We were in the car, golf clubs rattling around in the back, on our way north to the driving range at Silverstream. Bella was behind the wheel. I turned to her with a stupid grin and said, “So, when was the last time you went driving?” I then laughed for a while, and I seem to remember that she laughed too but memory has a funny way of serving ego before truth.
Her last time hitting golf balls was in February. My last time was in January with my brother Rua, and the time before that was the previous January, also with Rua. Both of those times were at Chisholm Park Golf Club in Dunedin, which has world-class views over the cliffs and down to the Pacific Ocean, and both times I was surprised to learn I could still swing that shaft of metal over my head and whack the ball far enough to lose it. Used to play golf when I was kid, you know. Procedural knowledge is an extraordinary thing, especially when the procedures are embedded at a young age: hitting a golf ball 200 yards, kicking a soccer ball with power and accuracy, riding a bike. Do it enough times and something clicks in your brain so that years down the line, the knowledge can be called back in an instant.
I remember going to the driving range in Hamilton for my 11th birthday (or thereabouts) with brothers and mother. At one point, they stood behind me and watched as I played a few shots and said, “Barns is quite good, isn’t he?” I was the mocked ‘sporto’ of the family, forever bowling a tennis ball against the fence and shooting hoops while my brothers got quite good at the guitar and went off to university. Nothing ever really came of golf — I essentially stopped playing when I was about 14 — but that moment of approval is enough for it to have been a worthwhile part of my life.
The ping of the ball off the tee, though. For all the madness golf can bring, that ping makes it worthwhile, too. I stepped up at Silverstream with my bucket of 118 balls, a six-iron, and a driver with a clubhead the size of my fist. First ball, I swung without really thinking, just hoping to connect. Ping. It flew off into the distance, straight as an arrow. I was sure it had sailed past the 250-metre mark and away over the back fence into Tiger Woods territory. ‘Still got it,’ I thought to myself.
Of course I hadn’t hit the ball that far, as the next 117 shots proved. Still, I was amazed at how forgiving the driver was, how it didn’t seem to demand you make it go ping instead of clunk to allow the ball to fly straight for a fairly long way.
After a while, I started using the six-iron to try and hit the ball into a derelict car at the 50-metre mark, which appears to be an obligatory feature at many driving ranges. Got it on about ball 103, I believe. Bella missed the moment but I insist it really happened: one bounce and in through the smashed back left window. She was probably focusing on ironing out her own technique at the time, which I suppose is fair enough.
(By the way, her name isn’t Bella. It’s Isabel. Two things led to my foisting this nickname upon her: 1) her distaste for the Twilight series, of which Bella Swan (played by a dead-eyed Kristen Stewart in the films) is the main character; and 2) her admission that once, after learning her name was Isabel, a guy asked if he could call her Bella. “No you may not, sir.”
Presumably I have enough other qualities for her to tolerate my being ridiculous all the time.)
“How’d you go?” asked David, the silver-haired, craggy-faced man at reception. His blue (it may have been red) pullover said ‘Manor Park Golf Club Centenary’, and I guessed he would’ve been around for about three-quarters of that. He gave a tentative smile as I handed him that absurd driver, commenting on my surprise at the powers it had afforded me. “Yes, you’ll find that the modern clubs are a lot more forgiving than the old ones.” He seemed like a man who knew a thing or two about a thing or two, so, having given him an opportunity to talk, we simply stood and listened.
David’s life story is easily structured around his golf handicap. He said he got down to scratch after a couple of weeks as a young fella, which seems impossible to me given how long it takes — and how many balls you have to hit perfectly — for the finer points of technique to be proceduralised. Maybe he was a superhuman, or still is one. Or maybe his memory had embellished things somewhat. He then took a long break to build a house, which he might well have designed and built himself. Then back into it for a few years, lowering the handicap once more, a notable figure on his club’s fairways. He didn’t say how he became a tetraplegic — though I think he alluded to some time in the military — but the long recovery process put him out “for a couple of decades”. It only showed in the odd halting movement.
Finally, a few years ago, David got back amongst it for presumably his last golfing stretch. “I struggle to hit the ball now, but playing with those young fellas, I’m still keeping up with them—” he raised his thick eyebrows and opened his eyes wide “—and even out-driving them sometimes.
“But anyway, you’re always playing against yourself, and trying to beat the course. There’s always something to overcome. You know? It’s all in your head.”
Bella drove us back to Wellington in the dark. We listened to a selection of 90s hits on Classic Hits FM, delighted to find we are finally old enough to hear formative childhood favourites on a radio station that always looks backwards. Accompanying them in my head were David’s simple but far-reaching words, and the lifetime of experience and imagination behind them. I wonder what else he has yet to overcome.