Jeff Mietus is one of the top golf instructors in Western New York. His wife doesn’t play. But if she did, Mietus says he would never think of giving her lessons. He has been around long enough to know that teaching your significant other is one of the game’s great natural hazards.
“All clubs have a Mr. and Mrs. event,” said Mietus, director of player development at Transit Valley Country Club. “The big joke in the business is that the divorce attorneys are waiting by the 18th green.”
It’s no joke, however, that golf is hurting for customers. The number of golfers declined in the U.S. during the recent economic downturn. According to Golfweek magazine, half a million people quit the sport every year and the number of annual rounds played has fallen from 518 million to 475 million.
So the golf industry has made a concerted effort to recruit a large and under-represented constituency: women. Only 19 percent of all golfers in this country are females. It figures that if golf wants to increase participation, it should reach out to women – and the men who love them.
“The big push now is women and couples,” said Mietus, the new head coach at Niagara. “It’s one of the targets for a PGA professional on the macroeconomic level. We’re targeting couples now.”
Well, you can count us in. My wife, Melinda, took up golf a couple of years ago and has become a total golf nut. She works on her swing in the house. She watches golf videos. I caught her reading Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons” at breakfast the other day. She dreams of living on a golf course some day.
Last year, we must have played 50 rounds at the Audubon par-3 course in Amherst. It was our fond retreat, our Augusta National. We both get pangs of longing driving past it in the winter. Later, Melinda took on more daunting challenges, like Oakwood and even Terry Hills, my favorite course.
Melinda had hated the idea of golf for years, same as I did. Then, she opened her heart and let the game in. A silly idea became an infatuation.
“My whole family played,” Melinda told me. “My grandfather was club champion at Audubon. My mother’s brother played. It was always on TV at my grandparents’ house. They would tell us kids, ‘Why don’t you take up golf?’ In those days, golf wasn’t cool. It was seen as nerdy, for old people.
“I would say, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ It seemed like a slow, boring game. I think if I had gone out with my grandfather, I would have liked it.”
Golf was a four-letter word early in our relationship. Golf was something that took me away for hours or even days at a time, a rival for my affection. I told her I had duties as a low-level golf celebrity. She didn’t buy it.
One day, she came across an application for volunteers at the U.S. Open. If I was going, she would too. She filled out the forms. I laughed and told her the USGA didn’t want volunteers who didn’t know a birdie from a Cornish hen. A month or so later, she was accepted. I figured they liked schoolteachers.
Melinda worked as a U.S. Open volunteer at Oakmont in 2007, and again at Bethpage in ’09. She worked the hospitality trailer and the concessions tent. She got Chi Chi Rodriguez’s autograph and caught a glimpse of me following Tiger Woods inside the ropes. This was pretty cool, after all. Why not play?
The early days are a blur. Like any dutiful man, I tried to help her. I’m no David Leadbetter, as you’re probably aware. It’s a good thing we weren’t married at the time, or we would have used those divorce lawyers.
Look, I mean well. But giving your woman golf lessons is a horrible idea. It’s like giving driving lessons to your kids. There’s too much emotion in the way.
“It’s just not a very good idea,” said Marlene Davis, who has been my instructor for five years. “It’s a matter of credibility. If you’ve ever been wrong before, why should she believe you now?”
Davis got a good laugh out of that. Wrong? I’m wrong all the time with Melinda. I can’t fix things. I blurt out the wrong answers on Jeopardy. I say things in the heat of the moment, like Ralph Kramden, and admit later that my wife is smarter than I am.
Plus, I have enough problems on the golf course. I’m going to tell someone else what to do? At some point in every round, I try to impart some bit of golfing wisdom and then realize it took me seven years to figure it out.
“It’s like you always give me the little laundry list before I hit the ball,” Melinda said. “So I’m already freaked out, and you freak me out more. Maybe it’s just that the person means too much to you. You’re trying to please them. That makes it even more stressful.”
Tension is the enemy in golf. There’s enough stress in daily life. Golf is a great way to relax and enjoy time out in nature. Who needs a man adding to the stress level? I’m sure it’s no fun for Melinda when I remind her that the irons are intended to actually elevate the golf ball.
I’m not sure exactly when she got hooked for good. I like to think it was the day we went over to the Audubon restaraunt after a round and saw the display of the club champions. Melinda had told me her grandfather was a past champion. We went to the wall and I looked to the upper left, figuring it had to be a long time ago.
There it was: Charles Sist, club champion at Audubon in 1936. Melinda was close to tears. So was I. It was as if finding her grandfather Charlie’s name had affirmed her as the scion of a local golfing dynasty, bound to uphold the noble family tradition.
She went to Gary Battistoni for lessons around that time. I remember how excited she would be when she came home. She was hitting her shots long and straight. I had to see it. Then we would go to hit balls in the dome and she would fail to reproduce her swing magic.
But Melinda has gotten a lot better. She makes her share of pars and bogeys at the par-3. She’s upgraded her clubs and her outfits. She doesn’t always get the ball in the air, but she’s straight and has a nice touch around the greens. I call her “Little Miss Two Putt” and tell her the men would be envious.
I’ve learned to choose my words more wisely. It’s hard, but I heed her advice when she tells me not to say anything at all. Mainly, I encourage her.
“I buy duct tape,” said Miller, who was voted the nation’s 14th-best women’s teacher last year by Golf Digest. “I’m going to duct tape your mouth. She only needs the teacher’s voice in her head. She doesn’t need your voice. I call other people the ‘committee of they.’ Everybody is good at telling people what they do wrong, but they don’t know how to tell them how to fix it.”
If the man insists on speaking, he should tell his female partner to stick with the lessons and, above all, keep practicing. Pam Gray says her husband Jack, a very good player, never tried to teach her. Lessons, he’d say. Lessons.
“I have no athletic ability,” Pam said. “Basically, I played with dolls all my life. I never roller skated. I think I was 13 when I learned to ride a two-wheel bike. Sometimes, it’s better when you’re not an athlete.”
Pam struggled at first, like most golfers. She took lessons from Ed Pfister, Miller and Battistoni. She now shoots in the high 80s. Her advice to Melinda: If you’re persistent and work at it, this maddening sport eventually gets easier.
“I like it because it’s just you and the ball,” Melinda said, “a singular test of your own abilities. I wasn’t a big team player, where you have to be good for everybody else. Golf, it was like ‘Wait a minute, I like this.’ You learn something every time you play it, like how to calm down and be thoughtful, or make little adjustments. I can do it by myself.
“Now, when we play with other people, that kind of stresses me out more. It’s another aspect I have to get past. You need to get over your fear, not be intimidated.”
Last summer, we played Terry Hills with our friends Steve and Judy Burley, both retired teachers and administrators. It was Melinda’s first time on a big course, and she was nervous. It helped considerably when she hit the straightest drive on the first hole.
We had a great day. But I won’t lie, feelings did get frayed. There were times when I felt we were holding up the course. After awhile, Melinda was no longer talking with me. Judy and Steve were at odds, too. He’s a guy, after all, and prone to giving too much patronizing advice.
“He’s not that great, either,” Judy said from Florida, where she and Steve have a winter retreat. “It’s like, ‘Who gives you the right to give me direction? But it’s all part of the fun. You still want to play together, but it’s more fun to play with couples.”
I’ve wondered if it’s tougher for women who have been teachers for a living. I’m not going to suggest they’re know-it-alls, but they’re accustomed to giving the instruction, not taking it.
“Absolutely,” Judy said. “I think teachers are the toughest ones at taking direction, at learning something new.”
I guess it’s a matter of finding the right balance. Melinda and I talk longingly about playing together when we’re older. I like my outings with the Voorhees Avenue gang, but I love the idea of having my wife as a golf buddy.
It’s exciting to see her become a golfer. Melinda keeps her clubs and shoes in the trunk, just in case. I remember what it was like when I started. I’ve seen her mutter about wanting to quit when things went bad, then smiled as she made one of those marvelous shots that keeps drawing you back to the game.
Melinda has become “one of those people” who dream of owning a little patio home next to a golf course, where you can slip out to play a few holes after breakfast. She’s hooked and determined to get better.
I’m considering putting duct tape over my mouth, and looking forward to the day when my wife can teach me.