[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Creative Loafing

Fearsome Foursome: Bob and Theresa Lawhead get casual with Ronnie Bauer and Carlos Mena at Thunderbird Country Club.

The future's so bright, I gotta wear ATV sandals ...

By Todd S. Inoue

I COULD HAVE been Tiger. When I was 9, my dad drove me down to the local nine-hole at Golden Gate Fields to hit some balls. He popped the trunk of the LTD and hoisted a rickety bag of clubs out of the back, and together we click-clacked across the gravel parking lot into the clubhouse.

THERE I WAS, a piece of grit ready to be molded into a shiny pearl, a sow's ear imprinted with Gucci's beeper number. With some tutelage, my dad hoped, I would one day nuke a golf ball 336 yards down the fairway and airlift approach shots over the tip-tops of ruffled Douglas firs, the dimpled Titleist tamping down on the plush jade carpet.

But this is Albany, Calif., not Augusta, Ga., and this ain't no golfing fantasy. The East Bay fog turns my hands bitter numb. An overflow of red-striped balls from a rusty basket rests on worn Astroturf. My left arm hinges. My head keeps popping up to confirm that I have knocked the range ball barely 30 yards. My interest wanes: I could kick the ball farther. Shoot, I could throw it farther.

I whiff a bunch of times and the Doppler effect knocks the ball off the rubber tee. The ball misses the club head's sweet spot and the club transforms into an electric eel. Other shots bang off the divider or take out four-legged critters with potent accuracy.

I urinate into a water hazard, cold shaft in hand, and decide that golf is for the birds. It interrupts my Saturday morning cartoon-and-cereal ritual. Miniature golf is better, more fun and not as solitary. World domination would have to wait for someone else.

As one father-to-son torch is extinguished, another is lit. In December of 1975, Kultilda and Earl Woods become the proud parents of Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, who was destined to be the youngest Masters champion in golfing history.


One golfer's true story of addiction to the game.


GUYS MY AGE, 30, are supposed to play golf, drink scotch, hunt big game, fish for marlin in Cancun, buy an Ab-Roller or roam wantonly through Home Depot. A lot of my friends do these things. With regularity, I might add.

I'm not normally swayed by popular opinion, especially when it's regarding a sport long characterized as elitist and frat-boy. The same people who push golf as a new, trendy vehicle are probably behind the Hootie and the Blowfish and Wallflowers phenomena; I just can't accept that association, that risk. But damn, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan make golfing look cool. Who wouldn't want to play in a foursome with Jordan, Woods and Charles Barkley? Hard to resist.

Golf has been unique in its seduction. It poses a conundrum: Do I hate the sport or just its trappings? As with classical music, is it the medium itself or the formal clothes and controlled environment one must endure to participate?

Yet the sport is breaking in with a new generation, especially in Silicon Valley, where learning to golf is considered good business savvy first and exercise second. College grads with C++ programming have ample disposable income. What better way to assimilate into corporate America, schmooze and be schmoozed, than to set up a starting time at Santa Teresa?

It's not the professional segment that golf marshals worry about; it's the posers, the new jacks. They're easy to spot: wraparound shades, cigars, pagers, cell phones, backwards baseball caps, baggy shorts, lots of hotshot equipment. They hover over their ball for 30 seconds, thinking zen thoughts, while behind them a foursome is angrily launching balls in their general direction.

There's a scene in Swingers that typifies the trendy Gen X golfer: Two guys talk about girls while five-putting and lying about their score. They act like pros, but like everything else in their life, golf is just another accessory to stuff in the back seat of their '64 Impala.

And that's problematic. Ask any golf pro: As more newcomers enter the links, the etiquette standards dissipate.

"There's a lot of people who come out to play and they don't respect the game," laments Paul Lopez, general manager of Thunderbird Golf and Country Club. "You should be respectful. You have more people playing now who just come out to play instead of learning the rules."

Tom Locatelli, 31, has firsthand experience with the respect issue. He is an emotional golfer who has been known to throw an occasional club. He was an athlete at St. Francis High School, the quintessential BMOC back in junior high. As a kid, he played with his dad's clubs and now golfs two or three times a week between sales calls for the business machine company where he works. Because of his youthful good looks, he gets mistaken for one of the etiquette-bashing punks who collide with the sport's behavioral norms.

"I remember when I played Fort Ord," Locatelli says. "And I was 260 yards out. I thought it was safe, so I hit it." The ball, unfortunately, landed a bit too close to a group of older golfers ahead of him. "This guy, he must have been a retired general," Locatelli remembers, "walks over, spits on my ball, then he grabs a pile of sticks and dumps it on my ball!"

    "We in the golf industry have a golden opportunity to build on the momentum we already enjoy right now because of the well-publicized affinity for the game of many key opinion makers in our society--including, but of course not limited to, Michael Jordan. The window is open now; how long that remains the case is anyone's guess."

    --Michael Hughes, Golf Digest

TO THOSE IN the golf industry, Michael Jordan is a gift-wrapped savior. Nike and Titleist pay Tiger around $35 million to be associated with their products for just five years. Golf gets that same kind of association and exposure for free every time Jordan tees off. It's the best kind of endorsement--unsolicited, unpaid, no messy contracts to sign.

Beyond athletics, Hootie and the Blowfish sponsor a post-Masters charity tournament. The Beastie Boys and the Stone Temple Pilots pack clubs along with their drums and guitars while on tour. And then there's President Clinton, who injured his knee tooling around Greg Norman's house.

Golf has even invaded hip-hop. A couple of years ago, designer golf wear was en vogue. Popular rap stars such as L.L. Cool J., Grand Puba and Method Man traded in sweat suits for Polo shirts and Titleist visors. Unlike middle-class punks, who think it's always cooler to dress down, hip-hop heads dress up. And what better sport of leisure to appropriate than golf? Even the b-boy coterie X-Large and Phat Farm boasts a distinctive line of golf duds.

One thing the Nike ads don't tell you: Golf is hella expensive. With woods, irons, graphites, shoes, spikes, hats, balls, tees, golf bag, hand carts, Big Berthas, club covers, custom grips, gloves, lessons and green fees, it's a minimum one-grand buy-in. At least with polo, you're halfway there when you buy the horse.

At my age, golf beckons like a fat 401K plan. Imagine the freshly cut grass, rolling hills, the camaraderie, being at one with nature, one with the ball. As with the 401K, if I increase my contributions now, the payoffs multiply over the years.

Hitting Phat: Carlos "Solrac" Mena airlifts a ball at Thunderbird. His band, 10Bass T, performs Thursday, April 17, at SFMX #3.

    "I would like to see golf being a privilege and a right for all kids that are growing up today. The main thing is not to price kids away from the golf course, because golf is a game that requires money just to practice. Special emphasis should be placed on practice privileges because practice is the key to improvement and success."

    --Tiger Woods, before he turned pro

JASON LIBBY is the head of the junior golf program at Santa Clara Golf and Tennis Club. He places the future of the sport directly on the shifty feet of the nation's youth. He feels the number of juniors will double by the year 2000, because of Tiger Woods.

"I think they're huge and they're just getting to be noticed how important they are. More and more kids are getting into the sport and we have to catch them now--seeing how many grown-up golfers we have now that are uneducated and don't know rules, etiquette and know how to play. It's a coexistence out there. You need to blend in and think about some things."

To get kids involved, Libby takes the focus away from the sport and competition. He breaks the hour-long sessions into segments: 15 minutes of instruction, 15 minutes of practice, and a half hour of fun.

While talking about the future of golf, Patrick Shea, Santa Clara GTC pro, exits and comes back with a pair of Bite "ATV" golf sandals. You want to see the future of the sport? There it is, he says.

Bite, a San Francisco­based golf shoe company, specializes in "alternative" shoes. Bite offers stylish lines that can be worn on and off the course. The "Neo-Conservative" line has tweaked interpretations of traditional golf shoes. Others, such as the "Deep Rough" and "Escapee," mimic Doc Martens and skateboard shoes. The "ATV" model reworks a Teva sandal with specialized golf spikes. If my dad saw me strapping these on, he probably would laugh me out of the clubhouse.

"That's a big indicator right there," Libby points out. "People have taken the sport too seriously for too long. There's always going to be that element that want to take it seriously. And there's an element that has been ignored for a long time."

Libby is convinced that golf is not as much an elitist sport as it once was. "Ten years ago it was guys doing power lunches," Libby says. "Now it's going toward total public access. There's always going to be that high end. People are willing to pay for golf, it's in great demand. You look at the last great popularization of golf, and that was Arnold Palmer. He was upper-middle class--a country club kid from a pretty affluent family. Now with Tiger Woods--he's ethnic, his dad's a military guy. He's bringing in a new wave of kids. He's just broadening the spotlight and that's been going on for the past 10 years. You can't get by on the elite image."

But can Tiger Woods clear the generation gap in one shot?

    "The important thing is to normalize the game of golf for minorities so they have the same opportunities to make a living or compete as anyone else. To do that, you have to have handicaps and places to play. If you don't have a facility, it is very hard to play the game."

    --John Merchant, executive director, National Minority Golf Foundation

WHILE MOST GOLF courses are surrounded by upscale communities like Blackhawk and Silver Creek Valley, the Thunderbird Golf and Country Club is in the middle of San Jose's East Side. The houses that border Thunderbird are dilapidated tract homes built in the '60s. Sometimes a rooster crow throws off your backswing.

The "country club" in the title is deceiving. There are no Lexuses in the Thunderbird parking lot. Nor is there a bag drop area, or anyone around to retrieve those bags. Heck, the parking lot isn't even paved. At 30, Thunderbird is one of the oldest courses in the South Bay.

The East Side institution, which borders Highway 101 and King Road, is living on borrowed time. The land was sold to developers who will replace the 18-hole vista with housing. Until the bulldozers come in June, Thunderbird is a cheap place to play: $14 on weekdays, $17 on weekends. No tee time is necessary.

Compared to modern-day courses, Thunderbird was left behind in the golf renaissance led by Jordan and Woods. Plastic grocery bags roam across fairways like white tumbleweeds. Trees wave listlessly on dry fairways.

Paul Lopez has been running the course since 1983, when he quit his job at General Motors. He manages to play four times a week, a nine handicap. Lopez knows that his club is the last of its kind--no fancy amenities, no microbrews, no humidors.

"It's sad that it's going to close, because it's a place where a lot of old-timers come to enjoy themselves," Lopez says. "They're going to be lost without this club. It's a place where people can enjoy themselves and just play."

Places to play for the true beginning golfer are getting scarce in the South Bay. When Thunderbird closes in June, only three will remain: Pleasant Hill, Sunken Garden and Riverside. And they're busy; try to call for a starting time some Monday morning.

One old-timer playing the links today, James Waddie, believes he'll play better courses less often when Thunderbird closes. "I treat this more like a training course," Waddie says. "Notice that I have a lot of clubs. I'll take what I have here to regular, more championship courses.

"What upsets me is that you look at the geography here," Waddie continues. "You have a course surrounded essentially by a slum. Instead of revitalizing the slum area, they choose to take the golf course away. I think it's a bad decision. All it's going to do is proliferate the slums. You go to any golf course around the country, there's beautiful homes around it. You look around here, there's plywood on windows, people build shacks in their back yard, you hear roosters. It's a bad decision. These people have so little to begin with, and they take away what prize they do have."

Spike the Ball: Ronnie Bauer, leader of the New Mosquitos, comes up short on a putt. The band also appears at SFMX #3.

THE NEXT PLACE I VISIT puts the shine back on the term "country club." "It's like Xanadu," warned a friend who lives in the suburban pool dust down below Silver Creek Valley Country Club. "It was this beautiful, wide open space, then they just plowed it over."

Silver Creek Valley Country Club is located high above the haze of Silicon Valley. The road leading up to Silver Creek is lined with beautiful houses and teaser billboards. "Get Ready to Relax," says one sign. I do so, dressed in a pair of Dockers and a collared shirt.

After getting past the gatekeeper, I meet up with my host, Mike LaBarbera, a commercial real estate man who made good. At 26, he's the youngest member of the country club. He's a straight shot with an average in the upper 70s, low 80s. The only sign of his youth is his twentysomething face hidden under a Nike driving cap, spun backward--Jordan style.

Inside the clubhouse, Mike pulls some stogies from the humidor--$23 for two cigars, an inflated price he'll grumble about later. The mixture of smoking and golf courses seems dangerous, but I hold my comments.

A long line of golfers warm up at a driving range occupied at the bottom by tractors. New houses are going up and there's the constant whine of jackhammers and cement mixers. Mike tells me that Silver Creek homeowners pay a one-time membership fee of $60,000 plus $300 a month for the use of, or I should say the privilege of using, the 18-hole golf course. I hold in my choke. Not long ago I was scraping up $300 a month to rent a four-bedroom house with roommates.

Mike has been playing Silver Creek for three years. His Silver Creek neighbor, golf buddy and business partner, Rob Facchino, tells me that when the early '90s recession hit, Silver Creek had a hard time selling houses. Now Silicon Valley is in a boom, and there's a waiting list to buy up its $700,000-plus houses. Tom Locatelli, our third, is another homeowner.

The three play a couple of times a week, every Friday for sure, and today is no exception. Two cell phones are jammed into the golf cart's coffee-cup holders. Facchino points out the home of Netcom's founder, Bob Rieger. We'll pass Facchino's home along the way.

I'm hoping to soak up some stock tips, caviar wishes and champagne dreams, but these guys are young. Most of the conversation is canted toward golf and good-natured ribbing. On the third hole, the fellas return business calls between shots.

Taking calls on the course? Doesn't that counter the reasoning behind golf?

"There's really no need for us to be in the office to conduct business," Facchino says. "So we need to be able to call them back wherever we are if we have to. But there's never a call that's so important that I have to call them back in 10 minutes."

Our group approaches an older, slower foursome. Facchino is blinded by a huge bunker that shades his ball. He almost beans the other golfers with an approach shot. Whoops. He drives ahead to apologize. We later pass them up on the fifth hole.

Locatelli, a local business machine salesman, hooks his tee shot 200 yards into the rough. He flings his iron in disgust.

"Tom's a total head case," LaBarbera jokes.

"He'll shoot a 74 one day and a 96 the next," Rob adds.

Experts say the main point of golf is to relax and focus. The only time Tom is relaxed is when he's not holding a club.

"Golf is the only sport where you're miserable the whole day," Locatelli says. "Then, at the end, you say, 'Boy! That was great!' "

SHORTLY AFTER THE Albany golf experience in my childhood, I visited Hawaii, a golf paradise. My relatives golfed every day while I kicked it in the cart. Once we got beyond earshot of the clubhouse, I drove the cart along the beautiful sculpted hills and winding paths of Olomana, Makaha, Kauai Surf, Wailea, Kapalua and Princeville golf courses. I locked 'em up on some gnarly grades and then punched it on descents, the scent of fresh pikake blossoms blowing under my visor.

I raked traps and opened sodas, replaced pins and washed balls. I followed the directions not to park beyond the golfer teeing off and kept my shadow out of the ball's line. A hot dog and a passion fruit soda were my rewards, and I couldn't have been happier. Golf life was phat, as long as I wasn't playing.

Watching Tiger win the Masters, as well as my recent Silver Creek experience, left me longing to participate again. My competitive side wants to blow those Silver Creek guys off the tee with a Tiger-sized drive. My chill side looks forward to spending three hours wandering around the links with friends, just like my dad and uncles do every weekend.

I think about that guy who was helping to arrange a local visit from President Clinton. A Secret Service agent came up to him and asked, "Do you play golf?" No, he replied. Turned out that the agent was looking for a fourth to play with the president the next morning. Imagine missing three hours alone with the leader of the free world just because you don't know how to play.

Is golf worth the expense, the time, the energy, the punishment and the humiliation? From my vantage point--staring into a crosswind, 450 yards out, on an unseasonably sunny April afternoon at Silver Creek--yeah, it probably is.

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1997 Metro Publishing, Inc.