I am a terrible golfer, but playing courses all over the world has given me a true love for the game
It is one of the most unusual places I have played a round. As I get off the rattling tram and descend into a green space – wedged between the Vltava River and a busy four-lane highway on one side, and clattering commuter trains on the other – I approach Prague’s premier urban golf course.
With each step, a familiar feeling builds in my chest: a steady mix of hope, anticipation—and absolute dread. My heart beats faster when I check in with the proshop and learn that I will be paired to play with a stranger. I’m fine enough going solo, where no one else has to watch me repeatedly shoot my Top-Flites directly into the woods. It is another thing to have a witness.
As I approach the first tee at Golf Club Hodkovicky, which sits next to the stone pillar of a massive train bridge, Jan is already warming up. He’s fit, his clubs look expensive, and his clothes are straight off the PGA European Tour. But he’s friendly, quick to smile and shake my hand, wishing me a good round. If only he knew. Standing over my ball, driver in hand, I take a deep breath and prepare for disaster.
I’m a terrible golfer. In fact, even the label “terrible golfer” is generous, because it implies that on some level I can actually play golf. I routinely use up a couple of sleeves of balls in a single round. My specialty shot, which I seem to hit on about two-thirds of my drives, is what my cousin Kevin used to call a “worm burner.” No lifting from the ground. Just a notch, and a hot shot, spitting up grass and leaves in its wake before it came to rest several steps further up the fairway. I guess it’s better than completely dropping the ball, but I do a lot of that too.
But here’s the thing: I love it. There is something about golf that calls to me. At least a couple of times a year I feel the need to swing a club.
Every weekend duffers have heard the quote (from Mark Twain, perhaps) that the game is “a good trip, spoiled.” And despite its inherent frustrations, the beauty of the areas where golf is played is part of the joy for me.
On a trip to the US Open, I played a round at Pinehurst Country Club, a legendary North Carolina golf destination that has hosted that major twice. Everything was perfect: the mowed greens, the sand like a beach dream. Even fescue had a kind of wild glory. (Which I experienced often, as my ball landed there many times.)
At Bear Mountain on Vancouver Island, my 18th round provided a very nice excuse to stroll through the craggy mountains, with views down to the city of Victoria and the ocean. Afterwards, a big steak dinner, a massage at the spa and an evening by the outdoor bonfire softened the memories of the times I swung and missed the ball completely.
In Kenya, my golf game served as a safari walk. As I played Aberdare Country Club, just below the flanks of Mount Kenya, wildlife wandered across the course. The snowy peak peeked out between the clouds. A caddy provided both practical and moral support, shooting sleepy zebras and wildebeest so I could take my poor chips, while congratulating myself on even slightly OK drives. “You hit it right!” he told me, on a particularly long worm burner. “I’ve seen it!”
There is also a social side to the sport that cannot be discounted. On a recent round with Chris Ryall, a friend and fellow travel writer, we played 18 on the Battlefield Course at Legends on the Niagara, in Niagara Falls, Ont. Located next to an actual War of 1812 battlefield, the course is set near a major bend of the Niagara River and bisected by a sparkling creek. Ranked in the top 100 courses in the province, it was not easy and my game was even worse than usual. In the end I just picked up the ball and enjoyed the sun and the banter. (I asked Chris for a quote about what it’s like to play golf with me: “Playing with Tim always makes your own game look good.” Exactly.)
But there is more, and I feel it out there on the urban course in Prague: a singularity of focus, that the game and the course are the only thing on your mind, at least for a few hours. You are there for one purpose: to get the little white ball into the hole. It’s all about the next shot.
After taking a long breath on the first tee, I pull into the backswing and of course hit a worm burner. The previous night’s rain had softened the pitch, meaning the ball threw up a long tail of water as it sank almost immediately. Long break. Then Jan, my playing partner: “OK, at least that was right.”
I’m playing about as well, or as bad, as usual. But it is a glorious afternoon, the slanting autumn sun bouncing off the changing leaves. Jan talks about his family, his travels, his business importing steam cleaners and running a clothes shop. It’s a rare opportunity to spend hours hanging out with a local, getting a small snapshot of their life in this place far from home.
And I manage to hit some solid shots, lift a couple of long drives down the fairway, even curl in tough left-to-right breaking putts, and drop it in from about 20 feet out. But then, as they always do, the wheels come off. On the final Par-5, I drill two consecutive shots into a low bridge, Top-Flites, one after the other, creating a big splash in the pond.
But when I look back, I will remember the sun, and the talk, and the laughter with Jan. And the one perfect picture. And I guess that’s the beauty of golf. You can ride so much adrenaline. Remember the good things. Pretend the rest didn’t happen.
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