A bad day for Jack Nicklaus: 75, with maybe 30 putts.
Any day I get to be on a golf course is a good day. Once I had a career day. Under par by 3 strokes. For 18 holes. 15 pars and 3 birdies. On a real golf course, 6,113 yards of real golf course, my home golf course, Wake Forest Golf Club in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Wake Forest Golf Course is now a distant memory, over a hundred acres of weeds since its closing in the Fall of 2007, but I still have my signed scorecard with my One Time! round framed and on the wall in my home office.
I wailed away at various types of golf balls with various types of equipment for 35 years before the big day. I sullied golf courses from California to Virginia, from Washington (the State) to Texas, and in a few foreign countries. My lowest handicap ever was a 6, which I clung to for a month before a prolonged sinking spell that got it back up to double digits, my more frequent level.
I thought it might be amusing for those who, with good reason, might marvel at the spectacle of a 63 year-old firing his first under par round ever, to learn about how much good fortune, successful safecracker luck, it takes for a 10+ handicapper to achieve an under par round.
Fear not. You are not confronted with a complete play-by-play. Only five holes, and only to demonstrate what all who golf their balls know: luck is more important than skill.
Number 5 – 379-yard par 4, dogleg right, second shot over a pond.
On the tee, astonished at having arrived at the 5th tee at even par, I drilled my drive dead into the woods on the right, only to find the ball impossibly located in a spot where I could advance it toward the green. Undaunted by the pond in front and the overhanging branch that prevented me from launching directly at the green, I reasoned that a modest punch shot to a strip of dry land on the left, avoiding the pond and keeping it under the branch, would put me in a position where I might get up and down for a bogey or even a 5th par in a row.
I proceeded to scull the ball dead right (again). The ball made it under the branch and over the pond (three skips on the water), coming to rest on the fringe of the green, some thirty feet from the pin. Whew. Remembering the immortal words of Ken Venturi: “A bad shot with a putter is better than a bad shot with any other club,” I pulled out the flat stick and stroked the ball dead center for a routine birdie. When my playing partners finished throwing up, we slogged on.
A 3 that should have been a 7. Or worse.
Number 11 – 328-yard par 4, dogleg left, over a creek on the 2nd (blind) shot to an uphill green tilted from back to front at no more of an angle than a line drawn on a map from Seattle to Mexico City.
It was an acceptable tee shot, 160 yards with a 5-iron, not in the creek where most of my tee shots on this hole found their way. The pin was front right, requiring another 160-yard uphill second shot, this one across the creek and up the hill. On TV they often say things such as: “The creek is not in play on this shot.” For me a creek in the same zip code is in play. Right and left of the green are dead; woods on both sides, and a drop of some 20 feet on the right, leaving an embarrassing third from the 9th tee, where there is always a group to watch you try to get the ball up the hill, through the trees and on the green. A short 2nd shot winds up in rough, leaving a delicate uphill third with the club head slicing through Bermuda no tougher than a Brillo pad. I pulled my magic 5-iron, figuring it got me this far, so why not? I wanted to stay below the hole, because above the hole is 3-4 putt territory, downhill. Naturally I pull-hooked the shot but did get it on the green, only 50 feet or so downhill with a left to right break requiring the putt be struck at a right angle to the pin. Oh so delicately I stroked the putt (on the toe – thanks again to a tip from Venturi – so as to deaden the strike and keep the ball on the green). The ball took off like a scalded ape, but slowed for the 30-foot descent until it reached the halfway point on its downward roll, where it began to pick up speed, coming to a stop in the rough below and some eight feet off the green. My faithful sand wedge in hand, I jabbed at the ball and looked up time to see it strike the flagstick with no small amount of force, accompanied by a loud clang as the ball dropped in the hole for a par. By now my playing partners had nothing left in their stomachs, so we trudged on to the 12th tee.
Number 14 – 327-yard par 4, slight dogleg left, second shot over a pond.
A thing of beauty off the tee with a 3-iron, followed by a thing of even more beauty 2-3 feet from the pin and a putt that crept over the edge of the cup for a routine birdie. This hole may not belong in this discussion of luck except for the fact that the day before I had taken an 8.
Number 16 – 469-yard par 5, downhill from the tee, slight dogleg right from a good tee shot, with a few hundred yards uphill to another green tilted from back to front.
After an acceptable drive of about 230 yards, and fully aware that I was playing the 16th hole and was 2 under par, I stressed the thread connecting the upper portion of my shoes to the heels and soles by swinging so hard I almost fell down, advancing the ball another 50 yards. With about a 180-yard uphill third shot to reach the green, I relied on my 3-iron. It was one of those rare moments when you feel the ball compress on the clubface. You just know you’ve tagged it. The ball leaped off the clubface slightly left, faded gently to the right, and came to rest no more than 10 inches from the cup, from where I confidently tapped in for my 3rd birdie of the day.
Number 18 – 364-yard par 4, slightly uphill then slightly downhill, dogleg left.
I normally sweat a lot. Standing on the 18th tee at 3 under par, I must have resembled one of those computer generated figures in a Gatorade commercial, the ones that are formed from drops of liquid, presumably the Gatorade. Is it in you? Just get it somewhere out there where you can bunt it somewhere near the green. Do no worse than double bogey and you’ll still have a career round of 1 under par.
My playing partners were as silent as a baseball team when a pitcher has a no-hitter going. So far I’d had 14 pars and 3 birdies; the honors on the tee had been mine all day.
I got all of it on the drive; at least enough of it to have only a 7-iron left. With as much aplomb as I could muster, I stepped up to my second shot and pull-hooked it pin-high into the front left sand trap.
Oh boy. Sand traps and I, although not strangers, do not share what I would call a comfortable relationship. There is no in-between for my sand shots. They are either very good or very bad. By very good I mean a makeable putt of 15 feet or less for the next shot. By very bad I mean two or three mighty blows to get it out, or over the green, perhaps to clang off someone’s deck.
I got in the trap with my sand wedge. Just hack it out of here, get it somewhere on the green and 2-putt for a 70, your best score ever by 2 shots.
In my mind I played a video of Ernie Els on the Golf Channel: dig in with an open stance, open the club face, take it up quickly with a long, lazy swing, hit the sand behind the ball and follow through – no decel!
Up it went, over the edge of the trap and on the green, leaving a 20-foot left to right deal – about a foot of break. I jabbed at it, keeping all but my arms and shoulders as steady as possible with sweat dripping off the brim of my cap, down my back, and into my shoes. The back of the cup somehow absorbed the shock of a golf ball hitting it at about 70 miles an hour, it dropped in and I had my first under par round. To watch my reaction, you’d have thought it was Sunday at the Master’s. A 69 – one time!
Would that everyone who loves the game experience an under par round at least once. For me it took a ton of luck. For tour players, under par is a reasonable expectation; for the rest of us, it’s nothing short of a miracle, one of those times you yell “One Time!” several times. And it happens!
A few months later I had my first ace, but it was nowhere near as exciting as 15 pars and 3 birdies. Got me thinking about the super seniors – until my next round – an 86.