Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 27, 2011

Another Season’s Final Walk

While there are plenty of places where golf is a year-round pastime, New England is manifestly not one of them. So it is that every year when we weekend duffers first venture onto our local fairways, still sodden with the remnants of snow melt for the first round of a new season, we know with certainty that too few months hence the autumn afternoon will come when we will play another year’s final round.

We seldom know the exact date of any calendar’s final stroll around the links; what with the famous unpredictability of New England weather. This year a freak October snow storm blew its unwelcome way through, shutting down courses prematurely. But October snow is not lasting snow, and within a few days tees were reopened and the simple yet endlessly challenging game beckoned once more.

As the days wane and the nights grow cold, morning tee times become approximate. Landing golf balls and stomping feet can do permanent damage to frosted greens. The starter’s job becomes one of holding his anxious charges at bay until the greens keeper deems the course fit for play under an increasingly feeble sun. In turn that sun’s low path across the sky and steadily earlier retirement compresses play at the end of the day. An afternoon starting time that in July would have been perfect for 18 holes followed by early evening refreshments and commiseration in the clubhouse bar now offers only the promise of playing 9 and then walking to one’s car past a shuttered pro shop as light fades. But here where the season is so short, as the calendar approaches the year’s final month we welcome even that opportunity as a bonus.

So the time comes. A high pressure system has pushed into the region, sending the thermometer five or ten degrees above what can fairly be expected for the first few days after Thanksgiving. Knowing it cannot last, we seize the chance to drive the wooden peg into the turf of the first tee and balance the spheroid atop it. One more round, one more stroll, before winter’s inevitable arrival.

We have played this game since we were children. Once upon a time we did so with hand-me-down woods that were really wooden and balls scavenged from the wayward shots of others. Now we do so with significant investment in the latest technology; swinging clubs with composite heads at multi-layer golf balls promising the added yardage that we have spent a lifetime pursuing. Over the years we have gone from rank to slightly better to a sudden blossoming of competence, at a time when the demands and location of work and home life ushered in a golden period when we could play even a few holes almost every day. Those rounds that sometimes dared threaten par are distant memories now. A different job with a far longer commute, a different life without a membership at the nearest club, the inexorable effect of age; all have served to reduce our play and send our scores climbing again. But if “we are not now that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;” and this game still fascinates.

Under overcast skies the round begins slowly, both in quality and pace of play. But on the short 4th hole a dawdling threesome on whom we have been consistently waiting finally allows us to play through. Two holes later the first par of the day is recorded when a decent chip from beside the green is followed by a nervy six-foot putt which finds the bottom of the cup. The front nine closes with another par when what will be the longest drive of the day bounds down the center of the fairway, leaving just a pitching wedge into the green.

Of course, there are some laughably bad moments as well, starting with the very first drive of the day. It too finds the center of a fairway; unfortunately it is the 10th fairway running adjacent to the opening hole. In good years and bad, our mantra to achieve better scores has always been “never follow a bad shot with another bad shot.” Yet on the long 5th hole we string together four consecutive hacks, thus violating our core code once, twice, and thrice.

After being waved through on the 4th the remainder of the front nine passes by rapidly, raising hopes that we will beat the early setting sun and finish the full 18. But we are not alone in our pursuit of one more round, and on the back the pace slows again as groups ahead bunch up. Gradually the light starts to dim, and a gray fog begins to rise. Still we play on, alternating misfortune with greatness. We make a mess of the long 11th, and agonize our way through disaster on the 17th. But before either of these travesties the back nine opens with a glorious 4-wood rising into the sky from the 10th hole’s elevated tee. The ball hangs there, seemingly suspended against the effects of gravity as we savor the moment. The perfect shot leaves but a 9-iron into the green, and another certain par. And the tricky 13th, with its threat of water looming down the left side is likewise made to heel. We eschew the driver, taking the water out of play, and hammer a 7-wood down the right side. The short par-4 hole will provide us with our penultimate par of the round.

At last we come to the home hole, even as New England’s short autumn dusk prepares to yield quickly to nightfall. The drive is far right, and a chip out of the trees runs all the way across the fairway. Yet just when it seems like the round will end badly, one more sublime moment awaits. From the left hand rough a 5-hybrid makes solid contact with the ball. The feel of the shot is perfect and we can see it flying straight and true; but in the gloaming it is impossible to tell how far the ball has traveled. It is not until we make our way past the raised lip of a fairway bunker that we see it, safely on the green some 20 feet left of the pin.

The final putt is struck, and the ball makes its familiar rattle around the bottom of the cup. Another round, another season, is complete. Our score is actually one of our better ones; but the game is about more than the penciled tally. It is life in four hours. It returns many moments of disappointment, failure, and regret. Sometimes there seems to be no luck other than bad. Yet there are also times of undeserved good fortune, as when an errant shot is found resting cleanly on top of a bed of leaves that by all rights it should be buried under. There is the good feeling brought on by a stretch of competent play, and on occasion the warm flush of something akin to greatness. And when a drive hangs against the sky, or a chip rolls out to nestle close to the pin, or a curving putt disappears into the hole on its final roll, there is the quiet joy of personal achievement that in the end is its own reward. Those are the moments that will carry us through the dark months of winter, until another season of this game for life, this game of life, begins anew.

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