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Their Chips and Putts Driving You Mad? Welcome to My Club

September 03, 2000|JAMES RICCI

IN THE LATE 15TH CENTURY, many Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism to avoid being banished by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I.

Some of these conversos, however, continued to practice their traditional faith in secret. When children of these families were deemed old enough, elders would take them aside and whisper, "Somos jud'os" ("We are Jews") and enjoin them to cling to that truth even while attending Mass, receiving the sacraments and otherwise blending into the overwhelming majoritarian religious culture.

Something like this has happened to me in regard to golf.

By now golf is played on every continent save Antarctica. Its missionary success has been little short of astounding. The number of golf courses in the United States has tripled, to 16,000, since 1950. The country's golfers, 26 million strong and multiplying, are tithing $25 billion to the game every year.

Golfers' renowned devotion and willingness to suffer (and most of them suffer plenty) can only be called religious.

Recently, on the practice putting green of the new Tregnan Golf Academy in Griffith Park, instructor Michael Rojas was teaching four L.A.-area youngsters named William, Patrick, Donald and Nicholas the rudiments of putting. His words were almost prayerful.

"The secret is to get your hands underneath the club," he said. "You want to have your elbows kind of flexed. You don't want to move your hands and wrists at all. You want everything still. Two things move when you putt. One is your arms and the other is your heart--hey, Bill, don't be running around out here. Remember, this place is sacred."

Once primarily the faith of the chosen frozen--that is, white middle-class suburbanites--golf in recent years has spread with great success to inner cities and among people of color. About 300 city kids are on the L.A. Recreation and Parks Department's waiting list for the Tregnan Academy, and almost 700 others are learning the game at other rec department sites.

Personally, I've had a long, outspoken antipathy to golf.

I come from a family of golfers. My brother, my uncles, my cousins played. I did, too, though rarely. I used to get miffed at extended-family gatherings when most of the men sometimes would disappear to a golf course, completely undermining the festivities, and return six hours later, sunburned and begging off socializing so that they could take naps.

I still bridle at the notion that golfers are athletes and have been given to shrill denouncements of any such suggestion.

Yes, I'd snarl, hitting a golf ball is hard to do, but nobody's throwing it at you. You don't have to run after you make contact. No defender's trying to stop you from advancing to the next hole. There's no clock you have to beat.

How could anybody call this "athletic?" I'd demand. Golf was about as athletic as archery. No wonder so many endomorphs were good at it.

I could work myself up into a fine dudgeon ridiculing golf resorts and all the boring people who wasted trips to the most beautiful mountains, deserts and seashores on a bland and tedious suburban obsession.

I searched literature for phrases to ennoble my diatribes. I loved to invoke John Updike's characterization of golf as "a game of petty grievance" until I learned that the great literatus is himself a devotee of the game.

Last year I went on a seaside hike with a friend in Rancho Palos Verdes, to a place she'd trekked the previous year. We were shocked to discover that in the interim someone had thrown down a luxury golf course, Ocean Trails Golf Club, on the site. Oh, how I rejoiced when we saw that the course's 18th hole had collapsed and slid toward the sea.

This, I crowed, was God's revenge for the hubris of developers who would cover every scenic stretch of North America with fairways if they could.

Lately, however, I'm not so prone to misreading the Almighty's will. I've sensed that in these self-satisfied spiritual times my blasphemies aren't perceived as provocative, just odd.

Golf has won and I have lost. This I now accept.

So when people swooningly extol Tiger Woods as a fabulous athlete, I just nod and say, "Yep, he's amazing." And when someone says he or she has recently played a round, I ask, "How'd you hit 'em?" (and brace for the inevitable onslaught of tedious play-by-play).

I know there are others like me out there. Occasionally, in a setting where a believer is prattling on about hooks and sand traps and the latest miracles of St. Tiger, I'll notice someone else at the table whose eyes betray the slightest glazing, whose smile seems the tiniest bit forced.

One of these days I'm going to sidle up to that person, and when no one else is listening, whisper, "Somos jud'os . . . ."


James Ricci's e-mail address is

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