Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 1, 2018

Birdies And Bogeys And Change

The calendar says spring, but in New England winter is reluctant to release its icy grip. March brought a series of snowstorms of varying intensity that cumulatively were more than enough to ensure a late start to the golf season. That meant the chance to head to warmer climes where the ancient game can be played year-round is more than welcome. Even rising in the middle of the night to catch a predawn flight is not enough to dampen my enthusiasm. By breakfast time I am enjoying blue skies and temperatures that aren’t likely to be seen in New Hampshire for many weeks.

The first round of the new year is, for the most part, a solitary affair. I tee off by myself in early afternoon at a course that is a worthy challenge, one of two eighteens each of which possesses its own unique character despite sharing the same acreage. Over the decades this has been a frequent form of my golfing experience. While for many the game is almost always a collegial escape, years of living alone has produced twin realities that make for solo rounds. I don’t share space with a potential golf partner, and I have free time while friends meet family obligations.

The fairways ahead are filled with foursomes, so the round necessarily proceeds at their pace, which gives me time to appreciate the day and admire the rugged beauty of a course lined with scrub pine and with vast waste areas on almost every hole. For not having swung a club in more than three months my shots are surprisingly straight. With but a couple of exceptions I avoid the sandy expanses and my card remains free of unsightly numbers. On the 13th tee another single catches up to me and we play in together, an interlude that serves as a reminder of the many elements of this game. The young man’s drives are far longer than mine, but he sprays his approach shots left and right, so our scores are similar despite his distance advantage. In the end this first round will yield the lowest tally of my trip.

But for we recreational players golf is not solely about the numbers on the scorecard, which is why not all rounds should be played alone. Three days later I am 150 miles to the northeast, warming up on the driving range of a high-end public course. A decade ago, a close friend was headed to Hilton Head Island for a long weekend of golf with a co-worker and a friend of that colleague’s. They invited me, both to round out the foursome and because unlike any of them I had some experience on the various courses along the Calibogue Sound. The trip was thoroughly enjoyable, but that foursome did not reunite until last autumn, when we played on a course just south of Boston.

Now I am joining my college roommate and his wife at their usual winter address for three days, and the other two have flown in on what amounts to a surgical strike. They played one round yesterday after arrive the previous evening, we four will play this morning, and then the two will wing back north, having barely needed to bring a change of clothes.

While the setting is sublime, my play is decidedly not. I play two schizophrenic nines. The first four holes of both are very bad while the last five both going out and coming in are pretty good. The big numbers that I avoided in the season’s first round glare at me from the left side of each page of the scorecard. Fortunately, the better figures on the right sides keep my total respectable. Aside from my own tally, it can be fairly said that our game both starts and ends well. My friend of well over four decades opens the round with a birdie three. Four hours of camaraderie later we play a somewhat complicated team game on the final two holes and I manage to hole a short putt at the last to give my friend and I bragging rights, at least until this improbable foursome next makes its way to another 1st tee.

Over the next two days we play twice more, first as just a twosome and then with a neighbor from the condo complex my friends call home for three months of the year. We both struggle mightily through the first half of the initial outing. After the turn I find my game and return my best nine-hole number of the entire trip, thanks to a pair of birdies. Alas, the same cannot be said for my compatriot. How could the player who so effortlessly played the first hole yesterday in just three strokes run up such big numbers today? For that matter, what did I do on the inward half that I wasn’t doing on the first nine? For amateurs, these are golf’s great mysteries, the riddles that keep us coming back, round after round and year after year.

Then on my final day in the warmth, in what will surely be my last round for at least a couple of weeks, we both play reasonably well. My friend’s condo colleague almost always finds the fairway, and a stranger sent by the starter to join us, playing his first round of the year, displays some unsurprising rust but also flashes of a game that will be solid come midseason.

Another golf season begins just as the last two have, with this escape to warmth and the familiarity of strolling fairways with a friend. It is the same, and yet totally different. Several hours after the final round concludes, the jetliner carrying me home climbs into the early evening sky. In prior years I made this flight knowing that soon my friend would be back in New England, and we would join a third college roommate for a season’s worth of rounds at various area courses. Often all three, sometimes just two in various pairings, renewing a bond forged nearly half a century ago. What are the odds that after all these years the three of us would live within a short drive of one another?

Below me a river runs a sinuous course to the sea. With “S” curves and switchbacks, the fresh water meanders on its way to the salt. A round of golf is a journey like that, as is life. Every round is in some ways the same, as is our daily routine. But each is also unique. Unseen around the next bend, up ahead on the next hole, sometime in the middle of next week, something different awaits.

This year my friend and his wife showed me the house they just purchased and shared their plans to make their winter home a year-round one. It will of course take something far more substantial than mere miles to sunder our relationship, but it would be folly to deny the profound change that is about to take place. Far too soon that summer threesome will be but two, and inevitably more solitary rounds are in my future.

I do not know whether the human capacity to harbor conflicting emotions is our brightest blessing or our darkest curse. The thrill when the birdie chip falls in the hole can sit right next to the anguish when a friend’s short putt lips out just moments later. As the plane climbs into the clouds, my heart is filled with joy for my friends, about to embark on their new adventure. But my heart is also broken.


  1. Thanks for the reminder that the only constant in life is change, Mike.

    Head down, elbows in,

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