Mind games

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Feb. 7, 2008

Dear Ken,

St. Augustine, Fla., calls itself the Ancient City. It is America's oldest continuously occupied European city, those qualifiers being necessary to differentiate it from all the American Indian cities that were ancient before Europeans arrived.

The Spanish set up shop at St. Augustine four centuries before the Beatles landed in America. People have continued setting up all kinds of curious shops in St. Augustine. Downtown are shops that sell only swords, only nautical items, only Panama hats.

The real ancient, continuously occupied cities are in other parts of the world, of course. You want ancient, walk around the Plaka in Athens and look up at the Acropolis. America is still young. We're exuberant, immature, hopeful, misguided, interested in exploring the world and yet self-involved. We are beginners in the game of civilization.

Golf drew me to St. Augustine last week. The World Golf Hall of Fame is there. The museum's special exhibit about Jack Nicklaus includes a replica of the drugstore his father operated and teenaged Jack worked in. I didn't much care which teams won which Ryder Cups and about all the the other records. I loved looking at the ancient implements Scotsmen initially used to play the game they called gowf beginning about the same time as the Crusades, a coincidence I'm sure.

The museum has a locker room for the members of the Hall of Fame. Each one has his or her own life-size wooden locker visitors can peer into. Johnny Miller's holds the clubs he won the 1973 U.S. Open with. The locker of a golf writer I was not familiar with contains only a typewriter. Bob Hope's plaid golf shoes are there. One member included a sequined red dress.

Bill Murray and his five brothers own the lively Caddyshack restaurant at the World Golf Village. "Eat, drink and be Murray" is their slogan.

My friend Rick and I played seven golf courses over seven days. All were immaculately maintained. A few like the King & Bear course designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were magnificent.

One day we were paired with a 17-year-old blond golf god visiting from Holland. Kevin is a member of the Dutch national golf team and extraordinarily talented, playful and interested in everything around him. He plans to play for the University of Arizona and then hopes to turn pro. He knows he's not ready yet. He only shot par from the back tees.

Rick played well all week. I played well the first two days and then fell into a swoon I couldn't recover from. The harder I tried to find my swing the worse it got, the more I tried to get control of my swing the less control I had.

I felt demoralized after each round. Tanned but demoralized. The paella at the Columbia restaurant and the chocolate raspberry gelato at the Cafe Hidalgo downtown were some comfort. I apologized to Rick for not providing better competition. He would have preferred more of a battle, too. He knew how bad playing golf badly can make you feel.

Timothy Galwey's "The Inner Game of Golf" was in my backpack. On the plane home I read of a revelation he had one day on a golf course. On the ninth tee he realized he was even par. He had never shot par for nine holes before. Looking down the fairway and seeing the white out-of-bounds stakes on both sides, he remembered screwing up his score here before.

Then something clicked in his head. He realized that whether he hit the ball out of bounds or not didn't really matter. Not really. It wasn't that he suddenly didn't care anymore. He had just seen through the illusion that what happens in a golf shot is good or bad, that it is a measure of your worth as a person. That game is not much fun.

He stepped up to the ball with a new sense of freedom and lack of concern.

I returned from Florida resolved to begin playing golf without concern for the result, to play like a beginner, for the joy of swinging a stick at a ball.

That must have been what the original gowfers had in mind.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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