A Bucket at Bubba' Place

Stumbling on a golf oasis when I needed it most

Like most golfers, I get a little cranky when I don’t get to play. It’s a real problem at this stage in life. With baby number two on the way and Fall soccer sign ups for my daughter just around the corner, I’m seeing my windows for golf shenanigans start to close again. It’s cyclical of course, but my mood doesn’t know that.

Of all the obstacles to golf that leave me cranky, it’s probably visiting my in-laws that makes me the most irritable. That has nothing to do with them. They are awesome people. It’s more a concern about my own selfish tendencies and how three days away at their place means I lose any control of the schedule.

Those trips do occasionally involve golf, but it’s certainly not a priority for anyone but me. They don’t belong to a club and for those in their family who do play it’s less than a handful of rounds each year. So when we visit, it usually means by day two I’m pacing around like someone waiting on the cable guys to show up. Clearly I need therapy.

Despite the reality of not playing much there, I do always bring my clubs. Rule number one for struggling golf dads is to never leave home without the sticks. You just never know when an opportunity may pop up. Best be prepared.

As I write this dispatch, sitting at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table, I find myself in a particularly chipper mood. That’s because on this trip, I was indeed gifted a small opening for golf. Considering it has been two weeks since I’ve last played, that little blessing turned out to be a big help.

Going stir crazy in their living room yesterday, I told my wife and her family that I was going to go walk the trails behind their neighborhood. We had a baby shower to attend later in the day so my time frame for blowing of steam was short. My wife nodded, knowing that I was probably about to start pouting. It wasn’t golf, but at least it was exercise.

I had only recently discovered the network of trails that connected their neighborhood to the dense pine woods surrounding the Pensacola International Airport. A little unrefined, they were a nice place to get lost for an hour. Walking through that sandy terrain under a hot Summer sun, I couldn’t help but think that this whole area would be much better suited as a golf course.

I could see potential par three’s popping up all around me. Maybe the city needed a new short course? With each step I was routing the holes I needed to be playing. My deprived golf mind can’t help but see the game everywhere I look.

I reached a fork in the trails where my knowledge of where to go came to an end. Like a man stuck in a Robert Frost poem, I decided to plow forward and discover what lied ahead down the path less traveled. Then, as I came around the next corner, I saw something that made me wonder if I was hallucinating.

Peering through the pine barrens, I saw what appeared to be a grassy field with wavy terrain. I pondered to myself, “why does that look golfy to me?” Surely the heat and lack of playing was getting to me. I had spent most of the last decade deciphering all the local golf options in Pensacola and knew there was no course nearby. Yet, with each step, I was having to adjust my eyes as I saw more and more evidence of the game start to appear.

When a gap in the trees opened I saw the unmistakable glimmer of a steel shaft swishing through humid morning light. I yelled to myself, “Holy shit, that is golf!” It appeared to be some sort of secret driving range and it was no more than a quarter mile from my in-laws house. The mission of my walk immediately changed and I struck out from the trail in search of a closer look at this golfing oasis.

After winding down a somewhat hidden street lined with aging apartments, I came to a sign that said “Pensacola Golf Center - Driving range and instruction.” On the sign was a cartoonish image of local golf hero Bubba Watson. A quick google search revealed that the two-time Masters champ had recently bought the old range and was soon to be renovating it for the enjoyment of his hometown golfers. In dire need of some swings, I went closer to fully inspect the situation.

What I found was a place that lacked any bells and whistles, but did offer $10 large buckets. It wasn’t much, but to a man losing his sanity from lack of golf it was a miracle filled temple to the game. The small “clubhouse” was under renovation, but a cash register kiosk had been propped up. There were dozens of old beat up clubs for sale and three varieties of Gatorade available. The mats looked new and there was no line to jump in. I had found the gateway to nirvana.

I was overtaken with excitement. Sweating from my hike, I approached the kiosk and asked the woman running the show there how long this place had existed. “We’ve been here thirty years” she told me. She didn’t seem as excited to be there as I was, but she had what I needed so to me that made her an angel. I told her I had to get back home, but she would be seeing me later.

About that time, my wife called wondering if I had got lost. In some ways that was true. I sprinted back and got off to our family obligations for the day. Sitting through the baby shower and other fun, I kept thinking about Bubba Watson’s little slice of hacker heaven.

Late in the afternoon, I mentioned to the family how I had found this driving range just around the corner. They were aware of it, but clearly had never been. Further evidence of how normal people don’t comb maps for golf like I do. After being a good boy all day, I asked my wife if I could go slap balls for an hour. She begrudgingly agreed and I was off like a rocket.

I got to the golf center near the end of the day. I was one of the final customers on what seemed like a busy afternoon for the bucket slingers. Smiling at the attendant I said, “Told you I’d be back!” I’m not sure she remembered my earlier enthusiasm or not but she did take my cash and graciously supply me with the medicine I needed.

With the sun sinking down over the trails I had hiked that morning and airplanes flying over head, I plugged in some tunes, threw in a dip, and smashed a hundred golf balls into the evening. The range had a smattering of colorful targets, a handful of customers hanging on to the fading light, and one very happy dad at the end of the line smiling with each swing. Sometimes it only takes a bucket of balls to bring me back to center.

I don’t know what Bubba is planning for that little driving range, but I’d be delighted to write a check to the cause. Finding that field for practice meant I now had a one-hour option for golf only five minutes from my in-laws house. I’m not always cranky when visiting, but sometimes while on a golf drought, I need to hit a bucket to smooth out my nerves. At least that therapy was now an option.

By discovering Bubba Watson’s Pensacola Golf Center, I had found an important outlet to pursue my most pressing obsession while away from home. My mood swings and other issues that result from not playing golf are something I need to work on, but what better place is there to practice self improvement than a driving range? At least I know that therapy exists next time we visit with in-laws. In the meantime, I’ll be rooting for Bubba with hope that his tour winnings will mean more investment for my new favorite golf hideout. He’s in the final pairing today and I’ll be paying more attention that usual.