George Peper: Mental Case

A widely held theory claims that one’s golf game—like one’s personality—is heavily influenced by one’s earliest experiences, the first years of development. As evidence, consider the shotmaking genius of Seve Ballesteros, born of a childhood swatting rocks with a makeshift 3-iron along the beach in Pedrena, Spain; or Sam Snead’s balanced yet powerful swing, a product of playing barefoot in backwoods Virginia; or the feisty competitiveness of Ben Hogan, the smallest kid in a competitive Texas caddie pen where his chief rival was no less than Byron Nelson.

I’ll admit that the theory applies in my case as well, albeit in a kind of creepy way. My game is what it is largely because of the summer of 1964, when I played 100 percent of my golf within the confines of an insane asylum.

I’m serious. The course was Broadacres Golf Club, in Orangeburg, N.Y., about half an hour north of New York City, and the institution was the Rockland State Psychiatric Center. Both are still in operation, although the asylum is a shadow of its former self, with only a few hundred patients, down from the nearly 10,000 who were in residence half a century ago. In fact, today its main claim to fame is posing as Litchfield Federal Prison in the acclaimed Netflix series Orange is the New Black. It was also used as a stand-in for Indiana University in the 2004 film Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson, about Indiana professor and sexologist Alfred Kinsey.

Back in the early ’60s, however, Rockland State was one of the largest mental institutions in the country. Its director was a friend of my parents, a golf enthusiast who one day got the inspiration to convert 65 acres of his bucolic campus into a sporty little nine-holer. He gained state approval by suggesting that the construction, operation, and maintenance of the course would provide ideal recreational therapy for the patients (at least those sufficiently docile to be entrusted with picks and shovels).

Wisely, the therapy did not extend to allowing the inmates to play. Thus Broadacres became the exclusive playground of the hospital staff plus a few fortunate invitees, including yours truly, who achieved  nearly perfect attendance that summer of ’64. 

On weekdays, I had the place pretty much to myself—just me, the scampering squirrels, and the lurking nuts. Generally, they stood in the shade of the towering oaks that lined the fairways, leaning on rakes and smiling quizzically at me as if I were the one who was sick.

Now, I won’t argue that those formative days were as influential as Seve’s days at the beach, but I do think that certain elements of my game came from my Broadacres upbringing.

For one, my fast pace of play. Trust me, when you’re a 14-year-old boy and the only other human within 100 yards of you is someone you’re convinced is a recovering  psychopath, you tend to get on with your shot. For the same reason, I worked hard to develop a tee ball that didn’t stray too far into the woods, and today the driver remains the most reliable club in my bag.

I also learned the importance of good course management. Certain holes at Broadacres had particular significance to me, and knowing how to approach them intelligently was paramount. The 2nd hole, for instance, was a par four with a small, murky pond crossing the fairway roughly 150 yards off the tee. If I planned my day properly, my third trip through that hole came at just past noon, when most of the patients were at lunch. That’s when I took off my spikes and socks, rolled up my pant legs, and waded into the pond to feel for golf balls with my feet. A good 15-minute session could yield a dozen or so Titleists, Maxflis, and Spalding Dots (balls I’d otherwise have to buy, fearfully, from the patients).

Likewise, I tended to build some extra time into the 7th hole. The greens at Broadacres were circular with relatively little movement, but 7 was perched on the side of a hill, which made for lots of interesting chips and pitches (and also allowed me to see clearly the approach of  stealthy patients). It was there that I taught myself the short game.

Ironically, it was at a short hole that I worked on my long game. The par-three 3rd was an uphill, sidehill, all-carry brute of 228 yards, the hardest par three in the county. At the start of the summer, I had no chance of reaching it, but that became my mission. Each time I played the hole I’d tee up a couple of extra balls and fiddle with ways to add a few yards to my drive. On the day I finally eked one onto that green I felt like King Kong.

Finally, it was the 5th hole at Broadacres that taught me how to focus fully on the shot at hand. You’ve heard the stories of Earl Woods jangling pocket change or rattling a cup of ice as Tiger tried to play shots. That was nothing compared to what I dealt with at number 5.

Stretched alongside that par five was an immense hotel-like building that was home to 200 or so of New York’s most mentally volcanic citizens. Many of the patients’ rooms enjoyed a splendid view of the 5th fairway  (albeit through thick iron bars) and they weren’t shy about expressing their opinions on the game of golf in general and the Broadacres members  in particular.

One regular seemed to wait for me each morning, always unleashing the same line. In a throaty voice at peak volume he encouraged me to be fruitful and multiply, although not in precisely those words. That normally ignited one or two others. There were the paternal types: “Hey, kid, ain’t you got no friends? C’mere, I’ll be your friend.” The cynics: “Nice shot… at least you won’t have to walk far to your next one.” And the
bar-rattlers: “Oogabooga, oogabooga, oogabooga.”

Believe me, to stand over a 3-wood from a tight lie, peering down a tree-lined fairway to a distant green while at the same time reducing such verbiage to mere noise is, well, let’s just say I hit dozens of topped shots.

It’s funny though—half a century later, one of the things I enjoy most about this game is the good-spirited needling. 

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