My first time: I choked away a good round and I’ll never forget it
Before things get going, I have to be honest: Is what I’m about to share with you the literal first time I’ve ever choked away a good round? No. I, like most of you, have done it countless times. But thinking back, this was the only moment that jumped to mind. It wasn’t my first, but it was my most painful.
Closing out a good round in golf doesn’t happen automatically. The game is too nuanced, and has too much downtime. When nervous energy piles up, it’s really hard to get rid of it and quiet your mind. Things are going well, you get a little nervy, and the wheels come off; it’s part of the process. It takes plenty trial and error before golfers learn how to put a bow on a nice round. And this, most certainly, was trial and error.
It was the summer of 2007, I had just graduated high school. My friend and I had the bright idea to hit the road to play a few mini tour events as a way of battle-hardening ourselves against some seasoned pros. That’s what brought us to Warrior Golf Club in North Carolina, an undulating course in the southern tip of the state.
Without the inconveniences of high school, I was playing well at the time. I shot 73 the first day, and was putting together another good round the next day.
But things were about to change.
It started on the back nine. I was doing everything the same as my previous 27 holes, but for some reason everything started feeling … different. Worse, to be more specific. The ball was still flying straight, but the swing thought that had worked for me thus far suddenly started feeling treacherous. It was a feeling I now understand: That feeling you get when you can feel a wicked hook coming.
And it did, but not all at once.
My straight shots turned into draws, which later turned into big draws. I could feel the tide coming, and was losing confidence with every swing.
But even still, I was playing well! Playing my newfound roping draw I managed to birdie the 16th hole and par the 17th, so I came to the 18th hole one over on the day and three-over for the tournament. Making the cut was a far-flung goal coming into the event but all of a sudden became a realistic possibility.
The 18th at Warrior Golf Club, the site of my eventual demise, is one I remember vividly. A par 4 about 400 yards from the tips that played much longer, because it was significantly uphill.
A dogleg right with OB left and trees right, in retrospect I should’ve just mashed driver. Why didn’t I just mash driver?! The truth is I just didn’t feel confident. I could feel the hooks coming, and sometimes the right shot with the wrong mindset is actually the wrong shot, so I pulled hybrid and hoped.
I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I specifically didn’t want to be a hero. All I wanted was to register a good score by hitting a club that gave me some semblance of confidence. Hit it into the fat part of the fairway, hit a long iron somewhere around a relatively unguarded green and try to get up and down.
So I hit my hybrid, and the hook I felt coming for hours finally came, hard and fast. My tee shot couldn’t have got more than 30 feet off the earth, and hooked so violently it didn’t touch the ground before flying directly into the parking lot protected by out of bounds.
The next OB-bound hook flew a little higher, and had a little less curve, but still went more sideways than it did forward. I watched desperately as my ball bounced once before finding the parking lot again.
When I pulled my third ball to hit my fifth shot, I caught a glimpse of my playing partner. A longtime mini tour player whose wife was a elementary school teacher, funding his dream, he had a solemn look on his face. He knew exactly what was happening. The specific kind of horror I was feeling, knowing I had no control over my next shot. That I was falling down an endless hole, with no hope of reaching ground.
On my third drive and fifth shot, the hook was still there, but I had swung so slow and soft that my ball came to rest about three yards on the right side of the boundary.
The rest of the hole was a blur.
I was rattled and going through the motions, utterly exhausted. I chunked my next shot down the fairway, pulled a wedge left of the green on my next, chipped on and two putted. I came into the 36th hole of the tournament one over on the day; I walked away from it with a quintuple-bogey nine and a 77. In 15 minutes I had undone two days of good work.
But it was a valuable lesson learned, and one day, I look forward to returning to that godforsaken hole, aiming straight into that ruinous parking lot, and hitting my trusty fade right down the middle of the fairway.
To receive GOLF’s all-new newsletters, subscribe for free here.