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A guide to deep inside San Diego's golf courses

On Chula Vista’s holes 11 and 12, watch out for flying golf balls socked by people borrowing your fairway

Torrey Pines North, number 7 - Image by Paul Stachelek
Torrey Pines North, number 7

Seeking Tranquility in Bonita

My father died on Christmas night 1961. The next day I went to Singing Hills Country Club and smashed balls until my arms, legs, brain, and the rest felt like bubble gum. For a year thereafter every day, at Singing Hills or another course. I repeated the ritual. During the entire year of 1962, I missed three days -once to bodysurf two while my mother, my cousin Steve, and I drove to Santa Cruz on vacation. Even in Santa Cruz, before I could join Steve tailing girls around the boardwalk. I shot a daily 18 holes at Pasatiempo.

Chula Vista, number 14

In the wake of my father’s death, I needed to lie against an oak tree surrounded by green pastures waiting for some duffer to retrieve his ball. To stride near still waters. To smack an inanimate object. I sought a quiet place. Tranquility. I still seek it, only not as relentlessly and not at a country club.

Unless you’re a kid with affluent parents, country clubs aren’t so tranquil. I heard that to join the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club, one must pay an initiation fee of ten grand and follow with $1000 a month. How can a person, no matter how filthy rich, remain tranquil while getting screwed that blatantly?

Recently I spent a weekend at Warner Springs, a nostalgic trip to a place I loved as a boy. Then it was open to the public, a rustic old lodge with great food, two swimming pools, infinite hiding places on the paths around the stinking sulfur springs. There were horses to ride and real Indians. Several years ago Warner Springs became a cross between a time-share and country club. Surrounding the same old pools and stables are a couple of dozen tennis courts, and across the road lies an 18'hole championship golf course open to members and guests. We were guests of a real estate person.

My son Cody is 12. He hasn’t played much golf, but he’s game. Eighteen holes for two of us would’ve cost about $90, including the electric cart we’d have to use because they don’t allow walkers. I’m not going to harangue about the state of a society in which people get their exercise by speeding around a golf course, then speeding home so they can rush out to the gym or change into Spandex and go biking. Anyway, my boy thinks a cart would be radical. I slap down 50 for nine holes.

A few minutes later on the driving: range, I’m smiling, having just socked a good one, when a blond fellow sidles over to inform us that we must wear shirts with collars.

Before long, we’re careening down the first fairway when an old guy with a badge comes chasing, waves us over, asks to see Cody’s driver’s license. Cody blushes. The old guy explains about insurance and all. Once again we go bounding along, now with me at the wheel. “This place has got more dumb rules than middle school,” Cody observes. I promise to let him drive once we get out of sight behind yonder oak grove.

A twosome in a cart, no chance we’ll hold up any following group. Yet another old guy races our way to insist we each need a set of clubs.

“Look here,” I inquire, “how’re we supposed to use two sets if we only brought one and the blond guy in the pro shop said you don’t have rentals?”

A country club is a place where you can have fun if somebody’s bestowed a fortune upon you, if you can ignore or appreciate a lot of gab about the stock market, and if you have a German’s tolerance for rules.

I prefer Chula Vista Municipal. It’s along Sweetwater Road, a pleasant drive into Bonita, which seems more like a community transplanted from Sonoma County than one of San Diego’s offerings. The architecture is mock quaint. Everywhere are walkers, bicyclists, equestrians.

The weekday morning golfers are mostly retired, as at most municipal courses everywhere. Over the years they’ve figured how to monopolize the best starting times.

Beside the first tee a sign advises us to play “ready golf.” The tenets are — hit when ready, no honors; putt continuously; if you reach a score of double par, pick up and count that score. Adherence to these guidelines should land us in the clubhouse within four and a half hours.

I’m playing with my aunt and uncle and a single the starter added to our group, a senior gentleman from Chula Vista using his monthly pass. My aunt and uncle take a cart. About half the golfers are in carts. But they don’t have to be. Nor do shirts need collars.

The marshy Sweetwater River runs alongside holes one and two. If anybody finds a Titleist 3 with a Security Pacific Bank logo, it’s mine. Apparently this is one of my slice days. I stride along wondering if life could be divided into slice days, hook days, and choked-putt days. As the sun’s gently warm, nobody’s breathing down our necks, I’m dressed comfortably and enjoying the company of my aunt and uncle, I decide there must be at least four kinds of days. On the fourth, everything works. Tomorrow will be that kind. Mañana, I muse. Jack Kerouac wrote that mañana probably means heaven.

On number three, unless you smack drives about 250 yards, from the blue championship tees you risk a splash in the Sweetwater. From the reds or whites, a slice might land you in an invisible pond. Hidden behind a knoll, it’s the same pond you’ll have to cross on number four; but don’t fret. The water is curiously hard. I watched one fellow’s ball skip a few times and bounce out again onto the fringe of the green.

The turf is Bermuda grass, brownish but not sparse, thick enough to cushion your shots. We pass numerous varieties of eucalyptus, oaks, bushy pines, a few pepper trees, tall palms. Friendly trees that don’t often jump into your path. Chula Vista’s an open course, except for the omnipresent river.

On number five I discovered that the sand traps are mostly silica, which means you can hit the shot as Ben Hogan ordained, blasting a couple inches behind the ball and letting the sand push it out. At many local courses, where the sand appears more like topsoil, this is not the case.

Alongside holes seven and eight lies a nice park in which you could leave your spouse or babysitter with the kids. Beyond the park is a section of Sweetwater Road that retains a flavor of pre-freeway San Diego. Shady and narrow, it runs along the hillside, a road upon which one can imagine encountering a roadhouse where the voluptuous young wife of the older Greek fellow who owns the place studies the travelers, her eyes smoldering, her cleavage sweaty with lust.

I finish the front side even bogey. That’s like a B grade in college, less a reflection of skill or knowledge than of the performer’s state of mind. We achieve Bs because that’s how much effort we’re willing to expend. We score bogey when our unconscious subverts our attempt to shoot par. Par golf should require about 10 lessons from the right pro and a few thousand practice shots to coordinate the brain and muscles and etch the strokes into their memories. So golf would be, if not for the mind.

I learned about the mind during that year I played every day except three. A golf pro who’d been a friend of my dad’s gave me free lessons. I hit a million or so range balls. In six months my score dropped to 80. At my home course, I shot 80. On courses with higher rough, longer holes, nasty culverts, and magnetic water, I' shot 80. On flat, short, hazardless courses with plush grass, the best and worst I could score was 80. No matter if par was 70 or 73. I learned a thousand ways to fail. Unless I cheated, four times out of five my card would show 80, even in tournaments, except once when I hacked a ten on the tenth hole, right here in Bonita Valley.

The Sweetwater River that year only trickled across number ten fairway. On the front side I’d shot 40. I topped a three iron into the stream, tried to chop it out of a muddy spot, got furious. We weren’t playing ready golf or I could’ve picked up at six. I four-putted, slammed my putter into the grass so hard I risked a hernia extracting it.

From there on in, I moped and muttered, heartlessly whacked the ball. I didn’t bother to keep score. As we approached the 18th green, the scorekeeper remarked that I’d collected an impressive string of birdies. Four under par the last seven holes, my second shot on the par four 18th had rolled to about three feet from the cup. I could knock it in for a 77. I choked, missed the putt. If it’d been any longer than three feet, I might’ve strung it out to four, securing my 80. I got a fourth-place trophy only because I’d staggered obliviously around the back nine.

During three years in Tucson, maybe 20 rounds at El Rio, the only time I broke 80 was when I had pneumonia. It was winter, when midday times are hard to grab away from the snowbirds, and if you start any earlier you have to wear mittens. I felt lousy but thought it was just a cold, no excuse to give up an 11:10 starting time. Each hole I grew wearier. By the fourth, all I wanted was to finish and dive into bed. On each tee, my object was to reach the next one and sit down. I scored 77. My best ever.

On Chula Vista’s holes 11 and 12, watch out for flying golf balls socked by people borrowing your fairway, narcissists who’d rather risk clobbering you than losing still another ball in the predatory river.

Behind the number 11 tee, there’s an innocuous-looking pond. I figured it was there for decoration until, while playing number 12, I strayed onto number 11 fairway accidentally and whacked one straight and true, smugly watched it fly, then gaped in wonder when it hit and kicked straight left. My first guess was that Coyote the Trickster, who seems to lurk around golf courses, was chortling at my expense. I picked up my bag and strode forward, admiring the smart aleck’s wit, crested a rise, and looked down upon the water hazard, off the bank of which my ball had caromed.

A few minutes later, stepping onto number 13 tee, faced with the challenge of slugging one over that pond and clearing a pumphouse on the far shore, I chickened out, played it to the right, and got what I deserved, a plop into the Sweetwater.

Holes 14 through 18 run along Bonita Road, which can get noisy, especially when nearing rush hour. Besides the line of spiffy suburban cars, there are horses and athletes to watch, since the equestrian/pedestrian/bicycle/jogging trail separates the golf course from Bonita Road. By now, if, like mine, your score is astronomical, your concentration on the game might give way to sightseeing and goofing off with the wildlife. Duck, geese, herons congregate around the ponds. There’s a multitude of small, black, peanut-loving birds and plenty of seagulls who’ll gladly kill for a morsel.

Like Rancho San Diego Golf Course and Singing Hills County Club, Chula Vista’s location along the Sweetwater River means, especially as the afternoon wears on, you get treated to the ocean breeze that follows the riverbed inland.

The Ultimate Question/Balboa

Balboa, number 4

Unless you’re an expert, the Balboa Park 18-hole course may break your heart about 16 times. Most of the holes are short. You stand on each tee full of confidence, imagining your birdie putt. A minute later, your ball’s disappearing into some great maw. Think of Balboa not as a challenge but as an adventure.

The Balboa 18 starts on a hill, crosses then follows the wedge of a canyon, finally leads onto a mesa, which it crisscrosses until it dips into the canyon and climbs the original hill. The sloping canyon walls are jungles of gnarly brush. You smack a ball into one of them, forget looking. All you’ll get are scratches and welts. Drop one in the fairway and relax. Play ready golf so the worst you can score is double par. If you decide to risk scars and snakebites, you might stumble over my Maxfli 2 south of the number three fairway.

Number four’s a cinch if you hit straight and land on the correct part of the fairway where the grass is plush enough to effectively cover the riverbottom sand that’ll make you think you’re hitting out of a trap. A slice will land you in a shady eucalyptus grove, a swell place to walk and meditate. Don’t spoil it by trying to whack the ball out. It’s more likely to ricochet off a few trunks, carom back, and knock you in the forehead than to reach the green. Try a little chip or underhand toss to the fairway to one of the un-sandy spots.

By number seven you’ve arrived on the mesa. No longer will your sliced drive disappear into a chaparral jungle. Now, on number seven, it’ll bounce on the road and smash the front window of a two-story California bungalow. On number eight it might conk a sportsman in the Frisbee park across Pershing Drive. Here’s a good place to pause and gaze. If you’re a Baseball fan, you might catch part of a game on the far side of Morley Field. You can overlook the harbor, North Island, downtown, the Coronado Bridge, or the Naval Hospital. A wide-angle photo would equal many thousand words about San Diego. A pause here may also release the tension from your last double bogey and brace you for the walk along Pershing Drive. It’s a busy road, and odds are that just as you initiate the backstroke on your fairway shot, some fool’s going to honk and yell fore.

Now that we’re on the mesa, it’s easy to delude ourselves that we’re out of canyonland. Imagine smacking a big drive off the number ten tee. With a slight draw, you’re cutting the left side a little close. Suddenly there’s a gust of onshore breeze. When your ball finally drops, you hear the crack as it strikes the hardpan. Your heart flutters as you pick up your bag and stride that direction wondering why fate has singled you out to pick on. If it’s one of your sensitive days, you may sink into a funk, wherein you decide to start smoking again and chase women indiscriminately, figuring the sooner you get life over with, the better.

That was me, standing on number ten’s canyon overlook. Wallowing in despair, needing a hand to tug me out, when I looked up, there it was — the answer to the ultimate question.

I dropped a ball and smacked it toward the green, where it bit delicately. Then I began to whistle. Upon reaching my partner I said, “Bob, I figured it out.” He nodded vaguely, intent on his own dilemmas, so I kept to myself the answer to the ultimate question — “What does it all mean?”

Consider how golf interacts with the larger world. Suppose you’re a 15 handicap standing two over par on the eighth hole, feeing a birdie putt. Say your confidence is unshakeable. You feel stalwart, faithful. Youthful insecurities have passed on. You’re 42 years old with a solid career and the marginal respect of everyone including your mother and teen-aged daughter. The world is your cherry as you draw back the blade of your Bull’s Eye. A light plane swoops. Your hands tense and the ball goes sliding by on the high side.

Suddenly you remember how precarious life is. Your faith deflates. Down with the faith sinks your game. The mind has defeated the will and spirit and once again proven to be the golfer’s meanest adversary.

Back at El Rio in Tucson, where the dry, thinish air can allow a ball to sail farther than it rightfully should, I poised on the 18th tee only eight over par. The hole is a par five and short enough so that twice I had reached pin high in two. Hence, an eagle was possible. Even a birdie would secure me a score in the 70s. I stood there believing the 79 would signal a new era. I imagined a phone message waiting from my agent — “Both Simon and Schuster love the novel. Call immediately.” Then I could build the office out back of our house, write in peace. My wife (now ex) might grow happier and quit helping me feel like a rat. We’d take a long, restorative vacation.

Off to the right, beyond a fence of tall, dark trees, lay the driving range. I needed a slight fade to carry around the dogleg. With the ball teed high and forward, I opened my stance an inch or so. I let out the shaft, took a deep breath, and walloped the thing. The fade was hideous. My ball disappeared between the dark trees, then came a report like a pistol’s. A vulture swooped out of the treetops and glided overhead.

In shock I hit a provisional out to where the first should’ve gone. I plodded the fairway, hardening with despair, not sure I cared to go on living in this bleak and treacherous world. I scuffed around looking for my ball beneath the trees and finally dragged myself out to the provisional. My strength was gone. I felt betrayed. But my partner Charles yelled from 100 yards up the fairway,

“Weren’t you playing a Titleist 3?”

Maybe the ball had conked a knot in the tree, some hard spot that supercharged the ricochet. Or, I thought, it could’ve been inexplicable, like the parting of seas, like rebirth. I strode up to the Titleist believing in all kinds of magic, in true love, immortality. High above tension and doubt, I chose a six iron and hit the shot easily, firmly, perfectly. It flew boldly, landed on the fringe, and rolled left to about eight feet short of the cup. I walked on feeling glorified.

After I choked and yanked the putt about two feet left of the hole, a gasp and a moan rose out of me as I went to sit on a bunker to rest, since I understood these years of trial and rejection weren’t about to give way. When Charles joined me, I groaned, “Why couldn’t it just go outta bounds instead of setting me up for the fall?”

“Quit whining,” he said. “You got a break and you blew it.”

On number ten at Balboa, I knocked in an eight-foot putt, salvaged the hole, and strolled lightheartedly to the next tee, buoyed by the answer I’d discovered. Like most profound answers, it came more as a feeling than in words. My best translation is, “Don’t sweat about it.”

The next few holes passed without disaster. I even kept my composure on number 12, a par three, when my tee shot faded into a small canyon that leads to the big one. Should you knock one down there, I recommend a rope and pitons. Not only is the hillside steep, but it’s carpeted in eucalyptus pods like a layer of ball bearings. A few steps down, carrying my bag, it felt as if I’d stepped onto, the crest of a waterslide. Zooming down at 100-plus miles an hour, I realized that if I held my course and speed, I’d splat into the bank across the gully, implant myself there, and probably be discovered a trillion years from now as a fossil. Only quick hands and a eucalyptus branch saved me. Happily, I found the ball, chipped up the hill and onto the green, made a bogey.

I even paired the monster, number 13, almost 600 yards across a valley that limits your tee shot to about 200 yards, where it will stick on the hillside that also destines your fairway wood to fly almost straight up, leaving even a strong golfer a long iron third shot to the green.

Balboa, number 18

On numbers 15 and 16, you’re walking the edge of the mesa, once again in position to gaze across downtown and the harbor, which may not look as pristine as before. We were playing late in the day, and by now the afternoon smog was thickening. We could make out the bridge, the harbor, the skyscrapers, at least their outlines, all brown and sickly.

I’m still in charge of the back nine. Not hitting perfect shots, but generally good ones. Carefree hombre that I am since my enlightenment, I won’t let a mishap domino into another until, in a tantrum, I start whacking great divots out of a green with my nine iron. On the 18th tee I check the scorecard, notice that even after a tragic front nine I can easily break 90. Par will give me an 87, bogey an 88. Even with a seven on the par five, I score 89.

The 18th is a sidehill fairway. There’s a dropoff to the left, a bank of ice plant, the number one fairway at the bottom. On the right is 26th Street for the first 200 or so yards. Beyond that, the right side is a grassy hill leading up to the parking lot. The hole’s on a 30-degree or so incline.

My drive hooks to the edge of an oak stand near number one green. From there I need to carry a shot up onto the fairway. The correct angle and trajectory will land me within three wood distance of the green. I draw an easy breath, relax my hands, punch a good one. I can’t miss breaking 90.

Except there’s a problem with Balboa’s number 18. This may be common knowledge, but I hadn’t heard. For all I know, I’m the discoverer. Somewhere between 200 yards out and the 18th green lies a cosmic warp, a hole in the universe, some passage into another dimension. A local Bermuda Triangle. You can ask my friend Bob Hensley. He was standing beside me watching the ball. I swung easily, hit the sucker square. When you’ve played golf 30 years, the sensation as you hit the ball gives at least a general idea where it’s going, and you automatically look that way. I looked straight ahead, then to the right and left. I listened for telltale noises. I scanned the entire horizon. So did Bob. The ball had disappeared.

If you ever notice a Pinnacle 3 fall out of the sky so it appears to come from nowhere, it could be mine returning from the other dimension.

I drop another ball, hit it thin — the mystery has left me shaken. I chip up, two-putt for an eight, by my calculation a 42 on the back side, a 90 on the round. Flopping on the hillside next to my bag, I stare into the brownish sky, overwhelmed by mystery, my vision as dark as Captain Ahab’s, wondering what was that answer I’d found.

Much later, after a beer in the clubhouse while watching the smog turn the sunset burgundy and waiting for Balboa’s good chili, Bob tallied the score and found I’d miscounted. The backside was a 41. I’d broke 90 after all.

Zen Golf at Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines North, number 6

As I drove to Torrey Pines South Course, I thought about my friend Bill, who claims golf is a study in Zen. A purely mental exercise. If Zen works in archery, why not golf? Zen practitioners, says Bill, are fans of dilemmas such as the following: To hit the ball accurately, you must let go of tension, but you cant let go of tension while you care about the outcome of the shot.

A few years ago I asked Bill, “If you don’t care, why play? At least why keep score? Why not just stroll around watching butterflies?”

He said, “There you go. That’s the question. Now, when you know the answer, really know it, you’ll be a champion and a Zen master.”

Torrey Pines is magnificent, once you jump through the hoops and get a starting time. Whereas a twosome can generally walk onto Balboa within a half hour or so in the afternoon, driving all the way to Torrey Pines is a gamble even for a single. So unless you’re retired, you get a reservation. Here’s how you do it.

One week to the day before your desired game, spring out of bed at 4:59 and dash to the phone. Call 570-1234, then hang up and press redial, then hang up and press redial, and so on. I pressed redial 320 times in 40 minutes, got rewarded by a 12:56 starting time. One of my luckier days. Last summer I redialed 720 times, over 90 minutes, and got offered a time around 5:00 p.m. Guess what I would’ve said had the offerer not been a machine?

Torrey Pines is a mystical place. As I stood on the putting green, gazing west, wondering why my putts kept circling then fleeing the hole, once again I felt delivered, when in a flash of clarity I realized that to no being of Heaven or Earth, including me, did my putt truly mean a damn.

Tension fled. Now I could slice a drive out of bounds without wondering if this were a fatal omen. I might shoot 95 and still believe in myself as a worthy human or achieve a 66 and know I was a bumbling fool. If I can shoot 66 regularly, I could join the PGA, make some loot. If not, I better find a different career. No big deal. Who knows which career would grant me the finest contentment.

The number one hole, a long par four, 450 yards uphill, welcomes you appropriately to Torrey Pines. My friend Bob once caddied for Phil Rodgers in the San Diego Open. Their foursome included Billy Casper, who needed a drive, a fairway wood, and a short iron to reach the green. Torrey South’s not a tricky course. Until you reach the 18th, no water hazard’s going to materialize behind a bunker to swallow your ball. The fairways are mostly wide, the grass a perfect carpet. The rough is long but playable, the stands of trees not too thick. But it’s long. If you’re over 30, not a marathon runner, and don’t walk five miles every day or so, count on muscle spasms.

As you climb the number one green, all of coastal La Jolla appears, from Scripps Institution along the Shores, across the undersea park, to downtown and the cove. The Pacific is ten times larger from up here than from sea level. Draw a few breaths and feel your pulse smoothen, like a car that’s gone bounding across a field and suddenly finds pavement. Now turn to your putt, tap it, and watch as it goes sliding ten feet past the hole. That’s the other hazard — Torrey’s greens are so slick you might practice for them by putting on hardwood floors. Since it probably took you two woods and an iron to reach the green, unless you rap in that ten-footer, you’re going to lead off with a double bogey. But never mind. You only have to turn your head to see heaven. Compared to the enormity of creation, what’s a double bogey? Anybody who can’t find peace on Torrey Pines should visit at least one doctor.

I got so relaxed I knocked in my comeback putt on number one, hit a miracle eight iron on number two, dropped the putt, two-putted from the far fringe on number three. Even par after three holes on Torrey South. Having played about a thousand rounds of golf, I knew better than to think much about it. From number three green, I stared across a canyon at the hang glider port and the trail my high school pals and I used to run down to Black’s Beach, and at the orange, yellow, and scarlet hang gliders rising and swooping like prehistoric birds.

Number four parallels the cliff. In my reckless youth, while waiting for the group ahead to clear the green, I used to tee up old balls and whop them with a driver. I tried to reach the surf, which Jack Nicklaus probably wouldn’t have accomplished. Perhaps one of them ricocheted off and maimed a sunbather. Better to sit and admire the course’s most scenic hole from which you can view the coastline along the state beach to Del Mar and beyond.

After number five, heading inland, deprived of the Pacific, you may begin to notice other features — the wind-crooked pines, the canyons with their gnarly brush, the quail that may dart like a posse of roadrunners across the fairway.

Beware number six. It’s a dogleg right. Instinctively you may try to shade your drive along the left side, which might unconsciously open your stance or body angle, giving you a fade, guaranteeing your dismay as you watch your ball light on the hardpan slope that declines toward the brush-filled canyon on the right side, where your ball may reside for years to come. If you stay in bounds, don’t get smug. Number seven may as easily snatch a ball or two. Number eight’s a par three, a minor reprieve before a long par five that’s banked toward a line of bunkers and trees.

Holes nine and ten hug the inland boundary of the course, paralleling Torrey Pines Road, the Sheraton Grand Hotel, Scripps Clinic, the offices of numerous hi-tech firms. Up here the pine trees make way for eucalyptus, the air gets less tangy, and, if you’re me, you start to wish you had one of those roller carts to carry your bag and that the group in front would slow down, give you a minute to lie on your back in the sunshine.

From number three on, I held to even bogey, tallying a front-nine 42. Not bad, I muse, for a guy who manages three to five games a year, avoids driving ranges and has a chip shot phobia. I grab a Coke, flop on the bench, stall as long as I can, then rise refreshed enough to bogey number 10 and par number 11 before, as we approach the hang glider port and ocean, my game detonates. Parts fly in every direction. Concentration to the east, tranquility back west whence it came, coordination and finally desire to God knows where.

Luckily, I’m playing neither for money, trophies, nor for the sake of my ego. Besides, I had one good nine. Tom Watson couldn’t have birdied number two any smoother than I had. Who said I need to be perfect? Contrary to Voltaire’s philosophy, this may well be the best of all possible worlds if perfection itself is a grievous flaw.

Golfs a great method to learn about acceptance of limitations, about choosing your own fate. We were playing with a couple of guys, one of whom raged around the course like I used to in the year after my dad died. He would brood, pound his club, sling it now and then. After one of these episodes his pal explained, “It’s hell when a scratch golfer has an off day.”

“Yep,” I said. “The problem with being a scratch golfer is, if you want to keep it up, you’ve gotta play or hit balls about every day. Otherwise you better forget scratch golf or start taking bloodpressure medicine.”

The guy takes a day off work, waits four hours for a twosome opening, then stalks around the most inspiring landscape this side of the moon, battering his club, seemingly oblivious to every emotion but anger, on account of his little white ball won’t go where he wants it to. I’m no judge. Who knows what he’s got to be angry about, how much he needs to throw something or stomp around bashing his club and grumbling in a place where it’s a marginally acceptable thing to do? I’ve wrapped clubs around tree trunks, flung them so high they got lost in the branches of cottonwoods. Once I slung a nine iron that boomeranged in a horseshoe direction and belted my friend in the knee. But I’m not so angry anymore. It’s only sad to watch a fellow human seething as he tromps the fairway on a couple of my favorite golf holes anywhere, numbers 12 and 13.

Twelve’s a long one. If it were a yard or two longer, from the championship tees they’d have to make it a par five. It’s into the wind, because you’re striding back toward the Pacific, the hang glider port on the left. Thirteen cuts straight east, a brutal par five, with a wide valley in front of the hole and an elevated green, the last of the monsters. From there in, you can skate. As if the architect realized by now you’d be suffering fatigue and took mercy, all you have to face are a couple shortish par fours, a par three running back toward the ocean, a mid-length four par, then the par five 18th hole whereon lies the single nasty prank the architect couldn’t resist. If you haven’t played the course before and you smack a big drive on 18, you’ll see the green within reach, lengthen your backswing, give it your last burst of power, then grin as you watch it fly straight and true until it splashes into Devlin’s Billabong. That’s a hidden pond flush against the front of the green, so named after Australian Bruce Devlin, who, leading the field on the final day of the San Diego Open, plopped several balls in there and gave the purse away.

My back nine score was as lousy as my front nine had been respectable. My hips, back, and legs ached, my feet craved a mineral bath, while Bob and I sat beside the putting green watching the sky fade. On the north course, a free swinger whacked his golf bail straight up. It flew like a rebellious atom trying to escape gravity but fell about 60 yards out. I chuckled in sympathy. To my limited knowledge of Eastern thought, it seemed I might’ve played Zen golf that day.

The Secret of Golf and Coronado Rates

Coronado, number 3

Here is the secret of golf. Learn a workable grip and swing. Address the ball confidently. Smack it. Watch where it goes and chase it down. As you walk, gaze off toward the hills, watch the red-breasted birds, shuffle your feet along the dewy grass. That’s all.

Or if you’re playing Coronado Municipal, pick a time that’s not going to land you in a traffic jam on top of the Coronado Bridge with the North Island commuter crowd. Give an extra few minutes to wind around the Coronado streets, noticing how civilized a place can appear when most every homeowner’s able to afford a gardener.

My friend and I, a twosome, got paired with a single. Bill, a retired fellow from Aspen on vacation, who reminded me that Coronado is a favorite course of tourists. Every time I’ve played there, I’ve met a few of them. Contrary to my childhood prejudices, I’ve enjoyed them all. Maybe it’s that people on vacation are generally happy. On vacation even my ex-wife and I unfailingly get along.

The course, exquisitely groomed by B.J. Estrada, runs beside San Diego and Glorietta bays, from near the foot of the bridge to the Hotel del Coronado. Like Torrey Pines or a good short story, its beginning will clue you to the theme, which is water, sand, trees placed by a rascal magician who could read the future and see where every ball would land for the next 50 years, and greens the size of a small county.

The grass is Bermuda, not quite as cushiony as Torrey Pines but more than adequate. Along the number one fairway lies a pond a duck hook could reach. There are yucca trees, silver dollar eucalyptus, all manner of palms. And number one, like most the fairways, boasts traps that will snag a long hitter’s drive or hacker’s second shot. The sand, my friend Kenny informed me, is scooped and hauled in from the San Luis Rey river bottom or at least used to be when he was a greenskeeper there. Except in wet spots, it’s fine enough to blast out of easily.

The salt air, sunshine sparkling off the bay, the beggar cries of gulls, the whir of a motorboat passing can lull you into an otherworldly feeling, so when you look up and spot the bridge where sky ought to be and stare across the bay at battleships and aircraft carriers and observe the three new buildings rising downtown, each looking as if it might’ve been designed by George Lucas — when you notice these things, you’re tempted to gasp in awe, as though you’d just stepped into the world.

Coronado, number 5

The first couple of holes I sized up my putts and tapped the ball, expecting it to break the way it’s supposed to do, with the curves and slants of the earth. On number one the putt didn’t break. Figuring somebody might’ve slipped me a trick ball, I switched. On number two the putt didn’t break. By number four I’d acquired a new strategy — forget the lay of the land, hit it straight.

I also learned to respect the onshore breeze. On number two I whacked a good five iron that fell short of the green, about 20 yards shorter than my normal five iron. With the wind behind me on number three, I flew the green with a six iron.

Number four’s traps are so white and pretty, I almost envied my friend Kenny. He’d got to hit out of two of them. Beware the yardage markers on number four. There are two alternate greens. When B.J. places the hole in the far one, it renders the yardage markers null and void. My depth perception proved good enough to see that I’d have to guess at the yardage. It also proved either that yardage markers are a great boon or that the onshore breeze can shift to northerly. I not only flew the green but the number five tee.

Perhaps God mistook my musing about the pretty sandtraps. On number five, my ball kicked weirdly into a trap along the front of the green. When choosing a club here, note that the posted yardage is to the middle of the green, but since the green’s about 40 yards long and since all greenskeepers are wise guys who love to place the cup on mounds, ledges, or on the front or rear edge, you might need two clubs longer or shorter than the marker would recommend.

By now I’d discovered that my forget the lay of the land and putt straight at the hole strategy was flawed. On one green the ball breaks. The next it doesn’t. On the third it breaks uphill. Stumped, I decided to ask at the turn if there was logic to the greens or was the ball just destined to skitter around like the planchette on a Ouija board.

The front nine concludes with a long par three across a water hazard that Hollywood could use as a dwelling for the Loch Ness monster. Yet Kenny, Bill, and I shot par. We must’ve loosened up by then and exorcised a few demons.

By now Kenny and I had crisscrossed enough fairways and hacked enough strokes to celebrate our mutual pars by renting a cart for the back nine. Also, I asked about the greens. John Rogers, pro on duty, said, “I’ve been playing this course 18 years, and I still can’t figure all the breaks. One thing — the putt’s supposed to break toward the water. But we’ve got water all around.”

On the back nine I remembered that a string of pars means nada — I got five in a row, then fell to slicing, hooking, shanking. Soon my fondest wish was for a bogey. And I recalled the reasons for my prejudice against golf carts. I hardly got to talk to Bill, with whom I’d enjoyed gabbing on the front nine. I had to force myself to notice my surroundings, as busily as we were zooming around. And my game lost its rhythm, as if the afternoon and maybe the planet danced to a different drummer whom I no longer heard.

Coronado, number 2

Approach number 13 respectfully. Not only is it 520 yards, but it also makes several right angle turns. Unless you’re a master of the controlled fade, aim for the left side of the fairway every shot until the green finally appears.

On holes 14 through 16, you skirt a neighborhood rich in Coronado’s eclectic architecture. Cape Cods, California bungalows, Santa Fe adobes, Spanish, modem and postmodern, shoebox and ranch style, art deco. The architectural goulash that typifies San Diego in general and Coronado in particular is epitomized in the view across Glorietta Bay from the number 16 fairway. Whereas the Hotel del Coronado could’ve been conceived by a mad poet, the Coronado Towers look like kindergarten sketches.

My advice on putting Coronado is to take Communion that morning. If you’re not religious, consider converting, even if just for the day. Or you can smile as your putt goes sliding past the hole, close your eyes, and think of all the delights your eyelids are hiding. Because, whatever may be the secret of golf, it’s only a gimmick.

It’s seduced you into wandering the green meadows, strolling beside the still water, chasing tranquility or venting your anger, gabbing with your pals or new friend from Fargo or Aspen. Like fishing, golf lures you out of the office, only with golf you don’t have to sit still. Like meditation, it veers you away from the slings and arrows that’ve been jabbing and pummeling since the last game. And from my angle, golf makes more sense than muttering “Om.”

RATES

Chula Vista Municipal

Weekdays, 18 holes: $13

Weekdays, 9 holes: $8

Weekday Twilight (2 p.m. on): $9

Weekday Super Twilight (last two hours before sunset): $7

Weekends and holidays are a few dollars higher. Senior residents of Chula Vista only get a half-price discount. For reservations, call 479-4141, no more than five days ahead.

Balboa

City residents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $12

Weekends, 18 holes: $14

Twilight: $7

Residence card: $8

Junior monthly ticket: $10

Adult monthly ticket: $60

Senior monthly ticket: $36

County residents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $17

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $21

Twilight: $9

Residence card: $8

Nonresidents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $33

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $38

Twilight: $16

For reservations, call 570-1234 no more than one week before the desired starting time. Good luck.

Torrey Pines

City residents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $14

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $16

Twilight or 9 holes: $8

Residence card: $8

Junior monthly ticket: $10

Adult monthly ticket: $76

Senior monthly ticket: $38

County residents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $22

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $24

Weekdays twilight or 9 holes: $11

Visitors:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $38

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $44

Weekdays twilight or 9 holes: $19

For reservations, see Balboa.

Coronado

Weekdays, weekends, holidays, 18 holes: $16

For reservations, call 435-3121 at 7:00 a.m., two days in advance.

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Seeking Tranquility in Bonita

My father died on Christmas night 1961. The next day I went to Singing Hills Country Club and smashed balls until my arms, legs, brain, and the rest felt like bubble gum. For a year thereafter every day, at Singing Hills or another course. I repeated the ritual. During the entire year of 1962, I missed three days -once to bodysurf two while my mother, my cousin Steve, and I drove to Santa Cruz on vacation. Even in Santa Cruz, before I could join Steve tailing girls around the boardwalk. I shot a daily 18 holes at Pasatiempo.

Chula Vista, number 14

In the wake of my father’s death, I needed to lie against an oak tree surrounded by green pastures waiting for some duffer to retrieve his ball. To stride near still waters. To smack an inanimate object. I sought a quiet place. Tranquility. I still seek it, only not as relentlessly and not at a country club.

Unless you’re a kid with affluent parents, country clubs aren’t so tranquil. I heard that to join the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club, one must pay an initiation fee of ten grand and follow with $1000 a month. How can a person, no matter how filthy rich, remain tranquil while getting screwed that blatantly?

Recently I spent a weekend at Warner Springs, a nostalgic trip to a place I loved as a boy. Then it was open to the public, a rustic old lodge with great food, two swimming pools, infinite hiding places on the paths around the stinking sulfur springs. There were horses to ride and real Indians. Several years ago Warner Springs became a cross between a time-share and country club. Surrounding the same old pools and stables are a couple of dozen tennis courts, and across the road lies an 18'hole championship golf course open to members and guests. We were guests of a real estate person.

My son Cody is 12. He hasn’t played much golf, but he’s game. Eighteen holes for two of us would’ve cost about $90, including the electric cart we’d have to use because they don’t allow walkers. I’m not going to harangue about the state of a society in which people get their exercise by speeding around a golf course, then speeding home so they can rush out to the gym or change into Spandex and go biking. Anyway, my boy thinks a cart would be radical. I slap down 50 for nine holes.

A few minutes later on the driving: range, I’m smiling, having just socked a good one, when a blond fellow sidles over to inform us that we must wear shirts with collars.

Before long, we’re careening down the first fairway when an old guy with a badge comes chasing, waves us over, asks to see Cody’s driver’s license. Cody blushes. The old guy explains about insurance and all. Once again we go bounding along, now with me at the wheel. “This place has got more dumb rules than middle school,” Cody observes. I promise to let him drive once we get out of sight behind yonder oak grove.

A twosome in a cart, no chance we’ll hold up any following group. Yet another old guy races our way to insist we each need a set of clubs.

“Look here,” I inquire, “how’re we supposed to use two sets if we only brought one and the blond guy in the pro shop said you don’t have rentals?”

A country club is a place where you can have fun if somebody’s bestowed a fortune upon you, if you can ignore or appreciate a lot of gab about the stock market, and if you have a German’s tolerance for rules.

I prefer Chula Vista Municipal. It’s along Sweetwater Road, a pleasant drive into Bonita, which seems more like a community transplanted from Sonoma County than one of San Diego’s offerings. The architecture is mock quaint. Everywhere are walkers, bicyclists, equestrians.

The weekday morning golfers are mostly retired, as at most municipal courses everywhere. Over the years they’ve figured how to monopolize the best starting times.

Beside the first tee a sign advises us to play “ready golf.” The tenets are — hit when ready, no honors; putt continuously; if you reach a score of double par, pick up and count that score. Adherence to these guidelines should land us in the clubhouse within four and a half hours.

I’m playing with my aunt and uncle and a single the starter added to our group, a senior gentleman from Chula Vista using his monthly pass. My aunt and uncle take a cart. About half the golfers are in carts. But they don’t have to be. Nor do shirts need collars.

The marshy Sweetwater River runs alongside holes one and two. If anybody finds a Titleist 3 with a Security Pacific Bank logo, it’s mine. Apparently this is one of my slice days. I stride along wondering if life could be divided into slice days, hook days, and choked-putt days. As the sun’s gently warm, nobody’s breathing down our necks, I’m dressed comfortably and enjoying the company of my aunt and uncle, I decide there must be at least four kinds of days. On the fourth, everything works. Tomorrow will be that kind. Mañana, I muse. Jack Kerouac wrote that mañana probably means heaven.

On number three, unless you smack drives about 250 yards, from the blue championship tees you risk a splash in the Sweetwater. From the reds or whites, a slice might land you in an invisible pond. Hidden behind a knoll, it’s the same pond you’ll have to cross on number four; but don’t fret. The water is curiously hard. I watched one fellow’s ball skip a few times and bounce out again onto the fringe of the green.

The turf is Bermuda grass, brownish but not sparse, thick enough to cushion your shots. We pass numerous varieties of eucalyptus, oaks, bushy pines, a few pepper trees, tall palms. Friendly trees that don’t often jump into your path. Chula Vista’s an open course, except for the omnipresent river.

On number five I discovered that the sand traps are mostly silica, which means you can hit the shot as Ben Hogan ordained, blasting a couple inches behind the ball and letting the sand push it out. At many local courses, where the sand appears more like topsoil, this is not the case.

Alongside holes seven and eight lies a nice park in which you could leave your spouse or babysitter with the kids. Beyond the park is a section of Sweetwater Road that retains a flavor of pre-freeway San Diego. Shady and narrow, it runs along the hillside, a road upon which one can imagine encountering a roadhouse where the voluptuous young wife of the older Greek fellow who owns the place studies the travelers, her eyes smoldering, her cleavage sweaty with lust.

I finish the front side even bogey. That’s like a B grade in college, less a reflection of skill or knowledge than of the performer’s state of mind. We achieve Bs because that’s how much effort we’re willing to expend. We score bogey when our unconscious subverts our attempt to shoot par. Par golf should require about 10 lessons from the right pro and a few thousand practice shots to coordinate the brain and muscles and etch the strokes into their memories. So golf would be, if not for the mind.

I learned about the mind during that year I played every day except three. A golf pro who’d been a friend of my dad’s gave me free lessons. I hit a million or so range balls. In six months my score dropped to 80. At my home course, I shot 80. On courses with higher rough, longer holes, nasty culverts, and magnetic water, I' shot 80. On flat, short, hazardless courses with plush grass, the best and worst I could score was 80. No matter if par was 70 or 73. I learned a thousand ways to fail. Unless I cheated, four times out of five my card would show 80, even in tournaments, except once when I hacked a ten on the tenth hole, right here in Bonita Valley.

The Sweetwater River that year only trickled across number ten fairway. On the front side I’d shot 40. I topped a three iron into the stream, tried to chop it out of a muddy spot, got furious. We weren’t playing ready golf or I could’ve picked up at six. I four-putted, slammed my putter into the grass so hard I risked a hernia extracting it.

From there on in, I moped and muttered, heartlessly whacked the ball. I didn’t bother to keep score. As we approached the 18th green, the scorekeeper remarked that I’d collected an impressive string of birdies. Four under par the last seven holes, my second shot on the par four 18th had rolled to about three feet from the cup. I could knock it in for a 77. I choked, missed the putt. If it’d been any longer than three feet, I might’ve strung it out to four, securing my 80. I got a fourth-place trophy only because I’d staggered obliviously around the back nine.

During three years in Tucson, maybe 20 rounds at El Rio, the only time I broke 80 was when I had pneumonia. It was winter, when midday times are hard to grab away from the snowbirds, and if you start any earlier you have to wear mittens. I felt lousy but thought it was just a cold, no excuse to give up an 11:10 starting time. Each hole I grew wearier. By the fourth, all I wanted was to finish and dive into bed. On each tee, my object was to reach the next one and sit down. I scored 77. My best ever.

On Chula Vista’s holes 11 and 12, watch out for flying golf balls socked by people borrowing your fairway, narcissists who’d rather risk clobbering you than losing still another ball in the predatory river.

Behind the number 11 tee, there’s an innocuous-looking pond. I figured it was there for decoration until, while playing number 12, I strayed onto number 11 fairway accidentally and whacked one straight and true, smugly watched it fly, then gaped in wonder when it hit and kicked straight left. My first guess was that Coyote the Trickster, who seems to lurk around golf courses, was chortling at my expense. I picked up my bag and strode forward, admiring the smart aleck’s wit, crested a rise, and looked down upon the water hazard, off the bank of which my ball had caromed.

A few minutes later, stepping onto number 13 tee, faced with the challenge of slugging one over that pond and clearing a pumphouse on the far shore, I chickened out, played it to the right, and got what I deserved, a plop into the Sweetwater.

Holes 14 through 18 run along Bonita Road, which can get noisy, especially when nearing rush hour. Besides the line of spiffy suburban cars, there are horses and athletes to watch, since the equestrian/pedestrian/bicycle/jogging trail separates the golf course from Bonita Road. By now, if, like mine, your score is astronomical, your concentration on the game might give way to sightseeing and goofing off with the wildlife. Duck, geese, herons congregate around the ponds. There’s a multitude of small, black, peanut-loving birds and plenty of seagulls who’ll gladly kill for a morsel.

Like Rancho San Diego Golf Course and Singing Hills County Club, Chula Vista’s location along the Sweetwater River means, especially as the afternoon wears on, you get treated to the ocean breeze that follows the riverbed inland.

The Ultimate Question/Balboa

Balboa, number 4

Unless you’re an expert, the Balboa Park 18-hole course may break your heart about 16 times. Most of the holes are short. You stand on each tee full of confidence, imagining your birdie putt. A minute later, your ball’s disappearing into some great maw. Think of Balboa not as a challenge but as an adventure.

The Balboa 18 starts on a hill, crosses then follows the wedge of a canyon, finally leads onto a mesa, which it crisscrosses until it dips into the canyon and climbs the original hill. The sloping canyon walls are jungles of gnarly brush. You smack a ball into one of them, forget looking. All you’ll get are scratches and welts. Drop one in the fairway and relax. Play ready golf so the worst you can score is double par. If you decide to risk scars and snakebites, you might stumble over my Maxfli 2 south of the number three fairway.

Number four’s a cinch if you hit straight and land on the correct part of the fairway where the grass is plush enough to effectively cover the riverbottom sand that’ll make you think you’re hitting out of a trap. A slice will land you in a shady eucalyptus grove, a swell place to walk and meditate. Don’t spoil it by trying to whack the ball out. It’s more likely to ricochet off a few trunks, carom back, and knock you in the forehead than to reach the green. Try a little chip or underhand toss to the fairway to one of the un-sandy spots.

By number seven you’ve arrived on the mesa. No longer will your sliced drive disappear into a chaparral jungle. Now, on number seven, it’ll bounce on the road and smash the front window of a two-story California bungalow. On number eight it might conk a sportsman in the Frisbee park across Pershing Drive. Here’s a good place to pause and gaze. If you’re a Baseball fan, you might catch part of a game on the far side of Morley Field. You can overlook the harbor, North Island, downtown, the Coronado Bridge, or the Naval Hospital. A wide-angle photo would equal many thousand words about San Diego. A pause here may also release the tension from your last double bogey and brace you for the walk along Pershing Drive. It’s a busy road, and odds are that just as you initiate the backstroke on your fairway shot, some fool’s going to honk and yell fore.

Now that we’re on the mesa, it’s easy to delude ourselves that we’re out of canyonland. Imagine smacking a big drive off the number ten tee. With a slight draw, you’re cutting the left side a little close. Suddenly there’s a gust of onshore breeze. When your ball finally drops, you hear the crack as it strikes the hardpan. Your heart flutters as you pick up your bag and stride that direction wondering why fate has singled you out to pick on. If it’s one of your sensitive days, you may sink into a funk, wherein you decide to start smoking again and chase women indiscriminately, figuring the sooner you get life over with, the better.

That was me, standing on number ten’s canyon overlook. Wallowing in despair, needing a hand to tug me out, when I looked up, there it was — the answer to the ultimate question.

I dropped a ball and smacked it toward the green, where it bit delicately. Then I began to whistle. Upon reaching my partner I said, “Bob, I figured it out.” He nodded vaguely, intent on his own dilemmas, so I kept to myself the answer to the ultimate question — “What does it all mean?”

Consider how golf interacts with the larger world. Suppose you’re a 15 handicap standing two over par on the eighth hole, feeing a birdie putt. Say your confidence is unshakeable. You feel stalwart, faithful. Youthful insecurities have passed on. You’re 42 years old with a solid career and the marginal respect of everyone including your mother and teen-aged daughter. The world is your cherry as you draw back the blade of your Bull’s Eye. A light plane swoops. Your hands tense and the ball goes sliding by on the high side.

Suddenly you remember how precarious life is. Your faith deflates. Down with the faith sinks your game. The mind has defeated the will and spirit and once again proven to be the golfer’s meanest adversary.

Back at El Rio in Tucson, where the dry, thinish air can allow a ball to sail farther than it rightfully should, I poised on the 18th tee only eight over par. The hole is a par five and short enough so that twice I had reached pin high in two. Hence, an eagle was possible. Even a birdie would secure me a score in the 70s. I stood there believing the 79 would signal a new era. I imagined a phone message waiting from my agent — “Both Simon and Schuster love the novel. Call immediately.” Then I could build the office out back of our house, write in peace. My wife (now ex) might grow happier and quit helping me feel like a rat. We’d take a long, restorative vacation.

Off to the right, beyond a fence of tall, dark trees, lay the driving range. I needed a slight fade to carry around the dogleg. With the ball teed high and forward, I opened my stance an inch or so. I let out the shaft, took a deep breath, and walloped the thing. The fade was hideous. My ball disappeared between the dark trees, then came a report like a pistol’s. A vulture swooped out of the treetops and glided overhead.

In shock I hit a provisional out to where the first should’ve gone. I plodded the fairway, hardening with despair, not sure I cared to go on living in this bleak and treacherous world. I scuffed around looking for my ball beneath the trees and finally dragged myself out to the provisional. My strength was gone. I felt betrayed. But my partner Charles yelled from 100 yards up the fairway,

“Weren’t you playing a Titleist 3?”

Maybe the ball had conked a knot in the tree, some hard spot that supercharged the ricochet. Or, I thought, it could’ve been inexplicable, like the parting of seas, like rebirth. I strode up to the Titleist believing in all kinds of magic, in true love, immortality. High above tension and doubt, I chose a six iron and hit the shot easily, firmly, perfectly. It flew boldly, landed on the fringe, and rolled left to about eight feet short of the cup. I walked on feeling glorified.

After I choked and yanked the putt about two feet left of the hole, a gasp and a moan rose out of me as I went to sit on a bunker to rest, since I understood these years of trial and rejection weren’t about to give way. When Charles joined me, I groaned, “Why couldn’t it just go outta bounds instead of setting me up for the fall?”

“Quit whining,” he said. “You got a break and you blew it.”

On number ten at Balboa, I knocked in an eight-foot putt, salvaged the hole, and strolled lightheartedly to the next tee, buoyed by the answer I’d discovered. Like most profound answers, it came more as a feeling than in words. My best translation is, “Don’t sweat about it.”

The next few holes passed without disaster. I even kept my composure on number 12, a par three, when my tee shot faded into a small canyon that leads to the big one. Should you knock one down there, I recommend a rope and pitons. Not only is the hillside steep, but it’s carpeted in eucalyptus pods like a layer of ball bearings. A few steps down, carrying my bag, it felt as if I’d stepped onto, the crest of a waterslide. Zooming down at 100-plus miles an hour, I realized that if I held my course and speed, I’d splat into the bank across the gully, implant myself there, and probably be discovered a trillion years from now as a fossil. Only quick hands and a eucalyptus branch saved me. Happily, I found the ball, chipped up the hill and onto the green, made a bogey.

I even paired the monster, number 13, almost 600 yards across a valley that limits your tee shot to about 200 yards, where it will stick on the hillside that also destines your fairway wood to fly almost straight up, leaving even a strong golfer a long iron third shot to the green.

Balboa, number 18

On numbers 15 and 16, you’re walking the edge of the mesa, once again in position to gaze across downtown and the harbor, which may not look as pristine as before. We were playing late in the day, and by now the afternoon smog was thickening. We could make out the bridge, the harbor, the skyscrapers, at least their outlines, all brown and sickly.

I’m still in charge of the back nine. Not hitting perfect shots, but generally good ones. Carefree hombre that I am since my enlightenment, I won’t let a mishap domino into another until, in a tantrum, I start whacking great divots out of a green with my nine iron. On the 18th tee I check the scorecard, notice that even after a tragic front nine I can easily break 90. Par will give me an 87, bogey an 88. Even with a seven on the par five, I score 89.

The 18th is a sidehill fairway. There’s a dropoff to the left, a bank of ice plant, the number one fairway at the bottom. On the right is 26th Street for the first 200 or so yards. Beyond that, the right side is a grassy hill leading up to the parking lot. The hole’s on a 30-degree or so incline.

My drive hooks to the edge of an oak stand near number one green. From there I need to carry a shot up onto the fairway. The correct angle and trajectory will land me within three wood distance of the green. I draw an easy breath, relax my hands, punch a good one. I can’t miss breaking 90.

Except there’s a problem with Balboa’s number 18. This may be common knowledge, but I hadn’t heard. For all I know, I’m the discoverer. Somewhere between 200 yards out and the 18th green lies a cosmic warp, a hole in the universe, some passage into another dimension. A local Bermuda Triangle. You can ask my friend Bob Hensley. He was standing beside me watching the ball. I swung easily, hit the sucker square. When you’ve played golf 30 years, the sensation as you hit the ball gives at least a general idea where it’s going, and you automatically look that way. I looked straight ahead, then to the right and left. I listened for telltale noises. I scanned the entire horizon. So did Bob. The ball had disappeared.

If you ever notice a Pinnacle 3 fall out of the sky so it appears to come from nowhere, it could be mine returning from the other dimension.

I drop another ball, hit it thin — the mystery has left me shaken. I chip up, two-putt for an eight, by my calculation a 42 on the back side, a 90 on the round. Flopping on the hillside next to my bag, I stare into the brownish sky, overwhelmed by mystery, my vision as dark as Captain Ahab’s, wondering what was that answer I’d found.

Much later, after a beer in the clubhouse while watching the smog turn the sunset burgundy and waiting for Balboa’s good chili, Bob tallied the score and found I’d miscounted. The backside was a 41. I’d broke 90 after all.

Zen Golf at Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines North, number 6

As I drove to Torrey Pines South Course, I thought about my friend Bill, who claims golf is a study in Zen. A purely mental exercise. If Zen works in archery, why not golf? Zen practitioners, says Bill, are fans of dilemmas such as the following: To hit the ball accurately, you must let go of tension, but you cant let go of tension while you care about the outcome of the shot.

A few years ago I asked Bill, “If you don’t care, why play? At least why keep score? Why not just stroll around watching butterflies?”

He said, “There you go. That’s the question. Now, when you know the answer, really know it, you’ll be a champion and a Zen master.”

Torrey Pines is magnificent, once you jump through the hoops and get a starting time. Whereas a twosome can generally walk onto Balboa within a half hour or so in the afternoon, driving all the way to Torrey Pines is a gamble even for a single. So unless you’re retired, you get a reservation. Here’s how you do it.

One week to the day before your desired game, spring out of bed at 4:59 and dash to the phone. Call 570-1234, then hang up and press redial, then hang up and press redial, and so on. I pressed redial 320 times in 40 minutes, got rewarded by a 12:56 starting time. One of my luckier days. Last summer I redialed 720 times, over 90 minutes, and got offered a time around 5:00 p.m. Guess what I would’ve said had the offerer not been a machine?

Torrey Pines is a mystical place. As I stood on the putting green, gazing west, wondering why my putts kept circling then fleeing the hole, once again I felt delivered, when in a flash of clarity I realized that to no being of Heaven or Earth, including me, did my putt truly mean a damn.

Tension fled. Now I could slice a drive out of bounds without wondering if this were a fatal omen. I might shoot 95 and still believe in myself as a worthy human or achieve a 66 and know I was a bumbling fool. If I can shoot 66 regularly, I could join the PGA, make some loot. If not, I better find a different career. No big deal. Who knows which career would grant me the finest contentment.

The number one hole, a long par four, 450 yards uphill, welcomes you appropriately to Torrey Pines. My friend Bob once caddied for Phil Rodgers in the San Diego Open. Their foursome included Billy Casper, who needed a drive, a fairway wood, and a short iron to reach the green. Torrey South’s not a tricky course. Until you reach the 18th, no water hazard’s going to materialize behind a bunker to swallow your ball. The fairways are mostly wide, the grass a perfect carpet. The rough is long but playable, the stands of trees not too thick. But it’s long. If you’re over 30, not a marathon runner, and don’t walk five miles every day or so, count on muscle spasms.

As you climb the number one green, all of coastal La Jolla appears, from Scripps Institution along the Shores, across the undersea park, to downtown and the cove. The Pacific is ten times larger from up here than from sea level. Draw a few breaths and feel your pulse smoothen, like a car that’s gone bounding across a field and suddenly finds pavement. Now turn to your putt, tap it, and watch as it goes sliding ten feet past the hole. That’s the other hazard — Torrey’s greens are so slick you might practice for them by putting on hardwood floors. Since it probably took you two woods and an iron to reach the green, unless you rap in that ten-footer, you’re going to lead off with a double bogey. But never mind. You only have to turn your head to see heaven. Compared to the enormity of creation, what’s a double bogey? Anybody who can’t find peace on Torrey Pines should visit at least one doctor.

I got so relaxed I knocked in my comeback putt on number one, hit a miracle eight iron on number two, dropped the putt, two-putted from the far fringe on number three. Even par after three holes on Torrey South. Having played about a thousand rounds of golf, I knew better than to think much about it. From number three green, I stared across a canyon at the hang glider port and the trail my high school pals and I used to run down to Black’s Beach, and at the orange, yellow, and scarlet hang gliders rising and swooping like prehistoric birds.

Number four parallels the cliff. In my reckless youth, while waiting for the group ahead to clear the green, I used to tee up old balls and whop them with a driver. I tried to reach the surf, which Jack Nicklaus probably wouldn’t have accomplished. Perhaps one of them ricocheted off and maimed a sunbather. Better to sit and admire the course’s most scenic hole from which you can view the coastline along the state beach to Del Mar and beyond.

After number five, heading inland, deprived of the Pacific, you may begin to notice other features — the wind-crooked pines, the canyons with their gnarly brush, the quail that may dart like a posse of roadrunners across the fairway.

Beware number six. It’s a dogleg right. Instinctively you may try to shade your drive along the left side, which might unconsciously open your stance or body angle, giving you a fade, guaranteeing your dismay as you watch your ball light on the hardpan slope that declines toward the brush-filled canyon on the right side, where your ball may reside for years to come. If you stay in bounds, don’t get smug. Number seven may as easily snatch a ball or two. Number eight’s a par three, a minor reprieve before a long par five that’s banked toward a line of bunkers and trees.

Holes nine and ten hug the inland boundary of the course, paralleling Torrey Pines Road, the Sheraton Grand Hotel, Scripps Clinic, the offices of numerous hi-tech firms. Up here the pine trees make way for eucalyptus, the air gets less tangy, and, if you’re me, you start to wish you had one of those roller carts to carry your bag and that the group in front would slow down, give you a minute to lie on your back in the sunshine.

From number three on, I held to even bogey, tallying a front-nine 42. Not bad, I muse, for a guy who manages three to five games a year, avoids driving ranges and has a chip shot phobia. I grab a Coke, flop on the bench, stall as long as I can, then rise refreshed enough to bogey number 10 and par number 11 before, as we approach the hang glider port and ocean, my game detonates. Parts fly in every direction. Concentration to the east, tranquility back west whence it came, coordination and finally desire to God knows where.

Luckily, I’m playing neither for money, trophies, nor for the sake of my ego. Besides, I had one good nine. Tom Watson couldn’t have birdied number two any smoother than I had. Who said I need to be perfect? Contrary to Voltaire’s philosophy, this may well be the best of all possible worlds if perfection itself is a grievous flaw.

Golfs a great method to learn about acceptance of limitations, about choosing your own fate. We were playing with a couple of guys, one of whom raged around the course like I used to in the year after my dad died. He would brood, pound his club, sling it now and then. After one of these episodes his pal explained, “It’s hell when a scratch golfer has an off day.”

“Yep,” I said. “The problem with being a scratch golfer is, if you want to keep it up, you’ve gotta play or hit balls about every day. Otherwise you better forget scratch golf or start taking bloodpressure medicine.”

The guy takes a day off work, waits four hours for a twosome opening, then stalks around the most inspiring landscape this side of the moon, battering his club, seemingly oblivious to every emotion but anger, on account of his little white ball won’t go where he wants it to. I’m no judge. Who knows what he’s got to be angry about, how much he needs to throw something or stomp around bashing his club and grumbling in a place where it’s a marginally acceptable thing to do? I’ve wrapped clubs around tree trunks, flung them so high they got lost in the branches of cottonwoods. Once I slung a nine iron that boomeranged in a horseshoe direction and belted my friend in the knee. But I’m not so angry anymore. It’s only sad to watch a fellow human seething as he tromps the fairway on a couple of my favorite golf holes anywhere, numbers 12 and 13.

Twelve’s a long one. If it were a yard or two longer, from the championship tees they’d have to make it a par five. It’s into the wind, because you’re striding back toward the Pacific, the hang glider port on the left. Thirteen cuts straight east, a brutal par five, with a wide valley in front of the hole and an elevated green, the last of the monsters. From there in, you can skate. As if the architect realized by now you’d be suffering fatigue and took mercy, all you have to face are a couple shortish par fours, a par three running back toward the ocean, a mid-length four par, then the par five 18th hole whereon lies the single nasty prank the architect couldn’t resist. If you haven’t played the course before and you smack a big drive on 18, you’ll see the green within reach, lengthen your backswing, give it your last burst of power, then grin as you watch it fly straight and true until it splashes into Devlin’s Billabong. That’s a hidden pond flush against the front of the green, so named after Australian Bruce Devlin, who, leading the field on the final day of the San Diego Open, plopped several balls in there and gave the purse away.

My back nine score was as lousy as my front nine had been respectable. My hips, back, and legs ached, my feet craved a mineral bath, while Bob and I sat beside the putting green watching the sky fade. On the north course, a free swinger whacked his golf bail straight up. It flew like a rebellious atom trying to escape gravity but fell about 60 yards out. I chuckled in sympathy. To my limited knowledge of Eastern thought, it seemed I might’ve played Zen golf that day.

The Secret of Golf and Coronado Rates

Coronado, number 3

Here is the secret of golf. Learn a workable grip and swing. Address the ball confidently. Smack it. Watch where it goes and chase it down. As you walk, gaze off toward the hills, watch the red-breasted birds, shuffle your feet along the dewy grass. That’s all.

Or if you’re playing Coronado Municipal, pick a time that’s not going to land you in a traffic jam on top of the Coronado Bridge with the North Island commuter crowd. Give an extra few minutes to wind around the Coronado streets, noticing how civilized a place can appear when most every homeowner’s able to afford a gardener.

My friend and I, a twosome, got paired with a single. Bill, a retired fellow from Aspen on vacation, who reminded me that Coronado is a favorite course of tourists. Every time I’ve played there, I’ve met a few of them. Contrary to my childhood prejudices, I’ve enjoyed them all. Maybe it’s that people on vacation are generally happy. On vacation even my ex-wife and I unfailingly get along.

The course, exquisitely groomed by B.J. Estrada, runs beside San Diego and Glorietta bays, from near the foot of the bridge to the Hotel del Coronado. Like Torrey Pines or a good short story, its beginning will clue you to the theme, which is water, sand, trees placed by a rascal magician who could read the future and see where every ball would land for the next 50 years, and greens the size of a small county.

The grass is Bermuda, not quite as cushiony as Torrey Pines but more than adequate. Along the number one fairway lies a pond a duck hook could reach. There are yucca trees, silver dollar eucalyptus, all manner of palms. And number one, like most the fairways, boasts traps that will snag a long hitter’s drive or hacker’s second shot. The sand, my friend Kenny informed me, is scooped and hauled in from the San Luis Rey river bottom or at least used to be when he was a greenskeeper there. Except in wet spots, it’s fine enough to blast out of easily.

The salt air, sunshine sparkling off the bay, the beggar cries of gulls, the whir of a motorboat passing can lull you into an otherworldly feeling, so when you look up and spot the bridge where sky ought to be and stare across the bay at battleships and aircraft carriers and observe the three new buildings rising downtown, each looking as if it might’ve been designed by George Lucas — when you notice these things, you’re tempted to gasp in awe, as though you’d just stepped into the world.

Coronado, number 5

The first couple of holes I sized up my putts and tapped the ball, expecting it to break the way it’s supposed to do, with the curves and slants of the earth. On number one the putt didn’t break. Figuring somebody might’ve slipped me a trick ball, I switched. On number two the putt didn’t break. By number four I’d acquired a new strategy — forget the lay of the land, hit it straight.

I also learned to respect the onshore breeze. On number two I whacked a good five iron that fell short of the green, about 20 yards shorter than my normal five iron. With the wind behind me on number three, I flew the green with a six iron.

Number four’s traps are so white and pretty, I almost envied my friend Kenny. He’d got to hit out of two of them. Beware the yardage markers on number four. There are two alternate greens. When B.J. places the hole in the far one, it renders the yardage markers null and void. My depth perception proved good enough to see that I’d have to guess at the yardage. It also proved either that yardage markers are a great boon or that the onshore breeze can shift to northerly. I not only flew the green but the number five tee.

Perhaps God mistook my musing about the pretty sandtraps. On number five, my ball kicked weirdly into a trap along the front of the green. When choosing a club here, note that the posted yardage is to the middle of the green, but since the green’s about 40 yards long and since all greenskeepers are wise guys who love to place the cup on mounds, ledges, or on the front or rear edge, you might need two clubs longer or shorter than the marker would recommend.

By now I’d discovered that my forget the lay of the land and putt straight at the hole strategy was flawed. On one green the ball breaks. The next it doesn’t. On the third it breaks uphill. Stumped, I decided to ask at the turn if there was logic to the greens or was the ball just destined to skitter around like the planchette on a Ouija board.

The front nine concludes with a long par three across a water hazard that Hollywood could use as a dwelling for the Loch Ness monster. Yet Kenny, Bill, and I shot par. We must’ve loosened up by then and exorcised a few demons.

By now Kenny and I had crisscrossed enough fairways and hacked enough strokes to celebrate our mutual pars by renting a cart for the back nine. Also, I asked about the greens. John Rogers, pro on duty, said, “I’ve been playing this course 18 years, and I still can’t figure all the breaks. One thing — the putt’s supposed to break toward the water. But we’ve got water all around.”

On the back nine I remembered that a string of pars means nada — I got five in a row, then fell to slicing, hooking, shanking. Soon my fondest wish was for a bogey. And I recalled the reasons for my prejudice against golf carts. I hardly got to talk to Bill, with whom I’d enjoyed gabbing on the front nine. I had to force myself to notice my surroundings, as busily as we were zooming around. And my game lost its rhythm, as if the afternoon and maybe the planet danced to a different drummer whom I no longer heard.

Coronado, number 2

Approach number 13 respectfully. Not only is it 520 yards, but it also makes several right angle turns. Unless you’re a master of the controlled fade, aim for the left side of the fairway every shot until the green finally appears.

On holes 14 through 16, you skirt a neighborhood rich in Coronado’s eclectic architecture. Cape Cods, California bungalows, Santa Fe adobes, Spanish, modem and postmodern, shoebox and ranch style, art deco. The architectural goulash that typifies San Diego in general and Coronado in particular is epitomized in the view across Glorietta Bay from the number 16 fairway. Whereas the Hotel del Coronado could’ve been conceived by a mad poet, the Coronado Towers look like kindergarten sketches.

My advice on putting Coronado is to take Communion that morning. If you’re not religious, consider converting, even if just for the day. Or you can smile as your putt goes sliding past the hole, close your eyes, and think of all the delights your eyelids are hiding. Because, whatever may be the secret of golf, it’s only a gimmick.

It’s seduced you into wandering the green meadows, strolling beside the still water, chasing tranquility or venting your anger, gabbing with your pals or new friend from Fargo or Aspen. Like fishing, golf lures you out of the office, only with golf you don’t have to sit still. Like meditation, it veers you away from the slings and arrows that’ve been jabbing and pummeling since the last game. And from my angle, golf makes more sense than muttering “Om.”

RATES

Chula Vista Municipal

Weekdays, 18 holes: $13

Weekdays, 9 holes: $8

Weekday Twilight (2 p.m. on): $9

Weekday Super Twilight (last two hours before sunset): $7

Weekends and holidays are a few dollars higher. Senior residents of Chula Vista only get a half-price discount. For reservations, call 479-4141, no more than five days ahead.

Balboa

City residents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $12

Weekends, 18 holes: $14

Twilight: $7

Residence card: $8

Junior monthly ticket: $10

Adult monthly ticket: $60

Senior monthly ticket: $36

County residents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $17

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $21

Twilight: $9

Residence card: $8

Nonresidents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $33

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $38

Twilight: $16

For reservations, call 570-1234 no more than one week before the desired starting time. Good luck.

Torrey Pines

City residents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $14

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $16

Twilight or 9 holes: $8

Residence card: $8

Junior monthly ticket: $10

Adult monthly ticket: $76

Senior monthly ticket: $38

County residents:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $22

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $24

Weekdays twilight or 9 holes: $11

Visitors:

Weekdays, 18 holes: $38

Weekends & holidays, 18 holes: $44

Weekdays twilight or 9 holes: $19

For reservations, see Balboa.

Coronado

Weekdays, weekends, holidays, 18 holes: $16

For reservations, call 435-3121 at 7:00 a.m., two days in advance.

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