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The Last: Bogie or Bacall?

By Jeff Thoreson

 We’ll always have Paris, Rick says to Ilsa as he convinces her to get on the plane to Lisbon. But he is staying behind, not because he doesn’t want to pay the checked baggage fee, but because he knows their lives will be better apart, that they will never recapture the magic of the city where they fell in love.

Golf is full of Casablanca moments, exhilarating highs that we meet and fall in love with and that – like Paris – are both hard to forget and impossible to maintain. A 9-handicap friend shot 71 a couple of weeks ago. If ever there was a time to say, “We’ll always have Paris,” and get on the plane, that was it.

We all encounter those moments – our chance to grab a blank letter of transit, fill in our name and leave the game for a new world. But in golf, as in Casablanca, only a fortunate few make it out. The rest of us remain in the purgatory of the game. And wait and wait and wait.

My 9-handicap friend will never do better than 71, but he didn’t get on the plane. The next day he shot 87. We all have the opportunity to go out on top, but only the 28-year-old Bobby Jones recognized the opportunity for what it was after winning the Grand Slam in 1930. The rest of us hang in this smoky gin joint.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would have to wonder what we see in a game that offers endless exasperation, is harder to figure out than differential calculus, and no matter how much we put into the relationship, we will spend almost all of our time in the despair of Casablanca, only hoping to recapture the fleeting moment of Paris. And at some point, we will probably regret not taking the opportunity to get on the plane. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

It’s just that the game holds these come-hither qualities that make us believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Like a Paris romance, the game is addictive. You work at it, hang on to the moments that make it special, but inevitably you have to wonder if things might not have been better had you Bogart-ed it and made a clean break. What might have been? I wonder – usually during a stretch of poor play – how much different my life would be had if I at some point gotten on the plane.

I once knew a guy who played one round of golf in his life and hated it so much that he never spoke of it again, as if he had witnessed the unspeakable realities of war. I kinda get it. More and more lately, I kinda wish I was him.

The time, the money, the frustration – what does it all add up to? I think of the hours I’ve spent chasing Parisian moments. Forget all the ancillary stuff, just the hours. Add them up – it’s impossible, I know – and think about what else they might have gone toward. You start to wonder what the game’s opportunity cost has meant to your life – the money you might have saved – or earned – the other relationships you might have had time to cultivate, the places you might have traveled to. In the end, I will probably never get to the actual city of Casablanca, but I can say, “Yeah, but I shot 65 back in 1998.” Does that make it all worth it?
A friend who asked me to play in a two-man tournament this summer accidentally asked me for my handicap index as of April 15 instead of August 15. I went back and found that my handicap has changed by exactly one-tenth of a point this year.

So I suppose what I’m wondering here is, maybe it’s time for me to get on the plane. What’s the point of continuing on in unfluctuating mediocrity? I’ve passed my Paris moment and reached that age where maybe I should cut it off in hopes of finding something greater.

More time has passed since I played my greatest round than those cinematic French refugees spent in Casablanca, and those times when I believe I still have that game in me are fewer and fewer. Yet, I go on. Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.

In the end, like Rick and Lauren Bacall’s Ilsa, our romance with golf is doomed to end in heartache. Always heartache. One of us will escape the purgatory of Casablanca, but it won’t be me. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. I’ll never get out of here. I’ll die in Casablanca. Golf and I will never reach that harmonic accord where we can both get on the plane and live happily ever after. Not even the wisdom of a cynical, mercenary drunkard – even if it is Humphrey Bogart – can make that happen.

And so I wonder: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, why did I have to walk into golf? Oh, what the hell.

Play it again, Sam. [END]