A PERFECT LIE - The Hole Truth
18 Holes of Golf in Pursuit of the Round of a Lifetime
© By Tom Hill
“Gouf, gouf, gouf yer bawl, verily toward the green.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, par is but a dream.”
Scottish nursery rhyme*
* Well, it should have been...
Five Hours From Now
I’M STANDING ON the 18th tee not believing I'm five hundred yards from a miracle.
This is the round of my life. Better than the round of my life: with one more good hole, I’ll pop the champagne cork, shake the bottle, spray my companions and be carried off the green in triumph.
Trust my swing for a few more shots. But can I?
A “pro” at the Ventura County Fair once gave me a “5-minute Lesson for $5.” He saw me swing a 7-iron twice on his green Astroturf tee box, heard what I’d shot that day at Verde Greens, shook his head, picked up his cheap microphone and announced through his crackly P.A. system to the passers-by: “Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and meet… the man who must be, the WORLD’S!… GREATEST!!… PUTTER!!!”
THE RELENTLESS SUN is beating down on the baked out desert grass; it’s at least 100 degrees now. The three-club wind is whining in my ears, tearing at my hat, swirling through the palms; ready to knock my drive offline. My hands are twitching, my legs are shaking, my nerves are shot and I need to take a piss.
I wonder if this is the day I’ll be recalling in forty years when the nurse at the old age home says, "Mr. Reynolds needs his meds. He's off on that golf talk again."
Before the Round
I’M SHANKING THREE-QUARTER sand wedges on the driving range.
I never shank anything but here are three in a row, each one uglier than the one before. Taking off low and diving to the right, rather than rising high and straight and floating toward the practice flag 70 yards away, the shanked balls curve absurdly in quick succession in front of the other golfers on the range. I don’t look at anyone to see if they are watching me – or laughing – or ducking.
I thought the first one was an accident of physics, the second an accident of the odds, and the third simply inexplicable.
I examine the club like I’m the guy behind the counter at a pawnshop.
The shaft isn’t bent, the head’s not loose, the grip’s on tight, the grooves are clean.
The club doesn’t look any different than it did yesterday when it worked fine. I stick it in the bag and hit two good long and arcing full shots with my 9-iron, then a short push-fade.
I’M IN A funk from playing badly in a tournament yesterday, in one of what I consider my “four majors” but everyone else thinks is just another Saturday I play golf.
My odd swing notwithstanding, I’m a 10-handicap on my home course in the Bentwedge Men’s Club. But in the qualifier for our President’s Cup, I played like an 18 and shot an 86. I didn’t make the eight man cut for match play.
On the first hole yesterday my tee shot ran into the trees and came to rest inches behind a root, only a foot or two from a tree trunk. I was too close to the big oak to hit a full shot, and with the root exposed in front of the ball I worried about damaging my club, my wrist and my ego.
I only had space for about a two-foot backswing before hitting the tree and if one of my practice swings had been for real I would have whiffed the shot.
Time seemed to speed up. My head pounded, I sweated, and I cursed silently. I may have cursed out loud, too, I don’t remember.
I stood over the ball wishing it were someplace else.
Or that I was.
FOUR SHOTS AND two putts later, I triple bogeyed the first hole. Not even 15 minutes into the tournament the round was shot, the day was ruined and a month of anticipation was wasted.
So, early this Father’s Day morning on the driving range at The Lakes at Monte Vista, I feel like I have a hangover though I only had one Heineken (and some champagne) last night.
I’m in a golfing fog on a sunny Sunday morning. My expectations are low and I’m aware that more bad play will cost me cash today. I haven’t been playing well in Scotty’s skins game or winning any bets for some time it seems. And now I’m shanking.
I’LL BE RIDING with my golfing buddy Pablo, a 68-year old deeply tanned Cuban who came to southern California 45-years ago because it was warmer than New York and less humid than Miami.
Pablo is wearing a variation of the golfer’s uniform: khaki pants, a cream Ashworth shirt and white and brown FootJoy saddle shoes. He looks sharp, but you can’t judge a golfer by his wardrobe.
I’m dressed in a similar way; light gray relaxed fit pants and a gray and white Under Armor golf shirt with a white TW Nike baseball hat and black Nike belt and shoes. For a golfer, this passes as high fashion. In fact, I admired myself in the three-panel pro shop mirror when we got here this morning after the two-hour drive from what we call “the valley,” as if it were the only one on the planet.
I thought the clothes looked great in the mirrors and would look even better if I lost 15-pounds.
Well 30, but let’s be realistic.
Then I went into the snack bar that smells like eggs, bacon and butter and grabbed a donut, well two, since I’m being honest.
OUT NEAR THE practice green Scotty pointed out the two younger guys who’ll be joining Pablo and me today.
Philip and Kenny are brothers in some combination of their early, or mid-30s. Kenny, the younger one, is wearing baggy cargo shorts that go halfway between his knees and ankles over black socks and basketball shoes. At least I’ve never seen high-top golf shoes before.
Philip looks like a golfer. He’s about 5’11”, a little heavy but a (former) athlete’s build, and a graying goatee. He’s wearing knee-length khaki shorts and a wrinkle-free white and black Calloway golf shirt with a well-worn, sweat-stained black hat logoed from the old Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Philip has a silver medallion bag-tag that says “Shivas Irons Society – Charter Member” on it. Scotty sees it as we’re standing next to the carts, loading up.
“Shivas Irons, huh? I’ll have to tell him I’m a charter member of the Chivas Regal Society.”
Scotty is quick speaking, sarcastic and talkative in the half-hour before he tees off. He’s that way too during the four-and-a-half hours when you’re with him on the golf course, times two if he’s playing well. But he’s in our first group today, I’m in the second.
“By the way,” he says. “Philip’s a 14, maybe 15. Kenny doesn’t have a handicap. Except for playing with Philip.”
KEN AND PHILIP walk off the practice green talking, I intercept them to shake hands and introduce myself.
“Hi, Don Reynolds. Good to meet you.”
I always say my last name when I introduce myself on the golf course. I truly don’t know why.
We talk for a minute or two about the course and I recite the rules of the skins game for them. You know, a dollar-a-hole per man.
“The boss told us,“ says Philip.
“Play the ball down, no bumping. No strokes, except for Pablo who gets six.”
Pablo will keep the official scorecard.
“He’s the only one with an eraser on his pencil.”
Philip rolls his eyes while Kenny smiles.
“The skins are two-tie, all-tie, with carryovers. A dollar a man for low putts and low gross. Birdies and sandy-pars are 50-cent dots.”
“Do me a favor,” says Ken. “Just tell me how much I owe at the end.”
Then I explain how we play poker off the scorecard, on the first five holes of the front nine.
“Really?“ Philip asks. “That’s new. Can I raise if I have a good hand?”
“No, but deuces are wild. We call it ‘five hole stud.’ Everyone antes a dollar to see the first card – your score on number one. Then it’s two dollars to see each subsequent card, and you can fold after any hole.”
WHILE I’M STILL talking to them my mind is wandering slightly, wondering if maybe I wouldn’t be better off not to play poker, or skins, or bet at all today.
Play golf instead.
“No mulligans,” I tell Philip and Ken. “Don’t concede any birdie putts, even tap-ins. If you give someone a putt, they can’t win a skin that hole.”
I don’t do an airtight job when I recite the rules though Scotty tells me to give them the “Reynolds’ rap.”
It’s how I got my nickname: instead of “Tin Cup,” he calls me “Tin Foil.”
SCOTTY’S IN CHARGE of the game. He keeps track of all the bets. When he’s not playing golf, he’s a partner at an accounting firm.
I’m not sure how he knows Philip and Kenny. I think one of them is a neighbor of some relative or his cousin’s lawyer, or they’re his lawyer’s cousins or the relatives of some neighbor or something like that.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter. They’re here and I am too so we’ll spend the morning thrown together for five hours like seatmates on a flight from LAX to JFK. Only I won’t be able to put a pillow over my face and fall asleep if I don’t want to talk to them.
SCOTTY, LARRY, ART and Lefty are in the first group of our floating 12-man skins game that’s only eight players today; like Pablo and me, they’re regulars.
It’s 7:25 now as Scotty drives his cart to the first hole. That means our group will be called to tee off in nine minutes.
I’m gonna head to the bathroom and then I’ll practice putting for a few minutes. At least I won’t have to worry about shanking any putts.
But maybe you wouldn’t want to be standing at the urinal on my right.
No. 1, Par-4, 395 yards
I WALK FROM the practice green down to the first tee maybe 50 yards where our carts are parked and Pablo, Philip and Ken are stretching, swinging and standing as they wait for the fairway to clear.
I’m not thinking about anything, I’m just walking with a little bounce in my step because I’m always excited when I’m about to play golf.
I hear it, but no one else does; the chorus from “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”
My brain plays it as I walk, probably because I watched Disney’s Song of the South with my four-year old niece until she and I napped yesterday afternoon.
It probably won’t be a wonderful day, but out here in the desert, at least there’s plenty of sunshine.
THE MOMENTS BEFORE the first swing of a new round hold eternal promise.
Anything can happen because nothing has happened yet. Kind of like Opening Day for a Cubs fan.
Everyone is even par. No one has three-putted or missed a three-footer. We haven’t had to hit out of the rough or face a sand shot. There have been no hooks, no slices, no laterals, no OB. The only water we’ve encountered is bottled. All we see in front of us are fairways and greens, birdies and pars.
Then Pablo tees off and brings us back to reality.
THE FIRST HOLE of The Lakes at Monte Vista starts off downhill then the fairway works back up a gentle slope to the green. Glistening Augusta-white sand traps are on both sides of the front of the putting surface and there’s another bunker on the left of the fairway where it starts the climb uphill.
There are no homes on either side of the fairway, just some mounding and then the desert beyond.
The desert is filled with bushes, rocks, cactus and small trees. I’m used to seeing green bushes and big leafy green trees at most of the courses I play, here the color scheme touches all phases of the palette from beige to brown, yellow to orange, and silver to green.
The grass on both sides of the fairway is thick and still wet from the dew or overnight watering. It hasn’t been cut for a day or two while the short grass is freshly mown this morning with a cross-hatch pattern.
It’s a sharp contrast of dark and light green, rough and fairway, bad and good. It’s a look I like. The kind of golf course you see the pros play on TV, not the scraggily, can’t-tell-the-fairway-from-the-rough county courses we often play.
IT’S A MEDIUM length par-4, straight out, 395 yards from the blue tees.
Tiger Woods might drive it inside the 100-yard marker, or maybe hit a stinger 3-wood to the 150. I’ll be happy to find the fairway.
Like almost every par-4, it’s an easy hole if you hit two good shots…and a hard one if you hit one or two or three bad ones. But as I stand off to the side of the first tee marking my golf balls with a red Sharpie pen, that’s still in the future.
Then I spin a tee through the air and it lands pointing at Philip.
“You lead off,” I tell him, forgetting for a moment that Pablo already has.
I spin the tee again between Kenny and myself and while it points away from us, toward the mountains in the distance, it’s more toward me than him so I’ll follow Philip.
When the fairway is open, the pro shop announces, “Welcome to the second foursome of the Scott group: Mr. Vasquez, Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Mohr and Mr. Mohr.” Philip takes an easy swing and hits his ball down the middle.
It’s my turn.
I TAKE A deep breath, exhale, and carry my driver to the tee box to put a new white ball on a new white tee. I stand to the side and swing the club around in a circle with my right arm and then my left like a baseball player walking from the on-deck circle. I take two quick full-speed practice swings.
On the first one, the bottom of the clubhead shoots a spark as it hits the grass a full three-inches behind the spot I’m aiming at. A drop kick. But it’s only a practice swing. I take the second swing. It’s perfect.
Well, as perfect as a swing that doesn’t move the ball can be.
I’m ready to go.
I step into my stance and shuffle my feet until they’re in a position that feels comfortable and appears roughly neutral, not set up for either a draw or a fade. I mean a hook or a slice.
Then, with another deep breath and two waggles, a hip turn and a weight shift, the backswing becomes a downswing.
I must have blinked because I don’t see it, but I know I hit it because the ball takes off with a crack and a whistle.
My arms rush to a follow through as my body jerks away from the target line and my feet step out of the stance in a controlled stagger forward that ends when I fall back two steps. Only the club posed over my left shoulder is in approximately the right place.
The Titleist Pro V1 black number 2 ball with red Sharpie lines on it is on its way down the middle, fading slightly, but airborne. And airborne’s all I ever pray for off the first tee.
Well, really, I don’t pray.
Today I wished not to dribble the ball down somewhere near the red markers like I did on the opener last Sunday at Pokenhope Park.
Two hundred yards from the tee, my ball lands hard on the downhill, jump-kicks forward and rolls through the lowest spot of the fairway and back up the start of the incline. It stops in the short grass as I move to the side of the tee while Kenny steps up to hit.
Another drive; another Sunday round of golf.
KEN SMOTHER-HOOKS it into the left rough where bogey lives.
“You got a little Snappy Snapperson on me,” Philip says to him.
“More like Crappy Crapperson,” Ken answers.
Then, as we walk off the tee to the carts, Philip comes over to me.
“I remember,” he says. “We played together last year in that Fourth of July tournament at Leopard Woods. I remember your swing.”
MY SWING IS abruptly unusual and jarring, like a grammatical error in a textbook or an unseen pothole on a freshly paved road.
I bend from the waist, my back angled forward, my legs flexed slightly at the knees and my feet only momentarily still. I pull the club back and lift it shoulder high before dropping my knees, shoulders and arms, the clubhead swooping down. On the best days, the ball sweeps from the tee not as you might expect like a one-winged duck, but like a hawk on the hunt, wings fixed in an attacking glide as it moves precisely toward its target.
Despite the exotic movements on the tee, I end up balanced, eventually, though often a couple of steps from where I began my stance
My odd swing sometimes draws comments though I’ve never had anyone tell me they remember it from a year ago.
Maybe he doesn’t even remember me, only remembers my swing. I remember the tournament, but I don’t remember him. Or his swing.
I CLIMB IN the cart with Pablo who says, “I rush it, Don. Too big a hurry.”
In Pablo’s Cuban accent, my name sounds like the sunrise, or a liquid dish detergent. It’s why, when Pablo and I started riding together, Scotty nicknamed him Tony Orlando.
And of course he rushed it. He always rushes it. But it doesn’t matter. Even if he waited until they were on the green ahead of us, he wouldn’t have hit it much better. He never does off the first tee.
“Well, take your time on the next one, Tony. It’ll be slow today.”
THE CART MOVES quickly to Pablo’s ball and since Scotty’s group is around the green and Pablo can’t reach them from his position 270 yards away, he doesn’t take his time with his second shot. With no practice swing, and not much of a backswing, he drives a 5-wood out of the rough and down the center of the fairway.
“Why not the first time?” he asks, tapping his fist lightly on the steering wheel as he drives the cart toward the path.
I look around at the horizon. The mountains are shining copper and silver in the sun’s still golden early morning light. The sky is full on its way to bright blue and no clouds have made the trip to the Coachella Valley today.
The fading full moon is still reflecting the sun’s light off to the west but I know that, like a ball heading toward a water hazard, it will soon disappear.
Ken hits from the left rough as we drive on the cart path on the right. It doesn’t go far, still on the left. He’ll hit his third shot 30 yards short of the green while Pablo pilots the cart ahead to my ball. A couple of small rabbits with big ears run across the cart path into the bushes to the right of the rough as we near them.
“Looks like a good place to be a coyote,” says Pablo. “I mean, if you have to be a coyote.”
THE FLAGSTICK IS in the middle of the green, I have about 180 yards to the pin; but I don’t want my shot to travel that far. I want to stay below the hole since the green is quick and slopes back-left to front-right.
Having played here once before, a couple of months ago, I know all the greens at The Lakes at Monte Vista are fast and hard and that they don’t hold well.
I grab the 5-iron but don’t pull it from the bag. It’s normally about a 170-yard club when I hit it correctly.
If the ball ends up 10 yards short of the flag I’ll have a 30-foot uphill birdie putt; if it hits and rolls a little more than usual, I’ll be even closer. Even with the hard greens, I know I’m not likely to hit it more than 180 yards. I’ve convinced myself and I pull the 5.
Now, as I gaze forward from the fairway to the flag with a club in my hands, I’m thinking, don’t be greedy, center of the green. I want to start the round with a par, though I’m distracted by the thought that a three here might be my best shot at a skin all day.
Of course, there’s no guarantee I’m going to hit the ball straight rather than 30 yards right or left or short, but in my experience you can’t really plan for that. You can only react to it after it happens. You have to plan to hit it well.
My shoulders shiver into place as I step in next to the ball. My feet shift until they find their positions. My knees flex and bend and my fingers interlock, tighten, relax and tighten again as they fold into a grip. I breathe deeply then loosen the shaft in my hands in the moment before I start the backswing.
In the instant after the club makes contact, as I look toward the flag to see where the ball is, I can tell I’ve pushed it. I find it in the air.
“Hook, damn-it!” But I know it won’t.
It’s moving right of the green, right of the trap; coming in hot on a low trajectory.
The ball kicks off the ground short right of the front of the bunker and it bounces once more and rolls nearly hole-high but 20 yards right of the flag, a few yards right of the sand.
No one is looking at me but I shake my head. They say golf’s a cruel mistress. I don’t know, maybe she’s a wife. At least so many of my shots could be called Mrs.
Why do I think things like this when instead I should be concentrating?
I FIDDLE WITH my divot, using the clubface of the 5-iron to pick up the small circle of grass then dropping it back on the scalped spot of earth. I step hard on it while Philip hits and comes up short.
He stares at me as I walk over to the cart. I think he says nice shots, but that wouldn’t make any sense so he must have said that sucks.
I sit down in the cart waiting for Pablo to drive away when I see a clump of grass stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I use a tee to peel it off and kick it out of the cart as Pablo motors down the cart path toward his next shot.
A moment later, he brings us to a halt inside the 100-yard marker.
I WANT TO get loose, get the blood flowing, exercise my nervous energy and exorcise my negative thoughts. I grab the sand wedge, pitching wedge and my putter and walk along the cart path toward the green.
I look back every few steps and when Pablo is ready to hit, I stop and stand still out of courtesy and curiosity. He leaves it a yard short of the green and then after I’ve walked another 10 yards, I freeze again as Philip pitches to 10 feet above the hole. I’m almost at the putting surface and I’ve lost track of Kenny but then I see him swing from the left side leaving his ball near the front edge, there in four.
I WALK BEHIND Ken’s Top Flight onto the left of the green to look at the line from behind the flag to my ball. In my mind’s eye, I visualize the shot rising softly over the bunker, landing on the green and rolling toward the pin. I stand behind the flagstick.
The view is straight downhill to the trap that’s on the line to my ball. I walk across the green pacing off the distance, 39 feet of short grass, maybe 10 yards across the trap, then another six feet to my Pro V1.
As I walk around the trap, Kenny is approaching his ball just off the front of the green while Pablo and Philip are parking the carts on the right edge of the doublewide strip of cement that serves as a cart park area for the first green.
My Titleist is sitting up nicely in the wiry inch-high rough to the side of the sand. It’s a slightly uphill stance and lie. I’ll have no trouble sliding the club under the ball so it shouldn’t be too complicated. I’ve hit similar shots literally one thousand times before so I know I can hole it.
Or chunk it into the bunker.
I WANT IT to land a little past halfway to the hole then roll to the cup.
I take a couple of quick practice chops through the grass. I stand confidently over the ball then pull the club back around my right knee and start it forward.
“Don’t shank!” The thought screams from nowhere and everywhere like someone is inside my ear canal, yelling.
I can tell as soon as the club strikes the ball, even before I look up to see that I hit it a little left of where I was aiming, that I struck it cleanly and the ball will be safely over the trap and on the green, and not shanked.
I wish I hadn’t yelled “No!” when I hit it.
My Pro V1 is on a lower trajectory than I’d visualized; it’s going to land about 10 feet beyond the bunker, yards short of my target.
With a low hop forward it heads toward the flag 30 feet away.
The ball continues rolling up the hill gradually losing speed. It isn’t on a line with any chance to go in but it keeps getting better, getting closer.
I’m surprised at how quick the green is. Finally, the Titleist’s pace slows as it approaches the flag on the low side; it finishes maybe three feet below the cup.
Philip says good shot from there, and I nod to him showing a tight smile that indicates with false bravado that the shot went about the way I expected it to.
As I walk to my Titleist to mark it, Kenny and Pablo both play on to the green. They hit good chips, Kenny behind my ball and Pablo just inside me. Pablo approaches, I think to mark, but instead he grabs his Bridgestone. A bogey.
KENNY AND I drop coins, pick up our golf balls and wait for Philip to putt.
He’s been studying his line while his brother and Pablo chipped on so he’s ready to putt as soon as we clear to the side. He strokes it smoothly and makes his par, hitting the ball more firmly than I imagine he meant to while playing for a slight downhill break to the right.
Everyone says good putt or nice par and Philip smacks his hand on his putter-head like he’s giving it a high five.
“My putter is butter,” he announces.
Kenny is just outside me and off to my right putting for double. He hits it hard up the hill and the ball bounces off the back of the cup, pops in the air an inch above the hole, then drops in.
“Backboard,” he says with a smile.
“Nothing to this game,” says his big brother. I agree, silently.
I PUT MY ball down and pocket my coin. We’re basically done playing this hole. Pablo, Ken and Philip are finished and I’m lying three, three feet below the hole. In my mind I already have my par.
It’s a straight uphill putt. A simple putt, the kind most golfers make without thinking.
But I think.
I think how much I want to make this par putt, how I don’t want to miss it. How making a scrambling four with a good up-and-down gets me off to a positive start. It’s not a skin, but it’s a par.
Maybe because I’m thinking about the result not the process, the score, not the stroke or line or swing, I stub it, hit the ground an eighth-of-an-inch, maybe a sixteenth-of-an-inch, before the putter meets the ball.
At Bentwedge or most of the courses we play, the putt would end up a turn short and that’s what I think this will be. But The Lakes at Monte Vista bills itself as “Country club golf for the public golfer” so the greens fees are higher and the greens are faster.
My ball has just enough energy to travel three feet to the very edge of the hole where it hangs momentarily; pausing like a shy boy on a young girl’s front porch, finger frozen, touching, but not pressing the doorbell.
I take a step forward to tap-in, but the bell chimes, the front door opens, and the ball falls slowly like Tiger’s Nike on 16 at Augusta.
I WALK OFF the green hearing Philip jabbering away to Kenny, who just doubled, about the importance of getting off to a good start.
He looks at me and says, “Four.”
“Me too,” I answer.
“Yeah, nice putt. It looked like you stubbed it a little.”
“I saw how fast the green was on yours, and Ken’s, so I knew I didn’t have to hit it hard,” I say defensively.
Philip must think he’s Gary McCord up in the tower. He puts his fist in front of his mouth and speaks into it, “With that solid stroke, Stubby Stubberson makes par on number one.”
As I approach our cart I notice it has a gold number 69 decal stenciled above the rear wheel well. I drop my putter into the bag and drop myself into the cart.
Driving on the cart path to the second tee, Pablo writes down the scores and how many putts with one hand steering and one hand penciling the numbers. He’s looking at the scorecard not at the curve where the cart is heading.
He looks up as the front wheels run off the cement into the grass pointing us away from the cart path.
“That’s two nice drives on one hole, Mario,” Philip shouts at him.
Pablo looks at me and says, “This one, he’s noisy.”