One of the biggest mistakes that anyone can make in life is thinking that (s)he has figured out the game of golf. In tandem with this is those that suffer from this illusion feel it their solemn duty to inform the rest of us poor souls that they have done so, and are also compelled to tell what their “secret” is and how if you or I only implement this “secret,” we will be on that same road to perfection.
It’s a real siren call, those two to four (or if one is really lucky) six weeks of the golf season when the full swing is consistent, the short game is sharp (with a touch of creativity), the mind knows enough when not to take an unnecessary risk but also has just enough chutzpah to pull off a shot that will reward the chance being taken, and the normally balky putter has granted the golfer a temporary reprieve from its usual lack of cooperation.
It happens at every level of play, even professionally. Most tour players make the majority of their money over a month to six week period – the difference, of course, is that we mere mortals would be thrilled to have the average tour player’s mediocre days. But how one handles it speaks volumes. Unfortunately, it is so easy to fall victim to hubris.
Here is where I raise my hand.
I’ll never forget breaking 80 for this first time; it was in the first round of a 3-day match play tournament at Indian Hill CC in Newington, CT on the 4th of July weekend of 1994. My partner and I wound up losing the match in extra holes, and I felt oddly empty despite not just breaking 80, but busting it pretty handily with a 76. We move into the consolation bracket and destroyed our opposition in the next two rounds; I stayed in whatever state of grace the golf gods had granted me and went 81-77. Our club pro stopped by my table in the grill room to congratulate me, and a few of the better sticks at the club gave me a nod of acknowledgement.
The next weekend found me again carding a couple of pretty good rounds (I’m pretty sure one of them was sub-80), and handicaps were updated in the clubhouse. I searched for my name, and next to it was . . . 9.
I was ready for the big money games, and competing with the best players in the club. I’d crossed the Rubicon . . . or so I thought.
A few weeks later, a fellow named Chris Goff asked me if I wanted to partner with him in a match with a couple of pretty good players. Chris was an interesting character, and later became something of a golf sensi to me. He grew up in the Midwest and eventually found his way to Alaska, where he won the State Open (“I think there were maybe 4 other guys in the tournament,” he would modestly proclaim. “Alaska’s not exactly a golf hotbed, so I figured that if I could ever win a state title, it would be there.”).
Anyway, I was thrilled he asked, although I tried to act as nonchalantly as I possibly could, particularly when he said, “We usually play a $25 dollar Nassau with automatic 2-down $10 presses (For the uninitiated, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nassau_(bet) ), straight up. Are you ok with that?”
“Yeah, sure,” I replied. The most I have ever played for previously was $2 five ways.
“Cool, we’ll have fun.”
Why not, I thought? I’m hitting it well, I belong here.
The morning of our match came, and the first clue that things weren’t right was that while on the range, what I thought was my normally reliable draw had turned into a weak fade. On the practice green, I went through my normal routine of knocking home 5 three-foot putts in succession – except I couldn’t find the hole.
We teed it up, and I was pretty much useless on the front nine. Chris kept giving me encouragement, which only served to make my try harder, which was extremely frustrating because the past 3 or so weeks, there was no need to try, as everything was so automatic. I had fallen prey to the hubris.
So after 9 we were two down (thankfully, Chris had made a long birdie putt on 9 to limit the damage), and one of our opponents made a crack about Chris’s back getting heavy. My frustration gave way to anger – and suddenly my game was back. A solid par on 10, a rare birdie on the 210-yard par-3 11th, and another birdie from Chris on 12, and we were square for the match, 2-up on the side. On the next hole, a long par-4, Chris’s drive was wayward, but I hit my best tee shot of the day. My approach was even better, as I wound up about 10 feet away from the flag. Chris was out of the hole, so it was essentially myself against them.
Both of them made par. I was pretty familiar with the line of my putt, and would have bet a month’s alimony on making it. I hit the line perfectly, but perhaps a tad too firmly. The putt lipped out and rolled about 4 feet past the hole. And then my thoughts went to the practice green and pushing all my putts to the right. I had no chance of making it with all of that flying around in my head, and we walked off the green losing the hole.
I could not hide the angst of three-putting from 10 feet. Finally I looked at Chris; he gave me a wry smile and said, “You ain’t the first, and you won’t be the last.”
That was a phrase that took a while for me to process. I hit my next drive out of bounds, and presented no creditable threat to our opponents for the rest of the round. We lost all three ways, plus a press, and I was completely demoralized, ready to go home and mope over the humiliation of the loss. But Chris insisted we have a beer, so we pulled up to the bar. I figured he was going to give me some sage advice about how to handle match pressure and the like, but no, we talked about work and families and places we had traveled. An hour and several beers later, my mood had brightened – and then I apologized to Chris for my poor effort today. He would have none of it.
“Don’t ever apologize for your play to me, Pops,” he said. He wasn’t angry, but there was a tone that I had not heard from him. “You either have it or you don’t, but the only time you ever need to apologize is if you quit on me or whoever your partner is. And if you do that, no one will want to be your partner anyway. You didn’t quit.”
“I appreciate that, Chris,” I replied. “But I thought I was past all the stupid shots and mistakes. I’ve been playing really well lately, I just don’t get it.”
“Like I said to you before – you ain’t the first, and you won’t be the last.”
I finally got it. I was almost $100 lighter in the pocket, and had to break the news to the then-Mrs Golf Nerd that we’d be eating in that evening – but I got it.