Sunday, November 28, 2010

Golf: The Final Frontier

It has been a year and a half since I last wrote about golf, in a post titled "Golf-22," from March 2009. At that time, I had high hopes for getting my golf game back on track well enough to actually enjoy it again, a feeling I had not experienced in more than thirty-five years, since I was fifteen and shooting in the low eighties. What has prompted me to write about golf again is a book my wife Nan found for me, The Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport by Carl Hiassen. Like me, Carl started playing golf again after a lengthy hiatus, to disastrous effect. Sharing in Carl's frustration, knowing that I am not alone, has given me the courage to continue the story of my golf game from where I last left off.

After the men's club opener at Redlands Mesa Golf Club in March 2009, which my foursome won by several strokes, I was pretty excited about the game. I used my prize money to buy a Cleveland Golf lob wedge, a club I had needed for years but never owned. I adjusted my work schedule so that I could play eighteen holes every Wednesday afternoon with other men's club members, and I went to the driving range and putting green every chance I could get. Instead of improving from all that play and practice, my game gradually fell apart. An errant shot would land me in trouble, and I would waste endless shots trying to get out of it. Double-digit scores on single holes were not out of the question. But like most bad golfers, there were also occasional flashes of brilliance--a birdie here, a chip-in there--that helped keep hope alive.

After a not utterly terrible men's club round, my golf buddy Tom asked if I was going to enter the Redlands Mesa Open, the club's annual May tournament. I'm sure my look said, "Are you out of your mind?!" He smiled and said, "I was just thinking that with your high handicap, you might be able to play a couple of break-through rounds that would put you in the running for the low net championship." I gave it some thought over the next few days and asked another men's club golf buddy, AJ, who played at about my level, if he wanted to join me. He wisely opted out.

On the first day of the tournament, I arrived more than an hour before my scheduled tee time to work out the kinks at the driving range. I don't know if it was nerves or just another stage in the natural disintegration of my game, but I sprayed shots all over the place. If I hadn't already paid the entrance fee, I would have just gone home. Instead, I went up to the clubhouse to meet my two playing partners, an older guy who worked at the golf course and a younger guy who was only playing with us high-handicappers because he had needed to attend his wife's college graduation ceremony earlier in the day. As the last group to tee off, at least we didn't have anybody putting pressure on us from behind. Not that it mattered to me, I triple-bogeyed the opening hole.

The round proceeded in about that same vein or worse. I'm sure my playing partners were wondering what I was even doing out there, but they were nice enough not to laugh, though I gave them plenty of opportunities. Within a few holes, my nervousness had given way to a slow-boiling anger and I was swearing fluently after every bad shot. By the time we reached the fourteenth hole, I was ready to explode.

The tee shot on number fourteen must go between two giant boulders on either side of the fairway in order to set up a short pitch to the green, which is hidden around the corner from the boulder on the right, making for a ninety-degree dogleg. My drive was short. I could either try a blind shot over the boulder to the green or lay up for an easier shot. The pin was at the front of the green so I opted for the lay-up. My next shot needed to land on the fringe at the front of the green and roll close to the pin. Instead, it went under the lip of the sand trap that protects the front of the green. I opened my sand wedge's clubface as much as possible and took a vicious swing, hoping to pop the ball straight up and onto the green. The ball hit the lip and dropped even closer to it. I tried again. And again. All I managed to do was dig a deeper hole. I turned to my playing partners and asked what my options were. They just stared at me like I was crazy, and at that moment, I did go a little bit crazy. I took a stance ninety degrees to my right and hit the ball out of bounds with all my might. I turned toward where the golf carts were parked and two-hand overhead tomahawked my sand wedge as hard as I could in their direction. I stepped out of the trap and did the same with my putter, which I had foolishly carried with me, thinking I would be finishing the hole. I picked up the rake and dragged it through the wreckage in the sand trap, then walked back to the carts without making eye contact with my playing partners. I took my seat in the cart, picked up the scoring pencil, and marked a large "X" on my scorecard. Disqualified.

I finished the round in silence, uselessly parring the final hole. When we got back to the clubhouse, I handed my scorecard to one of my playing partners, took my clubs off the cart, and went home. Even though she could see it on my face, Nan still asked, "So how did it go?" All I could think to say in return was, "Worst round of my life." We had planned to go out to dinner at a new rib joint, so we went ahead and did that despite my foul mood. After a couple of glasses of wine, I told her about my day. After several "Oh, my"s, she asked what I was going to do about the next day, the second day of the tournament. I wasn't sure. What if I showed up and they told me I couldn't play because I had been disqualified? I didn't think I could stand the humiliation. I lay awake in bed long into the night thinking about golf and what I should do about it. I finally reached two conclusions: I would not try to play in the second day of the tournament; and I would stop keeping score.

Golf is the only sport I participate in regularly that involves keeping score. Scores allow golfers to compare their performance to past performances and to other golfers' performances. If you're good, this is part of the fun. If you're not, it takes all the fun out of it. I enjoy the activity of golf, being outside in a beautiful environment on a sunny day, socializing with friends and getting a little exercise, but keeping score just ruins it for me, so I don't do it anymore. Sure, I know if I've just parred or birdied a hole, but I don't add the holes together to get a final score. I no longer have a handicap, I no longer belong to the men's club, and I will never enter another tournament. And you know what? I enjoy golf much more now.

By the way, I found out later that playing partners in a tournament are not allowed to ask for advice. I also found out that it is permissible to take an unplayable lie in a sand trap. Oh, well.

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