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Letter from St. Andrews: Season on the Brink

You can't have the secret to golf, you can only borrow it

By: George Peper

Appeared in November/December 2003 LINKS

I’m going through a rough patch at the moment—dating back to sometime in May, actually. So thanks for listening to the brutal truth of my current situation, which is that I’m just about to quit golf. A blissful 5-handicap at the start of the year, I have hacked, sclaffed and foozled my way into double digits. Nothing has gone right, except the long irons, which have gone excruciatingly right. The more I’ve played, the worse I’ve become.

In utter desperation, and in defiance of my lifelong parsimony, I even signed up for a few lessons. The pro’s tips worked to perfection on the practice range, but they vaporized out on the course. By Fourth of July weekend I was struggling to break 90. Even the handicap computer began to mock me, spitting back a “Do you really want to post this number?” message.

Then I watched video highlights of the U.S. Women’s Open, won in a playoff by the improbable Ms. Hilary Lunke, a theretofore winless 24-year-old whose victory completed what I consider the wackiest troika of national champions this country has ever produced. Think about it: Our U.S. Open winners for 2003 are Jim Furyk, Bruce Lietzke and Hilary Lunke—a guy who swings like Errol Flynn, a guy who plays in his spare time, and a patty-caker who can’t hit greens.

Collectively, they’re me. I figured if those three misfits can win U.S. Open titles, I should at least be able to hit the occasional solid 6-iron. The next morning, I stepped to the tee with only one thought: “Just play golf.” The opening drive flew long and straight, leaving a 7-iron to the green. “Just play golf,” I said again as I took the club back—and power-yanked one 25 yards left of the green. “Shake it off,” I said. “This still might work.”

I bogeyed that opening hole, and bogeyed the fourth hole as well. Thereafter, however, things began to click. For the next three hours, just-playing-golf, I struck the ball as I’ve rarely ever struck it: Furykean drives, Lietzke-esque irons, chips and putts worthy of Lunke. When a six-footer dropped for par at No. 9, I was out in 37, just 2 over par. And the best was still to come.

Seven holes later, at the 17th tee, I stood 1 over. I’d hit all but one green on the inward half, making two birdies, four pars, and a bogey. Another birdie and a par and I’d shoot even-par, equaling the best round I’d ever shot on my home course. Two more birdies and, well, that was a fantasy too fabulous to contemplate.

At 17, a downhill par-4 of 440 yards, I found the green in two but left myself more than 50 feet from the hole. Then,  by accident, I holed the putt.

“I’d pay a thousand bucks for a birdie on this hole,” I said to my playing partner as we walked to 18. Under pressure, I usually do what’s needed to gag and fail, but on this day I managed another long, straight drive and a stunningly solid 6-iron uphill to the green.

“That putt better be at least 15 feet,” I said, hustling up the hill to spy the result. “Anything shorter and I’ll yip it clear off the green.”

I didn’t get my wish. The ball was sitting two feet left of the hole. Any other day it would have been a gimme, but not this day. However, as it turns out, putting and hyperventilating aren’t mutually exclusive acts; I lurched it in for 3.

Somehow, I’d shot 32 on the back for a 69—my best score ever on my home course, a number that was two-fifths my weight, three under my height, and precisely the score on my high school physics final. So why, you ask, after this glorious moment, this signal achievement, am I about to quit the game?

The next day I shot an 87, and this morning it was 93.

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