60 Years of Golf - and Counting

By: Blaine Newnham

A few years ago I was playing golf outside Stockholm, Sweden, where our son and his son reside. The island course meandered through huge granite deposits, and I was having a wonderful time despite a poor ball-striking round.

One of the two Swedes I played with was hitting the ball very well. He was a university student, young and lithe, and I asked him how long he had been playing. "Two years," he said emphatically. "And my handicap has gone from 24 to 10."

Then he asked me how long I'd been playing. "More than 50 years," I said. He didn't respond, but I knew what he was thinking: "If you've played a lifetime, why aren't you better than you are?"

He just didn't know the answer to that question, but will likely find out, if he already hasn't.

This is my 60th year of trying to unlock the secrets of the golf swing, and I am really no closer now than I was after starting. But no farther either. I've often wondered if I'd spent the time and energy practicing the piano if I might not be a better pianist than a golfer.

I tell people I shot 85 in high school - as the No. 5 man on our team - and I shoot 85 today. Well, on a good day.

The young Swede didn't realize how difficult a game golf is, how today's epiphany will be next week's absolute collapse - the idea that you've got it when you don't. That, really, the intrigue and appeal of the game is in the search, and if the game weren't so damn difficult it wouldn't be so captivating. Or fun.

So what is it that keeps me playing at the same level as I creep into the next decade? Equipment, perseverance, oatmeal every morning? What is it?

The truth is I'm striking the ball better than ever. I can go weeks without losing a ball. I don't hit it as far as I once did even though the clubs we swing and the balls we hit are better.

It all seems to balance out. The equipment is better, but the golf courses of today - the ones people clamor to play - are far more difficult than the ones I grew up on.

Fairways were wide and barely watered back then, in the 1950s. The ball bounced, there was real roll. There were few forced carries, greens weren't mowed down to host a tour stop, and the bunkers were to be avoided, not feared.

I obviously count myself lucky to be healthy enough to still walk the golf course. But maybe I'm healthy enough because I choose to walk. For me, walking is the game's raison d'etre. I hope to be walking and playing when I'm 80. At Bandon Dunes.

While the new equipment has sent the shots of touring pros heading into orbit, I'm not sure it has given me as much distance as forgiveness.

Admittedly, I'm not an equipment guy. Over the years the one innovation that stopped me in my tracks was the Ping Eye 2 irons. I knew there was something different about them, something way better.

The hybrids have really helped too, as getting the ball high in the air is my biggest concern, along with making sure my short game stays healthy.

I'm not physically strong or a particularly good athlete, but I can think my way around a course and have a good sense of touch.

Maybe that's the advantage of playing for such a long time. My handicap index last summer was 13.3, and right now, through a winter freeze on reporting scores, I'm playing to that. I'd like to be a single-digit player, but the reality is I've only been low once - an 8.9 index - about 10 years ago.

The dream remains, but so does the ticking clock.

Recently, the decision by the USGA to promote the "Play It Forward" initiative has been more important to me than the 460-cc driver.

When I turned 70 my wife arranged a game for me at San Francisco Golf Club, a special place, the 1915 gem of architect A. W. Tillinghast that was later spruced up by Tom Doak. It's ranked higher than the nearby Olympic Club.

We played the regular tees - the member tees - on a cool February day, at 6,400 yards. The course enthralled me, but it also overwhelmed me. My only hope rested with a short game that was simply tested way too often.

There are forward tees at 5,900 yards at SFGC, but I suspect those are even too long for me. I know they are too long for most of the women who have no choice but to play them.

I love the history and tradition of golf, but why make the game torturous? The USGA says that if you drive the ball 200 yards or less - as I do, as many of us do - you should play a course of 5,200 to 5,500 yards. Men as well as women.

At that yardage you'll be able to hit a 7-iron into the green on a mid-range par-4, and to reach the par-5s not in two but in three. In other words, to play the course the way the architect designed it.

At least moving up a set of tees gives you hope. And hope is what golf is all about.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's par putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.