In the summer of 1981 our family hosted an exchange student from Italy. His thin body, fair skin, innocent face and painfully shy demeanor belied his Sicilian Mafia-like name of Alessandro Sassi. He was 17 and would be staying with us for a month before going back east to stay with another family.
Alessandro came to America to study English and to visit some of California’s and America’s most memorable landmarks: The Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite, Lombard Street, The Lincoln Memorial, The White House and so on. Oh, and he came to buy golf clubs.
In fact, it was one of the first things he wanted to do when he arrived: buy golf clubs. In fact, he couldn’t shut up about it. In fact, he was so worried about spending what he had saved to buy a set that he gave all of it to my parents for safekeeping. The kid loved golf. And he wanted to play in America.
Me, I gave two hoots about golf. I had never picked up a club much less swung one. I liked the putt-putt course at the Montclair Driving Range (I never did get it in the clown’s mouth to win a free round), but that was about it. Golf? Meh. Wake me when ski season starts. Skiing was my true love.
With Alessandro chomping at the bit to get his clubs, my Dad took him into downtown San Francisco to let him buy his clubs. I tagged along. Despite knowing exactly what clubs he wanted, Alessandro was still hesitant to blow such a load. He also thought he had enough money to buy the clubs. Yet those pesky exchange rates and devalued lira got in his way and he had to settle for something less than what he wanted. Overall, though, he was smitten with his purchase.
Armed with his shiny new sticks, Alessandro wanted to play. And play right now. No, more like yesterday. So Dad booked a tee time at Tilden Park Golf Course.
Now my dad was a good golfer. That is, when he played. That is, if he played more than once a year. This wasn’t always the case according to my mom. He used to play, and play quite well before his best golf buddy moved away. Despite his infrequent play, dad always thought he could hit the course cold and shoot lights out. No hitting the range, except for the day of the round and he expected to burn it up. Never happened, she said, and he would come home all pissed off. No surprise there. When you have unrealistic expectations about an outcome or goal, and you don’t meet them, you’re bound to come home a little pissed off. Unjustified as it may be.
And Dad said I would get the honor of being his caddy. Oh joy. So I joined them for the round.
I remember Alessandro’s swing and it was, well, bad. But he was having fun. So was my dad who seemed to be hitting the ball well in my never-played-a-single-shot opinion. The round seemed to take forever, always waiting for someone to tee off or clear the fairway or clear the green before anything happened. But being that it was a warm, beautiful August day in the hills above Berkeley, I didn’t mind kicking back and sitting in the grass in between shots.
On the back nine with Alessandro happily doffing it around, my dad’s round came unraveled. Suddenly, he couldn’t hit a ball. The curse words were flying. He sucked and puffed on his filter less Sherman’s madly. On the 18th, he tugged his drive left. The ball hit a tree and ricocheted back about 30 yards. Dad seethed.
On his second shot, he worm raped the ball and it went skirting and scooting down the fairway maybe 75 yards. That shot was quickly followed by the whoop-whoop sound of dad’s 3-wood making its way after the ball. (Titanium just doesn’t have that great whoop-whoop sound that wood does.)
Dad snatched his pack of Sherman’s from the bag and said, “I’m fucking done. See you two in the snack shack. Go ahead and play my ball Peter.” Alessandro waited for my dad to get down the fairway before he hit.
Things were, uh, uncomfortable.
We didn’t talk until we got to my dad’s ball. I looked down at the ball, then to Alessandro with a “now what?’ face. Alessandro said to me, “You have 110 yards. Try 7 iron.” This meant squat to someone who’d never swung a golf club before. I didn’t even know how to grip it. So I figured that a baseball grip would do just fine.
I doubt my eyes were even open at impact. But they were open when I looked up. And yes, I was looking up at my ball. Way up. Not only was the ball in the air, but it was going straight. And man, that ball was a pretty sight to see flying into the backdrop of the trees. Cue the Vangelis “Chariots of Fire” music.
Thump! On the green. 12-15 feet away. Alessandro turned to me and said, “Wow! Nice shot!”
You did read the part about how I liked putt-putt golf, right? Then it should be no surprise then that I made the putt. Yup, drained the sucker.
Alessandro laughed. I laughed. What was so hard about this game?
Oh, and in case you’re not paying attention that was a par.
We walked off the green and up to the snack shop. My dad stood there and smiled, a shock considering his mood minutes earlier. I don’t recall what his exact words were to me because I was pretty beside myself with my accomplishment, but they were something along the lines that being a golfer ran in the family.
So it was half a hole and two shots, Dad was right: I was genetically hooked.