Home On The Range: Meditations

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Home On The Range: Meditations
(Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

One of my greatest pleasures is to spend an afternoon hitting golf balls at the driving range. It is a meditative experience. If I am hitting well, and if I can get into a rhythm,  I lose track of time there. Hopefully I improve my golf swing while I'm at it. 


Golf requires a singular concentration. I have often wondered why Buddhists at monasteries in the Himalayas have not taken it up; they would be the greatest golfers of all.


Once one gets the general idea of the swing (head down, left arm straight, remember to use the hips, don't grip too tight), the trick to swinging a golf club is to let your mind become a blank. Think of absolutely nothing. The smallest notion could be enough to set in motion a string of mistakes which could result in the ball taking a sharp right turn, boomeranging around, and hitting you in the back of the head. 


I go to a driving range called Scholl Canyon, in the Glendale hills overlooking Los Angeles.


On a clear day (which is rare) you can see the entire San Fernando Valley to your right, downtown Los Angeles directly ahead, Pasadena to your left, and if it is a very clear day, you can see all the way down to the coast and Palos Verdes peninsula.


I love Scholl Canyon.


It's a short 18 hole course that you can play with your irons, if you want to. The back nine follows a circuitous route even higher into the hills. Perilous drop-offs on the 13th and 14th holes cause you to use filched range balls for your tee shots. 


I started playing at Scholl Canyon in my freshman year of college because it was the cheapest and closest golf course to school.


When you play a golf course practically exclusively for almost five years, one gets the lay of the land, so to speak. I never got tired of playing there, but I got to the point where I was able to play it according to a simple formula I could repeat in my head: "First hole, three iron, bunker on the right, easy chip to the green, par four, etc." 


The best thing about Scholl being so close was that I could use the driving range whenever I wanted to.


When I was in college, and I had a flexible schedule, I'd go to the driving range whenever I had a free moment. I'd go on Wednesday mornings and get back in time for class. Later on, after I'd graduated and got a job, I'd go in the evenings. I'd go on the weekends. I spent hours there, and countless dollars on range cards. 


Tuesdays and Thursdays were the best days to go because you could hit off the grass instead of using the mats. Early on Summer evenings, just as it was starting to get dark, there would be a few people there still, but I was mostly alone.


The sun sank slowly on the western horizon. As it got lower, the hues of deep orange and red were painted across the cityscape. After a bit, the lights were turned on, and every ball I hit was a neon yellow sphere, whizzing off into the night. 


I have a particular way of hitting balls when I go to the range. I never alter my routine. I go to the machine for a large bucket of balls, and then I stretch. I hold a club at arm's length and bend from the waist and touch my toes.


After that, I plant my feet shoulder-width apart and turn at the waist 50 times. Then I will take a club behind the back and stretch the arms backwards. Only when I have stretched sufficiently do I start to hit balls. 


I start with my three iron. After I hit 10 or 15 balls with that, and have satisfied myself that I am hitting the club well, I move on to my five iron. After that, I go with my seven. Then the nine, then the sand wedge.


Then I go back to the four, the six, the eight, and the pitching wedge. I always hit the odd-numbered clubs first, then the even numbers. I can't explain why I do it, but I have always hit my clubs in that sequence, and if I go out of sequence I feel uncomfortable.


Having finished with the irons, I move on to the woods. I reserve 20 or 30 balls to hit with my driver, because I need more practice with it than with my other clubs. 


It took me a long time to hit my driver straight.


When I started playing golf seriously in college, every shot I hit with the driver would take an abrupt turn to the right.


I remember the first time I was able to hit it straight. I was in the desert with my aunt and uncle, and my uncle was watching me at the driving range. After seeing me slice a dozen times, he told me to adjust my grip. The next shot I hit was clean and straight. Since then, his advice sticks in my head every time I pull the driver out of my bag. 


Its meditative pleasures notwithstanding, on a bad day the range might as well be the 10th circle of hell. You tee up the first shot. You come back, swing too hard, and top the ball. It skids a few yards. Your face reddens. You can feel the condescending pity of the other golfers.


You know because it's the same pity you have for the poor guy who does the same thing while you're hitting so well. Once you get flustered, it's all over. No ball goes the way it's supposed to. When you're not slicing, you're hooking. You feel the pain in your wrists because you don't hit anything square.


You can't wait to leave.


Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. From this we may infer either that people play golf because they are insane, or that golf is a game which makes otherwise normal people insane.


The most frustrating thing about golf is that you can know exactly what you are doing wrong (lifting the head, gripping the club too tightly, failing to use the hips, etc), and there is nothing you can do about it. All your attempts at adjusting your swing make things worse.


With each terrible shot, you become more and more flustered, until you can barely stand it. 


You finish your basket of balls, you throw your clubs in the car, and drive away in a bad mood. You put on the radio, and after a few minutes your anger subsides. My mother has a saying for when things aren't going your way. "This too shall pass," she always says.


Golf is a microcosm of life. Some days are good, some are bad, but at the end of the day, sitting in the clubhouse, drinking a cocktail, watching the sunset, you know that life is essentially good, and the challenges God puts before you are conquerable.


Tomorrow will bring a chance to redeem yourself. 

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