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Salt Lake City Weekly Fairway to Heaven

Once the domain of sunburnt, polyester-clad businessmen, golf is officially in vogue.

By Ben Fulton

APRIL 20, 1998:  Mark Twain called it "a good walk ruined." From the perspective of a televised tournament, it all looks a bit crazy: Grown people trying to land a ball into some small hole?

And those clothes! True, the fashion sense of some golfers ranks somewhere on the negative scale. And based on appearances, the game is somewhere above tadpole farming in the excitement sweepstakes.

Well, not really. As one old pro—Arnold Palmer?—once remarked, golf and sex may be the only things you can enjoy without having to be good at either one. Chevy Chase lent his own sense of cool to that ultimate golf film, Caddyshack. Forget Hootie & the Blowfish in that silly music video. Mike D. of the Beastie Boys, along with members of NOFX, No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, all put balls to the grass on a regular basis.

Then there's the small matter of that large phenomenon called Tiger Woods. After winning the Masters tournament last year with a record score—and slaughtering his nearest opponent with a 12-stroke lead—this ripe old man of 21 went on to collect more than $60 million in endorsements. Golf is good work, if you can find it.

Ask anyone and they'll tell you this humble sport of Scottish origin has conquered all obstacles to emerge head and shoulders above most recreational pastimes. Tennis? Lunging racquets and sweaty, grunt-contorted faces may appeal to some. Soccer? Get real. Round up a group the size of a small army, then you can talk about starting a game. Basketball? A good court is hard to find, and you run the risk of pulling a muscle or getting poked in the eye. Golf, on the other hand, lets you stroll grassy fairways in effortless elan.

Golf's magnanimous qualities have always been with us, but dormant to those who lived under the false impression that only the country-club set could indulge in its joys. If you've always longed for a sport that combines Zen-like concentration with furtive skill, etiquette, spiked shoes and a low demand for stamina, then here's your game. One forewarning: While golf won't tax your limits of physical endurance, it will tax your patience.

Stroke for stroke, putt for putt, no game will teach you more about your own weaknesses and strength. No other game offers more therapeutic, meditative qualities. Beginning players often find themselves caught in a continuous cycle of elation and disgust, but gradually pull themselves out of the rut as their game improves. Golf, then, speaks to the trials and successes we find so often in life. It's the ultimate inner-game. When you add up those strokes at the end of the day, you have no one but yourself to credit or blame.


Club of the gods: A local hipster assumes the position for a swingin' time at Bonneville Golf Course.
photo: Fred Hayes
Chris McKone, an amiable 26-year-old bartender with a score hovering around the low- to mid-70s, sees the game as a measuring stick of sorts. Spend a day on the course with someone you've just met, and you will learn more about that person than if you've lived with them for three months, according to McKone. Temper. Manners. Self-confidence. All this and more will be revealed in as little as nine holes. If your partner is kind enough to pat a mound of grass pack into the ground after digging a hole, it's an obvious sign of civility. If your partner is loud and rude, forget it. The game simply has no room for the Dennis Rodmans of the world.

"Once you get to a certain level it's really about controlling your emotions," McKone says. "When you're playing well it usually means that you're really at ease with yourself."

"I've seen some pretty wild things. I've seen golf clubs thrown in trees, or someone will grab a bottle out of their bag. I've seen people break their clubs over their knees. I hate to admit it, but I've busted a club myself."

For a sport that has such upper-crust connotations, the cost is surprisingly affordable. Plus, except for the seasonal crutch of winter, Utah is something of a golfer's paradise. That's because, as McKone contends, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County keep municipal courses in manicured, green-thumb shape. They, too, are extremely affordable. Out-of-staters swoon at the mention of 18 holes and a golf cart for $30. That's the average price of a game at most municipal courses. Who says the public sector can't deliver a deal?

The driving range is a logical starting place. For less than the cost of a movie you can buy balls by the half-bucket (an average price of $2.50) or full-bucket ($4.50). Depending on availability, you can usually borrow a five iron or a pitching wedge free of cost from the course. Once you learn to swing with these two clubs, the rest of the lot—irons, putter, and drivers—shouldn't be too hard to master in turn. If you're a sports natural, two or three lessons from a pro or assistant pro housed in the—you guessed it—pro shop, should mold your swing in shape.

If you fear knocking out nearby house windows at the range with a beginner's swing, give the putting green a chance to work its charms. That's where McKone spends most of his practice time. As every aspiring pro knows, the game is usually won or lost on the green. As many as half your strokes will be made within this crucial area. So, learn to sink that ball the quiet, deadly way.

Salt Lake City golfers, and Utah golfers in general, are spoiled for choices. Talk regularly turns to Salt Lake City's Bonneville as a crown-jewel municipal course. Mulligan's in South Jordan boasts a driving range, putting course, and heated winter booths for maintaining your swing in the off-season. If it's the novel you seek, try Golf in the Round, a driving range that offers a variety of targets, including a beat-up car planted in the middle of the field. Swing away. No one will mind if you hit the windshield. If only the ritzy will tickle your fancy, take a trip to St. George's Entrada course. Sixty dollars—or $50 if you live in Washington County—buys a cart, 18 holes and jaw-dropping fairways, some of which are built around old lava flows.

Above all, it's important to keep things in the right perspective as you journey through the game. You will become frustrated from time to time. Your friends, or date, may laugh at your clumsy aim. Take it in stride. Many a pro will tell you that, "The joy you get from golf is in direct proportion to the effort you don't put into it."

"The rich, white-man's sport?" McKone ponders. "Not any more, really. You have to play it to understand the attraction."


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