Smoke Signals


Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.”

Arnold Palmer

Among my greatest accomplishments is the fact that I never had the slightest interest in taking up golf. And it’s not as though opportunity has not knocked. I worked for a couple summers running the very modest tennis program in Grand Lake, Colorado, a mountain town that is home to one of the most highly regarded public courses in the Rockies. The tennis courts were close enough to the links that, occasionally, a frantic “fore” would echo through the pine woods just as a rock-hard golf ball landed seemingly from outer space in the midst of a match. Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, no one ever got doinked on the noggin by errant Titleists, though the threat of proximate golf was ever present, on several levels.

Because I was employed by the same quasi-governmental entity that owned and operated the golf course, I could, like all employees, play for free. Not once did I even ponder the notion of taking advantage of that opportunity. When duffers learned of my aggressive indifference toward golf in general and the Grand Lake Golf Course in particular, they would scratch their pates, jaws agape, and wonder aloud what sort of fool my mother had raised.

I would then relate a story that might border on allegory. I was sitting on the deck of the Grand Lake Golf Course clubhouse enjoying a beer. It was early evening, an idyllic hour during mid-summer in the Colorado High Country. The deck boasted an unimpeded view of the lower half of the doglegged ninth hole, which ended on a central-casting green pretty much right below where I sat sipping my beverage.

Making their way down that hole was a middle-aged couple whose marriage I guarantee did not last much past the point where, after 200 years, they finally putted their way to freedom. The husband’s effort was comedy of errors punctuated by invectives that had much farther reach than any of his shots. It literally took him 20 or 30 strokes to make his way down the hole to the clubhouse. And, like I already said, I could not see the upper half of the hole, so I assume it took him 20 or 30 shots to arrive at the point where I could spectate his acute case of abject inability.

Some of his shots sputtered only a few inches. Some were lost in the clouds of clumped dirt and grass that accompanied them as they flew completely in the wrong direction. The few that actually were hit forcefully ended up way back in the forest, in the general direction of the tennis courts. A couple even managed to defy the foundational laws of physics by traveling backwards. And every vector-challenged shot was followed by some sort of assault being waged upon the guilty club, which was either tossed, thrown, slammed, snapped, spat upon, cursed or wrapped around innocent trees.

The entire time, the wife made her dutiful and silent way by hitting shots that zigzagged at 89-degree angles to the orientation of a green that, to this couple, must have seemed at that point to be as mythical as the Emerald City was to Dorothy as she was being assailed by the Wicked Witch of the West along the Yellow Brick Road. The wife’s shots always seemed to land a few inches, but only a few inches, in the rough. Her next shot would cross the fairway, making one-degree’s worth of positive progress in the general direction of the green, but, once again, it would land a few inches off the fairway. It finally dawned on me that this stoic woman, who uttered nary a syllable this whole time — verily, her facial expression never even hinted at her emotional state (as opposed to her spouse, who looked like his entire head was about to explode) — was intentionally doing her best to not show up her red-faced, sputtering spouse. She — apparently a very competent golfer in a very weird sort of way — was calmly trying to take as many shots as possible to complete the hole. It was a marital horror show on public display for all to attest.

And, at the root of this display of abject misery, which was painful in the extreme to even watch, was golf.

This spectacle etched in stone my desire to avoid direct interfaces with golf courses at all costs. Life is frustrating enough without trying to navigate a dimpled little white ball into a faraway little cup. I have otherwise not-too-insane amigos who contend that one of the main attractions of golf is that it helps one overcome frustration, which would be a perfectly valid argument except for the fact that the frustration you’re trying to overcome is spawned by the very activity you’re using to try to overcome that frustration. I do not believe this strategy for overcoming frustration would withstand serious logical scrutiny unless, perhaps, one were inclined to overlay some sort of ambiguous Zen koan mentality onto a game played by people wearing bright-red checkered pants. And it would damn sure work in reverse were it ever applied to me personally. I would have to begin each round with three sets of clubs, for I, like the man I had watched on the ninth hole of the Grand Lake Golf Course, would, nanoseconds after sending a ball into a sand trap or water feature, become a serial golf club abuser. My blood pressure would skyrocket. My orbs would shoot out of their sockets like zits squeezed by pliers. Steam would spew forth from my ears.

“Well, then,” one of my linkster chums told me, “at least golf’s a game where you can drink while you’re playing.”

OK, that’s a plus, except that I have also learned how to drink while not playing golf. And it has long been my experience that applying alcohol to an athletic undertaking rarely achieves a positive outcome, unless you consider increasing one’s ineptitude factor to be positive. Think: bowling after the third pitcher.

A few years back, a magazine assignment took me to Roslyn, Washington, the town where the critically acclaimed TV show “Northern Exposure” was filmed. The timing of my visit was not coincidental. Right then, a hideous monstrosity called Suncadia, the biggest amenities-based development in Washington State history, was being built right on the outskirts of rough-and-tumble Roslyn, and, naturally, there was contention, as there always is when hideous monstrosities come to town. Many locals lauded the development for providing jobs in an area that had suffered economic hard times since the last coal mine closed in the early 1960s. Other locals predictably lamented the passing of Roslyn’s humble and hardscrabble existence. There were well-justified concerns about the deleterious long-term effects of suddenly having strangely attired urban-dwelling rich people descending upon an erstwhile pleasant dirt-poor hamlet.

The main selling point for Suncadia was and continues to be the three golf courses that anchor its adjacent real estate components to recreation-based unreality. The marketing people I had been interviewing for my story knew that I — then living in the biggest ski county in the country — was not easily swayed by the usual promotional bullshit arguments in favor of developments designed specifically for patrician wallets, but, to their credit, they tried to make the best of my skeptical presence. One of the ways they did so was by inviting me to attend the dedication ceremony for the development’s first golf course. And that ceremony would include a presentation by the course’s chief design consultant: none other than the legendary Arnold Palmer, one of the few professional golfers I had actually heard of. I gladly accepted the invite.

A few months ago, Palmer was much in the news, which is what got me mentally re-visiting my experience at Suncadia, way up in the Evergreen State.

First, I saw a Yahoo News link on the world’s 50 richest athletes. At the top of the list, with a net worth of $1.5 billion, was a creature who looked to have been used as a test subject for a plastic surgeon on acid named Vince McMahon, known for promoting various Wrestle-mania-type events. Number-two, with a net worth of $800 million, was Michael Schumacher, a German racecar driver whose name, not surprisingly, rings no bells with me. Third on that list, with a net worth of $675 million, was Arnold Palmer, which I found surprising. I would have guessed that Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, A-rod or David Beckham would have been well ahead of Palmer, if for no other reason than the quantities of dinero athletes made back when Palmer was in his prime pale by comparison to the stunning sums they make today. Still, Palmer won 62 PGA events, including 10 championships, and was considered the first star athlete of the TV era. And I guess he invested his prize money wisely.

Second, a three-part series on Palmer was set to run on the Golf Channel, which I would normally not have known about, since, to the best of my knowledge, I do not receive the Golf Channel, and, even if I did, I would rather whack myself in the nuts with a putter than watch golf on TV. I only learned about it because the series was being advertised ad nauseum on ESPN and CNN, two channels I do watch.

When I showed up at Suncadia, I was immediately intercepted by numerous security personnel before I had even fully egressed my beat-up VW van, which sort of stuck out against the backdrop of late-model BMWs, Mercedeses and Lexi that otherwise dominated the parking lot landscape. Given that Suncadia had just opened, these security personnel had not yet become jaded by the demeaning nature of their gigs. They were, at this early juncture, enthusiastic and thorough. The realization that these are pretty much the only types of jobs at Suncadia that will be available to the citizens of Roslyn —minimum-wage, dead-end, part-time, bad-benefits, non-union, ungratifying — had apparently not yet taken hold. They looked totally shocked when I presented my official invitation, as though they had based the entirety of their vocational expectations upon the photos of the well-coiffed target demographics presented in Suncadia’s glossy promotional literature.

I followed a throng numbering perhaps 200 through a polished bar that looked like it was designed by the same aesthetically challenged bean-counters who had conceived the Bennigan’s and TGIF chains. It, being brand new, sported nary a scuff mark on the tables, nary a drink stain in the plush carpet and nary a vibe of amusing debauchery. It was my guess that, should I return in 15 years, the scuff/stain/debauchery factor would not be much improved, unless, of course, the resort went tits up, something we can only hope for.

The throng and I followed a golf cart track to a tee box set at the top of a terraced hill. The expectant crowd formed a horseshoe around the tee, next to which was a pyramid-shaped stack of golf balls that numbered, I was told, 144.

Despite the fact that where we now stood until recently was home to a nice stretch of Pacific Northwest evergreen forest that had been obliterated to make way for fake ponds, groomed greens and cart paths, the scene was quite pretty. Since it was high summer, verdancy, albeit of the artificial variety, dominated the viewscape. Distant rolling hills provided backdrop for perfectly manicured, heavily fertilized fairways that had been discovered by gaggles of giant geese. Numerous Suncadia employees, who, it’s my guess, were right then coming to understand the true nature of their employment situation, had been tasked with shooing the geese away, which was almost as funny to watch as the husband-and-wife golfers I had watched in Grand Lake all those years ago.

Palmer was running a bit late, so I took the opportunity to scrutinize my fellow invitees. The ages ranged from teens to those putting their way through their golden years. Most were part of mixed-gender couples. There was a lot of blue hair. Definitely not the most physically fit people I have ever seen. Totally Caucasian. Not a scraggly beard among them. Definitely no bongs. Dressed in the height of tacky golf fashion. And clearly pants-pissing excited to be standing where they were standing.

I had no idea until that moment where Arnold Palmer ranks in the pantheon of golf gods. Come to learn, he is Zeus. Even if Tiger Woods had strolled up, I doubt he would have drawn an iota of worshipful attention away from the spot where the man whose nickname is “The King” would soon enough stand.

One of the main reasons for Palmer’s wild popularity (and for this, I had to refer to several biographical websites) is that he was one of the first world-class golfers to grow from non-aristocratic roots. Born in working-class Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1929, Palmer went to Wake Forest University, which, while hardly a community college, is not Ivy League. He even served in the Coast Guard for three years, not a common career trajectory for one of the best golfers ever to swing wood. Palmer is considered a blue-collar golfer, an “every man” in a sport perceived— accurately or not — as decidedly upper crust.

Why these people, with their flawless grooming and attention to fashion detail, gauche though it might be, would revere a man from the other side of the tracks, I could not guess. Seemed counter-intuitive to me, but I had no desire to spend any mental effort whatsoever trying to dissect the group psychology, or the group psychosis, of this particular socio-economic subset.

When Palmer finally arrived — along with a retinue of handlers, assistants, hangers-on and groupies — it was, of course, via a golf cart. It had the same vibe as the papal entourage, except with miniature electric vehicles adorned with the Suncadia logo. Though it seemed to me that it would be hard to make a dignified entrance via golf cart, Palmer’s fans broke into raucous, worshipful applause when he pulled up, even though his cart, which he was driving, almost clipped an elderly woman before coming to a less-than-graceful stop inches from a gent whose head, as a result of the near miss, snapped back so violently that his tacky toupee fell off and landed on top of a plastic beverage cup held by a man who was standing directly behind him.

Faces lit up as The King, then 77 years old, walked from cart to tee, greeting people, shaking hands and slapping backs the whole way.

There are few things I know enough about to make absolute comment, but one of those things is this: I know from intimate experience when someone is near-terminally hung over. Palmer, to his eternal credit, did not commit the sin of trying to pretend like he was not suffering mightily from bottle flu. He fessed up right away. “Last night, I was introduced to a beverage called Ketel One,” Palmer grimaced, referring to a brand of mid-shelf vodka for which he now serves as a promotional spokesman.

As wrecked as he looked, and apparently was, his spirit was high. He was in his element and on his game. He walked over to the bag of clubs that had been placed for his use next to the pyramid of golf balls. I honestly do not remember whether he started out with the wedges or the woods, but, whichever it was, Palmer proceeded to embark in orderly fashion upon the most astounding athletic display I have ever witnessed.

Actually, my jaw dropped before he ever took his first swing. Let’s revisit the afore-referenced pyramid of golf balls. I wanted to buy shots for whoever it was who managed to erect this impressive feat of engineering. Me? I could spend the rest of my life trying to stack 144 golf balls thusly and would never manage to progress past the foundational layer. And, if by some miracle I were able to construct a golf ball pyramid, I would have to avoid contact with my creation forevermore lest one molecule of my finger make contact with one molecule of a stacked golf ball, which would without a doubt cause all the rest of the balls to scatter far and wide, like atoms do during a nuclear explosion.

Yet Palmer, while scarcely even glancing at the pyramid, reached with the business end of his club and, without so much as nicking its neighbors, flicked a ball off the stack and onto the ground. He would do this same thing time and time again over the course of an hour. I would have paid good money just to witness that part of his presentation, which ended up consisting of three distinct, but intertwined, elements.

First, he would relate a few war stories about such-and-such a tournament, opponent or golf course. Then he would fire off a few shots down range. Then he would answer questions posed by audience members, who were very well versed in Palmer legend and lore. (This is when I learned that he apparently had risen to the top of the world of golf utilizing a swing that was repeatedly referred to as “idiosyncratic.”) Then he would replace the club he had been using, get the next highest (or next lowest … again, I can’t remember), nick another ball off the pyramid and start over.

Palmer was a great storyteller, a personality trait I respect as much as any other. His delivery was well honed, his timing impeccable, his anecdotes amusing, even to a non-golfer. The rapt crowd hung onto his every syllable. This dude could have shit his polyester pants right on the spot and that final act of digestion would have been greeted with a raucous clapping of hands. What was most weird was that I, the most golf-illiterate person for miles, seemed to be one of the few there gathered who was actually watching his golf shots.

It has been my pleasure to have witnessed some top-tier athletes in action. I saw, from a behind-the-basket, court-level seat, Magic Johnson leading a “Showtime”-era Lakers fast break, with Michael Cooper and James Worthy manning the wings, against the Alex English-led Denver Nuggets in McNichols Arena during the 1985 NBA playoffs. I was a line judge during a men’s final match between Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors when they were the top-two-ranked players in the world. I’ve watched pro skiers and snowboarders rocketing down the mountain. I’ve seen a martial artist fire off four devastating kicks with one jump. I’ve watched the Tarahumara Indians run on their home turf in Copper Canyon. I watched Steve Carlton mow down the Cubs in Wrigley Field the year he went 24-9 and won the Cy Young Award. Perhaps most impressively, when I was in my early 20s, I watched a 65-year-old tennis player, who sometimes coached me and sometimes was my doubles partner, fire off 10 consecutive impressively accurate serves — five in the deuce court, five in the ad court — with his eyes closed!

But I had never seen anything like a hung-over 77-year-old golfer launch shot after shot, while telling stories and answering questions, and not even come close to a mis-hit. Every swing Palmer took resulted in a ball flying straight as an arrow way the fuck down the fairway. There was not the slightest hook, slice, shank or dribble. His divots consisted of maybe one or two blades of well-coiffed grass being slightly disturbed.

I’ve seen Magic miss passes. I’ve seen Connors double fault. And of course it can be and should be argued that Palmer was not right then dealing with the pressure of competition. There were no vagaries caused by challenging course design. The weather was perfect. But he also did not have the focus that competition mandates. He did not have the pin-drop silence that defines golf tournaments. He had a loud crowd scant feet from the tee. And he had the kind of killer hangover that would have laid me and my most reprobate drinking buddies up on the couch for a solid 14 hours.

Yet … every … single… shot sailed distant and true. I moved around to eyeball those flawless trajectories from several angles, to see if my uneducated eye was missing anything. Ixnay. Every goddamned shot was perfect. The people who were peppering him with questions about his amazing comeback at the 1960 U.S. Open — played at Denver’s Cherry Hills Country Club — would have given a kidney to occasionally hit a single shot that took the form of every shot Palmer hit as he stood there casually mixing jocularity with astounding athletic proficiency. I’m sure a learned linkster could have pointed out flaws. Perhaps some of Palmer’s shots would not have set up the next shot very well, a concern for sure when you’re playing an entire hole. Perhaps those shots did not travel as far as they should have.

Still …

I didn’t know what I was witnessing, because I had never seen anything like it. Meditative consciousness being physically manifested by an elderly man who had been drinking vodka till the wee hours? A textbook example of muscle memory in action? The end product of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour hypothesis, times a million? An ability to move seamlessly, imperceptibly, into and out of focus? A life that never, under any circumstances, loses its focus? Luck? Sleight of hand? Smoke and mirrors?

Whatever it was, Palmer did not miss a single shot, and he took perhaps 100 swings. It remains the best example of athletic prowess I have ever witnessed. That I will ever witness.

When Palmer had finally made his way to the last of his clubs, with the pyramid of balls down to its foundational building blocks, he, to a thunderous ovation, thanked everyone for coming, then stood patiently as every single audience member walked by and shook his hand and tried to, I’m certain, say something not too stupid, something that had not already been said to The King many times before, something that would maybe register. Me included. When confronted by my unkempt, way-out-of-context self, he recoiled ever so slightly, but still took my hand firmly and asked, of all out-of-the-blue things, about my handicap, which, I learned later, is a measure of how bad a golfer is, rather than an observation about my obvious physical and/or mental shortcomings. He seemed both bemused and perplexed when I responded by saying, “For years, I tried to overcome it. But now I just live with it.”

I had anticipated before the fact that my visit to Suncadia would amount to no more than a pleasant diversion, one that I could share with my soon-to-be-jealous golf-playing amigos. (All four of them, including my brother.) “Hey, guess who I hung out with the other day?” I would ask those amigos matter-of-factly. I assumed that, 12 seconds after leaving, I would give my superficial interaction with Arnold Palmer little in the way of subsequent thought. Yet, as I drove my beat-up van toward Marko’s, a bar in Roslyn that allows dogs inside and that boasts a ping pong table, I could not help but feel there was some sort of salient and applicable lesson that was dangling right before me, ripe for the picking, if only I could move myself past the stereotypes I had possessed about golf and golfers and golf courses and golf-course-based developments forever and ever.

Maybe something about the power of focus and dedication to one’s craft. Maybe something about the harnessing and honing of motivation, whether that motivation is based upon coming from the wrong side of the socio-economic tracks or from a myopic desire to stand atop the podium.

Try though I might, though, I did not succeed in coming to any conclusions regarding Arnold Palmer and his ability to hit balls straight down a fairway while dealing with a bad hangover. At least no conclusions that applied even slightly to mere mortals like yours truly. I sipped a few pondiferous pints while my dog cavorted with a crew of local curs. Then, a lightbulb lit up over my dimwitted noggin. Of course, thought I! To gain enlightenment, one must occasionally turn directly to Scripture.

Joel Fleischman, the main character in “Northern Exposure” (played by Rob Morrow), was himself an avid golfer. As such, he delivered many links-based lines during the show’s six-season run in the early 1990s. Among his many golf-ish bons mots were:

• “Golf isn’t a game; it’s a choice that one makes with one’s life.”

• “There’s something intrinsically therapeutic about choosing to spend your time in a wide-open, park-like setting that non-golfers can never truly understand.”

• “It’s the union of mind and body, the interconnectedness. You know what I mean?”

• “Don’t rush your swing. Just let the power radiate from you core to the club head.”

• “Keep your senses open. Let your instincts calibrate with each new factor.”

• “It’s the focus, the attention to detail, the head, and the heart.”

These lines were not delivered by a character traveling in the same lofty linkster realms as an Arnold Palmer, of course. They were not even delivered by a character with fantasy-based aspirations of traveling up where the golf-club-bearing snow leopards dwell. Which is good, because those lines are thus able to resonate with a member in good stead of the hoi polloi at he sits in a dark bar nursing an even darker beer.

Taken individually, it is easy to categorize Fleischman’s lines as the worst kind of vapidity: That which is cloaked in faux profundity. But, viewed in the aggregate, they rise above the sum of their superficially trite parts. (At least they do after a few pints.)

It is tempting to deduce from Joel Fleischman’s witticisms that one must love an activity in order to excel at that activity, whether it be golf, tennis, rock climbing, playing the piano or knitting. And that, even if you do not excel, then you still love that activity and strive to be better. And, with enough love, you will get better, whatever that means. And, even if you do not, you love the context of the activity — the splendor of the rock face, the banter of your knitting partners, the contrast of a yellow tennis ball against the deep blue sky, the lush green of the fairway — enough to keep coming back for more. And, most importantly: If you’re really focused, and maybe a bit lucky, your love of an activity can bleed over to other aspects of your life. Maybe the patience one must master in golf helps one become a better boss or father.

After a while, a few ping pong players showed up, and I took particular pride in schooling them on the ways of spin reversals and strategic misdirection.

One of my vanquished opponents — who was required by bar protocol to buy me a beer — asked: “So, how did you get so good at ping pong?”

“Don’t really know,” I replied, not quite honestly. “I just enjoy it enough that I look forward to practicing as much as I do playing games. I get into the psychological drama that’s part and parcel of every match. I like the balancing act between passivity and aggression, between offense and defense. And I am confident enough in my abilities that I am able to relax and just go with the flow when I’m playing. I don’t have to try too hard.”

Many months later, as I was organizing my notes, I realized that what I had described was less about myself as a ping-pong player and more about myself as a yarn spinner.

“One day, I’ll figure out how to do that,” my opponent said, as we clinked glasses and toasted the beauty of movement and the beauty of the day.

A few miles outside town, over toward the Suncadia resort, I might have faintly heard someone yell “fore,” followed by what sounded for all the world like a guilty golf club being wrapped around an innocent tree.


What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive.”

— Arnold Palmer