My favorite (team) sport
Story by Joel Helm • Photography by Jason Stephens
I have never played cricket. Maybe it’s because Indiana doesn’t have a thriving cricket scene, or maybe it’s because I played baseball and tried bowling. Combining the two seems like overkill. Cricket being the only exception, I have played virtually every sport currently known to man. My youth was spent entirely in two places: either on a sports field (a diamond, court, or course) or headed home from one, in one of those horrible ’90s minivans that looks like a cross between a mole cricket and a Dirt Devil. Eventually, school got in the way. But who could think about school when an epic soccer matchup between two powerful forces of nature, the U-10 Westfield Comets and the U-10 Pike Tornadoes, was set to take place that night? Not me. I played so many hours of competitive sports growing up that it has become increasingly difficult to remember specific contests, even specific teams on which I played. One thing I can remember: constantly fielding the question, “Which sport do you like best?” I always thought it was an interesting question, as if I were going to eliminate all the other sports and focus on one — a ridiculous notion. For years, the answer was inevitably the same: whichever sport I was playing at the time. If you caught me in the winter, the answer was always basketball. If you asked me in the summer, it was probably baseball. And if you asked me in the fall, it could have been soccer, tennis, golf. Heck, if you caught me on certain days, it might have been badminton. Though I spent my youth playing team sports, ironically, in college I played tennis and golf. Of course, there is a “team” aspect to golf at the college level, but I never played a single tournament where I had a partner. Let me tell you: the golf course can be a lonely place when you blast two balls out of bounds and three putt for a nine on a par four. After college, I didn’t play much golf. Instead, I preferred the tennis court, where I got some exercise and could play doubles. I quickly became engulfed in Lakeland’s thriving tennis scene. My golf clubs collected dust. Then, something funny happened. Someone invited me to play in the Four-Ball Golf Tournament. And it was fun. The Four-Ball is an institution in Lakeland. There’s a sign at Cleveland Heights Golf Course with all of the past winners of the event, and it reads like a who’s who of Lakeland golf history. Two-time U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen is on the board, so is Andy Bean. It’s a two-man team event where both players play their own ball through the hole, and the team’s score is the lower of the two. I was excited to play a golf tournament and practiced as much as I could in the month leading up to it. I played terribly. Not badly, not poorly. Terribly. But, the team aspect was fun, and we had a great time over the three-day event. I caught the golf bug again.
It’s difficult to replicate the excitement of blasting 300- yard drives and sinking 25-foot putts for birdie.
Warning: the golf bug is dangerous. It can be hazardous to your marriage, your career, and especially your wallet. Golf clubs, balls, greens fees, and clothing will add up in a hurry. That being said, it’s difficult to replicate the excitement of blasting 300-yard drives and sinking 25-foot putts for birdie. About a year after being bit by the golf bug, I got some news that promised to cure me. My wife was pregnant. Now, I have always enjoyed kids. I signed up to work in the toddler nursery at my church on my 10th birthday and was the rare boy who chose babysitting over mowing lawns. But, this was different. This was my kid. I was so proud of this little boy that I tried to convince one of my friends that my son was “advanced” at 11 days old. Yep. I was that dad. Before he could walk, I started taking him to the First Tee of Lakeland. The First Tee is a national, youth-oriented golf organization that happens to have an awesome local chapter, complete with a driving range, a nine-hole par three golf course, and a practice putting green. It was here that I first introduced my son to golf. At first I set him on the putting green, allowing his legs to straddle the hole. He would giggle endlessly at the distinct sound every golfer wants to hear — the sound of the ball finding the bottom of the cup. He would grab it from the hole and heave it with all his might, doing his best to throw it back to me. Neither of us had any idea which direction it was going. Sometimes he would throw it so hard he would tip over like a bowling pin. Only this bowling pin would laugh and laugh until I picked him up, anxiously awaiting the next frame. A few days after my son learned to walk, my wife found him a tiny driver that came up to his chin. It was absurdly heavy, but he was determined to swing it like Daddy. Much of the time it swung him instead. When he hit it solid, he would get really excited, point to where the ball went, and yell “PING!” For Christmas last year we bought him a three club set from Golf Etc. Now he was three times as excited. We all still call his driver his “ping.” My son’s favorite spot soon became the First Tee. We frequented the place several times a week, but he wanted to go every day. Whenever I told him we couldn’t go, his face would drop, begging to hit balls in the front yard. It was like watching a live version of the VHS tapes my dad spent countless hours on, home videos of me as a child, imploring my parents to let me play my current favorite sport just a few more minutes before dinner. Golf insiders are panicked about the dwindling number of “avid” golfers. The National Golf Federation considers an “avid golfer” to be someone who plays more than 25 times per year. The concern is this: in 2000, there were 10.2 million avid golfers. This number has dropped to 6.4 million as of their last poll in 2012. As an avid golfer myself, I have read a litany of articles on the various challenges to the growth of golf, as well as what can be done to fix it. Some of the suggestions are better than others. Courses have tried three-foot-wide holes; they’ve encouraged people to play the course from a shorter distance (thus making play faster); and they’ve even tried encouraging people to play nine holes instead of 18. I find the last one to be quite comical. The golf industry wants to increase revenue by suggesting people play less? Brilliant. I have only one suggestion, and it’s a simple one: promote golf as a team sport. Two-man best-ball events are my favorite. Scrambles (where you take the team’s best shot and play from there) are okay. Ask virtually any golf purist — they would rather play their own ball. Polk County has five unofficial “major” amateur events. Not surprisingly, my favorites are the team events: the aforementioned Lakeland Four-Ball and the Paul McDonald Two Man event at the outstanding Club at Eaglebrooke.
The golf industry wants to increase revenue by suggesting people play less? Brilliant. I have only one suggestion, and it’s a simple one: promote golf as a team sport.
A few months ago however, I found my new favorite event … and it’s a scramble. On one of our regular trips to the First Tee, I noticed a sign promoting a tournament: a father-child two-man scramble on Father’s Day for only 10 bucks a team. Now, my son was only two at the time, and I sort of laughed about it when I called to ask if we could play. One of the many reasons I love this place is that they live for welcoming kids — even the infants who tip over like bowling pins, or two-year-olds in diapers with three clubs who want to beat the pants off the field in a (mostly) competitive event. We had the good fortune of being paired with one of my best friends and his son, Jude. I laughed more in those two hours than I had the entire week. We were likely the only team fist-pumping after making four-inch putts, and we even took one of my son’s drives. Afterward, we were shocked to learn we won our division. My son got a medal and wouldn’t take it off for a week. I like to say that my son taught me to putt. In a way, it’s true. I’ve always been a terrible putter, and given that the putter is used twice as much as any of other club, that’s pretty unfortunate. All the hours spent goofing around on the putting green must be helping though. I’m putting better now than I have ever putted in my life. Maybe it’s that I’m putting with a smile on my face, or maybe it’s that I’ve finally found my favorite (team) sport.