Sports: Fore play
Golf without green fees and silly shoes. Let’s call it urban golf.
It began, as many things begin in Sacramento, on a Midtown balcony late at night. Miller’s golf bag was propped up in a corner; I pulled a three wood out of it and pretended to line up a shot. “Watch this drive!” I said, in my best imitation of President Bush. I took a vicious swipe at the imaginary ball, and as Miller and I traced its invisible arc over the trees and rooftops, the idea struck us both at the same time.
“Urban golf!” we cried in unison.
Thus the NorCal Urban Golf Society, or NUGS, was born. We soon learned that although our idea appears to be original to Sacramento, a small number of urban-golf clubs have been established throughout the world. Following their lead, we established some simple ground rules for NUGS:
1. Golfing skill not required
2. Expenses must be kept to a minimum
3. The official golf club of NUGS is “used”
4. The official golf ball of NUGS is the AlmostGolf foam rubber practice golf ball, available at Target
5. The world is your golf course
Rules in hand, we hit the streets of Sacramento, not really knowing whether our new sport was even feasible. From the very first hole, laid out in the park at the Ethel MacCleod Hart Senior Center, we realized we were on to something.
We decided to use a Hula-Hoop for the hole because it’s portable and presents a big target. It’s important when setting up the course to make it “doable.” Miller walked about 75 yards straight into the park and set the hoop down just to the right of a big oak tree.
“This looks like about a par four,” he said upon returning.
Miller teed up a foam rubber practice ball, looked to make the sure the coast was clear, and with a near-perfect swing, gave it a solid thwack. It soared high in a perfect arc and landed 30 yards down the fairway.
Urban golf was going to work. It was just like real golf, only smaller.
I stepped up to the tee to take my first shot. There’s nothing quite like brandishing a golf club in the middle of a major population center. People take notice. The Nerf-like practice balls are harmless, but look just like authentic, highly lethal golf balls. Children gather round, anticipating broken windows, head injuries or some other spectacle. Moms with strollers head for cover behind hedges. Automobile drivers rubberneck as they pass by. Yet no one says “What the fuck?!” as if maybe you’d maybe club them over the head if they did. Who knows? Maybe I would. I felt like I was about to commit some sort of vandalism.
Miller’s an experienced golfer. I’m a certified hack. Determined to best my superior foe, I stepped up to the ball and clubbed it for all I was worth. The ball sliced wickedly left, ricocheted off a lamppost and into the uppermost branches of the big oak tree. It trickled down limb by limb and landed 10 yards from the Hula-Hoop. I raised my club in exultation.
Lesson 1: Urban golf has almost nothing to do with skill.
Getting the ball in “hole” proved a little trickier. Miller’s second shot had bounced to a stop 20 yards on the far side of the hole. He pulled the seven iron out of the bag. He tried a little baby swing, but stubbed his toe. The ball doinked ahead maybe three feet in the clumpy grass. I chose the wedge to get under the ball. It whiffed right under it, sending it straight back up into the tree, where it trickled right back down and landed in precisely the same spot I’d just hit it from. Miller’s next attempt hit 15 feet on the other side of the hole. In this fashion, we hacked our way to bogey fives, completing, as far as we can tell from the public record, the first hole of urban golf in Sacramento history.
Lesson 2: The Hula-Hoop makes for a lame hole. It’s better to pick a target, like, “That tree!” or “The door of the Monte Carlo!” or “That guy kicked backed reading with his iPod on 10!” Something big that can be hit from a distance.
There were many lessons that glorious day Miller and I played the first nine-hole tournament on what as come to be known as the NUGS tour. At the par-five hole we now call the Water Tank (in the abandoned industrial yard across the railroad tracks from the B Street Theatre), I dug an amazing shot from out of an asphalt rubble pile, coming within whisker of nailing a fencepost for an eagle two. At Tent City, Miller smashed a towering shot off the top of a dirt stockpile that was heading straight for the hole until the wind caught it and whipped it out of sight over the edge of the hill, where it landed in a homeless encampment. “Mind if I play through?” he said nonchalantly.
Lesson 3: The going price for homeless caddies is $5 per day.
Luck followed us throughout the day. At the California State Library fountain across from the Capitol, in the shadow of the men who will someday soon no doubt outlaw our sport, we played a par-three hole featuring the fountain as a water hazard as hundreds of tourists thronged by, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Miller put it right in the drink; I launched a rainbow over the fountain that landed three feet from the hole on the other side. Birdie!
Lesson 4: Carry cameras and tell anyone who asks you’re a journalist working on a story about the new trend of urban golf.
Automobile traffic presents perhaps the greatest hazard to the urban golfer, and vice versa. Thus, heavily trafficked streets are to be avoided. On occasion, however, tarmac can provide for the smoothest putting surfaces encountered in the urban environment, such as the 45-footer I nailed over the wheelchair ramp in the R Street Safeway parking lot, shades of Lee Trevino winning the British Open. However, Miller and his mighty swing got us into trouble on a crazy par-five hole on N Street that he attempted against my better advice. The ball flew into a treetop a block-and-a-half up the street, dribbled down and landed on the roof of a BMW 3 Series just as its owner was getting out. At that same exact instance, an attorney from the law office next to where Miller had teed off from came running out the door, screaming, “Don’t you kids be hitting no balls at houses!” It’s OK, Miller told him. “We’re journalists working on a story about urban golf.”
Lesson 5: Show respect for private property, and remember, a golf club is considered a deadly weapon in most jurisdictions.
Did I mention that Miller is insane? That’s about all the can be said about the hole he dreamed up to end the first round of urban golf in Sacramento history, the Freight Train. The idea is you find a good launching pad on one side of the train tracks, pick a target on the other side, and wait for the train to come. That’s exactly what we did. As the train roared by, we could see the traffic backing up on the other side of the tracks. Miller, this is not a good idea. People were watching, the train was just 20 feet away, I didn’t see how he could possibly launch the ball over the tops of the boxcars. The son of a bitch swung anyway, and damned if it didn’t shoot right over the top of the train, bouncing off the roof of a van on the other side and on to the fairway. Beat me by two strokes.
Thus on that day, the NUGS philosophy was born. Urban golfing is about fun-on-the-cheap that’s easy on the environment and relatively safe for other humans. A used set of clubs can be picked up at a garage sale for $20; balls are $6 at Target. Walking (with a few select clubs) is recommended whenever possible, followed by bicycling. Risk-taking is encouraged, but not to the extent of breaking the law. Above all, always remember: It’s just a game—the most fantastic game ever invented!