Read the Ball
"What on earth are you thinking about?"
The sexy southern underbuzz of David Taylor's voice cut slowly through Alabama's insect opera.
I was afraid to tell him.
What I was thinking about had nothing to do with the golf drill he had just set up for me. But it was related to the neat line of golf balls waiting patiently in the grass just north of my right foot. In a connect-the-dots sort of way, they had led my mind to a stunning discovery: The theme song of Lawrence of Arabia
when hummed double time becomes the theme song of Ozzie and Harriet.
In that irrefutable truth, I was now sure, lay the key to understanding Western Civilization, and the shock of this discovery had kept me hovering over golf ball number one for several minutes.
"The point is not to think," Taylor coached. "Just hit the ball."
I had never hit a real golf ball before, so it was hard not to be nervous. And when I'm nervous I hum. The calming notes of Lawrence of Arabia
surfaced first. Then the golf ball started to swell like an inflating airbag coming at'cha, and extreme nervousness pushed the foreboding notes of Lawrence of Arabia
into the peppier, safer upper atmosphere of Ozzie and Harriet.
Hence my discovery.
Taylor wasn't impressed.
As director of marketing for Birmingham's SunBelt Golf Corporation, he had dealt with beginners and their excuses many times. In fact, his company actually built the rookie-friendly Robert Trent Jones Trail upon which we were standing. The Trail, as it's called, is an 18-course, 324-hole, 100-mile Alabama golf mecca considered by many to be the world's finest public golf offering. A 1990 survey showed that it had become the number one tourist draw in the state. Quite an accomplishment, since a 1980s survey had revealed that the only time people used to visit Alabama was when they had to drive through it to get somewhere else.
The Trail is why we were there. Or, why Taylor was there. I was there to go bass fishing. A certain golf magazine editor had dangled it in front of me as bait to get me to cave in on the golf part of an Alabama golf-and-bass-fishing story she wanted. I knew I could do the fishing part; the editor said I could just "walk the courses with the pros" for the golf part.
So there I was, a mere twenty minutes from downtown Birmingham, standing on the driving range of the Robert Trent Jones Trail's first course, Oxmoor Valley, where SunBelt Golf—and David Taylor—are headquartered.
By rights, I had no right to be there at all. The only eighteen-hole golf I'd ever played was miniature golf at Camp Putt with my ten-year-old nephew, who had made s'mores out of my score despite my hole-in-one on "Beaver Dam" (the secret is to putt between the two chewed-up "trees").
What Taylor had in mind was real grown-up golf with full-sized golf clubs and serious distances. Surely he knew the harrowing intimidation a tiny, waiting white ball inspires in all rank beginners. It seems so small, so far away. This inaccessibility tends to hyperfocus our attention on it, and soon the Airbag Phenomenon occurs: The golf ball grows to unmanageable proportions. As we watch in terror, our gaze takes on a laserlike intensity under which the ball's pale skin begins to crumple and smoke. Eventually its molecules compact until its mass finally collapses upon itself like a miniature black hole. So, by the time a beginner actually swings, the ball has pretty much become the hole, which explains why rookie golfers invariably miss the ball on their first swing.
Would that my problem were so simple.
Taylor was right about the thinking-too-much part. I was stuck in intellectual overdrive. It was clear that I wouldn't get over the shock of the Lawrence of ArabiaOzzie and Harriet
revelation anytime soon. But maybe I could do some sort of mental transference that at least would make my hands actually do something.
"Okay," I thought. "Just pretend you're Peter O'Toole galloping by and . . . um . . . playing polo."
Britain. British actors. Polo. Polo ponies. Hitting balls with sticks. It could work.
I continued to stare dumbly at my equally dumb—or at least mute—golf ball. "Okay," Taylor said finally, his southern hospitality careening dangerously near the Bronx zone. "Just read the ball."
Read the ball?
I brightened. If reading the ball was anything like reading the water while fly fishing, then Taylor was on to something. Maybe he wanted me to fully consider its position, the particular way it was perched upon a certain tuft of grass, lending it that extra bit of elevation. Or perhaps he was referring to its symbiotic geometry, its mathematical relationship to, say, that tree, this bush, my shoe. A golf-ball-as-center-of-the-universe sort of thing, which would, somehow, manifest in certain logarithmic assumptions and implied swing corrections.
"No," Taylor corrected. "I mean read the ball. Read the writing on the ball. The brand name. That name right there," he said, pointing to tiny black script scrawled across the ball's stippled surface.
"Okay, I can do that," I proclaimed with new confidence. "I like to read."
"Well, keep reading until you make contact with it."
"With the brand name?"
"With the ball."
My mind could almost hear his mind add: "you moron."
"Okay," I replied. "Read the ball."
To be honest, there wasn't all that much to read. Just the strange word
"Titleist." It looked like a secret golf code, but I figured this was not the moment to ask David what it meant.
"Read the ball," I told myself. "Just read the ball."
Then I started doing it. Actually reading the odd little word on the ball over and over. Titleist. Titleist. Titleist. Suddenly the word took on a tempo of its own, a one-two-three waltzing gait that began dancing slowly around my mind. TIGHT-elle-list. TIGHT-elle-list. TIGHT-elle-list!
Just as suddenly, but without my instruction or permission, my hands moved! Pulling the club—a seven-iron—up behind my right shoulder, then, just as automatically, pushing it down hard, the club head aimed directly at my unsuspecting golf ball.
Then I hit it.
To my complete amazement, the ball went helicoptering into that moody springtime air with serious Michael Jordan hang time. Real time didn't slow down; it accelerated. My life didn't pass before my eyes; my future did. And David Taylor, I noted, wore a gentleman's grin that split his handsome face like an Alabama watermelon, intent on this moment of ripe perfection.
"That's golf," he declared. "Now, hit the other ones."
Excerpted from Driving Myself Crazy by Jessica Maxwell. Copyright © 2000 by Jessica Maxwell. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.