The Pickleball Phenomenon

Yesterday I was formally introduced to pickleball.

If you haven’t heard about the game, you’ve probably been hiding under a rock somewhere, because it seems to be sweeping the country–at least in the older age groups. I can’t remember any other new sport that has become so popular among my friends so quickly. What is happening these days must be like what happened when the Scots first invented golf, and suddenly everyone started tromping around the highlands carrying a bunch of oddly shaped clubs.

JV and I went to watch a few of the championship matches at his club, and he give me a quick primer on the rules of the game, which seem to borrow from tennis, table tennis, and volleyball, with a few quirky rules thrown in for good measure. It’s played by doubles teams on a court about half the size of a tennis court, with a squarish paddle rather than a racket and a heavy plastic whiffle ball that makes a kind of clonking sound when it hits the paddle. The rules restrict what you can do in that bright blue area, called “the kitchen,” and sometimes you have to let the ball bounce before you can hit it, so it’s one of those sports that you probably need to play multiple times before you fully assimilate the rules.

Pickleball is a quick game that looks like it is fun to play. There’s some strategery involved, as you try to position your shots and decide whether to hit the ball hard or to play a dink, and it clearly provides a competitive outlet. One of the matches we watched yesterday got a little chippy, for example. But it’s also a game that can be approached seriously or enjoyed recreationally. In either case, if it causes people to get off their couches and get some exercise, that’s a good thing.

Scratching The Seven-Year Itch

Today I played golf for the first time in seven years. Russell, Kish, and I went to the Island Country Club, a nine-hole track here on Deer Isle. It’s a pretty little course nestled in a pine forest. Surprisingly, for a course on an island, there were no water hazards.

It was a fun outing. Having not played in years, I played without the curse of high expectations. I hit the ball pretty well and played bogey golf, with three pars. I walked and carried my bag, to be sure to maximize the exercise element of the outing.

My short game needs work, obviously, but I did end the round on a high note by rattling in an 18-footer on the ninth hole. Golf is a lot more enjoyable when you just go out and play without worrying about your score.

Golf Dreams

I haven’t played golf since I had surgery on my foot about six and a half years ago. I haven’t even picked up a golf club, much less played a round. So why did I have a disturbing dream about golf last night?

In the dream I was playing in a tournament of some kind and was being carefully observed by some stern-looking rules officials. I was on the green, trying to make a putt. My first effort missed, and somehow rebounded back to me and then rolled off a kind of ledge, and I reflexively caught the golf ball as it fell. I saw the officials tsk-tsking at that obvious rules violation, then I realized I didn’t really know the rules or how many penalty strokes should be assessed for that infraction or where I was supposed to put the ball after catching it. So I dropped the ball on the green, missed another putt, then another, and finally choked on a little gimme. At that point I picked up my ball, flipped it to one of the aghast officials, and said: “That’s it. I’m done!” And that’s when I woke up, feeling a surge of shame at my golfing ineptitude.

So why did I have a dream about an embarrassing golf course episode more than six years after my last actual experience on the links? My theory about dreams is that they are the unconscious brain’s way of sifting together fragments of the day and putting them into some kind of semi-coherent story. I suspect golf became the story line because, as we sat around a great blaze in the fire pit last night, someone asked me what I was going to do in retirement. Since golf is often associated with retirement, that question may have triggered the weird golf dream — fueled by the remnants of a fine Thanksgiving meal and a large piece of pumpkin pie.

If I haven’t played golf in six years and still have humiliating dreams about it, I probably should scratch golf off the retirement activity list. What would my dreams be like if I actually started playing again?

Golf Course Sunrise

We’re enjoying a weekend sojourn in Naples, Florida, staying with friends who have a lovely condo on a golf course, overlooking a tranquil pond. I haven’t played golf in years, since I had foot surgery, but I still appreciate the beauty of a golf course sunrise, the chirping of the birds that golf courses inevitably attract, the puttering of the groundskeeper’s cart in the distance, and the cool air in the minutes before the sun bursts over the horizon.

Now, if only spring would finally make it to Columbus . . . .

Politics, Even On The Links

Rory McIlroy, of Ireland, is one of the best golfers in the world.  Recently he decided to tee it up in a friendly foursome that included President Donald Trump.

Apparently, that’s now forbidden.

rory-mcilroy-and-donald-trumpMcIlroy faced withering criticism on the Twitterzone from people who thought that simply playing golf with the President could be viewed as some kind of endorsement of Trump and his policies.  Our culture has grown so heated that even an amiable Irish guy, who doesn’t vote in American elections, can’t go out for 18 holes of golf with the President without facing a backlash and having people accuse him of “whoring” himself and trying to shame him.

Playing golf used to be viewed as a kind of politics-free space.  Celebrities, comedians, movie stars, and sports figures could hit the links with Presidents, Governors, Senators, and Congressmen without being accused of endorsing their political views.  But it wasn’t just American politics that weren’t transported to the golf course, either.  Gary Player was a beloved player in America and elsewhere, even though he hailed from South Africa during its apartheid era.  And golfers freely played in international competitions without people trying to ban them because their home countries enforced repressive policies or weren’t viewed as sufficiently following the prevailing political views of the day.   The golf course was a kind of sanctuary where people could just play golf.

And this was true even at the local level, where people playing in club tournaments or outings might detest the views of the people they’re paired with — but they play with them anyway, and treat them cordially and in the spirit of friendly competition.  It’s one of the great things about golf.

It’s just too bad that the concepts of tolerance and sportsmanship and getting away from the hurly-burly of the world while you’re out on the course aren’t shared by more people who apparently must view everything through a political lens, and hold everyone to rigid standards of acceptable political behavior.  When somebody can’t go out and just play golf with the President without getting ripped as a turncoat, it’s a sad statement.

The Day Of Golfing Acceptance

When I got back from golf today Kish asked me, brightly, “How was golf today?”  “I sucked, but it was okay,” I replied . . . and it actually was true.  I really did suck — horribly, completely, irrefutably, from tee to green and every hazard in between — but it was okay.

IMG_1090That’s a big change for me.  I think I may have reached the fabled Day of Golfing Acceptance.

When I was younger, I hoped that one day I would be a good golfer who could regularly shoot rounds in the low 80s.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, and I realize I have neither the time, nor the talent, nor the temperament to devote the hours of practice needed to make a significant improvement in my game.  The difference now is that I’m not going to become infuriated at myself and the Golf Gods about the bad shots and the bad scores.  So I suck.  So what?  I’m reconciled to the fact that I’m always going to be a mediocre player who shoots in the 90s.

That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the game.  In fact, I’d argue that it’s more enjoyable when you’re not blurting out awful curses at shots into the weeds or bad bounces on the green.  And who knows?  Maybe some day I’ll decide I do want to try to be a better player — but that day is not today.  Today I was awful, but I liked getting the exercise and sharing a few laughs with my golfing companions.  I’ll take it.

Goodbye To Robin

News outlets are reporting that Robin Williams has died, of an apparent suicide.  The actor and comedian, who was only 63, evidently had been battling severe depression.

Williams became a big star on the TV show Mork and Mindy, and over the next four decades he had a busy career in stand-up comedy, in movies, and as the voice for animated characters.  Although many lauded his movie roles, both comic and serious, I always thought that Williams’ true medium was in his stand-up routines — his riff on Scotland and golf, below, is a classic — and he was absolutely brilliant as the voice and motivating spirit behind the manic genie in Disney’s Aladdin.

We tend to idolize Hollywood stars, musicians, and other cultural figures, and think that because they are rich and successful they must have wonderful lives.  Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case — they are human like the rest of us, and they also often wrestle with their inner demons.  It’s tragic that someone like Robin Williams, who brought joy and laughter to millions, had to struggle with his own issues of depression, and it’s sadder still that he apparently lost that battle.  Although we no doubt will hear about how the world has lost a titanic talent over the next few days, the real loss is that experienced by Williams’ family, who now have a gigantic hole in their lives that can never be filled.

Giving Up Golf

Golf has a problem:  it’s hard to be good at it.  Golf has another problem:  it’s expensive.  And, golf takes time to play.  In short, it’s not exactly a game calculated to appeal to a younger generation that grew up playing video games and getting participation trophies and positive feedback for every endeavor.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that golf participation is declining.  Five million people have given up the game in the last decade, and more golfers are expected to quit in the next few years.  People under 35, especially, aren’t into the game.  (That’s true in the Webner family, too, where Richard and Russell have shown no interest whatsoever in golf.)

IMG_0511If you own a golf course, this trend is a serious concern.  In many communities, like Columbus, there was a golf course building boom in the ’80s and ’90s, and now many of those courses are struggling — with some private clubs becoming public or semi-public or folding entirely.  Golf courses are economically viable only if there are players willing to pay to play.

The response to the decline in players has been interesting.  Rather than figuring out how to encourage people to see the beauty of the game in its current form, some want to change the game radically to try to make it “fun.”  Among the ideas include a much bigger hole on greens, giving players a mulligan every hole, allowing people to throw the ball out of sand traps — what my grandmother called using her “hand mashie” — and letting people tee up the ball on every shot.

I’m no golf purist, but these kinds of ideas seem like a panicky reaction that would ruin the game rather than popularize it.  The golf establishment should simply accept that golf is not going to appeal to everyone, and if a few golf courses fail, so be it.  Golf is supposed to be a struggle, and it inevitably will have its frustrations.  It’s not a sport for someone looking for immediate gratification.  The attraction of the game is not easily shooting low scores, but rather legitimately improving with practice so that when you do play a good round it really means something.

I haven’t been able to swing a club for months because of my foot, but I’m looking forward to the day when my doctor gives me the go-ahead to get back on the links.  I’m sure I’ll curse my ineptitude, but at least it will be golf I’m playing — not some bastardized effort to appeal to impatient people with short attention spans who need constant reinforcement.

Just A Happy Phil Fan

Phil Mickelson won the British Open today, and it made me happy.

I’m a Phil Mickelson fan, and I’m not sure exactly why.  I’ve never met him, never watched him do a soul-searching interview, and haven’t read a lot about him.  But whenever a major championship rolls around, I find myself rooting for him.

If you watch any golf on TV — and for me, that’s pretty much limited to the major championships — you can’t help but have a favorite player that you root for.  The players are out there, all alone, having to keep their nerves under control as they attempt shot after shot.  Inevitably, you see players in good times and in bad times, when they are playing poorly and when they are playing well, and when the breaks are going their way and when the golf gods have capriciously decided that it is time for the player to suffer some pain.  As a result, you feel like you know them, even if you really don’t.

Why do I like Phil Mickelson?  I like his approach.  I like the fact that he seems to be a family man and isn’t shy about hugging his wife and kids.  I like how he keeps his head up when times get tough.  I like how he takes calculated gambles, and is willing to stake everything on the possibility of making a spectacular shot.  I like the fact that his face is more expressive than you see on most golfers.

Congratulations on this win, Mr. Mickelson, and thanks.  Your triumph brought a smile to my face.

The Standing Sunday Morning Golf Date

It’s summer, it’s Sunday morning, and I’m in Columbus.  That means I’ve got a standing engagement at the golf course with my Sunday morning group.

IMG_3855The same three guys have been playing golf at the same course for years now.  I’m not sure how many times we’ve played or for how long, but it’s been so often that it feels jarring when another person joins our trio to make it into a foursome.  The newbies don’t know where to stand on the tee, or they talk too much, or they play slow.  Our little group walks and plays “ready golf,” where everyone goes straight to their ball, gets set, and hits their shot when the way ahead is clear.  To our way of thinking, bad golf can happen to anyone from time to time, but slow golf is inexcusable.

I’m the worst golfer in our group.  That used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore.  I don’t practice like I should or work on my game, and I don’t play as much as I would like, either.  When you don’t make the effort to try to get better, how can you expect to improve?  But I do like those calm Sunday mornings, like today, when the air is cool and the course is quiet and the grass has that fresh smell and our merry band works our way around the familiar links, talking about nothing in particular.

Hello, Ball!

I haven’t had a chance to play much golf this year, so I’m bound to be rusty the next time I hit the links.  Fortunately, if I want to refresh myself on the nuances of the golf swing, golf attire, and golf etiquette, I can always watch Art Carney giving Jackie Gleason some tips on a classic episode of The Honeymooners.

“Hello, ball!”

Positive Thinking

IMG_3221You wouldn’t think it to look at it now — with the gates firmly chained shut, the ground frozen hard, and everything snow-covered — but I’m anticipating being out on the old golf course before March is over.  Four Sundays from now, say, I’ll be walking out on green grass on a sunny morning, carrying my sticks for the first time since October and looking to shake the rust off my game.

It’s called positive thinking — or, perhaps, delusional thinking.  Take your pick.

The Curse Of Sports Cursing

I try to maintain a placid disposition.  Normally I succeed, at work and at home.  Introduce a sports disappointment to the mix, however, and you’re likely to hear me string together vile curses that would shame a longshoreman.

Consider yesterday’s Browns game, for example.  My conscious, rational brain knew, to a point of metaphysical certainty, that the Browns were going to lose that game in heart-breaking, last-minute fashion — because that’s just what the Browns do.  I thought I had prepared myself for the inevitable failure . . . but when Michael Vick threw a touchdown pass to put the Eagles ahead with about a minute to go, and the Browns responded by throwing a horrible, game-ending interception on the very next play from scrimmage, I felt the red rage boiling up inside, uncontrollable and undeniable.  I let loose with an embarrassing series of awful epithets that shook the rafters, caused the frightened dogs to flee the family room, and left Kish shaking her head in dismay.

Put a golf club in my hands, and you’re likely to see the same thing.  I’ll be playing along, accepting the many ugly shots and trying to focus on the fact that I’m outside on a lovely day with my friends and golf is just a game.  But let me hit the ball into the water on one of my nemesis holes, or have my fourth putt in a row lip out, and the fury flows forth in a torrent of obscenity that leaves my playing companions laughing helplessly — which just makes me even madder.

I’m 55 years old.  How can I still have these explosive outbursts about sports?  What incident in my past created this wrathful inner demon who is always ready to throw a mortifying, childish tantrum at the latest sports disappointment?  When I’m in my dotage, will I be alarming fellow residents at the old folks’ home when the Browns gag away another game?

Breaking 90

Every year, on the links, I have the same goal:  I want to break 90.

Trying to break 90 is the perfect goal for me.  It’s realistic — an objective that I know I can reach — yet it also requires me to play well to achieve it.

Some years, I first break 90 in the spring, and go on to shoot in the 80s a number of times during the golf season.  Other years, when my drives off the tee are even lamer than usual and my short game has deserted me, breaking 90 becomes an enormous mental challenge.  In those years, the first round where I even have a shot at the goal becomes a pressure-packed exercise.  I start to think that maybe today is the day, and what I need to score on the remaining holes to bring the round in under 90.  When that happens, of course, tee shots get hit in the weeds, approach shots end up buried in a bunker, and three-putt greens become the norm, and the goal goes out the window.

Today, on a day when it looked like rain might wash us out at any moment, I hit some good shots and had a few lucky bounces and made a few putts, and I broke 90 for the first time this year.  I feel a sense of accomplishment, and I feel like a weight has been lifted.  Now, I’m off the schneid, and the golf season really beckons.