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Family Adventures Close to Home: Watch Out, Tiger!
By Rosie Ruley Atkins
"Can you guys name a famous golfer?" I ask my son Miles and his pal Jesse as the N-Judah chugs past the stylized condos of South Beach.
"Tiger Woods," the two 7-year-olds shout.
I think of Tiger Woods toddling onto the golf course with his dad at age 3 and wonder if Tiger's dad had to keep reminding Tiger to leave the clubs in his bag until they got to the course. For the fourth or fifth time since we've boarded Muni, Miles' hand sneaks toward the driver poking out of the top of his bag.
"Leave it alone," I say.
He rolls his eyes. "I know, I know: wait until we get to the driving range."
We exit the train and cross the Fourth Street Bridge. Instead of using the sidewalk, we follow the path that runs along the Mission Creek houseboat community.
"Is this the driving range?" Jesse asks, pointing at the ramshackle houseboats that stand defiantly against the gleaming glass of the UCSF development across the water. He yanks a club from his bag, ready to drive a ball into someone's floating living room.
"Not yet!" I call.
Around the corner, the boys spot Mission Bay Golf Center's imposing, two-story steel and concrete facility surrounded by black-mesh netting.
"Wow!" Miles says. "It looks like a video game."
At the very least, I know the boys will enjoy the aesthetics of the place. The woman at the token window advises us to use practice bays on the right-hand side of the upper deck. "The balls look like they're going further from up there," she says.
The boys pump their tokens into the ball machine, which dispenses scuffed balls into their yellow plastic buckets with a satisfying mechanical clanking.
I set each boy up in his own bright yellow practice bay and proceed to demonstrate the proper way to hold a club.
"Line your thumbs on the top of the club and link your left index finger with your right pinkie," I say.
Miles hefts his five-iron over his shoulder like baseball slugger Barry Bonds. Jesse adopts a stance that reminds me of my old field hockey days. I decide to let them go freelance until they figure out that there is a correct way to hit a golf ball.
After several misses, Miles connects with a ball and sends it aloft. It lands about halfway to the 25-yard flag.
"Good one," Jesse says, encouragingly.
Jesse lines up his shot and whacks a ball just clear of the safety net that protects golfers on the lower deck from errant shots. He whoops. The woman at the token window was right: even short shots look good from the upper deck.
After a few more swings, Jesse announces, "I think it's time to switch clubs." And with the gravitas of Tiger Woods on the 18th hole at the U.S. Open, he peers into his junior golfer bag.
"I wish I had more to choose from," Jesse says, running his hand over his collection of five clubs.
"I've only got four," Miles says. "At least you have five."
On his next swing, Miles pounds his club into the Astroturf about a foot short of the ball. He settles into the driving stance, and again the club connects with the turf instead of the ball.
"This game stinks," he announces. He drops his club and retreats to the shaded bench that runs along the back wall of the upper deck. He crosses his arms over his chest and frowns. Two benches away, a middle-aged man sits, wearing the exact same expression.
Jesse hits a few nice shots and then bangs three in a row into the bright yellow metal side of the bay. He joins Miles, cross-armed, on the bench.
"We definitely need more clubs," Jesse says.
I think of my husband scouring yard sales and thrift shops, searching for the perfect carbon driver, and I wonder if the desire for more clubs is hardwired into the male psyche.
After a few minutes of brooding, the boys resume their positions on their rubber mats. Jesse lines up and takes a textbook-perfect swing; the ball arcs over the 50-yard flag. Miles whistles appreciatively.
"I think that was about a thousand yards," he says.
Jesse looks out over the seven-acre range, littered with hundreds of white balls. "More or less," he says.
The two boys hit a stride, connecting with the ball more often than they miss. Their brows are wrinkled in a curious mix of pleasure, concentration, and dissatisfaction as they take their swings, and I can't help but think I'm getting a preview of the guys these boys will become.
I watch the cranes add steel beams to the office towers at the end of the range and listen to the oddly soothing hum of traffic whizzing past on I-280 just behind us. The boys are oblivious to anything but their swings.
"Last ball," Miles calls.
"Me too!" Jesse says.
"Save them for the putting green," I tell them.
At the green, the boys have trouble switching from the joyous big swings of the driving range to the more refined putt. Miles' first attempt flies off the green toward Stix, the golf center's on-site restaurant and bar.
"They have French fries in there," he informs us as he returns with his ball.
Jesse squats and pushes his ball into the cup with the palm of his hand.
"Well, I guess that's enough for one day," he says. The boys sling their bags over their chests and head into the restaurant, where they share a large plate of crispy fries.
"So, do you guys think you're ready to play on a real golf course?" I ask them.
Jesse leans back, chews on a fry, and contemplates the question.
"I think so," he says. "I kind of like golf because it isn't all about winning."
Miles pushes a fry through a puddle of ketchup and adds, "Plus, you can get lots of clubs."
I follow the boys past the houseboats, listening as they brag about their best shots of the day. I imagine them spending Saturdays at the golf course, developing character, sportsmanship, patience. Miles stops and turns to me.
"Did Tiger Woods really play golf when he was 3?"
"How many clubs did he have in his bag?" h
Rosie Ruley Atkins lives in Noe Valley with her husband, son, big red car, and a rotating assortment of tropical fish. Contact her at email@example.com.
The Muni Way to Mission Bay Golf Center
The Mission Bay Golf Center (phone: 415-431-7888) is located at the corner of Sixth and Channel streets and is easily accessible via Muni. Take the N-Judah to Pac Bell Park. Cross the Lefty O'Doul Bridge, turn right, and follow Channel Street to the corner of Sixth Street. The center is open Tuesday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Mondays from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. A bucket of balls costs $8. The last bucket is sold at 10 p.m. Kids of all ages are welcome, but those younger than 6 must be watched closely. The driving range has a very limited number of kid-sized loaner clubs available at no extra charge. The pro shop next door sells starter kits for about $70. (Yard sales and thrift shops are also great sources for golf clubs of all sizes.)
Gardeners might enjoy making a side trip into the thriving community garden hidden behind the wooden gate at the Sixth Street end of the path alongside the Mission Creek houseboats. Among the tangles of herbs and vegetables, you'll find whimsical outdoor art and maybe a friendly gardener or two who is happy to share fresh strawberries.