Longview Golf Club in Timonium is picture-postcard pretty, but right now it feels like the south 40 acres of hell. Four of us are hacking our way toward the ninth hole, balls screaming in every direction, huge divots flying through the air and dropping back to Earth like wounded pigeons. Plus the sun has just emerged from the late-morning haze, giving the place the same breezy feel as the trunk of a car.
With me this Saturday are Jerry Schmechel, 49, who sells interior-window products; Charlene Monfried, ("put down 39"), an art teacher at Patterson High School; and Kip Webb, 39, who owns a printing business.
Schmechel and Monfried are playing their very first rounds of golf ever, which says all you need to know about the carnage taking place. The two are an item, your basic boyfriend/girlfriend, although who knows how long that's going to last at the rate we're going.
Webb, a lefty who played casually years ago and then gave the game up, has by far the prettiest swing of all of us, but an alarming habit of slicing the ball viciously. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you're standing anywhere to the left of Webb when he swings, there's a very good chance you'll be rushed into surgery shortly thereafter. And the first incision will be over the word "Titleist" now etched on your forehead.
As for me, I'm new to the game, too, and playing like someone who has gone berserk, attacking all the vegetation he can find with a 7-iron.
Mainly, what I'd like to do right now is a full-gainer into a tall gin and tonic. Except I have to finish 18 holes for a story on how someone gets started at golf, or my next job at The Sun will involve dipping a mop into a pail of industrial-strength Pine Sol and running it across the floor.
After we four- and five- and six-putt the ninth and stumble into the clubhouse for a soft drink, Frank Laber, the head pro at Longview, asks: "How's it going out there?"
"Oh, you know," I say.
"We're having fun," Webb says, not altogether convincingly.
Laber is such a nice guy that if you showed up at his house and announced your intention to burn it down, he'd start rustling around for a book of matches, just to be helpful.
But when we tell him how long it has taken us to play the first nine holes -- well over three hours -- the smile fades from his face.
"Geez," he says, like a man who has just learned how many Buicks could be lined up from here to the moon and finds the figure incomprehensible.
The surge in the popularity of golf has been well-documented: 25 million people play in this country alone, up from 17.5 million in 1985. Last year, 468 new courses opened; 381 started up in 1994. Each year, nearly 2 million men, women and children try their hand at the game for the first time.
L This is the story of how one of those beginners got started.
It's not a pretty story, either.
Why take up golf?
What compels someone in his early 40s to take up golf?
The challenge of mastering one of the most frustrating games known to man? A need to be closer to nature, to drink in the splendor of a "cathedral of fir" as sports announcer Vin Scully called one stop on the pro tour?
A desire to wear brothel-red pants and white shoes -- something like Sammy Davis Jr. wore for his last gig at the Sahara?
In my case, it was bad knees. The Professional Golf Association of America says male baby-boomers are the single largest identifiable group of golfers, 23.9 percent. And many of them are like me, ex-jocks broken down from years of basketball, fast-pitch softball, racquetball, etc., who've been told by their orthopedists: Take up something less strenuous, something you can play in Sansabelt slacks.
When I decided to take up golf, the first thing everyone told me was: Take lessons. So I went to Longview and signed up for a package of five lessons ($150) with Laber, a PGA instructor and the most enthusiastic teacher I've ever had in my life.
Laber, 49, is your basic Type A personality who looks like he needs maybe five minutes of sleep a night -- and that could be in the hall closet.
At my first lesson, he explained the four basic checkpoints a beginner needs to think about for a good golf shot: grip, stance, back-swing and follow-through.
The upper body (arms and shoulders) and lower body (hips and legs) should be a symphony of movement, Laber said. But my first attempt at a full swing with a 9-iron was more like a muted scream, with the ball careening at a height that would skull a groundhog.
I made a face, but Laber shook his head sympathetically and said: "This is a hard game. And I'm talking for an athlete."
Nevertheless, by the time the 30-minute session was over, I had managed quite a few decent swings. I was fired up. In fact, I was so fired up that I jumped in the car and drove like Jose Canseco in a new Porsche to a sporting-goods store, where I bought a cheap set of golf clubs, Spalding Tour Flites.