Watch the Birdie

There was a day when working men in America carried hod or baked bread or laid bricks or descended into the hell of the mines to blacken their lungs and die young. In scant off time, such as it was, working men visited houses of worship and toted blocks of ice up from the street into their dim kitchens. Secret pleasure lay in stealing away for a cigar, a schooner of beer and a few hands of cards. Sport was horseshoes. Or boccie. Or a Sunday game of country hardball, sliding into third with your spikes high. Or nothing at all.

Only the bosses played golf.
Robber barons and fancy men and white-trousered layabouts skimming creamy flecks of interest off the tops of trust funds played golf. Captains of railroads. None but the privileged swung a niblick. Coal-miners and bakers and housewives with red-raw hands never sniffed that vast capitalist squander of green acreage that was the country club.

Now, in the age of leisure--our age--everybody plays golf. Men, women, children, household pets. Alice Cooper with his purple mascara plays. Madonna and Michael Jordan and Joe Blow. Everybody. Clinton takes mulligans on every other hole, and good players with good sense wryly let him beat them. Democracy has triumphed, or something like that. The fairways are clogged with swingers, captive now to the tyranny of tee times and sheer addiction.

Golf has metastasized into America's secular religion, the real opiate of the people. Drunks on the mend and ex-heroin users substitute golf for their earlier joneses. Businessmen secure in their power are reduced to quivers and yips when they step onto the first tee with silvery Arnold Palmer for a friendly round of corporate pro-am. On the fourth hole I outdrove him. Here's the closeted memory of a lifetime, the secret mantra. I outdrove Arnie on four. The CEOs of major corporations and college girls with 4.0s dream about golf. It's true. Ask them. Golf-company issues do quite nicely on Wall Street, thank you.

Think now: Can you go to the supermarket or the saloon or the PTA meeting and not be subjected to a discussion of golf? At the checkstand or the newsstand or the beauty parlor--can you escape the idle braggart who on Saturday birdied the sixteenth out at Bogus Pines?

New truth: The hod carrier himself now spends 600 bucks on a driver with a titanium head the size of a beer keg. Cousin Julie, all grown up this year, has fallen deeply in love with her Ping Eye 2s.

There's more. When Americans are not playing golf, they're watching golf on television. Watching the Shark and the Tiger and the Golden Bear smack 350-yard drives down the middle at Pebble Beach, then loft their remaining eight-iron pitches lazily at the pin while the network's designated Englishman whispers and murmurs about the gravity of it all. Every network must have its own whispering Englishman, stuffy and stiff. To re-colorize the centuries of the old game. To revivify it for the demands of the orthicon tube. They imagine we smell the windblown heather in Scotland.

Grown men (have you heard?) get up in the middle of the night in strange hotel rooms and, dressed in their underwear, begin putting golf balls over the flecked carpet into water glasses. Can't sleep? Do this. Get a grip.

Remember U.S. Grant? Soaked in sour mash, wobbly on his feet, the old boozehound ran smack into one of golf's first do-gooders, who recommended the game to him as physical therapy. Soon the friend and the ex-President carriaged off to a golf course, where they beheld a frustrated beginner. The poor fellow hacked violently at the grass for several minutes while failing to make contact with the ball. "That does look like very good exercise," Grant is said to have remarked. "But what is the little white ball for?"

What, indeed. The answer could lie in humankind's capacity for torment. If there's a game more maddening, more exacting, more suffused with agonies and ecstasies, the devil hasn't invented it yet. It's a simple thing, isn't it? Strike the little white ball with the bladed stick and walk forward into shimmering green glory. A simple thing. So simple that the yellowed ravines and ponds and dusty attics of America the Beautiful are littered with discarded golf clubs, each representing a broken dream, a shattered promise. Because there are no late-inning rallies here, no fourth-quarter comebacks, no third-set rebellions. Some days, bad days, sense and spirit are ravaged by the third hole--the third hole--the quadruple-bogey hole that fastens itself to your brain like a fatal tumor and won't let go until the afternoon is gone. No ice-cold Budweiser in the clubhouse nor any winning game of gin in the grill room can relieve the pain. Hacker. Hacker. Hacker. I'm a miserable hacker.

"But on the fourth hole you outdrove him," someone says. Little matter. In golf, the obsessive game, the opiate-of-the-people game, there are no consolations, just the hard demands of the thing itself. You are alone, American, dumped and drenched in the myth of individual perfectability. It's a good thing Ralph Waldo Emerson didn't play golf. Cousin Julie is in love with her Ping Eye 2s. But today she hates them. Duck-hooked her second shot on six into the drink. Failed to get up and down from a bad lie on fourteen.

Listen. Eisenhower--President Eisenhower, that is, still draped in the prerogatives of office--petitioned the board of directors at magnolia-scented Augusta National to remove that big pine down the left side of the fairway on seventeen. Reason? It kept collecting his drives. They refused, of course. Refused the President of the United States. Because the game is hard, the most exacting game. Instead, Ike's tormentors left the awful thing growing right there...and started calling it the Eisenhower Pine.

Some days, the quad-bogey days, the snowman days, it would be better, almost, to be down in the death mines inhaling coal dust and simply give the game back to the Rockefellers. Better that than to hit a two-iron. Old story: God can't hit a two-iron, not over water. Probably it's time to hook up with another game-improvement gadget. Biggest Big Bertha maybe, or tungsten-titanium irons for $3,500, or two dozen private lessons on Thursday afternoons. Time to hit the driving range. And to absorb again the whispered gravities of the TV Englishman.

Mister Tommy Bolt. Remember him? Tommy of the graceful swing and the fearsome temper? Once, after lipping out six straight putts, he shook his fist at heaven and screamed, "Why don't you come on down here and fight like a man?" Another time Tommy was conducting a clinic and, to spice up the show, asked his teenage son to "show the nice folks what I taught you." The boy complied, promptly throwing his nine-iron into the sky.

Still, things could be worse. This could be Japan. In the dense, shackled and inhumanly urban Japan, it's impossible to smell the Scottish heather. Impossible when you're stacked eight or nine high in multi-tiered driving ranges in Tokyo and Osaka, flailing away at the abyss, targetless. In golf-mad Japan, the prospect of ever visiting an actual golf course is almost as remote as having lunch with the Emperor...or hitting a two-iron straight. In the age of leisure, when hod carriers are addicted to the game and your day can be ruined on the third hole, everything could be worse. This could be Japan, where the robber barons are still the only people who can play.

So, then. Saturday? 8:53 a.m.? Two-dollar nassau, just like always? On four, I'll outdrive you.

Did you see the look on what's-his-name's face? Margie Schottenheimer. Arty Schittenheimer. Whatever he's called. The look on his face at the final gun said it all. He could sanction cheap shots on John Elway (including one, promptly penalized, on the first play of Sunday's game) and encourage his troops to crack Terrell Davis's sore ribs and crow about his team's unbeaten record at home. But in the end, Marty Floppenheimer couldn't get it done this time, either. Denver 14, Kansas City 10.

He is now 5-11 in playoff games and 0-3 in playoff games against Elway--the monster who must loom up in his every mid-February nightmare. Try to get some rest, coach.

Meanwhile, has anyone noticed that in its two post-season games against Jacksonville and Kansas City, the emergent Denver defense has yielded only 27 points? Or that the Pittsburgh Steelers squeaked by a gruesomely banged-up New England Patriots team just 7-6 last Saturday?

It remains to be seen how this may affect Saturday's AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium. But Denver, which Sunday won just its second road playoff game in eleven tries, suddenly looks like the wildest of wild cards. With Pittsburgh, it has another score to settle. And against all the odds, it would love to give No. 7 another shot at the Super Bowl.

Look out.

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