever I wanted, and the subject I most often chose to write about was golf.
I'd written about golf in the pastures of Texas and on the links of Scotland, about greens made of sand and greens mowed by sheep, about night golf played by the light of the moon or the glow of a cigarette. I'd even written a novel called Fast Greens about a young caddie in search of a father, and because I didn't want my dad to take the story personally, I'd also written about the joy of caddying for and playing with my old man.
But with my father dying, golf suddenly seemed devoid of meaning. All of my golf stories had been written for him. What would I write without him there to read them? What would I be without my father?
* * *
His name was Raymond Pipkin, but everyone knew him as Pip. His goals in life were simple, and none of them involved work. What Pip wanted to do was hunt, fish, play golf, and be a good father to his five children. He was skilled at all of these, and loved by just about everyone who met him in ways that were impossible for my mother to understand, for she had to bear the burden of practicality.
Things had started to go wrong long before my emergency call at Pebble Beach. At age seventy-five, Pip finally had to admit that his knees would no longer support him on the links or in the field. The choice he faced was to sit down and stay down or to have a knee replacement operation. Unfortunately, a lifetime of chicken fried steaks, enchilada plates, and way too many cocktails had put as much strain on his arteries as it had on his knees. The stroke he suffered while under sedation for the surgery wasn't discovered for days, and he subsequently spent eight long years in a nursing home.
Confined to a wheelchair and generally unable to remember the names of his children, he was still the life of the party, he could still beat me at checkers, and everyone loved him as they always had. In some ways, it was a miracle he lived as long as he did. Knowing that would not make losing him any easier.
From Pebble Beach, I made it back to West Texas to find Pip propped up in a hospital bed, a smile on his face as his family gathered round to enjoy his miraculous recovery. Just like old times, he and I turned on the TV and watched the broadcast of the golf tournament. The only difference was, instead of Bob Hope, it was Bill Murray cracking everyone up at Pebble. Instead of Arnie, the crowd favorite was Tiger.
"That's a beautiful place," Pip told me as the camera panned over the ocean and Pebble's eighteenth hole. "We should have played there."
Though he had a gentle smile on his face, a pang of regret stabbed at my heart. He was absolutely right. We should have played there, a father and his youngest son at a place they'd long loved. If only I'd made the effort while there was till time.
When I left the hospital with my brothers and sisters that evening, Pip was still smiling, but somehow we knew we'd never see him again. Though I'd been careful to take advantage of that final opportunity to tell my father that I loved him, in the weeks following his funeral, I could not shake his passing. Pip was gone — and with me sneaking up on the fifty-year mark myself, I suddenly realized that I was next. Suddenly I was the Old Man.
Playing golf was unthinkable, and finishing that golf joke story was no picnic, either. Jokes that once seemed mildly amusing now were mostly annoying.
"Bad day at the course," a guy tells his wife. "Charlie had a heart attack on the third hole."
"That's terrible!" she says.
"You're telling me. All day long, it was hit the ball, drag Charlie."
You'd be amazed how many golf jokes are about dead golfers.
I was half asleep one night when one of my dad's old golf buddies popped into my head. I'd hardly thought of Marshall Jones since the days when I caddied for him in my youth, certainly not since he passed away several years ago. But now Marshall was clear in my mind as he descended to my father's hospital bed with one final golf joke.
"There's good news and there's bad news," Marshall told my dad.
"Good news first," Pip replied.
"Well, it turns out there's golf in heaven. We've got a beautiful track just like Pebble Beach."
"That's great," my dad said with a smile. "So what's the bad news?"
"You and I are playing Hogan and Snead at eight A.M."
Well, let me tell you, I laughed and I cried, and I mean for the rest of the night. The next morning, I called Pebble Beach and booked a tee time to play the round of golf that I should have played with my father. With Pip in my heart, but not at my side, my intention was to play eighteen holes at Pebble that would have made him proud.
All through my teens, I'd felt that Pip wanted me to be a solid golfer. My brothers, John and Marvin, had always been better, more gifted golfers than me. They'd played on the high school golf team, and John had played on the team at the University of Texas. I, on the other hand, had only played. Even at my best, I still suspected that my game fell short of Pip's hopes. To complicate matters, for the last couple of years, my swing had become insanely unpredictable. My apathetic drives were both short and crooked; my bipolar irons were divided between life-threatening hooks and knifing slices, and so many of my putts spun out of the hole, my friends were calling me "Hairlip."
In short, I sucked! And after half a lifetime of flirting with the idea of being a good golfer, it is not a pretty feeling to discover the simple truth that your golf game sucks.
To notch a reasonably good score at Pebble, I figured I just needed fewer distractions from work and family, and a little more play. I'd practice a few weeks, straighten out my drives, gather my wits, and throw a nice score up on the board.
Maybe that would help me miss my father less. Maybe it would help me ease the regret of how little time I'd given him. If nothing else, I figured it would be a lot healthier than drinking nightly to his memory.
A year later, as I look back on my preparations for that first round at Pebble, I realize just how wrong I was to think everything could be so simple.CHAPTER 2
A Monkey Humping a Football
"It's the only sport that every player, no matter their ability, can hit a shot that even the best player in the world would be proud of. That's the beauty of the game — the magnet." — David Leadbetter
Before I took an emotional swan dive off the high board at Pebble Beach, I figured I better tune up my game. My preparations were pretty straightforward. In the evenings, I was rereading the golf books that once helped hone my swing. Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf and Power Golf were pretty much the Old and New Testaments of my game.
I hadn't spent much time on the practice tee as a kid. Range balls cost money that we didn't have to spend.
"Just get out there and play" was Pip's solution to any golf problem.
Pip also had little faith in taking lessons, most likely for the same reason he didn't believe in hitting practice balls — cash.
"Lessons will just screw you up," he'd say, an opinion I've continued to hear throughout my life.
With a little more fold in my pocket than in my childhood, I figured a few large buckets of balls would straighten out my flagging game, but then I heard that David Leadbetter — the most celebrated instructor in golf — was coming to Austin to open a new Leadbetter Academy at Barton Creek. That was too good to miss.
Joining the crowd on the practice tee at Barton Creek's Fazio Canyons course, I was primed to hear the gospel according to David.
"It's funny talking theory about a swing," Leadbetter told the crowd. "The problem is what we feel we do and what we actually do are totally different. They're miles apart. But no matter how you swing, it all comes down to getting the clubface square on the ball, traveling at maximum speed down your target line. There are various ways to do that — a lot of different ways of skinning a cat."
If there's more than one way to skin a cat, I thought, then I don't want to know about it.
"No two golf swings are alike," David continued. "There are certain actions we all try to create through a repeating-type motion, but it still boils down to the fact that we're individuals, each with our own swings. And everybody's swing is like a fingerprint."
Back in the dark recesses of my mind, a light was starting to switch on. I'd spent my whole life trying to copy Hogan's swing, but I'm six-foot-seven in old socks; Hogan was five-nine in new spikes on concrete.
As he spoke, Leadbetter began to swing an iron back and forth with ease, his movements the perfect illustration of his words.
"Most golfers don't understand," David told us, "that the golf swing involves both a swinging motion of the club and a turning movement of the body. The most common errors arise from people misinterpreting how to actually get that club moving from a stationary position. There's also a sort of Hit! syndrome that creates habits — from snatching it away, or taking it inside, or coming over the top, or getting steep."
Snatching it inside and coming steep over the top — Leadbetter was describing everything wrong with my own swing.
"Almost every poor player gets too steep," David continued. "As they swing back to the ball, the club is coming down on too vertical an angle. It looks like an outside-to-inside swing, but the real problem is the steepness."
"But if you do certain things correctly," he added, "the club almost swings itself."
Now David gripped the club with the thumb and two fingers of his right hand, and demonstrated the simplicity of the golf swing, the club swinging back and hinging up naturally, then reversing and swinging through to the target. This near-perfect, one-handed swing was accomplished with almost zero effort as long as David kept the club moving on the same swing plane or angle at which he'd started. If he moved the club off line — taking it back inside his target line, for instance — gravity would compound his errors, and the easy swing was almost instantly lost. But when he put the club back on plane, the three-finger swing became smooth again.
As the club metronomed back and forth, I began to fall under Leadbetter's spell. A rare combination of master and teacher, Leadbetter combines a deep understanding of golf mechanics with an intuitive ability to communicate what he knows. He also puts the icing on the cake by being almost constantly entertaining. Whenever our brains began to freeze up from too much technical talk, Leadbetter would toss out a golf joke or a story.
"Faldo has this caddie from Ireland," David told us, "and the sole of the caddie's shoe is separated from the upper and it's flopping and flopping and driving Faldo crazy. Finally, Nick can't take it anymore. 'You're not gonna wear that during the tournament, are you?' he asks. The caddie explains that he's just arrived from Ireland and is a little short of money. So Faldo takes out a huge roll of bills, and the caddie's eyes are bugging out. Nick takes the rubber band off the roll ... then tosses the rubber band to the caddie and says, "Here, this ought to take care of it."
Along with the other golf writers at the event, I'd been invited to take a quick private lesson with the man himself. At the opposite end of the Canyons range, where the new school would be located, we lined up and began hitting our seven-irons while David walked down the row and offered a little personal guidance to each player.
By the time David arrived at my station, having simply watched him swing the club earlier already had me hitting the purest iron shots I'd struck in months. One swing after another, I was hitting crisp fades that I felt sure David would compliment. Sure, my divots were pointing too far left, but the results were still good.
Excerpted from The Old Man and the Tee by Turk Pipkin. Copyright © 2004 Turk Pipkin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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