By Peter Richmond
Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears.
The 5th hole at Hotchkiss — a lovely, hilly, tough course that winds its way through the campus of the prep school of the same name — looks as if it should be the easiest par 3 in the history of the game: 140 yards, sloping straight downhill. The huge green, fronted by a thin strand of sand, beckons like some enormous, comfortable throw rug. From the tee-box it seems as if you could spray your shot anywhere and this green would still gather the ball in. My friends all routinely birdie the 5th.
I, on the other hand, routinely mess it up. The 5th has me psyched. A short iron shot off a tee ought to be the easiest shot in golf, right? Not for me. Of course, for me, no shot is easy. If I had a handicap, it'd probably be in the high twenties, so it's not as if I've mastered any part of the game. I took it up seven years ago, at the age of forty-eight, and my backswing still looks like some flickering, spasmodic image you'd have seen on a wind-up nickelodeon machine in 1905. All of which makes what happened on that afternoon two summers ago all the more bizarre.
I was playing by myself, as I often like to do, because playing alone lessens the pressure. It had been raining on and off for a couple of days, and a fine mist creased a steady drizzle as I hiked up the hill toward the 5th tee-box. I'd played the first four holes decently, and had a legitimate chance to break 50 for the nine (always my ultimate goal). For some reason I'd decided to keep score that day, which I seldom do.
I teed the ball a little higher than usual, to ensure I'd get it in the air and have a chance at bogey to keep my good round going. I swung my 7-iron. When I looked up, I saw the ball describing an abnormally high parabola through the gray sky. My shot was not only straight, but seemed to have the right distance as well. Could I land close enough for a legitimate birdie putt?
I watched the ball descend through the mist until I lost sight of it against a backdrop of trees. Then I heard the distant but delightfully unmistakable sound of a golf ball plonking onto a green. My eye caught the ball, just briefly. It looked to have hit just a few feet behind the cup. Then I lost it again. Then, a fraction of second later, I heard a loud "clank."
A clank? Like a ball hitting a flagstick? That can't be bad, I thought. If it hit the flagstick, on a slow green, how far away could it have bounded? On the other hand, I thought, what if...? But the thought of an ace seemed absurd. I've amassed maybe one birdie a year since I took the game up. No way could I have just made a hole-in-one.
But the closer I got to the green, the more excited I grew. I could see no ball. But as I neared the hole, my heart sank. There was no sign of white.
But wait! The cup was full of murky brown water, and there, bobbing just beneath its surface, was my ball. I felt nothing but shock.
I quickly looked around to see if I'd had any witnesses. Not a soul. I fixed my ball's plug mark about six feet behind the hole. I took my scorecard out of my back pocket and, with hands trembling, scrawled a "1."
And then I went on to shoot 25-over the last four holes. I was a mental mess. Instead of doing a two-step down the fairways, I was slogging, hitting desultory shots, laden with guilt. As much as I love the game of golf, I am supremely terrible at it, and my fluky ace had left me feeling the way a kid who's stolen a candy bar from the drugstore can't enjoy the taste of it. After all, if my ball hadn't hit the flag, it probably would have spun back another thirty feet. This ace had involved a whole lot of luck. I hadn't really earned it.
Back home, I tacked my scorecard to the bulletin board. But I couldn't look at it. I was not worthy. And over the next few months, the guilt just worsened — especially when I played with a friend, a few weeks later, a very good lifelong golfer, a very sweet guy. When I mentioned my ace when we reached the 5th his face clouded over. "I never got one," he said. I felt terrible.
So I decided to stop mentioning my ace, except to my philosophical Irish golfing buddy Michael, an even-headed native of County Clare, who, having served as my psychotherapeutic sounding board ever since I'd told him about my guilt-ridden hole-in-one, finally set my head on straight one day.
"Look, the whole stupid game is luck," he said, after sinking an improbably long putt. "If you hit a drive into a tree and it bounces back into the fairway, you don't question that, right? If a great drive finds its way into the sand, you don't question that, right? The golf gods give, the golf gods taketh away. And aces? Show me a single ace that didn't need some luck, at some point. You shot a hole-in-one. The golf gods were smiling on you that day. Enjoy it."
He was right, of course. I now allow myself to glance at my tacked-up scorecard, and savor that amazing little pencil-scrawled "1." Now I'm fine to tell the story of my ace in mixed company (guys who've gotten one, guys who haven't). Maybe it was supernatural. Maybe the golf gods, watching me hack and duff my way through round after round, knowing I'll probably never break 95 in my life, decided to give me one moment to savor. Or maybe it was pure, blind luck.
Either way, I am finally at peace with my ace. Hey, any way you figure it, it was a hell of a shot. And it'll always be mine.