My playing partner had not teed it up for a couple of months, and it showed. Two days into my club’s member-guest, we were at the bottom of our flight and grinding only for pride the final two matches. Par for my pal was about as elusive as membership at Augusta National, and hitting a fairway or green in regulation became cause for a Mardi Gras-type celebration.
In fact, it got so bad that I determined I could no longer watch him hit a shot.
So I began closing my eyes each time he got ready to swing, listening for his club face to strike the ball before lifting my lids to see what sort of disaster he had once again wrought. And it was only then that I truly began to appreciate the many sounds of golf.
The first thing I picked up is how easy it is to discern the quality of a shot simply by the tone, say, titanium against urethane, or forged steel against Surlyn. A crisply struck ball will produce sensations as melodic as notes from Stan Getz’s sax. But a Titleist that is toed, heeled or – heaven forbid – shanked can be as auditorily jarring as a porcelain vase crashing to a concrete floor.
If that initial sound does not tell you everything you need to know about where the ball is going once it leaves the clubface, the verbal revelations that come almost immediately afterward most certainly will. Those are the ones, for example, that exhort the Top-Flite to make miraculous in-flight adjustments. Even the subtlest grunt or groan provides clues to the outcome, and so do the curses that make even the most proper Thurston Howell-look-a-like sound as salty as a sailor. Ditto the frantic cries of “Fore!” that are golf’s version of “Incoming!” and prompt normally sensible individuals to contort themselves into ridiculous positions of protection, as if fire ants are scampering across their bodies.
Needless to say, I heard quite a bit of salt from my friend the last day of the tournament, and that got me thinking about all the different sounds of golf I have come to know over the years. The good ones abound, and perhaps my favorite is the plop of a ball dropping smartly into a cup, especially if it is for birdie. I also love the “whoosh!” of a swing in a stiff Scottish wind, the golfer suddenly sounding like Zorro with a saber as he brings his driver back, then whips through the ball. The gentle roils of an ocean can be as pleasing to the ears as the Brandenburg Concertos, and a few moments on the 14th or 17th tees at Seminole are quick testaments to that. Ditto the noise of sea lions lounging on the rocks at Pebble Beach or Cypress Point, their barks melding beautifully with the waves crashing against the shore. Running rivers and brooks can soothe as well, as do natural waterfalls at retreats such as Cinnamon Hill outside Montego Bay in Jamaica, where a round of golf often feels like a trek through the jungle and a chance to find a lost civilization (if not a lost ball).
But forget about those fake cascades built on a number of new courses, or those fountains so often found these days in water hazards. Disneyland is for family vacations, not rounds of golf.
My place used to have ringed-neck pheasants prowling the field grass on the sides of a number of holes, before the red-tail hawks wiped them out, and it was always nice to hear the cock birds squawking from their refuges. Planes are not the sorts of thing I normally enjoy around a golf course. But I have found that many of my favorite tracks are located near airports, so I have come to associate good golf with that type of traffic, whether I am playing Royal Dublin outside the Irish capital, New South Wales near Sydney, Australia, or Blind Brook in Purchase, N.Y.
Some of the best sounds in golf also are the funniest, and near the top of that list is the clopping of a ball down an asphalt cart path, a bad shot usually becoming even worse as the person who hit it looks on helplessly. The loud burble of a three-piecer dropping into the midst of a water hazard can be as hysterical as a Robin Williams routine, as can the crack of a Pinnacle smacking into a tree. Both of those noises often lead to the equally diverting spectacle of three golfers trying to suppress – and then ultimately control – their giggling as the fourth in their group battles near fatal apoplexy at the sight of his ball either disappearing into the deep or careening farther off an oak than it had off his club face.
Certainly, golf has its share of bad sounds, and none is quite so horrid as the one of your playing partner blurting, “Your hole,” before he has even finished his swing.
I heard that phrase a lot during that member-guest.