Walking on at a golf course can be one of the more stomach-wrenching things we can do. Think of that first tee shot of a normal round and then ramp up your nerves 10-fold. Here you are meeting up with three strangers and they have nothing better to do at that moment than to watch your tee shot on #1 and judge you, your athleticism, the state of your game, and whether or not you have any “ticks,” those peculiar waggles and movements that drive others crazy. (Ticks: think of Sergio Garcia and his regripping problem or Jim Furyk and his peculiar habit of starting to putt and then backing away.) All of this aside, some of my most lasting memories involve either walking on or having someone else join us for a round.
One time in the late ’90’s I walked on at Longview (now renamed “Fox Hollow“) Golf Course. By this time I was used to doing it and didn’t feel any particular nerves or inner fears. After making the perfunctory disclaimers that I would try not to play too badly, the round started. What was a little different about this round was that the three gentlemen I was playing with were Oriental. Were they Japanese or Korean, that was my thought. Why, you ask. Well, it’s simple, sort of.
This was a week or so before Christmas and we had a foreign student staying with us. Mrs. Commish and I have one child, a daughter (who never practices her golf game but when she plays she has this beautiful natural feather draw that I would die for, but that’s another story) who was a 10th grader at Oldfields School, a wonderful little school in northern Baltimore County that has students from all over the country and world. One of the girls, Suna Jo, was my daughter’s “little sister.” This meant that she would take Suna under her wing and help her to acclimate to living in America away from her family. Suna was Korean but her family lived in Japan. Mrs. Commish’s mother, Buzzy (short for “Old Buzzard”), was getting up in years and was living with us at the time, also. Buzzy had a hard time remembering Suna’s name and called her Sushi, a nickname which stuck with her for the rest of her Oldfields days.
Sushi was a boarding student and had gone to Texas to spend the holidays with one of her friends. Something happened with that family and Sushi had to cut short her visit and return to school. Oldfields asked if she could spend time with our family because there would not be any other kids in residence over the holidays. We said, “Of course,” and with that a golfing memory began.
At the time Sushi was a little shy. Her English was fine but she was uncomfortable with it so she generally spoke only when spoken to. My daughter and Sushi, being kids, had a fine time and you could hear lots of laughing and such noise as high school kids make, but I felt a little awkward because I didn’t think Sushi was comfortable with us because of the language barrier.
Sunday morning came and I woke up to walk-on at the local muni. Did you remember, this story is about walking on at the golf course? Anyway here I was teamed up with three Oriental golfers and having a Korean girl staying with us that I wanted to make feel more at home. For the first 5 holes I wondered how to ask them if they were Korean. Would it be an insult if they were Japanese? Would I be thought of as just another “ugly American,” an insensitive white guy, etc., etc. We talked small talk but nothing to remember until I finally thought, “What the hell, if I’m thought of as insensitive, so be it ’cause I’m trying to help my daughter’s friend feel better.” On the sixth tee I asked the most loquacious of the bunch if they were Japanese.
He laughed and told his friends what I had said (in his language) and they all laughed and told me that they were Korean, couldn’t I tell? After all, they said, Koreans have a more rounded head than Japanese and they are much more handsome. I said that it was great that they were Korean because… and I went on with the story of how Sushi was staying with us. I told them that I wanted to try to make her feel more at home and they helped me memorize a couple of phrases in Korean. The next 12 holes were some of the most fun golfing I have ever had. The joking between all of us picked up and by the end of the round we were good buddies and hoped to play together again some time. Before I left, they had to repeat the phrases 3 more times, just to be sure.
I got back to my hacienda around 10:30 in the morning with lox, bagels and cream cheese for breakfast. Entering the family room I saw Mrs. Commish in the kitchen but the kids were still upstairs. I yelled several of the phrases up the steps and Sushi came out smiling and saying, “What?” I repeated, “Pago pa? (Are you hungry?)” and the smile across her face was beautiful. She started to speak in Korean and I had to stop her because I was done after the 3 short phrases, but, finally, Sushi felt at home.
The rest of the phrases are gone from my memory bank now but I still smile every time I recall “Pago pa.” If it hadn’t been for the friendliness of other golfers I would have missed this memory and have been that much the poorer.