I played a course for the first time the other day and got reminded of a simple fact of life about being an amateur golfer: We just step up there and hit it – for better or for worse.
Often, that means for worse.
We generally don’t walk the course first, measuring yardages, surveying angles and plotting strategy.
The scorecard barely gives any of that information about each hole.
The course map, if there is one, usually is tiny and hard to read.
There aren’t flashing signs on the tee box – the kind you see alongside the road when they’re doing construction – that say, “WATCH OUT FOR TROUBLE ON LEFT” or “THERE’S WATER OVER THAT RIDGE.”
If you aren’t paying attention, you can throw away two or three strokes in the blink of one bad swing.
And even if you’re provided a step-by-step instructional guide for how to play the hole, you still need to FEEL it, to see the shot in your mind’s eye and get a sense of distance.
Because there’s another fact of life for first-timers: What you think you see isn’t always what’s there.
These challenges are best wrapped up in how I butchered the eighth hole.
It’s a short par-4. Didn’t look too menacing, so I decided to hit driver and try to get it in front of the green.
Tried to hit a power fade. Double-crossed it and hit a hook. Then I uttered some of the saddest words in golf: “Oh, I didn’t realize the driving range is over there.”
That sentence should be placed on a plaque, right up there with, “It’s still your turn.”
So now I’m hitting three off the tee. Hit a big drive this time. Really got all of it. Should be right in front of the green.
Then we get up there. Uh oh. There’s a pond on the left, out of sight from the tee. That’s where my ball was headed. Why hadn’t I looked at the card? Or asked someone? How dumb!
We couldn’t find the ball. It had to be wet. So now I’m hitting five from a thin lie on the patchy ground short of the water and am feeling completely screwed up mentally.
Naturally, I dump yet another ball in the water. So now I’m hitting seven, and I wind up posting a round-ruining 10 … on a short par-4.
I can’t recall the last time I made a 10.
Nothing I did the rest of the day – not even a 38 on the back nine – could rescue my score from that disaster.
As I was driving home, I thought about how easily that stumble could have been avoided.
First of all, I had no business hitting driver when I didn’t know the golf course. Sure, there didn’t seem to be much trouble, but I got greedy.
Second, I realized that I should be asking questions when any part of the hole is hidden.
Third, I really, really, really have to be aware of where the out of bounds is.
Dumb, dumber, dumbest.
If I had done some basic things, like ask a couple of questions or just played a little more conservatively when I wasn’t sure, I probably would have parred that little hole and shot something within the range of my normal score.
This discussion sparks a question that applies to all of us no matter whether we’re playing a course for the first time or the hundredth time:
When you look back on recent rounds you have played, how often do you see a spot where hitting the wrong club is the culprit? If it cost you more than one shot, that’s Exhibit A of where your problem lies. In my case, it cost me as many as SIX shots.
No wonder the pros agonize with their caddie over what to hit. There are about a million differences between them and us, but that’s one of the most important ones.
And yet it’s just one more thing that I love about our great game. There’s no other sport where players use a different piece of equipment – from a total of 14 – on virtually every shot.
But I have a suggestion: As technology keeps becoming more and more a part of daily life, it would be great if courses put thorough hole descriptions on their websites, complete with how far it is to the trouble.
We all carry our cellphones with us wherever we go – it wouldn’t be a big deal to access it. Younger golfers, being so used to getting information in this manner, would especially appreciate this, I would think. It wouldn’t solve all the challenges of playing a course for the first time, but it would help.
Golf is plenty hard as it is. We keep talking about how ways to make it more fun for the average player, and look at it this way: Putting something on a website is a lot easier than having a big flashing sign.
Although maybe I need something even more obvious to prevent me from doing something incredibly dumb.