Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 13, 2016

Eighteen Holes In Deep Autumn

The vibrant hues of early autumn have given way to muted tones of rust. The number of bare trees is growing, and the leaves on the ground outnumber those still clinging to limbs. Here in northern New England, another golfing season nears its end. A few courses have begun to shut down as some clubs elect not to deal with the start and stop uncertainty of morning frost delays. But when the thermometer stays above freezing overnight and climbs into the low fifties on a sun-splashed Sunday, the tee sheet fills quickly at those that remain open for business. There are plenty of cars in the parking lot as two of us unload our clubs and prepare to set out.

The public course has been open for more than half a century. Today it sits hard by busy I-95, the sounds of speeding traffic creating an unceasing backdrop of noise along the third, fourth and fifth holes. But when it first opened in 1962 it would have been isolated on a quiet two lane road in rural North Hampton. The six lanes of macadam filled with rushing cars and trucks are a reminder of how much has changed over the decades, while the eighteen holes that remain true to their original design provide a reassuring sense of permanence. The layout is sprawling, and by the time we make it to the further reaches of the back nine we will play in the silence of a Sunday afternoon. It isn’t the sternest test of golf in the area, with a mostly wide open front nine that provides relief to those with a tendency to spray their shots. But the greens have plenty of break, and on the inward half there are several holes hemmed in by tall trees.

Shortly after eleven we stride off the first tee, one bag on a shoulder and the other on a pull cart. A conversation about the recent election is put on hold as we temporarily part company, for our opening drives have gone to opposite sides of the first fairway. On the card it looks like a gentle opening hole, but having played here often we know despite its modest length the strength of the hole lies in a green that pitches sharply away from the fairway. It’s the rare approach shot, even with a short iron, that holds the putting surface. Sure enough, we are soon both facing chip shots, scrambling to save a respectable score.

As is the case at some point in every round, the talk turns to sports on the second hole. After all one of us writes this blog, so it seems more likely subject matter than say, particle physics. It being Sunday the week’s NFL contests are reviewed. But there will be no checking iPhones for scoring updates as the round goes on. New England’s game is set for Sunday night, and the other golfer, a lifelong Giants fan, knows that his team doesn’t play until Monday.

The first par of the day is recorded on the third hole, with an assist from lady luck. A deep creek bisects the fairway near the landing area for our tee shots. One drive sails safely over the hazard and on up the fairway, but the other is sent terribly offline to the right. The errant shot lands just short of the water, but instead of bouncing into the creek the first carom carries it over to the far bank, and the Titleist comes to rest in the rough. Give this reprieve the golfer responds with a well-struck hybrid that carries up the hill and onto the putting surface. From there two putts seal the par.

Three holes later the compatriot matches that performance. Three solid shots down the spacious sixth fairway bring him greenside on the par-5. A well-executed chip runs six feet past the hole, and the ensuing putt rattles into the bottom of the cup for a fine par save.

The course is full, with a mix of foursomes and smaller groups. At the start our twosome had been told we could go off on our own, right behind two twenty-somethings who were playing from the tips. But the pace of play is inevitably set by the foursomes, and that has meant waiting on almost every shot. As we all stand on the seventh tee, a downhill par-3, a ranger asks us if we would mind joining the two young men, thus forming our own foursome. Despite the obvious difference in age and ability, it is of course the polite thing to do. For the rest of the round we will enjoy a demonstration of the raw power of youth, as our new playing partners send towering drives into the sky, shots that come to rest fifty and sixty yards past our own best efforts.

But golf is a game for life in part because it is multifaceted. Power alone does not guarantee success. The back nine begins with one of the harder holes on the course. It’s a stern down and then up par-5, with some of the heavier rough on the property down the left side and another deep creek crossing the fairway near the spot where second shots often land. After a decent drive one of us must decide whether to lay up short of the creek or risk the danger in order to hopefully have a shorter approach. The risk is taken, and by remembering to swing easy a 7-wood is more than enough to clear the hazard and set up a 9-iron third. The long hitters are next to one another seventy yards further up the hill in two, and both execute lovely punch shots that stop just a few feet from the flag. But a blow is struck for a more experienced generation when that 9-iron approach stops ten or twelve feet past the hole. It is our curling birdie putt that rolls in first, and only one of the two three-footers falls in on top of it.

Of course golf is also a game utterly lacking in logic. Our twosome has taken four and seven shots, respectively, to play the difficult par-5 tenth hole. So of course we then take six and eight to navigate the straightforward par-3 that immediately follows.

The November sun is slipping toward the horizon as we make our way up the final fairway. We’ve learned that the young men in our company graduated from high school with a stepson of one of us, so as happens so often on the links a new bond has been formed. The late holes have not treated us kindly; to say that in this particular round we are staggering home would be charitable. Still we play the ball as it lies (while noting with some alarm that the young men do not), and we dutifully record every stroke. Our scores today are certainly much higher than those of our mid-round partners, and higher than we have had on this same course on other days.

But since we aren’t on tour this game is about things more important than the score. It’s about an unspoiled walk on a lovely autumn afternoon. It’s about a common love for the game across generations. It’s about the strength of a friendship more than four decades old. Another golf season is nearing an end; but a new one will follow. The game will go on, as will our small part in it.

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