The poison-ivy on the fingers of my right hand a few weeks ago was a welcome sign; the little blisters told me that it is spring, and I am playing golf again. This is an annual rite, and I celebrate it: every year, as the fairways thaw and the flags re-appear like perennial flowers and I resume foraging for lost balls in the woods, my mottled skin tells me that I am back in my Shangri-la. I am playing bad golf again.
I’m a terrible golfer. My backswing looks like some flickering, spasmodic image you’d have seen on a wind-up nickelodeon machine in 1905, and my putts are routinely directed wide of the hole as if by reverse magnetic force. But my terrible scores don’t spoil the game, because I play the game of golf for one reason, and one reason alone: to escape the world, its daily demands, its relentless clock, its Twittering. When I sling that bag over my shoulder, I’m looking for nothing but a stroll suspended in time. That time has gloriously come again.
I know what you’re thinking, if you, too play golf: he’s lying. No one likes to see his drive bend into a forest overrun with poisonous plants. No one likes to see his approach shot make only a token effort at actually approaching the hole. No one is happy with consistent double bogeys. And, of course, I would like to be better. For a non-athlete, a great hole of golf is a singular thing; you’ve performed an athletic feat as well as the men who get paid the equivalent of the gross national product of Lesotho to do the same thing, and your clothes aren’t as tacky. I remember the two birdies I’ve shot in the eight years I’ve played the game as distinctly as I remember cutting the umbilical cords on my two children, two decades ago.
But now I don’t let the score get in the way of the joy I get from the game. And trust me on this: you, too, would be at peace with a severely flawed golf game if you’d been lucky enough to be visited by the golf gods, as I was, on a day in May, two springs back.
It happened on the fifth hole at Hotchkiss — a lovely, hilly, course that winds its way around the campus of the prep school of the same name. The fifth hole looks as if it should be the easiest par-3 in the history of the game: 140 yards, sloping straight downhill. The huge green, fronted by a thin strand of sand, beckons like some enormous, comfortable throw rug. From the tee box it seems as if you could spray your shot anywhere, and this green would still gather the ball in. This is, of course, a grand illusion.
I was playing by myself that day, as I sometimes like to do. Writing is a solitary game, and sometimes the perfect break from the slavery of a keyboard is a solitary ramble with a golf bag. On this day, it had been raining on and off for a couple of days, and a slight drizzle creased a fine, cool, foggy mist as I hiked up the hill toward the fifth tee box. I had the whole course to myself. I’d played the first four holes decently, and for some reason unknown to me then – but perfectly clear now — I’d decided to record my round on a scorecard that day, which I seldom do.
I gazed out at the distant lake, the shifting fog clouds, and then I teed the ball a little higher than usual, to make sure I’d get the ball in the air, keep it from rocketing off at a right angle, so that I might have a chance at bogey, to keep my good round going. I swung my seven-iron. When I looked up, I saw the ball describing an abnormally high parabola through the gray sky. My shot was not only straight, it even seemed to have the right distance. I fantasized for a second: would I be close enough to the hole for a legitimate birdie putt?
I watched the ball descend through the mist until I lost sight of it against a backdrop of trees. Then I heard the distant but delightfully unmistakable sound of a golf ball plonking onto a green. And now my eye caught the ball, through the mist, just briefly: it looked to have hit just a few feet behind the cup. Then I lost it again. A fraction of second later, I heard a distant “clank.”
A clank? Like a ball hitting a flagstick? That can’t be bad, I thought. If the ball hit the flagstick, on a slow, sopping green, how far away could it have bounded? On the other hand, I thought, what if…? But the thought of an ace seemed absurd. I shouldered the bag, walked down the hill, wondering. What if? The closer I got to the green, the more excited I grew. I could see no ball.
But when I approached the cup, my heart sank for a second: there was no sign of white in the perfect round hole. But wait! The cup was full to the top of murky brown water, and there, bobbing just beneath its surface, was my ball. And I felt…nothing but a vague disbelief. The possibility of ever shooting a hole-in-one had never, ever crossed my mind. It simply did no compute.
I found my ball’s plug mark about six feet behind the hole; it had apparently backspun right into the cup. I took my scorecard out of my back pocket and – were my hands trembling? – scrawled a “1” with the little pencil on the soggy scorecard.
In a daze, I went on to shoot 25 over the last four holes. Four straight double bogeys. I was a mental mess. Instead of doing a two-step down the fairways, I was slogging, hitting desultory shots, I was laden with guilt. My fluky ace had left me feeling the way a kid who’s stolen a candy bar from the drugstore can’t enjoy it. After all, if my ball hadn’t hit the flag, it probably would have backspun another thirty feet. This ace had involved a whole lot of luck. I hadn’t really earned it. How can a guy who’s too embarrassed to figure out his handicap shoot a hole in one?
Back home, I thumb-tacked my scorecard to the bulletin board. But I couldn’t look at it. I was not worthy. And over the next few months, the guilt just worsened – especially when I played with a friend, a very good lifelong golfer, and a very sweet guy. When I’d mentioned my ace when we reached the fifth, I’d seen his face cloud over. “I’ve never gotten a hole-in-one,” he said. I felt terrible.
So I decided to stop mentioning my ace – except to my philosophical Irish golfing buddy Michael, an even-headed native of County Clare, who, having served as my psychotherapeutic sounding board ever since I’d told him about my guilt-ridden hole in one, finally set my head on straight one day last summer.
“Look: The whole stupid game is luck,” he said, after sinking an improbably long putt. “If you hit a drive into a tree and it bounces back into the fairway, you don’t question that, right? If a great drive finds its way into the sand, you don’t question that, right? The golf gods give, the golf gods taketh away. And aces? Show me a single ace that didn’t need some luck, at some point. You shot a hole in one. The golf gods were smiling on you that day. Enjoy it.”
He was right, of course. And as I gave it further thought, my cloud of guilt began to lift. It so happened that, on the day I hit my hole-in-one, I was also teaching a history course about ancient Greece. And the plot of most Greek plays invariably involved a mortal being dealt a stroke of fate by a god. The drama in those great works of art didn’t involve the action of the gods. It involved the mortals’ reaction to it.
In my case, the gift was to stop stressing over a mis-hit iron and start really enjoying the walk I’m taking while I’m pausing to hit a small white ball.
Now my idea of the perfect golf hole is the one I played at Hotchkiss last summer, as the sun was setting, and I found myself, in a few short minutes playing the long downhill eighth, in the company of a tortoise, and then a rabbit, and then a woodchuck, and finally, a fawn. The perfect foursome.
Now my idea of the perfect round of golf is pulling off the highway at the sight of a weathered billboard reading “Maple Oaks Public Course, Exit 43,” and pulling the clubs from the trunk, and walking 18 with a retired grocer from Indiana, swapping stories and listening to the silence, neither of us keeping score. And my ultimate golf fantasy is to play 30 municipal courses in 30 states in 30 days, from Maine to Washington. I have the road map already laid out. I’m still looking for the VW Microbus van to sleep in on that ultimate pilgrimage of pleasure. And when I take it, I will be happy to stroll the bald fairways and rocky greens, following my ball wherever it might take me.
These days, I even allow myself to glance at my tacked-up scorecard, and savor that amazing little pencil-scrawled “1.” And I proudly tell the story of my ace in mixed company (guys who’ve gotten one, guys who haven’t.)
Maybe it was supernatural. Maybe the golf gods, watching me hack and duff my way through round after round, knowing I’ll probably never break 95 in my life, decided to give me one moment to savor. Or maybe it was pure, blind luck, although that’s not too shabby either. The great baseball manager Earl Weaver used to say You Make Your Luck, and who am I to argue with Earl Weaver?
Either way, I am finally at peace with my ace. Because any way you slice it, it was a hell of a shot.