On golf: A day on the links away from the links

I played golf this past Wednesday. I took myself away from the hyperlinks that define the hyperspace that is the internet to the green links of the Sprain Lake Golf Course: a links with flags flying, holes in the ground, and little white balls flying and rolling in every direction.

I think I first thought I may play a round at Sprain Lake about 2PM on Tuesday. I had spent the morning and early afternoon in Armonk in meetings in my role as member of the team that manages IBM’s open-source activities. The responsible executives are called the OSSC: Open-source Steering Committe. Our group had been known as the OSCT (Open-Source Core Team), but one of the pleasant outcomes of the exec meeting was a suggestion by a colleague that a better name that captured our role was OSCC: Open-Source Center of Competence.

As the OSCC meeting ended about 2PM, I looked outside and noted the weather was breathingtakingly beautiful. I decided to take the rest of the afternoon off so I could enjoy this wonderful weather, but as I did so I said to myself, “I hope the weather is bad tomorrow — the worse the better.”

Why would I wish for bad weather? My neighbors know, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of them were also hoping for some bad weather.

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and went to college in Pasadena, California. Each has its own weather, and the weather of each is extraordinary. But I know one of the reasons that I moved to New York four decades ago to begin my graduate studies — and a reason I have lived in the area ever since — is the weather, especially the fall weather. Because here we have four seasons, four real seasons.

My favorite season is Fall. Summer and winter are predictable where I live. But spring is evanescent, ephemereal. You just can’t rely on Spring. A late snow storm, early rains, a departure by the jet stream from its normal path; all these can produce a very short spring.

But with Fall you know what to expect, and you know it will last long enough so will be able to see the trees change color and fall to the ground, the days shorten, the nights lengthen, the rains that come gently and provide the best sounds you can hear while sleeping.

Fall is a season of decline due to the path of the sun. But we have made it a season of renewal because of the way we grow our food and educate our children. For it is in September that school begins. I spent twenty years at New York University and one of the things I came to miss most when I left NYU to work for IBM was that air of renewal and beginning that marks the start of a school year. September might have become just another month, except for my religion.

I say religion because I am Jewish and the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hoshanah – usually starts in September.

And I know when Fall is on the way. Because some day in early September you will have a breathingtakingly beautiful day, with a clear blue sky with no cloud in sight, brilliant light, a slight breeze in the air, the first hint that you will need to start wearing a jacket soon. And on days like this you thank God for letting you be alive to enjoy the abundance of his gifts.

Such a day was September 11, 2001.

We all know exactly where we were when we first learned of the terrible events that were unfolding, and I expect most can remember the weather that day. I know that everyone in the New York area does.

I worked at IBM Research at that time, in a building in Hawthorne, New York, on Route 9A, about 11 miles south of my home. My route took me down a fairly quite road known as Route 100, and I recall thinking as I was driving down Route 100 about the extraordinary weather. As soonas Route 100 merged with Route 9A I saw a slowing of the traffic. And I soon realized it was more than a traffic jam because I see cars almost coming to a stop, with many drivers reaching over to turn on the radio.

As did I. In those days I regularly listened to Don Imus’s morning show and so shared the horror with him, his staff, and all his listeners as the horror unfolded. At first we thought it just the crash of a light plane into a tower, an amateur gone astray. I could visualize the situation well because while at NYU I spent many an afternoon in the lounge on the top of the Courant Institute, and the southern side offered a good view of the Twin Towers. Indeed, I saw them go up during the early ’70s from the windows at Courant.

That the news was bad indeed was brought to us by Werner Wolf, a well-known sports broadcaster in the New York area, as his apartment offered a view of the Towers (Werner is known for two signature phrases: “Lets’ go to the videotape” and “The future is now!” a phrase I’ve used often in earlier posts.)

Each of us has our own memories of the rest of that terrible day, the day that began with the Now of the thousands of people and in a few short hours became their eternal Future, the day that Now was irrevocably changed for everyone, a day that redfined all our Futures.

Two of my memories stand out.

First, I recall with a clarity as clear –as “crystal clear” as the weather that day — that if it were determined that any government on the face of the planet had been involved in those terrorist attacks, then that government was doomed, utterly doomed, and thousands of people would die as we wreaked our vengeance. Because that government had forgotten a lesson we had already taught the world twice.

Any government that attacks the United States on its own soil is doomed. It will be destroyed. We destroyed Germany. We destroyed Japan, and I knew we would destroy whatever government had attacked us. We soon learned the attacks were launched from Afghanistan, by the Taliban.

And I was equally certain that we would marshal all our resources, gathering together all our arms except the nuclear weapons, and we would send our military in harm’s way to destroy the Taliban. We would start killing them as soon as possible, as quickly as possible, with every skill we had until the job was done, and that we wouldn’t really be sorry if some innocents were killed while we did our butcher’s deed. A price had to be paid.

The other memory is of sound — the sound of silence as we grieved together and the perpetual sound that I heard all the rest of that day in the office — the sound of sirens.

The Hawthorne building is on Route 9A, and also not far from the Saw Mill River Parkway. Both are major roads, and the air was soon filled with sirens going on … and on … and on as every possible fireman, policeman, emergency medical technician, and physician made their way in their siren-blazing vehicles to help our fallen comrades.

But back on Tuesday I was thinking not only of September 11, 2001, a day with equally glorious weather in early October several years earlier: Monday, October 11, 1998.

I began that day by driving to New York City to the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to donate platelets. I did this because I had been one of the people who had been sent an e-mail informing us that one of our Research colleagues was ill with leukemia. He had been treater earlier, and had responded well, but had recently suffered a relapse, and was in urgent need of platelets. I made the donation gladly; alas it was to no avail as he died a few months later, leaving behind his wife and several children.

I had business that day in Armonk. I had decided that day to play golf; the weather was good, I was in the midst of getting Jikes ready for release in December, and I wanted to get in one last round before hunkering down and focusing on the release.

You can learn more about that visit by viewing the video referenced in my earlier post, “Me Tube.”

After the meeting in Armonk I went to play golf at Sprain Lake. I greatly enjoyed the round, and spent some time on “The Bench.”

By “The Bench” I mean a special place, indeed one that has in its way become a benchmark of my life.

The reason I wanted to play golf was not to score well. Indeed Wednesday was only my second or third round this year, and almost my certainly my last for this year. I wanted to play a round so I could reach my way to The Bench, and just sit, and watch the golfers go by, and think about days past in September, 2001, and October, 1998.

The Bench is located on the 12th tee of the Sprain Lake course. As you look forward you see a lake, the lake that gives the course its name. It is a beautiful view. The tee shot is over the lake, and part of the fun sitting on The Bench is seeing how golfers face the challenge. Will their ball dash across or will it splash into the water.

If you look left from The Bench you are looking between two trees into a valley below the green of the 11th hole. The 11th is a pretty hole indeed, and when you tee off you cannot see the green. The green is obscured by trees, so you aim for a hill on one side of the valley and if you hit the ball well it will roll down that little valley towards the greeen, setting up your second shot.

It is also possible, if the leaves are off the tree, or if you get a lucky bounce, that your shot will actually reach the greeen. I’ve seen it done a few times. Indeed, this past Wednesday someone hit his ball within a foot of the green and had a chance for an eagle, though he had to settle for a par.

If you are sitting on the bench at the right time on a fall day, near sunset, the sun is behind you, and as you look down into that valley you can see the march of the sun’s shadow: down the hill in front of the green, across the floor of the vally, up the other side, and then up through the trees on the other side, and then the shadow becomes invisible as it moves into the sky itself.

I even know the precise location of The Bench. I know it because I took along a Magellan eXplorist 200 GPS receiver I bought a few months back, and I marked The Bench’s location. I would give the precise latitude and longitude here except I am at home as I write this and don’t know how to retrieve its location.

As it happens, as I was sitting on The Bench I was joined by a woman. He group was ready to tee off but had to wait for the group in front to move. She noticed the GPS device, and after I remarked how amazing it was that I had at had a miniature received that could pinpoint my location by receiving signals sent from satellites, she mentioned that one of the members of her family worked for Hughes on their GPS system, and that their system was the best in that Hughes had best figure out where to position the satellites. She also mentioned that another family member had been involved in the design of EXPass: the favorite technology of every New Yorker who has ever used it to breeze though a toll gate.

I sat on The Bench as the sun fell and the sky grew dark. I stayed as long as I could and then I made my way to the parking lot where I had left my car. I then went to dinner at a nearby restaurant and then drove home.

Now in an earlier post I have written of golf, first in an article about Tiger Woods and his role as player and mentor on the just-concluded Ryder Cup match. And in that post, I made a joke along the lines of, “Do I play golf and Tiger play some other game? Or does Tiger play golf and I play some other game?”

I learned the answer to that question this Wednesday, as I will try to explain.

As I left the course, as I stepped over the last piece of grass into the parking lot, it was quite dark. And as I looked around me I saw other golfers stepping off the course. We were animals of the night, returning from a foraging trip.

Then I realized Golf is both two games and yet just one game. The two games are Day Golf and Night Golf.

Every round of golf begins in that ten-thousandth of a second when your club hits the ball, for the first time, on the first tee. You are then launched on a journey. Depending on the flight of the ball on that first shot you learn if luck is on your side, if there is a chance for a great round, or in Tiger’s case a shot at yet another title. Or if the ball flies poorly, you decided if you’re to just hack around, see what happens, or if you are going to try to dig yourself back from that mistake and finish a good round, or whatever. You are playing Day Golf, and the round ends when the ball rolls into the cup on the 18th hole.

But if you step off the course in the dark, either because you are returning from your bench, or if you have practiced putting on the green until the hole had become invisible and you realized it was time to go, then you are playing Night Golf. The round ends when you step off the course.

Yet both games are the same. Because what matters is not the score you take away, but the memories you take away. How you played; how honestly you played; what you thought about; what you talked about; what you learned about yourself.

You are your own golf instructor and every round is just another lesson, a lesson about your game and your character.

And speaking of character I have come to have an ever-increasing admiration for Tiger. Yes, his game is great. But his character is even greater. He has been willing to take risk by breaking down his game, finding a new instructor, and building a new swing.

He has done this by an extraordinary grace. He was born with great ability, and we know that his father played an instrumental role in teaching him golf, mainly by teaching him it was not about the mechanics of the swing, but the will to compete, to focus on each shot, to not be distracted, and do that every time he steps on either a practice range or the course to play competitively.

His mother deserves credit too, and I don’t think we give her enough of that credit. After all, he is of mixed race, and plays in a sport where most of the players are not. His skills brought him global attention and scrutiny at a very early age. Yet his character and integrity have always been evident as his swing — of the highest order. He works as hard on them as he does on his swing, and in doing so is giving us an im

So we’re playing the same game after all, each in our own way. The game of Golf. The game of Life.


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