Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, our ends none of our
Shakespeare: Hamlet, III, c. 1601
Golfers, as a tribe, are a hopeful lot, the eternal well of which springs anew on every tee. Regardless of the triumphs or disasters of any previous hole, there is a new beginning on the tee, a sense of new things, new fields to conquer, new vistas to travel, new challenges. Sins of the past are forgotten. The next tee is a new slate wherefrom all possibilities await. There are 18 of them in a full round of golf; a number born of practicality rather than some sacred cosmic theme or reason. I always look to the next tee as a reason for hope, for rising above either elation or depression. For the past is full of both, and neither are lasting.
On a recent round over the Mid Pines golf course in Southern Pines, N.C., my scores on the newly renovated course sought new heights on the card. Of five rounds played on this beautiful golfing ground, only one came below triple digits. Well, I have come this way before and am no stranger to the high handicap. It is not my lot to strike the crisp shot, to manage the deadly approach, or even find a fairway, with any regularity, from the tee. I understand and accept this. But it is not easy. No golfer who willingly approaches a tee box does so with bogey, or worse, in mind. We wish to do well. We envision shots that are well shaped, beautiful arcs that describe graceful lines in the air and come to earth smiling, awaiting the loving touch of the approach to the flag.
This is the hopeful beginning on the tee. The reality, brutal sometimes, provides opportunity for sobering enlightenment. So it was, for me, on No. 6 of my final round on Mid Pines.
A beautiful, cool November day, perfect for enjoying a round with friends. Our shotgun start for the event began on No. 9. I took a seven on this hole. An unsteady, but hard won triple considering the trouble I managed from the beginning. The round progressed as, well, let us say… it progressed. Until No. 6, a straightforward par 5 with woods left, and bunkers and waste areas in play the nearer the goal.
The initial effort from the 6th, struck with deliberate and testy force sailed mightily skyward and just as mightily leftward to leave civilization, family, and friends far behind as it sought new adventures deep within the woods.
I immediately teed another. “Hold,” said a playing partner. “Are you sure that is gone?”
“Absolutely,” I answered with the surety of one who knows in his heart the dread reality of ‘hitting three from the tee’.
“Absolutely, eh?” quoth the partner. Absolutely. I knew.
The third shot from a tee is an interesting thing. Par is now a dream, but the hole is yet to be played. There is still work to do. So, from the tee, all is begun anew, but with the lawful deficit provided you by the ancient rules. Is it foolhardiness or the bravery of the Spartan 300 that helps us strike again in the face of insurmountable odds. We are golfers. We tee again.
The third was struck, again, with force, there was no getting around it. The ball flew away high and far… and left. But not so far left as before. Perhaps not as adventurous as its predecessor, this ball abjured a career as a lost object for a suitable resting spot some four or five yards this side of the forest… but well behind a tree.
From behind this tree, the ball smiled happily as I approached. “See,” it seemed to say, “I have stayed within bounds. Are you not glad?” Sigh. To get a club on the ball was not the issue, for there was plenty of room for a backswing. The tree was some three or four paces distant, between the ball and any hope of fair advancement. Conventional wisdom, preached for many years to men of high handicaps, is to get the ball back in play on the next shot. Abandon all thought of heroics. However, in this point of a round laden with digression from the straight and narrow, all thought of trophies and glory having drained away some many holes earlier, I thought only of, well, attempting the best shot possible. Why not have some fun and enjoy the prospect of a well-crafted scramble shot.
A jigger came to hand and a curving shot around the tree came to mind. Here, patient reader, is where I must confess that the best of my game is the scramble shot. I am so often in difficulty that such odd shots have received the greater part of practice. Most often, these are low, running shots applied with cut or draw and my weapon of choice is a Westward Ho! mid iron that I dearly love.
I have heard such golfers as Jack Nicklaus recount shots from a recent round, noting that he could remember almost all of them. Golf teacher Fred Shoemaker said that, not only could he remember his, but most of his playing partners’ shots as well. I am not of this breed of men and memory. I barely remember yesterday, but I do recall a variety of scramble shots that I have made, and I will remember this one for a while, because it came off as planned. Striking low and sure and through the ball, with head well down, I sent the ball on its way like a cheetah on the chase. Not only did it draw around the tree, it traveled some 150 yards of much needed distance to halt, exhausted, on as nice a bit of green fairway as you will ever find. Anywhere.
I came to it gladly. Heart uplifted. I could hear birds singing nearby. All the world was happy. I bent to the fourth shot. Surely a mashie would find the green from here; it was only perhaps 140 yards distant. The club was put to hand and the swing applied. Perhaps overfed by elation, the shot was quickened, the strike was fat, and the ball came to earth in front of a bunker on the left of the green. So quickly does hope fade! Even from a glad heart, one must find a store of equanimity before striking again. Balance must be the framework for a golf shot. The quiet mind.
With anything but a quiet mind, I strode fuming to the fifth shot. A niblick, cowering in the bag, was chosen to lift over the yawning bunker before me. Here came the siren song of traitorous hope. I peeked. I lifted. I bladed the ball some 10 yards or more over the green to the pine straw and the small trees beyond. The niblick seemed to quake in my hand. Hard were the thoughts I entertained, but the niblick was replaced without malice or harm.
For those who are so betrayed by hope, the ensuing distress of yet another duff is like the beginning a bad dream in which time moves fitfully. Our playing companions begin to look at the sky, their hands, their ball marks… anywhere but at you. Laughter ceases. Small movements are made with deliberate care.
All golfers have a clock in their heads, or at least those brought to man’s estate with some training in common courtesy and decency. We do not wish to burden our companions, nor unduly delay them in the enjoyment of their own shots, putts, etc. When wheels come off, and we must strike off yet again to find some errant shot, the alarms silently sound.
In haste thereof, the sixth shot, approached with timorous niblick yet again, was played as well in hasty manner. Yet, the ball found the green, though too well forward from the chosen landing area; and with the coldness of calculated murder, looked in at the flag on its way off the front of the green.
I walked across the green. Again. We all know this walk. It is the walk of the prisoner to the executioner’s platform. It is the walk of the damned to the sentence. There is silence. Players are respectful in their demeanor. They look away or down. They have been there, too. They know. They feel. They understand.
The seventh, played with mashie niblick, too, lacked confidence. The ball bravely sought the welcoming edge of the green, looked in upon nirvana, saw the flagstick like a beacon of salvation, but fell away, a sinner, for the purging fires of purgatory back down the slope.
It was a classic duff. A foozle of the first order, it occurred as surely as scripted by the smirking gods of golf who use us for their sport.
The eighth made the green. It had to. Even golf gods know when enough is enough. Or do they? Arguments could be made. But who knows of fate? The ball traveled well past the pin. Three other ball markers lay upon the green. Dust was thick upon them. I was yet away.
The first putt, a putt!, took advantage of an uncharted downslope to slide well below the pin. Still away, still alone, another putt, the tenth stroke, approached the hole, within the boundaries of my partners’ markers. The ball was marked, and I moved away. Far away, I imagined. To another time and place. Three other men, their hour come round at last, moved toward their work, glad for the relief of activity, freed from the awful duty of the witness. One by one their putts fell, the clatter of the ball in the hole a peal of salvation’s bell.
Now for it, the 11th stroke. The ball was replaced, the marker withdrawn. The short, two-footer assessed. Stalwart men of good heart looked bravely on, grave looks on their faces. The pin flag fluttered in the steward’s hand.
Such short putts rely entirely on good fundamentals for success. Smooth and easy takeaway, smoothly forward in line with the cup. Such was the effort I delivered… albeit with a tiny, infinitesimal pull. It was enough. The ball grazed the cup’s edge, bowed slightly inward like a comet passing a star’s gravity well, and came to rest perhaps three inches away, on the far side of the galaxy.
Somehow, Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, came to mind.
“That is no country for old men.”
Indeed, I felt a paltry thing, ego tattered, flayed upon a stick.
The final putt, the 12th stroke on No. 6, found the bottom of the cup. I looked at it for a moment, this survivor of a long and arduous journey. We had come far, this ball and I. How doth the golfer’s soul endure!
“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
Ah, but the drive on No. 7! Let me tell you…