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Sunday, September 1, 2013

(Almost) Lost Balls & Axiomatic Truths

Those of us who love the game of golf, and I mean really LOVE the game of golf, cherish memories of certain special moments when we have actually triumphed over the game -- the day we beat Old Man Par on a hole we'd been struggling to master for weeks, or months, or even years -- our first Ace -- the day we broke 80, or 90, or 100 (depending on where we are on the scorecard/index continuum).

I have two memories that I call us and revisit on days when I'm especially discouraged about the way I played a round, that help me remember the core axiomatic truth about the game of golf:  This is a game that involves progress, but at which I will never achieve perfection.

Both memories involve lost balls, a problem with which I have a deep and intimate familiarity.  I know.  I've read the jokes about golfers who search for their balls and sneak a drop when nobody's looking, claim and play a phony ball.  Cheaters!  I can't imagine the fun in that.  Where's the sense of accomplishment?

The raw feeling of power that surges through my veins when I find my ball, buried in deep, thick rough or peeking out from beneath a leaf or tucked in between some pine cones and surrounded by mulch and pine straw, and then figure out how to get it safely back into the short grass, is so empowering that I wouldn't dream of robbing myself of that adrenaline surge by sneaking a cheater ball drop!  I know this sounds a little prissy, but that's how I feel.  I also know I'm not alone on this issue.  Robert Szarka's written a book about The Lost Golf Ball.  Liz Young sprained her ankle during the first round of the 2013 Ladies Scottish Open looking for a lost ball, and played close to the lead during the 2nd round, all braced and bandaged.  That's the spirit!

This is the 2nd axiomatic truth about the game of golf: A golf ball isn't lost if I can find it.

When I stepped back onto golf course after a 30-year vacation, picked up my sticks, and came back to the game, I lost a lot of golf balls.  I bought sacks of recycled balls at WalMart because I knew I was going to lose my balls.  I just couldn't hit straight.  Why fight destiny?  If I couldn't see my ball or didn't have a fairly explicit clue as to its destination, I would just go forward a bit, drop another recycled ball, and try again.

Then, about mid-way through that first year, Teenie Simmons suggested that I might enjoy playing with the Star Fort Ladies Golf Association and lifted $20 from my wallet just to make it official.  I felt very tenuous about taking that step.  I wasn't even keeping a score yet.  But with trepidation, I eventually found the courage to joint the ladies for a round of golf.  They immediately made me start keeping my score and they immediately began helping me locate and hit my errant balls.  The era of the free drop had ended for me!

The era of lost balls, however, was far from over.  I still couldn't hit the ball straight.  But I never had to search for my balls by myself.  Everybody searched, and sometimes searched to no avail.  They searched dutifully, diligently, patiently, suffering in silence at the delays in their own games.  They taught me how to estimate which direction my ball had flown as it left the face of my club.  They took to standing behind me so they would be able to track the trajectories that I still found incomprehensible.
Gradually my game got better, my shots more predictable.  Then, after months of glacial progress, occasional backward steps, frustrating moments when Alma and Barb and Pat and Shirley and Teenie forced me to cope with uneven lies, impossible shots out of trees, strikes from rough so thick I could barely see the top of my ball, the ball that dropped into the cup on the 18th hole was the same ball with which I had teed off on #1!

Quite honestly, I was euphoric! I'd played a round of golf without losing even a single ball.  I felt as though I'd scaled Mount Olympus!  I immediately shared this wonderful accomplishment with the Ladies, thinking they'd celebrate with me.  They did not.  I realized that most of them, no, all of them, actually believed that's the way the game of golf should be played.

That is my first special golf moment memory.  My second, which also involves a lost ball, comes from a round I played with Wes at Star Fort a couple of years ago.

On the par 5 8th hole, the one with the dreaded pond that intersects the fairway, Wes was easily over the pond with his 2nd shot and I was getting ready to go over on my 3rd.  I hit the ball low, too low.  It got over the water but didn't clear the marshy stuff on the far side of the pond.  Disgusted, I dipped into my pocket for another ball and prepared to drop and take my penalty.  Wes stopped me.

I think you can hit that ball, Mom, he said, squinting at the marshy stuff.

I'd never het a ball out of the muck and I wasn't especially keen about trying.  But I couldn't resist the pressure or the challenge.  We found the ball, just where Wes thought it had landed, in the muck but very visible, the top half in the air, the bottom half settled into some slurry, muddy, brown sludge.

You can hit that one, Mom!  Wes was considerably more excited about the prospect of this shot that I was.  He gave club advice, stance advice, cosmic encouragement.  How could I resist?   Following his instruction I pulled my 9 iron out of my bag, settled my right foot in the sludge and braced my left foot on more secure ground, took my backswing and came down hard!

To my complete astonishment, the ball popped out of the muck, soared up into the air, and came to rest in the center of the fairway about 40 yards from the green.  I popped it up to the green, 1-putted for a bogie and, because Wes had the putting yips, halved the hole.

We wiped off the mud that had spattered on my hat, face, shirt, shorts, and legs, cleaned my shoes, and played on.

From this memory, a corollary to the 2nd axiomatic truth in the Game of Golf: A golf ball isn't lost if I can find it, and if I can find it, I can probably hit it, if only I have the will to take the shot.