Golf Whore

I.

The addiction has set in already and it’s only May. Most years it has taken until late-June or early-July for the madness to take me over. Now when it happens, I get up at 5:30 a.m., drag my clothes on quickly and drive down to our public course in order to hit then shag balls for an hour or more, then drive back home, get changed and drive to work. There, among the other chores of my work day, I will spend some part of it gleaning the internet golf sites, Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, YouTube, or one of fifty some odd books on golf I own, sometimes anxiously irritated, not being able to scratch the itch, sometimes patiently in search of new redemption in the swing or my equipment that will assuage the swamp fever for the day, and make the evening’s practice session as inviting a golden moment as the discovery of the West Indies must have been to Columbus on his maiden voyage.

It’s not always at fever pitch, although its allure is ever-present, restlessly nursing in the catacombs of my golfer’s soul. On Long Island, it had been different. I had my own legal practice and was obliged to devote considerable time to keeping it alive and my clients satisfied. Nevertheless, as a sole practitioner, I could take on a sufficient degree of responsibility while leaving enough time for golf. For then, my objective was to satisfy myself with as much golf as I could play with some semblance of sanity, and yet keep body and soul together. At least that is what I kept telling myself. If the weather cooperated, which pretty much meant if it wasn’t below 50 degrees with sustained winds above 20 mph, my playing partner would call and ask me if I could get out to play in the afternoon. If I had no appointments that day, or commitments for the next morning, we would meet at Eisenhower Park in Westbury, NY, about 2 miles from my office, pay greens fees, possibly grease the starter for an earlier time, and play nine or more holes.

Eisenhower Park was doubly convenient, since in the 1980’s I lived in Westbury, about a half mile from the first tee of each of the three golf courses there. This lifestyle was a happy concordance with my adolescence where I also lived close to a golf course, as I do now. When my wife and I later moved to Old Bethpage, where we lived until our move upstate, I marveled at how little renovation had been undertaken by our home’s former owner in the 30 odd years of his stewardship. The answer lay in a very few words, as my neighbors succinctly put it: “He was a golfer.” I recalled that, at the time I and my wife placed a bid on the home, which was by my predecessor’s design to be sold in one day, he and his wife were watching a golf tournament on TV and only interrupted their quiet adoration to accept bids on the house being relayed from our car by the broker. When we purchased the house, the owner gave me an old putter which, owing to its obvious infirmity (why else would he give it away?), I have never used, but still retain out of twisted sense of sentimentality.

The 2002 U.S. Open was held about a half-mile from my former home at the world-famous Bethpage Black Course, where afternoon rounds normally ran to 6 hours because of the demented devotion of the most religiously dedicated, albeit lesser golfers, who were determined to flog (which as most golfers know is “golf” spelled backwards) themselves into a frenzy knowing that their most enduring golf memory was being forged on one of its highest altars. The Black Course has a sign at the first tee that says, “WARNING – The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers.” As Shakespeare said, it was a warning “more honored in the breach than the observance.”

My father introduced me to golf at an early age and little did he know then that this partly selfish act — for I was to be his low rent caddy from the ages of 8 to 14, such was my patronage then — became for me the primal engram. Since that time part of my internal life has been absorbed by this convergence of senses: the smell of freshly cut grass, the bounce of the turf under foot, the hazard wind on my cheek, the weight of a bag of clubs over my shoulder, the sunlight on a white-hot golf ball flung against an intense blue sky and falling to an absinthe-green fairway, where it bounces and rolls to a breathless stop, and the faintest of sounds that is heard when a ball is finally struck along a tightly mowed and sinuously undulating surface of grass toward the inevitable, unsuspecting hole.

I began my life in golf at age eight, playing at the local muni, which was about a twenty-minute walk from my house. A junior’s fee was $10 for the year, $40 for an adult, unbelievably low in comparison to the fees now charged for annual memberships. Some municipal courses, e.g., those in metropolitan areas, do not have annual memberships and persist in charging a daily fee. But then Juniors could play unaccompanied by an adult, and that is how I started, playing with friends, slogging it up the fairway, making a lot of 8’s and 9’s in the first year, but quickly becoming a bogey golfer by the time I was 10.

Unlike the chaperoned and highly managed playtimes of my own children, my summers were pure idylls of unsupervised bliss. Golf was played on every weekday morning, a full 18 holes punctuated with a farmer’s soda (ginger beer poured over vanilla ice cream in a frozen glass) and a hot dog. A short walk home brought us to lunch; as both of my parents worked, my great-grandmother did the honors. Then out to play baseball, basketball, football, or any other pickup game with the neighborhood kids, until 4 p.m., when it was time to go home, relax a bit before dinner. After dinner, if my Little League team was playing, I would then put on my little league uniform and bike down to the ball field at Thomas R. Proctor Park to the fenced field where indelible childhood victories and defeats were wrought.

John Tunnel’s house lay, by the misfortune that God always visits on young boys, on my way to the Little League field. People think that Leave It To Beaver’s Eddie Haskell was modeled after some TV writer’s nightmare of the hobgoblin teenage menace that depanted him in the locker room after sitting second string all game. Eddie Haskel was modeled after John Tunnel. John Tunnel didn’t play Little League, but was determined to mindfuck every uniformed kid that biked passed on his way to a game. I was on the Dodgers and the name was scrawled in red script across the front of my jersey. Tunnel would circle a few times like a shark and then sidle up in tandem with me and would begin with the gentle Q and A.:

JT: So you play with the Dodgers? You think you got a good team?
Me: Yeah, we’re O.K., I guess.
JT: Who you playing tonight?
Me: The Pirates?
JT: The Pirates? They got Stamboli and Tehan, don’t they?
Me: Yeah, I think so.
JT: And Rabice and D’Accurzio, right?
Me: Uh-huh.
JT: What do you play?
Me: Second base.
JT: Are you a starter?
Me: Yeah.
JT: You’re going to gonna lose.
Me: Wha…
JT: You gonna lose. They’re gonna beat you.
Me: What are you talking about.
JT: They will kick your asses until you can’t tell your ass from your elbow. You’re gonna lose. Lose. Lose. Loser. Lose.

As I started to peddle harder, trying to get away from Tunnel, I could feel my emotions welling and the waterworks straining to burst their seams, hearing Tunnel behind me, “You Dodgers are nothing but losers, good luck carrying their jock straps.” This ritual torture was repeated many times in my two summers of Little League. By the time I got to the field I was a wreck, trying to shake off Tunnel’s voice in my mind, and attempting to find the lot where my team was meeting our coach, Sal Mazzaro. Somehow, coach’s pep talk never seemed to drown Tunnel’s mockingbird out until we got the first hit, then things usually settled down and I could concentrate for the rest of the game. Nevertheless, John Tunnel did me a favor, for I learned the need to discount what most people say about you, good or bad. This was especially true on the golf course where your darkest Tunnel is inside you.

II

Hank Balzano told me that, during World War II, he had saved the life of the man he was pictured with in the newspaper photo that hung in Vinnie Malacharie’s barbershop on Mohawk Street. At the time he told me this, I knew Hank, my father’s best friend, to be a man of great character and personality, and while it surprised me that I had not heard this WW II story before, I wasn’t surprised that it had happened. Although I don’t recall the man’s name or the details surrounding the life-saving that Hank told me about one morning on the golf course, this was probably only one of a number of life-saving events that he had been the hero of, including, notably, the time when Hank saved our house from one of the my brother David’s chemical experiments. At that time, Hank was our mailman and, by that serendipity of fate with which our family has been blessed, happened to be making his delivery at the time of the explosion in the cellar. Hank gallantly answered the frantic pleas of my great-grandmother, Rose, who, looking in horror at the plumes of smoke emerging from the cellar door, cried, “Frank, David’s downstairs, he’s going to kill us all!” David, as we all knew was a tireless tinkerer and had managed to obtain some bootleg mixtures to “soup-up” his starter chemistry set, much as he would later “soup-up” go-carts, race cars and his golf cart later in life. In any event, fire was averted and my great-grandmother lived many years after, although one suspects her life was made much easier when David moved on from chemistry to the mechanical experiments that were undertaken at a reasonable distance from our home.

I said that Hank was a man of great character and personality, and indeed he had to be. After the war Hank became an employee of the U.S. Post Office Department, first as a mail carrier – I do not say “humble” because, although he had great humility, very little about Hank was “humble” in the sense of retiring, meek or modest. He rose from ground level in the Post Office Department (which became the U.S. Postal Service in 1971) to become Postmaster of the Utica Post Office and Sectional Center Manager who was responsible for 129 affiliated post offices. Hank received many awards and honors and, by the way he told it, was loved and admired by most if not all of his employees. However, I secretly suspect that all of them were awed and intimidated by his intelligence, razor wit and commanding presence, as even those of us who had a close relationship with him always were. The government sent Hank to be educated at Virginia University and the Postal Training and Development Institute, and his rise in government service was by dint of hard work and natural talent alone. He did not come from money, and he made his passage in life the way John Houseman used to say in the Smith Barney commercial, he “earned it,” though using Hank’s name in the same sentence as Houseman’s would probably have brought a reaction from Hank like, “that pompous ass”; still I think he would have been secretly delighted by this comparison.

Hank was a dyed-in-pinstripes Yankee fan and a passionate Democrat. Although his faith in the Yankees could be undone in a given year with the fortunes of their pitching staff, I suspect that his unshakeable Democratic fervor was based upon his belief in the great force for good that government service could be, and that his honorable service in the armed forces and his lifetime’s work at the Post Office was a natural extension of this committed belief.

When I returned to Central New York in 1998 after many years in the New York City area, I rejoined the Valley View group, having been one of its original caddies, and almost immediately became Hank’s playing partner. I “drove the ball” for Hank, meaning that, on every hole with a par of 4 or greater, I would hit my drive and wherever the ball landed was where Hank would play his second shot; in other words, we would both be laying “1” on my drive. It was like a two-man scramble limited to the drive. On par-3’s, Hank played his own ball from the tee. Hank told me that, at age 75, he could not drive the ball because of physical limitations which he vaguely described as knee and leg problems. These, I mentally noted, did not seem to affect his mid-iron play. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly content to carry-on as one who could make up for Hank’s “handicap” and give him the ability to play competitively with the others in the group. When we arrived at my tee ball, Hank would place his ball on the turf next to mine and proceed to play the hole normally from there.

Valley View Municipal Golf Course is one of the shorter Robert Trent Jones layouts and defends itself primarily with its greens, which require a lot of local knowledge and skill to master. The experience of play on the course is enhanced by the beautiful vistas of the seasons in the Mohawk Valley which can be seen from many holes. The views from the 3rd green or the 7th tee which look from high over the valley are especially breathtaking, and when the city hosts the annual Boilermaker Road Race that takes the runners through the course, our group usually has a bird’s eye view from the 3rd green to watch the gazelle-like strides of the African runners in the lead pack. I grew my golf at Valley View and can still remember old Hank Furgol, Sr., our pro’s father, checking my grip and stance in those early days.

Until the last year or so I was fairly long off the tee, and if we were within 100 yards or less of the green, Hank would exclaim with feigned exasperation, “What club am I going to use here? Don, do you see where I am?” The meaning of this was clear: Don Carlo “drove the ball” for Hank on the weekdays, but he no longer had the breadth of distance he once had and was usually about 25-75 yards behind me when we played together on the weekends. Hank could simultaneously gloat over his advanced position on the course while playfully puncturing Don’s ego. I’m sure the psychology books have a name for the act of taking one’s fellows “down a peg” as the typical behavior of a natural leader, and this kind of teasing was an extension of that. We all fell victim to Hank’s wit on a regular basis, always performed with great humor, even if it stung the victim, and anytime he would level you with a phrase or rhetorical question (and the obvious answer) – rendered as always with the utmost confidence and aplomb – it was always well-deserved, and then promptly followed by the reflexive pile-on of the other members of the group.

I have to back-up a bit. I said before that, after my drive, we would approach my ball in the fairway and then Hank played the hole normally from there. Not exactly “normally,” for Hank also used an orange “putting ball” to putt with on the green. Hank said the orange ball was “perfectly round” and imparted a “pure roll,” as if that explanation alone sufficed in the circumstances, notwithstanding that there were four or more rules that were being broken when he did this. All of us knew Hank as a great putter already. Hank would sometimes make short putts with his eyes closed, just for laughs (or to instill heartburn if you were his partner). So, in addition to a long drive, the putting ball also gave Hank another advantage, a psychological one if nothing else.

Many, if not most, golfers, upon hearing of these, for lack of better phrase, non-sanctioned practices, viz., that whoever hit the longest ball in the group was Hank’s “driver” or that Hank used a putting ball, might have cause to conclude that such a man who stooped to such tactics to win at golf had to be of questionable character. To this I must respond, as Hank might, “Not on your life,” although he would never have been moved to defend himself to anyone outside our group. Rather than the discreditable and ignominious behavior of the “cheat” who proceeds cravenly, by dropping an extra ball through a hole in his trousers’ pockets and thereby “finds” a ball that was otherwise forever lost, or who clandestinely shaves strokes by misreporting his score, Hank’s conduct was open and notorious, and hence above reproach. He had been able to persuade everyone that these habits were as normal and necessary to his golf play as handicaps in general and therefore absolutely fair. Again, as I see it, this is a sign of the preeminent character of the man.

In fact, Hank needed all these advantages in light of my brother’s unremitting tightfistedness when it came to negotiating strokes for the round. I don’t know what happened in David’s golfing life, what unhealed scar tissue still lingered from past losses, what sand-bagging devil committed David’s soul to golf purgatory, but no longer could he be unwittingly seduced into giving someone a reasonable chance to win a golf match by virtue of the improvised and unique handicap system that the Valley View group had devised. When it came to doling out strokes to a man thirty years his senior, David brought the same tough business mind and crafty tactics to the golf course as he did to his construction business. From David’s point of view the game is won or lost on the first tee, and David knew what he was in for with Hank. “You don’t get strokes, you get better,” he wryly kidded when Hank opened the negotiation on the 1st Tee. Realize that we played for $1 on the front nine and $2 dollars on the back; it wasn’t the money that was at issue, it was the bragging rights that were incalculable in our golf games, and if you can imagine the wager being treated as one involving your future station in life, you can then begin to understand what degrees of underhanded conniving, practiced incivility, professed indignity and crude profanity were brought to bear at such a time. So at times like these, Hank observed the old saw, “Age, treachery and deceit will always overcome youth and skill.”

It is a short golf season here in upstate New York, so we take our golf seriously, though for most of the Valley View group not seriously enough to practice. “Practice, are you kidding?” Hank would declare incredulously after I once had the temerity to suggest that he try hitting the practice tee during the week. I have a couple of friends who play a match each weekend and whoever is the loser has to put the other’s picture on his office desk and refer to him as his “daddy.” Karsten Solheim started making golf clubs in upstate New York to give himself an advantage over his buddies at GE; he then formed PING Golf. Pros Dottie Pepper, Jeff Sluman, Laura Diaz, the great Walter Hagen, and my neighbor, 1990 PGA Tour Player of the Year, Wayne Levi, among many others, all come from upstate New York. So you better believe that winning at golf is sweet to us and bitter in defeat, especially to David, who we like to say is a “poor loser and a worse winner.” No trash-talking NBA player can celebrate a win like my brother. But Hank was just as bad. When David’s team went down a few strokes in the match and David began doing the worst thing any golfer can do in competition, which is to become sullen and show the other team you’re thinking about your game, Hank would gleefully whisper to me, but loud enough for David to hear, “See, he’s stopped chirping,“ and then falsetto-voiced to me alone, “hee hee.”

I secretly suspect that Hank taught David something about negotiating, because Hank would be just as tough and unrelenting in demanding strokes from David (or “we don’t have a bet”), and after he had wrung from David the desired number of strokes, usually by shaming him into it, Hank would still dramatically complain that it wasn’t enough and loudly admonish David as “the thief of Bagdad” for everyone on the nearby practice green to hear. Sometimes the bet wasn’t made until the first hole had been played and we were on the 2nd Tee, and then someone would finally blink because, as any competitive golfer knows, there is no mind-numbing, soul-stealing experience like the feeling of playing golf in a group without a bet. Nevertheless, until the last few years when Hank gave up his putting ball, perhaps in response to my naïve view that it was “cheating” – Hell, most of the Valley View crew made mockery of the rules – Hank and I were pretty successful as a team.

Hank was “street smart” and it showed in his golf game. He knew his limitations and he worked within them, just as he sometimes worked the other team over with psychological ploys to break their concentration, like continuing (quietly or not) a conversation while someone was playing their shot, letting the water stream at the drinking fountain on No. 4 (he would say he did it merely to get a cooler drink) and causing an arching shaft of water to make its white noise in the background while the rest of the group was teeing off, or huddling with some other players while either someone was over a short putt (yes, he even did this to his own partners). Age, treachery and deceit. I can attest that psychological training under Hank was better than any of the legendary antics of Tiger Woods’ father, Earl, and was one of the toughening factors that enabled me to play better and eventually win two club championships in the same year.

These “street smarts” could have unintended consequences though. For example, there were times when Hank left me nonplussed when, without warning, he would intentionally lose a hole in order to avoid going 4 up and thereby frustrate the other team’s ability to press the match and double the bet. This often had a gut-checking effect on me because I was usually confident we could win the press. I don’t want to give the impression that we avoided presses. But Hank had some scar tissue too and knew when our play was up to the challenge or not; he knew that, if we improvidently accepted a press (or pressed when we were down), we could end up losing more than we bargained for.

But I lost my temper with him one time, making a fool of myself in the process, when he miscalculated the strokes and batted his ball away on No. 17 and ended up sacrificing the match. When I called him later (my pride being such that it actually took a couple of weeks) and made a full-throated apology (yes, my loss of self-control was the more serious ethical lapse), he accepted quickly and graciously, telling me “You’re Lou Critelli’s son and that counts a lot in my book.” He knew that I would recognize this statement as not so much about my bloodline, but about the quality of my upbringing and the values we shared: who I was, who we were.

There would come a time in a round at Valley View with Hank that was always, as the kids say today, “sweet,” meaning “perfect,” a sense of attaining the divine in a ritual that unpredictably played itself out to a predictable end. To my mind this always happened on the back-nine at the par-3 14th hole. From the men’s white tees, No. 14 plays uphill 155 yards and is sloped back to front on the left-hand side and very narrow on the right-hand side, which is also guarded by a sand trap. There is out-of-bounds on the left for the entire length of the hole and dense woods behind the green. It is a challenging test of golf for these factors alone, aside from the manner in which wind and temperature can affect your ball’s flight. And, if the pin is cut center left, and your ball comes to rest anywhere above the hole, or pin-high left or right, you might as well resign yourself to bogey or worse, as it is nearly impossible to stop the ball near the cup from these locations. In other words, you’d best be below the hole, even if you are off the green. Then, of course, you have to hit your (second) approach shot strong enough, but not too strong, to tap in for your par; if you hit your approach too weakly, the ball will roll back to where you first played it and may even roll off the green as you stand by watching helplessly; too strong an approach may leave you above the hole and anything can happen from there. As we golfers like to say, you have to play No. 14 very “commercial.”

The only person in our group who, now and then, manages to pull-off the par or birdie miracle from above or to the side of a left pin on No. 14 is David Diodati or “Little David,” who has the best short game in our group and possibly in the entire VV membership. Little David has mastered this black art and has demonstrated his proficiency a little too much for my liking. Since both I and my brother are suspect putters, the putting contest often fell to either Hank or Little David in a given round. When Little David would coolly sink an impossible putt on one of Valley View’s many sloped and undulating greens, either for a win or to save my brother’s ass, you heard Hank comment respectfully, “That Little David, he’s a devil.” Of course, if Hank sank a similarly difficult putt, the good-natured ribbing of the other team was often: “And he wants strokes,” as if these indignities could no longer be brooked.

At the 14th tee, after my brother gave his customary wolf howl to the group on the green, Hank would usually say wistfully, ironic only in its ritualistic delivery, that his tombstone was just about 200 yards away in neighboring Calvary Cemetery and that he had made all appropriate preparations for the burial place from which he would be watching over us after he was gone. To this my David’s stock response was that we’d all be going over there to visit him and pay our respects by relieving our bladders of their contents, but, of course, said for Hank’s benefit in the crudest of terms. Hank would then complain that he had to drive the ball the 155- yard distance to the 14th green, which played uphill for Hank more like 200 yards, and that David again was “the thief of Bagdad” for not giving him more strokes. This was the ritual of the 14th hole. It was “sweet.” Despite his remonstrations, Hank still played No. 14 as well or better than many in our group even though, in all the times I played with him, I never saw him hit the green with his drive.

Walking off No. 14 there was always the feeling of the round’s impending denouement, the unraveling about to take place on any one or more of the holes going home. If we were down a stroke or two on the back-nine, and often we were because the 11th, 12th , 13th and 14th holes were challenging ones, even with my length, the match began to take on an electricity because, after No. 14, you could experience the nerves starting to fray. Hank and I had been through this, it seemed a hundred times, and I always felt Hank’s confidence, his confidence in my abilities as much as his own, even if we were down in the match.

I could drive the ball on No. 15 to within 100 yards of the green (or closer during the summer), and at that distance, both Hank and I normally had easy pars, and at least half the time one of our opponents (often my brother and David Diodati or Don Carlo) made an error which caused a stroke to be squandered. At No. 16 we usually played our second shots from within 80 yards of the green, but because it was a short hole we ordinarily halved it with the other team. Hence, No. 17 (a short par 5 easily reached in two shots) and No. 18 (a par 3) often decided the match. As I noted previously, Hank and I were pretty successful as a team and clinched the match by the end of No. 18, which, when it happened, caused my brother to complain that Hank had received “too many strokes” and then promise us that he was never going to give Hank that many strokes again, at the same time emphatically noting to my embarrassment that Hank had even beat me.

I learned a few other things from Hank during our time together on the golf course: That the first priority is family, as anyone can attest to his devotion to his wife, his daughter’s family, his grandchildren (often giving up weekend golf to go to their public school functions and sports games), his nephews, nieces, and rest of his relatives. That one must make his way in the world with honor and dignity, which he surely did. That he had been the victim of racism when growing up in Utica and that it is a deep cut that one never forgets or forgives. That one never gets too old to enjoy the beauty of nature (in early Fall, he would look at the magnificent tree vistas visible from many spots on Valley View and say, “Pretty soon, Jack Frost is going to decorate those trees with all the colors of the rainbow”) or the opposite sex (I can still hear him at 87 as he admired the female runners on the back nine of Valley View: “Firm of tit, tight of shank, or is it tight of tit, firm of shank?”). That one should work hard for what he believes in, as he continually did when he worked in his niece’s successful campaigns for the New York State Assembly. That our great East Utica spirit is undefeatable, even if the Yankees don’t win the series every year. And that, after your golf game is done, your friends are still your friends, no matter what kind of fools they made of themselves on the golf course.

Hank, as the acknowledged captain of the Valley View group, had a “no guests” policy. We were discouraged from inviting outsiders to play in the group, and on more than one occasion some of our friends had been rebuffed, after asking to play in one of our foursomes or fivesomes, and left standing at the first tee. The same exclusivity was true of our Holiday dinner at which he impressively officiated and always honored by first mentioning the names of the group’s deceased members. Hank treated our golf group like an Italian family at dinner on Sunday. There was pride of family, comradery, competitiveness, abundant sarcasm, and, although rare, the faintest notion of being in or out of favor because of last week’s recriminations. But mostly there was this deep connection between all of us, never to be taken-for-granted, but as natural as a breath of air.

© Steven M. Critelli 2012



Categories: Prose

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2 replies

  1. Not sure why, but I decided to check out your blog today and truly enjoyed this story. I will pass this on to my brother Joe. I learned a few things about VV that I never knew and wished that I was in touch with you when you lived on Long Island. I never knew that 14 was 155 yards; I always grabbed my 5 iron and hit it, unless it was windy and I dropped down to a 4. Best Regards, Pat

    • Ah, the 14th hole at the View, site of my one and only hole-in-one, made sweeter because I was playing with my dad and brother and Hank Balzano. Playing Kiawah this week. Hope to see you soon, Pat.

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