Have you got the bug? I caught it BIG TIME the first summer I learned to play golf. That was back in 2006. Here is a reflection that I wrote back then on the game that we will play for the rest of our lives.
I stand stiffly, addressing the ball at the fourth hole. My lips press together so tightly the area around my mouth turns white. My arms are locked straight, and I stare at the ball, its white dimples illuminated in the sunlight. I suck in a breath of humid air and tell the ball to stay straight, stay in the fairway, and whatever happens, do not slice into the woods on the right. I focus as I extend my arms back. A friend had told me to keep my front arm straight and far away from my body in the back swing so that’s what I do. I will the ball with my mind as much as with my swing to be a solid shot. When I make contact, my head comes up too quickly. I watch my drive slice in mid-air and disappear into the crowns of the trees to the right of the fairway. I slam my driver into my bag, shove on the old mitten I’ve transformed into a club head cover, and huff and puff all the way over to where I can drop another ball.
About a month and a half has passed since I stepped onto a tee box for the first time. That cold afternoon in mid-May was a pleasant start to my golf career. I was paired up with Ben, my golf-obsessed boyfriend (now husband!) in a scramble. I don’t think we used a single one of my shots during the entire 18 holes, but I was able to hack around on the golf course for a few hours without any pressure. We had decided to spend the summer in Ithaca and enjoy the upstate New York college town when it wasn’t covered in snow and ice during the school year. I was beginning to learn that Ithaca offered a great environment for golf beginners: several cheap courses without ever running into many other players. During my first round, to Ben’s and my surprise, I hit some good shots and caught “the bug.”
Six weeks after that initial round though, I feel differently. I know how to hit a solid drive. I know when I reach for my seven-iron I should expect a pure shot. By this point, I should be good.
“I hate this game,” I tell Ben who paces at least ten yards ahead of me. I’m sure he wants to steer clear of the outlash I make when I proclaim my hate for golf. “Did you hear me? I hate it!”
He turns slightly, still walking toward his perfect drive nearly three hundred years down the center of the fairway. “I heard, Maria. Don’t worry, just stay relaxed in your next shot.”
His calmness infuriates me. Why can’t he just sympathize, why can’t he humor me and show some frustration on my behalf? He knows I’m capable of a better drive, why doesn’t he say so? I drop an old ball at the edge of the woods, not caring to give it a good lie. Damn hand-me-down ball.
I’d recently learned that the majority of the balls I carry in my bag – the abandoned balls that Ben finds along the courses he plays – are some of the hardest golf balls and also very cheap. I’d developed quite a stash of these cheapies; all this time I thought Ben was being so generous when he’d dump these balls he found into my bag. If only I could be so lucky to get my clubs on one of the Titleist or Nike balls he uses, I think as I grab my seven iron. I keep my arms loose this time and refuse to concentrate on anything. After all, I’m quitting the sport after this round, I’ve decided. I unleash on the golf ball and it travels toward the pin. I lose sight of it for a moment as it disappears into the sun, and when I find my ball again it has landed just 30 yards from the green.
“Nice shot, Maria.” Ben flashes me a smile. “That sure sounded pure.”
“It felt it!” I run awkwardly to catch up with him, my cumbersome bag bouncing all the way.
I finish the round somewhere between a 115 and 120. I told Ben to stop keeping my score after I hit three balls into the lake. The July sun melts into the trees on our drive home, and my stomach rumbles with thoughts of dinner. I untie my old pair of running sneakers that I had designated as golf shoes at the beginning of the summer, and I gaze out the window, the summer breeze cooling my face. My thoughts drift back to my drive on the fourth hole, and I become embarrassed with myself for acting so childish, for caring so much about a game that I had only just learned to play.
“You know, you hit some nice shots today,” Ben says. “That seven iron on the fourth, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you hit that club so well.” I want to throw my arms around him for saying that, I want to shriek, “Thank you, THANK YOU!” But I try to remain cool, experienced, composed. “It was pretty good,” I say. I let my arm dangle out the window and close my eyes. I begin to crave hitting a solid drive, taking a dollar bill sized divot out of the thick grass with my seven iron, chipping a ball that plops easily on the green. I remember my behavior on the fourth hole, my poor attitude and lack of composure, but the only stroke I remember taking is the one with the seven iron.
The next day, morning thunderstorms keep us off the course. We sit on our front porch, enjoying a late breakfast and watching the rain. Ben and I both have the day off, and golf seems like the perfect way to spend our free time.
By late afternoon, we decide to take our chances on a wet course. The first three holes we play are mediocre; my hands are slippery on the clubs, and my sneakers become drenched from the sopping grass but I don’t care. I just want to get to the fourth hole where I blasted the seven iron. When we finish putting on the third, the rain starts again. At first it just drizzles, but by the time Ben hits his ball off the tee on the fourth hole, it’s pouring. I pop up my drive and land too far from the green to wisely select my seven iron for my second shot. In fact, a three wood would be the most sensible choice; however, my inexperience takes hold and I slide the seven iron from its spot in my bag. Here we go, I think. I even smile in my back swing. Not only do I miss entirely, but I take an enormous chunk of wet fairway that sticks to the head of my club. Ok, so everyone whiffs once in a while, I reassure myself. On my next attempt I would have preferred a whiff. The ball shoots out to the right as if my hips were aimed that way. I swear they weren’t.
“Make sure your hips are lined up correctly and your ball won’t do that,” Ben says, and he whacks his Titleist toward the green. I think the rain is making him play better. I refuse to give up with my seven and hit a series of hideous shots. I eventually decide to pick up my ball and meet Ben at the tee box on the fifth hole.
“Why did you pick up? You could have chipped with me,” Ben says after a respectable par. He tucks the score card into his pocket and wipes his hands with the rag that hangs from his golf bag.
“This is miserable.” The ugly whine creeps into my voice.
“It’s not so bad, at least it’s warm out. You know, golf shoes might not be such a bad idea for you,” Ben tells me. “I mean, my feet are dry. You’re wearing sneakers. That’s probably one of the reasons you’re so uncomfortable.”
I glare at him.
The next five holes are a golf nightmare. I refuse to throw any of my clubs in an angry outburst, but if I’d been a club thrower I would have had an empty bag. I try to regain composure on the ninth hole and actually manage to get a hold of my second shot with my five iron; however, because the golf gods are against me today the ball hits the 150 yard marker and ricochets off to the right. I’m not joking.
I pick up my ball and head straight for the bench beyond the ninth green. I slump, waiting for Ben to finish putting. The rain has drenched my clothes, and the heavy cotton collared shirt I wear makes me sweat. Ben finishes five over par for the front nine, and I start toward the car.
“Where are you going?” He asks.
“To the car. It’s pouring.”
“It’s really not that bad. Besides we paid for 18.”
I stare at him in disbelief and survey the course. Not that bad? I wonder why we are the only people playing. Droplets fall from the brim of my baseball cap. Rain has soaked completely through my sneakers and suctions with every step I take. “You’ve got to be kidding.” He’s not, as he’s already teeing up on the tenth.
After the thirteenth hole I consider walking across the course and just waiting in the car for Ben to finish the round. I also contemplate running into the clubhouse and ordering a double shot of whiskey in the hopes that the liquor will make the torrential round more enjoyable. I do neither, remembering that Ben has told me that within each round, every golfer has at least a handful of good shots.
I drag my feet, muttering curses under my breath. I don’t bother to look for yard markers, and I randomly select clubs to use. Haven’t used my hybrid club in a while, I think on the fifteenth, maybe I’ll give that a try. Pitching wedge hasn’t gotten too dirty today, may as well get some mud caked on it. I even hit my five wood off the tee on a long par five. On the eighteenth hole I tell Ben I am never playing again.
“Does that mean you want me to cancel our tee time this Saturday?” He asks.
“Find somebody else. I’m not playing.”
“Ok, I will. But I’ll wait a few days to ask around, maybe you’ll change your mind.”
Ben ends with an 84. He examines the scorecard before folding it neatly and placing it under the visor of his car. He unties his golf shoes and bangs them together to remove the caked on mud before setting them in the corner of his trunk. I carelessly heave my bag into the backseat and toss my sneakers on top. We drive home in silence.
In the following days I decline Ben’s invitations to play golf.
“I told you I’m not playing any more,” I say.
“Oh right, I forgot,” he plays along.
When the weekend approaches, I’m dying to play. I think about my seven iron shot, and even the unlucky ball that struck the yard marker. The feeling of hitting a golf ball so purely makes me long to be on the course. I weigh my options: remain stubborn about my decision never to play again or give in to the fact that all I want to do is play. My five day hiatus makes me realize how much I actually enjoy golf. I figure that if I play an 18 hole round, I’m bound to take about 120 swings. Out of those 120, at least 25 have got to be good. When Ben comes home, I tell him to count me in for the weekend.
“Ok, great. I wanted you to play, I really did, but I wanted you to decide for yourself,” he tells me.
“I’ll do my best not to have another meltdown,” I say. “But I just don’t understand why I can hit some clubs so well some days, and then other days, on the same hole with the same club, my shots are terrible.” I cross my arms and frown.
Ben laughs. “You can’t expect things from golf. Expectations will kill you in this sport.”
Weeks later and with many more rounds under our belts, I gaze out at the 18th hole on our last round of the summer. It’s a par three with an elevated tee box. I feel relaxed, maybe because we’ve paid a green’s fee that’s good all day so I know this does not have to be my last hole. Ben’s eight iron off the tee shoots out to the left and clips some over-hanging branches before falling into the rough. I am unimpressed, only before realizing that his next shot will be all the more spectacular. When Ben hits a less than perfect shot, he recovers on his next attempt. I side-step a few yards down the hill to the women’s tees. I haven’t been able to hit an iron off a tee all summer, so I place my hand-me-down ball on the short grass in the center of the tee box. I squint down at the green, the noon sun burning my face. My mind is clear, my muscles loose. I select my trusty seven iron and address the ball. With one swift motion my ball is traveling down – a straight shot. I shield my eyes with my hand, my hips facing the hole. When my ball finally lands, it bounces softly just off the green.
“Great shot!” Ben tells me before chipping his ball from a horrendous lie, at a strange angle and on a hill. It lands on the green and rolls inches from the hole.
I look down the hill for one last moment before starting down toward my ball.
I end up chipping the ball onto the green and two-putting for bogie. I finish the round with a 105 and a 50 on the back nine. Ben recounts our scores.
“Wow, a 50 on the back! That is awesome. This back nine is challenging.” Sincerity fills his voice, and he grins at me, impressed.
“Let’s keep playing,” I tell him.
“Alright,” Ben laughs. “You might need to twist my arm a bit, though. I mean it’s a gorgeous day and I have nothing else to do…”
I roll my eyes. Ben plays 36 holes in a day regularly. “Ok, this time, I’m playing from the blues,” I tell him.
“Uh-oh, so we’re really going head to head now.”
“I don’t think you need to be too worried.” I double-bogie the first hole, a par five, from the blue tees. I have never been so thrilled with a double bogie!
As we approach our 20th hole of the day, I feel an appreciation for golf that I haven’t felt all summer. I look toward Ben who carefully places his ball on the tee. After 19 holes, I’m sure the majority of my shots were less than spectacular, yet I don’t remember them. Those shots fade into the background of my golf memory; when each round finishes all I can feel are my strong shots. These are the shots that keep me coming back to the course, keep me from bringing my clubs inside the house, keep me storing them in the trunk of my car, always ready to play.
Ben’s drive lands on the right of the fairway. I take a deep breath as a grin spreads over my face. I step to the blue tees and tee up my ball. My drive lands 230 yards down the center of the fairway on the 364-yard par four. Ben looks stunned, his mouth open. I giggle.
“I’m just getting warmed up,” I say and throw my bag over my shoulder.
On my second shot, I take a thick divot out of the grass that flops a few feet down on the fairway and the ball lands five feet to the right of the green. This time I’m stunned.
“Well, Maria, looks like we’ve got ourselves a match,” Ben can’t quite believe what’s happening after he fails to hit his ball inside mine. I refuse to feel overconfident. The day has been close to perfect already, and I can’t imagine anything, even a bad shot, bringing me down. I slide the pitching wedge from my bag and study the green. I can never tell where there might be a break and certainly have no idea how to put any spin on my ball, so I aim for the pin. My ball lands within inches.
“Maria! You almost chipped in for birdie! From the blue tees!” Ben yells. “Great, the tees that I play from. Pressure is on.”
Ben chips his ball too hard and it lands nearly 12 feet from the pin. I step onto the green, putter in hand, and walk to my ball. I crouch behind it, my heart pounding. I move to the side of my ball and tuck a strand of blonde hair that has come loose from my ponytail behind my ear. I don’t take a practice stroke with my putter; all it needs is a soft tap. I exhale deeply and move the putter back steadily like a pendulum. I barely hear any sound as the club makes contact with the ball, but a second later I hear the plunk of my ball dropping into the hole. I reach my hand to cover my gaping mouth and stand in awe.
“YES!” I shriek after a moment of disbelief. Ben laughs nervously.
“So you just had a tap-in for par,” he pauses. “And I have to make a 12-foot putt.”
I nod, a smile plastered across my face.
Ben moves his putter back and forth smoothly several times before inching his feet closer to his ball. He angles himself perfectly for a slight left break. He focuses solely on the hole, immune to his surroundings as if the entire world is a blur except the very green on which he stands. His steady putt hits the ball, and it breaks perfectly. The ball slows as it approaches the hole. On its final rotation, Ben’s Titlist drops into the hole for par. He exhales a sigh of relief and bends down to pick up his ball.
“Very well played hole,” I offer a handshake.
Ben pumps my hand several times before letting go. “I can’t believe how well you just played that,” he tells me.
“I guess, but you were the one with the pressure on. What does it matter if I get a par or an eight from the blue tees? These are the tees you always play from!”
He shakes his head and lets out a laugh. “Good hole.”
I pick up my bag and head toward the parking lot.
“You don’t want to keep playing?” He asks.
“No, I think I’ll end on that one for the day.”
The humidity escapes from my car when I open the trunk to put my clubs inside. I jam the keys in the ignition and immediately hit all four automatic window controls. As I leave the course, my car rolling over the lone speed bump, I see Ben tee off from the third hole. I can’t see where his ball lands, but I’m not concerned; he’ll play a good hole regardless.
The wind tangles my hair as I drive, and breeze fills the car. Every once in a while I smile, giggle, laugh out loud about the hole on which I ended – that after three and a half months of playing golf I parred a hole from the blues. I parred a hole from the blues. I repeat that over and over, the whole way home.