It’s one of those photos that elicits a mix of emotions from me; it was taken almost exactly fifty years ago. I am standing with my mother and brother in front of a pale-blue 1961 Ford Galaxie automobile. My parents had recently purchased the car, and my dad may have been taking the picture as much to show the car as the people. We’re dressed up and appear to be going somewhere important, but I have no recall of where. In fact, when I discovered this photo last fall, I couldn’t remember ever seeing it before. Now, it has become one of the most important pictures I have. Let me explain why.
In this picture, I see several things about myself at that time, and most of them are unpleasant. I’m wearing glasses and I had been for almost three years by this time—I hated them. I’m very short in stature–and I hated that too. I was almost 15 years old, beginning my sophomore year in high school, and still only five-feet five-inches tall. In this picture I’m no taller than my mother standing next to me in her high-heel shoes.
This story is about my long relationship with the game of golf. It explains how golf helped get me through my adolescent years. It also tells of my connection to the game now, or more exactly, my reconnection over the past few months. It explains how I am continuing to learn about myself from golf. Even if you’ve never played or cared about golf before, I trust that you will find my story meaningful and relevant. Fore!!
“It’s like riding a bicycle.” Many of us have heard or used this expression when referring to what it’s like to return to some long-abandoned physical activity. It gained added meaning for me when I recently read about an amazing medical discovery. A Dutch doctor has reported that some of his severely-impaired Parkinsons patients are able to ride a bicycle with few apparent effects of their disease. This had not been observed before, and although it’s too soon to explain it, the doctor speculated that riding a bicycle might involve a part of the brain than is not affected by the disease. Although that may be part of the explanation, I will add yet another possibility—maybe the muscles remember.
I’ve ridden a bicycle since I was about seven years old. It is the physical activity I learned earlier than any other besides walking and running. But following close behind for me was learning to hit a golf ball, and the reason is simple. My childhood home in Terre Haute, Indiana, was located directly across the street from a nine-hole municipal golf course. In the fall of 1958, when I was twelve years old, my Dad gave me a starter set of Par-Bilt Betty Alex autograph women’s golf clubs. I got women’s clubs because of my short stature; men’s clubs would have been too long for me then. Dad also registered me for indoor golf lessons that winter and bought me a season pass for the nine-hole course across the street that following summer—and I played a lot.
Dad explained that it was important for me to learn to play golf because it was one game that could be with me for the rest of my life. More popular sports for boys at the time, like basketball and football, were usually finished after one graduated from high school. He didn’t need to also explain to me how, at five-feet five-inches tall, I had no chance to play either varsity football or basketball; I figured that out for myself. I knew that if I was to play a varsity sport in high school, golf was my best bet.
So with the prestige sports of basketball and football out of the question, I dedicated myself to learning to hit a golf ball. About that time, I obtained a copy of Sam Snead’s book, appropriately titled How To Hit A Golf Ball. I read it often. Sam Snead became my favorite professional golfer, and by the time I entered high school in the fall of 1961, I could play golf as well or better than anyone I knew who was my age.
Spring of 1962 came around, and I tried out for the varsity golf team at my school. I was still using my Betty Alex starter set of women’s clubs, although I had perhaps grown to about five-feet six-inches by that time. I can’t imagine now playing competitive golf with those clubs, but somehow I did it then. I made the team and in one of the first matches of that year, the coach put me into the varsity line-up. High school golf at that time was formatted around “match play” in which the top four players on each team were numerically ranked by their coaches. I was inserted into the line-up as #4. The players then squared off (by rank) and played head-to-head and hole-by-hole. The goal was to win the most holes, not to necessarily shoot the lowest aggregate score. With match play, it was possible to shoot a lower score than one’s opponent and still lose the contest. Match play was the preferred format for many golf tournaments in the United States at that time, and especially those involving amateurs.
I won that initial match against my opponent in dramatic fashion on the final hole. My coach must have liked what he saw; he started me in every match thereafter for the remainder of my time in high school. Many of my closest male friends were formed around my participation with the golf team. Although playing golf in my school didn’t have the same prestige as playing football or basketball, it did count for something—and especially after a couple of the star players from those other sports decided to join the golf team too. A rising tide lifts all ships.
I didn’t hit a golf ball very far in high school, and especially when I was playing with my shorter women’s clubs; 240 yard drives were tops for me then. However my short game (pitching and putting around the greens) was good and I was able to record respectable scores because of it. Importantly, I was steady and my scores seldom varied more than one or two strokes per round. I liked the match play format because it rewarded consistency. Most importantly, the coach liked my game.
During and after my second year of competition, I finally got my long-awaited growth spurt. In a matter of just a few months, I grew to my present height of six-feet one-inch tall. Later in that year of 1963, my Dad bought me a new set of clubs—men’s clubs this time. They were Sam Snead autograph clubs, of course.
My senior and final year of competition was my best. I won most of my matches and our team qualified for the State Tournament in Indianapolis. That tournament was formatted for “medal play,” which means that players were not paired into individual matches, but rather the aggregate scores of all players on each team were totaled and then compared to determine the winner. The tournament was played on a municipal course, one in which the grass on the greens was kept quite long. This made them difficult to putt, but it also made them play much like the municipal course greens I had grown up with on the nine-hole course across from my house in Terre Haute.
I’ve never had such a round of golf as I had that day. Almost every putt I stroked went into the hole and I shot a personal best score of 74—three over par. Unfortunately, my teammates did not fare as well on those greens and our team score fell short of qualifying for the next level of the tournament. But my competitive career had finished on a high note, and possibly because of my strong showing in the State Tournament, the school’s booster club presented me with the outstanding spring athlete award for that year. Golf had given me an enhanced identity and esteem with my peers—and most importantly, with myself. As I headed to college in the fall of 1964, I was on top of the world.
Competing on the golf team was not the only way that the game was important for me in high school. I often watched a popular television program then called Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. Hall-of-fame golfer Gene Sarazen hosted the series, and it featured head-to-head matches between the top professionals of the day on some of the world’s most famous golf courses. Three of the courses that stand out for me now were the Royal and Ancient “Old Course” at St. Andrews, Scotland, the Pebble Beach course in Carmel, California, and the Banff Springs Golf Club in Canada. Through this program I developed a strong interest in golf course design and it even fostered a short-lived aspiration to someday become a golf course architect.
The only golf course I ever actually designed, however, was a hypothetical one for a piece of ground I knew well at that point in my life, my grandmother’s farm along White River in Jackson County, Indiana. Without the benefit of maps, I drew free-hand sketches of my imaginary course based on my memories of the farm’s topography and natural features. None of those drawings survived, but as I recall them now, it’s significant that I chose to take the terrain and the natural features as a given and to then conform my golf course to those. I later was to learn that most golf course architects approach their designs in exactly the opposite way; they reason that whatever natural features or terrain exist before their course is built are subject to modification or removal if that suits their architectural objectives. As a result, many modern courses bear little resemblance to whatever natural landscapes preexisted them.
The best-known golf course in my area of Minnesota today is Hazeltine National in the town of Chaska near Minneapolis. It was designed by a famous course architect, Robert Trent Jones, and first opened for play in 1962. Since then, the course has been modified several times, and it especially has been lengthened because today’s golfers hit their balls so much farther with the modern clubs that now exist. When the first major men’s championship was held at Hazeltine in 1970, the U.S. Open, the course was 7150 yards long. Since then, there have been at least two major changes, and the most recent $15 million renovation was intended to make the course suitable for hosting major championships for the next twenty years. The course now plays to a length of almost 7700 yards. Club manager Matt Murphy described the latest changes:
“…a complete teardown…We dug up the greens on the property and rebuilt them from scratch…We killed every fairway and reseeded, and we killed the first 10 feet of the roughs bordering every fairway and resodded.”
In that initial U.S. Open tournament in 1970, the difficulty of the course caused some players to complain about its design. Even Jack Nicklaus, the most famous golfer at that time, remarked: “On eleven of the 18 holes, you can’t even see the area where the drives land.” However, it as golfer Dave Hill who is best remembered for his criticism of the course:
“What this place needs is 88 acres of corn and a few cows. Somebody ruined a good farm.”
I’m inclined to agree with him.
I was in the Air Force and living in Wyoming at the time of that 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine. I followed the tournament and was amused by Dave Hill’s remark, but Minnesota and Hazeltine were still unfamiliar places for me then. I played golf on occasion, but my earlier passion for the game had been displaced by new interests in downhill skiing, backpacking and hiking in the mountains, and bicycle touring. It would be four more years before I moved to Minnesota to live.
Once I began my job at the University of Minnesota in 1977, I played golf fairly regularly for a time, mostly with my department head and a few other faculty colleagues. Truth be told, I regarded these outings more as professional activities than recreational ones. Two of my daughters were born by then and time became even more precious. Golf just didn’t fit my life anymore. I also suffered a back injury in 1980, which seemed to be the last nail in the coffin of any golfing aspirations I had then.
Over the past thirty years, I haven’t played golf more than two or three times a year, and there been a number of years when I didn’t play at all—including the last two. This period was so different from the years of my adolescence and early adulthood when I played golf almost every day during the spring, summer and fall. I still followed some of the major professional tournaments like the Masters and the British Open, but as I observed the changes in the game, and especially the advent of newer technology clubs and balls that rendered many of the classic courses obsolete for championship golf, I must say I also grieved the loss of the game I knew.
For me, the most significant golf course in Minnesota is not Hazeltine. My fondness is reserved for Keller Golf Course, a much older municipal one located just a mile from my house. This course was designed and built in 1929 by a Ramsey County civil engineer whose qualification as a golf course architect was simply learning a few basics by touring some of the better-known golf layouts in the eastern U.S. on his family vacation. Despite this lack of “pedigree,” it’s fair to say that no course in Minnesota has a more extensive and storied association with championship golf than Keller. It has hosted two national Professional Golf Association (PGA) Championships (1930 and 1954), the Western Open in 1949 when it was one of the more important professional tournaments of the year, and the St. Paul Open PGA men’s tournament for almost forty years (1930-68). Some of the biggest names in men’s professional golf played and won this tournament. The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) also held one of its regular tournaments at the Keller course from 1973 to 1980. Hazeltine—or almost any other course for that matter—cannot come close to matching this record. Furthermore, Keller is known for “its creative, strategic use of the rolling terrain.” It’s one course where many of the natural features of the landscape that existed before the course was built have been preserved and used to enhance the golfing experience.
Although I have lived in Minnesota for almost forty years, I’ve played only a few rounds at Keller Golf Course. The reason is simple; I seldom played golf in the first place, and when I did I went to other courses . I don’t actually know what renewed my interest in golf and drew me back to the game. For lack of a better explanation, I’ll simply say the muscles remember.
The concept of muscle memory is well established in some fields such as the performing arts. Dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp, has written about it:
“Muscle memory is one of the more valuable forms of memory, especially to a performer. It’s the notion that after diligent practice and repetition of certain physical movements, your body will remember those moves years, even decades after you cease doing them.”
Without being too analytical, I think my muscles remembered their former involvement with the game of golf and somehow prompted my yearning to re-engage this activity of my youth. There was also the challenge of it all, I suppose—and the question of whether I could even hit a golf ball, and especially as I once did.
My journey back to golf also involved a new engagement with Keller Golf Course, although not on the actual course itself at first. I began at Keller’s practice range and putting green and I took it easy. My first times on the range were a roller-coaster of emotions—elation whenever I hit a good shot, but then sometimes pain suggesting that maybe this just wasn’t working. From the beginning though, I was impressed by how effortlessly I could swing a club after having been away for so long. Again, Twyla Tharp has written:
“…memory of movement does not need to be accessed through conscious effort.”
This is true. Yes, I thought about my swing and remembered some things as I hit through the various clubs in my bag, but for the most part, I followed—what shall I call it—I followed an “instinct.” Although my muscles had not held or swung a golf club in two years, they knew what to do—and the results, even early on, amazed me. When my club struck a ball, and the grass and soil too whenever I took a divot, something deep inside of me awakened—a sensation that’s been part of me since I was twelve years old. It’s embedded in every ligament, muscle and nerve of my body.
I still can walk as I once did; I still can ride a bicycle as I once did; and now I know I still can hit a golf ball as I once did. These physical activities began for me in childhood and access my memory of movement through little conscious effort of my own.
There was another aspect of memory that became a part of my return to golf. I don’t know that Twyla Tharp has even thought about this one. I call it collateral memory, for lack of a better term, and here’s what I mean. In golf, as in other sports and physical activities, context matters. The game of golf today is very different from what it was for players at the time Keller Golf Course opened in 1929. Equipment has changed, rules have changed, attitudes and etiquette have changed, and the course has changed. Trees are larger now and even the sequence of the holes has been altered over time. However, because of its history of championship golf spanning fifty years, Keller Golf Course celebrates a proud heritage. In its clubhouse are photos of former players and scenes from the many tournaments staged on its grounds. Pictures of each winner of both the PGA St. Paul Open and the LPGA Patty Berg Classic are on display. There are action shots of icons such as Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer. And most importantly for me, there is a picture of the 1949 champion, Sam Snead.
These photos in the Keller Clubhouse are tangible reminders that I follow other’s footsteps whenever I play this course. As I’ve reconnected with golf, I’ve also chosen to explore some aspects of the game known to those golfers who initially played here. In this way, I’ve sought to experience their muscle memories too, and I’ve learned they are very different from my own.
The clubs I use now are about twenty years old. They are different than my earlier Betty Alex women’s clubs from 1958, or even my Sam Snead Championship clubs from 1963. But structurally, they are similar—each has a steel shaft and the feeling of striking a ball is much the same for each. I always wondered though, what would it be like if I could reach even farther back and hit balls with the kinds of clubs that were in use when Keller Golf Course was first opened–or even earlier? During my recent return to golf, I decided to explore that curiosity.
Over forty years ago, I bought some golf clubs dating to the early 1900s. I was living in New York State at that time and I put an ad in the newspaper offering to buy some “antique, wooden-shafted clubs.” I received a response from a local resident and subsequently purchased a dozen hand-forged irons and persimmon-headed woods from him. Each also has a solid hickory shaft. I always intended to hit some balls with these clubs, but never did. With my return to golf, I knew my time had come to do so. My interest in exploring the collateral memory of the game further fed this commitment.
One afternoon in July, I took one of the oldest clubs in my collection, an almost 100 year-old, hickory-shaft fairway wood, to the practice range at Keller. I chose a wood because I thought it might offer a more unique experience than an iron, plus I didn’t want to take a divot and possibly harm the club. I knew that everything about my club was very old—its leather grip, its hickory shaft and its persimmon head. I had no idea when the club had last been used or whether it could withstand the force of again striking a golf ball after so many years. Unlike the kinds of woods that came along later, this club has no plastic or resin insert in the face with which to strike the ball day. I would be experiencing only the feel and sound of solid persimmon striking the ball and then translating its force to my hands and arms through a hickory shaft. I couldn’t wait to give it a try.
As I addressed the ball and prepared to take my first swing at a ball, I still wondered whether the club would hold together. I teed the ball high to assure that I could strike it without hitting the ground with the club. I began my backswing, and my wife Mary Ann captured the moment in a photograph. It seemed at first like any other swing I’ve taken during my life with golf—until, that is, the moment I made contact with the ball. That was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. The best way I can describe the sensation now is “solid.” The sound of the wood striking the ball was different too, not at all like the “pingy” sound that most modern clubs make today. Most memorably, the ball flew down the range like the wind!
I realized later that this was the feeling and sound–and the muscle memory–that Francis Ouimet experienced when he won the U. S. Open Championship in 1913. He was just twenty years old then and the first American to win this major tournament. It made front-page news throughout the nation and brought golf into the sports mainstream. This was the feeling and sound–and the muscle memory–experienced by Bobby Jones in 1930 when he became the only golfer to accomplish the “grand slam”—four major tournaments won in a single year. And this was the feeling and sound–and the muscle memory–experienced by Harry Cooper when he won the initial St. Paul Open at Keller Golf Course in 1930.
I’ve played Keller Golf Course a few times since my return to the game. Whenever I do, I prefer to play from the blue tees. One characteristic of championship golf courses like Keller is that they often have different sets of tees on each hole. At Keller, there is a red set for women to use, a white set for most men golfers, and a blue set for expert golfers (men or women) and these are the ones also used during major tournaments. I play the blue tees for the added challenge, of course, but more importantly to experience the course as it was played by those professional golfers who came before me and whom I admired in my early days with the game, players like Cary Middlecoff, Tommy Bolt, Mike Souchak, Ken Venturi, Don January, Doug Sanders, Bobby Nichols, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus—and, of course, Sam Snead. When I stand in the tee box defined by those blue markers, I imagine before me the scene that once faced the golfing icons of my youth. Maybe it’s analogous of what it must be like to stand in the batter’s box at Fenway Park in Boston and imagine that ball field as it appeared to baseball greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams who played there.
Did I mention that the holes from the blue tees are also more difficult? On some at the Keller course, the length of the hole from the blue tees can be much greater than from the white or red tees. For example, the blue tees on the sixteenth hole make it 140 yards longer and they change the hole from a routine par 4 into a very difficult par 5. From the blue tees on that hole, a golfer can only see deep rough and trees and he must hit his tee shot blindly in the direction of the fairway and green without being able to see either. A missed shot almost certainly will end up in the thick prairie vegetation in front of the tee box, and from which there is no recourse other than to declare the ball unplayable and accept a penalty.
Another memorable hole at Keller course from the blue tees is number 4, a 150-yard par three that under normal circumstances should be rather routine. But the architect allowed a large tree to remain growing directly in front of the green. From the blue tees, a golfer must hit a mid-iron over that tree and then stop it quickly on the green. Once again, a missed shot means that a golfer’s ball will likely hit the branches of the tree and be deflected into a sand bunker that is also in front of the green. There is no margin for error.
Playing from the blue tees symbolizes for me an important lesson, one I’ve learned over and over during my life with golf. To experience the best “views,” one needs to take the more difficult path. From my perspective, each of the holes at Keller Golf Course is more beautiful when viewed from the blue tees. I expect that other golfers might agree with me about this. And I also have a hunch that the architect of Keller course, Paul Coates, put just a little more thought into the aesthetics of the holes as he planned each one from the perspective of the blue tees.
It’s been more than fifty years now since I first learned to hit a golf ball. My life’s path has followed many twists and turns and through it all, the game of golf has been with me, even when I haven’t been playing. I realize now that golf is foundational to my identity. I’ve had other identities through the years–student, military officer, husband, university professor, father and writer. But of these identities, I’ve concluded that only golf is imprinted into the very fabric of my being, into my muscle memory if you will. The recent reawakening of my interest in golf has shown me this.
As a symbol of this reawakening, I have re-commissioned another of my hundred year-old, hickory-shaft clubs. This one will accompany me for the remainder of my life with golf. It’s an iron and was made by the G. L. Hall Company in about 1910. It is labeled a “putter,” but since the club’s face is grooved and lofted, I know that it was also used for chipping the ball from around the greens–and that’s how I intend to use it from this point forward. It also bears the label GUARANTEED HAND FORGED. When I hold and use this club, I think of the person–probably a man–who forged its blade a century ago. I think of the person (or persons) who played with this club during the early decades of the 1900s, perhaps on courses in New York State where I first obtained the club long ago. And I consider the years this club has been with me and all that has transpired in my life over that time.
Whenever I strike a ball with my antique chipper/putter, I get that same solid sensation–that same muscle memory–known to those who played with this club before me. I’m grateful to the game of golf for being a positive thread in the fabric of my life, and especially in those tenuous years of early adolescence. And now the muscles remember.
Cited: Twyla Tharp. 2003. The Creative Habit. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2011. All rights reserved.