Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 12, 2013

Perfection On The First Hole

Perhaps because it makes the remembering easier we tend to characterize our seasons broadly, as in the late-arriving summer, the wet autumn, or the winter with no snow. It is a convenient shorthand, but in choosing to paint the canvas of recall with such broad brushes we obscure much of the variety and detail that is an inevitable part of the slow unwinding of the calendar over three months time. No matter the generalization applied to any spring, each inevitably includes a day like Friday.

It is each spring’s surprising day of promise. Surprising because it comes without warning; the promise it carries is that summer will surely follow. Suddenly the thermometer, which has struggled to get out of the 60s, touches 80. As if by magic trees that were barely budding just days ago are brilliant with competing shades of verdant green. Scattered clouds skitter across an azure sky, and there is even a hint of humidity in the air. It is a late June day, a summer’s day, inserted into early May. With the work week in its final hours, it is a day that demands an early departure from the office. It’s a perfect day for a round of golf with friends.

Stuck at work a bit later than planned, I race north on I-95 then west on Route 101, stopping ever so briefly at a rest area to replace dress shirt, tie and slacks with a golf shirt and shorts. I arrive at Candia Woods Golf Links with only minutes to spare before our early afternoon tee time. Waiting for me on the putting green are two men whose lives have interwoven with mine for decades, all the way back to first introductions on the third floor of a dormitory in Hanover.  Several times each season we tee it up together.

Candia Woods is on the cusp of its 50th birthday, and truth be told for many of those years it was a poorly maintained dog track of a golf course. But a change in ownership a decade or so ago brought with it new investment and a steady improvement in conditions. Today the course is always in good shape, with some of the firmest and fastest greens of any public links. That being said, no amount of money can undo the rather pedestrian layout. The front nine features six consecutive parallel holes running back and forth up and down a hillside, providing about as much variety as is found by a sentry walking his post. But the course’s lack of aesthetics is offset by its ideal location, almost exactly midway between the seacoast where two of us live and the state capital region that is home to the remaining member of our threesome.

As the last to arrive I am of course given the honor on the first tee. With an obligatory comment about the overrated value of warm-ups or practice, I take the first swing of our round. It’s a decent drive, pulled a little left, and my Titleist bounds up onto a small mound in the left hand rough. My friend Burt is next, and the accomplished engineer and talented musician (if readers haven’t visited, they should), launches a high fade off to the right. It is a result so predictable for his opening drive that were we pressed for time we would allow him to simply go out and place the ball in the right hand rough and start from there. Last on the tee is Don; my freshman roommate turned practicing attorney and retired airline pilot. His drive starts down the fairway before drawing left. It finishes on the same hillock as my own tee shot.

With that our first joint round of the new golf season is underway. In a little more than four hours we will work our way up the adjoining 18th fairway. For each of us, the final tally on the scorecard will be more or less what one would expect. We happen to be a threesome who on most days play at three fairly distinct levels of accomplishment, and none of us plays often enough to effect dramatic change in our individual level. In truth, the day is about the comfort of familiar companionship as much as it is about the score. As Don will write in an email Friday evening, “I think I can recall every round we’ve ever played – not the golf, but the good times.”

Yet even for casual golfers, sometimes it is about the golf; for sometimes, even a high handicapper can experience a sublime moment of golfing grace. Burt is away, and from the right rough he sends his second on down the fairway toward the distant green. Now Don looks over his lie on the little mound on the left hand side. It about 175 yards to the putting surface, with the flag flapping lightly in the front center. He pulls a hybrid out of his bag, and as he readies himself a joke is made about seeing the ball finishing by the flag. He addresses his Pro V1, and I notice that he is actually faced with a bit of a side hill lie, the ball a couple of inches below his feet. It’s easy to top the ball from that position, and I briefly think of warning him to stay down on it, but decide against putting any negative thoughts in my friend’s head.

The swing is relaxed and full, and the contact is flush. The ball leaps off the face of the hybrid, flying in a straight line down the fairway, perhaps just right of the green. As it nears the end of its flight it draws ever so slightly back to the left, and lands just short and right of the green, where the contour of the ground kicks it forward and to the left. It rolls up onto the putting surface, curling toward the flag as it does so.

It is a fact that suggestion is a powerful force; and it is equally so that as we age our eyesight is not what it once was. True to the jibe made just before he swung, I see the ball nestle close to the hole, and Burt and I both congratulate Don on a great shot. A few moments later my own second finishes in the right fringe, and we are on our way toward the green. Alone in the lead cart I am the first to draw near, and as I do so I see no sign of Don’s ball. At first I think that it must have rolled past the hole and on off into the fringe. But that defies physics; the ball wasn’t moving that fast and the green slopes uphill. Even as the cart path takes me left of the green and the putting surface disappears from view, the obvious answer dawns.

Sure enough, as we park the carts behind the green, the players in front of us, now standing on the 2nd tee, start calling out their congratulations. Don’s ball has finished not near the cup, but resting at its bottom for an eagle two! The odds against it happening are of no consequence. The knowledge that he could spend the rest of the season standing on that little hillock firing balls toward the green and never duplicate the feat is irrelevant. On his very first hole of the year, with just his second meaningful swing after months away from a golf course, my friend has hit a shot that was not merely good, nor even great. He has struck a perfect golf shot.

We three will play more times over the coming months, though surely not as often as we would like. There will no doubt be other shots worth mentioning, though ultimately our outings are about something more meaningful than numbers on a scorecard. But long after other rounds and other scores have faded into the mist of misplaced memories, that one shot will live on for each of us. It is from such specific moments that we build the broad and general recollections that in time become the remembrances of seasons past. So it is that at some future date we three will look back and no doubt remind each other what an unusually warm spring we had, the year that Don hit that perfect shot and made that remarkable eagle.

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