A Different High - Rod Dahlberg and Golf
There are three things you soon come to learn as a customer of Rod Dahlberg: firstly, your board will almost definitely take a coupla months; secondly, your patience will be more than rewarded with a shooter of striking grace; and lastly, don’t bother popping round the factory Friday arvo, because unless it’s pissing rain, or the surf is sublime, Rod’ll be out playing golf, as he has, practically every Friday arvo for the last thirty years.
On the 25th anniversary of the release of 'Happy Gilmore', the second-best golfing movie ever made (the first being, of course, 'Caddyshack'), Ding Alley caught up with this eternally down-to-earth legend for a yak to find out about his love for this golfing caper.
Rod Dahlberg, 67, been golfing 55 years (with the odd hiatus)
I started off pretty young. Would have been 11 or 12, and me and my best mate Woody used to go after school and muck around on the golf course there. This is in Mount Maunganui in NZ. I had about five shitty old clubs, some of them had hickory shafts, and they were too big for me but I loved it anyway, and before long me and Woody got signed up as members and played in the juniors.
My dad was a good golfer. I remember Arnold Palmer and Gary Player used to have this TV show, called 'Challenge Golf', where they invited two guest pros to match-play, and we enjoyed watching that together.
But then, as often happens, other things came along and I drifted away from it. Surfing and shaping boards started to take up all my attention. I’d still play the odd round here or there, but nothing really regular.
Once I was established here in Angas, got married, had kids, I became a member at Yamba...gee, about thirty years ago. And as the kids got older, and more weekend time freed up for me, I got back into it.
Maybe the biggest attraction of the game is its simply a fun thing to do with your mates. We’ve got a good crew, about a dozen guys. We go out every Friday afternoon, religiously, unless it’s pouring rain or something. We’ve been doing that for probably 25 years or more. Then we’ll back up on Saturday for the club round, but we make sure we’re the last to tee off in the arvo so we can get a surf in through the morning.
It's something I really look forward to, hey. It acts as an offset to surfing. No-one can surf every day, and trust me, it gets hard on the body, as you get older, to surf all the time. With golf, there are guys in their 80s and even into their 90s who still play, not too many people in their 80s and 90s who are still surfing. Though there’s a few, it gets too physical.
With golf, the handicap system levels the playing field, which allows people of different ability levels and experience to play with each other. Without going into too much detail, to get your handicap, you play five full rounds of 18 holes, and what you average over par for those five rounds becomes your handicap, which gets factored in to your scoring.
So, a pro will play off ‘scratch’, that is, a handicap of zero, and someone new to the game might play off a handicap of thirty, meaning they’ll have thirty extra shots up their sleeve for a round. It sounds complicated but it makes sense when you get into it. It levels the playing field, but ultimately, it’s you against the course.
The best I’ve gotten to is about ten but generally I average between eleven and fourteen on my handicap. I’ve never taken it that seriously to the point of obsessing about scores and so on – it’s always been more about the fun and enjoyment – but it’s satisfying to play well, and those rounds where it all comes together are pretty sweet.
The beauty of golf is that even the worst golfer can still hit some good shots, and it’s SUCH a good feeling. It’s pretty well documented how addictive the game can be. I mean, you smack a good drive, and it goes straight and long, or you chip from 120 metres out and get it near the pin, or drain a thirty-foot putt, it’s really, really satisfying… but then you can miss a two-foot putt.
That hit of satisfaction keeps you coming back. What are the other great feelings – sex, getting barrelled, doing a beautiful turn, or riding a wave really well from start to finish, that feeling of putting it together really well - and just like with surfing, when those moments come together, it feels really effortless and easy, and that’s when technique, rhythm, and timing do more of the work than sheer physical effort.
It’s absolutely the best and worst game that’s ever been invented - definitely the most frustrating. Walk around the course on comp day, and you’ll hear a lot of language from off the fairway in the trees where some guy’s having a shocker. It’s an absolute mindfuck. You can be having the best round of your life, and then you just poke one into the trees and the thing turns into a horror show, because, technique aside, the whole game is really played out between your ears.
I love watching golf on TV. The final day of a major is riveting viewing for me, because the mental stamina needed by those guys is amazing. Just the drama and seeing those guys trying to hold it together, their recovery from a bad shot, the way they can shape the ball from left to right or whatever, it’s extraordinary, and the courses they play on are so tough, like you and I would be going around in well over 100, and they’re nailing rounds in the mid-60s.
I guess if you’re not a golf lover then it’s probably the worst thing to watch, but if you’re into it, the good thing about watching it is that there is no downtime. When some players are walking to their next shot they’ll show what’s happening on the other fairway, unlike surfing where there’s a fair bit of watching two competitors staring at the horizon waiting for a set.
If it’s Chopes or Pipe pumping, then pro surfing is insane of course, and nothing compares, but if it’s Manly, onshore and two foot it’s just not that riveting. I love surfing as much as the next guy and I’ll watch almost all the comps, but even J-Bay, with lulls, you’ll watch maybe five waves ridden in half an hour and it’s just not that compelling.
Anyway, back to golf! Your swing is the foundation of everything. And for every golfer, their swing is in a constant state of flux, because there’s so many variables in play.
The only way to get a dependable, repeatable swing is practice, practice, practice. There’s thousands of good, scratch golfers out there, and they all practice like demons.
No-one can just rock up after not playing for a while and expect to play well. It’s repetition and getting lessons to eliminate the glitches. Like, John Wright, the pro at Yamba...the difference he’s made to so many players’ enjoyment of their game, and that’s replicated at golf courses all over the country. If you want to get halfway good, you need repetition and instruction.
Even the best guys will put one over the fence – there’s so many small moving parts in technique and swing where the tiniest flaw gets magnified, from your grip to the plane of your backswing to your transfer of weight, there’s just so much involved in a good golf shot. The best pros – guys who devote their lives to the game, who’ve been playing since they could walk – can lose something in their game, in their swing, and it can take years to get it back again.
Seriously… it’s a c#nt of a game, if you’ll pardon the expression.
When it comes to teeing off, you see it all the time, punters try to rip into it hard as they can, and you see ‘em getting off balance as a result. Then you see the good guys, and they DO rip into it, but they stay really balanced. Just like surfing, it’s more technique than power.
It’s also very much like surfing in that a lot of really good golfers have very different swings, it’s not like they’re all the same style.
From the moment you tee off, your mind is engaged. Even reading a putt really well and draining a twenty footer that’s got two foot of break, just getting the pace right. The short game chipping and putting is maybe even more important than the longer game, and getting yourself out of trouble, out of the bunker, or the long grass, or out of the trees, and let’s not get started on the wind factor. Basically it’s never the same shot twice. You’re constantly problem solving, and the rewards part of your brain lights up when you get it right.
Your equipment’s pretty important. The clubs have evolved, the balls have evolved, and if you’re just getting into golf you can pick up a decent set of clubs second hand for not too much. If and when you get serious, you probably want to pick up a good set, and get them fitted to your height, grip and stance. Like a custom board.
There’s a lot of etiquette involved, and it’s all based on respect and common sense. Like, no talking or shuffling around or ferreting around in your golf bag when someone’s trying to take a shot. Don’t play out of turn – the furthest ball from the hole goes first. And be aware of where you are in someone’s peripheral vision, especially when they’re putting.
You also want to be aware of the playing groups ahead of and behind you too. If your group’s playing slow, let those behind you play through. Similarly, don’t hit up on the group in front, that’s a big no no. If it’s a par three, wait ‘til they clear the green. If it’s a longer hole, wait ‘til there’s no possible way you can reach even close to where they are. No-one likes to get hit by the ball, but they do. It’s pretty much common sense stuff really.
It’s pretty popular among a lot of surfers, I guess the most well-known is Slater, he plays very good golf, plays off three or four. Julian Wilson is a good golfer as well, Tommy Whits, Jake Paterson, they love their golf more than anything. Jack Freestone, Troy Brooks, Luke Hitchings – our local boy – plays off five or six. They’re good all-round sportsman. But Kelly being Kelly, he’s probably the best that I know.
You don’t have to be a magnificent physical specimen, there’s a lot of pro golfers out there that play brilliant golf who look like they graze in a good paddock. Like I said it’s probably more mental than physical, but nowadays you get guys, the DeChambeaus and the Koepkas and they’re hitting the ball a mile, training in the gym to get that strength.
You’d think that the patience you need on the golf course, the acceptance and ability to move on from your last bad shot, would be instructive for the other parts of your life, make you a better person somehow, but I’m not sure it does. There’s a lot of people who lose their shit out there, and I do too.
I think the best golfers are the ones who can keep it together. The pro guys have their caddies, who are almost like their psychologist. We caddy for ourselves, so we don’t have anyone to tell us to calm down, just breathe, it’s gonna be okay, it’s just one bad shot, etcetera. We just ask ourselves what the fuck are we doing out here, and maybe have our mates sledging us.
But I’ll always keep playing, and loving it, good or bad. You’re with your mates and there’s always a few laughs. Some people play for like a hundred bucks a hole, me and the mates play for a two-dollar Keno for the whole match, so it’s pretty high stakes out there...
We’ll also nominate a hole and whoever hits the worst drive shouts a round of beers. (There’s a few other rules for shouts but I’ve gone on long enough.)
I’m happy to play once or twice a week. Knock around in the mid-80s off the bat, that’s a good day, get a few pars, few bogeys, get the odd birdie, it’s a bit of fun.
Golf’s just a great alternative. It’s important to have another interest as well as surfing, whether it’s fishing or playing music, whatever.
It’s good not to just ‘be’ one thing.
// ROD DAHLBERG (as shared with GRA MURDOCH)