David Weiss: In Search Of…

Your lost ball is quite possibly his gain

When I was a skinny young punk growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, our daily newspaper hosted a free summer golf clinic at the local muni, Rackham Golf Course, which, to my unpracticed eye, looked like a flat, corn-less cornfield with 18 random flags impaled in it here and there. Flags yes; corn, no. What a waste of good Midwestern soil, I concluded naively, little suspecting I’d be hunting for birdies some five decades later in life.

As a more discerning adult, I would learn that the humble stretch of turf bordering the Detroit Zoo was designed by none other than Donald Ross himself, the Scottish visionary responsible for Pinehurst No. 2 and Oakland Hills (another suburban Detroit layout – the one Hogan derisively labeled “The Monster”) among many notable others. I wonder if Ross knew that the adjacent howling-and-stomping elephants would be a decisive factor when staring down a four-footer for par. I’d like to think so…

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a golf architect at that point in my fledgling career. Using a set of clubs that today would be deemed “game destruction” irons, I flailed away with furious vengeance at a variety of bargain golf balls — Top-Flites and Kro-Flites, Slazengers and Dunlops — which were as easy to slice open as a ripe banana. Luckily, my knack for finding the lost balatas of other golfers proved a convenient alternative to actually paying for a premium sleeve. Hey, that would have been my firecracker and Baby Ruth money – kids have priorities too!

Unfortunately, the dirty habit persisted. If I am a member of your foursome and the group ahead hasn’t even reached the green yet, you needn’t panic when I disappear from view for a few minutes. I am likely as not in the shady cool of the woods — snake-killing pitching wedge in hand — with eyes wide open for anything vaguely spherical and whitish. I have been known to emerge from said ventures with a dozen balls stuffed in my chinos, which I then distribute to my crew like a polo-shirted Santa Claus.

You may say I’m a vulture, swooping out of the sky to profit from the misfortunes of others — the hopeless hookers and slicers who donate their twice-hit Callaways and Titleists into the heather and beyond. Frankly, the analogy is apt and I am guilty as charged. Wasn’t it Friedrich Nietzsche who absolved birds of prey from opprobrium by congratulating them on their ruthless Darwinian skill-set? They are neither good nor bad, the philosopher mused, they just coldly and efficiently take care of business — which in this case means eviscerating any poor lamb with a limp. Hey, that’s showbiz!

I, too, function as a kind of cosmic vacuum cleaner, filling my golf bag with provisions for the long winter at the behest of those too timid to fight Ma Nature in her wildest precincts. As just karmic reward for my avarice/stinginess, I have contracted several cases of poison ivy, innumerable wardrobe rips and tears and have even left that lethal wedge in the woods on the odd occasion (isn’t that where they got the term Wedgwood?).

But it’s not just free golf balls that one acquires. There is also an opportunity to commune with the trees and the bees, to free oneself from the shackles of hip-turns and double-bogeys and fill one’s lungs with the fetid stench of rotting leaves and brackish ponds. You don’t earn your purple heart at this war until you’ve filled your golf shoes with murky black water and festooned your snazzy outfit with 300 cockleburs. Enter the woods looking like Tiger and exit resembling a mangy dog. Not for the faint of heart, nor the easily shamed.

And, by the way, there’s also a hint of serious anthropological inquiry involved. Did you know that the further you trek into the woods, the worse brand of ball you find wedged between rocks and hard places? I’m not going to name names, but let’s just say one reaches a “pinnacle” of despair cutting one’s forehead on a branch only to discover that you’ve found a ball that even a homeless golfer would reject. But one must trundle on in the name of science!

Several weeks ago, I spent four days golfing up in Whistler, British Columbia, where the director of golf at a swanky course accompanied me on a morning round and soon noticed my frequent jaunts into the majestic pines. After warning me about stirring a sleeping bear (in which case the old PW might prove inadequate), he guided me to a huge tree with a hollowed-out trunk where an infamous local squirrel had been stashing used golf balls by the dozens.

Apparently, the beast was known to sink his tiny teeth into a ball after it came to rest on a green, then ran off to his cellulose safe-house to hide the loot. I peered into the dark and curious collection, trying to make out a desirable logo or two, but resisted the urge to just clean the little rodent out of his well-earned archive. That’s called having principles, people – ever heard of honor among thieves?

Man to squirrel, I must admit I felt a little admiration for my four-footed adversary, for whom the hunt itself was paramount, not the quarry! Volviks or Maxflis, Pro V’s or Bridgestones — this rabid little bugger didn’t discriminate by spin-rate or softness around the green, he was just doing what successful organisms do: planning for the future based on past contingency. Mind you, when winter comes and Rocket J. Squirrel is trying to make a hearty meal out of surlyn and urethane, he might just regret eschewing acorns for Acushnets, pardon the alliteration.

I may have also learned a life-lesson from that critter, though I’m neither sure what it is, nor whether it will prevent me from further forays into the forest. All I know is that I am no better than that irrational, foot-long hoarder, with my closets and car-trunks bulging with lost golf balls that some hopeless hacker still dreams about at night. For that I apologize, and promise to unload a fat bagful or two on a youth golf program – as long as they don’t mind hitting non-premium brands.

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