Golf

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.

_MG_5097Warning: 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.

GOLF STORES
DICK’S SPORTING GOODS
919 Lakeland Park Center Drive, Suite 300 Lakeland, FL
33809 863.248.1200
stores.dickssportinggoods.com
 
GOLF ETC.
1527 Town Center Drive Lakeland, FL 33803
863.687.7274
golfetclakeland.com
HACKER GOLF INC.
2055 Shepherd Road Lakeland, FL 33811
863.644.6494
MARSHALL’S GOLF SERVICE
 2535 S. Florida Avenue Lakeland, FL 33803
863.687.4141
 marshallsgolfservice.com
PLAY IT AGAIN SPORTS
2211 S. Florida Avenue Lakeland, FL
33803 863.688.7757 
playitagainsports.com
SPORTS AUTHORITY
3800 U.S. Highway 98 N. Lakeland, FL 33809
863.858.9100
sportsauthority.com

GOLF COURSE PRO SHOPS
 
 

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS

 2900 Buckingham Avenue Lakeland, FL 33803
863.834.2377 
clevelandheights.phantomgolf.com

 

EAGLEBROOKE

 1300 Eaglebrooke Boulevard Lakeland, FL 33813
863.701.0101 
eaglebrooke.com 

 

GRASSLANDS

1600 Grasslands Boulevard Lakeland, FL 33803
863.680.1600 
grasslandsgcc.com

 

 

HUNTINGTON HILLS

 2626 Duff Road Lakeland, FL 33810
863.853.9393 
huntingtonhillscountryclub.com

 

SANDPIPER

6001 Sandpipers Drive Lakeland, FL 33809
863.859.5461