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The Day My Golf Game Stopped Making Sense

Golf is a game of contradictions. Chop down to make the ball go up. Aim left to hit it right. Lowest score wins. Make a hole-in-one and you have to buy the drinks. If you and I can’t make sense of this silly game, just imagine what those who don’t play must think.

PGA Hall-of-Famer, Gary Player, might have summed it up best: “Golf is a puzzle without an answer. I’ve played the game for 50 years and I still haven’t the slightest idea of how to play.” It is an honest admission and one shared by many of us who spend way more time in the sand than we do at the beach. That’s because, more than any other sport, one’s fortunes on the golf course can change on a dime. One minute you’ve got your groove on and a second later you hit what likely may be the ugliest shot ever recorded in the annals of golf history. I know because I do it at least once or twice every round.

On a crisp autumn day back in October, I flirted with obtaining what many hackers believe is the Holy Grail — breaking 80. I had come close before, once at a lighted par-3 facility while vacationing in Myrtle Beach, SC, and then again a few months later on an equally challenging Putt-Putt course in the Poconos. But this time it was totally legit — a bona fide, 18-hole layout with real par 4s and par 5s, real hazards, no windmills, and even real grass.

“Greed, I believe, is one of the seven deadly sins. But not trying to make birdie on No. 18, no matter the circumstances, is pure blasphemy.”    -Bud Key

The pros will tell you many of their best rounds on TOUR come after subpar warm-up sessions on the driving range. Hum. Perhaps that’s my problem. I “kill” shots before I play and can make bucket-after-bucket of red-striped balls do whatever I want them to do — high fades, baby draws, feathery irons, knock-downs, YoYo wedges… they’re all locked and loaded, and part of my pre-game arsenal. But all those shots turn out to be total duds when I step inside the ropes.

But this day was different. For 30 minutes, I hit every bad shot ever conjured in the pits of golf hell: hooks, slices, worm burners, dribblers, chili dips, flubs, skulls, and a litany of others with names and connotations unfit for publication. By the time I had finished my two buckets, I stood alone while the other golfers on the range huddled as a group — for their own collective safety — at the farthest end of the practice tee area. On their faces I could see disbelieve, shock, trepidation, disdain and, worst of all, sympathy (except from the one guy I had nearly nailed with a shanked 5-iron earlier).

By the time I reached the first tee box I had about as much confidence in my swing as most clear-minded Americans do in those products you see hawked on late-night television infomercials. So with nothing to lose and a small gallery of well-wishers (the same dudes from the practice range who had come over to see the carnage that would ensue) defensively postured 50 yards in back, I said “screw it,” teed the ball up high, and swung as hard as I could.

I’d like to brag the shot flew 300 yards straight and true. It didn’t. But it was’t all that bad, either — a little open at contact, slightly off the toe, but just inside the first cut of rough on the left and a reasonable distance down the fairway. “You da man!” one of the spectators yelled, although I detected a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

I didn’t par the first hole but I did make a scrambling bogey. The second hole also produced a 1-over score, but only because my approach shot was a few feet off and caught the edge of a greenside bunker. A solid 7-iron on the par-3 No. 3 yielded a much-deserved, two-putt par.

I won’t labor you with a hole-by-hole commentary but over the next 14 holes (Nos. 4-17) I didn’t hit what mid-handicappers would consider a really bad shot. Yes, I was the recipient of a few lucky breaks — a tee shot I absolutely crushed that stopped just inches from a water hazard; a pushed 4-iron that rattled around in the trees before kicking back into the fairway; a bladed pitch shot from the collar that, if it hadn’t hit the flagstick, would have ended up on the next tee box; and a couple of 12-15 foot one-putts that somehow trickled into the cup. But these were just rubs of the green, and as any golfer will agree, part of the ebb and flow of just about every round.

It’s an unwritten rule — although I might argue it was one of the original 10 commandments Moses smashed when he came down from Mount Sinai the first time (another being that you must wait 30 minutes after eating before getting back into the swimming pool) — that you never look at the scorecard when you’re enjoying a career round. But I did. Repeatedly. So I knew exactly where I stood when my golf cart screeched to a stop at No. 18: 7-over-par and needing par for a sub-80.

Surprisingly, there were no tee box jitters — this just four or so hours removed from my disastrous experience on the practice range. I’d been hitting my driver pretty well all day, and was confident I could clear the small lake that separated my ball — the exact same one I had started with at No. 1 — from the fairway. I waggled the club a few times, checked my line, and took a controlled but determined hack. I didn’t hit it good, I hit it dead-solid perfect.

Normally, when you pull off a dramatic drive like I did, the golf gods will reward your effort with a follow-up shot equally as inept. And, in fact, the likelihood of hitting what may possibly be the worst shot known to mankind multiplies tenfold if, like me, you’re chasing a lifetime dream. But not this day. My approach, a neatly clipped 8-iron from 140 yards out, landed just left of the pin, took two skips, and came to rest about 15 feet above the hole.

Greed, I believe, is one of the seven deadly sins. But not trying to make birdie on No. 18, no matter the circumstances, is pure blasphemy. So with that in the mind, I put a positive roll on the ball and watched it burn the left lip and stop no more than a foot-and-a-half past the cup.

In 1974, singer/songwriter Jim Croce released “I Want to Learn a Love Song” on his I Got A Name album. He gives away the song’s ending about two-thirds in with the line, “Well, I guess you know what happened.” If you’ve made it this far, you, too, have a good idea how this story unfolds.

Now, usually, an 18-inch putt is a gimme with the guys I play with. But since this was to break 80, the fellas thought it would be more gratifying if I tapped in the celebratory putt. I lined it up, took a deep breath… and then backed off the ball. Three times. I plumb-bobbed, got down on one knee, looked at the putt from multiple angles… and then nearly threw-up on my shoes. Having exhausted all my options and with one foursome waiting impatiently in the fairway and two more yelling obscenities from the tee box, I pulled my putter back way too fast and then made a wobbly, indecisive stab at the ball. It somehow caught the corner of the hole, horseshoed around the rim, and then… fell into the cup.

You see, golf is really a game of contradictions as I mentioned earlier. The harder you try the worse the results. Sometimes the more you practice the more bad swing habits you develop. And then there are those once-in-a-lifetime occasions on the course when the totally unexpected happens and you’re left grinning ear-to-ear.

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