From the Dubois County Herald.
June 6, 2018
By SCOTT SAALMAN
The last time I golfed, circa mid-1990s, it was with Santa Claus. I had planned to play a round alone that day since I always tensed up around others. I’ve never dared play in a foursome — I cannot think of a worse hell.
At the clubhouse counter, a girl told me, “It’s busy out there this morning. We’re going to have to pair you up. Sorry.”
I felt the color drain from my face. Her eyes lit up, though, when she informed me, “You’re golfing with Santa Claus.”
“Is he good? If so, I don’t want to play with him.”
“Eh,” she said, shrugging. “He’s Santa.”
“Do you think he might hit a ho-ho-ho in one?”
By “Santa,” she meant the official Santa impersonator from a nearby holiday-themed amusement park. My son sat on his lap earlier that summer. He seemed authentic enough. He had the big red suit, his natural beard a blizzard of white. Red cheeks. Hearty ho-ho-ho. Heck, even I believed.
At the practice green, however, it was a letdown to see Santa in blue jeans and Hawaiian shirt. He retained the beard, but in his civvies, he looked unnaturally thin as if his Santa suit had actually been filled mostly with bubble wrap. We shook hands. He told me his real first name—it wasn’t even Kris. I called him Santa as he commandeered the cart. I wanted to believe.
I tried demonstrating my best behavior, but golf courses always brought out the beast in me. I lacked talent to make the sport less frustrating. Even with Santa, I couldn’t curtail my cursing, my expletives launching from larynx like the vilest of verbal divots. My golf balls — the ones I actually could find after striking — stopped rolling at the worst possible places: behind trees, in sand traps and lakes, even behind the tee-box once (don’t ask).
I glanced at Santa to see if he was using the golf pencil to mark my name on the naughty list, and to my surprise, I spied him hockey-sticking his own errant ball into the fairway before his next swing, muttering a few course words of his own. I was impressed: Santa wasn’t much better at golf than me.
My round with Santa happened during a summer that I retried the sport, having quit 16 years before. I rescued my cobwebby clubs from the attic because I was a first-time father of a 2-year-old son. Daddy needed a hobby to partially escape the terrible twos. I could’ve focused on a simpler hobby, such as splitting the atom, but I needed more time away from diapering than that. Golf, done right, consumed half the daylight hours on any given summer day.
I came from a spotty golfing past. My first experience with a golf ball was a harbinger that I should’ve considered a different way to spoil a good walk. My grandfather became an avid golfer later in life. I was so fascinated by the first ball he gave me that I secretly cut it open to discover its contents. As soon as the point of my pocket knife poked its core, a mysterious liquid squirted into my left eyeball. Acid? I waited for inevitable blindness to set in. I’m still waiting.
Thinking he was providing a big treat, grandpa routinely took his grandsons golfing during our single-digit ages, hoping his mid-life sporting passion would spread to another generation. I disdained being made to swing clubs (usually with embarrassing Tasmanian Devil cartoonish effect) in front of my cousins who were far better (it helps being taller than the club). My favorite part was when grandpa let us search for other people’s long lost balls between play. It was the greatest thrill finding tangible failures of golfers’ past, pulling their orphaned, disobedient balls from brush, bush, briar, bramble and bark (water rescues were my favorite), filling empty Bunny Bread bags with Titleist treasure. Course management compensated us for the findings — bubblegum money! It was better than hunting Easter Eggs.
I joined the high-school team my freshman year. I was so bad I believe I was placed on the double-secret reserved reserve team, the most unskilled of the unskilled. We reluctantly marched to the first tee box only after the better players had been announced, applauded for, and put in eager pursuit of their eagles, birdies and pars. Then, to a barren gallery and a cacophony of crickets, we were released into the wild without score cards, chaperones or survival training (a compass and pith helmet would’ve been nice). We were a coterie of chronic whiffers, the sultans of slice, the unhappy hookers, who wandered like a tribe of forgotten lost boys that were expected to somehow find our way through the nine-hole maze before sundown and the release of bloodhounds. I believe we are still out there somewhere.
But back to my round with Santa. Before even finishing the front nine, I had depleted my ball arsenal. Santa offered a ball, but I was done, leaving him alone for the back nine.
That final round erased my already fleeting belief in golf — my clubs were a yard sale hit. It also contributed to the end of my belief in Santa Claus, for on that following Christmas, guess what was not under the tree? That’s right: no golf balls, the one thing Santa clearly knew I needed. Ba Humbug.
You can write Scott at Scottsaalman@gmail.com.