This piece also appeared on Gapers Block.
One summer many years ago, I worked at a posh country-club located in the north suburbs of Chicago. It was a long, impeccably maintained course that met the needs of grazing law-firm partners, portfolio managers, and other cantankerous assboils. The well-off parents of young caddies generally used the country club as a day-care center. These skinny, spaghetti-legged youngsters got paid in hard cash, which they would take back to the caddy house and oftentimes use to bankroll card games. Twelve-year-olds would lose a day’s earnings on a bad hand. Veteran caddies would collect up to $300 cash on a really good day of looping, which they seemed to save up for either a ’90s muscle car or a brick of cocaine.
One morning, I arrived sluggishly to the club and my buddy Oli immediately launched into a story that had been going around. Apparently, Michael Jordan had pulled up in a lime-green Lamborghini Murcielago and tagged along with three accountant-types. He made it a point that everyone should throw down some cheddar, and they soon agreed to play for $50 a hole. Not an astronomical number by any means, but they were pretty much pressured into it by Mike. Turns out that one of the accountants was a pretty good golfer, and ended up besting His Airness by a few holes. Jordan promptly sped off before getting right, deeming his mere presence as sufficient payment.
Here’s the point: Alley golf and regular golf reside in completely different cultural universes. Alley golf advocates urban-void utilization and, in a way, doubles as a public display of social criticism. Regular golf largely caters to society’s upper crust and is a grossly inefficient use of valuable land- and freshwater-resources. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a nice round of golf in the summer, it’s just that I realize how ridiculous the sport is.
Not to mention that golfers are finnicky as fuck. In golf, there are rules regarding ball placement, etiquette, how the pin should be pulled out, where one can walk on the green, where one’s shadow should fall, when silence is required, where one should stand, and a nauseatingly long list of other concerns that goes on ad infinitum. Why the concern about silence? College basketball players don’t get silence when they’re shooting free throws; they have to deal with screaming kids in Speedos. It feels like an exercise in bureaucracy. For example, when playing a tournament, a player doesn’t actually fill out his or her own scorecard. Their partner does. At the 1968 Masters, Robert De Vicenzo missed out on a chance to win the Green Jacket because his partner marked an extra stroke on one of his holes. De Vicenzo signed off on the scorecard, so he was out of luck. What a dumb way to cap off the Masters.
So, I propose that if you’re a golfer and are generally into giving zero fucks, just R-E-L-A-X and take the game to the alleys. Get John-Daley drunk, take a few practice swings at empty Schlitz cans in a parking lot, and let ‘er rip. Many cities already have established alley-golf organizations that you can join, including Washington D.C., London, and Seattle. The Chicago Urban Devils Golf Enthusiasts’ League (CUDGEL) had been active at one point, but I decided to organize a foursome myself and hack through some of Wicker Park’s finest alleys.
You’ll need a few things for urban golf: Clubs you can swing with reckless abandon, a well-planned course that winds through alleys or a sparsely trafficked part of town, and a bunch of extra balls. Some people like to play with foam true-flight golf balls, though I think they’re a bit difficult to hit off pavement. I’ve also heard about some Indiana Joneses out there who actually play with real golf balls as if they’re teeing off from the front yard of the Paper Street Soap Company. I think this can be pulled off in Detroit or Bratislava. We opted for tennis balls, which worked surprisingly well and didn’t damage anything during our round. Bring a marker to write your names on the balls.
It was a breezy-yet-sunny early-fall morning in Chicago. Pat was wearing his referee outfit, a classic move that’s been a hit at parties since college (when party fouls were always a spectacle). Max put together a country-club lite getup, and Sam was looking like a cross between Margot Tenenbaum and Marla Singer. Good start. We made things official by lighting up some gas-station cigars before teeing off. Right away, it became evident that pretty much the only people outside on Sunday morning in an upper-class fauxhemian neighborhood are little kids and their dads. Also, it’s really annoying when you’re trying to take a big swing and a guy pulls up with a van and begins unloading its contents. Whiskey helped us pass the time.
The round took us a couple of hours and it was a certified blast. We lost a few balls, and figured out that it’s much easier to hit the ball straight than trying for a home-run drive. In general, we struggled to lay up good shots ahead of alley turns, which led to a bit of hacking away in the bushes. The biggest surprise was how much the neighborhood residents got a kick out of our shenanigans. Entire families stopped to watch us take swings and good-looking ladies asked us if they could join in. The owner of a frame store came out and asked us for a course map. It was a fun time, and we didn’t get any flak for it. Being semi-careful and using tennis balls was key to the experience, and I’m looking forward to getting out there again this spring. All in all, I believe that alley golf is a great way to make use of underutilized urban-areas, and also helps reprogram people’s ideas of what “acceptable” activities in these spaces are. Especially for those curious kids who are out with their dads on Sunday morning.