LONG BEACH — Noticing the logjam at the first tee on a recent afternoon at the Recreation Park Golf Course, a man in a Panama hat said, "I don't think anybody works anymore; they're either on the freeways or playing golf."
The Recreation Park 18-hole municipal course is among the five busiest public courses in the country, according to Tom Frost, 27, who manages it for American Golf Corp., which leases it from the City of Long Beach.
Between 400 and 500 golfers come each day to swing beneath the palm, eucalyptus and Canary Island pine trees, and traverse the hilly terrain.
"Golf has become a business," said Frost, a 5-handicap golfer. "The carts ($14) and the driving range ($4 for a large bucket of balls) are a big part of it, but the main product is the golf course--that's what brings people out."
A Bucket of Balls
At the course's driving range, golfers place wire buckets of balls next to mats of plastic grass and whistle the air with practice swings. They fish out a ball and hit it toward a screen more than 250 yards away. Are they remembering the pointers in that Ken Venturi book in the pro shop or last weekend's TV images of Nicklaus, Ballesteros or some other idol?
There is more flailing, hacking and chopping than fluent swinging. Some of the drives soar straight and beyond the eye's range; others take a shorter, hump-backed route, or skid over the ground, or slice high over a side fence into the first fairway. The balls decorate the range like wildflowers.
Range users come in various ages and shapes. They wear jeans, slacks, shorts, sport shirts, T-shirts, ties and shoes with cleats. Locked in concentration, they are silent.
The balls run out too quickly. Finally, only one is left before the moment of truth on the first tee.
The First Tee
Over the clubhouse loud speaker, the foursomes are announced. They step up with their drivers, past a low brick wall on which sit hundreds of yellow mums.
They tee off to the west, their clubs flashing in the sun, their follow-throughs profiled against the sky. Squinting, they follow the ball's flight until it becomes a speck. If the shot is bad, they sweep up the tee, pocket it with disgust and wish they were invisible. If it is good, they linger to savor it and hear an observer admire, "Right down the middle."
When all have hit, the foursome departs--on foot or in carts--down the fairway on a familiar, perilous adventure.
By Dawn's Early Light
At 5 a.m. the clubhouse lights are ablaze. Fairways drink the reclaimed water that sprinklers spray on them. Rake tracks are fresh in sand traps. Little red tractors mow the greens and break dawn's silence. A young course worker drives a cart up the hill from a storage area, then gets on a skateboard to go down and fetch another. Cars bearing yawning regulars enter the parking lot.
A woman arrives, her clubs rattling in their bag, her fragrance different from that of the mums.
The golfers wait for the sky to lighten and the coffee to kick in.
"We get here early because we're all married and have chores to do," said Sam Crilly, 74. "Women keep you busy."
Crilly says he shoots 80 to 85, sometimes 78. "Haven't shot my age yet," he said. "That's my goal . . . maybe in a couple of years."
Most of the early golfers are in their 60s and 70s but greet one another with, "Hey, young man, how's it going?" Perhaps it is youth that they derive from all this greenness.
"It sure keeps me young," Arnold Chapman, 71, said after teeing off. "I've lost 27 pounds since January. This helps do it." He sets out briskly by foot in the direction of his ball, eager to try to win some change from his friends.
Out on Anaheim Street, the day's first cars and buses move along in a workday world to which the golf course is oblivious.
The Second Green
A good view is offered of the second green through a chain-link fence near the clubhouse.
It is desolate. Then balls bounce into view and roll to a stop. Shortly thereafter, a foursome arrives. The flag stick is lifted from the hole. Putts are stroked. Comments follow:
"In the hole, in the hole" . . . "Hell of a putt" . . . "Oh, almost a 3, an easy 4" . . . "How come you're so lousy, Bud?" . . . "I don't understand why I'm 10 feet to the left" . . . "I just missed one like that" . . . "One time, one time". . . .
The last ball rattles in. The flag stick is returned. The group disappears. And for a few moments, the green is a lonely place again.
A Character on a Bench
"Everybody's a pro, you know," said Ron Harding, 62, as he watched from a green bench between the driving range and the first tee. He has just hit a few balls.
"Haven't played here in 20 years," he said. "Took up drinking, got too much of a belly, can't turn into the ball."
But as if to prove he is a new man, he suddenly does 10 push-ups.
"One more cigarette and we'll take off, Frank," he said to a friend.
Golf obviously amuses Harding.
"You know, a golfer is never satisfied," he said. "I seen a guy hit it 250 yards straight as can be and say, 'What'd I do wrong?' "