A Different Kind of Golf 

If the green is gray and the hazard is a storm drain or fenced-in lot, you must be playing urban golf.

Urban golf is an oxymoron. Golf is a game of idyll. It requires intense concentration, yes, but its fussy greens, rolling landscapes, cozy bunkers, and bucolic ponds are pure escapism disguised as sporting challenge.

Urban and golf? Never the twain shall meet, right? But hang out in Emeryville long enough, and they do, usually within the sickly yellow glow of Best Buy. That's where Matt Spiro and friends gather to warm up before hitting the course. The course is the streets and alleys and sodium-lamp back lots of Emeryville's ever-expanding corporate citizens, such as Chiron and Pixar; the "holes" are buildings, gates, garage doors, planters, and other objects hard to hit with a tennis ball whacked with a dilapidated golf club.

Spiro's crew gathers on a Sunday night at Park and Horton to demonstrate how urban golf goes down. The fog is blasting across the bay, the sky industrial-gray and roiling, and the temperature at tee-off time barely scrapes fifty degrees. Fleece hats, gloves, and vests are the order of the evening. There are few cars in transit through the neighborhood and even fewer parked on the street, which all agree is a good thing.

"Two years ago, we had to develop a course that was relatively yuppie free," says Spiro, who lives in an Emeryville loft and has seen the town's warehouses steadily convert to big-box shopping, corporate campuses, and fancy loft space.

Before setting out on the 1.5-mile course, the players warm up at the driving range or, more precisely, against the driving range: a warehouse wall at least forty feet high. I ask what type of clubs they're using. Several players shrug. "Ask Brian" is the answer, he being the only player present who actually knows anything about golf. Brian Clay, 22 years old and a firefighter-in-training, is also the youngest player and the most likely to climb on warehouse roofs in pursuit of a lost ball.

At 8 p.m., it's tee time in Emeryville, two blocks down Horton from the driving range, and we're ready for the first of nine holes. First, a brief review of the rules: Show respect for privacy and property. If the cops roll up and say beat it, don't argue. Don't vandalize. And don't be a red-ass: urban golf is fun, not competitive.

For the most part, these rules will be observed during the evening's contest. After fishing his ball out of a lovely magenta cascade of bougainvillea, Dennis Herron inadvertently hits a street sign with his backswing. It leaves a tiny dent, but this is not vandalism, all agree. As we struggle to complete the first hole -- a section of brown wall about ten feet wide -- a Chiron security guard watches with a faint smile at the gate of one of the biotech company's many compounds.

Chiron is a major presence in Emeryville -- and in the history of urban golf. "Four years ago, there was nothing out here," Spiro says as we walk down Horton between the mirrored glass headquarters and a brand-new multistory parking garage. "The Chiron construction made us change our course."

Weed-choked fields, old train tracks, and abandoned garbage were all part of the fun. For a while the group played under the freeway and into West Oakland. Once Chiron finished its work, the company allowed the group to play near its facilities, except for the stretch on Horton by its HQ.

At 8:35 p.m., the course turns east, and the weather turns grimmer as the dusk fades to dark under the fog. We play a couple holes up Stanford, across Hollis, the first major thoroughfare on the course, where Dennis' ball nearly gets squashed. I'm starting to learn that it's very hard to get a tennis ball airborne with a wood. My shots tend to hit Emeryville's high curbs and shoot in the opposite direction, away from the hole. The flashlight attached to the golf caddy now comes in handy more frequently. Michael Marx, a 34-year-old personal trainer and sculptor, loses his ball between a brick building and a prickly hedge, the type of urban crawl space where one can often find old candy wrappers, syringes, or rats. Losing one's ball constitutes a three-stroke penalty, and I wonder if Michael's insistence on finding his ball, which starts to wear thin on the group as the wind picks up, is a violation of the noncompetitive rule. Really, what's a three-stroke penalty between friends?

I'm glad that these urban golfers do not stop to drink beer along the way, contrary to my expectations. It's too damn cold for that. A San Francisco group, the Urban Golf Association, plays at least twice a year in North Beach, with local watering holes as the holes. "We play for bar not par" is the motto. Amazingly, the Emeryville crew and the UGA had never heard of one another before this article.

We're now at the Fairway, a brick-lined alley that curves through the middle of an industrial block. The Fairway encompasses three "holes": a metal storage shed surrounded by weeds and orange and red poppies; a wood carving of a racehorse outside an office; and a gate to a parking lot. True to form, Brian has clambered over a nasty-looking wire fence into a storage area to retrieve his ball, which landed there after a whirling-dervish windup and wild swing that he borrowed, apparently, from Happy Gilmore.

After this stretch, we're two-thirds done. We're near the end of the alley, teeing up to hit our balls across 53rd Street and under a parking lot gate, when two squad cars approach side by side from down the long curve of the alley. We're not exactly trapped, but that's my first thought. (My second thought, forged in the furnace of petty pre-adolescent delinquency, is to run.) But as a journalist, I must bear witness.

The squad cars come to a halt. Cop #1, burly with Vandyke facial hair, steps out.

Cop #1: You guys work here?

Michael: No, we're just playing urban golf.

Cop #1: [pause] Somebody reported a group of juveniles.

Matt: [points to Brian] We have one juvenile, but he's being chaperoned.

Cop #2 [emerges from his car]: I know these guys. They do this all the time.

We're allowed to continue, but not before Cop #1 quizzes us on the rules of the game and the course particulars. They roll away, and Matt (jokingly, I think) tees up his ball in the glow of their taillights. "What do I get if I hit a cop car?" he asks.

Michael sinks the next line like a five-foot putt: "Arrested."

High on good humor, the group makes sure I record the entire scene as a testament to the coolness of the EPD.

We're on the home stretch, trying to make our balls roll under a giant dust collector that hangs from the side of a woodworking shop. Ventilators on Chiron rooftops hum their white noise; the fog now glows orange from IKEA, or the traffic on highway 80, or the entire Bay Area's light pollution.

Chris Emerson, who earlier spoke nostalgically of the driving range where he used to hit balls after work in the San Fernando Valley, is now tired. Pain medication from an injury is wearing off, his swing is breaking down, and Brian starts to tease him. The final hole can't come fast enough, although I'm getting the hang of it and hit a respectable four across a parking lot, under a few white vans, and up to a set of Dumpsters behind Semifreddi's bakery. The Dumpsters are full of bread, including several loaves of my favorite dark rye. "Don't do it," Matt warns. "We've seen some nasty shit in there."

I'm exhausted, I'm freezing and it's nearly eleven o'clock. In three hours and a mile and a half, the only other people we've seen, except for an occasional driver and the cops, are the late-shift bakers at Semifreddi's. Brian tallies the scores; Dennis has finished on top with a strong 34. He writes his name and score with a marker on the golf caddy, only three strokes shy of the course-record 31. I scan briefly for a pub, expecting everyone to retreat to the nineteenth hole, but there's no sign in sight and no motion from the group to continue the evening. We disperse into the fog.


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