The four saddest words in golf? We all know that one.
“It’s still your turn.”
But there’s another set of four words that reflects the sense of adventure sparked by playing a course for the first time:
“Where should I aim?”
And that experience can leave you with an entirely different four-word question:
“What happened out there?”
Especially if you get two chances at a course in the same weekend, and the second one turns out much worse.
It’s really not that hard to figure out most of the holes in our great game. You stand on the tee and see how wide the fairway is and where the trouble is located. The green is in clear view when you’re within 150 yards. Once on the putting surface, you can sense the contours.
But some golf courses are filled with mystery – unforeseen twists and turns, dangerous places to hit your ball, and scary scores if you don’t know the secrets. You couldn’t tell that the water hazard would come into play off the tee. The hole plays longer than it looks. You couldn’t detect that false front from the fairway.
You depend on your playing partners, assuming they’ve played the course, to steer you in the right direction. You’re like a toddler seeking help with your homework. You want to learn.
So it was as I took my first shots at a wonderful course last weekend. Though I needed a lot of coaching on many of the holes, I had a great ball-striking round and would have shot a nice score if not for some late missteps.
We were playing it again the next day. I couldn’t wait. Now I know what I’m doing out there, I thought. I should shoot an even better score.
What foolishness. This is golf, after all.
I will be forever mystified by the fickle nature of the golf swing. One day, you feel comfortable over every shot. Less than 24 hours later, you don’t have a clue whether you’ll make solid contact and the ball will go where you want.
It started out well. I parred the first hole, a par-5 – I had bogeyed it the previous day. And I couldn’t be too upset with a three-putt bogey on No. 2; the pin was in a tough spot on a difficult green, and neither of my first two putts was that bad. The first one was just a tad too strong, and the 6-footer for par didn’t take the break.
My first warning that this day would be different came on the par-3 third hole. It has a huge, inviting green, seemingly allaying any fear of the water to the left and behind it. I wasn’t even thinking about the drink before I yanked a 7-iron way left and splashed it. Double bogey.
OK, stuff happens. One bad shot. Let’s shake it off and make some pars on holes that aren’t that difficult.
But things kept happening. A poor shot to the green. Another three-putt bogey. A fat, sloppy, semi-shanked wedge (a sign of things to come) from 75 yards out. Just like that, I was fighting to stay in the round, and a nice par on No. 7 seemed like just the thing to get me going.
Little did I know it would be my last par of the day.
Here’s another strange thing about golf: Even when you’re playing poorly, you can hit one good shot on just about every hole and still keep making bogeys and doubles. That’s how this day went.
I had many good moments on the last 11 holes.
A perfectly struck approach on No. 8 that somehow came up just short.
An 8-iron that seemingly was all over the flagstick at the difficult, severely uphill 10th that somehow wound up 40 feet above the hole.
A wonderful flop shot on No. 11 from an impossible spot … but only to save bogey.
A fabulous shot from a fairway bunker on the 15th hole, only to three-putt again for bogey on another tough green.
I was reeling as I came to the last three holes. A poor tee shot on the par-3 16th – the second consecutive day I did that – put me in a go-for-broke mood on the 17th tee. It’s not a place to hit driver, really, even though it’s a par-5, but I decided to try to bend one around the corner … and hit a miserable duck hook that didn’t even reach the fairway.
OK, no problem. Just need to slap a 5-wood down by the big tree and wedge in from there … and not do what I did, which was pop it up short and right.
Now I had a tough shot through the trees just to get back in play and – see if this sounds familiar – did really well to get it to the short grass, a wedge away from salvaging something out of this hole.
“I’m happy to be here in three,” I told my playing partners.
I was less than happy moments later. In fact, I was terrified. I lined up the simple wedge shot up the hill … and did a full-on shank for the first time in a year and a half.
How could that happen? I thought I’d solved my shanking issues by getting closer to the ball and squaring my stance. Surely, it couldn’t happen again. Undaunted, I set up over the chip shot from the right of the green … and shanked again.
The wheels officially had come off. I managed to avoid a three-peat and got it on the green but was bitten by one of those things you have to learn by playing a course a few times: The severe slope rejects any shot that isn’t perfectly placed.
My ball rolled past the pin, took a left turn and trundled 50 feet to the front of the green. I three-putted from there, of course, for a 9. I couldn’t resist saying what millions of golfers probably have said since the Masters:
“At least I beat Tiger Woods – and he was playing a par-3!”
After all that missed-shot misery and shankapatamus-ness, the only thing left to do was dial it back to my younger days and swing the driver as hard as I could on No. 18. Predictably, I hit one of my best drives of the day. The second shot was well-struck, too.
But it was another long putt, up and over a ridge down to tucked-in pin, and once I again I was too strong. I wanted so badly to finally make a putt, especially after my playing partners both had made miraculous pars. But, alas, it wouldn’t go down. Another three-putt. Another bogey.
And another drive home with the other four saddest words in golf:
“What happened out there?”