A split fairway on the Par 5 began the 4-hour journey. This was not meant as a metaphor by the intent of the designer (I presume to assume) but it did suit well in terms of choices made. The irony was that it seemed so little difference was made depending on the choice. Sure, there was a creek running down the middle, in between the two fairways, but a good drive either to the left or the right left approximately the same distance to the pin. The subtle designs and patterns often remain clouded to the view until much, much later.
I was new to the area and had been looking for a "regular" group of golfers with whom to play on the local courses. Thus, I went out as a "single" most days. This Saturday morning in early Spring, I was placed with a group of seven fellows who obviously all knew each other. They all stood on the first tee discussing the bets and the teams and who would tee off first and everything else which needs settling prior to the round. Since I was in their general age group and was walking with a carry bag, I guess they assumed I was a real golfer and, thus, ready for whatever came my way. One could imagine how many times this very same or a very similar group had been in this situation, wanting a single to make a solid group of eight, only to be presented and perfectly disappointed with some hacker in a cart. Golfers take those four hours very seriously. It is their time and those hours are closely guarded, like valuable capsules. Anything which ruins them is considered not only demonic but most likely prescient.
The tallest one in the group introduced himself to me as David and asked me what my handicap was. I looked up into his 6' 5" eyes and honestly told him 13. This was true, to the best of my ability to calculate a golf handicap at the time. So David placed me as the C player in his foursome and the coin flip said we teed off first.
When the driver meets the golf ball, it is a violent act. Who can imagine how much torque is wielded upon that little ball by the massive heads on these drivers these days? I'd played with folks who hit it a long way, but David was the longest. Number One was 560 yards long and his ball landed at the 200 yard marker and carried another 50 yards. Even from a tee box that is elevated some 20 feet, hitting your first shot of the day 410 yards is a fairly awesome athletic event.
I hit a great shot (for me) and found myself 50 yards behind David. As we walked down the incline and tramped through the deep damp rough on our way to the close-cropped fairway, David was the talker in the group. He asked me about myself and tried to make me feel at home. He complimented me on my drive and said, "That was a hell of a poke for a 13 handicap!" I told him that hitting it a long way was not my problem; it was direction which was my nemesis.
My ball was sitting nicely just to the right of the 200 yard marker. The green was on the other side of the creek which wound its way from the middle of the fairway past the front of the green. It occurred to me then that this was the major factor in the choice made on the tee. If you were to the right of the creek, you had to cross the creek with your drive, but you need not cross it again on your next shot. Large grass bunkers hid the green's surface, but the flag was a clear target. I took a 3-iron and mindlessly hit the ball to within 6 inches of the cup. David was no longer amused. "A 13 handicap and you've got a gimmie eagle on the first hole?" he said rather loudly. I shrugged my shoulders and said it might just be a good day for me. He said, "Yeah, let me try to explain that to those four guys behind us who just saw that shot." I felt bad about it, but what can you do? I have never "let someone win" and I didn't feel like starting then.
The fairly easy par 5 was followed with one of the hardest par 4s on the course. It was 465 yards long from the blue tees. The drive had to either have a slight fade or you had to start it out over Out of Bounds and hook it back into the fairway. The same creek from Number One was running down the entire fairway to the right.
Randy was the B player in our group. He was an Ophthalmologist. He was also very laid back, and I could sense that there was some historical tension between him and David. When Randy hit his drive Out of Bounds (due to a failure to turn the ball over), David let go a loud sigh. This didn't mean much to me at the time, but I should have paid closer attention.
I hit a marvelous tee shot which looked at first as if it was going too far left, but had a slight fade on it which took it to the 175 yard marker in the short grass. When we got to my ball, David (who, again, was quite a bit ahead of me) watched closely as I hit a 5-iron to the front of the green which bounced up to within 15 feet of the pin. I looked up at him and tried to smile. He was not smiling back. He looked back at the foursome behind us, waiting on the tee, and visibly shrugged his lanky shoulders.
This par 4 was a 390 yard dogleg left which was uphill the last 50 yards. For a right handed player, the best shot was a big hook with a 3-wood. David hit a 2-iron with a beautiful hook almost 230 yards. My 3-wood shot was right next to his.
We got almost halfway to our balls when David turned to me and said, "Why do you want to play us like this? It's not that much money." I knew exactly what he meant, and I was tired of the thoughts he had been harboring ever since the tee shot on Number One. I stopped and put my bag down. I said, "Look, buddy. I don't know who died and made you King of the Course, but I am having fun playing well so far. I can guarantee you that there will come a time in this round where I fully convince you that I am at least a 13 handicap golfer, but I would appreciate it if you would shut the fuck up and let me enjoy it while I'm seemingly playing as good or better than you. And I don't give a flying red rat's ass what those four guys behind us think. They may well be applauding the same shots you're tied in knots about." I shuddered at just how tall he was when I was reading him this version of the riot act, but I reshouldered my bag with as much dignity as I could muster. We walked on.
This Par 3 had an elevated tee which faced a large depression as you hit to a green which was at approximately the same level as the tee. It was 210 yards from the blues.
Mike Henry (known as "Henry") was the D player in our group. He hadn't said much during the round, but when he hit a dying 5-wood right on the flag, whoops went up all around. Henry was an ice cream salesman for Blue Bunny. He had a wife and a small child and this one weekend day of golf was his only relief. The silence he had kept up to this point was an exaggerated hope that nothing would happen to spoil his one day on grass. You could sense that he'd played with David before, too, and knew that sparks could cause bonfires.
Hitting that 5-wood to within half a yard of the pin was the only good shot he would hit all day, and it was enough for him. One can imagine him having vivid dreams about that shot even now, so many years later. Golf is like that. It has staying power like no other memory, aside from love.
Another par 5 with an elevated tee. Again, I was on the green in two, putting for eagle. It didn't even get close, but I was more than happy to write down "4" on the card.
There are two wondrous and beautiful things about playing an eightsome game against a group who is either behind or ahead of you:
You really have no idea how well or badly they are scoring until you finish the round and tally up the scorecards. Sometimes low numbers come in ugly ass packages.
But, even more important, you cannot cheat. Each stroke must be counted accurately. Even if you wanted to cheat as an individual, the other members of your foursome would not allow it. It would be unthinkable. The stigma that such an attempt would place on you would never wash off. Thus, when you actually do complete a round and compare scorecards to see who owes who what, you can rest assured that it was an honest bet and that money exchanged is due to talent and luck and not theft.
Number Five had been a boring sort of Par 5, but Number Six was the hardest Par 4 on the course. From the teeing ground which sat level with the fairway (unlike most of the elevated tees on the course), one could only see the dogleg in the fairway. It was the place to hit your tee shot, but it's very hard to concentrate when you have only a vague image and cannot see the goal at hand.
It's very hard to aim when you can only imagine the target. You see how golf becomes your life? It's no wonder that I hate this hole today as much as I ever hated it then. The only fun I ever had on this hole was when an old friend of mine from middle Tennessee came to visit me and I took him on a golf tour of all the courses where I live. When we got to this hole, it was the second round of 18 for that day and we were fairly drunk, riding in carts just like the ones we'd wrecked in Maui a year before. His name was Sam and still is. Sam is a jewel in the rough of humanity. He and I both hit fairly decent drives into the middle of this nowhere land of a fairway. I hit a 2-iron into the front bunker. Sam hit a 3-iron onto the putting surface, but a good 40 feet above the pin. I blasted out of the trap and into the hole for birdie, and Sam holed the snaking downhill putt. We went to Number Seven as if we always both birdied the hardest hole on a course every day.
A beautiful little Par 3 of around 170 yards over a small pond with just a hint of fairway to the right. Sometimes it is the little holes such as this which bring out the biggest part of a man.
David chose an 8-iron. I felt as if it was one club short for him, and I was right. His draw took the ball into the lake, just in front of the green. Have you ever watched a grown man fall totally apart over nothing? I guess if you work in a mental hospital, you're used to such an event. But when you've joined a group of total strangers on a golf course, it can be unnerving at best.
It was not as if we were going to lose a lot of money to the foursome behind us. I'd pretty much made sure after the first few holes that we'd at least break even, no matter how we played thereafter. Henry's birdie on Number Four was unlikely to be equaled and things were looking fine for our team. David, however, didn't really understand life or teams or golf or much of anything else, it turned out. It shocked me when he helicoptered his 8-iron into the lake and picked up his bag and stormed off ahead of us before any of the rest of his foursome had even hit. I imagined that he'd need that 8-iron again, several times, before this round was done. I imagined that he'd need his sense of dignity even more. But it seemed that he'd lost that long ago.
David had already teed off and started walking in the tree line ahead of us by the time we reached the tee. It was a short and drivable par 4. It is considered very bad form to tee off out of turn. The person with the lowest score on the previous hole has what is known as the Honors on the next tee. So David had forsaken both his dignity as well as his manners before the first nine was even completed.
And that is how we spent the rest of the round. David would reach the tee before us and he would hit and he would walk off in his self-imposed rage while we tried to act as if nothing amiss was happening. The foursome behind us seemed to just shake their heads each time I'd look back at them, and I understood now why those guys seemed glad, on the first tee, to be in another grouping and why I, as the newbie, got placed with David. He was totally insane.
Holes like Number Eight where you can actually attempt to drive the green are great additions to golf courses IF they have serious consequences should you fail to do so. Number Eight really had no downside to the effort. Number Nine was a different sort of short Par 4. There was a lake in front of the elevated tee and another lake on the right side of the fairway and a very small landing area if you decided to attempt to Jump the Shark and hit driver.
I learned later on that David had a wife who was a nurse and that they had a young daughter together. They lived in the same house, but the wife lived upstairs with the daughter and David lived downstairs in a basement-like area. They no longer slept together and actually didn't like each other all that much. Was it this set of circumstances which made him act this way or was it acting this way which led to this set of circumstances?
Another Par Five to start the back nine. It's unusual to have a golf course which has Par 5's as opening holes on both nines. That doesn't mean it is a bad idea. Many of the courses the Pros play have a Par 5 as the closing hole so that some miraculous eagle or even the seldom-seen double eagle can change the leaderboard and afford the spectators a fantasy ending. That seems a bit too Hollywoodish for me. I'd much rather have a stern Par 4 as the finishing hole; one on which par is likely to be a great number. This course we were playing this day had the sternest par 4 as a finishing hole you could imagine. But there were eight more holes to play before we reached that test.
Randy, the eye doctor, added up the card for the front nine. I had shot 35, one under par. David had shot 37, one over par. Randy had shot 41 and Henry had shot 45. I had never shot under par for nine holes of golf in my life, and I'd been playing for many, many years. What should have been the happiest day on the links for me was soiled violently by the sight of David, having already teed off on Number Ten, walking in his solitary bubble down the cart path to the left as we reached the tee. I couldn't help but imagine the misery of a grown man who had never learned to quit acting like a spoiled child. I imagined his wife and daughter and what life in that two-story house must have been like.
It was all too much. I hooked my drive into the lake to the left of the fairway and thus began the demise of what could have been the round to remember: The round where you pay good money to have the scorecard bronzed. Was I trying to hit David with the ball? I know it really hurts when you're beaned with a golf ball coming off the tee shot, but I'm not sure.
After posting an 8 on the previous Par 5, you would have thought that an easy Par 4 would be just the ticket. Number Eleven only required a 200 yard shot out the middle of a generous fairway and then a short iron into a large green sitting behind a creek which ran down the left side of the fairway. I hit a hook that didn't and found myself out of bounds, hitting three from the tee.
Now it was my turn to act like a spoiled child. I had shot the round of my life on the front nine and here I was already at least 5 over par and I hadn't even finished two holes on the back. There could be only one reason. It was David's fault. There he was, walking ahead of us on every hole, not speaking to anyone, walled up in his own personal chamber of horrors. So I did what any spoiled brat would do. I began to talk about him behind his back with Randy and Henry.
The first difficult hole on the back nine. The drive had to either be hit dead straight or have a fade in order to find the fairway which was bounded on the left by a huge sloping hill. You had to be a goat to hit a ball off that hill, and the deep rough would hold it there if you didn't have a good fade going. Even if you did manage to find the fairway, the green sat above you a good forty feet, like a little tabletop with sand bunkers all around it. If you were hitting anything less than an 8-iron, you were screwed. There was no way the ball was going to hold.
Randy was in the best position off the tee. I stood beside him as he hit his 8-iron to the back of the green, and we could both imagine that the ball had sucked back to a fairly makable putt. "Good shot!" I said. Randy beamed. He felt good. But he'd felt good all day. All the stuff going on around him, the score he shot on the front, none of it seemed to bother him in the least. I said, "Does David always act this way on the course?" Randy just smiled at me and said, "Sometimes." I realize I was going to have to talk to Henry if I wanted to vent my bile.
This Par 5 was the most reachable in two of any of the four on this course. All it took was a courageous drive over Out of Bounds (that was the trademark of this course) and you could be left with less than 200 yards to the green. Sometimes the ball would hit the cart path as it landed and you might only have 150 left. This was a small price to pay for a huge irremovable splotch on your ball.
Henry had hit his meager drive over to the left, and I made a point to walk with him on that side of the fairway as David trudged ahead of us down the cart path on the right. "How long have you been playing with these guys?" I asked.
"A couple of years, I guess."
"So, does David always act like this when he plays?"
"Not always. But it's always possible. I hate this shit. It's driving me crazy. But he's one of the mainstays of this whole group. Sometimes we have as many as 16 guys out here with four back-to-back tee times. I just try to get in a group that doesn't have him in it. I lost today."
Ah, there it was. I was getting somewhere now. I decided to jump in with both feet and stir up as much shit as possible, since I was now 7 over par on the back and not sitting too well on this hole, either. "So how does an asshole like that live with himself?" I decided to start out subtly and work my way up the troublemaking ladder.
A beautiful little downhill Par 3 that said 190 yards on the card but usually played like 175 due to the elevation of the tee. Three bunkers and a creek behind were the only defenses this hole had.
Everything led back to the clubhouse after this hole. All the courses in this area were built so that the front nines circled back to the clubhouse and the back nines did the same. Thus, you could never see one hole from the next. This is much different from many modern space-saving courses where you could actually get hit with an errant shot from an adjacent fairway. These courses made you feel as if you were really out in the woods, and I always liked that feeling.
Fifteen and Sixteen were both very straightforward Par 4s. David had hit his tee shot to the right, which landed on the other side of a creek, but not Out of Bounds. There was deep rough there and he was still looking for the ball when we arrived. I'd seen the tee shot and I thought he was looking too far ahead. I began to stomp around in the deep grass where I thought the ball had landed. "It's not back there, goddammit!" he yelled at me.
Just then I looked down and saw his ball where I was standing. How I wanted to be a smartass just then. Or, it occurred to me that I could just walk away and let him have to go back to the tee and hit another one due to having lost his ball. Just tell him it's right here? Tell him it's right here with a very suave and sarcastic comment? Just walk away? Choices. I said, "Here's your ball, David." He stormed back to it and without even a practice swing (which he always took) he chunked it into the creek between him and the green. This, of course, somehow became my fault as he glared at me all the way to where he had to drop and hit four.
Serenity is what you're after on a golf course. You want this game to bring you back to a sense of oneness with nature. What other game is played on various multithousand yard walkways out in the middle of Her? This is why golf carts should not be allowed. If golfers are too lazy to carry their own bags, at least we could bring back the caddy system and give some kids jobs while forcing these lazy bastards to at least walk the course. The only golf course I've seen in the last 25 years which had caddies was in Jamaica, and those were grown men smoking dope; not kids. That's a shame. That's how I learned about the game and made some spare change at the same time when I was a kid.
With the carry bags they build these days, it's a piece of cake compared to what I used to have to haul around for the cigar-chomping folks on that little Country Club course in my long-lost youth. Regardless, when you've been walking for over 3 hours and carrying the bag and hitting the shots, you do get a little exhausted. This Par 4 (shorter than the last, but just as straight and flat) was followed by a steep hill you had to climb to get to the next.
A marvelous Par 3 with danger everywhere. The tee was elevated and the green was elevated, but between the two was nothing but swampland. A path near the woods on the left carried you around the swamp, but if you didn't hit a shot that was somewhere between 175 and 185 yards and fairly straight, par was going to be just a memory here.
The funny thing was how many seemingly excellent shots carried just a couple of yards too far. This took them into a down slope of heavy woods and an impossible comeback, even if you were lucky enough to find the ball. There is nothing quite as heartbreaking as hitting a shot flush on the face of the club (a 6-iron, in this case) and watching it sail right at the pin but failing to land. I watched both Scott Hoch and Jim Furyk do it on the final hole in the last round this weekend at Doral. The look on the golfer's face when this happens is like pure comedy. You watch as a smug look of accomplishment turns slowly into the misshapen contortions of bogey or worse.
The finishing hole on this course was the signature hole. It was a long Par 4 which curved right. The green was a peninsula like a finger sticking into the huge lake in front of the clubhouse. When the flag was in the back right of the green, as it was that day, it was one of the most terrifying second shots I've ever seen. There was a small sand bunker between the right edge of the green and the water, but it wasn't going to catch many shots. No matter how good your drive, you were going to be hitting at least a 7-iron into an area the size of a bathroom rug.
David had been communing with the Golf Oracle, I suppose, because he had somehow come to the conclusion that we were going to lose this bet with the foursome behind us if we didn't make at least one birdie on this hole. He had stayed with us on this last tee as opposed to walking ahead, as he'd been doing since the end of the front nine. I could only assume that this was his way of "making up" for his fuckupedness right at the last. After all, he was going to have to spend an hour in the car riding back home with at least 3 of us.
Being new to the group, I welcomed the change of heart and tried to pretend that it had all been a bad dream. As David and I walked down the fairway to our tee shots, I tried to make light conversation. "See, I told you that you'd believe I was a 13 handicap before the round was over." He looked at me the wrong way. I could tell he still thought I was playing some sort of game with him and the rest of his precious group. He didn't say anything until we arrived at his tee shot. It was right at 160 to that patch of bathroom rug target. He reached into his bag and didn't see the club he needed. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," I heard him mumbling under his breath. He looked back at me and said, "I have got to have an 8-iron. Let me borrow yours."
All that sarcasm which I had suppressed back on Number Fifteen, when he couldn't find his ball because he wasn't looking where it was, came bubbling out. "Why don't you have an 8-iron, David?"
When folks are a few inches taller than you and they beam hatred out of their elevated eyes, it can be a bit off-putting. "You know fucking well why I don't have an 8-iron," he spewed between clinched teeth.
"No. Not really. Don't most golfers carry an 8-iron, David? It seems as if a golfer such as yourself would surely have an 8-iron in his bag."
His face was turning shades of a violent violet color. "Are you going to let me borrow your 8-iron or not?" he barely whispered as I could hear his teeth grinding.
"Well, David. Aside from the fact that I can't imagine why you don't have an 8-iron, the rules of golf say that I cannot let you hit clubs out of my bag. You do know the rules of golf, don't you?"
"Goddammit! We're going to lose this bet if someone doesn't birdie this fucking hole, and I'm the only one who can do it! Give me your motherfucking 8-iron!!"
I just shook my head in disbelief and walked over to my ball which was sitting not far from his. It occurred to me that I had as much chance of making birdie on this hole as he did. I was insulted again by this thought. Without much thought or preparation I hit it directly into the lake. I said, "Hell, David. That was my 8-iron. It doesn't seem to be working real good, anyway." I walked into the clubhouse and ordered a beer.
The seven of us sat around for a while, drinking and adding up the scorecards to see who owed what. Our eighth was sitting in Henry's car, sulking. I chose to ride home with someone else. But here's the sad part of this story.
It is so hard to find good golfers who play on a regular basis that I played with this group for 2 years after that day. Some days were fine and some were nightmares. This was one of the main reasons I chose to give the game up a few years ago. The best golfers in that group (and in many other groups all around the world) were some of the biggest babies I've ever met. The only thing I have to remind me of that bunch now is Randy, who is now my family's eye doctor.
It finally dawned on me that "getting good" at golf was just another road to perdition.