April 6, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Jerry Green

Even old duffer drawn to challenge of golf

Golfing legend Annika Sorenstam thinks the challenge of the sport is what attracted her to it. (Getty Images)

Rancho Mirage, Calif. — The separation between the professional and the amateur is a chasm. The novice — the amateur — has hopes. She — or he — starts with the deepest of ambitions. He — or she — aspires someday to play the chosen sport well enough to become a professional.

But then for 99 percent of normal souls with the highest ambitions there comes the awakening.

You discover some day, young usually, sometimes foolishly old, that you cannot play. It holds for every sport. You have the desire, you lack the skills.

You keep trying.

Even the rare athlete who is good enough to turn professional wishes to become a more talented professional.

"This is not just a game you come out and play," said , once a most talented professional about the frustratingly hapless sport of golf.

No, for sure it is not a game you — or anyone — comes and plays.

"Well, I've tried every sport there is," she said. "I grew up playing soccer, tennis, and golf is one of the last sports I tried and the hardest things I tried.

"I think that's why I liked it so much."

Annika Sorenstam was speaking at the Kraft Nabisco tournament being played this weekend at Mission Hills Country Club here. She was — before her retirement — a multi-major champion on the women's golf tour

She was speaking to one of the most aged of amateurs — still a novice, still a wannabe, still an angry ancient.

One tough game

It was five years ago now I looked out my window in neighboring Palm Desert and stood assimilating the loveliness of Monterey CC.

"You old fool," I told myself, "you live on a golf course and you don't play golf. Look at those old goats out there. Betcha could do as well as they do."

Old fool, indeed!

This area outside of Palm Springs has gorgeous weather most of the year — December and January included — and has perhaps a 100 golf courses, all of them also gorgeous.

So I decided to try to play, to take some lessons, and go out and aim for — well, aim for 120 and then lower. I was a mere 80 years old at the time.

And yeah, playing golf is, as Annika says, one of the hardest things I've tried.

"Every day it changes and conditions are different," Sorenstam explained. "I think that's what attracted me to the game.

"It's a mental game. It's not just about having a good swing. You've got to think right.

"You've got to have the game in the right place. Again, that's why I love it so much.

"You can go out here and just watch the players. They're very tactical and strategic, but they're great athletes.

"I think that's a combination that makes you play well."

Playing well is something that eludes the 99 percent of normal souls.

But that talent has not eluded Stacy Lewis. She is at the Kraft Nabsico in her new status of the LPGA's No. 1 golfer in the world.

"It's been chaos is what it's been," Stacy said of her climb to the top world ranking among women. "I think with all the requests and all the attention.

"I expected it, but it's been overwhelming."

And she has been overwhelming.

Stacy Lewis has been the champion of six of her last 24 tournaments in the climb to No. 1.

"It was all of a sudden," she said this past week to the golfing media in Rancho Mirage.

Amateurs for a reason

I've watched the women pros play and the men on the tour, too. They slam the ball. Bubba Watson a year ago with his 90-degree shot from the middle of nowhere that resulted in his victory at the Masters. Tiger Woods, back at No. 1, leading to this week's Masters.

The men pros belt the bejabbers out of the golf ball. The women, well, their swings are sweeter. They play golf with finesse. They are closer to purity — and they can hit their shots over water.

No. 18 at Mission Hills is on an island. Several years ago, I saw Karrie Webb hit the ball over the water from 200 or so yards away, onto the green, and watched it roll into the cup. She won the Kraft Nabisco with that shot.

I play with guys with my generational handicap. Avid amateurs and we play a couple of times a week. Nine holes. I'm lucky when I finish with a 60, my goal based on my 120 ambitions.

The biggest joke is when I come to one of the many water holes. It usually goes kerplunk. A couple of weeks ago, I did manage to get the ball over the No. 18 at the tournament course at Mission Hills. My shot rolled and rolled. Until it went over the green to the other side, through the fringe and — kerplunk.

For sure, it's mental.

Yeah, it's not a game that you are able to come out and play, just as Annika, the longtime champion, said the other day. Not for 99 percent of us, the amateur wannabes.

But it's a sport that grips a guy, even into deep senior citizenship. Even when the result is another kerplunk!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.

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