Golf in the Age of Anxiety

Deep inside San Diego's courses

Torrey Pines North, number 7
  • Torrey Pines North, number 7
  • Image by Paul Stachelek

Seeking Tranquility in Bonita

My father died on Christmas night 1961. The next day I went to Singing Hills Country Club and smashed balls until my arms, legs, brain, and the rest felt like bubble gum. For a year thereafter every day, at Singing Hills or another course. I repeated the ritual. During the entire year of 1962, I missed three days -once to bodysurf two while my mother, my cousin Steve, and I drove to Santa Cruz on vacation. Even in Santa Cruz, before I could join Steve tailing girls around the boardwalk. I shot a daily 18 holes at Pasatiempo.

Chula Vista, number 14

Chula Vista, number 14

In the wake of my father’s death, I needed to lie against an oak tree surrounded by green pastures waiting for some duffer to retrieve his ball. To stride near still waters. To smack an inanimate object. I sought a quiet place. Tranquility. I still seek it, only not as relentlessly and not at a country club.

Unless you’re a kid with affluent parents, country clubs aren’t so tranquil. I heard that to join the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club, one must pay an initiation fee of ten grand and follow with $1000 a month. How can a person, no matter how filthy rich, remain tranquil while getting screwed that blatantly?

Recently I spent a weekend at Warner Springs, a nostalgic trip to a place I loved as a boy. Then it was open to the public, a rustic old lodge with great food, two swimming pools, infinite hiding places on the paths around the stinking sulfur springs. There were horses to ride and real Indians. Several years ago Warner Springs became a cross between a time-share and country club. Surrounding the same old pools and stables are a couple of dozen tennis courts, and across the road lies an 18'hole championship golf course open to members and guests. We were guests of a real estate person.

My son Cody is 12. He hasn’t played much golf, but he’s game. Eighteen holes for two of us would’ve cost about $90, including the electric cart we’d have to use because they don’t allow walkers. I’m not going to harangue about the state of a society in which people get their exercise by speeding around a golf course, then speeding home so they can rush out to the gym or change into Spandex and go biking. Anyway, my boy thinks a cart would be radical. I slap down 50 for nine holes.

A few minutes later on the driving: range, I’m smiling, having just socked a good one, when a blond fellow sidles over to inform us that we must wear shirts with collars.

Before long, we’re careening down the first fairway when an old guy with a badge comes chasing, waves us over, asks to see Cody’s driver’s license. Cody blushes. The old guy explains about insurance and all. Once again we go bounding along, now with me at the wheel. “This place has got more dumb rules than middle school,” Cody observes. I promise to let him drive once we get out of sight behind yonder oak grove.

A twosome in a cart, no chance we’ll hold up any following group. Yet another old guy races our way to insist we each need a set of clubs.

“Look here,” I inquire, “how’re we supposed to use two sets if we only brought one and the blond guy in the pro shop said you don’t have rentals?”

A country club is a place where you can have fun if somebody’s bestowed a fortune upon you, if you can ignore or appreciate a lot of gab about the stock market, and if you have a German’s tolerance for rules.

I prefer Chula Vista Municipal. It’s along Sweetwater Road, a pleasant drive into Bonita, which seems more like a community transplanted from Sonoma County than one of San Diego’s offerings. The architecture is mock quaint. Everywhere are walkers, bicyclists, equestrians.

The weekday morning golfers are mostly retired, as at most municipal courses everywhere. Over the years they’ve figured how to monopolize the best starting times.

Beside the first tee a sign advises us to play “ready golf.” The tenets are — hit when ready, no honors; putt continuously; if you reach a score of double par, pick up and count that score. Adherence to these guidelines should land us in the clubhouse within four and a half hours.

I’m playing with my aunt and uncle and a single the starter added to our group, a senior gentleman from Chula Vista using his monthly pass. My aunt and uncle take a cart. About half the golfers are in carts. But they don’t have to be. Nor do shirts need collars.

The marshy Sweetwater River runs alongside holes one and two. If anybody finds a Titleist 3 with a Security Pacific Bank logo, it’s mine. Apparently this is one of my slice days. I stride along wondering if life could be divided into slice days, hook days, and choked-putt days. As the sun’s gently warm, nobody’s breathing down our necks, I’m dressed comfortably and enjoying the company of my aunt and uncle, I decide there must be at least four kinds of days. On the fourth, everything works. Tomorrow will be that kind. Mañana, I muse. Jack Kerouac wrote that mañana probably means heaven.

On number three, unless you smack drives about 250 yards, from the blue championship tees you risk a splash in the Sweetwater. From the reds or whites, a slice might land you in an invisible pond. Hidden behind a knoll, it’s the same pond you’ll have to cross on number four; but don’t fret. The water is curiously hard. I watched one fellow’s ball skip a few times and bounce out again onto the fringe of the green.

The turf is Bermuda grass, brownish but not sparse, thick enough to cushion your shots. We pass numerous varieties of eucalyptus, oaks, bushy pines, a few pepper trees, tall palms. Friendly trees that don’t often jump into your path. Chula Vista’s an open course, except for the omnipresent river.

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