“It was a morning,” writes the great P.G. Wodehouse in “The Heart of a Goof,” “when all nature shouted ‘Fore!’”
The breeze, as it blew gently up from the valley, seemed to bring a message of hope and cheer, whispering of chip-shots holed and brassies landing squarely on the meat. The fairway, as yet unscarred by the irons of a hundred dubs, smiled greenly up at the azure sky; and the sun, peeping above the trees, looked like a giant golf-ball perfectly lofted by the mashie of some unseen god and about to drop dead by the pin of the eighteenth. It was the day of the opening of the course after the long winter, and a crowd of considerable dimensions had collected at the first tee. Plus fours gleamed in the sunshine, and the air was charged with happy anticipation.
So it was yesterday, or so it almost was, when Front Porchers Polet and Peters and a third figure, whom we shall refer to as “Junior,” after having stuffed their gaping maws with burgers at the Peanut Barrel, East Lansing’s finest bar, stood upon the par-four first at Timber Ridge Golf & Swearing Club.
It was no test of wits, no clash of political theories, of localist credentials, of best-told tales from the old undergraduate days among the Calvinists.
It was golf.
(“Golf,” writes Wodehouse, “is the Great Mystery. Like some capricious goddess . . .”)
Anyone who aspires to play this sacred game respectably—including our two aforementioned Porcher heroes plus the figure who rounded out their threesome—must establish the minimum goal of not being like “poor Jenkinson,” a character who appears not entirely to good report in “The Heart of a Goof.”
In all that gay throng there was but one sad face. It belonged to the man who was waggling his driver over the new ball perched on its little hill of sand. This man seemed careworn, hopeless. He gazed down the fairway, shifted his feet, waggled, gazed down the fairway again, shifted the dogs once more, and waggled afresh. He waggled as Hamlet might have waggled, moodily, irresolutely. Then, at last, he swung, and, taking from his caddie the niblick which the intelligent lad had been holding in readiness from the moment when he had walked on to the tee, trudged wearily off to play his second.
The Oldest Member, who had been observing the scene with a benevolent eye from his favourite chair on the terrace, sighed.
“Poor Jenkinson,” he said, “does not improve.”
One does not want it said of oneself (not of Polet, not of Peters, not of “Junior”) that “he does not improve.”
(Improvement itself, of course, is relative: does Polet improve relative to par? Peters relative to Peters, BC (before children)? “Junior” relative to, say, an octopus?)
Had there been an impartial onlooker following their threesome around the Timber Ridge Golf & Swearing Club yesterday, this observer might have noted Polet’s checklist approach to each shot, Peters’ unstudious manner of slapping each shot according to feel, and “Junior’s” “Jimmy Cracked Corn” attitude.
(What, you ask, is that? Here it is in a nutshell: Polet: “Junior, your ball just went into the woods.” Junior: “Jimmy crack corn!” Peters: “What?” Junior: “Jimmy crack corn!” Polet: “What the hell does that mean?” Junior (breaking into song): “Jimmy crack corn, and I don’t care; Jimmy crack corn, and I don’t care …” Or, Polet: “Junior, why didn’t you study that straight twelve-inch putt before you hit—and then missed–it left.” Junior: “Jimmy crack corn!”)
So it must come as no surprise to any reader that as this threesome, after several poorly played shots (accompanied by much cussing), and after several well-played shots (accompanied by less cussing), approached the 18th tee, which is a real par tester, Polet was checking his Sky Caddie (a GPS system that tells him where he is in relation to the flagstick, the cart girl, tenure, promotion, and retirement), Peters was working his abacus to calculate the score, and “Junior” was cracking jokes about how much money he had returned to the golf course by losing in the water hazards golf balls purchased in the pro shop just hours ago.
“It appears,” said Peters to Polet, “that if we make pars on eighteen, we will both shoot sixty-nines. What do you think about a pair of sixty-nines?”
Whereupon Polet, breaking away from his gadgetry, said, “are you joking?”
Peters, calculating on his abacus the number of jokes relevant to the score (and preparing to tell them on his stroll up the fairway), said, “I never joke. You’ve seemed uptight the whole round. I think a sixty-nine might do you some good, don’t you, Junior?”
“Jimmy crack corn!”
Peters, rejecting his spoon for his hickory-shafted brassie, stepped up to the tee markers (for he had the honor), teed his ball, addressed it, and sent it down the right side of the fairway, a gentle draw keeping it from the right-hand rough.
Polet, rejecting his metal three-wood for his driver with the graphite shaft and oversized titanium head, stepped up to the tee, checked his grip, waggled, looked down the fairway, checked his grip again, waggled, looked down the fairway, looked at the ball, checked his Sky Caddie, took his club back, and gave it a good pass across the tee. His ball sailed up the right side of the fairway and drew gently back into the center.
Whereupon Polet let fly an obscenity. (Apparently the ball should have gone one more yard.)
Junior teed his ball, addressed it, and sent it into the woods. “Jimmy crack corn!” he said, and pulled his tee out of the tightly shaved poa annua and bent grass forest of ornamental turf.
While Jimmy cracked corn, Peters cracked jokes up the eighteenth fairway.
Polet, having studied his approach shot by consulting six or seven hand-held devices (including the Sky Caddie), sent a six-iron sailing to the green, his ball just right of the flagstick. Peters, spade mashie in hand (for he had been out-driven), walked up to his ball, swung at, and pulled it into the left green-side rough. And Junior, for the most part unnoticed—and happy to be unnoticed—hacked his slow methodical way to the green.
Peters at first pulled out his niblick but then replaced it for his Jigger, which, after a few practice swings, he used to send his ball in a lovely arc toward the flagstick. The shot was conceded: sixty-nine. Junior had a thirty-footer to end the misery, which he miraculously sank, to the tune of “Jimmy Cracked Corn.”
Whereupon Polet studied his twenty-foot putt, first from behind the ball, then from behind the cup, then from the left side, then from the right, then from the screens of several hand-held devices. At long last (the stars were twinkling), he brought his putter back and sent his ball toward the hole. A birdie! He had (some would say foolishly) spoiled the sixty-nine but taken the honor.
Polet, you see, is no Jenkinson.
And yet still he cussed. “That %$#@?*& ball mark almost made me miss that!”
What, the reader may ask, is the point of all this?
You must read Wodehouse and think of the Ancient Mariner. Then you will know.
As for Peters, well, he did what honorable losers do: he led the victor to good beer.
But on the very next day the late great Michigan Brewing Company, recently defunct, would be put on the auction block. Who, having first lost the laurel and then found himself confronted with this sad news, could possibly have risen to the occasion?
I’ll tell you who. Next time you see Front Porcher Polet, ask him whether the Par Tester improves. If the post-round beer didn’t round out Polet’s day, then, as Shakespeare’s Scottish cousin said, I never writ, nor no man ever parred.