Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 28, 2013

A New Season’s First Stroll

At long last, spring has come to New England. While the buds of the year’s new leaves are just beginning to emerge on trees, the arrival of the season is signaled by the riot of yellow from blooming forsythia. Cold nights are suddenly replaced by cool ones, and on sunny afternoons there is finally the hint of warmth in the air. It is on just such an afternoon that for the first time since last November I climb the hill to the first tee at Breakfast Hill Golf Club. The first nine holes of a new golf season await.

I have played this game since I was a child, and for a time in my 30s and 40s played most days during this region’s all too brief golf season. I would dash out after work, even if only for a handful of holes, finishing the last one in deepening twilight. Not surprisingly given that frequency of play, my game prospered in those years, my handicap dipping down into the single digits.

Those are distant days now. For more than a decade a different job with a far longer commute has made such frequent play impossible; and the now occasional golfer cannot expect to match the ability that was the product of playing dozens and dozens of rounds a year. Couple that with the natural deterioration of skill that comes with the advance of years and the memory of the game I once possessed has at times in recent years felt like a curse. Lately though I have been less hard on myself, and more accepting of my golf game as it is. For unlike so many sports in which we fans can never be more than spectators, this is a game that we can all play for ages. If the passage of time means fewer birdies and more wayward shots, there is still the serene beauty of walking the fairways and greens as afternoon shadows lengthen.

Even in my best days as a golfer I was never much of one for practice. I found more enjoyment in playing four holes before dark than in using the same short time to beat balls on the range. So even though I haven’t swung a club in five months, on this afternoon my warm-up is no more than a few practice swings to loosen the muscles on the elevated tee at Breakfast Hill’s opening par-4. Thus it is scarcely a surprise when the opening drive of the new season is wildly errant. The ball sails high and wide to the right, disappearing over the row of trees separating the 1st fairway from the 10th. When I find my Titleist it is all the way over on the far side of that 10th fairway. It is a drive that is so bad it turns out to be good. Rather than being blocked by the trees my shot has gone so far off-line that I have an angle to the green past the end of the row of hardwood. Still it’s not a location I am used to playing from, or at least not when the target is the 1st green. My approach comes up short, and an opening bogey ensues.

The initial bogey is promptly followed by another, when my second shot on the par-5 2nd hole is pulled just far enough left to splash into the pond that borders the length of the fairway on that side. It is the first penalty stroke of the season, though it certainly won’t be the last. Still after dropping my ball next to where it crossed the hazard line, a crisp 8-iron that finishes ten feet right of the flag offers a bit of solace.

Then on the 3rd tee I recall a swing thought that has in the past helped to straighten out my tee balls. I focus on feeling a high and full finish to my swing, for I know that if I do that I will have squared the club head at impact and turned it over through the follow through. Sure enough, the ball leaps off the tee and flies straight down the middle of the 3rd fairway. It lands hard and bounces high in the air, perhaps off a sprinkler head, adding even more distance. I will pull my TaylorMade Burner driver out of my bag four more times this afternoon, keeping the same thought in my mind. Each swing will produce a drive that is straight and true. When the drive on #3 finally comes to a stop there’s no more than a sand wedge left up the hill to the green, and par finally finds its way onto my scorecard.

Three more pars will be recorded over the next four holes, on the two par-3s that are the 4th and 6th holes and on the par-4 7th. On the 4th I am the recipient of good fortune. My 8-iron is struck thinly, and the ball never rises more than ten feet off the ground. But as if shot from a cannon the line drive flies down the short hole, landing in front of the green and bounding up onto the putting surface. A well-struck 9-iron on the 6th hole sails through the air directly toward a ridge line fronting the green. Had it landed a foot to the right the slope would have kicked it toward the flag. Instead it lands on the wrong side of the ridge and is sent sideways into a bunker. Given that this is my first foray into the sand this year I shock myself by splashing out cleanly, the ball rolling up to a foot from the hole.

The hiccup in the string of pars comes on the par-5 5th hole. It is a visually striking golf hole, framed by deep forest and a long fairway bunker on the right, and a hillside complete with rock outcroppings on the left. I squander a solid drive by pulling my second up onto that hillside into a messy lie. It’s three more swings before I am finally on the green, and two putts add up to a double-bogey.

The 8th hole balances accounts for my earlier good luck on the 4th. A fine drive up a hill lands on a sloped segment of fairway and kicks dead right. After walking up the hill at first I can’t find my ball. At last I spy it, not more than a foot into the rough but in a deep depression and almost totally covered with grass. Uncertain as to how the ball will come out of such a grim lie, I take an extra club and swing hard. Contact is better than I expect, and the shot lands past the flag and rolls over the green. From there a poor chip sets up the third bogey of the day.

So at last I stand on the 9th tee. The adjacent 18th hole and the driving range beyond it are empty, as is the putting green in front of the clubhouse in the distance. A chipmunk rustles some nearby leaves, and a few birds announce their return to New Hampshire from a winter spent in warmer climes. Other than those sounds of nature there is silence, as a solitary golfer finishes his first outing of the year. The green fairway rolls out until it meets the light brown of a cross bunker in the distance. Above a few scattered white clouds lend context to a blue sky. To my right the lowering sun is a bright yellow disk seen through the tops of still bare trees. One more par, which will in fact come a few minutes later, will complete a 41, five over par. Once I would have considered such a tally to be on the outer edge of respectability. Today it is an utterly unexpected and entirely pleasant surprise; though the stray thought that perhaps things can only go downhill as the season progresses does cross my mind.

More rounds lie ahead, as spring unfolds into high summer. Certainly some will be in the company of longtime friends, rounds where the final numbers on the scorecard are less important than the time spent together. Some will likely be with strangers, and some, like today, will be solitary walks on quiet afternoons. There will not be enough of them that much is certain; but each will be valued. The golfer who, thanks to a remembered swing thought, strikes one more drive down the middle of the 9th fairway and then shoulders his carry bag to chase after his ball is not the player he once was. But older and wiser he understands that a game that can be played and enjoyed at all stages of life is about much more than just the final score.

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