Prophets & Polos: The Stories No One Sees
Five years ago, I became a golfer.
Now, this means many things. For starters, I wear striped polyester polos and look down on those without collars. I own rain pants and wear them every day during the colder months, whisking and swishing my way past confused coworkers and friends. My legs are aggressively tan, my socklines aggressively white. I spend too much money on pieces of steel fused with rubber and gamble too much money on the whims of a tiny bouncing ball. I lose $5 golf balls by the dozen. I let raw emotion spill into my personal life, which is both embarrassing and insane. The peaks are electric. My first tournament in Moab, I ran home an 80-foot birdie putt and proceeded to give an 83-year-old man the hardest bones anyone has ever given. I’m sure it broke his hand. He was kind and understood this was a big moment in my fledgling golf career — he smiled, tucked his mangled hand behind his back, and presumably died from the side effects within the week.
Let’s be very clear — golf has not changed my life for the better. It has destroyed most of my mental and emotional abilities, though walking for eight hours a day has led multiple women to call me a farmer’s-tanned piece of eye candy. Excessive golfing has created problems in my personal life, which has led to more golf, which has led to even more personal problems, which has led me to live on a golf course. But it’s sooooooooo fun. And at times perfect. There are days when the sun is falling, and the course is tinged in that radiant shade of gold, and one of my friends squib-dicks a ball straight into the water with a soft splash. I’m laughing and I can’t stop. We’re all laughing. You cannot witness a squib-dicking, or indeed play golf at all, without realizing a profound truth about life: nothing matters, so find anything that makes you happy and run.
I live in Spanish Fork, UT, a town known for a Pioneer Day rodeo, a Costco, and a somewhat recent outbreak of Hepatitis A at Olive Garden. Danger lurks at every turn and nowhere is this more true than at Spanish Oaks Golf Course, nestled amongst the high winds and sometimes smoky confines of Spanish Fork Canyon. This is where my golf journey began. This is where it continues. I’ve met and made many friends over the last five years, each with their own set of eccentricities. There’s a man I’m convinced finds sexual arousal in the spotting of brown trout. Every time we tee off on Hole 5 — surrounded on three sides by water — he examines the murky depths, screams, “Look at the size of that brown trout!” and I’m petrified to look at his pants. There’s another man who dresses exclusively in tan clothing and berates himself after mistakes like a masochistic lion tamer. And yet another who loves chocolate milk — we once ventured to Mesquite, NV for a golf getaway, he ordered multiple servings of Meadow Gold at a casino buffet and when the waitress returned with beaded glasses of thick brown 2%, his eyes were wide as saucers.
The games are epic. Every few months, my friend travels to SF from another state armed with a thick wad of cash. He strikes up bet after bet on the opening tee. By the time we arrive on 18 — a narrow par five lined by trees that rustle and whip in the wind — the results are inevitable. Someone will toss a bunker rake 40 feet in a fit of wrath. Someone else will throw crinkled dollar bills into a stiff breeze, watch them scatter like dry leaves, and shout, “THIS IS WHAT I OWE!” The parking lot will empty in a squeal of acceleration, the winners left behind in clouds of smoke. One day, with a different group, I showed up to The Oaks without cash. I told everyone if I lost money, I would be paying on a later date — everyone agreed, and the game commenced. After stumbling my way through 18 holes, I was the main loser. One of the winners, obviously unpaid, approached me saying, “I NEED THE MONEY NOW!” Perplexed, I expressed I didn’t have any money with me and could pay him on a later date. He left in a slobbering rage. Eventually it came out he’d recently been arrested and was playing golf to raise money for court fines, not the most effective way to pay the legal system. Especially when I forget to bring cash. Long story short, I funded a criminal through golf betting and if that’s not a good taste of my hometown course, I don’t know what is.
Life is stressful and golf can add to that. Many times I’ve left the course in an apoplectic rage, the world’s least intimidating locomotive huffing and puffing his way home. I take periodic breaks where I tell everyone I’ll never golf again. This lasts six hours until somebody texts, “Do we have a game today?” and I immediately respond, “In.”
Two years ago, I purchased a season pass at Eastbay Golf Course in Provo. It’s on the south end of town and on summer mornings, nothing can match it. Hole 1 follows the gradual curve of a small lake — at daybreak, it’s quiet perfection. Insects dance over the water. Lawn mowers rev their engines in the still air. Club meets ball in sharp cracks, then folds back to silence. The sun slowly rises above the mountains and as it does, Utah Valley awakens from shade to light. It’s meditative — relaxing in a way golf rarely allows. I walk the course with my friend, drink coffee, discuss sports stats and the complexities of human behavior, and float home in a state of peace.
The 18-hole championship course at Eastbay wraps itself around the executive course, a 7-hole bonanza built for beginners and BYU students. Set up a camp chair next to the little course and oh, the sights you’ll see. I’ve witnessed a six-some of BYU lads clad in v-necks and coated in spray tans, playing with only one golf bag. Everyone would hit from the tee and clubs would be dispersed on the 20-yard walk to their balls — a five iron for you, a pitching wedge for you, a putter for you. One lucky fellow found himself a stray Strata, the smile on his face was a guaranteed Honor Code violation. Another plopped his lone Top Flight into an adjacent pond and it was mayhem. His pals rolled up their pants like VASA FITNESS versions of Huck Finn, waded into the carp-filled waters, and tried to retrieve the missing ball with the solemness of a party searching for the dead. The exec course: leave no Top Flight behind.
I’m not a religious man but I’ve stood on the 17th tee at Victory Ranch and briefly believed in God.
There were eight of us playing, invited to taste Victory through the generosity of a friend. It’s located in Kamas and costs members a small boat stacked with gold coins, not exactly the type of course for vagabonds and grifters from Spanish Fork who combine their net worth to buy pizza. Yet there we were. By the fourth hole, multiple players had indulged in too much whiskey — we spent more time searching for golf balls than hitting them. There were periodic shacks filled with incredible treats: beef jerky, butterfingers, ice cream sandwiches, trail mix, and more. We filled our bags with so many snacks it looked like we were sponsored by Costco. We made the turn and walked into another world: no one on the course but us, every blade of grass shorn to a perfect height, the summer night humming around us.
Hole 17 sits atop a mountain, a downhill par 3 with a panoramic view of the entire valley. The Jordanelle Reservoir glistens in the distance. We reached the peak as the sun was falling behind the mountains, melting into brilliant shades of red and orange. Behind us, the valley dipped in dark shadow — before us, an explosion of reflected, colored light. I’ve taken four pictures in my entire life and they all occurred that day. There was a brief moment I thought, “It can’t be this easy, why am I not a professional photographer?” Even the whiskey-laden, by this point a collection of dragging feet and slurred speech, paused in humble silence. Bible knowledge is not my strong suit but I was pretty sure Moses once saw God on a mountaintop. I looked at the pooling yellow light, listened to a 6-iron ripple the air, saw the white flash of a jackrabbit, and thought, “I can’t believe Moses played Victory Ranch.”
Moses did not, however, drive his friend home in a drunken state. Sober, I got behind the wheel of my friend’s car and told him, “Give me directions to your home.” This was a mistake for obvious reasons, we drove the streets of Heber u-turning like I was the drunkard. Finally we arrived. He pointed to a third-story window, picked out his personal chair, a specific light fixture: “This is the place.” I parked and we said our goodbyes. As the rest of us drove away, his roomate flagged us down in a fit of laughter, pointing to a distant building: “You clowns, we live over there.”
Military men make me nervous — I’m not much of a shouter and my pushup form leaves much to be desired. If invited to play Hubbard Golf Course at Hill Air Force Base by a military man, though, I will immediately say yes and drop to the ground and give him 20.
I now understand military golf courses are the best. Nobody plays them. They are perfectly groomed like country clubs. My fears that I would have to run through tires or climb long braided ropes were unfounded. Nobody called me maggot. We teed off on a brisk morning as planes landed in deafening roars — my two friends, a military man, and me. Golf balls landed with soft plops, leaving circular imprints in dew-covered grass. I briefly thought, “If this is military life, I’ll sign a 24-year contract” then remembered I’m terrified of loading a gun.
We stepped onto the 11th tee, a blind tee shot to a tree-lined fairway. Using military man ingenuity, someone had created a viewing mechanism with a giant mirror, tall pole, and rope. Our military man was overjoyed to show us the contraption. He manipulated the mirror face, showed us how to examine every nook and cranny — no enemies would surprise us here. His excitement was palpable. We paid the necessary compliments and hit our tee shots. At least most of us did. In his state of ecstasy, our military man forgot to hit his ball and drove off into the fairway. He realized his mistake after 100 yards, flipped around, and I’ve never seen a man look more sheepish — he had invited three civilians on military land, then allowed us to catch him with his pants down. He blew his tee shot into the trees, refused to make eye contact, and drove off into the wilderness with cheeks tinged Soviet red.
Golf has taken me to the shadiest back alleys (Nephi, Delta, Price, Richfield, Hurricane) and snobbiest perches (Tuhaye, Park Meadows, Promontory, Glenwild) of Utah. It has opened my eyes to a stark reality — most people cheat and lie. I can’t tell you how many versions of Bilbo Baggins I’ve ran into, listened to tall tales of shooting a 66 or hitting a 450-yard drive, then watched them dribble one off the first tee. I’ve heard individuals with neatly tucked shirts boast of being a scratch golfer, fire a 150, then say I caught them on a bad day. Golf is weird like that — it’s the only pursuit I know of where most people grossly exaggerate or outright lie about their capabilities. The reasons are inexplicable and the results inevitable, public humiliation dealt by one’s own hand.
I’ve seen shots that defy all laws of physics. My friend once used a wedge to throw a golf ball over his shoulder like a continental soldier. He tried to hit a lob wedge and somehow hit it so poorly, it went 40 yards behind his back. Not backwards. Behind his back. Imagine a golfer trying to hit at a target, connecting with the ball, and flipping it over his own shoulder at an opposite 90 degree angle. It went against everything I know about gravity, force, the universe, life, and love. There are nights I fall asleep and the continental soldier haunts my dreams, flipping over his shoulder over, and over, and over again.
In a St. George tournament at Sun River, a man hit his ball directly into a trash can 50 yards away from the tee box with his driver. Think of the improbability — a vertical trash can with a small circular opening, a tiny golf ball, and a club designed to hit the ball 250+ yards at a lower trajectory. Nothing about this makes sense. Everyone who witnessed it swears the feat could never be repeated, not in a million years. Every time a Spanish Fork golfer throws garbage into a trash can, they spend five minutes recounting the story to all who will listen. It has ascended to a place of lore usually reserved for religious allegories and folk tales, the 50-yard-trash-can-driver that cannot and will not be forgotten.
The first time I shot under par was a magnificent moment in my life. I’m not ashamed to admit this. Regardless of the activity or accomplishment, sinking a large amount of time and work into something then seeing that rewarded is an incredible feeling. When I began life as a golfer, I couldn’t imagine scoring in double digits for an 18-hole round. And then I got better, and couldn’t imagine breaking the 90 barrier. Then 85. Then 80. When I began shooting in the 70s, an under par round seemed both within reach yet very far away. I continued practicing and improving, and one Saturday at The Oaks I stepped onto the 18th tee at -2. My body was literally trembling and at one point, I thought my heart would pound through the wall of my chest and scamper off into Canyon View Park. I had trouble breathing. All I could think about was two years of work and one immense wish: don’t f*** this up. My tee shot went approximately 100 yards but in play — I bunted my way to the green, had a six-inch putt for bogey that I marked and lined up, and when I tapped in I nearly passed out. That’s the honest truth. Everyone in my group was overjoyed on my behalf, they gave me the scorecard and I spent the rest of the day driving around and showing anything — friends, family, strangers, animals, inanimate objects — the results. To this day, my sister has a picture of me grinning ear-to-ear and pointing at the scorecard. She says it’s the truest depiction of happiness she’s ever seen.
It’s not a sin to embrace the things you love.
I’m not a wise man and I’ve never stayed at a Holiday Inn. I do believe in a simple truth: there are things worth living for. This is easy to forget, because man, this world can be dark. A deluge of daily news stories — mass shootings, refugee crises, sexual assault — can bury even the most optimistic among us. I watch and feel bad, sorry, sick, angry, frustrated, and helpless. I act and feel my back bend with the weight of burden. In Jack Gilbert’s A Brief For The Defense, he writes, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” There are small moments we pass over without a second thought, everyday occurrences only noticed once they are gone. For each person they are different, but to find, acknowledge, and savor them is a burning, universal desire. Gilbert’s poem closes:
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Golf is the dumbest thing — a bunch of people dress in moisture-wicking cloth and hit a ball into a hole. It will not feed the hungry, or cure cancer, or mend the emotional wounds within us. Many of the people who play it are dicks, born into money and vast senses of entitlement. But it is something I love. And it’s always there. No matter what happens in my day-to-day life, golf hovers in the distance, poised and waiting, familiar yet new — a challenge that’s never conquered, a temporary sanctuary against all the possible sorrows that are to come.
There is beauty in the stories no one sees.
The 10th tee at The Oaks faces towards Spanish Fork Canyon — atop a distant hill sits Escalante’s white cross, a monument commemorating the expedition of the Spanish explorers Escalante and Dominguez in 1776. A light rain has begun to fall. It patters against my umbrella, soft droplets of sound plopping against the black-and-white Titleist emblem, no noise outside the quiet whisper of water. The mountain air is cold and clear. I breathe deep and let the wild freshness fill my lungs, a hint of more rain on the horizon. My tee sinks into the soft green earth, golf ball printed with a distinct black script. There is nothing noteworthy about today. I’m golfing by myself on an empty course, Bob Dylan playing from the headphones hooked inside my ears. Work, life, and all the associated problems that come from both await. My takeaway begins and at the top of my swing, I coil and release all the power I possess from clubhead to ball. The sound rips apart mountainous silence, white ball tearing the air in a sharp, sudden gasp. It rises through the rain, spinning smoothly against billowing gray clouds, higher and higher until the force of gravity pulls it back home.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)