Thunderstorms and Neon Greens

There’s big black clouds blowin in from the west
I’ve been drivin all day lord I sure could use some rest
There’s a motel up ahead where I can unwind
Cause I sure love thunderstorms and neon signs

I grew up on the rough from town to town
My daddy’s line of work kept us movin’ around
I got fond memories of the what things were back then
The warmth of the neon when a bad storm was movin’ in

[So] whenever I hear the wheels begin to whine
It takes me back to another time.

—“Thunderstorms and Neon Signs”

Wayne Hancock.

“He hit it too hard” was the first thing I thought when the ball left the face of the putter. We were on the 17th hole of Chicago Highlands a week or so ago, in the middle of a match between a member (whom I will refer to as Mr. B) and his partner and two guests. A moment earlier I had asked Mr. B to play his birdie putt well above the hole, a line that even he thought might be too high, though we’d been having success all day on the lines I chose for him. Now the match was on the line—a win on this hole would close out the bets—and he, though doubting, went with my read anyway. And now it looked like the ball was going to go by the cup without so much as saying hello.

Making putts is a matter of two different factors: speed and line. It’s always possible to hit every putt directly at the hole, provided you hit it hard enough, but too hard and it’s unlikely that the ball will be traveling slowly enough to fall into the cup—instead it will, as the noted pro Isaac Newton predicted, just keep traveling over it. Making putts is a matter of choosing the right direction to aim (line) and the right amount of force to apply to the ball (speed).

I came across a good metaphor for the process listening to NPR last week about the benefits of free range beef herding, where I learned that grass seeks “bilateral symmetry at the soil horizon.” What that means that roots tend to go as deep as the shoots above the surface, and vice versa—roots must balance the shoots, in other words, just as speed has to balance line. But the slogan is also useful for golf in a literal way, because of what it teaches about grass itself.

That I was listening to the program at all was because it rained all day in Chicago, a good steady and soaking rain that sunk in deep. That’s good for the golf courses because the water drives so far that it takes the roots of the grass down with it as those roots—seeking that symmetry—chase after the water. Deep roots means that the greenkeepers will be able to cut the greens shorter, or in other words faster.

Faster greens means that it takes less force to hit a ball to the hole, which is to say that speed becomes discounted relative to line. I can’t hit the ball for my golfers, but I can tell them where to play it: for me, line is more important than speed, because that’s what I can control. So if line is at a premium in relation to speed, then it’s likely I can be more helpful. So despite being a day off for me, rain days are important because they help promote line as opposed to speed.

Rain days can also be fun though too: it’s a tradition both on tour and in caddie yards across the country to spend a rain day at the movies. Movie houses near tournaments might get a dozen tour players and their caddies during a good soak, as during the recent Memorial tournament, and I can relate a few times when the entire Medinah yard has popped up at the nearest theater.

There was, for instance, the one time in the late 90s when a friend and I went to see Something About Mary—and then, after it was over and we were in the parking lot, went back and saw it again. We weren’t exactly discerning critics then, not that much has changed since.

Such moments might appear the antithesis of golf, but they aren’t really. Rain days, inactive as they are, actually affirm golf’s connection, however tenuous it might be in these days of SubAir drainage systems and computer-directed irrigation systems, to the natural world. Rain days are reminders of what might seem like the past, a world subsumed by modernity: which believes, as the Englishman L.P. Hartley put it in The Go-Between long ago, “The past is another country; they do things differently there.”

But as William Faulkner wrote nearly sixty years ago, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Part of the mental furniture of our lives of cell phones and televisions, cars and airplanes, is the belief that there is some fundamental difference between now and then. It’s possible to argue that the former requires the latter, but it’s likely that such is an unanswerable question—which makes it, at least according to the modern world, uninteresting.

If our everyday lives, in other words, are lived according to the rule of speed, where we simply charge headlong at our goals as fast as we are able, rain days remind us of the importance of line: that it isn’t always so important that we are making progress as that we are aiming at the right targets. It’s hard to tell which should be more important in our own lives, of course, which is one reason why I enormously enjoy juxtaposing Hartley and Faulkner—Hartley, the European, in a way advocates for the importance of speed, while Faulkner, the American, does the same for line, which nicely scrambles our traditional association of Europe with the past and America with the future. If only deciphering the world, or the 17th green at Chicago Highlands, were so simple: according to the social scientists there is more social mobility in Europe now than America.

As it so happens, on Mr. B.’s putt the slope of the green was so severe that traveling up it caused the ball to lose more speed than I thought it would; it reached the apex of its arc and traveled slowly, but then more quickly as gravity took over, toward the hole. Somehow, the ball knew the balance between speed and line better than either of us: the cup, with complete indifference, accepted the ball directly in its center.