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Barbarian at the Tee


The sea grass whipping all around me, I hit what I think/hope is a decent drive. But the fairway, I discover too late, bends right before it bends left, so I’ve lost my third ball in five holes. Suddenly, the accumulated tension of the last hour and a half catches up with me, and my head goes on tilt. It’s not knowing the distances or carries. It’s not knowing which way the fairways turn, or even if I’m standing on the right tee and firing toward the correct green. On top of everything, I’m still expecting a John Cleese look-alike in a brass-buttoned blazer to windmill up the fairway and yank me from the premises by my ear.

Unlike other bits of juvenile malfeasance, like, for example, hurling a snowball at a greaser’s muscle car, guerrilla golf is more a marathon than strike-and-sprint-for-your-life. And that gives your mind plenty of time to turn on itself. But there’s no easy way out now. Like a Wal-Mart cleaning crew, I’m locked in for the full shift.

Suddenly nostalgic for the carefree vacation I left behind just hours ago, I stagger through the next couple of holes, as lost to myself as Lear on the windswept heath. As I stare anxiously out from the eleventh tee, a member of the crew parks his mower on the right side of the fairway; assisted by a clear target, I hit a solid three-wood.

As in so many other rounds, that’s all it takes—one good shot—and suddenly things don’t seem so dire. In fact, it occurs to me that except for a few bad shots, I’ve been inordinately fortunate, not just today but my entire life. When I reach my ball and find a seagull feather beside it, I interpret it as another good omen.

On the thirteenth hole, another worker approaches on his tractor. He’s in his early twenties with a fade haircut and baggy shorts. As he rattles by, he raises his index finger and pinkie in the international sign of rock-and-roll solidarity. Would he risk such a greeting to a bona fide Maidstoner? I doubt it. The thought that he might have deduced I’m an interloper and, better yet, that he approves—it almost brings a tear to my eye. I considered many scenarios for this day but never imagined my uninvited visit to Maidstone could make me feel less lonely.

Five minutes later, I roll in an eight-footer for my first par in six holes and head to the halfway shack, which, according to a plaque, was bequeathed to the club in 1953 by its former beloved president Dudley Roberts Jr. and a few of his good friends. Country clubs are besotted with their own eccentricities, and one of Maidstone’s is that the halfway shack falls after the thirteenth hole, not the ninth. I’d spotted it from the ninth fairway and dreaded the possible run-ins with members and employees. But now, in yet another piece of good fortune, the snack bar is closed and I have the place to myself. The structure is so ramshackle it’s a parody of genteel understatement. But the bathroom is lovely, and while replaying the round in my mind and gratefully acknowledging the contribution of Dudley and his anonymous pals, I enjoy a salutary seaside respite on the can.

Feeling that much better, I step back into the sun; the next few holes are a joyous travelogue of rugged coastline, water, and sky. I bogey the oft-photographed par-three fourteenth, its green carved into a seaside dune, and by the time I walk back over the bridge to the double tee near where my round began, I feel so at ease in my new environs, I’d be an asset to the welcoming committee. When I wrap a Band-Aid around a blister and one of the tiny pieces of wax paper flutters off in the breeze, I scurry after it, anxious, as any member, not to despoil the semi-natural beauty.

I don’t think I’m beating myself up when I say I’m not Maidstone material, and even had I tapped some tenuous link to a member to get on for a day, it would have entailed four tedious hours of “Nice shot,” “Tough break,” and “How are the kids?” And that’s not what I had in mind.

Like Macdonald, I don’t appreciate being “put with” anyone, and, if my friends couldn’t be budged, I prefer to enrich myself with the perils and pleasures of my own company. In Frankfurt in 1938, well after ARYAN ONLY signs went up at the Opera House, my fair-haired Jewish father, then 12, kept attending performances on his own. It wasn’t a protest. He did it because he felt like it and thought he could get away with it, and I’m playing Maidstone for about the same reason.

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