grew up as one of those kids who thought golf was for the rich folks. The city of St. Louis was very much a middle class kind of town. At least my part of St. Louis was. We belonged to a very middle-class swim club but not a country club. Those were for the wealthy people who lived in the suburbs. We were city people with small houses, small yards and not a lot of pretensions.
My total golf experience until the time I was in college probably consisted of six rounds at a par 3 course called Tower Tee. No lessons (like we got in tennis and swimming) and not a lot of passion. There was a bit of passion for swimming and a lot for tennis, where as teenagers we’d play doubles until it got much too dark.
My golf game didn’t get much better in college. It would have been hard to choose a less golf friendly school than Columbia, although I guess I could have taken the subway up to Van Cortland Park, and used my clubs to defend myself along the way.
Perhaps I played two or three times during the summer with friends from outside of Boston, but that was it. I didn’t catch the bug.
After graduation, I saw a new side of the game when I moved to Chicago. Everyone golfed there: priests, policemen, plumbers, even journalists. So I played a few times, but mostly as a way to get some sunshine and spend some time with friends.
Then came Rome.
There’s a lot more sun here than Chicago will ever see, so golf should have been something of a natural game here. But that’s not the case. Soccer is the only sport everyone grows up with in Italy.
From that point of view, I could have been back in St. Louis. If you golf in Italy, you’re clearly a snob. But not at my club. I called it the gypsy camp club, because you had to drive by a bunch of trailers where gypsies lived in order to get there.
Plus, it wasn’t really a club. Just a driving range and putting green. So I took 10 lessons from buddy Riccardo, a chain smoker with a deep tan and a sweet disposition.
He’d teach me one thing every time out, and I could feel the progress. I was a baseball player at heart (and especially in my hands) so we had to get rid of all that. Otherwise I’d always hit the ball the same distance, no matter what club I had in my hand.
I was great at keeping my eye on the ball (baseball is good for something!) but not so good at not trying to kill the ball. I’d go out and hit balls sometimes, and other times, when I was a little pressed for time, hit persimmons on my terrace.
I finally got the courage to go out and play for real — or what I thought was going to be real.
Tee time was 10:10 a.m. at Parco de’ Medici, a club that’s somewhere out there off Rome’s ring road. I say “somewhere out there” because it’s not the easiest place to find, unless you work at the World Food Programme. It’s right across the street from the WFP.
While I have several friends who play the game, I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of too many of them. I chose someone I hardly knew, a 25-year-old named Francis Bitterman, who works at the University of Dallas campus, just outside the city.
Francis is from Chicago. You wouldn’t think a city that’s so cold would spawn so many golfers, but it does. Like his six brothers, he was a caddy from the time he was 12.
How am I supposed to compete with that? I’m not, right? Just as well. After all my work at the driving range, I topped my first drive on a 380-yard par four, which with a nice bounce may have made it 60 yards down the fairway. But it was straight, so we’ll take what we can get.
I was still about 320 yards away from the green, so I borrowed Francis’s 3-wood. No big improvement. This is like a war, and we’ll be gaining ground 50 or 60 yards at a time. I ended up with an 8. Not great for a par 4.
I shot an honest 5 on the second hole, a par 3, and was back up to 8 on the 435-yard third hole. It may have been a 9, but Francis says he can’t count higher than 8 when keeping score.
Ouch. A 7 on the fourth hole, which is only a par 3. But there is a moment of glory on five, and I send my drive straight up the fairway 150 yards or so. A 9-iron puts me on the edge of the green, and after a quick lesson on chipping from Francis, I’m on the green in three, and not more than eight feet from the hole.
Do you realize what this means? Greg Burke is putting for par on a real golf course. Time for the mental game. Grace under pressure. All that kind of stuff.
Well, par is going to have to wait. I’m on line but about six inches short of the cup. But we still made history: Greg Burke’s first bogey.
I made no history on holes six through nine, unless you count putting a ball in the water for the first time. I’m sure there will be more to come. I carded two 7s, a 5, and yes, one more 8 on a very long par 5.
Then it was time to put on some sunscreen, get a sandwich, and work on my mental game for the back nine. The panino was good, the sunscreen seemed to work, but I must have left my mental game back on the tennis court.
My mental game in tennis is pretty strong. I call it pysch-ops. War again, psychological operations. Disinformation, that kind of stuff. I can unravel my opponents in tennis. That’s why I occasionally beat guys who are better than I am. Attention: Kishore, Francesco, Danny-Boy, are you listening?
But it doesn’t work in golf. What are you going to do, psych out yourself?
Actually, the back nine did go a little better. I shot a 60 up front, and cut that by three strokes in the afternoon, ending with a grand total of 117.
I only had one 8 (on a par 4 in which the water kept calling for my ball) so perhaps there was a little progress. On the 12th hole I found myself putting for par, but it was a 10-foot putt, so my historic moment is still to come.
Back to Parco de’ Medici, but the stakes are higher. Francis has brought along two friends, so the pressure builds as I tee up in front of a couple of heavy hitters.
Ken is an old-fashioned golfer, who still carries woods made of wood. He keeps his head down — in fact his chin is glued to his chest — and he hits the ball straight. Tom is a young buck, who can hit far but not straight.
I can hit sometimes straight but never far, and three people looking at me does little to help my game. On most holes, my first drive is just getting me up to the women’s tees. Not good.
In fact, it’s all rather embarrassing, and I tell myself I’ll have to go back to the driving range about 100 times before I go back on a course.
In 18 holes, I had no good drives, a couple of good chips, and a few decent putts. But I will remember the 13th hole, a 170-yard, no-nonsense par 3. I flubbed the drive with a 50-yard worm burner. But then a nice shot with a 7-iron got me on the green, and somehow I sank a 15-foot putt for par. If I could only do that more often, I’d probably start to enjoy the game.
With a 60 on the front nine, and a 59 on the back, I had a 119, two strokes worse than my maiden outing. You know you’re in trouble when the best part of the day is the beer.
I went out to hit some balls just to prove to myself that I can still do it. Not bad with a 7-iron, but disastrous with my driver. Getting some distance, but everything just keeps slicing to the right.
In the past four days I’ve gotten plenty of advice. Some I’ve expected, like “Keep your head down.” I’ve also been told not to move my feet, and then — from someone who never saw me play — I was told “no wrist.” That’s supposed to get rid of the slice. His wife suggests that I always make sure it’s a triangle. I assume that means my arms, but I didn’t get
It’s a beautiful Friday afternoon, with sunny skies, temperature about 70 degrees, a slight breeze. What could be better than hitting golf balls? Well, maybe actually playing, but that will have to wait given my current level. I can’t afford to lose that many balls.
My coach Riccardo tells me to forget about ever using a 3-iron, but since when do I listen to my coach? Actually, I just don’t have much choice. My clubs are in the car parked in the office, so I grab my 3-iron — which has become my practice club at home — jump on my scooter, and head out to the range.
In line with my “Roman Holiday” image of a reporter goofing off in the Eternal city, I used to drive an old, beat-up Vespa. That was very cool while it lasted, but then I got very practical, and bought a Honda.
It’s mostly plastic, so certainly it doesn’t have the same sex appeal as a scooter from the 60s, but in compensation, the Honda SH 150 has a great rack for two clubs. They fit perfectly, one on each side, balanced between the seat and the passenger hand-rail.
You probably didn’t know that; I don’t even think the people from Honda do. In any case, I got out there with my three iron and hit the ball straight for most of the afternoon.
I’m not saying I’m hitting every ball well, but maybe seven out of ten. I don’t know what it’s like to do cocaine, but I imagine there’s a certain moment when you know you’re hooked, and I think I’ve just hit it with golf.
Well, it didn’t take me long to come down from my high. I went back to the range Saturday morning and decided to work on my short game. “What short game?” I asked myself after about 10 minutes.
I’d put six balls out about 10 feet off the green and only get up on the green with two or three. What a mess.
I think I need some lessons here, but it’s amazing what concentration can do. I pretended this was a par 12, six chips and six putts.
I finally got five out of six up on the green, and one on the edge, and then putted five of them in, including one from about 12 feet. The other was a two-foot putt, so I finished one over par, and actually quite satisfied.
A half-hour of practice and some intense concentration can work wonders.
I wasn’t ready to go back to the course, but the temptation was just too strong. Two beautiful days in a row, and I picked up the phone and called Francis. He had a tee-time for the following day, so it was back to (where else) Parco de’ Medici.
I can’t say whether I enjoyed it or not. It took me about five holes to get in the groove. Then I got par on two holes in a row, one par-3 and the next a par 4.
The second shot on the par-three was my best of the day. My drive was decent but not great, and I used a 7-iron on the next shot to put the ball about a foot from the pin. The rest was a mess for a 54 on the front nine.
Everything fell apart on the back nine as I could just do nothing well. Perhaps there was one nice drive on that round and one really nice 6-iron, where I sent the ball straight ahead about 160 yards, over the water and onto the edge of the green.
Francis, who shot an 89 the week before, melted down as well, and his buddy Tom was also a mess. So we just threw the scorecard away when it was time for beers. I have no place to go but up. I had a 61 on the back nine.
Francis is on his way back to Chicago, so I will probably spend more time on the range than at the course.
That, at least, is my hope. But I know that as bad as I am, the temptation to get on the links is still there. We’ll see how I resist.
I hit some drives on Saturday afternoon. Not bad. Flubbed some, but I was basically getting the ball in the air for the most part.
They tend to slice off right, so we have to fix that. We also have to figure out what I’m doing with my feet. Right now I still feel like I’m playing baseball.
My brother-in-law brought me a new driver from the United States. Actually it’s a new driver for me, but a used one for him. I would like to raid his garage in Arizona some day as I get the idea he buys new clubs about once a year.
My sister tells me he also has a half dozen pairs of golf shoes. I hope we’re the same size, as I don’t even have one pair yet.
Despite pouring rain, I took the new driver to the range. I guess that’s a sign that I’m beginning to like this.
I kept telling myself it was going to stop raining, and that it was just a summer downpour. If I can think so positively about my game, I might be in good shape.
I went back to the driving range, since it’s closing for a month while all the Italians are on vacation. I think I’m hitting the ball about 200 yards, but never 200 yards straight. I think we’re looking at more lessons in the fall.