There was a spot just below the steps of Maynard Country Club’s modest clubhouse where I could peer through six pine trees that separated the left side of the first hole and the road. In the twilight, I’d stand there, golf bag at my feet, and wait for my mom’s headlights flicker through the pines before she pulled into the parking lot to take me home. I had done it enough times, that I knew exactly how to identify my car and disregard any imposters.
Golf, on many summer days, was my babysitter.
Those long summer days with a couple friends on a tiny nine-hole public course were some of my favorites. Too young for a job, but old enough to have trusting parents willing to grant me some independence. All my parents knew was that I liked golf, I came home happy, and no one ever chased me down the car park to tell my mom her son and his friends are a menace to the sport and the club. Every now and then I’d proclaim a score I was proud of.
I’m not the only one with this experience. Golfers have waxed poetic about spending hours upon hours at a golf course. Some spent their time at rinky-dink spots with burned out fairways, a shack for a clubhouse, and bent flagsticks while others whiled away their summer at opulent clubs with manicured fairways and not a bad bounce to be found anywhere. Either way, the same spirit rings true in all the stories I’ve heard.
They were left in the caring hands of golf.
I can still picture the small, round bar in the one room clubhouse at Maynard Country Club. There was a tiny pro shop where we’d gawk at sleeves of balls, splurging every now and then on some balatas that we’d curse to the heavens after a skulled sand wedge left it with a smile bigger than The Joker’s slashed across the Titleist script. The clubhouse always felt dark, a rounded bar at the far corner, serving up beer and fried food. Most of the clubhouse was a large sitting area, round tables with dark, sticky wood from generations of spilled beer.
There was a phone propped against the wall, the only connection we had to the outside world. A quick phone call after stuffing our faces with onions rings and chicken fingers to let mom know I’d be playing another nine holes and to come pick me up in two hours. If we played fast, we could always kill a bit of time on the putting green.
Ah, the putting green.
An empty putting green is no match for four imaginative kids. When I think back to the shots we tried, it’s a miracle we didn’t break the massive clubhouse window that loomed over the green. We’d find insane spots and open up our wedges, firing shots as high into the air as possible hoping they’d land soft and true. Trying to perfect our form for a possible par-save on the course. But there were also the shots we’d never hit on the course, like when we’d use the two warm-up bays next to the green to tee up our lob wedges on rubber tees and swing harder than Bryson to see just low high we could launch the ball up into the air (bonus points for hitting the netting directly above us. A nearly impossible launch angle).
All the while. Golf was looking after us.
Like any good babysitter, we learned some things, too. We learned that waiting on the first tee for the group in front of us to clear the bunker protecting the dogleg was risky. The adults would scowl at our bravado, asking us what we were waiting for. Then at least one of us would stand up and lash their drive right on the heels of the old men in front of us; delighted with ourselves, we’d clamber down the hill toward the first fairway chattering about the looks on faces of the old guys. Our golf clubs did the talking for us, because we were too scared to say anything to the old men. After all they might chase us down the parking lot and tell our moms we had no respect for our elders.
This fall, while playing Wayland Country Club, I picked out four boys putting out on a nearby green. They were all sorts of sizes: the small guy, the fat kid, the skinny tall kid, and the one decked out like Rickie Fowler (he probably lost to his buddies…). They were cracking jokes and completely in their own little competitive world. A small disagreement erupted and they solved it with a quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. One kid hung his head after throwing “rock” and that was the end of it. This was a Tuesday afternoon in November. They weren’t with a golf team, there wasn’t a coach or adult checking in on them. They were out there alone, hanging out, playing golf, and learning.
Golf was their babysitter.
Since June, I visited 35 different courses. The scene I saw at Wayland with the four teenagers chopping it up was the only glimpse into my golfing childhood. Of course, I saw junior golfers, but they were typically with their parents. Which is another incredibly important part of my childhood; playing with my dad. However, golf, as a babysitter, is unemployed at home, sitting on the couch scrolling through its phone, hoping someone will send them a text that four middle school kids need looking after.
These days, it seems like the word, “Program” is tied to so much of what kids do. A junior golf program is needed to get kids out on the course. Organization and planning is required. Forms must be filled out. Drop-off and pick-up times are established, and don’t be late or an extra fee will be assessed to the bill. Scores are kept and swings are grooved.
At Maynard CC, I was a junior member. My parents forked over maybe $200 for the season (that would cover about 10 hours of babysitting…), and I promptly played enough golf to pay for eight memberships by the time school started. I had three friends that did the same thing, and we basically showed up and played. Some more than others. Some days we’d be a twosome, others a threesome, and then those great days when we’d all tee it up. I even have days where I’d play alone, which is still one of my favorite things to do and happens rarely without a membership anywhere these days.
In essence, we created our own program. No lessons, no swing thoughts, plenty of fried food and scuffed up balatas.
I know that my experience at Maynard CC was a rare one, mainly because we didn’t have any other kids hanging around like we were. There were no Sharks to our Jets, and the course wasn’t teeming with junior golfers. However, as I’ve talked to people about their start in the game, so much of it was based on a bit of freedom and fun. Exploring a place and learning a game that teaches accountability and friendship and decision-making and the ups and downs that will greet us throughout our lives.
Isn’t that what the best babysitters provide? Some fun and excitement, an opportunity to push some limits (ice cream for dessert and a later bedtime…), but all the while having the guardrails up so things don’t go haywire (we hope…).
I love golf, and I love it because I was able to play it on those long summer days for fun with my friends. It was a heck of a babysitter.