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Shoving Off ... ...On an unscripted golfing adventure, the author hops in his car, aims it south, and stop where the spirit moves him

March 23, 2004
March 23, 2004

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March 23, 2004

Shoving Off ... ...On an unscripted golfing adventure, the author hops in his car, aims it south, and stop where the spirit moves him

I would've never dared to imagine, never in the last two weeks of
slice and struggle, that this strange, improbable odyssey would
come to a place and a moment like this--to this bright oriental rug
of rolling green on a Sunday morning around nine o'clock, with the
alligators turning sleepily to watch and an osprey gawking from its
mezzanine nest.

This is an article from the March 23, 2004 issue Original Layout

After 14 days of battling a slice and yipping putts, after rounds
on end of chunked wedges and pulled long irons, of muttering oaths
and bellowing imperious warnings to myself--"Release the club, you
moron! Don't sway!"--there I was, standing on the green of the
par-4 9th hole at glorious Tom Fazio-designed Osprey Point Golf
Club, on Kiawah Island, S.C., staring at a birdie putt on what the
yardage book called "maybe the toughest hole on the course." That
golfing tableau aside, the scene was utterly idyllic: lemony sun
mounting blue sky, winds at less than seven knots, a faint seaside
cologne off the Atlantic. The hole played 403 yards off the white
tees, and I'd flown my drive straight over a lake to the fairway,
165 yards from the pin. Miracle of miracles, I'd then dropped a
six-iron 35 feet from the cup, but given the way I'd been stroking
putts lately, I might as well have been in Charleston.

"You have a putt that's going to run downhill and bend sharply
left to right," said Darwin Perry, a club staffer who was my course
guide. "Hit it at least three feet to the left, and keep your head
down."

Standing over the ball, I took a breath, drew back the putter and
click. The ball started far left, came off the crest of the incline
and then bent like a crescent to the right. It was running for the
hole, looking too fast, as Perry, with the flag in his hand, chased
it. "Slow down! Settle! Settle!" he cried....

Is there anything in the realm of human games, in the whole cosmos
of sports, as wondrous in its simplicity as that clean white ball
rolling down a deep green slope on a sunlit day in March, bending
as it runs, spinning faster and faster, at last appearing larger
and fatter as it straightens toward the hole and begins to die? It
was precisely for the joy to be found in this kind of aesthetic, in
the crisply hit drive, or in the six-iron drawn toward the stick,
that I decided to take up golf regularly after I retired from
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in July 2001, the year I turned 60 and my
handicap hovered around 16 or 17. Last winter I was gearing up for
yet another season of beating balls around Maryland--chiefly at the
Olney Golf Park with pro Jim Estes, touring pro Bob Estes's
cousin--when a voice at SI called with a story idea so staggering
that I was struck dumb. The idea, in essence, was that I throw my
clubs in the trunk of my car some cold winter day, aim it south and
play golf all the way to Florida, stopping wherever and whenever
the spirit moved me. And write a series of stories about the
journey. "Don't plan too much," the voice said. "Don't you take the
trip. Let the trip take you."

So it was on the bracing early Sunday morning of Feb. 22, with
Washington, D.C., temperatures in the 30s, that I loaded my clubs
(Pings), clothes (one Brooks Brothers sports jacket, 10 golf
shirts) and books (Hemingway, Waugh, DeLillo) into a white Buick
Century, kissed my fiancée, Carolyne Starek, a hesitant goodbye and
roared off into the wilds of northern Virginia. I stopped only long
enough to visit the house and four-poster bed in which Gen.
Stonewall Jackson died on May 10, 1863, after he was wounded by his
own men at Chancellorsville--"Let us cross over the river, and rest
under the shade of the trees," Jackson said as he lay dying--and
the little white barn where Secretariat was born, on
March 30, 1970, at the Meadow Farm in Doswell. "His only point of
reference is himself," the great turf writer Charles Hatton once
wrote of him.

I did not stop again until I'd made it across the border into
North Carolina, where I finally pulled over at dusk and, in the
fading light, hit a bucket of balls at a little course called
Hickory Meadow. The journey had begun, and it was not long before I
began to wonder, as the first cold rain and the solitude closed in,
why I'd ever gotten involved in this. I'd been living happily with
Carolyne. We had just bought a town house in northwest D.C., near
Chevy Chase Circle, and we shopped at Whole Foods, and I often had
supper ready when she came home from work. She is an elementary
school principal who frequently works 12-hour days. We have a
clawless cat named Milton who sits on the back of a chair by the
bedroom window and dreams of catching the birds that perch in the
trees. He tilts at sparrows. We have friends and family to see and
favorite places to eat, and we sometimes walk in Rock Creek Park,
which runs by our neighborhood. I was missing the embracing
geometry of that world before I'd reached Raleigh, yet it would be
more than a month before I'd return home.

No matter now. I played my first round at Bull Creek, a
black-owned course in Louisburg, with a FedEx courier who smoked
when he putted and a disabled carpenter named Lewis whose wife had
stabbed him through the liver with a butcher's knife; and my second
in Southern Pines, at a nifty Donald Ross course named Mid Pines
Inn and Golf Club, with a guy named Dick, who makes army knives and
bayonets, and his brother, Don, a stonecutter who carves headstones
and whose alltime favorite epitaph, self-written by a
hypochondriac, was, SEE, I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK. The road was always
a lonely place, to be sure, but even more so when it rained, and
I'd barely hit my first banana into the woods at Mid Pines when the
first storms, laden with rain and snow, slipped in from the south
and west.

The clerk at the desk at Mid Pines cautioned me, "Better head for
the coast, below Wilmington. Some great courses there. That's a
heck of an assignment. You need a caddie?"

All I needed was to make Southport before the storm and hole up in
another faceless room until it passed. Bored at the wheel, I began
to take pictures of favorite signs, particularly those on churches,
such as the one in Whitehill that read, FORBIDDEN FRUITS CREATE
MANY JAMS. For the next week, after the clouds parted and I rolled
into North Myrtle Beach, I became America's guest at just about
every course on the 65-mile stretch from the Palmer-designed Rivers
Edge in Shallotte, N.C., down to the Pawleys Island course that
everyone said not to miss: the lordly True Blue. I'd simply flash
the old SI business card and hear the choir sing: "This round is
complimentary."

There are more than 120 courses in that stretch, with more being
added all the time, and I suspect that as America turns into the
world's largest amusement park, with fairways replacing wetlands,
the entire Carolina coast will become one pythonic links with
25,000 holes. Like the character in John Cheever's short story The
Swimmer, who crossed an entire county by crawling through backyard
pools, a lunatic golfer may one day be able to play almost
continuously from Wilmington to Hilton Head Island, S.C., stopping
his golf cart at every Waffle House along the way. Once I got to
North Myrtle, surrounded by courses, I could not bring myself to
leave. It was as if I were afraid to move for fear of missing some
new exotic bunker. So for six days I simply showed up at one of the
area's courses and joined strangers teeing off. Ultimately, I chose
to play the courses with names that appealed to me: Tiger's Eye and
Angels Trace, Thistle and Glen Dornoch.

At last, though tempted by the sirens of Heather Glen and Oyster
Bay, by Wild Wing and Tidewater, I lashed myself to the steering
wheel and fled south, stopping once, to play True Blue, and the
next day swung into that magical kingdom of Kiawah Island and its
restless winds. Much as I had struggled, I could feel the rhythm
coming back--the elusive tempo of the swing.

...The putt at Osprey Point raced for the cup. Perry yelled as it
struck the back of the hole--"Yes!"--and dropped in.

Of course, such a birdie is God's way of bringing us back.
Southward, again.

SIX COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM NACK MIXED MESSAGE Nack (far left) got a taste of Carolina kitsch in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and food for thought in Whitehill, N.C., before playing Glen Dornach.FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM NACK MIDDLE GROUND Tim Cate-designed Tiger's Eye coexists with the New South commerce of Myrtle Beach and the Old South ethos of Georgetown.THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM NACK BRING THE KIDS Myrtle is really two towns in one: a family-friendly beach resort and a golf destination with more than 120 courses within 70 miles.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM NACK PURE GOLF Rivers Edge in Shallotte, N.C., and Kiawah Island, S.C., with its four courses and Ryder Cup pedigree, are for serious golfers.