Robert Trent Jones did not design the golf course I am going to be playing this weekend. The architect had to be a cross among Lawrence of Arabia, Jim Bridger and Pancho Villa.
In fact, if you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t know it was there.
You stand on the first tee and you accept that you are on a golf course because Gringo has told you that you are on a golf course.
This, after all, is Gringo’s domain.
You are excused if you have not heard of the Bushwacker Country Club. Very few people have.
The most advanced and powerful Soviet spy cameras could not find this golf course if they spent the next 100 years dangling from satellites over Baja California. I could even tell them it’s located a few miles east of Ensenada off the road to San Felipe, and they’d still come away with nothing more than mug shots of rattlesnakes.
You see, Gringo’s version of a fairway is shorter sagebrush. To play his course, you need an all-terrain vehicle, a compass and a St. Bernard. You don’t need too many golf balls, because you’re allowed to play the one you find . . . even if it isn’t yours.
Gringo is a character named Bob Dumas who, with his wife Mary, runs a weekend hideaway called Rancho San Juanito. It has always been a fine place for relaxing or swimming or sitting in a hot tub or playing horseshoes, boccie ball, table tennis, billiards or volleyball or even riding horses.
Almost anything, in fact, other than golf.
But Gringo was apparently getting restless, like a little kid who stumbles out of a room full of toys and complains that he has nothing to do.
A couple of years ago, I noticed excavation going on behind the main house.
“My tennis court,” Gringo said. “Be done this summer.”
Later, after liquid refreshment and an off-key sing-along with Pavarotti, Gringo confessed. What he really wanted was a golf course.
Sure, I mumbled to myself. And I think I’ll have my yard turned into a redwood forest.
“Great idea,” I told Gringo. “Flip the tape over.”
I put it out of my mind, though Gringo remained insistent that the golf course was still on his drawing board.
A few weeks ago, the telephone rang.
“It’s ready to go,” said the unmistakably enthusiastic voice.
“My golf course,” he said. “You want to play in my tournament?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll come down and give it a try ahead of time.”
And so it came to pass that I was standing on the first tee at the Bushwacker Country Club with the gleeful Gringo. The only problem was that I couldn’t seem to see a tee or a fairway or a green.
“The green’s right in front of that tree,” he said, “and a little bit to the right.”
Aha. This was going to take a little bit of imagination. As Gringo hastily explained, the greens and flagsticks were not in yet.
“They’ll be in for play day,” he said, using his term for this weekend’s tournament.
“You’re going to grow greens in three weeks?” I gasped.
Not exactly. The greens would be artificial turf.
This was obviously going to be a different sort of experience, but any experience involving Gringo usually was.
A horse had to be untied and moved before we could hit to where the second green would be. Two barbed-wire fences crossed the fairway on the fourth hole, a long par-five protected by a giant cactus. Horseback riders were trotting down a road that seemed to be the eighth fairway.
“Let me know when we can hit,” I said.
“Go ahead,” Gringo said. “They’re safe. They’re dead center.”
This was an interesting concept in golf, because we were hitting to where the greens would be rather than where they actually were. The exact pin placement seemed to vary according to where our shots ended up, which was quite convenient. I tried to keep my shots close to Gringo’s, because his ball usually seemed to be where he imagined the hole would be.
When it was all over, and we had completed the nine-hole circuit, he was grinning from ear to ear.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re even par. That’s the course record so far.”
For a second, I almost felt like Jack Nicklaus.
“But,” he said, “we’ll play the tougher tees this afternoon.”
The tougher tees? I didn’t even see the tees I was on.
As we walked off the course toward the cantina, I asked Gringo about his tennis court.
“You can play it any time,” he said. “You just have to kind of imagine where the net and the lines would be . . . “