For a couple of years now, my primary residence has been Florida. Making the move was sort of an admission of defeat, or at least age, the state’s unofficial nickname being “God’s Waiting Room.” But hey, I don’t feel as it’s time for my appointment quite yet. In fact, I took the leap southward with youthful optimism, especially with regard to my golf game. For the first time in my life, I wouldn’t be forced into hibernation: I’d be able to practice and play all year round.
Shortly after relocating, I was on the driving range and began to chat with the guy next to me, a certified Florida codger—leathery limbs, blinding-white hair, hearing aid, plaid shorts and non-matching plaid shirt. When I shared with him my determination to shave a few handicap strokes, he looked at me and shouted, “My boy, you are one year away from being able to play the best golf of your life.” After letting that settle in he smiled and said, “Twelve months from now, you’ll be two years away.”
I chuckled but dismissed his dark humor. Two years later, I can attest he was right. My handicap has indeed moved a few strokes—up.
But it’s not my fault, dammit, it’s Florida’s! Yes, I know the Sunshine State is on our cover, and I must admit it’s a very nice place to live. I love the warm weather, the relaxed pace, the fresh orange juice, and the absence of state income tax. But the truth is, the golf courses—at least the ones I find myself battling—are killers.
It took me a while to figure this out. After all, Florida courses don’t look that hard. They’re generally as flat as pancakes, no uneven lies, no hills to climb, no elevation changes to factor into your approach shots. The most fearsome flora is the gently swaying palm, a far cry from the imposing elms, oaks, maples, and pines up north.
But subtle forces are at work down here. First, since most of the courses are within a few miles of the ocean, you’re at sea level, which means everything flies a bit less than it does in most of the rest of the U.S. About a half-club less on the irons, as near as I can reckon.
Second, the designers of Florida courses have made up for the lack of topographic interest by creating water hazards. Millions of them. And while I don’t mind courses with lakes, ponds, and streams, I do mind courses with nothing but lakes, ponds, and streams. I just don’t have the balls (literally) to tackle them.
Third, because Florida is basically an enormous peninsula, there’s usually a bit of wind, and sometimes a lot of it. Now, I actually enjoy playing golf in a good breeze—at least I did when I played on links courses in Scotland. But there are few water hazards on links courses in Scotland. Wind, water, and George, I’ve discovered, do not a great triumvirate make.
Then there’s the whole turfgrass thing. Given Florida’s searing hot summers, the only practical grass for golf courses is drought-resistant Bermuda. Boy, do I hate Bermuda. I suppose if I were a picker of the ball it wouldn’t much matter, but inasmuch as my angle of attack resembles that of a lumberjack, when the blade of my iron crashes upon the leaves, tendrils, and rhizomes of Bermuda grass, bad things happen. My signature Florida 5-iron is the shoved fade, my 9-iron a strangled chunk. On about one shot in seven, I catch the ball perfectly—that’s the one that comes up a half-club short.
It’s even more vexing in the rough where a lie in just two inches of that wiry stuff is worse than five inches up north. What in New England produces a flyer in Florida might produce a flyer, a floater, a flare, or a flop. And around the greens, forget about it. I used to fancy myself a better-than-average chipper, loved playing little flicky greenside shots, experimenting with hand actions, swing speeds, clubface positions. Down here, as far as I can tell, there’s only one chipping method, a robotic, stiff-wristed sweep, as if you’re hitting a 100-foot putt, and if your impact is even a scintilla off, well in the words of Bobby Jones “I will dismiss this harrowing reflection.” Whereas I once tried to get my chip shots close, now I just try to get them on the green. Getting close is pretty much an accident.
Finally, there are the green surfaces themselves. I will say this in defense of Florida greens: They are immeasurably better than they were a couple of decades ago when they were full of grain, thus slow and bumpy. The newer strains of Bermuda have produced surfaces almost as smooth and fast as the best greens in the north.
But in a way, that has only made them tougher. Whereas the old greens were predictable—slow into the grain, fast downgrain, extra break with the grain, less against it—now the influence, while still there, is much more subtle. And since I’ve never paid much attention to grain anyway, this is a whole new world of looking for the setting sun, checking for sheens on the surface, blades overhanging the cup to determine which way the grass is growing. It’s all so Floridaunting!
But I’m not giving up. I’m going to battle this state for as long as I’m able, because while I’ve pretty well abandoned my dream of becoming a competent golfer, I still have one goal left—to shoot my age—and I tend to think my best shot will come here in sunny Florida where the bones don’t creak, the senior tees are always generously forward, and every day is a day for golf.
It just may take me a few years longer.