by Mel Livatino
Forty years ago, in the midst of casual conversation, I asked a woman if she played golf. For answer she looked at me as if I were a pinball machine into which she had just dropped four quarters without result: no lights, no balls, nothing. “Are you kidding?” she said. “Have you ever watched guys coming off a golf course raging and ready to beat their wives with their clubs? Why would I ever want to do that?”
A few years after that conversation, I stood at the top of Boyne Mountain in northern Michigan. I had just climbed the front side of the mountain, a half-hour of steep, grueling, sweaty work, because I wanted to see this view in summer. I had seen it from the top in winter on a ski vacation a few years earlier, but I had never seen it in summer. Mostly I wanted to see the two newly created golf courses that started from the top of this mountain. “Gorgeous!” people had told me, but I wanted to see for myself.
At first I was disoriented. I just wandered about the bulldozed, track-marked earth, tired, sweaty, and confused. Not much of a view, I thought. I got a few strange looks from the cat operators, who were clearing sections of the forest for new homes, but I kept walking. In a few minutes I found a trail through the forest, and then, a minute later, without warning, I was suddenly standing within a few feet of two tee boxes. Below me, zigzagging steeply downward, were two fairways cut through dark pine forests. They were so green they glowed. In the distance were shimmering blue lakes, and above it all a bright blue dome of sky. It was as if someone had suddenly thrown a switch and all nature lit up with an intensity I had not seen before. I may have gasped.
Birdcalls were echoing deep in the forest; beyond was silence as far as the ear could hear. I wanted to plant myself like a tree and stay forever.
After a few minutes, however, I heard the distant sound of men’s voices talking and laughing; then the whirring of electric carts. In a moment the carts pulled up to the nearest tee box. Four men smoking cigars emerged in bright outfits, sunglasses, and tans, as if they had just stepped out of a magazine ad. Strapped to the backs of their carts was enough high-end artillery to have paid for half the first house my parents bought. They began swaggering and strutting about the tee box, arranging their bets, chomping on their cigars, and taking practice swings. I could tell by the conversation that at least a couple of them were lawyers.
Finally one teed up his ball, took a picture-perfect practice swing, and then laid into the ball with the real thing. It soared straight out like a canon shot, but at seventy-five yards out it took a severe twist to the right and dove into the forest. The swagger was gone and the man was screaming curses and slamming his driver into the ground. When he shut up, the next man hit almost the same shot into the same part of the forest. And the earth took more slams. I no longer remember what the next two did, but soon they were in their carts whirring down the mountainside, and all I could hear was the distant sound of bitching as they looked for their balls. A few minutes later I could hear nothing, just the birds calling to each other in the forest and the deep echo of their songs.
I wondered if these golfers had seen what I had seen, had heard what I had heard. I was in a heaven of beauty; they were in a hell of a game. I had paid nothing for the privilege; they had each paid $75. Why would anyone ever want to do that?
I didn’t have a ready answer to that question. But the question was there. It welled up in me as I watched these golfers paying so much money for so miserable a time. The question wasn’t an isn’t-that-a-stupid-thing-to-do accusation, as the woman’s question years earlier had been. It was a real question that wanted an answer.
After the lawyers took the dogleg turn and before the next foursome appeared, I began walking the course slowly, taking it in for all it was worth. In a little while the next foursome appeared, teed off, and passed me by. I could tell they were puzzled by my presence–a man casually walking the edge of a fairway, a smile on his face and not a club in sight. One after another, foursomes came and went as I walked. Some were friendly, some dismissive, some even contemptuous; all were puzzled. I walked six holes in this manner, until the holes had reached all the way down the mountain and were now traversing at lake level. As I walked, I took in nature and I took in the demeanor of the various players. Some were clearly enjoying what they were doing; some were working hard at scoring well, and the tension showed. And all the while the question remained. Why would anyone ever want to do this?
While I had no clear answer at the top of the mountain, by the time I got to the end of the sixth hole, I noticed that as much as I was enjoying the gorgeous green of everything around me, I was also beginning to feel envious of these golfers, even the ones who were tensed up from trying to score well. Why?
My earliest memories of golf go back to the years following World War II, from the time I was five till I was nine years old. I don’t know when my father took up golf, but by the mid-1940s he had become avid. As a child of five to eight, I would see him come into the living room of our small apartment still smelling of benzene, ink, and sweat from a hard day’s work in a printing plant, grab his clubs and curled up shoes from the front hall, and head into the thick afternoon heat for a round of golf. On weekends he would leave almost with the rising sun and return with the setting sun. He and his partners would play 18, 27, 36, and once an unbelievable 54 holes–walking.
For all those years of the mid-and late-40s it was usually the same foursome. Before I knew their names, I knew their shapes: tall men who towered over me with broad shoulders, large heads, and deep voices, their huge bodies moving about our small living room in baggy pants, loose shirts, floppy hats, talking, laughing, kidding. They leaned over me like gods. And then they were gone. I can still see them through the parted curtains of our living room window driving off in the early morning light in our ancient olive drab ’38 Pontiac with fenders shaped like enormous question marks.
On one Saturday each summer, in what now seems like a ritual to me, they would pack their families along to a course called Villa Olivia. It was a long drive to a far western suburb of Chicago. When we were well out into the country, one of the men, Luigi Albertini, a recent immigrant from Italy, would ask my father to stop so he could pick lilacs for my mother. Seventy years have passed, and I have not forgotten the tenderness of his gesture, the smell of those flowers, the look of joy on my mother’s face, and the enormous smile on Luigi’s face. It is one of the sweetest memories of my entire childhood. The course provided picnic grounds, a swimming pool, and green fairways that stretched down the hill in every direction as far as my young eyes could see. To a kid from a city full of concrete, this was paradise. Seventy years later it still remains one of my dreams of paradise.
My three favorite things on those once-a-year outings were to watch my father and his foursome tee off from the first hole, then to spend the next several hours in that blue swimming pool, often with no one else there but my sister, and finally to watch my father’s foursome as they came up the thirteenth hole just on the other side of the pool. I could hear them before I saw them. When I heard their large voices, I was out of the pool and around the high fence draped in vines that blocked the view of the course, and finally I would see them hitting their loping pitches onto the shimmering green. The gods who had teed off with such mighty soaring shots into the blue sky were now returning.
And then they were gone again.
Of the hundreds of photographs I inherited upon my father’s death, among those that mean the most to me are the dozen or so photos of those days at Villa Olivia: of my sister and me standing alone in a corner of the pool staring straight into the camera; of my mother and father, then in their early thirties, dancing on the lawn, their bodies pressed together on top, each with one leg stuck out at the back, and their faces turned toward the camera in the rush of a laugh; of this foursome of golfers standing with their arms around each other’s shoulders or taking practice swings. In one of those photos my father is caught in mid swing, his bright silver club flashing through the slow shutter speed of a cheap box camera. His body is slender, his swing perfect. The grass and trees, his body and clothes are shades of gray. Stopped still in this moment of perfection, he lives forever.
On a couple of occasions, when I was about twelve years old, I was allowed to caddy for my father, but I was an abject failure. Dreamy and inattentive, I walked on players’ lies, cast a shadow across the line to the hole, moved or started to talk as someone was about to hit, and I never once found a lost ball. I still remember my father’s disappointment.
Perhaps in a childlike way I was more interested in the poetry of golf: the way these shapes of large men in bright shirts moved in patches about the deep green spaces of the course; the way their clubs flashed in swift, silver arcs; the way the ball soared through the blue sky and plummeted onto the green; the way they talked to each other and joked and laughed; the way their faces and eyes moved. I watched in fascination. Watching in my mind’s eye seventy years later, I am still enchanted.
In 1949 my father bought a dilapidated house that needed immense amounts of attention, and in 1952 he bought a speedboat to which he gave every summer weekend. Golf ceased to be the fanatical thing it had been for the previous decade, and for the next few years my father played only in one or two union tournaments a year. During his heyday he shot in the upper 70s and lower 80s. Eventually he sold his clubs or gave them away. What a shame, I thought many years later when I had taken up the game, that a skill so difficult to win, so precious to possess, so capable of thrilling oneself and observers was parted with as easily as passing off his clubs to some rank beginner.
One day in August, 1981, shortly after I turned forty-one, while I was on vacation with my three sons in New Hampshire, I decided on a whim to play a round of golf with them. It was a sunny day, the course was a bright, inviting green, and we had time on our hands. Why not? I had played only once before in my life, in my early twenties, with a press crew from the printing plant I worked in. It had been a lot of fun, but the only thing I can remember of the game is that I could not make the ball go far or where I wanted and that I sometimes swung and missed it altogether. Which is all I can remember of this first game with my sons thirty-six years ago. But the scorecard, which I kept as a souvenir, reveals that on this par-three course of 2,340 yards I shot a 104, Tom (age twelve then) shot a 95, John (age ten) a 131, and Chris (age eight) only putted the greens. At age twelve, on his first round of golf, my oldest son had beaten me by nine strokes.
And so I began to play golf. Or rather, looking back these thirty-five years, perhaps golf began to play me.
Over the next few years, the early eighties, I played only sporadically. I took my first lessons from the head of the P.E. department at the college where I taught. We met once a week in the gym; I’m not sure we even used real golf balls. And I remember only two lessons: 1) You don’t swing the club with your right side; you swing it with your left side. The right side merely guides the club. 2) During the downswing you should feel the head of the club arcing around as if it were a ball on a string. You are not swinging; you are letting the club head swing.
I thought: I’ve got it! Here I go! But my enthusiasm quickly turned into shanks, dribbles, complete misses, and balls flying into forest, sand, water, and places on no one’s map. What was so easy in the gym was a disaster on the course. So I quit playing for a few years, then resumed, then quit, then resumed.
In 1993 a couple of different people recommended a pro at a local course named Jamie Locke. Jamie could charm the fillings out of your teeth. No doubt he got across a few essential points, though right now I can’t remember a single one. When my game didn’t improve after three half-hour lessons, I quit the lessons and once again quit golf, figuring I was just plain hopeless.
Two springs later I was back to hoping again. So I signed up for a series of six one-hour lessons at a local golf-learning center. John Mueller did not try to charm me. He attacked my errors in a steady onslaught: “turn your hips, don’t sway them,” “post up,” “it’s not the wrists and arms, it’s the body turn,” “don’t slump, stand tall.” And my scores began to come down—from the 130s to about 110.
But it was one of my sons’ friends casually mentioning that his father and mother both golfed and that they had “done the whole thing, golf school and all” that caught my interest. I had never heard of golf school. I was not a subscriber to golf magazines. I didn’t belong to a golf league or even have a regular foursome. I didn’t play at a regular time or on a regular course each week. I didn’t even play each week or even every other week. I played when the opportunity arose, mostly with one or more of my sons, maybe half a dozen times a season. So I asked him what golf school was. Then I asked him what his father shot. “Usually in the low or mid 80s,” he said.
On a steamy June 22 in 1997 my plane landed at the Tampa airport. About the same time my son Chris’s plane also landed. We were about to spend the next five days in sweltering heat at the Ben Sutton Golf School. Chris was there to improve an already fine game–he was now a better player than his two older brothers and also better than most of his friends–and I was there to find my game. Chris was placed in the elite group and I with the chicken-wingers, all of us north of fifty. The learning curve was steep and non-stop each day: driving, long irons, short irons, pitching, chipping, putting, sand shots, uphill lies, sidehill lies, downhill lies, posture, grip, swing mechanics, body torque, psychology . . . a decade’s worth of Golf Magazine crammed into five days. Sometimes our lessons took place on a real golf course, sometimes on a driving range, sometimes in a classroom where video could be played. The learning was so intense I needed parts of every break and lunch hour as well as several hours each evening to set down what I was learning as precisely as possible. I wanted it all etched in my mind–and eventually in my body–so I could use it on the course. Typed up, my notes came to 90 double-spaced pages, a short book.
That summer and over the next few years I was often able to shoot in the mid-90s, once even carding a 92, my best score ever. I have kept those cards, as I have kept all my scorecards, for on those cards I have done something I have never seen another golfer do: I wrote notes about shots that took my breath away. I also circled every bogey, par, and birdie, a way of giving myself gold stars. But I wasn’t just congratulating myself; more than anything my notes were a way of holding onto the memory of a particular shot–that entire moment–forever. My hope was that even years later the note would crystallize the shot and the moment all over again. I was trying to save the sunshine, the green grass, the swing, the arc of the ball, the feeling inside me, even my relative youth on that particular day–everything. I was trying to save paradise–to card it and keep it forever.
And that, I think, is my deepest golf dream, the one I want more than all others. It may well be the richest dream of most golfers: the perfect swing and the perfect shot on a perfect stretch of course and the sunshine and green grass and summertime all squeezed into a single moment for all time.
But I have learned from years of playing that I have other golf dreams. Story is one of them. The dream of this happened . . . then that happened . . . and then that happened . . . and wow! Golf school was a bonanza of such stories, mostly from our golf pro, Dean Hedstrom, but two stories closer to home stay with me even more. Both took place just before Chris and I went to golf school.
On a course back home Chris, his brother John, and I came to a hole where the men’s tee box was torn out and we had to play from the women’s tee, 293 yards and a slight dogleg left to the green. As Chris was addressing the ball, a smile came across his face.
“What are you grinnin’ about?” his brother asked. His question was almost an accusation.
“Wanna bet I can drive the green?” Chris said, still looking straight at the ball, still smiling.
“Five bucks,” John said.
“You’re on,” Chris said and uncorked his big swing.
The sky was gray and after the takeoff we lost the ball. A drive and two fairway strokes later when I was finally on the green, Chris’s ball lay twenty feet from the pin.
A week later Chris was playing with two friends, brothers, one of whom had been the quarterback on Chris’s high school football team. They came to a hole with a frontal water hazard 225-250 yards out with the green 275 yards away. The brothers pulled 3-irons and Chris pulled a smile. “Laying up?” he asked.
“Yeah, aren’t you?” He kept smiling, pulled his driver, waggled it a bit, and said, “Wanna bet I drive the green?” No takers that day, so he drove the green for free and the brothers sliced and hooked. Twenty years ago, and the stories are still with me.
I wish I could tell a story about myself, only I don’t have such a story. I’ve never been good enough or had enough confidence to wager on a shot. I do not play golf with a swagger, but in my memory bank I have saved a few rare shots that have amazed me. My favorite happened about fifteen years ago on the par-five final hole of Boyne Mountain’s Alpine course. From the tee the hole drops down steeply and at the bottom makes a severe dogleg left. Properly executed, the second shot would normally fall short of a stream that crosses in front of the green. Only the best golfers would try to cut the corner from the tee. It’s dangerous because you have to clear a pond and then a grove of pines. All I wanted was to hit the landing area straight out in front of me, but I hooked the ball. After a bit of looking I discovered that I had cleared the pond but fell short of the grove of trees. My next shot had to quickly clear the tall pines and then ideally fly 200 yards to just short of the stream. All I could honestly hope for was to clear the pines–which the odds from past performance were clearly against–and get anywhere at all on the fairway.
I pulled a five iron and decided the only way I could clear the pines was to completely surrender to the swing and hit it with everything I had–to let go of all precaution and go for it. After the shot I looked for my ball about a hundred yards short of the green. A few minutes later I let the cart creep closer to the green. And then closer. Five minutes later, ready to quit, I saw the ball sitting in the middle of the fairway a few yards short of the stream. I pitched onto the green and one-putted. You may not think much of this little story–no bets, no predictions, not even another player as witness–but I’ve played that shot and that hole in my head more than a couple dozen times over the last fifteen years because it was a dream come true.
Here’s another dream, one I’ve never realized and never will. It is the dream all fathers have, the dream of being a hero to their sons. My fantasies have played out in many venues, but the most persistent one is the dream of being a hero before them on a golf course. I can’t do it with one shot or one hole or one stretch of holes or even one entire round. To live out this fantasy I would have to be consistently superb; I would have to be able to beat their best golfing friends who shoot in the low 80s and upper 70s. And I would have to be able to do it with swagger and a smile and a wager. I guarantee every father who has golfed with his sons, especially if those sons are capable golfers, has had this fantasy. But this fantasy is a dream we dare not speak, first because few of us can pull it off. And second because, as every firefighter, cop, and soldier will tell you every time he is asked, we must never admit to being, or even wanting to be, a hero. It must remain a wish that is never mentioned.
My next dream will sound easy, but it happens much less often than you might expect. It is the dream of camaraderie, intimacy, friendship sprung to life on a golf course. I’ve never seen this happen on a golf course between men and women, only amongst a group of men, and those men usually have to be friends before they hit the golf course. I have seen the faux version a hundred times, and each time it is tedious. But the real thing–which I have seen between my sons and their friends–always leaves me deeply longing for the same. But it means you have to have good friends who play golf, and those friends must have joie de vivre, a life force animating their beings, a flame of competition, story, joke, and readiness for a rippin’ good time. It’s even richer if everyone plays good golf. I have witnessed this dream up close with my sons and their friends and I have lived it myself off a golf course, but I have never realized it on a course because most of my friends are academics, and the few academics I know who golf do not rip into life with joy!
The dream of being a hero to my sons and the dream of camaraderie remind me of a dream I did not have until my wife died in March, 2015. I had not been as close as I would have liked with her children–my fault, not theirs–and now with Kathy gone I found a vacuum in my life, and I did not know how to fill it. On a whim I asked Kathy’s daughter Denise if she would like to play golf. She was eager, so over that summer and the next, I began teaching her the game, at first on a driving range and then on a golf course. At first it felt like the one-eyed leading the blind. But she is a natural athlete and picked up the various swings very quickly. By the second summer she even outscored me twice. But the best thing about golfing with Denise was that I was realizing a dream I didn’t even know I had before my wife died. She is now my regular partner once a week six months a year. How blessed I feel.
Remembering my witness of such moments curls me back to where my thoughts began, with memories of my father’s golfing more than sixty-five years ago. Such memories–of oneself, family, friends, or even of watching champions we have loved: Ben Hogan, Sam Sneed, Arnie Palmer–live in me like a dream I can play anytime. I have played those afternoons at Villa Olivia a hundred times in my head. On a wall in my house I have a poster of Ben Hogan hitting a one-iron (which absolutely no one hits anymore) to the 18th green in the final round of the 1950 U. S. Open at Merion. We treasure such memories. They are dreams.
Curling back also reminds me of the most basic dream of all, the dream of beauty. Golf courses provide some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. In the Midwest, they simply are the most beautiful scenery. Hundreds of times I have paused during a round of golf just to take in the vista of a perfectly groomed fairway glowing in sunlight. Each time I have thought: How can life be any more beautiful than this? As magnificent as the work of the greatest artists may be–DaVinci, Michelangelo, Monet, Van Gogh, Vermeer–the beauty of a golf course is more stunning, more breathtaking, more beautiful. As a retired teacher of the humanities, I realize I have just committed an apostasy that will forever mark me a philistine. But before anyone puts a period at the end of such a judgment, I would ask him to walk a few fairways of the greatest courses. In the Midwest, try Bay Harbor sitting alongside Lake Michigan near Petoskey, Michigan. If you can’t manage such a trip, just tune your TV to CBS on the first weekend in April. If it’s a large-screen high-def TV, and if it’s the afternoon, the breath will be sucked out of you and your stomach drop like an elevator. The Masters is the most beautiful thing on my screen each year. Do I exaggerate? Possibly for you, but not for me. This is the only one of my golf dreams that can be bought. Just pony up the money, and it’s all yours. The rest of my dreams must be earned, and most of us do not have what it takes to earn them.
By now–if not some pages ago–some fellow golfer will be beating his fist on the table and roaring that I have forgotten the most important dream of all: the dream of winning–winning a round, winning a tournament, winning a professional championship. I have not at all forgotten the dream of winning, and surely it must be listed here. But it is only a minor dream for me, the least of my golf dreams. I will never win a tournament and I am not a pro. That leaves only winning a round. But only against my sons does winning a round hold some small meaning, and only if they played well. Beating someone who plays poorly is not a win; it’s just a result. And soon enough it becomes merely a number penciled on a card tucked away in a file cabinet. But some shots during that win (or loss) just might linger, possibly for a lifetime. No, my only real dream of winning is against my bad habits, my poor swings, my poor shots. At seventy-six, doing this regularly is a dream too far.
But every now and then I find a shot that lasts a lifetime.