Born to Golf, Eventually: An excerpt from “Confessions of a Golf Slut”

Image of Susan Fornoff with Confessions of a Golf SlutIn honor of National Golf Day, we present this excerpt from the 2013 book “Confessions of a Golf Slut: A memoir of life, love and The Game.” It’s one answer to the question “Why golf?”

Golf was only a “perhaps” on the Mr. Right wish list I pounded out in 1997 to conjure Cupid. I made my 15-point manifesto, typed it onto bright blue paper, folded it many times, and tucked it into my wallet, so that it would always be with me to cast out a magnetic field.

And with Match.com pioneering a vast new world of possibilities, I checked the key boxes (there weren’t many in those days, but I required suitors to be unmarried nonsmokers 35 or older), then scripted a cute little online-dating profile full of golf metaphors. “Looking for a partner who has the guts to go for the green… plays the whole 19… generous with mulligans.”

Much of it was based on the hope of meeting someone much nicer than the previous boyfriend, the one who angrily ripped up a pair of pants because he had grown too wide to zip them, and who slammed golf clubs at trees or into the ground when he could not execute shots. He became a regular customer at a club repair shop where a group of seniors practiced putts and shot the bull in between business. They’d eyeball ClubSlamMan warily when he stepped through the door, and finally one would ask, “What happened this time?” He always had a story ready about how his club had struck a hidden tree root or found the buried remnant of an ancient gravestone.

What did he tell his tailor about the torn pants, “My girlfriend couldn’t wait to get these off me?”

You think maybe I just needed to find a better golfer? I’d agree, except that once my golf shoes came off I felt I had to walk on eggshells, he found so much fault with me. He always spoke glowingly of his mother, and so I particularly remember the day he yelled at me: “You’re JUST LIKE MY MOTHER!” I was puzzled, but did not say, “Thank you.” I suspected he did not mean my lasagna was as good as hers.

ClubSlamMan deserves some appreciation for enabling my relationship with golf. We went to Maui’s Kapalua resort, where I almost broke 100 for the first time. We made social events of all the pro golf tournaments that came to town. On our days off at home, usually weekdays, we would go off on golf outings all around Northern California. These even included my first golf school, with a teacher whose sense of fun had such an impact on me that I still think of one of his tips whenever I am playing in an event with stakes or implications. Okay, I’ll share: “spaghetti arms.” And, yes, the instructor outlasted the boyfriend.

That was my first serious relationship as a golf slut. Although my dad used to take me to the park to fetch golf balls, I did not swing a club until I was in my late 20s. Dad worked in the sugar refinery under the iconic neon “Domino” sign along Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and never entertained the notion of joining a country club. None of his friends did either. I don’t think he ever even played golf when we were little. There’s no way my mother, home all week trying to manage me and my three younger brothers, would have let my father disappear for five hours on a weekend when she usually had fun family outings planned for all of us. And working rotating shifts and accepting overtime to support us had made Dad a hot commodity among us kids, who would beg him not to answer the phone when it rang on his day off. (He always did. And almost always went in, in spite of the chorus of “Aw Dad.”)

He had clubs, though, and maybe was already thinking about how he’d spend his retirement years, because now and then he’d recruit me to go down the street to Radecke Park. Radecke had a playground with a kiddie pool where Mom took us to wade in the summers, and a vibrant after-school recreation program where I became the reigning queen of jacks. Beyond all the concrete was a complex of baseball fields, where the thick outfield grass grew ankle-high in the summer, a haven for the bees that would sting me in my teen years when I’d shortcut through there in flip-flops to get to the grown-up pool a couple of blocks farther on.

There was no driving range near us, so Dad would bring a bag of beat-up balls and a few of his shorter clubs and practice chipping and pitching out of the tall grass. Of course, this meant that the balls landed in the tall grass, which meant that in the years before my nearsightedness got noticed at 11 or 12, I could not find all of them. (We counted. My father the sugar refinery foreman did not put four kids through college by losing golf balls nonchalantly.)

I do not remember my father ever saying, “Here, you try hitting one,” and I am not sure how he lured me into this exercise, unless there was an ice cream cone waiting at the end of it all. So my earliest golf memory is purely social, connected with time alone with my father.

My next golf memory is even more social, connected with the most good clean fun that could possibly be had in college.

Well, there was drinking involved, but it was good clean legal drinking that probably kept all of us out of trouble.

Early in my freshman year at the University of Maryland I made the acquaintance of a group of outgoing young men who will forever be known to my dorm friends from Elkton 4 as The Golfers. My dorm mates and I would go to mixers and run into The Golfers. We would have a happy-hour appointment for pitchers of beer at the Vous with The Golfers. And oh my gosh, you should have seen us with The Golfers Saturday night on the dance floor at the Pub.

Some of The Golfers even had golf talent. Bob Boyd — who provided my intro to this merry band by showing romantic interest in me for a week or two — played on the PGA Tour for several years before leukemia took him at age 55. Terry Boggs succeeded his dad for a while as head pro at Cumberland Country Club in Western Maryland, Bob Darling became head golf pro at Fox Ridge in Maine, and maybe you’ve heard of Fred Funk, the Maryland Terrapin who’s beaten much bigger guys to more than $30 million in career earnings on the PGA and Senior tours, even though he’s only 5-foot-8.

Most impressive of all were “the Smittys,” Eric and Steve, who often got called onto the stage by the band at the Pub to sing “Brick House.” One of them would pull his shirt up to his chest and roll his stomach from top to bottom, a move I’ve never seen performed elsewhere, even by accomplished belly dancers, strippers, and yogis.

Is it any wonder I associated golf not with elitism, as many people do, but with fun?

None of us girls ever went out to watch these jolly good fellows play golf for the Maryland Terrapins. One of us took a golf class but didn’t pursue the game further, maybe because she was not hitting the golf ball any farther. (Grammar note: Golfers do not want to hit the ball further, we want to hit the ball farther. If we are hitting it further, we are still hitting when we would rather be in the hole already.)

Even while sports editor of the Diamondback, the school’s daily newspaper, my closest encounter with golf amounted to a fierce defense of the use of the word “golfers” in a headline. (“Golf team” had two more counts and did not fit the designated space in that edition.) The nerdy editor had the nerve to declare that one does not golf, therefore one cannot be a golfer. This, despite my dictionarial evidence to the contrary and my own familiarity with that unique group of Maryland students whom I would never describe as “the golf players.” I lost that argument but have since won a few over the use of “golf” as a verb, my argument being that if one can be a golfer (the noun for one who plays golf, and a term accepted universally except by a certain nerdy editor) then that must mean that one can golf.

Still, I didn’t swing a club in college and knew little about the game. The local golfers I had to interview in my first professional sportswriting job must have been quite amused; I knew so little about golf that I’d write, “His first drive on the fourth hole found the fairway and his second drive on the hole landed in a bunker,” until my father said, “Hey Sue, did you know, you only hit driver for the first shot on a hole. After that it might be a three-wood or an iron or some other club, but you only have one drive.”

Oh. (Was anybody copy-editing those stories, or did the old fellas at the Baltimore News-American sort of accidentally-on-purpose let the new girl look dumb?) Once I figured that out, I got to cover a bunch of pro golf tournaments, including the U.S. Open won by Jack Nicklaus at Baltusrol in 1980. I was so entranced that humid June day with the back-and-forth duel between Nicklaus and Isao Aoki, I walked all 18 holes inside the ropes with them and got caught up in the crush that surged inside the ropes on the final fairway, while most of the jaded scribes sat huddled around TV screens in the air-conditioned press tent.

When I moved to California in 1985, part of the lure was the fun, gregarious boyfriend who was great at talking me into adventures. So I went on an overnight backpacking trip without a tent, and after finally falling asleep was awakened by the boyfriend screaming a mountain lion away from us. I took a whitewater rafting trip down the Folsom River, with my boyfriend the guide making sure I fell out of the boat on one of the rapids. We visited his mom and her husband in Florida one year, and CanDoMan decided we should all play golf. I remember his mom looking at us both rather suspiciously, asking if I knew how to play. He did the talking, said I’d been on some of the best courses in the world. The next day, without so much as a grip lesson, I could not get a ball airborne. Neither could he, and his mom put a stop to the nonsense after nine holes. We never played again — or went backpacking, or got on another raft. Once I was no longer a beginner at the pursuit du jour, CanDoMan’s mischievous fun was done … until he found me a new mountain to climb.

In my 30s, I finally decided to take some golf lessons, with one simple objective: meet men. I had had a crush on a baseball coach who, I’d been told, was an excellent golfer. He always looked so happy after a day on the golf course, I noticed. And I might have thought, well, maybe I’ll find one just like him if I take up golf. (He was married and had four kids.) Here’s the golf equivalent of what I learned from that strategy: just because you knock the ball six inches from the hole on this par-3, do not assume you will knock the ball into the hole on the next par-3. I never found one just like him.

But I found my golf instructor, Randy, in the local adult-recreation program where I took a beginning six-week golf class with several others, arranged in a semi-circle next to a softball field. I liked Randy’s quiet, droll manner so much that I signed up for individual lessons; shorter and smaller than me, he didn’t hesitate to get in front of me, take hold of my hands-arms-shoulders, and swing the club for me over and over again until I developed a feel for what I was supposed to do.

Soon, I was ready to step onto a real golf course again. Or, so I thought. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses to my first 18-hole round of golf found the day so memorable, even 20 years later, she wrote her own account. Here, I yield the floor to my long-suffering friend Cheryl:

It was in the spring of 1993 when my good friend Susan Fornoff told me she wanted to start playing golf so she could meet a man. After two weeks of group lessons, she decided she was ready to play a round. I suggested we start out on a pitch ‘n’ putt course, nine holes, mostly par-3s.

But she would have nothing to do with a little course, she wanted to play the big course. I asked her if she had ever been on a big course and she replied yes. I think she said something like, “Oh yeah, many times.”

We recruited my then-husband, John, to make a threesome. We wanted to avoid having a stranger join us. (After all, there’s beginner, and then there’s BEGINNER.)

We made a tee time at the closest course to our home in Benicia, Blue Rock, a nice, walkable course that wasn’t too crazy difficult — a great, affordable municipal course where most beginners and hacks could feel pretty comfortable. It was June 24, 1993 — such a big day for Susan, she still celebrates the anniversary.

Trouble started on the first tee when Susan decided to take her first of many “do-overs.” Now, the “mulligan” has long been an acceptable courtesy in a friendly game of golf. Golfers are usually GIVEN a mulligan by the other members in the foursome on usually one, maybe two, tee shots — and that is for the entire round!

I guess Susan didn’t like the word “mulligan,” because she called them “do-overs” all day long. Do-over tee shots, do-over fairway shots, do-over chip shots and do-over putts. It wasn’t a super busy day, but we did wave through everyone who caught up with us. There were many rule explanations (ignored!), etiquette explanations (ignored!) and not nearly enough beer consumed. We endured this round of golf alcohol free!

After the first few never-ending holes, I questioned Susan again about her experience on a big golf course. She replied, “I’ve covered a lot of golf, I’ve even interviewed Jack Nicklaus!” WTF?

But Susan was a trooper — or maybe it was me and John who were the troopers. I believe we gave up keeping score after the first hole. But Susan finished every single hole. She did not pick up once…no matter how much we begged her to — another reason the day was SO long; good thing we had a morning tee time.

I will say, Susan had a great golf fashion sense from day one! She looked like a seasoned Palm Springs pro. I think the thought of wearing those really cute golf outfits was another reason she decided to take up the game.

The round finally ended and Susan embraced a golf tradition: the 19th hole.

Mission accomplished, she was hooked.

In my defense, I did think we had to keep swatting at the ball until it got into the hole. After all, I had never seen Jack Nicklaus pick up because he had taken too many shots on a hole and was holding up the group behind him. And, I very well may not have known the word “mulligan” at that point, because it was not in use on the PGA or LPGA Tours.

I do remember being on the first hole a very long time.

How did I get so hooked, so quickly? As exercise, golf replaced hiking, my rather solitary pastime, with companionable competition and purpose. And spiritually — complicated and crazy rules and all — it made me a better person.

One of my favorite nonprofits, The First Tee, uses golf to teach youngsters nine values — honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, judgment — and most golfers could give many examples of how we’ve applied those values in both life and on course. Golf gave me time to reflect on my surroundings and my place in the world, to connect with strangers and reconnect with my parents, to count my blessings at a time when I was without job and without partner; I have cried on the golf course when no one was looking, and once or twice I may have surrendered early because I felt my swing was so off that it could hurt one of my body parts, but never have I walked away angry. Statistics show that golfers rate higher than the general population in income and education, and I’ve met CEOs, inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs through the game. Not to mention bartenders, musicians, and retirees.

Statistics also show there are four men for every woman on the golf course. Even beyond the odds, the game provides a great setting for romance. I had been meeting men in the dark, at nightspots and parties. Now I met them in bright sunshine and we played a game that revealed our characters. Did we count a miss that nobody had seen? Were we sticklers for the rules who expected everyone else to abide by them strictly? Did we call ourselves names when we erred and fall silent when others slipped, or did we give ourselves and each other pep talks?

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t any good at the game — au contraire, at the driving range my ineptness even worked in my favor. Time and again, the man in the next stall could no longer bear to let me to continue to flail away without the offer of a tip on my grip, posture, extension, or swing path. Frankly, many women object to the male tendency to give unsolicited advice. I really only wanted Randy’s advice. But I also wanted to meet men. So I practiced saying sweetly, “You know, my mom told me never to take candy or golf tips from strangers.” Cue the smile. It always got a laugh.

Not long after that momentous first outing with Cheryl and John, and in keeping with my golf slut calling, I began to venture out to local courses by myself. This was not always fun. Like many board games, golf was designed for foursomes but can be played in twosomes and threesomes. Busy golf courses do not let singles play alone. Quickly I learned that many men do not want to be paired with a woman on a golf course, yet if I asked at the desk if I could play in a foursome that had another woman, I’d hear, “It could be a long wait.” One day my neighborhood course called three men who did not know each other and me to the tee; none of them seemed to want to speak to each other or to me even though the course was so busy that we had lots of social time waiting at each tee. I left after six holes, not angry, just bored.

Toward the end of my time with ClubSlamMan, the San Francisco Examiner brought me on full-time as a sports copy editor, working nights. In the spring of 1996, I read somewhere about a Bay Area women’s golf club full of other working women in my age range that played courses all around the East Bay. Perhaps sensing a breakup, I joined and began entering my scores in a computer for calculation of an official handicap. On an autumn Monday play day with them at Las Positas, a compact yet par-72 layout nestled alongside the freeway in Livermore, I finally broke 100.

Afterward I bought a pitcher of beer and announced my accomplishment, thanking my foursome for their fine company. The milestone had eluded ClubSlamMan, yet when I called to tell him, he mustered grace and said he was sorry he’d missed such a momentous athletic achievement.

But I wasn’t likely to play my best golf in his company. I usually felt stress and worry, unsure what was going to upset him and when. I liked the calm and focus that settled over me when I played with these women, who made no demands of me.

It seemed to me that golf could bring out the best me, or at least the real me, and golf with the wrong person brought out an ickier me, or at least someone I did not want to be.

And it occurred to me that I could find a deeper truth by substituting “life” or “love” for the word “golf” in that realization. I wanted to hold that thought for when I started dating again.

“Confessions of a Golf Slut” is available in paper and Kindle on Amazon, and in all eBook formats at Smashwords. Until July 1, GottaGoGolf visitors can get $3 off at Smashwords using the coupon code NS35L.

Leave a Reply