Cabin Fever North of the Inferno

from Golf Chicago Magazine (March 2015)

For months you’ve longed for respite from the
stifling, omni-gray winter drudgery. Whether
it’s Derrick Rose’s knee, Jay Cutler’s pouty-face, your
boss’s snicker while you scan the Fantasy waiver-
wire (no, Odell Beckham is not available), in the
winter you’re a bit more agitated and depressed,
hopeless and dark. And cold. Damned cold.

But the Midwest ethic is hardy — it’s hearty. You
wake neighbors at 5 a.m. with guttural, scraped-
windshield sounds, then drive to work in darkness,
then drive home in darkness, then try to avoid an
ankle sprain as you scale the icy steps into your
high-energy-bill home. Chicago winter means ten
extra pounds, three more inches on the beard,
two shots of whiskey neat instead of vodka on
the rocks. You quickly transition from basking in
leaf-crunching, pumpkin-patching, autumn glow
to wondering what it feels like to open your front
door without swearing.

What kept you going? Maybe your screensaver
is the 12th at Augusta, the 7th at Pebble, or some
nondescript “hidden gem” resort course in St. Lucia
(it’s actually a goat track but your colleagues will
never know). Maybe it’s the R15 waiting on a rack at
the golf show, like a frightened puppy at the humane
society, eager to join a loyal and loving master.
And the transition from not golfing to golfing
for a Midwesterner is more dramatic than that of
our southern and western counterparts. My uncle
in Tennessee and my brother in Colorado often
gloat, “Yeah, it’s crazy. Sometimes we’ll just get a
70 degree day out of nowhere.” Hell hath no fury
like a dormant golfer scorned.

But in the final analysis, we might just have it better.
During premarital counseling my wife and I read
a book based on the central question, “What if there
is no such thing as heaven or hell?” In other words,
what if here, on earth, some of us are actually living
in heaven and some are living in hell? That there is
nothing “after” this; it’s all happening here and now.
The Chicago golfer experiences both, every year,
at their extremes. So we’re the Yin and the Yang,
the “it’s always darkest before the dawn” and “no
joy without pain” cliches. We embody the death
and rebirth archetype.

Frozen, barren, dead ground is replaced by lush,
vibrant, green blankets of rolling hills and fertile
plains, dotted with 4¼ inch holes, in which our
climactic winter dreams are realized: a steaming
nature-pool of pars and birdies and eagles, of won
skins and dragged in five-footers, of rounds with
your dad and a cool drink in the sun afterward.
In the winter, we turn to Guinness or Italian beef
sandwiches or Breaking Bad reruns, but as the sun stays
out a little longer, and the snow-covered ground turns
to green-mud slop, our souls swell with excitement. We
sneak a quick nine at the muni-down-the-street with our
daughter, skip the beef sandwich, and fire up the grill
for chicken or a salad. Hope replaces cynicism. Activity
supplants sloth. And now, instead of every decision beg-
ging the question, “will this help me endure the winter?”
it becomes “will this help my golf game?” which can be
directly translated to “will this help my soul?”

And besides, we “figured something out” in our
swings last year. That statement is in quotations
because it’s not my original thought; it’s plagiarized
from everyone who has ever gripped a club. The inevi-
table statement to follow in May: “What happened? I
thought I figured something out in my swing.”

I really did figure something out. I saw it in an
insomniatic Golf Channel blur with Michael Breed and
Paul Azinger. It was something so simple that I hadn’t
internalized in 25 years of playing: release the club at
impact. I wrote it on my hand, then on my scorecard,
then typed it in my iPhone, where it now looks exactly
like this: “Swing thoughts loose grip release club finish
forward posted August 30th at 3:21 pm.” Those three
simple thoughts changed my ball flight from weakish
old-man push slice to pro-style draw. It got me to a 5.9
index. And yet, I want to go lower.

In philosophy, the Hedonic Treadmill refers to
our human nature to always want more, no matter
how much we have. Think John Daly with chicken
wings and Budweiser or Tiger Woods with Perkins
waitresses. We’re like this with cutting strokes.
Golf equipment sales are predicated on this idea,
and though we know rationally that a ball or iron
or driver will only mask a weakness, we keep buy-
ing. You, my friend, are hereby permitted to jump
on that “treadmill” — goodness knows it’s better for
your soul than a real treadmill. It is time for rebirth.
So as the chill subsides, Derrick Rose plays two games
in a row, Cubs hope replaces Bears hate, and your boss
lets you out early for a quick nine, appreciate the privilege
of the yearly winter of discontent. I read a newspaper
headline in January, “Kitten freezes to death, stuck to
the front porch.” I mean really, how much less would I
appreciate a round at Cog Hill without that image seared
into my brain? I doubt some guy in L.A. or Phoenix
would. For us, that first round will be sweeter, the first
dig into turf more precious. So as soon as a flag goes up
within 30 miles, head out and play. Buy the new driver.
Pay for a lesson. Re-up at your club. You lived through hell. You deserve it.

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