Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 9, 2014

Sublime Moments And The Occasional Power Of Memory

The calendar has turned to November, and daylight savings time has ended. Darkness comes earlier with each passing day, and the thermometer has begun its steady descent towards winter’s unwelcome single digits. Here in New Hampshire another golf season is coming to a close. For this player it has been like too many seasons of late. It began with good intentions and great hope of more frequent play, aspirations that were dashed by a variety of circumstances.

A particularly brutal winter left courses throughout the region in horrendous shape in the spring. Course openings were delayed and temporary greens were the norm at many venues, making for a less than enjoyable experience. Then as the weather finally warmed and nature healed winter’s scars, the demands of a business merger and an accompanying massive software conversion made for long days at work, including more than a few that would normally bear the label “weekend.” All leisure pursuits suffered, from fewer baseball trips to the Bronx to fewer rounds on the links.

While play this season was particularly sparse, the pattern has been in place for a good long while now, a reflection of fundamental changes in lifestyle. In a time that recedes steadily into the ever more distant past, I worked locally and belonged to a golf club less than ten minutes from home. Those summers meant golf almost every day, even if it was just a quick four holes after work. Weekly play in a league at the club fueled the competitive spirit. Repetition can be a wonderful thing. Though practice on the range never held much appeal, my frequent play couldn’t help but result in steady improvement to the quality of my game. My handicap index dipped into the single digits. Some years I competed in the championship flight for annual bragging rights at the club, and more than once emerged victorious from the first or second flight.

More than fifteen years ago an initial job change put me on the road virtually full time for a couple of seasons, and then a second change has had me commuting the better part of an hour to and from my office since. Time spent playing those quick holes after work has long since been spent motoring up I-95. As for the club membership it along with almost every other material possession disappeared in a one-sided marital dissolution. A note to readers: if one thinks there is any possibility of eventually getting divorced, one shouldn’t marry someone who becomes a high-priced divorce attorney. It doesn’t end well. But I digress.

The sharp reduction in frequency of play along with the obvious reality of getting older has turned someone who could once legitimately say he was a golfer into someone who occasionally plays golf. It’s a mild curse, because the eroded skills of today are constantly confronted by the memory of the game that used to be. Yet even if the day has come when at the start of a round I know that par is for someone else to chase, and even 80 is unlikely to be threatened, golf remains a game that can be played and enjoyed as long as one is capable of walking. Already this fall we have had two nor’easters blow through. Each dumped heavy rain in New Hampshire; but further north in Maine snow fell, and ski areas are opening. Each storm was a sharp reminder that the season could end at any time. So on a Sunday afternoon with virtually no wind and the temperature in the low 50’s, there is only one thing to do and that’s head for the course.

To the extent I have a home course now it’s Breakfast Hill, a fifteen minute drive south of Portsmouth in Greenland. On this afternoon there are only a few cars in the parking lot as I unload my bag and lace up my golf shoes. In the pro shop the attendant is running the vacuum, no doubt looking to make an early escape for home. He starts to ring me up for the nine-hole fee, then looks up at the clock on the wall. It’s three o’clock, and the sun is scheduled to set in less than 90 minutes. “Oh, just head on out,” he says, adding “you’ll have a hard time getting in nine before dark.” I express my gratitude for the free play, grab a scorecard and head for the tee.

For reasons unknown a sign is posted announcing that all play for the remainder of the season will start on the back nine, so I soon find myself on the 10th tee, looking down the hill at the short par-4. By rights it is not a hard hole, but then for golfers hard is a relative term. My tee shot wanders right, never to be seen again. With the penalty and a couple more indifferent swings, I begin my walk with a double bogey.

Things don’t really improve as I make my way around the back nine. The 11th hole is a dead straight but brutally long par-4, and I can’t be unhappy with a bogey five. But I make a mess of the par-5 12th, and I’m five over par after just three holes. Over the years I have played solitary rounds of golf in the late afternoon more times than I could possibly count. More often than not, it is a quiet and contemplative time. As I walk to the 13th tee, there is only the distant hum of the traffic on the Interstate, half a mile away, to compete with the chirping of a few birds. The trees that line every hole at Breakfast Hill send lengthening shadows across the fairways, cast by the westering sun. As has happened so many times in the midst of so many lone rounds at this time of day, I am reminded that the enjoyment of the game is not just about one’s score.

That familiar realization often has the effect of improving my play, and a textbook par follows. Still this is a round in which more shots will go astray than straight, the inevitable price of too little play in a too busy life. There is another par to be had on the 17th hole, but at the last an errant tee shot forces a sideways recovery and then a third that lands in a bunker short of the green.

Walking to my ball I know that I must finish my round with one of the hardest shots for the occasional golfer. The long bunker shot is simply not something that we confront very often. But this trap is ten yards short of the green, and the flag is a further fifty feet on. Counting on old memories, I step into the sand telling myself that I know how to hit this shot.

The explosion shot is launched, and at first I fear that I have hit it too cleanly. Will it sail over the green? No, it lands ten feet past the hole and actually spins to a stop. Sometimes memory works! Still, it’s ten feet downhill to avoid one last double bogey. I aim just right of the cup, and send the Titleist on its way. It runs dead straight, stubbornly refusing to break. But at the last possible moment, when it looks like it will just miss on the high side, gravity prevails and the ball falls into the side of the cup.

The sun is touching the horizon as I load my bag into the trunk of my car, 82 minutes after exiting the pro shop for the start of my free nine holes. There was a time when I would have been disappointed to end with a bogey. But now I am grateful for those moments when the skills from another time return, even if only for a single swing. Besides, it’s a lovely fall day, a bogey is so much better than a double, and one can’t possibly beat the price.

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