Monday, June 20, 2011

Personal Rounds Through a Public Golf Course

I first experienced the George Wright Municipal Golf Course as a six year-old intruder. Since I had no understanding of golf whatsoever, I only knew that the course, like earthly paradise, was a gated landscape. And what impressed me above all was the size. My family had just moved to Hyde Park from a two-family house in Dorchester, so I was used to much smaller worlds, with more pavement and much less open space.

Like other kids in the neighborhood, I considered any stretch of woods or grass a potential playground. After school, during weekends, and throughout the summer, we spent hours of unstructured time roaming the fairways and the rough, dodging the golf balls and the police on the motorcycles (reviled if not exactly identified, by names such as Hackett and Hogan). Along with burning calories, these excursions begged for plot lines, whether it was about soldiers at war, criminals on the run, or explorers on the frontier. From here, it was only a small leap of imagination to believe it when someone told me the water in a brook near the 18th fairway came through mysterious underground channels all the way from Texas.

Since our family lived on a hill that overlooked George Wright, the course was how I placed the neighborhood on my earliest maps of the world. From certain vantage points, it was possible to see the course stretching into Roslindale, toward a high point on the horizon marked by the water tank on Bellevue Hill in West Roxbury. In the other direction, the fairways rolled out toward the Neponset River, the main commercial center of Hyde Park, and eventually the Blue Hills.

In the spring, we could hear the night music of peepers from the urban wilds in the Stony Brook Reservation. This was separated from the course by stone walls that were stained with years of rust from miles of chain-link fencing. In the fall, when people on our street burned piles of dead leaves in the gutters, there would also be smoke from the golf course, where patches of rough were turned, by design, mischief, or accident, into scorched earth and, months later, a fresh patch of overgrowth.

After snowfalls in the winter, there were sleds and toboggans streaking down the 12th fairway. Like other kids from the neighborhood, I went down the hill many winter afternoons, and even at night. On some winter nights, from the window in my bedroom, I could see fidgets of light on the part of the fairway known as "Suicide Hill." I still remember going out there one night when someone had built a fire, and a radio was playing a hit song from the Beatles "Sergeant Pepper" album.

My next phase at George Wright was a brief attempt at caddying. At the time, I was 14 years old. Though I still had little interest in playing golf, I had a keen desire to make even a token amount of money on my own. That's how, on at least a few early mornings, somewhere along the stairs between the clubhouse to the first tee, I passed the time waiting for employment.

I mostly remember my competition, especially the kids who seemed to snap up bags of clubs with little fuss and strap them on with little sign of strain. No doubt, some of them were regulars who had proven their ability to haul their weight for the full 18 holes and track down shots that were so readily devoured by encroachments of wild grass and trees.

Though a designer might have intended the wilderness features of George Wright to evoke the natural splendors of the Scotland, even a caddy knew that golf was supposed to be a triumph of civilization and geometry. Braving hazards of water and sand, golfers had to adjust the arcs and lines of their shots to dips and swerves of terrain. After this came the treacherous nuance of a green. Aside from being a beast of burden easily replaced by a golf cart, an effective caddy was potentially the difference between order and chaos: the difference between just another retiree with a bad lie, and a raving trek through the heath with King Lear.

My waiting for assignments usually ended in rejection, or passively watching a procession of golfers who avoided eye-contact altogether. It didn't help that I wore glasses, which must have made them expect I would miss balls (and I certainly missed my share) or fail to keep my mind on their game.

As we waited for our luck to turn, my fellow day-laborers would advance theories. Maybe the caddies were supposed to have been assigned from a list kept in the clubhouse by another mysterious figure of authority (sometimes referred to as Delaney). A thing apart from the course, the clubhouse itself was almost palatial in its underutilized spaces, with their lingering smells of beer, perspiration, and cleaning solvents. Somehow, I construed all this as an outpost of administration, kept going by a troupe of interchangeables who might just as well have been named Murphy, Molloy, and Malone.

Despite the rejections, I did manage to service a few golfers and make it through 18 holes without too many losses. Among the clients were the owner of a pub in Jamaica Plain and an affable teacher of high school Greek, a regular at the course whose exotic attire even included a pith helmet. I also remember a couple of golfers who seemed dressed for a course with more prestige. One of them, according to rumor laced with schadenfreude, was a supermarket visionary and Harvard grad who, because he was Jewish, wasn't allowed to play on a private course more on par with his income. Though a municipal course had to be less discriminatory, I sensed that legal requirement could also seem utterly stigmatizing, if only through its inability to disguise a reasonable claim to something better.

It would take me decades to figure out why the kind of discrimination that seemed outdated almost anywhere else could flourish on a golf course. I should have taken a hint on the fairway when I overheard a joke about the Irish that didn't seem funny. After all, this was one of the few places, outside of a barroom, where men (for the most part) could be free from the constraints of mixed company, and where the only rules that mattered were part of a game. As a caddy, I was supposedly old enough to be exposed to off-color verbiage, but still young enough for people to expect I should behave differently. Like any good servant, I was also obliged to keep the indiscretions under wraps. In such a way, I defended civilization as a guardian of appearances.

It was only after a chance for practice on a driving range that I started going to George Wright for golf. Since I happened to live in Boston and went to one of the public schools, I was allowed to play quite a bit for free. I could borrow a set of clubs from an older brother, so the only other thing I needed was a supply of golf balls, which came from the course itself--and my countless hours of rummaging. If I broke a rule by not returning stray balls to the pro shop, I obliged by losing all of them somewhere else in the course. You might even call it borrowing or recycling. Whatever it was, it was part of a routine that allowed me to burn off a couple of summers by playing as many as 27 holes a day.

With a couple of exceptions, my golfing days were over by August of 1969. By then, at age 16, I was old enough, and lucky enough, to get a year-round part-time job. From that point on, I never really missed the game, and I sometimes felt golf was an activity for which I was temperamentally unfit. Aside from a lack of discipline, technique, or brute strength, it seems my physical motions were hobbled by some mental circuitry I couldn't shut down. Instead of being motivated or diverted by the companionship of a team sport, I was often playing the course by myself, tangled up in some internal conflict. In a fit of desperation, I even painted my golf balls orange. I thought a change of color might improve their trajectory or make them easier to locate, but the paint only seemed to add more drag to the sluggish air of a hot summer.

Every so often, there were things that worked, if only from sheer luck. I really did come within inches of a hole-in-one on the short 17th fairway, though that was badly tarnished by a rash of wayward putting. On the longest fairway, the 15th, there was a drive from the tee that sailed at least 150 yards, clearing a downslope to a lower plane of grass. The shot would also be spoiled by what happened later. But there was still that one moment of a boundary cleared by something that was still on track as it dipped out of sight.

In more recent years, I have come back to the course, if only for walks, with or without a dog. I pay little if any attention to golf, though it's hard to resist picking up a stray ball, whether for luck, or as something like a rare mushroom after heavy rains. If I do pay attention to something, it's more likely to be the smell of freshly cut grass, a torrent of wind in the trees, or the drizzling pulsation of crickets on a Friday afternoon in June.

I’ve also walked the course in winter, puzzling over tracks in the snow, or picking out remote specks of Christmas lights from the 12th fairway. So let's say I'm at the top of the hill, looking out toward Fairmount and, off to one side, the highest of the Blue Hills. The sledders have all gone home, but the course is draped with snow, and there's a moon overhead, nearly full. The light reflects off the snow, not as it does from the glossy matrix of a golf ball, but as something more subdued, yet also less contained or even earthbound. Almost weightless, it extends past all borders in all directions and, for all I know, indefinitely through outer space.