I suck at golf.
Seriously. On my best days, I approached – but never broke – the score of 100. I once birdied a short par-4 at a crabgrass course in Maryland, but since I was alone, my only proof was a depressing photo of a dirty Titleist sitting at the bottom of a cup.
I guess I would characterize myself as a fan of golf. Tiger Woods PGA Tour is one of my favorite Playstation games; I usually notice when a major like The Masters Tournament is happening; I follow Ricky Fowler on Twitter. But I hesitate to actually go golfing. Something about paying $50 to drink beer and hunt for errant tee shots all day just doesn’t feel worth it.
So when my school’s administration posted a vacancy for the head golf coach position, obviously I applied.
My friends, many of whom experienced my golf prowess firsthand, assumed I was joking.
“Have you ever golfed without drinking?” my friend Jen asked.
“No,” I said. “Why, is it different?”
I did my best to take my new coaching position seriously. I studied the rules, read books on technique, and spent hours practicing chip shots on the front lawn.
But as the season drew closer, I became more nervous. How long would it take for these kids to realize I was a fraud, someone who considered a good day on the golf course one where I only lost 10 balls?
That’s when I read the high school rulebook. According to the rules, players were expected to be their own caddies; they had to carry their own clubs and make strategic shot decisions without outside assistance. I was not allowed to offer strategy when their ball was in play.
This was the breakthrough I was looking for. The rules literally prevented me from coaching for 90% of the match.
Armed with my rulebook and a new wardrobe of microfiber, I was ready to hit the links.
On the first day of practice, I arranged to meet the players at the local country club that would serve as our home course. I had no real idea how one “practices” golf, but my meeting with the outgoing coach assured me as long as I interspersed time on the driving range and putting green with a practice round once or twice a week, I’d be able to fill the two-hour-long sessions.
One of the areas of my coaching I did prioritize was an upgrade in my wardrobe. I figured if I looked like I knew what I was doing, the students would be more convinced I actually did. It was the classic fake it ’til you make it approach.
I climbed out of my truck in my golf coach uniform: lime green polo, fresh white Titleist hat, matching polarized sunglasses, a Footjoy glove stuffed rakishly in my back pocket. I was ready.
My team was not.
There were seven of them, all in various levels of preparedness. Three appeared to have an idea what they were doing; spikes, clubs with head covers, a little towel clipped to their bag.
The other four looked like the scene in Little Giants, when the kids show up wearing couch pillows and bike helmets to play football. One golfer wore jeans and shouldered an ancient bag filled with his dad’s old clubs. One sported flip flops and carried a handful of irons and persimmon woods he bought from the thrift store. One kid didn’t have clubs at all.
Of the seven, four had never swung a golf club before.
The upside to my team’s lack of golf knowledge was that my own deficiencies were never made apparent. On the driving range, I would pace behind them with my arms folded behind my back and dole out generic advice (keep your head down!) with the confidence of General Patton orchestrating a battle. If I ever freed a club from the confines of my bag, it was merely for show. I’d grab a wedge and twirl it around, maybe take a couple of practice swings like I was loosening up my shoulders. But if any of them were looking, I’d never go after a ball.
Sometimes, when the team was out on the course practicing, I’d drive my golf cart out of sight, plop a ball on the fairway, and give it a whack. Then, when it inevitably crashed into the woods, I’d return the club to the safety of my bag and speed away from the scene of the crime.
There was only one kid on the team who noticed he’d never actually seen his coach make contact with a golf ball. Travis was a senior and by far the best player on the team. He’d shoot in the mid-70s most rounds and wasn’t embarrassed about letting everyone know it.
It was only a matter of time before the cocky little shit blew my cover.
“Coach, how come you never play with us?” he asked one day during a practice round. “Our old coach used to play with us all the time.”
I responded with some bullshit line about preferring to focus on analyzing their game instead of indulging in my own passions, which I thought made me seem like I took my job as their coach seriously. That response seemed to suffice for the time being, as Travis kind of shrugged and turned away. But a couple of holes later, he came at me again.
“Yo Coach, could you help me out for a second?” he called to me while I sat in my golf cart playing on my phone with my feet on the dashboard. I drew a random wedge from my bag — because it seemed like a coach thing to do — and walked out to the middle of the fairway where he was standing.
“What’s up?” I said.
“I’m having trouble deciding how to go about this approach shot. What do you think I should do?”
Oh fuck. This kid wanted me help him with strategy?
I decided to use my main defense: the high school rules. “Travis, in a real match, I’m not going to be able to help you size up shots. You need to practice doing that on your own.”
“But this isn’t a real match. This is practice.”
“True, but…” I stopped. He had me, and I knew it. A real coach would give advice in this situation.
I turned toward the green and squinted, pretending to analyze whatever it is golfers analyze when they stare at the flag in the distance. “Hmm, this is a tough one.”
“It’s 85 yards,” he said, putting his laser range finder to his eye. Yeah, this kid had a fucking range finder.
I pointed to some patch of the green that seemed to be higher than the rest. “Hit it up there, and it should kick toward the hole.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking too. Cool.”
He squared up on the ball and smacked it. It arced in the air and hit the green exactly where I had pointed, then took a hard bounce to the left into a tall patch of weeds.
“Damn, it didn’t stick like I thought it would,” Travis said, sheathing his club.
“Oh well, good shot anyway,” I said, and I turned to head back to the safety of my cart.
“Can you do it?” he called after me.
I froze with my back to him. “What?”
“Can you hit one? So I can see what you do?”
By this time, the rest of the team had gathered on the fairway to watch this clinic of golfing greatness.
“Yeah Coach,” another one of the boys said. “We want to see.”
I know I’m making it seem like they were all colluding against me and they had this master plan to unmask me for the fraud I was. But in their defense, I really don’t think there was any malice in their request; they were just curious and wanted their coach to, you know, coach.
My feelings of obligation toward my duties met my instincts for self-preservation head on. It was clear no amount of verbal pageantry would get me out of this one.
I returned to the spot on the fairway and dropped a ball from my pocket, hoping I looked casual. I examined my prop club and saw it was a sand wedge.
“85 yards, right?” I said to Travis. He nodded.
Sure. I usually hit my sand wedge about 40 yards, so this was going to be awesome.
For anyone who has never played golf, quite possibly the worst feeling in the entire world is teeing up the first shot of the day. You are hyper-aware of every eye on you and know your opening drive will set your golfing persona for the next five hours. If you shank it into the trees (or worse, a neighbor’s backyard), you might as well tear up your score card right then.
This was worse, because it was the first time any of these kids would see their coach — the adult they trusted to teach them about the game they were playing — swing a club. In my head, I was desperately aware my entire reputation came down to this one, single approach shot.
I lined up on the ball and all but closed my eyes. I looked up at the green one more time and pretended to make some complicated computation in my head, took a deep breath and swung.
“Holy shit!” a golfer and I said in unison.
The ball pitched high up in the air, hit the exact spot Travis’s did, stuck, and softly rolled toward the flag. It stopped six feet from the hole.
“Damn, Coach,” Travis said. “Nice shot.”
“Thanks,” I said, and I sauntered back to my golf cart, my heart pounding out of my chest.
One thing about golf is that unlike other high school sports, the season is incredibly short. You get a two week practice window, and then you start competing against other schools in official matches. You face two schools a week for three or four weeks, and then you’re done. By the time school starts the first week of September, you’re three quarters of the way through the season, and it’s wrapped up by October.
What this meant for me was that my team had exactly two weeks to learn how to play golf.
This is the part of the story where your instincts begin to foreshadow the events that unfold next. I’ve set this up perfectly to do so. After a montage of gaffes set to the music of Benny Hill, the earnest, ragtag group of novices begin to buckle down. They have a revelation after an intense all is lost moment and they redeem themselves by winning the championship match against the snobby douchebags from the rival high school. The sarcastic, borderline alcoholic coach hits the approach shot of a lifetime and grows into a guiding force akin to a cross between Vince Lombardi and Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society. We are Rocky, The Mighty Ducks, and The Bad News Bears all rolled into one.
None of that happened. We fucking sucked.
For two weeks on the practice course, I watched them hit bouncing ground balls, chips that sailed the green by 100 yards, and enough whiffs to power the entire state with wind energy. One kid named Marcus, whose body type was more suited to being a defensive tackle for the ’85 Bears, made so many divots I had to go into the garage and apologize to the grounds crew.
On the day of our first match, I approached the coach of the other team as he watched his players pop 250 yard dingers on the driving range. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries and I leaned toward him and lowered my voice.
“Listen,” I said, trying to sound diplomatic. “My guys are…pretty new to the game. Would it be possible to make some modifications to the rules?”
I proposed to the coach we play “double par pick-up:” basically, if the player still has a ball in play when he reaches double the score of par for the hole (8 on a par 4, for example), he picks up his ball and moves onto the next hole. This makes things move a hell of a lot faster and doesn’t really affect the outcome of the match.
The coach kind of chuckled, but he agreed. Most of the coaches out there are good guys; they want the kids to have a good time, but not unlike myself, they also want to get the hell home and have a beer.
Travis was the first golfer on the tee, and his opening shot was long and true. So long, in fact, it drew a couple of ahhhhs from the other team.
The opposing coach raised his eyebrows at me, as if to say you wanted modified rules for this kid?
And then Sean, my number two, stepped into the box.
I know adults aren’t supposed to play favorites. We’re supposed to love our children equally, treat them all fairly. But this kid Sean was my absolute favorite. He was all of 5 foot 4, 120 pounds and had this floppy haircut I hadn’t seen since Warped Tour 2005. He was a senior, but still had braces and a squeaky voice that suggested he might not have any hair under his arms. He was also absolutely terrible at golf. But god, was he funny.
Sean lined up his drive and promptly sent the ball sailing into the next county. He cupped his hand over his eyes and watched it disappear into oblivion. “And that one’s a souvenir for a luckyyyyyyyy fannnnnnn,” he said in a Vin Scully voice to no one in particular.
That’s how things went for the rest of the season. The kids went out, they hit the ball, they picked up after eight swings and moved on to the next hole. At the end of nine holes, we all shook hands and went home. I don’t remember any scores, but I know we lost every match, and none of them were even remotely close.
The opposing teams quickly deduced we didn’t pose any competitive threat to them, and since we weren’t jerks, they enjoyed themselves. I like to think they liked my players’ witty, self-deprecating commentary. For the most part, our opponents were cool.
The season was nearly over, so I was already well-rehearsed in my request for modified rules. But as I walked up to this coach, I knew he was going to be a dick.
I can’t say for sure how I knew this. Maybe it was the rigid way he carried himself. Maybe his sunglasses were too polarized or his pants were too crisp. Maybe it was the tribal tattoo peeking out of his shirt sleeve.
“Hi Coach, I’m Sam. Nice to meet you.” I stuck my hand out for a shake, but instead of taking it, he put up his pointer finger. “Anthony!” he yelled to a kid over my shoulder. Then he let out a string of sentences that could have been related to Anthony’s golf swing, but for all I knew could have been about the mechanics of thermonuclear reactions. Anthony gave his coach a curt nod and whacked another ball into the stratosphere.
The coach gave me a limp, half-assed shake and after 10 seconds of banal smalltalk, I launched into my modified rules pitch.
He cocked his head to the side and gave me a look like I was asking all of his players to golf with their pants around their ankles. When I finished, he didn’t respond. So, thinking maybe I wasn’t explaining it properly, I kept filling the silence.
“…so we could, you know, keep things moving.”
“…to speed up the game, you know what I mean?”
Finally, he put his hands on his hips, looked at the ground and took a breath. “Can’t do that, Coach,” he said.
“That’s not how the game is played.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Your course, your rules.”
I found out later this guy was not a teacher at the school (as most of the other coaches are), but was an assistant at a golf course and in the process of getting his golf pro certification. Upon hearing this, I was obviously impressed. Any golf pro who spends his time asserting his dominance over high school boys garners a large amount of respect. Frankly, I’m surprised he found a way to stuff his gigantic balls into his pants each morning.
Before the start of the match, I huddled up with the team and broke the bad news.
“We’re not going to be playing double par pick up today, guys,” I said.
“What the fuck?” said one boy (by this point in the story, I’m sure you’ve deduced my policies on the use of inappropriate language were a bit liberal).
“We’re going to be out here all goddamn night,” said another.
I tried to give them some encouragement, but they all knew what was up: it was going to be a long match.
To begin, Travis strode into the first box and pressed his tee and ball into the ground while the rest of us looked on. Just as he was about to begin his backswing, the coach from the other team yelled “Wait!”
Travis whirled around to catch sight of who interrupted his swing.
“Your ball is out of position,” the coach said in a deadpan voice. “You can’t hit from there.”
Confused, Travis picked up his ball and replaced it two feet to the left.
“Still in violation,” the coach said.
Travis looked over at me for guidance, but I just shrugged. Don’t look at me, I don’t know where to put the fucking ball.
He placed it a third time, which prompted an exaggerated sigh from the coach. I guess I should have been embarrassed that I hadn’t properly taught my kids how to tee up a ball, but I was more angry this guy felt the need to put our incompetence on display before we even started the match.
Travis leaned on his driver and turned his head to let out a stream of spit between his teeth (I could never confirm this, but I’m pretty sure Travis had a lip of Skoal in during almost every match. When I confronted him about it, he denied it, so whatever). “You wanna just show me so I can hit?” he said, and the coach pointed to a spot about six inches from where Travis had originally teed the ball.
It took nearly 45 minutes to get all of the golfers off the first tee. The coach pointed out several more rule violations, including improper ball placement and equipment issues (one of my players had too many clubs in his bag. Who knew that was a thing?)
Marcus teed off seven (seven!) times before he hit a ball in play, which meant he had a score of 13 with his ball 100 yards from the opening box.
By the time Sean got ready to tee off, everybody was pretty frustrated. He placed his ball down and looked to the other team’s coach for approval. “This cool with you right here?” he asked. The coach gave something between a scoff and a snort. “Awesome,” Sean said. “Let’s do this.”
His ball left the club, took a hard right turn and entered a thicket of waist-high grass about 40 yards away.
Given what we had all experienced for the last three-quarters of an hour, his duck hook was not surprising. But what Sean did next was wholly unforgettable, and will forever be etched into my mind as a metaphor for my entire one-season career as a golf coach.
Sean turned, stared that condescending dick of a coach right in the eye, and made his fingers into a pistol. He blew smoke from the imaginary barrel, holstered his finger weapon in his belt, and walked into the fescue to find his ball.
The coach turned to me and took off his sunglasses. “I think your boys can start picking up after double par if you want,” he said.
We got in all nine holes just as the sun disappeared behind the clubhouse. I told the team I was proud of them; not because I felt like it was something a coach would say, but because I meant it. On the way home I stopped at 7-Eleven and got a 24 ounce can of Yuengling. I felt like I had earned it.