SPRING HAS always been the most depressing time of year, as it signals the beginning of the golf season.
All over my neighborhood, men in bright green pants and canary yellow sweaters are loading huge golf bags into the trunks of their cars and heading off to courses with names like Twin Lakes and Dripping Moss and so on.
I watch them in the first gray light of dawn, their eyes reddened from lack of sleep, their hands trembling from 27 cups of coffee, gobbling fistfuls of Mylanta tablets in preparation for the stomach-churning emotional turmoil they will endure that day.
Usually I drop to my knees and say a prayer of thanks that the same mind-altering illness has not yet befallen me. Then I go back to sleep. Because it's 5:30 in the morning. And that's what decent people do at that hour.
To the non-golfer, golf remains the most puzzling pastime. As I understand it, you begin by hitting a tee shot, with the ball immediately slicing into the woods or hooking into the lake on your left -- if it doesn't bounce three feet in front of you and dribble weakly down the fairway.
Then you trudge after the ball, beating off any snakes or alligators in the vicinity. Then you hit the ball again and again and again, eventually taking a 12 on the hole and considering yourself lucky.
After four hours or so of this nonsense, you retire to the bar. This is the only part of the golf ritual that makes any sense to me, as I would need great quantities of alcohol to calm down after such an unnerving experience.
What I love is that so many golfers say they play the game to "relax." Yet they walk around the course tense and unsmiling, cursing like longshoremen and erupting in a towering rage whenever they hit a bad shot, which seems to be about every five minutes.
What's particularly disturbing is that so many of my friends have been ensnared in the golf cult, including my neighbors Rich and Bob.
From all outward appearances, these people seem normal enough -- until you look in their eyes. There's something there . . . something just a little bit "off." When you hear reports of a distraught individual holding the police at bay with a broken beer bottle, you can be pretty sure it's a golfer coming off a bad day.
The only thing worse than actually playing golf, of course, is watching golf on TV. Yet golfers do this all the time.
Throughout the winter, they hole up in their basement on the weekends, glued to something like the Ernest Borgnine Open while polishing their clubs and reading the cult newsletter "Golf Digest."
As soon as the broadcast ends, they emerge squinting into the sunlight like the Mole People, only to make a beeline toward the nearest person (usually me, for some reason) and gush: "See that shot Seve Ballesteros hit on the 14th?"
No, I say. I didn't see that shot Seve Ballesteros hit on the 14th. See, I was too busy leading a life. Now get out of here before I call the dogs.
(Note: Most golfers will leave peaceably after a threat of this nature, although some will continue to drone on about Ballesteros' shot until you actually unlock the kennel and turn the Dobermans loose.)
Which brings up another point: The only thing worse than playing golf and watching golf on TV is listening to a golfer talk about golf.
(Here's a tip for non-golfers: A golfer usually signals his desire to talk about golf by taking an imaginary golf swing.
(Obviously, if anyone else walked around taking an imaginary jump shot or lugging an imaginary football, he or she would be subdued with a stun gun and quickly led away. But for a golfer, taking imaginary golf swings is considered normal behavior. It just proves how inexact a science psychiatry really is.)
Once a golfer corners you at a party, you're done for. With wild, feverish eyes and tiny flecks of spittle forming around his lips, he'll recount with great excitement how he played this dogleg right or that long par 5 or whatever.
God, it's a frightening experience to be trapped like that. At the first break in the conversation, what I usually do is signal the bartender to make mine doubles from now on.
Or else I excuse myself and go for a long walk to clear my head, repeating over and over: "Everything will be OK . . . everything will be OK . . ."
Sad to say, it usually isn't. Many of these golfers have amazing stamina and, upon your return, will still be droning on about an incredible approach shot they once hit back in '85.
Pray that the bar is still open.