The Coffee Can Country Club
October 13, 2006
If I've never seen a prettier golf course, I suppose it's because I built it myself, and because I was 11.
It was 1966, and in my Salem, Oregon neighborhood, I was that most exotic of hot-house flowers: a golfer. I loved playing baseball; football too, at least the passing and catching, if not the hitting and hurting. But I regarded myself as a golfer. Golf was uncanny, old, impossible, beautiful, soul snatching. I knew these things already. In a neighborhood of robust, rowdy, baseball- and football-crazy brawlers, I was, at best, a curiosity.
The field behind my house, all 290 yards of it, was my walk to school, Cummings Elementary. Wanting to know if it could contain a 300-yard drive when I was capable of such a thing, I measured it myself, laying a yardstick end to end. It was known simply as "The Field." Unimproved, except for an annual mowing, it was our playground for baseball and football, an essential place.
It was 120 yards wide, and had a dip to it just beyond my backyard, a rustic flaw for our baseball field: the leftfielder was about six below the level of the batter.
Correspondingly, our football field sloped severely from about the 30 all the way to the opposite goal line. The grade then made it an even more terrible thing to face 14-year-old Tim Faville, a junior high star who had real cleats and a silver front tooth, returning a kick-off. Tim, running at you downhill, was the stuff of nightmares and awe.
But what were topographical imperfections for the games of exacting lines and dimensions were perfect for a golf course. I looked at the field like a 17th century Scottish shepherd once looked at a piece of desolate ground near the Firth of Tay and started knocking rocks around to ward off boredom. In spirit, there was little difference between my unlovely ground and a nascent St. Andrews.
I designed and built a nine-hole course, measured it with my dogged yardstick technique (didn't my father have a tape measure?), made up scorecards.
Their course etiquette was a little raw, and occasionally one of the Faville brothers might threaten another with a middle-iron raised high like a broadsword, but mostly I looked on with wonder and pride that the Game had come to The Field.
I'd had some experience on real golf courses, but the lushness and uniformity of the turf was still magic to me; and putting greens were from a world apart, dream-perfect, unicorn-like. Their actual existence in the world was one of the great mysteries. On my course I dealt with the rugged real earth.
The field was a combination of fodder hay, fescue, cheat grass tufts, patches of bare dirt and odd bits of tar paper blown off the school roof in the Columbus Day Storm of 1962. Once I chose a location for a hole, I buried an empty one pound can of Folger's coffee in the ground and leveled off the dirt flush with the rim. The holes were a pleasure. Shiny and clean when the course opened, the characteristic sound of the ball falling into the "cup" with a metallic thud became related to the thrill of sinking a putt on a green where a three-footer could take a 90-degree turn a foot from the hole. I've never understood pros complaining about greens. With a hand mower, I created a primeval putting surface about 10 feet in diameter.
My mother lavished time and art on the flags. Red pennants about nine inches wides, white numerals sewn on the red field. One through nine. Stapled to wooden stakes the flagsticks stood about two-and-a-half feet tall after they were pounded into the ground just behind the hole. In the evening with the sun low and a light breeze, the fluttering flags were as pretty a sight as any available at Oakmont or Pinehurst or Pebble Beach. Par (27) was certainly as difficult, despite the modest length, ranging from 113 yards down to 35. The pin placements were just too devilish, the conditions too natural. The scores corresponded more to the era of Willie Park and Young Tom Morris.
As I worked, with my garden spade and yardstick and lawn mower, I was conscious of what a large and public commitment this was. I wondered, would the other guys understand? Would they approve this land use?
One evening as I was practicing on what I called my driving range, Tim Faville came over. I was nervous. I might as well have been practicing pirouettes.
"What have you been doing out here?"
I told him, from design to excavation to coffee cans.
"Uh-huh," he said, mulling over an anthopological oddity. "Let's see that."
He examined my Patsy Hahn signature 7-iron (awkward age: too tall for junior clubs, too short for men's) more with real curiosity than amused tolerance.
"We have some of these," he said. "I'll be right back."
I was relieved. Tim Faville, the neighborhood's premier athlete, wanted to try my game. He returned in a few minutes carrying something Harry Vardon would have called an antique. The head was rusted and the word "mashie" was barely legible on the back. Roughly a five-iron. The hickory shaft was warped to a near parabola. Tim smiled, his silver front tooth shining wildly, pleased with his antediluvian weapon.
He addressed the ball, and the world went cockeyed. I'd watched him hit a baseball 3,000 times, and this was all wrong.
"You're not left-handed."
"No," he replied, calm as the Buddha, "but the club is."
And then, holding this relic from the Harding administration, and standing on the wrong side of the ball, Tim Faville (with luck or natural virtuosity I can't say) hit a perfect shot. A devastating high, he was hooked on the spot, and told his brothers and their friend Jeff Lewis that this golf thing was OK. Together we all trooped off to Sears, where they each purchased one shiny new golf club for about $4.
All summer long we played the course, Jeff with his six-iron with the green grip, Kurt Faville with his seven, Tim with his five, a modern tribute to his grandpa's mashie. Their course etiquette was a little raw, and occasionally one of the Faville brothers might threaten another with a middle-iron raised high like a broadsword, but mostly I looked on with wonder and pride that the Game had come to The Field.
Over the years I've tried to dismiss the game, quit the game, for the all the usual wise-foolish reasons: socio-economics and enviro-stresses of country clubs, gated communities and Pleasure Domes in the desert; for the malfeasance of multi-nationals which fatten the tour, for the market absurdities of perpetual technological revolutions in equipment. Or just because it's so foolish. But I submit that to be eleven and to walk out the back door and tee it up on a homely open field that one has transformed into a golf course of one's own, is to have an experience with the game impossible to escape. And then, to enlist the neighborhood skeptics and turn them for the summer into victims of the game's thorny charms? Unutterable sweetness. I carry with me, like it or not, a latent association between golf and pure joy which I can't completely sever.
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A broadcaster and writer following inglorious service on the WSU golf team from 1974-77, Bill Morelock hosts classical music weekday evenings on Minnesota Public Radio in Saint Paul. minnesotapublicradio.org.