Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Walking in the Spike Marks of the Greats

Gary Player. Arnie. Jack. Seve. Tom Watson. Tiger. Lefty. Champagne Tony. Sir Nick. Sam Snead. Vardon, Taylor and Braid. Old Tom Morris.

I walked the same fairways that the giants of the game have trod for nearly 150 years. The Home of Golf. The Old Course at Saint Andrews.

Mine was a round that had a little of everything. A perfect drive and pure 7-iron over the Valley of Sin to the green on the final hole. A much less-distinguished nervous opening tee shot. From a sidehill uphill lie next to the infamous "Hell's Bunker," I punched a superb half-6-iron right at the white flag on the 4th green; unfortunately, we were playing the red-flagged 14th hole. I had my share of long, long, long putts on some of the largest double greens in the world: one was about 125 feet. On the 12th, after the other players had hit their tee shots to the right into the rough, I hit my second best drive of the day, right down the middle ... and into one of the courses' more than 100 pot bunkers. On the treacherous Road Hole, the 17th, I ended up in the enormous steep sod-faced bunker guarding the middle of the green - blasted out to about 15 feet and made the putt, though this was after my first tee shot (and my provisional) landed on someone's Old Course Hotel balcony ... my caddie, Steve, described my attempted line as "a bit too aggressive" on the blind shot over the famous sheds.

Toward the end of the round, I asked Steve if there was anything I hadn't experienced during the round. He responded, "Well, you haven't listened to your caddie yet."

Headquarters of the Royal & Ancient just before Midnight
 

Being there and finally playing on golf's hallowed ground was almost anti-climactic to the adventure of just getting to the 1st tee. As a single player, I could not reserve a tee time, nor even submit to the lottery the Saint Andrews Links Trust uses to allocate slots. My only option was to queue up at the Pavilion for when they opened in the morning. When we arrived on Sunday and asked around, the consensus advice was to be in the queue by about 3:00 am, maybe even 2:30 or 2:00. But then we learned there were only five spots available for singles on Monday. I wasn't confident that 2 o'clock would be good enough.

So with my exceedingly tolerant wife snuggled in an extremely comfortable bed in James Braid's room at the Old Course Hotel, which I barely got to use for a couple hours, I laid out my clubs and clothes and set the alarm for 11:o5 pm wakeup.

It took me about 20 minutes or so to walk in the cold rain from the hotel to the Pavilion, lighting my way with a flashlight, and I arrived at 10 minutes before Midnight. As I had hoped, I was first in line. The dream was within reach.

I thought I would be alone for a couple hours at least. I had brought a book, some nuts, cookies, water, and of course my clubs and golf shoes in case I snared an early tee time. But at two minutes to 12, Joe from Texas walked up. Not long after, Taylor from Toronto and Casey from Los Angeles arrived. Then Scooter from Austin, Number 5 for the fifth spot. Having confidence we would all almost surely get to play the Old Course, we quickly bonded and talked for the next nearly seven hours until the doors were finally opened. We talked golf and golf courses and golfers and golf equipment and the waffles or Scottish breakfast we would have once we had secured a tee time, the Highlands and haggis. It helped to forget that we were freezing and shivering, despite multiple layers of clothing (thermal undershirt and leggings, pants, rain pants, heavy long-sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, Johnson City high school hooded sweatshirt, Masters green jacket, scarf, Boston Bruins winter gloves, knit cap, APS - Advanced Performance Systems flight training golf cap, two pairs of socks, hiking boots).

After the Fab Five, people continued to come. Because we were the only ones in the front of the building near the door, many of the latercomers were surprised to learn that the queue extended around the building. One young woman came prepared with a duvet (which she had considerable difficulty stuffing back into her suitcase). At 6:30, moving lights started to appear - greens mowers. By 6:55, when we were finally allowed in, there were at least 25-30 people. Most probably did not get to play that day. Mr. Tanaka from Tokyo, whom I chatted with during the queue and saw later in the morning in the hotel shop, did not.

I could have taken the 7:15 am tee time, but I wanted to go back to the hotel and have breakfast with Donna-Lane, then to the practice range to loosen up. I took the 12:20 opening (after showing my proof of handicap). Joe got 12:40. Taylor grabbed the early spot. Not sure about Casey and Scooter because by then I was in the WC, not having had opportunity all night while guarding my No. 1 position.

I have to admit that the Old Course itself did not seem that difficult, certainly with only a light wind, and it's certainly not aesthetic (which is true of most Scottish links courses). Most of the par-four holes are not overly long. The fairways, supported by a deep underlayer of packed sand, were the firmest I have ever played, not like the soft, fluffy turf on most US courses; after a few holes, I learned to move the ball back in my stance to catch it more on the downswing. One challenge is in the hidden bunkers, at least hidden from sight from the tee boxes. I never consulted the course layout book I had purchased; Steve would tell me some bush or cloud to aim at, and I tried to hit it in that direction ... total trust, with no idea what might be in the landing area. Without a caddie, I would probably have been calculating the best distances to go over certain bunkers and short of others. The major challenge is the greens, some with severe slopes and many with double- and triple-breaking putts.

Pre-round, I had some hope of posting a good score. Now that I'm playing regularly again, my game has been improving, almost to the point of considering competitions in France. But score was really irrelevant to just being on the Old Course, perhaps the last item on my golf bucket list. Queuing up at Midnight and being first in line ... that made it as good as a Claret Jug.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Just Leave Me at a Bookstore

One of the experiences I am looking forward to by being in Edinburgh, Scotland for a month is exploring the bookstores. https://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseypippin/edinburgh-has-the-best-bookshops?utm_term=.ai6JkY2GN#.mnXGPvbR1.

In our small village in the south of France, there are no English-language bookstores (though the neighborhood bistro has a leave one / take one shelf where other anglophones offload a few titles, and there's a similar irregular setup on the nearby street started by one of our neighbors). The formal second-hand English bookshop with hundreds of titles disappeared a couple years ago with the passing of our dear friend, Barbara.

In Geneva, there's Payot, which has a good selection mostly of fiction, but it's down in the city, expensive, and we don't get there perhaps once every 3-4 months. Another option is the English Library, of which we are members; their annual used book sale is fantastic - if we happen to be in town at the time.

My daughter mentioned to me she had been in Barnes & Noble in Frisco, Texas, recently, a place I would spend hours perusing the shelves - the new titles, the magazines, history, fiction. It also helped there was a Starbucks inside ... or my favorite place, the easy chairs downstairs by the technology and sports sections.

I also loved Half-Price Books with its musty paper smell and titles that you could no longer find elsewhere.

Yes, I know, we're in the age of Amazon and Kindle, and I do download books there from time to time. But those are mostly "backup" books, something to read when I don't have a worth-reading paperback on hand. I love holding a real book, turning the pages, breaking the spine so the pages will lie more flat, bending the corner of a page to mark my place.

There are few pleasures that exceed lying in bed or sitting on the couch late at night with a well-written whodunit.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tunnels of Life

On the drive from Geneva through Lausanne, Bern, and Basel to Colmar, France, then back via Biel/Bienne and Neuchatel, we must have passed through about 50 tunnels.

The Swiss love tunnels. There are 1,329 of them in the country, according to the Swiss Tunnel Database (https://www.swisstunnel.ch/en/tunnelling-switzerland/tunnel-database/). The longest, of course, at 57 km (35 miles), also the longest and deepest in the world, is the new Gothard Base Tunnel, a rail trail from Erstfield to Bodio. It took 17 years to build the 153,500 metres (503,608 feet) of tunnels, shafts and passages.

The tunnels we went through were long, short, curved, and sloped up and down. Kind of like the tunnels in life.

The problem when we enter a tunnel in life, a dark period, is that we don't know how long it will last, nor what we will find when we get to the end. If we get to the end. 

At times on our trip, we would exit one tunnel only to immediately enter another. And sometimes another. At one point there were five in succession in less than 2 km.

The Swiss tunnels are generally well lit, so are not as intimidating as some of the dark, dank tunnels we've been in elsewhere. They are even well marked, showing the direction to the nearest (pedestrian) emergency exit.

Quite often, as we emerged from a tunnel, we were greeted with some spectacular oooh-ahhh scenery. (A lot of that in Switzerland.)

In my life, there have been multiple tunnels - job losses, for example. Times when I didn't know when the next job might come, what it might pay, even where it might require me to be. Not knowing in the meantime whether we could keep the house, the car, or even have something decent to eat. Through most of my life, I had confidence that the jobless tunnel would end, that I would surely find the next decent position, and it often turned out the new role was ultimately better than the one I'd left. But as I got older, recognizing the age discrimination of many companies, I became less sure of the future.

Others have gone, or are going through, longer and darker tunnels than have I - the prolonged illness and eventual loss of loved ones is perhaps the worst. I've done the prolonged illness part but thankfully not the loss. I can only imagine the pain that someone suffers; it must seem like tunnel after tunnel with rare glimpses of light.

The tunnel metaphor appears frequently in literature, music, film. Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt's short story "The Tunnel," depicts a student who boards his usual train to the university, except the small tunnel doesn't end ... 10 minutes, 15, 20. The other passengers are blissfully calm, but the conductor is evasive, and the student learns there is no engineer in the locomotive. The story ends with the word, "Nothing," a possible commentary on the ignorance of society in the face of imminent disaster. (It was written 65 years ago.)

Or perhaps you prefer to think of movie scenes in which a train enters a tunnel just as a couple burrow beneath the sheets. We are left to our own imagination what happens in the tunnel (at least in older films). Hitch's ending in "North By Northwest" is one of the better ones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPt-4Nwght0.

Tunnels are inevitable in life. Let's hope yours are mostly like the Noirvaux in Neuchatel (15 metres, or about 50 feet - built in 1843), and that the scenery on the other side lifts your spirits for the rest of your journey.