The Case of Mistaken Hosel Hockey
adapted from Golf Chicago Magazine, September 2015 issue
They’re merciless. They are golf’s unspoken disgraces. They seize your throat like Cujo and choke out your soul. They call into question your golf swing. Your sanity. Your humanity.
They induce panic like black ice on a highway, like locking eyes with the weird cousin in public, like a toilet-paperless Porta-John.
Think running out of gas in strange, scary city. A dead furnace at 2:00 am on a Sunday in February. Malfunctioning sedatives before a colonoscopy.
But they’re not just panic. They’re confused panic, like someone strangling you from behind, in the dark, while they ask you an impossible Trivial Pursuit question. They’re not like a slump in baseball or basketball because those don’t sneak up on you.
The Shanks attack you like a figment of Robert Allenby’s imagination outside a Honolulu strip club. And they arrive at the worst times, like when you’re hosting your father-inlaw and his buddies at your home club.
I’m one over through two, lining up my second shot on a long par 4. I had settled into a rhythm with Bill and his buddies. We’re even for the moment — not that I’m counting. Luckily, we get along and we share a fondness for his daughter and for golf. I tell myself he’s better because he’s retired and plays more, but in truth he’s just better. That stings.
A little background on Bill: 1) I can’t tell you what he did for a living. 2) When suitors came to the house when my wife was in high school, he would position himself prominently at the kitchen table, cleaning his gun. Think De Niro in Meet the Parents meets De Niro in Goodfellas. Just a little more intimidating.
I finish my pre-shot routine, begin my remarkably mediocre backswing — later Bill likened it to that of Jim Furyk (my least favorite tour player) — with my 4 iron, start down, release, and … there goes a flaming squirrel headed on a line toward the wrong hole.
And so begins the most befuddling, horrifying six holes of my life.
Anyone who’s suffered the shanks knows their paradoxical nature: on the one hand, you know they can’t possibly last; on the other hand, you know they’re not called “the shank.” The plurality of the affliction makes it that much more sinister. Those unspeakable putting woes are not called “the yip.” If so, Ian Baker-Finch might be on the course instead of welling up in the booth every time an Aussie drains a three footer.
Back to my round with Bill. To compound the crisis, he tries to help, “Relax, Rory. You’re trying too hard because my friends are here.” To which I politely respond, “No offense Bill, but I don’t give a f — about your friends.” Now consider in what context speaking to your father-in-law like this would be acceptable. Had I taken that tone anywhere but on the golf course in the midst of a tussle with the shanks, I’d be limbless at the bottom of the Chicago River.
Truth is, I’m not nervous — at least I don’t feel nervous. And yet his “help” actually pisses me off even more. Here I am, a 36-year-old man being spoken to like a three-year-old trying to catch a Nerf football. It’s beyond embarrassing. It’s emasculating. For the first time ever, I’m relishing longer holes because that means I can hit a shank-immune club. Alas, I stripe a driver, then a hybrid on #6, walk confidently to the green, putt out, then half-strut to the #7 tee with cautious optimism. #7 calls for a 5-iron — when you’re fighting the shanks, just the word “iron” causes dread. As I stand over the ball, I’m reminded of my high school Humanities teacher, who taught us that organized religion arose to answer three simple questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? After scuttling a scalded dog 30 yards off line, through the pine trees, and onto the fifth tee, I was asking the same three questions about the shanks. I’m not one to argue about religion, but I can say, definitively — thanks to the shanks — that there is a hell.
People often describe golf as “humbling.” I’ll spot you a few more letters: at its worst, golf is humiliating. There is nowhere to hide, no clock to save you, no teammate to pass the ball to, no injury to feign, no coach to ask for a breather. A shooting slump in basketball means you might be missing the hoop by a few centimeters; in golf — while in truth the difference is even smaller — what’s visible is a miss that is not only off line, but potentially dangerous. Baseball is different because the odds are you won’t hit the ball. Three out of ten is actually pretty good.
What’s most amazing about that day is not that I managed to break 90, but that upon closer examination, I only shanked the ball four times. Four times? Really? It felt like 50. It felt infinite. But like other forms of abuse, we learn to repress the shanks; in fact I’ve already forgotten. To even speak those words, “the shanks”, is sacrilege to most golfers. I expect Bill to remind me though.
Unless I can’t hear him from the bottom of the Chicago River.