By Jamie Katz
We piled out of the car, grabbed the bags and hit the course. I had five lads with me, all between 16 and 20 years old. We didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of our strenuous training for golf’s newest, biggest prize: an Olympic medal. In 2016, golf comes to the Olympics in Brazil and with persistence, effort and a bit of luck, my boys will be there, representing what we hope will be a newly-great golfing nation: Ethiopia.
Okay, so what if the course we were going to was on an indoor simulator? And so what if the Ethiopian guys I had with me knew only one thing about golf: that Tiger Woods played? And so what if I’d never taught anyone, other than my daughter, a damn thing about golf? The quest was on.
A bit of background. My family is, in itself, a rainbow coalition. We adopted my daughter from China. I have one surfer-dude, California nephew; a niece born in the great state of Massachusetts; and three nieces and two nephews born in Ethiopia adopted by my sister, a single mom.
The boys, Amanual and Dawitt, are natural athletes and good runners. Skinny and strong, they played lots of soccer as kids, mostly because there weren’t a lot of other sports for them. In the US, they picked up basketball, football, dreams of making money and girls along the way. We live in the Boston area, so they’ve become Boston sports fan, with a particular passion for the Celtics.
I live in the same town with Amanual and Dawitt. I’m 60 years old. Where they are lean and fast, well, I’m neither. Not even close. I can beat them in swimming, skating, tennis and other sports they didn’t play in Ethiopia, but they’re catching me in everything else.
We live within a half-mile of a driving range that also has a pitch and putt course. In the vain hope that my daughter might like golf, I took her to the driving range a number of times when she was younger and had her take a few lessons from a good pro there — that’s a story for another day. I brought Dawitt along for a couple of the lessons. The pro loved his smile and his enthusiasm for trying to hit golf balls, though Dawitt didn’t have much early success at it. He and my daughter, who is about four years younger, trash-talked each other as they wailed away, balls going in many directions, while they tried to follow the pro’s instructions.
I played with the two of them once on the pitch and putt. Dawitt loved the fact that I only beat him by six shots. Of course, I didn’t explain to him that on most holes, we kept my score from the first shot but didn’t start keeping his score until he’d taken two or three shots off the tee and had one that was playable. The highlight for all of us was when my daughter hit a beautiful 9 iron about 90 yards. Trouble was, the hole was only 30 yards long and beyond it was a fence, then a road. She missed a car driving past by about two yards.
Back to my Olympians. When late November hits Boston, it’s time to take the clubs to indoor simulators. So one weekend afternoon a few years ago, I told Dawitt and Ahmanual to grab a couple of their friends so we could play golf indoors. At first, they didn’t understand what I was talking about. But since so much of the lives of teenagers is spent online or on video games, a golf game on a simulator is just as real to them as a real golf game. But they were still thrilled to play — if they could play Tiger Woods on Xbox, they figured they could play with real golf clubs.
The owner of the golf facility gave me a quizzical look as we approached the simulator. I’d been there a number of times, but always on my own to use the practice bays or occasionally to use the simulator to work with specific clubs.
“Who you got with you?” the owner asked me.
I was stymied for a moment, but then it hit me.
“The Ethiopian Olympic team. Training starts today,” I said.
He laughed, but in that moment, I realized I’d found my destiny.
In that first session, only two of the guys had had golf lessons. The other three had never used a club before. That did not stop them, of course, from assuming that since they were all good athletes — all of them some were some combination of runners, basketball, football or soccer players — they would easily master golf. And, of course, they would beat me.
The simulator, thankfully, was like hitting into a cave. It had heavy vinyl curtains all around and on top, except for the front. Nobody could see in and no balls could get out. But, of course, other golfers could hear the sounds of balls hitting everywhere but the screen, along with a heavy dose of trash-talking that came in English and Umparik, the Ethiopian national language.
I gave the kids quick lessons in the grip, the stance and the swing, and had them take practice swings with balls off the tee to start. Very few of their shots went straight or far, but they kept bashing away. I did my best to instruct, but they were too busy dissing each other to pay much attention.
Then we started on the course. I picked the easiest course, with wide open fairways, and I put them on the shortest tees. I let them play the first couple of holes themselves. Nobody hit the ball more than about 70 yards towards the hole, a 300-yard par four, though one hit a long out-of-bounds slice. They all took between six and nine shots to get on the green. They gave the most verbal abuse to the youngest player, who hit the shortest, but straightest shots. When he managed to sink about a 30-foot putt, against all odds, the trash-talking actually stopped for a moment.
At No. 3 hole, I let them all hit first. Somebody had a drive close to 100 yards, but again balls were splayed all over the place and multiple mulligans were taken. Then I stepped up to the tee. I played from the back tee and hit a good drive for me, about 250 yards down the middle. For the second time, silence, but then, “Oh, my God, that’s like Tiger Woods,” “Look how far that is,” and a bunch of Umparic comments that were probably along the lines of “How did an fat, old guy do that?”
We finished the day a slight bit more polished than when we started. But only a slight bit. We’ve gone back a number of times since and will be back there this winter. I figure we’ll ramp up the training this year. More balls go straighter now. Guys are now getting out there close to 150 yards. The guy who owns the indoor range welcomes us with a smile on his face, knowing he’ll have a bunch of happy, enthusiastic golfers, even if their shots don’t quite yet merit the enthusiasm.
Despite the grueling training I put them through, the young men all have fun. I figure that after this winter’s intense training, I’ll get them on golf courses next summer at least a few times. We have to step it up — I have three years to whip them into shape.
You’re skeptical, I know, I can read it in your eyes. But hey, I believe in these guys. And as for their places on the Ethiopian Olympic team, I figure we’re in pretty good shape. Last time I looked, Ethiopia had one nine-hole golf course and a six-hole course at the British Embassy. How good can their competition be? And after all, we’re getting better and playing a harder course — Pebble Beach on a simulator. What could be tougher training?