JIM DODSON: An Aspiring Grumpy Old Golfer
Last week, on my way to play in my first golf tournament of the season, I stopped off to buy a dozen new golf balls.
I was dismayed to discover that my brand had soared to nearly $50 per box.
"What's the world coming to when my favorite golf balls are 50 bucks a dozen?" I asked the clerk. "One golf ball cost more than a gallon of gas!"
"Maybe you should play a cheaper ball," the clerk shrugged.
"Unthinkable," I said, pointing out I'd been a devoted Titleist customer since I was knee-high to a ball washer.
"I see," he said. "So you're a ball snob."
This hurt, but I was forced to concede the point. No other golf ball had brought me as much happiness in life's hardest game as a Titleist.
"May I ask your age and handicap?" asked the clerk.
I explained that I'm a youthful 50-something with a shaky seven handicap that was sinking faster than Hillary Clinton's superdelegate count.
"In that case," he came back, "maybe this is a good time to make the big switch -- to pay a little less but get a little more distance from your golf ball. You're not as young as you used to be, after all. You're on the threshold of becoming a GOG."
"A GOG?" I asked.
"A Grumpy Old Golfer," he explained. "It happens to every golf guy about age 50. The older you get, the better you used to be -- not to mention cheaper. Follow me, but keep an open mind. I've got just the ball for you."
He led me to a display of brightly hued golf balls that were $15.95 per box. Each box contained 15 balls, three more than normal. That worked out to about $1 per ball, or roughly the cost of a gallon of gas back when I was in high school in the 1970s. These balls, he said, were guaranteed to fly far, never hook or slice, roll beautifully and possibly float in the event of flash flooding.
"Those are big claims for a golf ball that costs less than a Butterfinger bar," I took pains to point out to him.
"They're the best-kept secret in the Sandhills," he assured me. "Absolutely flying out of the store. All GOGs are playing them this spring. So are some of the ball snobs like you."
Then he said something that hooked me: "Give it a try. See what you think. Bring 'em back if you don't like 'em. I'll give your money back."
That's when I realized I might be a GOG, after all. It was sad to think I might never play my favorite golf ball again. But no GOG can resist a MBG, or money-back guarantee, on golf balls.
So I bought a box.
BIFs and PGBs
My eagle-eyed playing partner spotted my new ball right away.
"New kind of ball, huh?" snorted Max. "Bet you paid an arm and a leg for it. It's all marketing hype, you know."
Ironically, my nickname for Max is "Grumpy." He's a youthful 70-something who hasn't bought a golf ball since Nicklaus won a major. His shots rarely venture from the fairway. In fact, he normally comes home from the golf course with more golf balls than he arrived with. Last year, he realized his golf bag was getting a bit on the heavy side and dumped out 126 balls -- all of which he'd found.
With some reluctance, I explained to Max about GOGs and admitted I was keeping an open mind and trying a little experiment for 2008 -- playing the new one-dollar golf ball that was tearing up the Sandhills, hoping to pay a little less but get a little more from my golf ball now that I, too, might well be on the verge of GOGdom
"It's all the rage with GOGs," I explained.
"Silly marketing hype," Max said with a sniff. "I'll stick to my BIFs."
"What's a BIF?" I wondered.
"That's a 'Ball I Found.' If you were a real GOG, you'd play a BIF. A BIF is generally the best kind of ball because they've got some actual playing experience. PGBs are OK, too -- that's a Pond Golf Ball. But they can only have been in the water less than two or three weeks or they're no good. A PGB can marinate too much, if you're not careful."
"Being a GOG sounds kind of complicated," I said, wondering if this was the future I faced on the lonely fairways of my dawning senior life -- scouring the terrain for BIFs and PGBs that hadn't been in the water too long.
"Golf balls are just the beginning," Max confirmed. "If you're going to be a successful GOG, you'll have to give up a lot of your fancy ways. There's a whole new way of looking at the world that goes well beyond the golf course."
Max plays golf two or three times a week, bird-hunts, gardens like crazy, and can repair anything this side of a nuclear warhead in his basement workshop.
Plays Right, Putts Left
Like most seasoned GOGs, he's naturally thrifty -- his wife would tell you cheap -- and walks around in rumpled pants with fraying cuffs gently fretting about the declining state of civilization as we know it -- rising taxes, bonehead politicians, invading squirrels, weather that won't cooperate. He thinks CNN made up global warming purely for ratings. He thinks all golf equipment produced after, say, the Truman administration is overpriced and overrated.
Like most GOGs, Max has a curious homemade golf swing. That's because he was too cheap -- he would say thrifty -- to take more than a few rudimentary lessons when he began to slow down and smell the roses and took up playing golf in earnest a decade or so ago.
Grumpy's golf swing has four parts and resembles something he might have put together in his workshop with spare parts salvaged from a carnival ride. It's a marvel of personal engineering, an affront to the sleek physics of the PGA Tour, yet incredibly productive. Twice I've witnessed him just miss making aces. And last year while playing with a bunch of other GOGs out at Foxfire, he actually did score a hole in one.
"Congratulations, Grumpy," I said. "That must have been exciting!"
"I guess so," he allowed, shaking his head. "But I had to buy the drinks. What a bunch of mess that was."
Just to complicate things, Max plays right-handed and putts left, with an old putter that looks as if it might double as a tire tool. I've seen him knock down putts from all over God's green acre with that thing, though.
Like a true GOG, Max purchased his golf clubs from some foreign knock-off specialty firm over the Internet, which threw in a free golf bag, six dozen former range balls, a complimentary golf towel, and a box of genuine imitation goatskin golf gloves. When I showed Max my fancy new store-bought driver a few years back, he glanced at the price tag and shook his head. "You paid more for that driver than I did to go to college," he pointed out.
He also has helpful opinions on proper golf attire.
Last year, for example, we tied for first place in a golf tournament at his club, each winning a designer golf shirt with the club logo. Grumpy's was bright tangerine. Mine was basic emergency room green. For some reason, clubs across the Sandhills seem to think GOGs love pastels so intense you could use them to position a communications satellite. Grumpy's idea of "pastel" is either light brown or dark beige.
For fun, after we won those designer shirts, I asked Max the last time he had actually purchased a golf shirt.
"I think Truman had just left office," he explained. For the record, I've never seen him wear his tangerine shirt. I think he hung it somewhere in his garden, to frighten off hungry deer and squirrels.
An Aspiring GOG
This year, we started off with a bang in his club golf tournament, finishing the first nine at seven under par, apparently cruising to victory.
At that point I was two-under on my own ball -- almost ready to concede that there was something to the new one-dollar golf ball that was tearing up the Sandhills. Maybe I was a GOG, after all.
Then disaster struck. On the first hole of the back nine, I put my ball in the water and began to fall apart like a two-dollar beach chair. My shots went too far, failed to fade or draw, and rolled off every green I reached in regulation. Call me a ball snob, but I began to miss my four-dollar golf ball the way Hillary misses the White House.
Luckily, my partner's steady four-part golf swing and brilliant putting got our team out of more nasty scrapes than an O.J. lawyer.
We didn't win any golf shirts, alas, but along the way Grumpy found at least half a dozen nice BIFs to add to his vast collection of experienced, marinated balls.
On the way home, I informed Max I was giving up on the new ball that's tearing up the Sandhills and going back to my expensive ball, even if it meant having to cut back on driving my car. I still had a dozen of the brand-new one-dollar balls to get rid of, however.
"I'd like you to have them," I said, making a snap decision. "Consider them a BIGA."
"What's a BIGA?" Max wondered.
"Ball I Gave Away," I said. "I just don't think I'm quite ready to be a GOG yet."
He made me wait in his foyer as he went downstairs to his basement workshop and rooted around for a while. Eventually he came back up and presented me an unopened box of golf balls. They appeared to be my favorite brand packaged in a simple, no-nonsense way. I wondered if they might be Titleist knock-off balls with a free golf towel and complimentary set of drink coasters.
"What are these?" I asked.
"Your favorite ball," he said. "Refurbished Titleists. Only four bucks a dozen."
"Where on earth did you get them?" I asked, astonished to know there were such bargains left in the world.
"I can't tell you," he replied. "You're obviously not grumpy or old enough yet."
Even so, I was deeply touched by his generosity, frankly agog to think I didn't have to choose between driving my car and playing my favorite golf ball.
"Sorry I didn't play better in the golf tournament this year," I felt obliged to say, given the way my little ball experiment flopped and the first golf tournament of the year turned out.
"That's OK," Grumpy said. "You're young yet. Someday you may be a real GOG. In the meantime, I've got a tangerine shirt to give you. It didn't do anything to keep the deer and squirrels out of my garden."
Bestselling author Jim Dodson, the Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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