Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Remembering My Golf Lesson From A Shark

Last week I had the opportunity to play eighteen holes of golf with my next door neighbor.

Mark shoots commonly in the low seventies.

Or so he told me.

He made a believer out of me on the first hole, driving the ball out about 300 yards down the middle, and his approach put him in good birdie position.

"Okay", I said to Mark and the two other fellows the starter paired us with. "I believe ya".

You knew Mark took the game seriously when you saw him. Dressed to the nines and another new set of irons, it was easy to see he loved the game like I do.

But I am still playing the same Lynx Master irons my brother Paul bought for me in Baton Rouge in 1982. And I still play persimmon woods – Wilson Staff's – except I do play a driver I won for closest to the pin in a tournament a couple of years ago.

I played pretty crappy the first nine, as my tee shots left me in trouble – and I kept trying to save the hole by playing recovery approach shots from behind trees, deep roughs and the edges of water hazards. But on the back nine, I found my drive – hitting the fairways on each of the par four and fives.

And I shot two over par on the back.

As we were having a drink in the clubhouse – we got to talking about the most interesting people we ever picked up with on a golf course. And I started thinking about the guy who joined up with me one round playing Carriage Hills.

I was down staying with my Mom for a couple of weeks in the early nineties. Her backyard is the twelfth green, and to the side of her apartment is the thirteenth tee. I called the clubhouse and told them I was starting on thirteen and would play the whole eighteen holes back to Mom's apartment at the twelfth hole.

The green on thirteen is hidden at the bottom of a hill, and you can drive the green, so you wait at the tee until the players ahead of you ring the bell. While I was waiting, a big old boy in a pink golf shirt, straw hat and plaid pants walked up to the tee. He was in his mid-forties, and he looked like he had slept in his clothes. His skin was bright red brown – a weathered tan that was maintained by constant golf in the direct sun of northern Florida. His hair was a straw like blond, and his smile was sincere – and accentuated by the heavy worn lines on his weathered face.

"Y'all mind if I join ya?" he asked. "I'll try not to hold ya up much".

"Not at all", I replied, stuck my hand out and shook his monster sized paw. "I'll more than likely slow you down instead".

At this time I was just barely in my thirties and still in fairly good shape. I considered myself to be street smart and savvy, having spent time a good deal of my younger years in downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter – I had seen my share of scams and shysters.

This guy was a golfer – a good golfer. I looked over to the parking spot by my Mom's apartment and saw an old Cadillac convertible – top still down – and knew that is what this fellow arrived at the course in. His bag was a black leather tour bag with brass fittings, but well worn like an old leather coat, with more wrinkles than his leathered face. This guy was a shark – I guessed he had won that bag - and I knew what was coming next.

"Check out that classic Caddy over there", I said – just to make sure. "That's a beaut, eh?".

"Thanks, it's mine", said the shark. "I was parked there and saw ya playing alone. I hope ya don't mind".

"Not at all, my Ma lives there and I'm visiting, so I just stepped out here to start myself".

"Y'all Canadian?"

"Yup, just down for a visit." I replied. "Are you from around here?"

"Nope, just passin through".

The bell beside the hidden green at the bottom of the hill rang to signal we could play.

"Y'all wanna make this interesting?" he asked.

"Oh I think it'll be interesting enough. I don't bet, sorry, but I'll certainly do my best to give you a good match if that's ok with you."

The Shark smiled and nodded. He knew I knew and he said, "Ok, let's go have some fun then."

He gave me the honors and I stepped up to the tee and used my three wood to tap my drive down the middle. I watched my ball clear the crest of the hill – knowing it would roll down the hill to a spot where I would only be chipping to the green.

"Glad y'all ain't a betting man." He said – rather patronizingly. He stepped up to the tee with a three iron, looked at me and said, "You gotta play a cut fade into this green to get it to hold".

His swing was smooth and controlled; the ball flew to the left of where the green would be at the bottom of the hole, and started cutting back to the hole as it sunk below the crest of the hill.

As we cleared the crest of the hill, his ball was sitting pin high to the right of the hole, a ten foot putt for birdie. My ball was sitting at the mouth of the hole – in the little opening five yards shy of the fringe. We congratulated each other and marched down the hill to the green. I chipped to with three feet of the hole, and the Shark's putt lipped out from the high side.

As we played each of the next holes, the Shark started having more fun. He started hitting trick shots, teeing off with a nine iron and going for the green with a three wood, or putting himself behind a tree and shaping his low recovery shot to draw around the tree running low and chasing up to the center of the green. He took great joy in calling each shot – like a pool shark calling a double railed shot on the eight nicking the nine as it falls in the side pocket.

The Shark was indeed a shark. And he was having a ball showing me his shots. And I was having a ball watching him make them. I made a big deal about each shot he called and made. It was like being treated to my own private carnival show. I had seen Moe Norman once in London do trick-shots, and I think this guy was just as good. The Shark was doing his tricks on the course – in the context of the hole, and pulling them off.

As we came off of eighteen, still with thirteen holes to play before we're done, I went into the clubhouse to pay. The guys in the clubhouse knew the Shark, and asked me how much I was into him for. I lied and told them he had me for forty-five bucks so far, but I would catch him on the back. I paid for his round and mine – it was only seventeen bucks – and lied and said that would make up for some of what I lost to the Shark.

"He'll take every penny you got, son – walk away now", said the senior pro. "Don't make me call yer mama!"

I smiled and walked back out. I told the Shark I bought his green fee, and he handed me a cold beer. "Yeah, they know me here", he said.

I told him about what they told me and that I told them I was into him for forty-five bucks so far.

"That's all?" he smiled and laughed. "Thanks, for keeping up my reputation, but by now I would have had a couple hundred off ya!"

I raised my eyebrow at him and he nodded like I should know it was true and that I should count my lucky stars.

As we teed off the back, the Shark started watching me play. I was doing really good – a couple birdies a couple of bogeys and I was scoring really well. Mainly because I was watching him. But I played a straight ball. I aimed point to point and if I got behind something I couldn't shape a shot around it.

We walked off the twelfth green and sat down on my Mom's back patio. I went inside and got us both a beer. And I told him what a real pleasure it was to get such a lesson.

"The lesson ain't over yet" he said. "Grab your clubs, let's go".

He threw my clubs in the back seat of the old Cadillac – socks and shoes and shirts and golf gloves littered the back seat floor. He opened the trunk to put his clubs in, and there was an open suitcase with more stuff laying all about. He did indeed live in this car.

He pulled into a driving range a couple blocks away. He told me to go down to the end of the row of tee boxes, and he came out a few minutes later – chatting with the head of the range, and he was carrying two large buckets of balls.

The range pro sat on a bench a few spots down from us to watch. The Shark took my five iron from my bag and started my lesson.

"This is the only club you should ever practice with" he said – showing me the number five on the bottom of my club. "If you can master this club, you have mastered all your clubs."

"What about my woods, my driver?", I asked.

"It's the same swing". That's all he said.

I hit five or six balls, nice and solid, proud of each one.

"Not bad, now move the ball to the back of your stance. You want to pinch this ball with this club into the ground like squeezing a watermelon seed to shoot it".

He could see I didn't catch on, so he took my five iron from me, put the ball at the back of his stance, and came down on the ball as he said he would – squishing the ball into the ground. A good sized divot of grass – like a beaver's tail flew up from the ground.

The range pro said nothing, he just sat there watching.

The ball took off low, and rose up high in mid flight. The ball hit the ground and spun backwards.

"You just bit and spun back with my five iron!" I said. "Wow!"

He handed me my club back. "Yup, now you do it".

My first attempts simply rolled across the ground, but the shark didn't say anything, he just put another ball on the ground for me to hit each time. Finally I hit it right, like spanking the ball on the butt, it squished into the ground and made a whistling sound as it spit out low, climbed high, hit the ground, and spun backwards. A beaver-tail-divot landed two yards in front of me.

"Wow", I said looking up at the Shark.

"Atta boy", said the Shark. "Do it again".

I did it over and over again until I could do it consistently. The last one, the ball hit the ground and pulled back like a yo-yo on a string.

"Now let's learn how to draw a ball", and he put the ball more to the front of his stance, turned his hands over one knuckle and spanked it again making the ball do a slight draw. He took another ball, put it in the same place and turned his hands over two knuckles, and increased the degree of the draw.

You do it now.

He then taught me how to do a cut fade, a low runner, and how to flip a five iron with your wrists to act like a sand-wedge.

When we got to the end of the second bucket, the Shark smiled at me and said "There ya go".

There was barely a spot of grass in that tee box that had not been carved out as a beaver-tail-divot.

The range pro got up from the bench and walked by himself back into the trailer.

"I don't know what to say", I started, shaking his hand and saying thank you way too many times.

"You got the idea now", he said. "Now you just gotta play a lot, and learn how and when to use each one. Remember it's the exact same swing for every club. Practice it".

He dropped me back at my Ma's apartment, and simply said, "See ya around".

I never saw the Shark again.

I looked for him each day I had left staying at my Mom's. I went back to that range each day to practice what he showed me, each time the range pro just smiled to acknowledge he witnessed my experience with the Shark. I tried to reproduce everything the Shark showed me, but the results were never as good as while the Shark was there.

When I got back home to Canada, playing with my buddies in London, I tried to tell them all about this experience with the Shark, and I tried to show them what I was talking about, but their interest was little.

I still remember everything I learned from the Shark that day, although I have never mastered it. But I still know how to make a ball land and bite, and can do it consistently with my six iron through to my sand wedge. I understand it, even though I haven't mastered it.

I still play with my old Lynx Master irons. I still play with my old persimmon Wilson Staff woods.

And every time I go to the driving range – which I admit is not very often – I only use my five iron. And I go through the sequence that the Shark showed me.

And since that lesson with the Shark, I have won way more than my share of closest-to-the-pin competitions in tournaments. But I still shoot in the mid-to-upper eighties, simply because I can't always hit a good tee shot.

And I'll always remember the Shark.

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