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Rubenstein: Lessons from the last game of the year

Lily pond at Jupiter Island Club

Hobe Sound, Fla. – Anybody who plays golf knows that it is above all a participant sport. The pleasures of following the game are many but there's nothing like playing the game to experience it deeply. On this last day of the year I suspect more golfers are remembering the rounds they played than any they watched. This brings me to my last game of the year, which represents so much of what I like about playing golf as opposed to watching it.

The round occurred at the Jupiter Island Club here, a course that William Diddel designed. Diddel, from Indiana, was born in 1884 and died in 1985, a few months short of his 101s birthday. He won the Indiana Amateur five times, was a founding member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and its president twice. Diddel shot his age nearly 1,300 times and designed some 300 courses. He should be much better known for his work.

The Jupiter Island Club is ultra-exclusive, and I was playing it for the first time. Cynthia Russell was my host, along with her Shih-Poo dog Winston, a cross between a Shih Tzu and a poodle. Winston, blind and diabetic, accompanied Cynthia in her cart. I was reminded of how common it is in the U.K. for golfers to bring their dogs along. I once played the Rye Golf Club in the English town of the same name, when the club captain and London policeman Hugh Blenkin brought Tessa, his faithful Lab, tethered to his pull cart by a leash. They had a good walk enhanced, not spoiled.

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We were three at Jupiter Island, or four if we count Winston. Jeff Silverman, Cynthia's 62-year-old son-in-law, was the other golfer of the two-legged variety. Jeff is a friend and colleague of many years, but this was our first game together. He teaches sports and magazine writing at Villanova University, just northwest of Philadelphia, and has contributed many reflective and informative essays to magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Golf World.

On the first weekend of the New Year, in fact, Jeff will be at Bandon Dunes in Bandon, Oregon to further research a piece on Mike Keiser, the visionary behind that popular resort and its collection of five robust minimalist courses. Keiser is also a major force behind the Cabot Links course in Inverness, Nova Scotia, which has garnered uniformly rave reviews in this, its first full year of being open. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have designed a second course there, called Cabot Cliffs. By all accounts it could be even better than Cabot Links.

At Bandon Dunes and at Cabot Links, the idea is to walk, take in the landscape and surroundings, and feel one's way into the greens by hitting a variety of shots. The holes at Jupiter Dunes flirt with the Intercoastal Waterway, a driver away from the Atlantic Ocean. (Maybe a wedge for Tiger Woods, who lives a short drive south of the club on the island, and whose property goes from the Intercoastal Waterway and across to the ocean).

Woods, I think, would enjoy Jupiter Island for the sheer sportiness of the course. It may be only 6,103 yards from the back tees, from where Jeff and I played, but the shifting and often strong winds invite creative and imaginative golf. Greens fall away, and are often angled to the approach shot. The par-72 course is rated at 70.0 from the tees we played, with a slope of 131–not an easy course, far from it. I told Jeff it's the sort of course that I, at my advancing and advanced age, and increasingly fragile game, could enjoy the rest of my days.

Cynthia, 88 years young, employed her upright and smooth swing to great effect, hitting many crackerjack shots. She first came to golf 75 years ago when she took instruction from Ernest Jones in his Manhattan studio. She said she thought then that golf was a "dumb" game, but she returned to it in her early 20s and was captured. Jones taught what one might call a "lyrical" golf swing; not mechanics at all. Simply, "Swing the Clubhead," as he always said and wrote. I enjoyed watching Cynthia and the friendly banter between her and Jeff. When Jeff holed a 30-yard bunker shot on the seventh hole, Cynthia said, "Abby will hear about that for the next two weeks." Abby is her daughter and Jeff's wife.

I enjoyed the walk from start to finish. Jeff and I spoke about the article I wrote last week about looking forward to the 2013 U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Penn. The club has commissioned Jeff to write a book about its many national championships. The book will conclude with Jeff's account of that U.S. Open. I am looking forward to his book, because he is a writer who knows the game and who has made sure to interview as many golfers who competed at Merion, including Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. Trevino, of course, beat Nicklaus in a playoff at Merion for the 1971 U.S. Open. I won't spoil Jeff's tale by revealing some of the stories about that championships, stories never told before.

Jeff told stories all the way around. Effective writing, as he tells his students at Villanova, is all about storytelling. We touched on so many aspects of the game, including instruction. Jeff mentioned one tip he'd heard about putting, and he told it to me after he missed a six-footer on the first hole. It's a beauty.

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"Once you can see the after-image of the ball on the green, you can look up," Jeff said. Hmmm.

Later he told me something that Gary McCord, the former PGA Tour player and now television analyst for tournaments, told him. This tidbit came to Jeff's mind as we walked from the ninth green to the 10th tee, when the practice area came into our view.

"McCord said that if you put a potato chip between your teeth, you should be able to go through your entire bag on the range without breaking it," Jeff remembered. Hmmm again. I thought of what I'd heard about a golfer expressing tension in a tight jaw.

Well, we walked on. I was carrying eight clubs: driver, three-hybrid, five, seven, and nine-irons, pitching and sand wedges, and putter. The wind was blowing all the way round, gusting to about 40 km/hr. The course was trim and the greens fast; it was in ideal condition. Cynthia hit one crisp shot after another, and it was easy to see how she had won the 1950 club championship at the Newport Country Club in Rhode Island, while pregnant with Abby, by the way.

"You should look around you while playing this course," Cynthia had said as we walked off the first tee, where lily pads in the pond just to its left are symbolic of the course's tranquil setting. "That's what you want to do here."

Jeff put it this way: "I've learned to put the scorecard in my pocket and just to walk with a friend. That's how to have a good time."

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Our most enjoyable last round of the year ended. Abby and my wife Nell joined us for lunch. Winston waited patiently in the wings. At lunch, we told stories.

My last game of 2012 reminded me of what I believe should come first in a game of golf: a walk with friends, appreciating what the writer Colman McCarthy called "the pleasures of the game," picturing shots and trying to play them, and, above all, peace in pleasant surroundings, the quiet broken only by the thwack of clubface against ball, and storytelling. Always, storytelling.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein


Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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