“I'd started out younger
Had most everything
All the riches and pleasures
What else can life bring?
But it makes me feel better
Each time it begin
Callin' me home
Gram Parsons - “Hickory Wind”
I recently bought a new turntable, and for the first time in probably two decades began carefully resting a stylus on the outside ridges of some dusty albums, and waiting for the magic to commence. At first it felt like an affectation, this, an overly nostalgic lurch towards the past, but I quickly became glad of the company of these old friends, and of the simplicity of listening to long players they way the artist intended, as a whole piece. It was also refreshing to control the inputs for once; the next song neither the result of some algorithm nor the outcome of yet another forced choice, but an intentional, premeditated act.
And as the week gets hectic, and I start to feel my energy wane in the face of various deadlines and decisions, two factors keep me looking ahead, staying positive. One is the delightful innocence of a rediscovered Gram Parsons, his voice floating down from an adolescence that is long gone; the other is the single fixed point in this befuddled week, an early tee-time on Friday. My playing partner contracts Covid-19 and must withdraw, and a couple of other friends cannot fill the void at short notice, so when Friday morning arrives, I am about to cancel the slot and instead stare at the brutal blank page in front of me when the blue sky starts to emerge through the blinds.
And I know that I need to golf this morning, need it to clear the cobwebs. Need it for my soul, and for my busy mind. And Gram is on my shoulder as I peer into the shed, and it can only be hickory golf today. There’s something in the experience of playing with old sticks that mirrors the act of listening to vinyl, as if in paying tribute to the ways of the past you are rewarded with a certain lightness.
So I pretend not to notice the smirks of a few other early risers who spot rusting tools in this carry bag, and set off in search of something. The forecast for the weekend and beyond is for more rain, but this morning West Byfleet is reserved for the sun, and signs of spring are all around. As I move swiftly through Abercromby’s glorious corridors, sweeping the ball from a tee with an ancient brassie and clipping niblicks from the fine turf, beams of light are casting across the landscape, the bark of the silver birch bleached a brilliant white.
The slower rhythm that these sticks demand is good for me, too. Now and then I lunge at the ball, but it never works so well, and on the occasions when I just let the club swing, it all takes care of itself, and I wonder why I am always so keen to complicate matters. By the turn most of my worries have drifted away, and a path ahead seems so much clearer. And as I reach the brow of the twelfth’s gentle incline, and savour the sight of the bunker and green ahead, basking in this heavenly morning, the gentle bluster of the wind sand-blasts my mind and I am grateful for golf’s calming influence, once again.
The thirteenth is as beautiful as always, viewed from this elevated platform over on the left, and the still waters of this lake before me seem a tough ask with hickories, especially into this wind. Over the ball, the slick leather grip of my Approaching Mashie unsettles me, as it needs a crisp strike to reach with this old weapon, but the gentle, persistent tap of some unseen Great Spotted Woodpecker is helpful, a metronome by which to remember my own cadence. And somehow the swing matches the requirement, and this precious ball sails off into the cool breeze, bounding through the green to leave the surface of my Walden Pond undisturbed.
When I reach the ball, at the furthest boundary of this course, the lie is tight and a little muddy, and I am at once both fearful for what is to come and grateful that I have no audience out here to see it. For it will probably be a fat or a thin, but unlikely anything in between, and after a wretched practice swing, the thought enters my head that perhaps the ball could yet dive beneath the surface of the hazard over which it just flew. It would take a spectacular breakdown of coordination to do so, but the jerky action of the dress rehearsal suggests it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
A red kite floats past, catching my attention with an imperial glide, and somehow in that observed majesty I am reminded of the positive stroke that got me here, and of the need to trust in my own fragile confidence. And the Approach Cleek comes back gently, and accelerates through the ball, pinching it from the ground and popping it just over the fringe and down onto the green. And as it starts to swing left, taking the borrow as if on a string to the hole, I hold my breath and marvel at the latest lesson this wild game offers me.
From the moment the ball starts moving it has a chance, but ten feet out it is never anything but this minor miracle, and the meeting of urethane and aluminium seems to echo through the trees like some celebration of a golfing life. This time a Green Woodpecker chortles away, perhaps as stunned as I am at the glory of this early morning and an unexpected birdie. And, though I play golf alone today, I am far from lonesome, for besides the woodpeckers and the kite, I have the ghosts of Gram Parsons and John Abercromby for a gallery, and my smile reaches from ear to ear.
Of course it won’t last, this insight. Over the chip, there’s some intangible sense of the need to be decisive, to take action rather than suffer at the hands of distraction. But from the very next tee I am a little quick, and the margin for error with shallow persimmon cannot flatter this topped drive, so it will be a three shot hole, the fourteenth, and I ponder how short-lived our golfing secrets are. They drift in and out as independently as the refrains of certain songs, and we must just cherish them while they are present, and accept that we may in time forgot them altogether.
And then, as I stroll up the eighteenth, an ocean of turf ablaze with golden dew, it is nearly over again, and all of the other things that had me so cluttered not two hours before seem so much clearer now. The trust, and patience, with which that devilish chip was somehow played must be translated into the rest of Friday.
For golf has worked its wizardry on me again, and I know I need to let some things go and re-focus on others, and above all permit that part of life that is lived off the course to learn from the bits that just went well on it. Listening to my instincts, looking for authenticity. For “it makes me feel better, each time it begin, callin' me home, hickory wind”.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it with other like-minded souls. Stymied will now take a short break in order to complete a few other projects (including the one hinted at below), but you can find some additional articles posted on the GolfToday website, or in the Stymied archive. I hope to return in about a month with some new material!