Monday, November 14, 2016

Safe Zone: Looking for solace in an uncertain world? Try your local golf course.

Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States.

There are two ways to process this improbable truth: 1) throw all caution to the wind and run headlong into this new if uncertain world order; or 2) retreat into a bubble hermetically sealed off from “reality.” If the latter seems like the more appealing strategy, can you imagine a better safe zone than a golf course? It’s sure looking pretty darn good to me at the moment.

I think we can all agree that, if we were able to step back and look at the game objectively, we’d have to conclude that it’s little more than a parade of seemingly sane adults who wield odd implements in an attempt to advance a small ball against a vast landscape, producing—at least on the surface—no tangible benefit to anyone, especially the participants. It’s patently absurd.

And yet, as an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life? There’s nothing better. Even the 45th president of the most powerful country in the free world—owner of 18 golf resorts—would have to agree with that.

As I see it, humanity needs golf’s gifts of stress relief and emotional healing now more than ever. At the risk of succumbing to self-plagiarization, consider this snippet from my novel, Machrihanish:

The seven men, even those who’d lost their morning matches, were anxious to return to the course for an afternoon round. After all, they had a lot of swings to make up for. But more than that, what they truly desired was to reestablish the proper balance between their private playground amid the dunes and, well, pretty much the rest of creation.

It’s that sweet separation that makes golf so endearing and, admittedly, to addictive. It stakes out a world within the world, where—on the first tee—they hand you an unblemished scorecard and all manner of new and wonderful experiences are suddenly possible. Then, 18 holes who knows how many shots later, you circle back to where you started, with the invitation—as well as the inclination—to start all over again.

Clearly, golf isn’t about the destination. You move about a vast expanse of open land yet never actually get anywhere, geographically speaking. So by process of elimination, the game must be all about the journey. Perhaps that’s why some of its adherents—most notably those who worship at the altars of Shivas Irons and Baggar Vance—liken it to the inward path traveled by the eastern mystics. So does that mean it’s the sports world’s equivalent of Seinfeld, show about nothing? Guess again. Golf is, in equal portions, absurdly simple and unfathomably deep, not unlike that 19th century children’s rhyme we all learned in kindergarten: “Stroll, stroll, stroll your way, gently down the fairway. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily—life is but a dream.”

I don’t know a thing about your political persuasion any more than you know about mine. But I think we can all agree that the world is becoming an increasingly unstable and unpredictable place, buttressed about by primal forces and deep-seated passions that resist moderation and restraint.

Still, each of us will have a role to play—no matter how large or small—in the unfolding scenes of this drama we call human civilization. But when that task becomes just a bit more than we can bear, I have a hunch the golf course will beckon like a spa for the weary soul.

I’ll be there. I’ll bet you’ll be there, too. The current president turned to it for solace. Maybe, just maybe, so will the man who will replace him. Perhaps the golf course can emerge, quite literally, as our much needed common ground.

May the gods of golf help us all. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

What a Stupid: I want to play golf again, but now Mother Nature won’t let me

To quote the late, great Hal David—lyricist to Burt Bacharach—raindrops keep falling on my head. And, dang it, I want to play golf!

Now, if you’ve read my most recent posts, you’re probably thinking, “Serves you right.” And, sheepishly, I’d have to concur. After passing much of the glorious summer in a low ebb, seeming to have lost my appetite for the game, I now find myself licking my chops. Yet, thanks to a rather abrupt change of seasons, I am as of this writing unable to satisfy my cravings.

To quote the late, great Roberto De Vicenzo (when he cost himself the 1968 Masters by signing an incorrect scorecard), “What a stupid I am.”

Hopefully the I’ll get enough of a break in the general dreariness in the next day or two to squeeze in one more round before I head off to Dallas and the day job for two weeks. The forecast, however, is not encouraging.

The good news is that the game’s flame within me has been rekindled. After a month’s layoff, I logged three rounds last week—two at my home club, Goswick, and a third at the new-to-me Bamburgh Castle Golf Club. The pictures illustrating this post were snapped during that tour along the Northumberland coast.

Those views, alone, should have been more than enough to get the juices flowing. But, truth be told, it’s what I was thinking and feeling on the inside that really turned the tide.

Simply put: I surrendered. After attempting for much of the summer to consciously “improve” my game—to foolishly pursue the notion that, by sheer force of will, I could “get better”—I finally circled back to where I was in March, switching off my conscious mind and switching on a sense of body awareness.

And a rather amazing thing almost immediately started to happen: I hit more satisfying golf shots. In turn, I began to have fun. And before I knew it, there was a skip in my step and joy in my heart. I was back in love with the game again.

Now, I should hasten to note that this transformation has been neither complete nor continuous. Not every swing of the club of late has ended in pure bliss. The mind/ego is an insidious and determined thing. In moments of weakness, it still finds its way back in. But, in this renewed state of being—that values process over results—I seem to be better able to let such moments pass. If anything, they’re an opportunity to observe and learn. Even an apparent negative has been turned into a positive.

And has been the case since I first stumbled upon his book, Extraordinary Golf, Fred Shoemaker’s words once again echo in my ears. The part about playing the game from a place of “fascination.” And wondering if we can swing the club, not in fear of doing it wrong, but in deep appreciation for how that motion—our unique take on it—feels. And waxing poetic about a game that, in the playing of it, actually makes us more fully human and alive.

That’s the golf I should have indulged in these past few months. That’s the experience I should have embraced on the authentic links of Scotland. That’s the opportunity that, caught in the throes of my small mindedness, I let slip away.

Indeed, what a stupid I have been.

But no more. I have awakened from my trance. As soon as the low pressure system parked overhead moves on, I am determined to act out of this revitalized sense of awareness. And it’s going to be fun!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Links Love’s Lost: Here’s hoping a forced absence makes my heart grow fonder

Golf from Afar -- In the distance, above the sandy beach, you can just make out Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland. It will host the Open Championship in 2019 after a nearly 70-year hiatus.
When I last checked in, I let on that I’ve been grappling with a wee bit of trouble in paradise of late. In some cruel twist of fate, my passion for golf has waned—even though I find myself well situated in the game’s birthplace.

Go figure.

Now, I should make clear that the source of this malaise, as Jimmy Carter might put it, is assuredly of my own making. Scotland is still blessed with an abundance of riches when it comes to captivating links courses—both those that are well known and the many more that deserve to be. If you love golf, you really do need to make the pilgrimage here to experience it the way it was meant to be played. I sincerely hope my little Eeyore act doesn’t dissuade you.

Because, if I were to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with this fair land, I would tell it—as gently as I could muster—that “it’s not you, it’s me.” And, unlike failed romances gone by, this time it would actually be true.

The issue, then, is not what Scotland needs to do to rekindle the fire. No. It’s entirely up to me to stoke these embers.

So, what have accomplished since I last posted? In a word, nothing. On purpose.

Here’s where I’m going with this:

If my affair with golf mirrors that with a beloved, then perhaps the same motivating forces apply. And if that’s true, perhaps absence will make the heart grow fonder. In other words, if I abstain from playing golf, perhaps I will begin to feel the loss on a deep emotional level. Eventually I’ll miss it, desperately. At that point, I’ll be bound and determined to, once again, make the game one of my defining reasons for being.

At least, that’s the theory. And I’ve begun to put it to the test. With the exception of a quick 9-hole jaunt to introduce a friend of a friend (and his friends) to Goswick, my local club, I haven’t touched a club in nearly a month.

Now, while this cold turkey strategy has been largely by intent, fate has also lent a hand. In the midst of my self-inflicted angst, my mother very courageously decided to get her first U.S. passport and make her first journey overseas at the fine young age of 90 to visit with my wife and me.  She’s been with us the past two weeks and has one more week to go. Her adventurous spirit has been an inspiration.

Machrihanish Beckons -- This photo was also taken from Northern Ireland. But if you focus your attention on the silhouette of land near the center of the frame on the far horizon, you'll catch a glimpse of southwest Scotland.
We’ve had a wonderful time together, for the most part making half-day trips to local sites of interest. But we also took on a far more ambitious five-day jaunt to Northern Ireland in search of our family’s roots. Factor in a surge in day job demands as well as the ongoing challenges of living in a foreign country and, to be honest, there hasn’t been much room for golf—even if I had a hankering to play it.

But the game is insidious. Even with so many other seemingly more important matters to attend to, it has way of working its way back in. Consider Exhibit A and Exhibit B: the photos illustrating this post. Both were taken from County Antrim, where the McAlonan clan (my mom’s and, by extension, my ancestral family) once hailed.

As it turns out, the old homeland is only about a 10-minute drive from Royal Portrush Golf Club. It’s an absolutely fabulous links course that I had the pleasure of playing in 2000 on my first trip to Ireland. It’s also back on the Open Championship rota, hosting the game’s oldest major in 2019 for the first time since 1951.

The other photo was snapped near Carrick-a-Rede, a somewhat harrowing rope bridge—the first version of which is thought to have been hung by fishermen some 300 years ago to gain access to the salmon run near Ballintoy. Way off in the distance, along the horizon, you can just make out a land mass that happens be the Kintyre Peninsula, situated in the extreme southwest of Scotland. Each May, I travel there—specifically Machrihanish Golf Club—to reunite with friends from both sides of the pond. It’s one of my most sacred places on the planet.

Even when I try to keep my distance, the game—it seems—keeps calling back. And if I make the effort to retune my inner ear, I can hear its siren call.

As I do, and as I share this experience with you now, I can feel the subtle forces of attraction begin to stir. It’s telling me that my golf hiatus, while beneficial, won’t last much longer. And it’s reminding me that, while I might never fully understand why I play this ancient game, the simple truth is that I must.

If that’s not love, then I don’t know what is.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Blues on the Greens: Or how poor play is sapping the life force out of me

I love golf. I think. But it doesn’t always love me. Or so it seems.

And with that intentionally ambiguous opening salvo, I courageously aim to reboot this little blog of mine.

I am painfully aware of the silence these past two months, nearly an eternity in social media time. So for those faithful few who are still out there wondering, the least I can do is answer a few basic questions:

Are you still alive?

Yes. By all accounts, I’ve yet to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Are you still in Scotland?

Definitely yes. And, I should say, still gratefully so.

Are you still playing golf?

This is where it gets a wee bit murky. What I can say for certain is that, since my last missive in June, I have logged several rounds on some terrific links courses—such as Goswick, Crail, Machrihanish, Dunaverty and Western Gailes. But did my actions on these hallowed grounds constitute golf?  Highly debatable. A more accurate description would be futile attempts to flail away at the ball, occasionally interrupted by flashes of competence.

Thus my opening lament. And this long overdue post.

Trust me. I get it. Things have grown so quiet in this space that even the digital crickets have packed their bags and moved on. But perhaps, by jumping back in—even if I haven’t a clue of what lies below—I can regain my footing. Maybe, just maybe, I can rediscover my mojo.

The operative question, as always for me, boils down to just one word: Why? Why do I devote so much time, money and energy to what is ultimately a pointless pursuit? Why do I allow so much of my emotional wellbeing to hinge on whether my golf ball goes where I want it to go?

If you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance you often find yourself wrestling with the “Why?” question, too. If, like me, you struggle to come up with a satisfying answer, perhaps we can help each other out. I’m open to suggestion. At minimum, misery loves company.

Because, fact is, my poor play has me in a deep funk. And it’s not just a golf thing. The negative vibe stirred up on the course has begun to seep into my real life. I wouldn’t go so far as to classify it as depression. That would overstate my case and understate the fate of people who truly do struggle to function in the world. A more likely diagnosis is a bout of the blues, though it’s quite possibly the most virulent strain I’ve ever encountered.

As such, when I do play golf and things go poorly (as they inevitably do), I’m disinclined to want to bring that frustration home and wallow in it by writing about it. Yet, choosing not to process the bad juju doesn’t mean it goes away. The unresolved feelings simply get pushed under the surface, reemerging elsewhere in unhelpful ways.

Like, for example, disrupting a peaceful night’s sleep. Or restraining my embrace of each new day with joy and gratitude. Or clouding my awareness of life’s small but priceless blessings. Like a Scottish summer sunset. Or the supersized patchwork quilt that blankets the Scottish Borders at harvest time. Or the boundless energy of a Cavalier King Charles puppy (aka Winston).

It’s downright foolish if not borderline criminal to allow the inability to execute golf shots have such power over me. But the evidence would suggest that I do.

The good news? The first step toward solving a problem is to acknowledge that you have one. Hopefully, this post will check that box.

And maybe, after I press the publish button and share this confession with all who happen to stumble upon it, I can begin to heal.

Now that just might be a journey worth writing about. And, from where you sit, maybe it will make for a blog worth reading.

Hang in there with me.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Catching Up: After a little too much real life, I’m happily back on the links

Looking West -- I snapped this panoramic pic during an especially stunning sunset during my annual reunion at Machrihanish.
So, it’s been awhile.

My apologies for that. But I've had an action-packed month. And, unfortunately, not all of the festivities took place on a golf course. Real life has an annoying way of invading our little playground, even for a lucky bastard like me who now makes his home in the game's birthplace.

Time to get caught up, via what’s likely to be a wee bit of a rambling post.

Just prior to my last missive, I was preparing for my annual journey to Machrihanish to reunite with about 20 of my dearest friends who hail from both sides of the pond. That week did happen. And, for the 15th consecutive year, it was wonderful.

Playing Through -- The coos yield, begrudgingly, to our progress at Dunaverty, a one-off of a course in Southend -- not far from Machrihanish. 
It’s just that, simultaneously, my wife—in Abu Dhabi for business—contracted a severe case of food poisoning. Eventually both of us found our way back home. But, after just one night together, she spent the next five in the local hospital. Very scary stuff, to put it mildly. For the most part, that darkness has now lifted—though she has a follow-up with a specialist next week that might lead to additional treatment.

Golfer of the Week -- American Craig Eisentrout, one of my cherished lifelong friends, claims the spoils in the individual competition at Machrihanish. To his left is the prestigious Ryder Spoon, retained once again by the US in its annual battle with the UK.
In the midst of that crisis, our eldest daughter also spent time—29 days in all—in a hospital in Los Angeles for a series of planned surgeries that proved quite trying. So, with my wife stabilized, I traveled there to offer her my support before continuing on to Dallas to tend to the day job. My daughter will also be OK. But she still faces a few more weeks of recovery before she can get back to something resembling normal life.

Needless to say, golf took a backseat while I was strapped to this emotional roller coaster. Still, an addict can only go so long between fixes. The good news? My two weeks in the “Big D” happened to fall on either side of Memorial Day. The bad news? My clubs were back in Scotland. So when a friend offered to let me borrow his sticks over the long weekend, I happily accepted.

Low Tech -- Here's the bag o' sticks I borrowed while in Dallas. And, yes, that is a 2-iron you're seeing there.
Check out the photo though. That very mixed bag is anchored by a set of Hogan Apex irons that, by my calculations, burst onto the scene when Jimmy Carter was president. Now, I know I used to play golf—and at a respectable level—with a set of similarly crude instruments during my pre-marriage and pre-fatherhood days. But it’s a mystery to me how I ever pulled off that trick. I sure as shootin’ don’t have the game for them now. Bottom line: That holiday round on an utterly forgettable non-links course in suburban Dallas didn’t quite fill the void.

Happily, I returned to the auld sod two weeks ago. And with my wife and daughter on the mend and my client relationships in good stead, I started to get back into the flow.

Last week, I logged one round at my home course, Goswick. And then this week, like a bolt out of the blue, I received an invitation to play a round at Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers whose origins date back to 1744. This is the same Muirfield that’s hosted the Open Championship 16 times, most recently in 2013 when Phil Michelson claimed his first Claret Jug. It’s also the same Muirfield that might fall out of the rota, unless it changes its mind about allowing women to become members. But that’s a debate for a different day.

Gray Day -- Externally, a persistent gloom hung over Muirfield the day we got to play it (in this particular moment on the par4 12th hole). But internally? We were as giddy as schoolboys.
In the here and now, the salient point is that when the gates to golf’s promised land open, you are compelled to drop everything and enter. I did just that, quickly rescheduling two conference calls and securing my wife’s blessing.

Reunited, And... -- feels so good! I toured Muirfield, including the devilish par 3 13th hole, with my own custom-fitted clubs.
The terms of this deal preclude me from divulging too many details. But what I can say is that Muirfield is, by far, the best conditioned links course I’ve ever played. And it’s among the most difficult. Its bunkers, all 100-plus of them, are especially punishing. Still, even when your scorecard is taking a hit, how can you not be at peace? You’re walking on sacred ground. With all due respect to Jack Nicklaus and the club of the same name that he created in Ohio, this is the Muirfield, for heaven’s sake!

Iconic Finish -- Our joy ride ended much too quickly, with a walk toward the Muirfield clubhouse at the par 4 18th hole.
All of which brings me to the present moment. My loved ones are out of the hospital. I’m back in Scotland. And I’m walking the links, both the well known and the lesser so. This happy journey, after an unanticipated hiatus, has resumed.