Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Golf and the cosmos

It's been more than a decade since I've played golf regularly, but for five years or so while living in a place where I could play year-round, I was sadly obsessed with the awful game. Back in those days (I got down to seven handicap for one magical summer), I would swear off the sport after a 94 and six lost balls, yet come back for more when the memory faded (usually a matter of days).

There are moments when the sport is shear torture. Rarely does the backyard hoopster find himself unable find the rim, yet almost every golfer has known “golfer’s block” -- when it seems as if the game is foreign. The ball looks the size of a marble, the swing feels completely unfamiliar. And then there are magical moments that make up for all the rest.

It’s the late winter of 1997 and I’ve got two weeks of business in Florida. There’s a three-day period with nothing going on, so I get the last available tee time at Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass on a Saturday morning -- the Stadium Course, three weeks before the Tournament Players Championship. One night’s lodging and a round of golf will cost me $400.

Golf in Florida hasn’t exactly been kind to me. On an earlier trip, I’d shot a 95 at Bay Hill. A 91 at Saddlebrook over by Tampa. Had better luck in a company scramble when our foursome won 25 bucks each.

I arrive in Ponte Vedra the afternoon before my round, check in at the Marriott (the only way to get a guaranteed tee time is to stay at the Marriott), and eat dinner at McDonald’s. At 3 a.m., the fire alarm goes off on my floor. While most guests walk six flights down to the parking lot and trickle into the lobby, I watch the parking lot from my room for fire trucks, waiting for the all clear. It comes 10 minutes later. I go back to sleep.

I eat the brunch buffet the next morning and drive to the Sawgrass pro shop. It’s enormous, with the most amazing collection of golf paraphernalia I’ve ever seen at a pro shop. Three times the size of the one at Bay Hill. Somehow, I escape without buying anything.

I go to the practice tee, and I’m hitting the ball distinctly right to left -- a draw threatening to become a hook (which is rare, since I’m a notorious slicer). In the high deserts back home in Utah, the ball travels farther and hooks or slices less. In my three earlier rounds in Florida, I found I lost about a club in distance and the ball moved more.

I meet my playing partners. Two are Japanese stock brokers from Manhattan. I had noticed them on the practice tee -- very disciplined swings. My cart mate is a plastic surgeon from Memphis who is a TPC member. By the end of the day, I guess him to be about an eight handicap, six better than my 14.

The Stadium Course is spectacular from front to back, but it’s best known for the island green, number 17. It’s not the first or most difficult island green in golf, but it’s the most famous. Short hole, but a small target that became an island only when the sand around the green site was used elsewhere on the course during construction -- so much for Pete Dye’s genius. Regardless of how you play at the Stadium Course, folks want to know what you did at number 17. That means that you spend most of your round thinking about it between shots. At least I did. I wanted to play well for 18 holes, but I desperately wanted to walk off of 17 with a par.

I hook my tee shot on number 1 into the woods and take a 6. I chunk my drive about 50 yards on the par 5 number 2. One of the stockbrokers suggests I hit another (they’re still in a charitable mood -- that will change). I take my only mulligan of the day and end up with a one-putt par. I’m putting well today, it turns out, and take pars on numbers 3, 4 an 5, getting up and down from off the green twice (Sawgrass’ greens are notoriously small). Especially noteworth is number 4, a short par four with water surrounding the green on three sides. With a stiff wind in our face, the hole plays much longer than its blue-tee distance of 339 yards. My drive goes left into the first cut of rough, but I hit my second shot, a high,165-year five iron, to within 10 feet. I miss my birdie putt by a foot.

I close out the front nine with two bogeys and a double bogey (my tee shot on number 9 finds the water) for a 44. I’m not unhappy. I won the tee on three holes. My partner the surgeon shot around 40, while the Japanese twosome is having a miserable day, headed into the high 90s and low 100s, respectively. Neither won a tee after the fourth hole.

Another one-putt par on 10, a tough driving hole. Number 11 is a par five with sand running down the left side of the fairway. I pull my second shot into the sand, leaving myself a 100-yard approach. I hit a thin pitching wedge high into the wind, but it stops five feet from the pin. I make birdie, saved by cavity-back technology. I’m one under on the back nine.

Number 12 is a short dog-leg left (John Daley has driven the green before), and my drive ends up in the trees left of the fairway. I have a good lie and an open shot, and I hit a pretty good shot to within 20 feet. I three-putt for bogey, my only three-putt of the day.

I hook a tee shot into the water on the par 3 13th and take a six that could have been worse.

The 418-yard 14th hole is playing into the wind, which is freshening as we head toward evening. I crush my tee shot but have 205 yards left. I flush a seven-wood that screams through the green and into the rough behind the hole. My chip shot from 45 feet is headed 20 feet past the hole when it hits the pin dead center and drops into the hole for birdie. I love this game. I’m back to two over on the back nine.

I lose honors on number 15 with a one-putt double bogey after going twice into greenside bunkers. We’re one hole away from the island.

Number 16 is a well-known short par five, and it’s playing downwind. I put my tee shot into the right rough. When I watch the TPC on TV later, I notice a lot of pros there, too. I’ve got 260 yards left, but there’s a big tree guarding the green. I pull out my five iron intending to lay up. I had heard it make an odd sound as I leaned on it at an earlier hole, but thought nothing of it. As the club makes contact with the ball through the three-inch rough, it snaps off at the hozzle and the head goes flying. The ball goes 50 yards onto the fairway. I pick up the club head and move on. The shaft is warranted.

I’ve got 210 yards left, downwind, with the tree between me and the pin. I pull out my nine wood and aim left, away from the water that borders the final quarter of the fairway on the right (the same pond that encircles the 17th green), hoping to cut the ball either over or around the tree. I hit it well but catch the tree dead center and my ball falls onto the hard pan beneath it. I hit a respectable sand wedge to within 15 feet and two-putt for bogey. We’re there.

The wind is gusting between a half club and full club from right to left diagonally across the hole. It’s playing 127 yards, a full pitching wedge at home but probably a full nine at sea level without the wind. With the wind it’ll take a solid eight. The surgeon puts a low draw eight iron on the back fringe. I’m up.

I want to look nonchalant, so I check the breeze with blades of grass. It picks up a little. As I’m fussing around, the twosome playing behind us pulls up. There are several guests milling around the tee, just to admire the hole. A maintenance worker is waiting for us to clear out to cut some grass. An audience. Rats.

The pin is on the back third of the green, slightly left of center. I’ve been hitting a draw all day, and there’s a significant hook wind. I decide to aim to the right over the water and hope my swing stays consistent and the wind doesn’t die. I tell myself to keep my stance narrow (I tend to widen my stance toward the end of a round), to keep my right side steady and to let the club do its work. The wind comes up again.

I step to the ball, which is teed almost on the ground. I close my stance just slightly and aim about 15 yards to the right of the green over the water. I open the face slightly to ensure I don’t smother the shot as I tend to do from time to time. I glance at the green again. It hasn’t moved. As I begin the back swing, I focus on making a one-piece takeaway, moving the club slowly back. I know I’ve abbreviated the back swing as I move toward the ball, but it’s too late now. As soon as I make contact, though, I’m relieved. Not totally flush, but clean -- dead center on the club face. My follow-through feels perfect. The shot was hit well enough that I could feel the ball compress slightly on impact. The ball is headed precisely where I had intended, so now it all depends on whether I’ve judged the shot correctly. The wind continues to gust as the ball takes off. My habit is to watch my shots as they leave the club and then look toward the landing area after the ball gets above the horizon. When the ball gets above the trees, I stare at the green, holding my pose on the follow-through. I’m having, with apologies to Michael Murphy, a mystical experience. The shot felt so good. I know it’s going to find dry land.

The ball lands with a thud just tee-side of the middle, directly in line with me and the pin, about 25 feet short of the hole, which is about 12 feet from the back of the green. I’m playing a balata, and with the wind and the slight back-to-front slope of the green, the ball hits and rolls back toward me about a foot. It never even flirts with trouble. Oh, I love this game.

I don’t look at anyone. I casually pick up my tee and replace my club in the bag, move to the side and fold my arms to let our Japanese friends hit. Inside, I feel like I just won the Masters. My heart is thumping. This is an easy game. Nothing to it. The stockbrokers both find the water. One doesn’t even take another swing -- just puts his club away and sits down on the cart.

Three weeks later as I watch the pros on TV, several put their tee shots on 17 into the water. I can’t help but grin.

As I walk to the green, I vow to never play this golf course again. Been there, done that. Why risk putting my next one at 17 into the drink? Besides, 400 bucks is 400 bucks.

The worst is over. The hole is on the back shelf of the green above a slight ridge. My ball mark is a foot in front of the ball directly in line with the hole. I read the putt to break slightly to the right, but I’m most worried about the speed. Please, let me get it within three feet. Please. I hit the putt and pull it left, but the pace is perfect. It stops three feet left of the hole. I walk up and, without taking a practice swing, I knock the putt into the hole. I don’t want to take a chance thinking about it. Dead center.

I parred 17 fair and square. No fluke shot, no mulligan, no gimme putts. And the wind was up. And I had an audience. I love this game.

I’ll never throw a football like John Elway or hit a baseball like Ken Griffey, Jr. But I can say that I once played Sawgrass’ 17th hole as well as any PGA tour player. Never mind that my 14-over for the day would have been an epic disaster for anyone on tour -- for one hole, we were equals. And what about 14? A chip-in birdie on one of Sawgrass’ toughest holes.

The 18th is an anticlimax. It’s a 420-yard par four with water running the length of its left side. The wind is gusting hard right to left and into us at least a full club. My tee shot finds the right side of the fairway 190 yards from the green. I hit my trusty nine wood and, for the first time all day, it’s a balloon slice, my body no doubt unconsciously protecting against the lake on the left. The ball heads for the work crews building the temporary grandstand for the tournament around the 18th green. It falls short of them and winds up on the cart path. After the drop, I chip on and two putt. Bogey. For the day, an 86 with one mulligan. In retrospect, I wish I had played that first tee shot on number 2 -- I’m sure I would have scrambled for par on that mulligan hole anyway, right? Only 29 putts, which means I played pretty poorly from tee to green but chipped and putted pretty well. But an 86 on this course from the blue tees in the late winter wind for a hacker is pretty good.

I take my leave of Sawgrass and drive the rental car down the Atlantic Coast, stopping in St. Augustine for the night. I wander the town alone, dining on seafood at a small cafe near the beach. I retire early. It’s been a great day.

I can still feel the swing and see the ball begin its arc at the 17th hole. I have no recollection at all of the disasters at the 9th and 13th (though my scorecard tells the story). I birdied two holes on Sawgrass’ back nine, and parred the dreaded island, a hole that PGA tour pros have, on occasion under highly stressful conditions, taken eight shots or more to conquer. On a golf course that has at least 10 holes with water in play, I lost two golf balls all day. Non-golfers won’t understand. But that’s why I once loved golf.

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