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Column: Golf is so much more fun – and less stressful – as a team sport 


The first rule of the Rotary golf event is: You talk and talk about the Rotary golf event. You persuade local merchants to sign up as tee sponsors, raffle sponsors, or silent auction sponsors. You talk every golfer you know into playing. In the run-up to the tournament, you post signs and hand out fliers. In the last days you watch the weather reports, employing whatever voodoo you have to ward off low-pressure systems.

Then the fun starts. Watch out down the fairway – I’ve got my bad-drive warning ready to go: “Service beFOOORE self!” 

Dave Cutler

For many Rotary clubs, the annual golf event is one of the year’s biggest fundraisers. In September, my Massachusetts club held its 22nd annual Northampton Rotary Golf Tournament, a day the players might have enjoyed even more if not for the worries that bedeviled so many of them:

How will I play?

What if I embarrass myself?

Why is golf so damn difficult? 

You can blame the Scots for making the game so hard. Long ago they made the hole a mere 4¼ inches across and banned do-overs. Since then, golfers have spent too much time kicking themselves and cursing their luck, and too little time heeding Ben Hogan’s advice to stop and smell the flowers along the fairway.

Luckily for me, I have hit so many lousy shots in more than 40 years as a golfer that I have developed a sort of immunity to the jitters. Here’s my secret: One day I noticed that everyone on the course was as nervous as I was. Everybody else was so worried about his or her own game, they barely noticed how I was hitting the ball. 

Golf got more relaxing after that. No easier, but a lot more fun. 

Joining my foursome at the first tee, I saw that I was the only guy in our group. We were the Lemon Drops: Julee Clement, a corporate comptroller and treasurer of our Rotary club; Kris Armstrong, recently retired from a career in the timber business; Lesley Birk, an executive with the Boy Scouts of America; and me. As we donned yellow T-shirts, Lesley mentioned that it was her first round of golf ever. “I’m not nervous,” she said bravely. “I’m here to help the team.” She had a tattoo on her leg, a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” 

We were playing a scramble, a format that allows every member of a team to hit a drive, then pick the best one and play again from there. Your group gets four tries for every shot. A scramble makes for low scores and plenty of team spirit. Even so, we found ourselves playing through a forest. Kris, who knows how to cut a tree trunk so that the tree falls away from you, wished she had her chain saw. But we kept swinging and even made a couple of birdies no one expected from the Lemon Drops.

On one of those holes, I swung as hard as I could. My ball zoomed straight into a sand trap, then hopped out to the edge of the green. (Sometimes the golf gods give you a break so you won’t take up tennis.) Of course I duffed the chip shot. But Julee ran her chip to the lip of the cup and we tapped in the putt. That’s how you ham-and-egg your way to a score: When one player messes up, his teammates make up for his blunder. 

And that’s the charm of a scramble: It’s teamwork in action. In fact, ham-and-egging makes for a good Rotary metaphor – we combine our efforts for a better outcome than any of us could achieve on our own.

There were 44 golfers in action that day. Club President Phil Sullivan had pulled into the parking lot before dawn. Sullivan wasn’t playing today – he had had part of a lung removed a few months before. Still, he spent an hour unloading tables, chairs, traffic cones, a couple of jumbo umbrellas, a U.S. flag, and a Rotary-wheel road sign that weighed approximately 6 tons. His doctors would have winced to see him huffing and sweating, but Sullivan rests when his work is done and no sooner.

By breakfast time, he had plopped into a folding chair to greet the first golfers. Some resembled the pros you see on TV. They carried binocular range finders and shiny clubs that made my Sunday bag full of old sticks look like the garage-sale reject it was. Yet the Lemon Drops hung tough as the day went on. At the seventh hole, a long par 3 where a hole-in-one would win a new car, I swung hard again and would have made an ace if the hole had been the size of the Arizona Meteor Crater. Kris, swinging a red persimmon driver, knocked one to the green and we made par. Don’t look now, fancy golfers, but you’ve got four Lemon Drops sneaking up behind you. 

As the group’s veteran golfer, I kept getting asked for swing tips. Fortunately, the golf swing is pretty simple. All you have to do is keep your left arm straight and turn your left shoulder under your chin. Tuck your right elbow into your side. Keep your eye on the ball as you bring the club back until the shaft is parallel to the ground, then start down toward the ball, shifting your weight over your left knee as your hips turn … OK, maybe it’s not so simple. Maybe that’s why there are only a couple of hundred humans getting rich playing golf. The rest of us, if we’re smart, settle for hitting a good shot now and then.

It’s hard to relax when you’re making your golf debut in a tournament with cash prizes at stake, but Lesley was full of team spirit, playing a bright yellow ball that matched our T-shirts. Her trademark ferocity came out on the greens, where she smacked a few putts that were still picking up speed as they reached the parking lot. Through it all, she never complained. She had intuited the secret of social golf: Everybody wants an upbeat partner.

Still, it’s no fun when the team never uses your ball. Lesley hit a few good shots, but somebody always hit a better one. It went that way until the last hole. By then it was clear that we weren’t going to win, but we could still post a score that raised eyebrows. All that stood between us and a Lemon Drops-record score was a short putt. Just 2 or 3 feet, the kind of putt you would call a gimme in a casual round. But they don’t have gimmes at the Northampton Rotary Golf Tournament. 

Julee missed the putt. Kris missed. I stepped up and confidently missed.

It was up to Lesley. She didn’t have a putter of her own, so she used Julee’s. She peered down at the ball, took a breath, pulled the putter back, and smacked the putt right in the hole. 

While we won no cars or cash prizes, we had our moments. More important, our club cleared $6,000 for its causes: our annual holiday party for underprivileged children; the local Survival Center food bank; the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; and the club’s ongoing effort to provide clean water for families in Guatemala. Few golfers ever played for better reasons. But when I think back on the 22nd annual Northampton Rotary Golf Tournament, what I’ll remember is the 19th hole. That’s where the four of us lifted beers with twists of lemon, toasting Lesley’s putt. 

-- Kevin Cook is a former editor of Golf Magazine. His latest book is Electric October.

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