There is a point of no return in a golfer’s life, and an older friend passed it. I knew he had, because I saw the evidence in his bag. It was right between his three-wood and his umbrella.
It was a ball retriever.
My friend used to play pretty well. He never won the club championship, but in his prime he was one of the guys a champion had to beat. In a nassau, you wanted him for a partner. In a scramble, you wanted him on your team. He would go for the green in two on a par-five, and he would sink a putt that mattered. He was, locally, a player.
Then his game began to turn. His draw faded. His fade sliced. He stopped signing up for tournaments. The putts that he gave (and therefore showed that he hoped to be given) crept into the leather, and then beyond the leather. Gradually, his focus as a golfer shifted from the hole to the pond.
Golfers who carry ball retrievers are gatherers, not hunters. They’ve given up the chase. They’ve climbed as far up the hill as they can climb, and now the paths lead only down. They’ve stopped tinkering with their grip. They don’t practice in the sand. Their dreams are no longer of conquest, but only of salvage.
Golfers who carry ball retrievers don’t walk down the center of the fairway anymore. They go the long way, through the tall grass, because that’s where the lost drives hide. They stir the weeds with nine-irons as they pass. When they step on something round, they freeze. Instead of searching the treetops for a change in the wind, the way they used to, they let their eyes drift lower: there are balls in the woods. If no one is pressing them from behind, they leave their bag and walk along the creek. By the end of the morning, their pockets are bulging. They will never buy another sleeve.
I used to know a man who still played a little but was just as happy not to. On Friday afternoons, I would see him in the marsh to the right of the first fairway. There’s a shallow, silt-choked pond back there. He wore rubber boots that came up to his knees. Most of the balls he found were dark and heavy, but he didn’t throw many back.
His hoard of balls, which he kept in the trunk of his car, was sure to outlast him. But he wasn’t thinking about that. Suddenly, he glimpsed something pale in a spot too deep for wading. He extended his ball retriever and threaded it through the cattails. He braced his boots in the muck and reached as far as he dared into the darkness at the bottom of the pond.