Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 29, 2014

Taking A Mulligan On A Magical Moment

The 17th at this New Hampshire golf course is a clever little gem. The last of the layout’s four short holes, it sits at what in high season is a busy junction point of golfers coming and going. One reaches the tee by walking down a hill from the 16th green. As the golfer does so to his right is the par-3 14th, playing in the opposite direction of the 17th. Just around the corner from the 14th green sits the tee for the par-4 15th hole, running off behind the golfer until the back nine doubles back on itself for the three holes that finish the round. Off to the left the par-4 7th hole parallels the 16th, and in mid-summer the golfer would certainly see other players making their way from that green along a path that loops around right behind the 17th tee to reach the penultimate hole of the front side.

But this is not mid-summer. It’s late on Memorial Day, a cloudy end to a weekend that has been damp and cool. At least today the thermometer has risen from its torpor, climbing into the 70s. There is even a touch of humidity in the air. But the disappointing weather of the last two days as well as the continuing threat of rain has discouraged other players. Despite the more seasonable temperature, there is no one else in sight as the golfer reaches the 17th tee box. Late on a quiet day, he has the course to himself.

According to the scorecard the 17th is the second easiest hole on the course. From the tip of the deepest tee box it’s but 158 yards to the center of the green; and scarcely more than 100 from the forward most starting point. But it plays longer than those numbers because the iron shot is uphill all the way; the green perched on top of a mound so that one cannot see the putting surface from down below.

Designed by the prolific golf course architect Brian Silva, the layout has been open for just over a decade. In typical Silva fashion the routing makes full use of the natural conditions of the land, in this case a 170 acre parcel owned by generations of a single family for more than two centuries. The 17th is a prime example of that design concept. The little par-3 is surrounded by towering trees, as if a natural clearing had been found in the midst of a longstanding copse. Halfway between tee and green a massive rock outcropping protrudes, bare ledge pushing toward the sky. In front of this stone sentinel sits a small bunker.

The ledge and bunker are little more than decorative, or at least they should be. A properly struck shot aimed at the green will fly over both without giving either a notice. But the eye’s perception leads to the mind’s deception. The layout of the uphill hole, and the way in which the great pointed stone obscures the second half of the carry to the putting surface makes the obstacle seem much closer to the green than anyone who has played the hole even once knows to be true. The golfer has seen shots carom off the rock; he has seen more than a handful of well-intentioned tee shots land in that meaningless bunker. Over the years one or two of those woebegone Titleists have been his own.

In time, as the weather warms and conditions improve, the course will grow busy and the 17th will test players with its bit of visual legerdemain. But today the empty links and the hole itself are stark reminders that in New England golfers are still paying the price for our most recent brutal winter. After several seasons in which courses opened in March, this year some links were unable to allow play until the final weekend of April. Everywhere greens have been ravaged by winter kill, forcing club owners to reseed and in some cases even rebuild putting surfaces. This particular course opened the third week in April, but with so unplayable greens that after a few days the ownership reduced play from the full 18 to a composite 9, combining holes from both the front and back in an attempt to offer a limited but more pleasing experience. It’s only been a few days since the full 18 reopened and there is still extensive damage that only time and heat can cure. Some of the greens that are in use are barely playable, and five holes still have temporaries, including the 17th.

As those who play golf know, temporary greens aren’t greens at all, but simply circles marked in the fairways in front of the actual putting surfaces. One can’t really putt on them, though on this course the greens keeper has installed oversized cups in an apparent effort to encourage golfers to do so. On the 17th the so-called green has been marked off just to the left of the rock outcropping. For once the ledge and bunker truly are in play. But the overall result is to turn a visually challenging golf hole into a chip shot. From the golfer’s chosen tee box a sand wedge is all that’s necessary to reach the faux putting surface.

Still even a fake green must be reached with a real shot, and in the late day hush the sound of club meeting ball is solid. The ball arcs into the cloudy sky, and the golfer’s thought is that the distance seems about right and the line is just to the right of the hole, exactly as intended. For a moment the Titleist seems to hang in the air, as if time itself has been suspended so the golfer can admire the product of his swing. Then it falls, and lands on the sloping fairway that is today called a green, a few feet short and right of the hole. The ball bounces once and then, following the slope, rolls forward and left, directly toward the flag.

The golfer has played this game since he was a child. It would be impossible to count how many tee shots he has struck on how many par-3 holes. Once, more than two decades ago, he came close to scoring a hole-in-one. It was an errant shot, well left of its intended target. But a fortunate bounce off a hillside sent it skittering across the green until it stopped just a turn or two short of fulfilling every amateur’s dream. Notwithstanding the occasional story about some hacker making multiple aces in a single round, most players never realize that dream. The golfer knew that on that long-distant day, and knows it today. But there is his ball rolling the final foot or two, its destination seemingly certain.

But would it really be a hole-in-one? There is no one in sight; no other player to attest to the feat or share in the excitement. The foreshortened 17th is not the hole that appears on the scorecard. The green is not a green at all. The only thing real about the hole is the fact that there is a flag in it. Yet in all his years of playing there was but that one other time that the golfer came close. Will another such time ever come again? Would it not be grand to be able to tell the great tale of the magic that happened on the 17th hole; perhaps forgetting in the telling a few of the specific circumstances?

For the golfer, indeed for virtually any golfer who plays this game for life, the answer of course is no. He could record his score with a single vertical pencil slash, but he would only ever tell the great joke of his fake hole-in-one with a shot to a fake hole on a fake green. At the last possible moment the slope of the ground turns the ball just to the left, and it grazes the edge of the cup before stopping four inches past. The golfer will count the birdie. In the end, he knows it’s the right ending for this hole on this day. Besides, another season is just beginning.


  1. Nice!

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