There are movies that capture a time or feeling in our collective memory and, whether great art or not, resonate with us forever.
For ladies they might be “Terms of Endearment,” “An Officer and a Gentlemen” or “Steel Magnolias.” For men, they’re usually things like “Brian’s Song,” “The Longest Yard” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (if for only one scene in particular with Phoebe Cates).
And for most guys, we’d have to throw in “The Sandlot.”
The sandlot, in case you don’t know, is that physical place in your youth where you and your friends idled away time; where lifelong memories were born of the necessity to fend off boredom.
Your own personal sandlot may actually be the sandlot you played ball on. Or it could be the cul-de-sac you transformed into a football field between passing cars. Maybe it’s the mall or arcade where you spent too much time and your parents’ money.
Well, my sandlot is a golf course. But I never played golf there.
I grew up a short walk from the Chevy Chase Country Club, that quaint nine-hole private golf course tucked halfway up Chevy Chase Canyon — an open field of green grass, pine and oak trees set amid hillside homes that continues to make developers salivate. As a boy, it wasn’t a golf course, but a playground. My friends and I spent more time there than most of the members.
So I wondered what it would be like to play on that course now, to go back again, and see it with adult eyes. I was able to secure a tee time one recent Sunday afternoon, but I had to promise the members that my companions and I would limit ourselves to the game of golf, not any of our other youthful escapades.
Thanks to one of my golf fanatic friends, I learned that the course was built in 1925, and designed by the same guy who crafted Rancho Park, Brookside, Bel-Air Country Club and dozens of other notable courses.
Except for the enormous construction zone where they’ve just renovated and re-sodded the footprint of the underground reservoir, the course hasn’t changed. Huge, old-growth trees protect fairways and homes; so it’s unlike courses built in the last 10 years with their sterile, lifeless model home veneers. These old courses have a sense of place, a time-tested comfort in the very ground you’re walking upon.
Holes 1 and 9 parallel each other, their cart paths being the perfect skateboard racetrack. Like dragsters we’d line up at the top, then careen downhill, racing 300 yards to the finish line at the clubhouse, shredding our brand-new shoes in the process much to our mothers’ dismay.
Hole 2 sports a fabulous view over the entire course and canyon. It’s here I stood carelessly tossing firecrackers into the air as firefighters across the way at Station 23 watched with binoculars. Along with a couple of squad cars, they were waiting for me when I walked up the dirt road going home. When the policeman took me in to my mom, I was forced to hand over a bag as big as my head filled with M-80s and cherry bombs.
“These’ll take off a finger, son,” he scolded me. Downcast, I didn’t notice the parental wink he exchanged with my mom.
My tee shot on Hole 2 was long and straight, sailing directly into a ravine shaded by dense oak trees. This thicket was always one of the best areas to search for abandoned golf balls, and now I knew why. As I looked for my ball, I was 10 years old again.
This is where I went with Jimmy Chen — name changed to protect the guilty — hunting for golf balls in a different way.
“Hunch down low on the slope,” he told me, “so the golfers teeing off can’t see us.”
Then, when a ball was hit into the fairway before us, Jimmy leaped up, sprinted into the fairway, snatched it and bee-lined it back into the protection of the grove. We hunkered down behind a shrub as the golfers’ angry voices drew near.
Throwing rocks into bushes they hollered, “I know where you live! I know your parents!”
Jimmy lived for this. I feared for my life.
Hole 6 is a steep uphill par 3. But more importantly, it’s the perfect hill for ice-blocking.
Never heard of it? Think of the luge in the Winter Olympics, then imagine hurtling yourself down a steep grassy hill without a track, and instead of a sled you’re sitting atop a 25-pound block of ice. Repeat this as much as possible before the ice melts or someone gets a concussion.
When one of my companions would ask at a tee box how the next hole played out, I knew instinctively. On Hole 7, a tricky little par 4, the fairway narrows before crossing a brook to the heavily guarded green. The best polliwog breeding grounds anywhere were right there. It’s also the most serene spot on the whole course.
Was it always this beautiful, I wondered.
Yes. It was, and still is.
There were BB-gun safaris across the plain and torch-lit excursions deep into storm drains; boogie boarding down rain-soaked slopes on stormy days and wishful stargazing on clear nights.
They say you can’t go back again. But “they” are wrong. If you keep the eyes of a child in your heart, you may not be able to stay long, but you can go back.
And thanks to the raging case of poison oak I got hunting for my ball on Hole 7, I’m still there.
Originally published in the Glendale News Press and Burbank Leader 11/14/09