Women – even women who are much better players than their husbands – simply don’t have the same irresistible urge to speak up. What is it with men? My friend Betsy Cullen, a wonderful teaching pro at Pine Forest Country Club outside Houston, thinks it may have something to do with men’s “natural instinct” to solve “problems” for the proverbially weaker sex. Indeed. Mark Morrison, the head teaching pro at Kona Country Club on the Big Island of Hawaii, a favorite (and relatively unsung) golfing venue of Patty’s and mine, has dealt with husbands who try to take over from him during a lesson, and he has been gratified to hear the wife respond, “Just shut up, honey, I’m listening to Mark.” He has witnessed slow boils, a few shouting matches, some actual tears and, a couple of times, the abrupt departure. Every teacher and every spouse has these stories. My mother’s favorite is the day my father said to her after a topped shot (I’m guessing regarding the nature of the mishit, but it’s a good guess),”I knew you were going to do that.” I doubt that Dad said that again.
Even Karen LeFrak, who thought that the golf clubs for Mother’s Day eight years ago were some kind of joke (“I kept searching in all the pockets of the bag for something else!”), who plays for the fun of it, for the lunch, even, who doesn’t practice and has no swing thoughts whatsoever, who has poodle head covers in honor of her award-winning standard, Ch. Ale Kai Mikimoto on Fifth, or “Miki” even nonchalant Karen LeFrak, wife of New York developer Richard LeFrak, doesn’t appreciate cheap advice from her husband. Nor does she want to hear him ask, just as she’s about to initiate her backswing, “Which club do you have?” “Yes,” Richard agrees, “this has been hammered home.” (I should note for the record that Karen, an accomplished amateur pianist, is also something of a natural on the course. A year ago, after playing no golf for months and without a single practice swing, she shot a smooth 100 at difficult Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula. The caddie said afterward, “I have to apologize. I thought you’d be long on head covers and short on game.”)
Advice is dicey even if you know what you’re talking about. Liz and Damon Mezzacappa are a case in point here. She was a good athlete but not a golfer when her husband’s investment banking partners gave her a set of clubs at the couple’s wedding nineteen years ago. Those clubs remained in the closet for four years, but now Liz is addicted and plays in club and charity tournaments, and is as good as her husband. (Actually, there’s some dispute on this. He says yes, she says no, at least when it gets down to the crunch; plus, she plays about ten times as much golf and therefore should be better.) The Mezzacappas are a couple with a proven history of being able to help each other with the quick swing tip–“my eyes are better than my execution,” Damon avers but even they have to be careful. Liz told me, “If you’re out there on your own, it’s not so bad. But when you’re with others, it’s very annoying.”
Golfers don’t seem to understand that an image that works for one of us (“Drive the knees toward the target”) may not compete with another–my wife, in this case. Or consider the classic “You’re looking up,” and the analogous “Keep your head down.” Patty became very frustrated hearing one or both of these admonitions from me because she’d then proceed to lock her eyes to the ball on the next swing, only to scuff this shot as well. She was quite gratified to read Penick’s advice to ignore all such advice because the head will be just the last of a series of body parts that have failed to function properly.
But if Patty’s backswing on a chip shot is too long, thus forcing her to decelerate intuitively on her downswing, with poor result, I can silently signal the mistake by making short sweeps with a club, back and forth. Likewise, she can point to her right hip after I’ve pull-hooked a drive, informing me that I didn’t pivot my right hip on my own backswing (my main problem; one of them). We have an agreement that such visual cues are authorized, and they do seem to work, but as with all ad hoc spousal advice, they’re still not part of a coherent theory of the swing and a coherent system of instruction. This is why pros will usually tell a new student, “Forget everything you’ve read or heard. We’re starting from scratch.”
Out of the hundreds of tips, any golfer will hear over a lifetime, this might be the best.
We husbands enjoy playing with our wives, but there’s no point in denying that spousal golf is different from a game played for friendly stakes with a favorite foursome. Most of us admit that were we restricted to playing only with our wives or with our male friends, we’d choose the four guys, while explaining that the manly competition is more meaningful. Spousal golf is akin to client golf, which is restricted, shall we say, regarding the competitive factor.
Most wives aren’t surprised to hear this, but their husbands might be surprised to learn that the women feel the same way. They cite the social environment of a round of golf as a more important feature of the game, and the fact that playing with other women is simply more fun and less complicated than playing with men. (In Michael Murphy’s cult classic Golf in the Kingdom, the character Agatha McNaughton argues that men also play for bonding purposes. “It’s the only reason ye play at all,” Agatha says. “It’s a way I’ve found to get together and yet maintain a proper distance. All those gentlemen rools, why, they’re the proper tools of affection.” She’s probably right.)
A feminine foursome assures that women won’t have to put up with overly competitive men. My mother says as much, as does my wife (in harsher language than I’ve employed here), my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law. Women can handle their husbands easily enough, but other guys are a different matter entirely. Patty and I have heard any number of perhaps well-intended but fundamentally patronizing remarks directed toward her. The most common is “That’s OK,” offered after some kind of a misfire. But it’s not OK. It’s a bad shot. A man would never say this to another guy on the golf course, not unless he had a sudden craving for a knuckle sandwich. Likewise, guys have said “Nice shot” to Patty after any shot that gets airborne. This is well meant, perhaps, but condescending. Therefore I don’t say “Nice shot” unless I’m positive it’s a nice shot by the standards of that golfer, man or woman, and I don’t say anything at all after a bad shot (except to my friend Gaskins, to whom I usually say, “Nice shot”). I advocate this rule for everyone.
Patty Bryan doesn’t usually drive the ball 200 yards. Andrea Alexander, the publisher of Golf for Women, often does. In the company of her husband Keith, Andrea plays a lot of golf paired with guys they don’t know, and one of her more gratifying moments–she admits it–is when she blasts the drive on the first hole and her new acquaintances are, for the moment, too stunned to speak. Andrea believes that as women become better and more competitive as they already are men will have fewer qualms about playing with women. I agree.
One of the great attributes of golf is the equalizing factor provided by the handicapping system and different tees. Thus I can play a competitive match with either David Duval or Patty Bryan. The system isn’t perfect, however, and I think the attitude women sometimes encounter from men on the golf course is not so much an issue of gender as one of perceived ability level. After her first 200-yard drive, Andrea is immediately accepted into the foursome. (Moreover, these guys may then ruin their own scores for the round trying to match her drives. Every pro on the women’s tour has a library of stories about the contortions of her male pro-am partners who try to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to outdistance the pro off the tee, almost always without success.) Of course, many men invoke a double standard regarding ability. Most of us have witnessed the hacker who barely advances his drive beyond the forward tee immediately lecturing his wife standing on that tee about her perceived swing flaws.
Men worry that women are going to slow them down. This is laughable because any number of surveys have demonstrated that women waste less time chatting on the tee, aren’t obsessed with looking for balls at the edge of the lake, and play faster, period. Twenty years from now, however, the point may be moot, as the imbalance in talent vanishes for good. Men also fear that women won’t know what to do on the golf course. One woman who definitely does know is Julie Marvel, an amateur and collegiate champion from Minnesota, where her family was known as the “golfing Gumlias.” Her husband John Marvel, executive editor of ESPN. corn was the relative newcomer to the game. Knowing how golfers tend to judge golfers they’ve just met, Julie’s first goal with John was imparting etiquette, not instruction. She explained, “I taught John how to look like a golfer, how to play fast. If you’re playing fast and having fun, you’re a great partner”
Hers is solid advice for any neophyte golfer (or for any golfer at all):
play quickly, mind your own business, stay out of the way, don’t foul the air of the foursome with your own bad mood, and have some fun somewhere along the way. Playing quickly is essential, and the keys to speedy play are simple enough: be prepared to hit when it’s your turn and don’t agonize excessively over the three-footer for a snowman (that’s an “8”), because this is not the U.S. Open. In fact, picking up after a sufficient number of strokes (why not double-par?) is always appreciated. By observing such simple etiquette, the worst golfer in the world will indeed be remembered as a great playing partner.
The worst golfer in the world will also return to the fairways for another try. The game gets under the skin, and spousal golf buries deep indeed. For empty-nest golfers and retired couples, social life revolves around the fairways and the clubhouse. Liz Mezzacappa claims that the men she knows enjoy mixed-couple tournaments as much as any others they play all summer, though they wouldn’t admit it. Clinching the case for spousal golf: I know a lot of couples who play golf, and not one who used to.