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By Chris Britt | SJ-R
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"Hello, Ball"
By John Moody

There are any number of ways the game of golf can be introduced into a life. Maybe you remember the classic episode of "The Honeymooners," where Ralph Kramden has to learn how to play golf in just two days.

He and his Brooklyn tenement building neighbor Ed Norton thumb through an instructional book as Ralph, dressed in tam-o-shanter and knickers, takes a few swings in his kitchen. Norton reads from the book telling Ralph that he's supposed to address the ball. Confusion ensues and Norton, using a pin cushion for a ball, tries to clear things up for his pal. He looks down at the pin cushion/golf ball on the floor near the kitchen table, takes a few dramatic waggles with Ralph's golf club and utters the famous line: "Hello, ball." Ralph roars in anger and frustration and slugs Norton in the back for the 1,000th time.

That's one way to get your start in golf, but it's probably not the best way to go. Setting aside a couple of days with a book in your apartment to learn such a complicated game kinda gets you off on the wrong track. You need some equipment, some instruction and some wide open space.

Equipment-wise, the first golf club I owned was a big one. It was a plastic job, a driver, seems like its comically oversized head was dark blue, or maybe red. It looked like something a guy in big red shoes would use - a circus clown, that is. But, for me, I wasn't clowning around. This was my golf club, and it had its own golf ball complete with dimples.

Imagine a skinny little guy, thin as a 1-iron, wanting to hit his giant plastic golf ball, which itself was about the size of a baseball. The setting: A mid-1960s driving range on a summer night in central Illinois.

And there on the tee next to me, working away with his bag of Wilson Staffs was my dad, young and lean with black hair. He was a sales guy, electronics, and he was trying to figure this confounding game out so he could play with customers in far-flung places like Fort Madison and Burlington, both among his stops in Iowa - "Ioway," as he used to say. It sounded foreign and exciting, exotic even. I even liked the names of the guys in his foursome - other salesmen from work with names like Ferguson, McCluskey and Charlie Hall.

The whole group's in the cemetery by now, I would wager. I think of them in neckties and starched white shirts (short-sleeved ones in summer), chewing up the highway in their company station wagons loaded down with boxes of RCA vacuum tubes and TV antennas, staying in Holiday Inns, eating steaks, drinking too much.

As we flailed on the range, my mom was probably sequestered nearby, trapped with the younger kids in the car.

I'm sure there was fussing over how long it was taking Dad and big brother to stop swinging. Me hitting and retrieving my one XL plastic golf ball, coming back to the tee repeating the whole dance over and over.

I really don't remember much about hitting that toy club and ball, but I do recall the act of trying to get clubface to agate as being a source of great embarrassment for me on one occasion. It would be one of the first times in my life that I would feel the awkward sheepishness that goes with the mostly minor humiliations of living.

Shame is a thing warm to your scalp and flush to your face as both blood and blush rise together, red like a thermometer. Sound familiar? When you're all of 5, everything is exaggerated in importance.

I remember the feeling well, not the last time golf would shame me. My father, who introduced me to sports in general and baseball, football and golf, in particular, probably got me that one-club set so I could accompany him. There on that range full of enthusiasm working on my swing for the first time, I took a slash at the colossal ball with that big and tall club of mine when I realized on my follow-through that something had gone terribly wrong.

Did I whiff? I don't remember, probably. But the end of my club felt mighty light. For good reason.

Sailing through the night air went my massive clubhead. The one staple, probably attached somewhere in China, holding it to the shaft had failed. I was mortified. Some golfers snickered, thinking it was cute, I'm sure.

All I knew was I had to run out onto the range in front of everyone to retrieve it. Shy as I was, I did, and I survived the experience, but it took the wind out of my sails. I'm sure I irrationally scolded my mother for letting something so embarrassing happen. I doubt I ever trusted that club again in public, but the trauma passed, and none of it kept me from the game.

The old man made up for it by getting me my first real set: a bag of Gene Littler models with red rubber grips and a blue carry bag. I can't recall if Spalding or Wilson made them, but that's what I learned the game on, wish I still had them.

When I got taller, I was entrusted with those Wilson Staffs of Dad's. They were a thing to be marveled at, Holy Grail material. They had once belonged to our legendary pro, Bob Scherer. I do have a good idea on the whereabouts of that set. Too bad, but the original leather-wrapped grips were changed out by my father some 40 years ago and the 3-iron is missing in action, but they look much as they did in their prime.

I made the only hole-in-one I'll likely ever make with the pitching wedge from that set, witnessed by my father and younger brother.

So, mine is another way to get your start in the game, and it wasn't a bad way. Heck, I associate my introduction to golf with my late father; that's not a bad line to have drawn on your life's map.

I plan the same sort of thing with my own children, maybe just a little variation. They have been to the driving range with me and both brought along just a club or two.

But, here's the thing: These were real golf clubs, steel shafts and all. None of that plastic, big-headed clown equipment that can put a little golfer on a bad swing path.

Especially, if some important part, like say the head itself, should come detached and carry farther than the struck golf ball. Of course, I joke; that's a pretty fond memory all these years later.

Here's what I recommend for your little golfer. Check in with any golf shop in Springfield; usually all your golf pro needs is your child's height in inches. He'll order you up a nice (and new) set of clubs made just for kids. Keep in mind that clubs are made specifically for boys and girls.

After your child grows out of his or her set, you can pass them down to a sibling or check in at the shop to see if they're interested in a trade for the next set.

And remember, cutting down an adult set will have your kid swinging clubs with out-of-whack swing weights. Those iron heads weren't made to be on little cut-off shafts.

Once you've got your little one on the right path with equipment, you might consider signing up for some junior camps where they can learn some of the basic rules of the game and even some golf etiquette.

But remember, as teaching pro Jim McLean stresses, the game has to be fun for kids starting out.

Unfortunately, like most golfers do, kids will eventually find a way to make the game more serious than it should be. That only takes 50 years or more to get a handle on.

 

Story published Friday, December 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 7 )

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