Wednesday, September 11, 2013

This Actually Happened - A Golf Story

Sweat dripped off the tip of my nose and began free falling toward Mother Earth. It was like watching in slow motion as gravity took hold of the salty droplet, slowly hurtling it toward the Titleist golf ball perched between my feet. In a perfect collision of fate, the bead of sweat splashed on top of the ball at the exact same moment my putter sent it on its way toward the pin from just off the back fringe of the 18th green at Leslie Park Golf Course yesterday afternoon. The ball never left its line the entire 40-foot journey toward the cup, and when it plunked dead center into the hole for an unexpected par and a final score of 76, I could only chuckle to myself.

It had been that kind of day, so dropping a 40-footer for par on a hole I almost never par, seemed to be … well, for lack of a better term … “par for the course.” It was the topper on the strangest round of golf I have ever played in my entire life. Not the final score of 76, that’s pretty much the norm for me. It was the way I got to that number that was strange, so strange, I thought I might actually meet my maker and drop dead on the course. I was by myself, after all, in the one place I actually feel a connection to some higher power, so it had crossed my mind more than once that I was being sent several warning shots across the bow from the man upstairs that maybe this would be my final day on the planet.

First of all, it was 96 degrees on September 10th - a record high temperature for Ann Arbor – and it’s not like I’m in extraordinary shape or anything, and even if I was, most doctors would probably say if you’re going to go out in the heat in the middle of the day to play golf, it might be in your best interest to take a cart. Phooey on that. I always walk when I play golf, and yesterday was no exception.

To be honest, I was excited to play in the heat. I was excited to even play at all. At the fairly young age of 48, my body has been turning on me lately and I’m starting to sound like some grandmother rattling off a list of ailments anytime someone asks me how I’m doing.

“Me? Well, okay I guess, except for the arthritis in my big toe on my right foot, the tendinitis in my right elbow, the torn labrum in my left shoulder and lately, I can’t seem to grip anything in my left hand. I think I broke my hamate bone catching one of my son’s fastballs a couple weeks ago.”

So naturally, I thought a good 90+ degree day would make it a lot easier on all my aching joints, so why not give it a shot? Not only that, as with most of my golfing forays, I try and hit the course when I know it will be empty, and I was right on that count, the parking lot looked like a barren dessert when I pulled in just before 11 am. The thought of having the course all to myself only peaked my excitement. Then I opened the car door and the first wave of oven-like heat rolling off the blacktopped parking lot hit me square in the face.

“Holy shit, it’s hot.” Was all I could say.

I nearly climbed back in my air conditioned car and drove away, as I’m sure most sane folks would have, but then a gust of wind hit me, and I thought, “Hmm, as long as the wind blows, it won’t be that bad.” And with that, I grabbed my clubs and headed for the clubhouse where I bought a brand-new sleeve of Titleists and told the club house attendant I wanted to walk 18.

He looked at me as if I made some kind of mistake.

“I’m sorry, did you say you wanted to walk?”

“Yup.” I said, “Why not?”

He didn’t answer, but the look on his face definitely said, “Well, because I don’t particularly want to have to go out and search for your dumbass -scorched carcass somewhere on the hills of the back nine in about three hours.”

I smiled at him, took my change and my sleeve of balls and trudged out to the first tee to start loosening up. Right away I realized my “extreme-heat-equals-looser-body-parts” plan wasn’t exactly going to take effect with any sort of suddenness. Either that, or the 600 mg of naproxen I popped that morning wasn’t doing the trick, because the moment I started to warm up by swinging a couple clubs around my head like a batter in the on-deck circle, several parts of my body immediately began to take offense.

My left hand, mostly, was telling me, “WTF?” To which I replied, “WTF to you?” ‘How can you go and desert me like this – what the hell have I ever done to you? I wash you, trim your nails, even get married so I can put a nice gold band on one of your fingers, and this is how you repay me?”

My hand either didn’t care, or it wasn’t listening, because it still hurt like hell, and for the second time in less than 10 minutes, I contemplated getting back into my car and driving home before I even started. But it’s not like me to give up that easily, so I figured I would play the first three holes (#3 at Leslie comes right back to the clubhouse) and if it hurt too much, I’d abandon ship and head home after the third hole, but at least I would have given it the old college try.

With all the pain I was experiencing in my hand, I hadn’t really paid much attention to the fact that my body was suddenly moistening up at a fairly rapid rate. This was a little strange, given the fact I had only been outside for less than five minutes, and I wasn’t sure if it was the heat, me being out of shape, or simply condensation on my skin since I had been in air conditioning all morning (probably a combination of all three). I took the towel off my golf bag and realized I would be using it a lot more wiping off me than my clubs for most of the day.

I also realized that if I were to actually play all 18 holes on foot, I would have to seriously slow things down and pace myself – conserve as much energy as possible, swing easy, maybe 75% of max, walk slowly, drink a lot of water, and not worry about my score.

So I teed up the ball for my first drive of the day on the 543-yard par 5 first hole, took an easy swipe at it, and then cringed at impact as my left hand shot a stinger of pain up my arm. But the swing was a good one, sending a beautiful, high draw up the right center of the fairway that caught a tail wind and left the ball 285 yards away from where I was standing. 

“Hmm, where the hell did that come from?” I thought as I slowly and methodically made my way up the fairway to my ball. The ground was still wet with dew, even though it was 11 am, it was so humid, the dew wasn’t going anywhere soon, but the ground underneath the wet grass was firm and fast, and my tee shot benefitted from the firm terrain with an additional 30 yards of roll.

To stay with my saving-energy plan, I skipped any pre-shot routine for my second shot and just pulled out my 3-wood, walked up to the ball, and without so much as a waggle, sent my second shot on its way. Another beautiful, high draw that didn’t hurt as much as my tee shot, and once again rolled out a good 20-yards or so, coming to rest about 15-yards short of the green.

“Damn, two in a row - how bout that?” I muttered to myself.

I hadn’t planned on being that close to the green in two shots, didn’t really want to be, quite frankly. Normally I like to be out around 100-yards or so where I can hit some kind of full wedge to the hole since I never practice any touch shots (hell, I never practice any full shots either, come to think of it), but there I was, a tricky little pitch shot over a bunker to a front pin, and to make matters worse, I was sitting on a tight lie – a chilly-dip special to be sure. This time I figured I better take a few practice swings, and oddly enough, my practice swings felt really good; I was nipping the grass perfectly. When I hit my actual shot, it was even better. The ball clicked precisely off the face of my sand wedge, landed just over the bunker on the fringe of the green, took one hop, then began rolling toward the cup, before … plunk!  Eagle!

“Well, I’ll be damned.” 

I’d hit three perfect shots and now I was two-under par after one hole. Never one to look ahead, I already started thinking about the 64 I was about to shoot!

I walked to the second tee with a smile on my face. Already, sweat was starting to soak my golf glove. The second hole is a 190-yard par-3, and it was into the wind, but the wind felt really good in the heat and I was two-under par. The pin was back, so I hit my 16-degree hybrid club while promptly forgetting about my 75% motto. Instead, I tried to smoke one hard into the wind to get it back to the pin. What I got was a smoking duck hook that crashed headlong into the woods about 20-yards left of the green.

“You dumbass!”

I took out a 3-iron, teed up another ball, and this time hit it safely onto the middle of the green. Two putts later, I was back to reality with a double bogey 5.

Easy come. Easy go.

Normally, I would have been pissed about throwing away two shots like that, but for some reason I was pretty relaxed, and the wind was making the heat somewhat bearable, so I decided I would at least play the front nine instead of stopping after three, and If I did have any doubts about walking in early, the birdie I made on the third hole erased them.

Back to one under par – and this time I was thinking, “Maybe a 68?”

I quickly readjusted that number after I rolled in a 20-footer for birdie on #4. I was back to two under after four holes and I had yet to even make a par. On top of the that, the pain in my hand had been minimal because I was hitting the ball on the sweet spot nearly every shot, and I had just dropped two longish putts, something I never seem to do when I’m hitting the ball well.

 “Hmm, perhaps a 66?”  I thought.

After my drive on the fifth hole, I caught up to a threesome of women golfers who were putting on the green. This surprised me since I thought I was the only one on the course, but it also gave me a chance to think about my next shot. I was 130-yards from the uphill green, but stuck behind one of two giant oak trees that guard the left side of the fairway.

“Should I try and go over the tree with a 9-iron from a downhill lie?” I thought. “Or maybe punch-hook a 6-iron around the tree and run it up to the green? Or maybe I should just hit a high drawing 8-iron that does a little of both?”

I chose number three, and I chose poorly.

I bladed the shot and it really hurt my left hand. The ball went screaming under the tree and over the green. Luckily, it came to rest not far from the back pin placement and I easily chipped it up a foot from the hole and saved par – my first par of the day! On #6, I made it two pars in a row after another high, downwind draw off the tee, followed by a 7-iron approach that landed 20-feet from the pin for an easy two-putt.

The women in front of me let me play through on the seventh hole, a 149-yard par 3, that I bogeyed by missing a three-footer for par. Now I was back to one under, but I quickly erased my blemish on #7, by making another birdie on #8. Back to two under!

To keep up the theme of my Jekyll and Hide round, I severely hooked my tee shot into the woods on ninth hole and feared the worst, but I actually found the ball, punched out of the woods, and then hit my third shot 6-feet from the pin! The way things were going, I was confident I would make a great save for a par, so confident, in fact, that I three-putted the damn thing for another double bogey!

“Are you f****g kidding me?”

On the one hand, I was really pissed off at myself for tossing away what could have been a truly amazing round of golf … on the other hand, I had made only two pars on the front nine and somehow I still shot an even par 36!

At this point I was on the fence about continuing my round. I had plenty of work to do back home and I was dripping sweat from every pore of my body. So I did the only thing I could think of … I checked my pulse.

My heart rate seemed normal and I had to pee, so I knew I wasn’t dehydrated. Figuring I wasn’t going to die anytime soon, and, what the hell, the round had been pretty interesting so far and my hand was still hanging in there, I decided to keep playing.

I headed off for the long walk to the 10th tee.

The 10th hole at Leslie is a long par 4 with a narrow fairway and a second shot that must carry Traver Creek, which wraps around and cozies up to the front of the long, sloping green. I’ve made me some big numbers on this hole in the past, but it was playing straight downwind, and I shortened it even more by once again booming a high draw off into space to a spot where I had a very comfortable second shot - 145 yards, to be exact, my favorite distance. I struck a perfect 8-iron 6-feet from the pin for birdie, but with thoughts of the three-putt on the ninth hole still fresh in my head, I never gave my birdie putt a chance, wimping out and leaving it short.

It was an easy par, only my third for the round, but it was the biggest disappointment of the day. It was golf how I always play, safe and cautious, and up to that point, I hadn’t really engaged my brain for anything other than trying to stay hydrated and not die before the kids got home from school. The results on the scorecard were a total roller coaster, but it was fun not giving a shit, and the one time I did, I totally blew it, even more than any of my screw ups on the front nine. I had a birdie by the throat and I had wussed out!

For the first time all day, I started feeling tired - my legs mostly, but also mentally.  Thoughts of anything other than golf started taking over as I teed up the ball on the 11th hole, a winding, hilly par-5 that snakes its way through the woods. The 11th hole was once a pushover, easily reachable in two for long hitters, and even for short hitters like me if I really got ahold of one. But those days were gone for me. A new tee box had been built adding another 40-yards to the hole, and the left side of the fairway, once nothing but rough, now had a wide expanse of an overgrown natural area with Traver Creek running through it. And that’s exactly where I sent my next duck-hook of a drive!

I looked for the ball for a while among the prickers and brush, but it was really hot in the tall thistle and weeds, and I didn’t want to waste any more time than necessary (or leave my rotting corpse somewhere where it might take more than a day or two to find me) so I climbed the banks of the overgrown creek bed, pulled the last ball from my new sleeve of Titleists, and took a penalty drop.

As penalty drops go, it wasn’t a good one. I sulked when I saw it nestle deep into the rough. A normal person would just bump the ball and improve their lie (what the hell, it’s not like we’re playing in the US. Open or anything, right?) but I always play it by the book, so I left the ball as it was and tried to slash it out of the rough, knowing full well it was going to hurt my hand like hell. I was right, but the pain was only half as bad as the shot, which I skulled thirty yards deeper into the rough behind a bunch of trees. From there; I punched out sideways, and then hit the worst approach shot of my day into even deeper rough, left and short of the green.

Because the 11th hole runs through the woods, there is little to no circulation of fresh air, and now the sweat was really poring out of me. My glove had become useless as I tried my best to gouge one onto the putting surface. Instead, I bladed the ball over the green, off the cart path and deep into the woods. I had to stop for a second and figure out what the hell I was going to do. I had just spent my last bullet from that new sleeve of Titleists, and I didn’t even know if I had any more balls in my bag. Turns out I did, a few Titleist Pro V-1’s left over from a some scramble I played in over a year ago. I prepared to take my second penalty drop on the hole, but before I did, I had to figure out, just exactly, how many strokes I had taken up to that point!

“Let’s see, one in the shit … drop … hit three into the trees … chopped four into the fairway … crapped five up to here … bladed six into the Deep Woods Off … another drop … hitting eight! Holy crap, I’m already on a snowman and I’m not even on the fricking green yet?”

I wasn’t mad, just slightly amused at how quickly my once-promising round had evaporated into the September heat.

Not that it could get much worse, but I chopped my eighth shot on the green and then three-putted from 12 feet for an 11!!! They don’t even have word for that kind of score in golf. Quadruple bogey is as high as they go, after that they just call it “other.”

That pretty much sealed the deal for me. My round was gone … shot to hell in less than five minutes. The 12th hole, a 174-yard par 3 would be the last hole I would play. Like #3, it also finished by the clubhouse, so I would play #12, and then walk in and get out of the heat.

The sweat was stinging my eyes now, and no amount of toweling off seemed to do anything other than spread more sweat all over my wet hands and arms. Luckily, after walking off the 11th green, I also was walking out of the woods and into the wind once again. It was a welcome relief. I looked at the green before walking back to the tee. Normally I pull a few clubs out of the bag and then decide which one to hit once I get to the tee box and size up the pin location and the tee placement, but after making an 11, I really didn’t much give a shit about either, so I pulled a 4-iron out of my bag, right club or not, and starting digging in my pocket for a tee.

At that point that I realized I could no longer continue playing with the golf glove I had been wearing, it was a nothing more than a leather dishrag now, so I dug deep into my bag to see if I could find a suitable substitute. And find one I did - a tattered, old specimen that must have been in my bag for 10-years and was crispy as a potato chip, but at least it was dry! The glove was toasty warm, like I had just pulled it out of an oven, but it felt good to have something dry on my hand.

I walked back to the tee knowing this would be my last full shot of the day.  The 12th hole is one of my favorites, the tee shot must carry both a pond and that nasty old Traver Creek, but it’s framed really well and it always seems to suit my eye … even after a sextuple bogey!

 I teed up my ball and told myself to just “stand tall and put one more good swing on it,” which I did. The ball came off the club like butter and sailed high into the air about 20 feet right of the pin with a slight draw. When the ball was halfway to the hole I bent down, picked up my tee and started walking toward my bag, but the flight of the ball was so pure, I stopped and watched as it landed just short of the pin in the back of the green and I thought, “That should be pretty tight.”

I kept watching as the ball rolled closer and then … plop... it disappeared!

I just made a hole-in-one.

“Are you f****g kidding me?” Was all I could say.

All sorts of things ran through my head, but none of it was what I would call excitement. It was more like, “Shit, now I have to finish this round.” Or “Shit, where did that threesome of ladies go? (I needed some witnesses, after all).

For a minute, I didn’t do anything. I looked around. No one was anywhere in sight. Sure I made a hole-in-one, but I made it right after I made a fricking 11! Who does that? And just think of the damn scorecard. Even in Putt Putt you rarely see the number one three times in a row.

I’ve played Leslie Park for 17-years, and made damn near every number you could think of on every single hole on the course, but in one smoking-hot September afternoon, I’d just made my third score on a hole that I had never, ever, made before.
An eagle 3 on #1, an 11 on #11, and now an ace on #12! What the hell was next?

I looked at the sky to see if any thunderclouds were on the horizon. On this day, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that I might get struck by lightning, after all.

The sky was a clear, if not hazy shade of blue - as clear as can be. The only witness to my improbable feet was God, a memorial plaque for Don Yost just off the tee box, and me. (I’d played with Don many times before he died several years ago. He was a great guy. I was glad he got to see it too).

“Did you see that shit?” I asked Don, as I walked by his plaque. “And I’m not even talking about the ace … I'm talking about the 11 on 11!”

As I walked toward the green, I instinctively reached for my putter until I realized I didn’t actually need it. And then it dawned on me that maybe someone from the clubhouse could meet me down at the green and verify my ace before I got there. I called up the clubhouse and a girl named Leah answered. She agreed to drive a cart down to the green where she did, indeed, wait for me and verify my ace, even though she didn’t actually see it go in the hole. (I guess my word and the ball mark on the green were proof enough.)

Now things got really interesting. I was still hotter than fire, but I couldn’t just quit now. Not like I had planned on doing before I dunked my tee shot into the cup. The problem was, I didn’t really want to tell people I made a hole in one and then hope they didn’t ask what I shot for the round. How embarrassing would it be to have to tell them I shot about 100 with two eagles and three birdies? So I trudged off to the 13th tee and tried to figure out where I actually stood score-wise. Did I even have a chance at breaking 80? Maybe the heat was warping my brain, because I wrongly figured I was 5 over par at that point, (I had counted the ace as a birdie and not an eagle) when in reality I was only four over par, but I still knew I better bear down if I wanted to post a halfway decent score, if for nothing else, at least for my pride.

With that in mind, I did the only thing I could do; I sent a drive screaming toward Traver Creek for like the 20th time on the back nine. Luckily, I heard it hit a big willow tree by the water, so I thought I might have a fighting chance to find it. Walking up the fairway, I was never so relieved to see a bright, white shining golf ball in the sun 50-yards from the tree. “Wow, that was one hell of a carom.” I thought. Then I got to the ball and realized it wasn’t my ball at all … or was it? It was a Titleist all right, a Titleist NXT Tour #1 … the same ball I hit off the 11th tee. The damn thing must have hit some rocks in the bed of Traver Creek and bounced into the adjacent 13th fairway.

For the second time in less than 10 minutes, all I could say was, “Are you f*****g kidding me?”

Once again I looked to the sky for thunderclouds.

Still clear.

I threw down a tee to mark the ball and continued to look for my actual drive. If nothing else, at least I got one of my new balls back. I did find my tee shot at the base of the willow tree, it wasn’t sitting pretty, but at least it was dry. I bogeyed the hole and then marched on, trying to make pars and trying even harder to stay hydrated.

As luck would have it, I managed to do a good job at both. Despite only making three pars in the 13 previous holes, I rattled off two in a row on numbers 14 and 15, and then I birdied #16.  It was after the birdie when I realized I had been adding up my score wrong I actually was only 4 four over par instead of 5 over.

That was when it dawned on me that I could still post a palatable score despite my “other.”

“Wow, if I par in I’ll safely avoid looking like an idiot.” I thought to myself as I pegged the tee in the ground on # 17, a par three over the huge pond that feeds, you guessed it, Traver Creek.

I hit a good tee shot safely over the water onto the green for a routine two putt for par, but #18 has always been anything but routine for me, a real ass-kicker if ever there was one. At 436-yards and bone straight, it’s not much to look at. It’s a long hole for me if I don’t hit the ball in the fairway, and the strong headwind I was facing made it play even longer. When I hit a complete piece of crap off the tee well into the deep rough 20-yards right of the fairway, it got longer even still.

After the tee shot, I safely conceded the fact that making par was out of the question. I just wanted to avoid something much higher. I wasn’t even going to try to hit the ball out of the 8-inch rough with anything other than a short iron to try and save my aching left hand further aggravation.

I chopped an 8-iron 100 yards out of the rough, but over the fairway and into the deep rough on the left side of the fairway, still 100 yards short of the green. From there I gouged the ball out of the deep grass with a wedge and watched with delight as it rolled just off the back of the green.

“Good,” I said to myself. “I shouldn’t be able to screw this up too badly from there.”

For whatever reason, I was feeling a bit fresher now. It was my third straight hole walking into the wind, so the sweat that had been running off my body like a faucet; slowed to a trickle as I lined up what would be my last putt of the day. As I sent that sweat-coated Titleist on its 40-foot journey to the bottom of the cup for an improbable par to conclude the most memorable … hell, the greatest round of my entire life … all I could do was chuckle and say.

“Are you f*****g kidding me?”

Then I looked up to see if there were any thunderclouds overhead. 

The sky was still clear.

(P.S. Just for fun, I went back to where I found my original tee shot from #11 in the 13th fairway and played it out to see if I could have done better than the 11 I made the first time around. I made a bogey 6 for what should have been a 71 – a better score, but nowhere near as memorable.)