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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Almost A Great Shot (Except For The Bad Bounce or The Errant Pine Cone)

Heartbreak.  Photo credit: www.lpga.com
Along with thousands other women's golf fans I was riveted to Golf Channel late Saturday afternoon when Cristie Kerr and Lexi Thompson gave it everything they had to save Team USA's place in the Sunday Showdown lineup at the International Crown.   They couldn't pull it off.

Friends who neither play nor follow golf and who do not share my passion were waiting for me to join them for dinner.  I texted -- order some appetizers and have a drink -- I'm going to be late -- must see this hole to the end.

Lexi's second shot on the par-5 16th hole, which would have put the pair in position to eagle the hole and win a sudden-death playoff against Korea's Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu -- a breathtakingly beautiful and shockingly gutsy golf shot executed with the skill of a world-class athlete and the grace of a ballerina -- fell just fractionally short of the elevated green, then rolled down a hill and nestled, as golf balls so often do, comfortably into thick rough that's harder to escape than any nasty pot bunker on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
St Andrews Pot Bunker. Photo credit: www.golfdigest.com

As I watched that ball soared straight and true, landing just inches short of the edge of the green.   My heart actually skipped when the ball bounced backwards rather than forwards, and began it's sad descent to its unintended resting place.  I took a deep breath and remembered another shot earlier this year.

Barb and I were playing in a four-ball match and my drive had gone right, into the trees.  But it was long, there was an opening, and properly executed, my second shot would have made the green on the par-4 9th hole and given us a birdie opportunity we sorely needed at that point in the match.

Properly executed involved keeping the ball low so it would slip beneath the branches of a pesky cedar tree and then cutting it to the right so it would land rolling forward on a hard, dry fairway and, we visualized, up onto the green.  I'm no Lexi Thompson, but I set up the shot.  Barb checked my alignment.  Using my favorite get-out-of-jail-free club, a beat-up 3-hybrid that always delivers -- Tommy's admonition, always use the club you trust, reverberating in my head -- I executed the shot.

The ball buzzed along just inches above the ground, cleared the lower branches of the cedar and made it's fade.  In my re-memory the ball is flying in slow motion.  Pleasure washed through my body as I watched that properly executed shot.  The ball hit the fairway just about where I'd intended, just about where Barb and I had agreed it should.  Then it encountered an errant pine cone -- and here my re-memory shifts to fast-forward -- took a left bounce, raced across the fairway and came to a stop in some thick stuff that grabbed it and saved it from a bunker.

That was almost a great shot, Barb sighed.

We finished the hole with a par.  We did not win the match.  But golf is an athletic contest in which even the best of us lose more contests than we win and those of us who step up to the tee to do battle are keenly aware of this before we drive our first ball.  We know from the outset that we're facing bad bounces and errant pine cones -- the vagaries of the random mishap -- as well as the skill of our opponents.

Match play is always different from stroke play, in many respects far more demanding and exacting; and match play is amazingly unpredictable.  It's rather like the Battle of the Bulge, a war fought shot-by-shot and hole-by-hole, a contest that requires a laser-like focus on the moment and a contest that can and does turn in an instant on the uncontrollable element of chance and good (or bad) fortune.

At the same time, match play allows middling players like me to lose a hole without losing the match.  There can be co-leaders, but there are no co-winners in golf.  It's a game grounded in elegant balance and reciprocity -- where, we must never forget, there will be a winner and there will also be a loser.

That said, I've learned that a great match at every level of the game is the one that goes 18 holes.  One of my most memorable match play rounds took place several years ago during the season-long, double-elimination Star Fort Ladies Golf Association annual match play contest when, playing against the Club Champion I found myself in the unexpected and unlikely position of being all square at the end of 18 holes and going into sudden-death extra holes.

After a potty break the Champ and I went back to the first tee, with most of the LGA accompanying us in a cavalcade of carts, incredulous, following a match everyone including me had expected would have been ended eight holes earlier.

It was hot.  Both contestants were sweaty and exhausted.  Standing on the tee box, the Champ looked at me, shook her head and said, I don't know how to end this.  I'm giving it everything I have.

Me too, I told her, leaning on my driver and sucking on a water bottle.

That match ended on the 2nd extra hole when my easy little chip up to the cup went a little right, hit the fringe of the green and rolled right toward the bunker rather than left toward the cup.  That match remains the finest match I've ever played, and I lost it.