I'm driving up to the Santa Ynez Valley from Santa Monica in my new Prius. Seventy miles north of Los Angeles, Highway 101 bends toward the coast. Past Santa Barbara, the road skirts the edge of the ocean and the homes in the hills disappear. The Amtrak Coast Starlight briefly obstructs my view, then chugs past, leaving a windswept Pacific glittering to my left. It's a gorgeous, cloudless day. The thermometer reads a pleasant seventy-five degrees.
As the 101 peels away from the ocean and crests the Santa Ynez Mountains, I glimpse the gently undulating hills and olive green scrub oak scattered across the valley below. In spring, wildflowers carpet the landscape in an iridescent yellow. But it's fall now, and the summer has burned the grass amber. The shadows are growing long as I head west on 246 toward La Purisima Golf Course. As I climb over a little knoll, just past Babcock and Melville Wineries, the course gleams emerald when I squint directly into the sun. Even though La Purisima has an august presence from the road, the entrance is nondescript and marked by a small wooden sign, and first-time visitors often streak past. But I know this right turn like the back of my hand, and I slow down.
It's Sunday, but the parking lot is nearly empty, and as I pull in I'm reminded of how La Purisima ("the pure one") got its name. The course is routed through rolling hills and a shallow canyon. There are no cookie-cutter condos flanking the perimeter. Opened in 1986 in anticipation of a population boom in nearby Lompoc—where NASA had planned to land the space shuttle on the Vandenberg Air Force Base but never did—the course struggled early on. Its economic woes were my good fortune. I remember my first round there like a pro remembers every shot he hit in a tournament he won.
There's barely enough light to get in a quick nine, but at any muni in L.A. the loudspeakers would still be summoning foursomes to the first tee. Since the course is all but empty, I scoot out to the twelfth hole, a stunningly beautiful 609-yard dogleg-right par five with dense scrub oak framing its right side. In the nineties, my three-handicap swing was more limber and powerful, and I once hit this green in two. Yet again, I find myself all alone on this course where I've played so many times by myself.
Before the wineries, before the movie, this was my church and golf was my religion. I came here to get away from the sharky Hollywood producers with their doublespeak, the backstabbing agents, the countless rejection letters. This is where I got through my divorce, dealt with my father's tragic death and came to terms with my mother's even more tragic stroke. This is where I brought all my cares and worries and anxieties about the future, bundled them into a corner of my mind and had them momentarily ameliorated. There's something about golf and playing golf by yourself that lifts you out of the morass of quotidian life. You're entirely focused on yardages, getting the line on a birdie attempt, little things you're working on in your swing. In the process, you become almost dispossessed from the world. The wind gusts and it blows everything out of your head. You hit a great shot and an almost irrepressible glee overcomes you and there's no other place you'd rather be.
I tee up my ball and get ready to swing. I set up with a driver and, without the benefit of any kind of warm-up, nail one down the middle. Maybe not as far as I used to, but it's dead center, right down the pipe. I still have it, I think. If I work on it, if I can get out more often, if I put the hours into the short game...