I’m a golfer like Twilight star Kristen Stewart is an actress. I show up, go through the motions and play my part. But it’s painful to watch. Still, I love the sport, so when I was given an opportunity to attend the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, I jumped at the chance.
It was raining when I arrived at the Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, a driving drizzle that can wreak havoc on Southern Californians but precipitation Midwesterners might call a heavy fog. It was humid and already the recent rains had painted a green hue on the hillsides that only two weeks ago were a parched dirty blonde.
A shuttle bus carried me and fellow Rotarian E. Russell Smith, my partner for the day, up the winding drive and through the enormous iron gates that protect the club from some mysterious and unnamed menace. I imagined what it might be like to pass through those gates as a member rushing to an early-morning tee time. I think I could get used to it.
The clubhouse sits on top of a hill and towers above the immaculate and well-manicured course. It has the feel of a Southern plantation home on steroids. Sturdy white columns and wrap-around balconies accent an interior that exudes confidence and money. I regret my dismissal of a former colleague’s plea to invest in Apple as we pass through the massive front doors.
Northwestern Mutual knows how to throw a party. We checked in and were greeted warmly and enthusiastically by several of its representatives. They gave us a quick orientation to our home base, and we settled in for coffee and a quick continental breakfast. Then it was off to the course.
We watched Tiger Woods tee off, and I must admit I was a bit shocked by the four armed security guards who surrounded him. After Woods played through, we made our way to a comfortable spot on the fifth green to watch the 18 golfers work their way through the hole. Our position was perfect, even with the hole, not more than five yards from the edge of the green.
By the time the third threesome was through, we could read the green like a Dick and Jane book from primary school. Rickie Fowler was not so lucky. E. Russell had accurately read an earlier putt that put it three inches going right to left. Fowler, attempting the same putt, judged it at six inches and missed his birdie. If only he had asked.
Woods played through the hole with an undramatic par, and we watched as player after player made the same mistakes as the golfers who preceded them. We fought the urge to shout, “It’s right to left!” — in part because of golf etiquette, in larger part because of the presence of guns, we held our tongues.
We wandered back to the clubhouse for a lunch spread that would rival the excess of ancient Greece. It was exceptional. The wait staff was courteous and kind to the proletariats mingling with the privileged. (Note to self: I am the proletariat.) It was a great meal.
After lunch we trudged our way to the 15th green and settled in. The 15th hole is a long par three over water that fronts the green. It is a beautiful setting in the deep canyons that define the course. We watched from 100 feet above the green.
Then it happened. Woods’ first shot lays up in the rough that surrounds the green. I am watching intently as his second shot dribbles across the green far from its intended target. Apparently topping the ball, Woods managed to hit the shot I might in the same situation. In one glorious stroke, Woods became human.
I like to watch golf on television, but it does give one a distorted perspective of the game, focusing on the great shots. It is easy to be lulled into believing that is the game. Watching and following golfers as they play in the real world, one gets some perspective that the distance between mediocrity and greatness are not so far apart. Golf is, as they say, a game of inches.
I left the tournament with a renewed confidence in my hacker’s game and a new respect for the tedious and often mundane strokes that define the PGA Tour. As in life, great shots that get the adrenaline pumping merely punctuate many more moments of going to work and getting the job done. It’s a simple insight that is as true on the golf course as it is in life.
Note: I am indebted to Robert Dibley of Northwestern Mutual Life for providing me the opportunity to attend the tournament.