IT'S 1:30 ON a gorgeous weekday afternoon at Pine Ridge Golf Course in Timonium, where I have come to watch my favorite ritual of spring: new people taking up the cruelest game.
In a clearing at the back of the driving range, as deer nibble at nearby brush, six beginner golfers gather for a lesson from PGA-certified instructor Mark Spolarich.
At times like these, I feel like the guy at the end of the dock waving his hands as passengers board the doomed ocean liner.
"Don't do it!" I want to cry. "Don't get sucked into this game! Look what it's done to me! The gray hair, the bags under the eyes -- I'm only 27, for God's sake!"
But these six new golfers are like all the rest: wide-eyed and eager, oblivious to the pain that awaits them.
Four women and two men are in this class. This is the third in a series of six lessons, for which each student has shelled out 175 bucks. Putting and chipping were covered in the earlier classes. Today's topic: pitching.
Before the class begins, I sidle up to two of the women. Women have a better grasp of self-destructive behavior than men have. Maybe they'll listen to reason. Maybe they'll see that, sure, it's a great game, but it'll break your heart, too, because it takes years to play well, and you never, ever master it.
But, no, they're too far gone.
Sharon Ray, a friendly 38-year-old from Lutherville, says she's taking lessons so she can play with her husband, Paul, a doctor and avid golfer.
If my wife and I played this game together, I tell her, we'd each be speed-dialing a divorce lawyer by the third hole.
Ray's friend, Alys Schiminger, 40, from Timonium, says she's here mainly to try something new. The two women took an art class together -- watercolors -- and decided it might be fun to try golf next.
She seems nice, too. So I don't want to tell her: In terms of frustration levels, watercolors is to golf what kindergarten is to Yale.
A moment or two later, the class begins. Spolarich explains what a pitch is: a compact shot designed to go high in the air and land with very little roll. He demonstrates the shot. Then the students do a few simple drills designed to show how the club should feel as they swing.
After that, they each go off to a mat and practice on their own.
At first, the results, as you can imagine, are not pretty. All six are skulling the ball, spraying ground balls everywhere. If there are any groundhogs nearby peeking out of their holes, they're in mortal danger of taking a range ball to the thorax.
The deer -- I don't know where they are.
But if they're smart, they'll lay low for a while.
Soon, though, one student after another starts getting the ball in the air, at least occasionally. One in particular seems to be getting the hang of it. This turns out to be Mike Whitman, a 38-year-old from Towson who runs a computer business with his wife.
"My most serious student," Spolarich calls him. I can see why. Whitman actually carries a red notebook and -- talk about being an apple-polisher -- takes notes!
In between swings, Whitman tells me his story. He's only been out on the course once. That was last year at Bear Creek in Westminster. The Bear, with its rolling fairways and crowned, napkin-sized greens, ate the rookie up.
What'd you shoot? I ask.
"I quit keeping score," he said.
Ooh, never a good sign.
Chastened, Whitman decided he needed lessons. He wants to be able to play with his 17-year-old son, Matthew, without being so embarrassed he has to wear a paper bag over his head.
Spolarich, 47, conducts three of these group lessons every Wednesday at Pine Ridge and has been teaching the game for 20 years. He seems to be everything you'd want in an instructor: He's passionate about the game, patient with his students, able to convey information about the golf swing in simple, easy-to-grasp terms.
"Golf is a very intricate sport," he says. "It's not something someone's going to pick up overnight."
Amen, brother, I want to shout. I've been playing the stupid game five years, and it's still no picnic.
Spolarich spends the rest of the class going up and down the line of mats, tinkering with each student's stance, grip and swing. More and more pitches are being lofted into the air. The groundhogs are far safer than they were 30 minutes ago.
Sharon Ray and Alys Schiminger are laughing and having a good time.
Schiminger, it turns out, is heavily into yoga. She's taken courses in Hatha, Kripalu and Iyenjar yoga and says she's "tried to get more Zen-like" in her approach to golf.
Enjoy the moment, she thinks as she lines up over the ball.
Enjoy the feel of the swing.
Enjoy the sound of the birds, the feel of sunshine on your skin.
"I'm looking for golf to be more like walking meditation," she says.
I wish I could develop a more Zen-like approach to golf.
Right now, my main swing thought is: Please let the ball go straight.
Please don't let it veer off like a SAM missle and kill someone.
Like every good instructor, Spolarich ends the class on an upbeat note. He tells them he's seen great improvement in their swings.
"Next week, I'm going to teach you how to pose after a shot," he says, smiling. Then he strikes the classic PGA Tour follow-through pose: hands held high, butt end of the club pointing forward, eyes fixed in the distance where, presumably, another 300-yard drive is splitting the fairway.
Everyone laughs. Class is dismissed for the day.
Later, I call Sharon Ray and Alys Schiminger to see how they're taking to this game after just three weeks.
"It's so hard. ... I had no idea!" Ray says, laughing. "I mean, I played miniature golf! But this ... !"
Schiminger says: "I've enjoyed it in general. [But] I don't have high expectations of success."
Hmmm. Maybe that should be my new swing thought.