Just When I Thought I Was Out

What to expect when returning from an extended golf absence
Golf shed. Photo by Peter Baker

I’ve been away. Not that my clubs missed me. In that regard they are as inscrutable as 14 dashboard Virgin Marys. They’ve been neglected through no fault of their own. For this, I accept full responsibility. The rusty grooves of my sand iron are, I’m convinced, the oxidized ribbons of angelic patience. My playing hiatus, which has spanned years, not weeks, was a personal matter. Let’s just leave it at that.

I hadn’t stormed off in a snit after a five-putt or gone on a walkabout after slashing my way down to Yorick’s skull at the bottom of the greenside bunker on Flowering Agony, the third hole of the incoming nine. Other than suffering the pangs of abandonment, I swear on a stack of yardage books that I never abused my clubs in any way. After producing the kind of smothered topper that gets as far off the ground as a basset hound’s dangly bits, I never had been the sort to twirl and snap. Once, in a pro-am with a playing professional who chooses to remain anonymous, I was witness to just such a display. “What are you getting mad about?” the pro asked the panting, scarlet-faced amateur. “If I hit a shot like that, I’d have a reason to be upset. But you suck.”

At my very best, I had never been a player of quality. This did not bother me. Because of a longtime association with Golf Digest, I’d hung around many of the game’s finest teachers. I’d seen all the props. Assembled all the gimmicks. Memorized all the maxims. The only thing that rubbed off was when Chuck Cook got me to my right side by whispering a tip that sounded like an e.e. cummings poem. From that enlightened position, the swing just naturally devolved into a series of synaptic failures. Thanks to Bob Rotella, whose advice proved to be uncannily similar to that of the golf pro in the paragraph above, I was able to embrace human frailty in all its forms. I brushed off dropped shots with the carefree mien of an 8-month-old child flinging a spoonful of organic peas at the kitchen wall. I had arrived at a state of equilibrium where the level of either my self-loathing or euphoria following any single shot was in utter harmony with the ability given to me by a rather parsimonious God.

And so, having largely avoided the soul-crushing scars so often left behind by the game, I recently chose the comeback trail. Had I not benched myself, I’m convinced I would have enjoyed an unabated career as a player of towering mediocrity, so do not think for a moment that I expected the news of my return to be greeted with anything greater than boundless indifference. It is because I believe I’m not alone in having put myself in Golf Time-Out that I hope that the wisdom gained in my rejuvenation may prove useful.

To begin with, things have changed somewhat. At the bag drop, the young lad who lifted the clubs from the trunk of my car was no longer one of those fragile, acned types who seem to have just skipped out on chemistry class. This fellow had the neck of a Portuguese bull and a set of massive forearms so heavily tattooed that they looked like the regimental formations marching into the Battle of Waterloo with Wellington on his right, Napoleon on his left. When he snatched the cover off my golf bag, letting daylight shine again on my beloved set of ancient Pings—irons so old that they could have been fashioned in Karsten’s garage with his own loving hands—he looked at me with a sorrowful mixture of pity and shame, as if he’d just wandered into a stranger’s wake. He flipped through the clubs gently, stopping at the driver whose size, I admit, would be considered nothing more than a European Cut Medium in an XXX Large world. Not given to addressing someone of my advancing years as “sir,” he called me “eBay” because, he explained, that’s the only place my clubs should ever appear. 

I’d heard that in my absence people had begun hitting the ball great distances. As luck would have it, at one end of the practice ground there was a sinewy gentleman still in the bloom of youth, with wires dangling from his ears. “Millennial,” one of my partners whispered, as if he’d sighted a Sasquatch. Roughly the height of a mizzenmast and with a swing as long and supple as a cowboy roping a calf, every sonic boom of his driver confirmed the rumors. By comparison, the merry tinkling noise my driver gave off during warm-ups sounded like the steel drums at a Jimmy Buffett concert. 

I won’t bore you with details of the round itself except to point out the blaringly obvious: When the determinedly average is allowed to lie fallow for a long period of time, one doesn’t reenter the workforce at precisely the level where one exited. Which is to say I nearly beheaded an unsuspecting member of my foursome when the stroke that my mind envisioned—a delicate, handsy flip wedge over a bunker to a tucked pin—turned out to be, in reality, a screaming shank of terrifying velocity. To be honest, it was as close as I came to the clubface all day. Apparently, relying on muscle memory can be a bit daunting once you’ve reached the age where you can no longer remember where you parked your car. But hope springs eternal, and in this respect the old game still flashes a bit of thigh.

When I greeted my wife of some 40-odd years with the evidence that I’d found a regular Saturday group willing to accept me without proof of a DNR, she seemed pleased. She instinctively knew that the best thing about being devotedly back in the game is the regifting of tomorrow. Once you’ve been hooked a second time, they don’t bother to throw you back. 

Jim Moriarty was associate editor of Golf World from 1979 to 1984, a contributing writer and photographer for Golf Digest from 1985 to 2001, a Golf World contributing writer from 2001 to 2015 and is the author of Playing Through: Modern Golf’s Most Iconic Players and Moments.