The Game

Game:

Eager and willing to do something new or challenging, i.e. she was game for anything.

A secret and clever plan or trick, i.e. she was on to his little game.

Mammals hunted for sport.

 

Female at Birth

Page seven of the Minnesota Women’s Golf Association (MWGA) handbook lists tournament rules of eligibility. I read through to the last item and call my mother.

“Listen to this. Entries are open to amateur golfers who were female at birth. I’d say that’s a call to action.”

“To prove what?” she says.

It is mid May, and I’ve quit my job to go back to school. In September. I have never not worked, and this little book has arrived in my mailbox, in my hand, just at the onset of leisure-panic. “I don’t know what to do with myself.”

“Only you could make a summer off sound like punishment,” Mom says. “Sleep late. Clean your house. Visit me!”

I read on. There are four tournaments, each played on a course I’ve never set foot on. My husband, Rex, glides by and slaps at the pages with the back of his hand. “Play some golf. I sure as hell would if I were you.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Mom says, but as usual I ignore the very advice I’ve called to ask for.

“I’m just a casual golfer,” I say to Rex.

“You’re not a casual-anything. You’re a vicious competitor.”

Sold.

I fill out all four entry forms.

 

Team Green

You used to think golf was for (a) the old-money country club set, decked out in their finest Polo and Burberry, and/or (b) the Caddyshacked retiree, clad in blue and orange plaid.

Then, a week shy of your twenty-fifth birthday, you took up the game because your new boss – let’s call him Dennis – told you to.

Dennis had promoted you from within the ranks to a management position in The Company. He summoned you to his office. You sat in a low-slung chair in his high-rise suite, with its inlaid marble floor, and squared off with him from across a span of mahogany so massive you thought you might need to shout. Dennis took the last drag off of his cigarette. He snuffed it out, lit another.

“I hear you’re not a golfer,” he said.

“Never played.”

“See this bright green logo?” He snatched up a piece of The Company’s letterhead and pointed to what you knew, if only you could see it from here, was its tony, downtown address. “We’re Team Green, and the team plays golf. Do you want to be part of the team or not?” It sounded like a question, but you knew better. It was the same tone he’d used in your final interview. “You’re a newlywed, right? If I give you this job, you’re not going to get pregnant are you?”

“You can’t ask me that.”

“I just did.”

“But you can’t.”

“Right. Do you want the fucking job or not?”

 

Overly Zealous Competitors

The MWGA’s first tournament is a two-day event, and Rex takes off work to caddy for me. In the parking lot of Island View Golf Club, I lean against the car bumper and force my feet into brand new, spiked shoes. It feels a bit like the first day of school.

Golf courses are typically overrun with men. Not here. The few men I see are caddies, on hand to serve the hordes of women stalking the grounds like crocodiles, checking out their competition. It is dead quiet.

“Man, these girls look serious,” Rex whispers. “You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that. You couldn’t pay me to do this.”

On the first tee I meet Lynn, my playing partner for the day. Lynn is friendly and chatty. I play well. I play well, that is, until hole #12 where I over-swing and hook my tee shot towards a Spotter by the trees. My ball disappears into the woods, so I re-tee and hit a provisional ball into the fairway.

I walk to the Spotter. “You can look for your first ball,” he says, “but if you find it you have to play it. Or (he draws out the or) you can abandon it and play the provisional.”

He winks, I think.

Back in the fairway, Friendly Lynn is hovering like a stealth fighter over my provisional ball. “You can’t ask the Spotter for advice,” she says.

“I didn’t ask for any.”

“If I report it, you’re disqualified.”

“I didn’t ask for any.”

“I’ve been to Rules School. It’s an automatic DQ. If you abandon your first ball you should run up here and hit this one immediately. If I were an overly zealous competitor, I could choose to look for your lost ball, even though you’ve abandoned it, and if I found it before you hit the provisional, the first ball would be ‘in play’ and you would have to play it whether you liked it or not.”

Did she just say ‘overly zealous’?

I finish my first day in last place, and the darkening sky starts to sprinkle. Overnight, it pours.

At seven a.m., Rex and I don our rain gear and stuff my golf bag full of towels. He says, “The course will be a mess. They won’t let you play in this.”

We play.

My feet are soaked the instant I step on the course, and I notice my fancy new shoes have open-mesh vents. On the tee, I say hello to my two playing partners for the day. It is our last conversation.

For the next five and half hours, it rains, and these women walk separate from me, as chummy and giggly as schoolgirls. It’s like that time in the ninth grade, I think, when the popular girls decided to teach me a lesson (for what, who can remember) and banned me from their lunch table.

“These are some really nice ladies,” Rex says, fishing for a laugh he doesn’t get. He tries his caddie-best to encourage me, but I am not feeling vicious and I silently will him to please, oh please, just stop talking.

At the end of the round, we sign our cards, attesting to our scores like one might attest to a Last Will and Testament. I note that I am still in last place.

In the car, I peel off my shoes and socks and wrap my pruned feet in dry towels. While Rex drives us home, I call my mother looking, of course, for sympathy.

Mom says, “Well, what did you expect? You never did like playing with girls. I don’t know why you thought this would be any different.”

 

You Could Get Hurt

As a 20-something newlywed, you had no plans to get pregnant, but you would probably have had Dennis’s baby if it meant getting that job.

Between the salary bump and bonuses, your income would triple. Dennis might not be the boss you dreamed of, but the job certainly was. For years, you’d watched your single mother trudge off to work the second and third shifts at the hosiery mill. The nighttime hours and the machine noise and the constant dust and dirt wrung her out. The asbestos poisoned her lungs. All you’d ever wanted was to have an office (with a door), to sit behind a desk in a high- backed chair (that swivels), to wear pantyhose and high heels (real Italian leather!), and to go to important meetings (where you could act “important”).

You wanted to work in a place where people were so goddamned busy they had to order in lunch.

And, well, there you were.

Your peers thought you were too small-town for the job and, not to mention, a girl, but you had news for them. You’d grown up in a neighborhood full of boys. You raced your beat-up bike downhill, and even when you wrecked and slid sideways in the gravel, you wore your scabs and scars like trophies. You played baseball on the street with sometimes fake, sometimes real, bats, and you would slide into base, even if that base was a white Frisbee on cement, to help your team win.

When you were eight, your mother signed you up to play softball. Softball! With girls!

“Girls don’t play baseball,” she’d said. “You could get hurt.”

Then, like some kind of insult, she handed you a brand new softball. This ball-for-sissies was so big you could barely hold it in your hand, much less throw the stupid thing.

“I can’t throw this,” you said, trying to hand it back to her. “I don’t want to play.” “I already signed you up. You’re playing. You’ll figure it out.”

Golf was no different. At first, you didn’t want to play – didn’t even know how to keep score – but by God, almost from your first try, you could really smack that ball.

You took a few lessons, and it wasn’t long before the game helped you mask so much inexperience and insecurity. Unlike the men in the office, you’d barely chalked up two years at the state college in your Missouri hometown. These guys had gone to highbrow, preppie-colleges and spent their summers sailing and playing tennis on Cape Cod and The Vineyard; their families belonged to country clubs where they’d been playing golf since they were big enough to walk.

You, and your golf game, puzzled them. “Are you sure you’ve never played this game?” they said. “Hide your wallets, boys. I think we’ve got ourselves a ringer!”

 

Erections Lasting Longer than Four Hours

The MWGA Four Ball is a two-day partner event at Golden Valley Golf Club, and Dr. Ruth West, a good friend and tournament regular, offers her services as my partner. “Only one of us has to score on each hole,” she says. “If you get in trouble, I’ll carry us. If I get in trouble, you will. We’ll ham-and-egg-it. How easy is that?”

Dr. Ruth plays most weekends with Rex and me, and she is perpetually on-call. Her pager goes off constantly – a major infraction on any golf course – but we are so entertained by her “emergencies” that we look forward to hearing the beep beep beep.

Q: I’ve got this rash and all the sex is making it worse. What should I do?

A: Stop having sex and see your regular doctor on Monday.

Q: I forgot I had a tampon in and now I think there’s, like, three of them up there.

A: The nurse can help you. Really. You don’t need me. The nurse can do it.

Q: (nurse) She’s dilated eight centimeters.

A: Call me back when she’s ready to drop. All I have to do is catch the baby and I can be there in twenty minutes.

And there is always, always a Viagra crisis.

“Do they really get erections lasting four hours?” I once asked.

“Four and longer,” she said. “It’s pretty humiliating, so it must be worth it. These guys walk into the ER carrying a jacket in front to cover it, and then they have to sit in the waiting room. There’s usually a woman with them, too, who looks totally embarrassed while trying to act supportive. And if all that’s not bad enough – surprise – he gets me: A Woman Doctor! I have to grab hold of it and insert a giant needle about yea-long and drain all the blood out.”

I laughed. “Men are stupid.”

“Thank God,” she said. “Men keep me in business.”

Unfortunately, the Four Ball does not go well. Ruth’s game is off and she hooks most of her drives into the trees. I hit the ball great but can’t sink a putt.

No ham. No eggs.

After day one, we are in next-to-last place. On day two, we get outplayed by a couple of seventy-five year olds with matching straw hats, lifelong golfing buddies who can barely swing a club but somehow post winning scores.

In the parking lot, Ruth and I are loading our clubs into the trunk when I recognize one of the women I played with at Island View. She introduces herself as though we’ve never met.

“We played together two weeks ago,” I say.

She tilts her head.

“In the rain.”

She squints.

“At Island View.”

She shrugs her shoulders, smiles, and walks away.

“Friend of yours?” Ruth says.

 

There Must be a Catch

The Company took the game so seriously they sent everyone – male and female, high and low handicappers, rookies and veterans – to golf school at a Ritz-Carlton in Florida.

You called your mother from your luxury suite to tell her about the view. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen,” you said, and rattled off your “schedule” for the week.

“They call that work?” she said. “There must be a catch.”

A team of golf pros covered it all. First, there were etiquette lessons. You learned where stand on tees and greens, where to park (and not park) the golf cart, where to lay unused clubs on a putting green, the proper way to tend, hold, and pull the flag, how to mark and unmark the ball, how and when to call infractions on yourself and/or on fellow players, etc….

Then there were stroke production lessons that covered the driver, fairway woods, long iron play, short iron play, bunker shots, chip shots, and putting.

For playing with customers, The Company had its bible of rules: do not discuss business after your customer hits a bad shot; do not discuss business if he displays a temper and/or throws his clubs; do not discuss business if you’ve hit a good shot and he hits a bad one; do not, under any circumstances, take mulligans, give yourself a more favorable lie, nor take ‘gimme’ putts. This is cheating.

If your customer, however, does these things, you must never indicate any degree of scorn nor displeasure.

A sports psychologist lectured us about the mental part of the game. “Unlike other sports, you can’t get amped up and play well,” he said. “Adrenaline is your enemy. Golfing well is about calm intensity.”

He buried an entire table with instructional books: Think to Win, The Mental Edge, Golf is Not a Game of Perfect, Zen Golf….

Evenings at Golf School were a smorgasbord of spa treatments – hot stone and eucalyptus massages, lavender-infused facials, and reflexology – to loosen up your sore muscles and to keep you “relaxed.”

On the last day, you learned how to keep score in the myriad of side-betting games: Nassau, Sandies, Barkies, Wolf, Arnies, Aces and Deuces, Gruesomes, Skins, Criers and Whiners, etc….

All expenses paid, of course.

 

Mikayla

The MWGA Match Play Championship lasts an entire week and is contested on the

top twenty for degree of difficulty in the United States. I am cowed by the venue before I ever set foot on the course.

During the qualifying round, I play with Mary, a woman who looks to be about my age, and Mikayla, a nineteen year old hauling a golf bag with Augsburg College stitched in giant maroon letters.

Mary points to Mikayla’s bag and whispers to me, “We should be scared, I think.”

My game comes together and I play well-enough. Each day, a series of strong competitors comes and goes. I outlast them. At home I tell Rex I’ve made it to Friday’s championship match and that my opponent is none other than Miss Augsburg College.

“You’ll be fine,” he says. “You’re an animal.” But he has not seen Mikayla play golf, and I am sure she is going to destroy me.

On the first tee, the starter introduces Mikayla and me to Lori.

“All championship matches have their own rules official,” Lori says. “I’m yours. I’ll be walking with you today. I keep your scores and I’m here to answer any rules questions that might come up.” She shakes our hands. “Good luck, ladies.”

A small crowd lines the fairway. After only two holes, I take the lead. Hours go by. I maintain my lead. By the time we reach the most difficult hole on the course – #16 – I am two up with three to play, and I am certain, certain!, I am going to win.

Poor Mikayla keeps looking at her mother, who is walking along as a spectator, as if to say, “How am I not winning this?!”

Then, on the 16th tee, seemingly without fear, Mikayla cranks her drive. Her ball drifts perilously close to the creek on the left, yet rolls to a stop just shy of the water. I play it safe and tee off with a five wood; my ball stops dead in the wind and lands forty yards too short. Mikayla hits her second shot perfectly, dead center of the green. Afraid of dumping my approach shot in the lake, I swing at half speed and the ball doesn’t even make the green.

Mikayla wins the hole with a bogey. My lead shrinks.

On the par three 17th, there is a pond between the tee box and the green. I swing too hard and top the ball and it skids straight into the water. Mikayla wins the hole with another bogey, and she suddenly looks to me like a girl who has never lost.

The next thing I know we’ve played the 18th and the crowd is clapping and Lori is announcing the winner. “Mikayla Baxter wins the match, one up.”

More clapping. Mikayla shakes my hand and says, “Nice match.”

I am barely able to spit the congratulations out of my mouth.

When I call my mother to tell her I’ve lost, when really, I had this thing won, had it in the bag, she says, “I hope you were a good sport. You are not a very gracious loser.”

 

That Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Dennis gave you Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and you could tell he ate it up, throwing you into the tank with a region of the country he despised. “Bunch of redneck hillbillies,” he called them.

You had a slight advantage in Missouri because you were from there.

In Kansas, especially in out-of-the-way-specks-on-the-map like Topeka, they were polite but dismissive. “Darlin’, what are you doing out on the road?” a Vice President said while puffing on a cigar. “I bet your new husband misses you.”

In Oklahoma, you encountered your most formidable challenge – the oil company execs – a bunch of foul-mouthed cowboys with initials for first names, like J.R. Ewing knock-offs.

“Well fuck me,” said L.R. the first time you met. You were the only woman in a conference room full of male department heads. “I guess this means we ain’t having our monthly meetings at the strip club anymore, boys. All those good girls are going to lose money ‘cause of you, sweetheart.”

His colleagues laughed. You did not.

He said, “Oh shit, lighten up. I don’t mean nothin’.”

You met F.A. – whom you immediately nicknamed Fat Ass – for lunch at a white tablecloth restaurant in Oklahoma City. He downed one scotch and water, ordered another, and kept telling you how pretty you were, how much he liked your hair, your dangly earrings, your calves (your calves?), your bubblegum-pink lipstick. “I’m harmless as a big old teddy bear,” he said. “But hot damn, girl!”

J.B. kept boxes of Tic Tacs in the top, left-hand, drawer of his desk. Whenever he felt like he’d offended you he offered you some. “Hold out your hand,” he said, opening the drawer. You held out your hand. He sprinkled white Tic Tacs. “A few of these babies will get rid of that bad taste in your mouth.”

And then he would tip his head back like a baby bird, tap in a few Tic Tacs, drop the box back in the drawer, ease the drawer closed, and you would both sit there in silence until the candy, and the tension, dissolved.

After the initial shock of having to deal with a woman, they were all – Missourians, Kansans, and Oklahomans alike – ecstatic about taking entire afternoons off to spend on the golf course.

Playing golf saved your job.

The fact that you knew the game and you knew the rules, that you oftentimes outdrove them or even beat them, gained you some degree of respect. They ratcheted down the nasty rhetoric. You felt like you’d won.

They even bragged about you to your boss. “You better treat her right,” Fat Ass told Dennis. “We can’t lose her till we figure out how to win all of our money back!”

 

Once in the Trees, Always in the Trees

Dr. Ruth and I show up for the State Amateur Championship, the last tournament of the season, at Hillcrest Golf Club in St. Paul.

Once again, we both play miserably.

It is the second week of August, a hundred degrees, and humid as hell. Mosquitoes are thick as spit. The course is narrow, lined with trees, and unforgiving. The greens are so hard and so fast it’s like putting on a glass tabletop. And the caddy I’ve reserved in advance from Hillcrest turns out to be an eleven year-old boy.

“Play a lot of golf, do you Christopher?”

“Nope. Never played. My mom plays though.”

“So … how long have you been a caddy here?”

“Three years.”

“Three years. Wow. You must know the course really well.”

“Nope, not really.”

On the driving range, I run into Mikayla and her mother, who both tell me how great I played in the Match Play Championship. “Are you playing next year?” Mikayla says. “It’s at Olympic Hills, and their greens are a nightmare!”

I recall what my mother said about me being a bad sport and say, “Hey, good luck today.”

On the practice green, I chat with Friendly Lynn, who is not playing but serving as a Rules Official. On the first tee, my playing partner introduces herself and shakes my hand.

“Hey, I know you,” she says. “My friend Lori called your Hazeltine match a couple of weeks ago. She said you lost a heartbreaker.”

As expected, Christopher proves to be a cute little boy but an incompetent caddy. He lags behind and I am always waiting for him to catch up. He does not give yardage to the pins. He does not read putts nor pull the flags for me. He does not know where to stand nor when to be quiet and I am constantly apologizing to my opponents for his breaches of etiquette. On the other hand, he bounces around and smiles a lot so I don’t have the heart to fire him.

On the last day of the tournament, on one of the last holes to be played, I slice a tee shot deep into the woods. We find my ball nestled up against some tree roots and a big rock. Christopher turns to me and says, “You know what I’ve learned in my three years as a caddy?”

“What’s that?”

“Once in the trees, always in the trees!”

I tell him most golfers will not find that funny.

“Well, just once you get in here, it’s hard to get out. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Shhh,” I say. I try punching out with a four-iron. My ball hits another tree and ricochets even further into the woods.

“See,” he says.

 

End Game

On a Friday afternoon, the first of May, you called Dennis to give two weeks notice.

“I hate to tell you this,” you said, “but I’ve decided to leave The Company.”

You expected him to ask why, to try and talk you out of it, to say, “You can’t leave! You’re the Golden Child! You’re making me too much fucking money!” But all he said was, “Put Glen on the line.”

Glen worked in the office next to yours. You transferred the call and leaned on Glen’s doorjamb while he said “Sure,” “Yep, okay,” and “Yes sir, I’ll take care of it.”

Glen put down the phone and looked like he was afraid to look at you. “He said he wants you out of here in fifteen minutes.”

“What?”

“And if it’s sixteen minutes, he says he’ll fire me. Look, this is the way he does it. You’ve seen it a dozen times. I’m supposed to watch you pack up your stuff, take your security badge and your keys, and escort you out of the building.”

“What about my car?” You have a company car, a perk of the job. You do not own a personal one.

“He said to take a secretary with me and follow you home and take the car.”

“But I gave two weeks notice,” you said, feeling the panic rise. “I haven’t told my clients. I need to say goodbye to everybody. I need to get my last paycheck.”

“He said he’ll have HR call you at home,” Glen said, by now as flustered as you were.

“Look, I’m sorry, but he says he’s calling back in fifteen minutes, and if you’re still here, I’m fired.” He leaned out his door and barked at a secretary, “Somebody get her a goddamned box!”

After Glen took you home and you had the weekend to get over the shock, you tried to feel relief. If you were honest with yourself – which you absolutely were not at the time – you would have just admitted defeat. Team Green played golf, but they played with your life, too. How many days out of a month, out of a year, were you on the road? How many times were you expected to be “one of the boys” and shoot tequila until four a.m. and then be in the hotel restaurant at seven sharp, dressed and perky, ready to make your very best presentation at eight? How many times did you have to change hotel rooms and hide out because Dennis or some other entitled, horny executive came knocking at two in the morning?

The last time you’d gone to a Company dinner, you’d called your husband from the restaurant to say you’d be home by ten.

When you’d snuck into the house at 4:30 a.m. – having never bothered to call to say you’d be the slightest bit late – he’d waited until you got undressed and eased, as silently as possible, into bed before saying, “I’m awake, and I’m pissed.”

The next morning, with you leaning over, ready to puke, in the shower, he’d stood outside the steamed-up shower glass, screaming. “Where in the hell were you till four fucking o’clock in the morning? I’m sick of this bullshit!”

You could not tell him – would never tell him – what The Company, what your life there, was really like. You could not bear for him to think you weren’t tough enough, that you couldn’t take it.

You would certainly not tell him that last night you’d left them all at the bar at two o’clock but that you were so drunk you’d mistakenly taken the freeway north instead of south and then gotten lost downtown and had a hard time keeping the car between the lines on the road and barely found your way home.

You did, however, tell your mother. She listened while you ranted and cried and felt sorry for yourself, while you catalogued every wrong perpetrated against you, but she did not offer the soothing words of comfort you were all but begging for.

When you were finally finished, all she said was, “Good God, I’ve played that game all my life. Try being in the break room at three in the morning. You think because they don’t belong to country clubs or wear fancy suits they’re any different?”

 

Game:

Mammals hunted for sport.

 

____

This essay originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of West Branch literary journal.

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