It’s hard to explain how it came to this. A score of 14-over par in a tournament isn’t the end of the world, especially if the course is a challenging one, the conditions are impactful and you aren’t in possession of your golfing skills or your rhythm. When it’s a course you know like the back of your hand, when scores range from minus-two to one stroke better than your own, when the incredulous look belonging to the owner of last place, you haven’t hit rock-bottom, but you know you’re close.
Grover Cleveland golf course is the 18-hole layout where I cut my golfing teeth. I walked those fairways up and down, sideways at times, even backwards and forwards. I couldn’t wait to graduate to other courses, so it wasn’t until years later that the “Grove” anchored itself firmly in my heart. Two years ago, I started the initial Erie County Amateur double-triple, yet ground my way to an eight-over 76. I didn’t think it was possible to play worse, until today.
Today I three-putted and four-putted. I lost balls in places I didn’t know you could lose a ball. I three-putted some more. I tried to putt from off the green and failed to get the ball up and down. I tried to chip from off the green and failed to get the ball up and down. I tried to pitch from off the green and the song remained the same.
If you look at my scorecard, you’ll see eight, nine or ten pars; it doesn’t matter. Golf is about avoiding the big numbers and I didn’t do that on number five, where I pulled a driver OB and made double. On nine, I three-putted from about twenty feet and made another double. On twelve, I hit my second on a par-five into a hazard, hit another over the green and made another double. On 17, I found a shelf left of the green, putted down about ten feet below the hole, then three-whacked from there for another double. Heck, I even found a way to hit a driver 310 yards to the edge of the tenth green, then three-putt from there for par.
Looking back, the only one of the I can directly mark with a check is the last and that may be the most important one: rhythm. I hit more pulls and pull-hooks with my driver than I have in an entire season. I normally hit a straight ball or a fade with the big stick, so I was completely overwhelmed and intimidated by these balls that started left and continued on that path. On the 4th, I bombed a drive straight and true, then pulled one on five. I pulled another one on eight and another on nine, then hit straight bombs on ten and eleven before hitting a push (what?!) on twelve. Two more pulls on the way in, plus a straight ball, and I was baffled beyond words.
The driver is my set-up club. I didn’t realize before today how much I depended on it. I’ve lowered my handicap index to a 4.4. I posted four rounds in the 70s, at top clubs I was seeing for the first time, two weeks back. Today, without my rhythm, without my driver, I was reduced to a beginner, a guy who had no idea where the ball was headed. I hit punch shots, cut shots, intentional hooks, all to get back to the fairway, on a course that is essentially one big fairway. It was a rough day, a humbling day. I signed my card and hit the pavement.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.
–Casey At The Bat, by Ernest Thayer
Me? I’m faced with a zen koan. I have to make sense of this humbling game, by understanding there is not sense to be made. It was a round for the ages, just not the one I anticipated. I’m in the first group off tomorrow morning, but I don’t even have the honors. My goal? Get the honors as quickly as possible and keep them for as long as can be. It all starts with the driver.