Until last Friday, the only golf ball I’ve ever struck was a pink polka-dotted number I was trying to putt up a green carpet hill through the revolving blades of a miniature windmill.
But getting a lesson from Shelter Island Country Club’s Golf Pro Scott Lechmanski was miles more fun and fulfilling than winning a free round at mini-golf. It also gave me a clue why golf, like few other sports, inspires obsession.
I stopped by the bar at the top of Goat Hill to meet with Scott and Belle Lareau, secretary of the SICC, to talk about a new teaching program instituted this year. Like almost every club across the country, the SICC is on the hunt for new members.
For a variety of reasons, the number of American golfers has dropped 13 percent over the past five years, according to the National Golf Foundation, and the number of golf rounds last year was off almost four percent from 2012.
With the golf season gearing up and improvements made to the infrastructure of the club, Belle had come up with an idea to get more people out golfing the up and down challenges of “the Goat.”
An avid tennis player, she has golfed in the past and last year decided her swing could use a tune up. After working with Scott, she broached the idea of starting a program, and “Learn to Play Golf” was born.
All ages and skill levels are welcome, Scott said, for four one-hour sessions over four weeks throughout the summer. The cost of the package is $140. Scott will teach the basic strokes, skills, scoring and course etiquette.
The learning curve for young people or older folks is the same, Scott said, noting he’s taught many older novices — one man well into his 80s — to play the game.
“A lot of retired people never had the time to play, and now they do and want to join friends who play,” he said. “It’s also a great way to get outside, get some exercise and meet new people.”
Outside, Scott hit a couple of shots, effortlessly sending the ball in a white parabola 150 yards down range. It only made me nervous, knowing I’d have to follow him. But he is a quiet, confident teacher who makes nerves disappear.
The first fundamental is the grip and with a few adjustments I was ready. Scott teed up a ball, handed me a 7-iron, showed me the basic stance and adjusted the space between my feet.
“Go ahead,” he said, and I swung and knocked the ball about 20 yards a little off to the right, surprising myself that I’d actually struck the ball and it wasn’t a worm killer.
Scott had me take my stance again. Standing next to me, he had me swing, this time his arms guiding mine. My eyes followed my hands as they went back over my shoulder. “The ball’s not back there” Scott said gently. “The ball’s on the ground.”
The golf swing is the same as many movements in other sports, he said. There’s a weight shift, an acceleration and follow through, the same as throwing or hitting a baseball. Or a tennis swing, said Belle, standing off to the side.
“That was your problem,” Scott smiled at her. “You tried to kill everything.”
Belle smiled back, nodding.
He teed up another. A cranky parent was reading a checklist in my head: “Grip, feet — c’mon, look at your feet — backswing — didn’t I tell you about the backswing?” — and then I heard Scott off to my left saying one word: “Relax.”
The rotten parent shut up as I drew back the club and let it go, swinging through on its own.
The ball flew out in a high arc, dropping maybe 70 yards away. It was even a bit straight down the range.
Did the click of the clubface striking the ball sound like “satori?” Probably not, but the Zen word for “awakening” was apt.
“There,” Scott said. “How’d that feel?”
I was getting it: First the solitary stillness and silence, which no other sport has but golf, then the sound and a sensation of the club meeting the ball travelling sweetly up through my hands, into my arms and the follow-through that is just letting go, a feeling the swing has a life of its own.
Do Zen masters play golf? I’m not sure, but author John Updike did: “Once in a while a 7-iron rips off the clubface with that pleasant tearing sound, as if pulling a zipper in space, and falls toward the hole like a raindrop down a well … these things happen in spite of me, and not because of me, and in that sense I am free, on the golf course, as nowhere else.”
Now I understood why my big brother, when I caddied for him, would storm off a course mid-round in a fury but be back the next day, happily gripping it and ripping it.
I had to do this again. The next one felt even better flying out high against the sky, about 100 yards, a raindrop down a well.
Belle and Scott were smiling at me, as if to say: Now you know.
For more information on the “Learn to Play Golf” program, call Scott Lechmanski at 495-3352, or pick up an application form at the clubhouse on Goat Hill. Lessons will start Monday, April 28 and will be scheduled to accommodate individual needs.