Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Day I Quit the Game

It had been leading to this all summer. In almost six decades of playing golf I had never experienced anything like this. My wife's advise to quit kept running through my head as I made my way from hole to hole.

I said little to my playing partner. Though we shared a cart, not much conversation took place each time I hopped in. He basically left me to my own thoughts, sensing there was something different going on in my head.

I was so little when the clubs were first put in my hand, only six. My dad was a golfer, and if he liked it, well so did I. I was a natural, the game coming to me easily and the scores descending rapidly. Though I was lazy and never interested in practicing, for several years in my teens I could give a pretty good scare to par on some days.

As I meandered around the course this Saturday in early September,  I thought about the countless occasions I had made my way from tee to green. Of the time three decades past when the magic had been there for a full round. Hole in one, two chip ins and a final total of 71. Of all the years that followed and all the disappointments, the thrown clubs, the sulking and whining, the joy having vanished, the good walk spoiled.

But nothing had prepared me for what had happened this summer. It began with the thousandth adjustment to my swing, as I searched for a way to relocate the manner in which I had been able to tame the beast so many years before.

I was at the range, a place that I still almost never frequented, but frustration had forced me there. "Do this" I thought to myself. And I did. And for one shot, that slice which had been my constant companion longer than my wife, was nowhere to be seen. The ball flew straight and true, the geometry of swing and result as if Einstein had invented a new theory of relativity.

I thought of that moment, and of the ones that had preceded today during the course of this summer, as I made my way, hole to hole and shot to shot on this Saturday morning.

It was as if I drank from the fountain of youth when I emerged from the driving range that day in the early spring of 2016. I was no more the old guy with the bad back, the one who could only report of having once consistently shot scores in the 70's. I was that kid again.

I never kept a handicap, never kept an ongoing record of my rounds, but I knew that 13 of my last 17 scores had been under 80. And I could feel that something wonderful and unique was possible.

I parred the pretty difficult first, a hole that had always given me headaches in the past. My drive had been pushed, but instead of landing in the trap, it caromed off the side and landed in perfect position. If good luck could follow me this day, well who knew where this might be headed.

Par on two, par on three. Birdie on four, snaking in a twenty footer with a big left to right break. I never made left to right putts. Birdie on five. Now I was two under.

In all the years of chasing a dimpled ball around a pasture, I don't think I ever stood on a tee at two under par.  I take that back. I did once, that day decades removed when the stars aligned and I posted that 71. I was three under that day but bogeys on 17 and 18 left the final tally a mere shot the right side of heaven.

On six, I had my first bobble. An errant second shot landed me in the bunker to the right of the green. In this the summer of my great "content" my sand play had been mediocre at best. Now I hit a crisp shot, only to watch it trickle down an incline and come to rest nearly 20 feet from the hole. Another tough left to righter. Another putt made. Still two under.

A mistake on seven led to the first bogey of the day. Almost birdied eight. Still one under.

Nine was one of the two hardest fours on the course. Out of bounds on the right, the slope bringing balls in that direction and almost willing bad swings. I don't think I ever played this hole in par, for even after my best drive, I would be left with an uphill 175 yard shot to a place where more trouble lurked. Today a four foot straight putt was all that lay between me and a 34 on the front nine. I missed.

Par for this course had been 70 for nearly all its existence. But too many errant tee shots off the tee on the par four eleventh had  led to litigation with an irate homeowner, turned 70 to 69, four to three and 360 to 180.

Par on 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and then birdie on 15, barely missing eagle with my chip shot into the par 5. Par on 16.

I stood on the 17th tee at one under, two potential pars away from a 68. Forget that this was not a hard layout, forget that this was a perfect day, no breeze to distract and challenge my shots. Nothing else mattered but what was almost in my grasp.

Over the years, through all the frustration and angst, all the times I wondered out loud why I continued to go back to the course seeking to retrieve something I had lost nearly a half century earlier, there had been one consistent message from my wife: "you should have quit the day you shot that 71." She had been with me then, had witnessed first hand the ball disappearing into the cup in a single stroke from the tee. And, as I stood on 17, I thought again about her advise.

Decent tee shot on 17, followed by a really well struck seven iron, but it ended up at the back of the green. After my first three putt of the day I arrived at 18 needing par for 69.

I had been like a pitcher throwing a no hitter, sitting by himself at the end of the dugout, alone with his thoughts, nobody mentioning the obvious for fear the next batter would hit a vicious line drive single up the middle.

I had slipped but once. As I approached my birdie putt on 15, someone from the neighboring tee on 16 announced to my group that he had just birdied the last hole. "I need the birdie putt to go one under for the day." I retorted. Couldn't allow someone else a ray of sunshine when the day was only about my glory, even if it meant challenging the no hit taboo.

18 was about a 370 yard par four with little trouble, especially to the left, unless you pulled the ball very far to a grove of trees. Which I did, as I let out a bit of a primal scream. Only as the ball hit one tree squarely it rebounded into the fairway. Luck had followed me from the first tee shot to the last.
But the angle of return had been decidedly backward and so my wood second shot came up a little short. The chip which followed brought me to within about 12 feet of 69.

As the putt began its right to left curl, it looked true and pure. About two inches from glory, the ball came to rest, seemingly unaware of what one additional roll would have meant.

"That would have been for 69" my cart companion informed our other two partners. Somehow they seemed unimpressed, more focused on their eight footers than taking in the greatness of my accomplishment.

So, after nearly six decades of mulligans and gimmes, of shanks and three putts, of wind and rain, of trials and tribulations, I had played probably the best round of my life. If I had somehow managed to par 17 and 18, the asterisk would have been removed.

My wife's words kept running through my head on my drive home. Wouldn't this be the perfect time to pack it in, going out in style, like Kevin Costner had in that movie about the aging pitcher who found one last moment of glory, threw a no hitter and then headed into the sunset?

I pulled into the garage, took the clubs out of the trunk and put them gently against the wall. I walked into the house, shouted a greeting to my wife and son and headed to the computer.

I thought to myself,  "I should see if my friends can play Wednesday." So much for the day I quit the game.


Old Friend said...

Yes I can play Wednesday!

Anonymous said...

Great round...as Bagger Vance once stated, 'golf is a game you cannot win, you can only play.'
That 69 or 68 is in there somewhere...and you'll set your sights on 67...and so it goes.

For what it's worth, that was a 2-under blog post.


Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Beautifully "putt"!!!


Anonymous said...

Great job!
Regardless of the layout or conditions, still have to put the ball in the hole.

It's not about the score. It's about the process. A record scores makes you think you can do it again, so you come back. A perfect shot the same. A 95 makes you come back to fix it. Same with a shank.

A golfer is a golfer for life. Golf until you can't walk at 95, and you'll live a long life! Despite the pain and angst along the way, the process keeps us young.