Archived Story

John Eby: Recovering golfer flails down memory lane

Published 9:25am Thursday, July 15, 2010

I’ve been thinking about golf, the most frustrating game ever invented, which is odd because I never gave it a thought when I played (or caddied at Point O’ Woods).

I was trying to tell someone about that time on Aug. 11, 1991 when I was a human tee for Lee Memorial Hospital Foundation.

It was for a good cause — the place I was born.

Plus, I thought they were kidding. They might have asked me during Fun Fest while one of the bands played and I thought they said I got $100,000 for this stunt.

How could I lose? If Illinois trick-shot artist Marty Joyce left a divot, my dentist was in the gallery. I was already laid out flat on the ground for the ambulance crew’s ease.

I figured if master-blaster Marty missed I would have an even better story — once Lee Memorial released me, of course.

If he intended to kill me it seemed like I would need to fill out a 12-page disclaimer releasing him from liability.

I had to sign a contract just to photograph Joan Jett at the Cass County Fair.

He could have me stuffed and mounted on the wall of his den along with his trophies for being the Midwest’s National Long-Driving Champion, the 1987 Illinois PGA Champion, the 1987 Illinois PGA Teacher of the Year and the five-time National Long-Drive Qualifier from Illinois.

“Long Ball” — whose “hang time” put him in the same league with that other MJ, Michael Jordan, makes it look effortless, but the club head is moving at 120 miles per hour, as he proved by making applesauce with a practice shot and by mashing the other drive 323 yards into the wind at the other end of the Elks course.

I heard sirens shortly after that smoking shot disappeared, making me think the people who live at the other end of Hill Street called police when strange projectiles began rattling off the roof like incoming scuds.

A couple of things happened I hadn’t counted on, of course.

Forty golfers missed that elusive $100,000 ace in the first FMB shootout that Sunday afternoon.

The gallery was getting restive for some action by the time I was served up for their entertainment.

“Whack his beard into the rough!” someone suggested.

What a warm Dowagiac welcome. I felt like an umpire.

I also felt a little concerned once I learned my face’s future rested under a club wielded by a Cubs fan.

After watching Marty launch screaming rockets with “buggy whip” clubs, plumbing pipe, garden hose, two-headed clubs, round-headed clubs, balls dangling from strings, balls mounted on apples and bowling pins and even a “gun” when he literally wants to “shoot a round of golf,” I couldn’t help but notice his wildest shots came when he wielded that baseball bat club in the name of Ryne Sandberg with the hitting ability of Carl Sandburg. He even moved spectators back.

Nervously, I watched Joyce “crush” a ball with a club with a pop can on the end.

He also literally “hammered” a shot with another slick stick from his bag of tricks.

I’m told it took him 90 minutes just to tee up his weird assortment of shots.

I figured clenching a tee in my teeth for Marty was safer than getting in my car to drive to the Elks. Here’s a guy who looks up and blasts the ball. He stands on one leg, then the other, and blasts the ball. He sits on a chair and blasts the ball to demonstrate the importance of the arms in his smooth swing.

I didn’t flinch (much) — not because I’m fearless but because the truly pale faces belonged to those duffers who suddenly realized how futile they felt watching his effortless artillery shelling away at the blue boundaries of the sky.

If ever I wanted somebody to tee up an Ultra on my chin, it’s Marty Joyce, the only human being I’ve ever seen who seems to hold the upper hand in the struggle against golf, a four-letter word if ever there was one.

Baseball players try to hit a darting sphere hurling at their heads at 97 mph. Golfers get apoplectic if you clear your throat during the putting ritual.

That small white orb you chase across a meadow trying in vain to flog it to death is covered with — that’s right — dimples.

Dimples from the ball laughing heartily at your futile flailing.

Golf seems to hold promise.

It’s a slight improvement on the medieval torture rack, with scenic views and fresh air. Some duffers will tell you they play for exercise — you  know, the exertion of cracking open all those beer cans while working the foot pedals on their cart.

Before I gave up that senseless game, I remember how my devolving game sounded.

Shank! Clank! Splash!

Those three words sum up my PGA (Pathetic Golf Association) brand.

Whoever said practice makes perfect never played golf. The more I played, the worse I got.

By the time my “friends” finished  tinkering with my address I was too psyched out to swing.

Invariably the worst shot I hit was off the first tee for the entertainment of everyone unloading their clubs. They pointed and giggled as breeze from my mighty backswing nudged the smirking ball six inches off the tee.

I regularly got fileted by junior hustler Jim Laing, future president of Wolverine Mutual Insurance Co.  Jimmy merely took me along to have something to snicker at while he sauntered from one 200-yard drive to another while reading a Batman comic book.

I contented myself with committing flagrant fashion offenses while Jimmy burned up the links. My gear included spiked Hush Puppies, left-handed clubs, a red glove, shirts with little critters over the pocket and a Bing Crosby straw hat topped with half a plastic ball nestled in a tossed salad of Easter grass.

Jimmy, even then showing tendencies toward a legal career, tirelessly toyed with me and my fragile psyche.

No matter how much equipment I mustered, Jimmy always pounded me by at least a dozen strokes while playing barefoot and using a driver to putt.

That way he didn’t have to set down his Whiz Bang, which is what you get when you mix root beer and chocolate milk.

I remember one memorable drive from the panoramic sixth tee at Dowagiac.

It sliced off screaming toward Hill Street. “Look at it bounce,” Jimmy said dreamily as we watched distant dimples curl into one last demonic grin before caroming off the Adventist Church.

Golf skill — or lack of it — is hereditary. My dad and I used to play my uncle, a slumming former Kalamazoo city champ, and my cousin the Eagle Scout, another future attorney.

They routinely punished us.

When we played at Diamond Lake, my dad always sliced off the second fairway.

We met many friendly folks tramping from cottage to cottage in Howell Point, poking in their bushes for errant shots.

With his formidable backswing, which whipped the shaft like a Pete Townshend windmill guitar flourish, he once excavated a sprinkler pipe.

There was a loud CHONNNNGGGG!! Dad vibrated like a tuning fork and dropped his mangled driver, which looked like a foursome of pit bulls had played through it.

The most memorable moment was the time Dad hit my brother. His shot, which normally headed for Howell Point, veered with a nasty hook in the opposite direction and caught Eric in the shoulder like gunfire.

Before I pulled the plug on my golf game I reached the point where I instinctively teed up range balls at the sight of water.

My ability to find water with gleaming white balls made me believe my future lay in dousing, that ancient art of locating water with a pointed stick.

Before abandoning golf altogether, I tried Putt Putt, but grew bored with losing to my wife and mother.

Nothing remained to be proven after a checkered career that began when the first back nine at Indian Lake was still an orchard.

The only time we ever played, I came out of retirement to darn near beat PGA (Publishers Golf Association) touring pro Danny Dean at a UPI awards meeting in Bay City.

I couldn’t conceal my glee at the towering shots I hit. I tried unconvincingly to yawn as though it happened often.

By unleashing my mind from the mental torture of actually caring how I played, I think I stumbled upon the secret to successful golf.

Shank! Clank! Splash!

Maybe it’s time to try cherry pit spitting.

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