Saturday, June 9, 2012

An Unresolved Ace in the Hole

If there is one thing all golfers crave, it’s the elusive hole-in-one. I finally got mine a few days ago. It should have been one of the greatest days of my life. And it was. But to tell you the truth, I feel the tiniest bit slighted.

I aced the 176-yard, par-3 seventh hole at
Memorial Park Golf Course with a 6-iron.
If I’m honest about it, I feel cheated two ways.

Even though I hit a solid shot, I didn’t get to see my ball go in the hole (cheated!). Worse still, I didn’t get to buy drinks for my playing partners after the round ended (double cheated!).

Where’s my closure? Where’s my resolution?

The hole-in-one is Bucket List kind of stuff. You don’t get to cross off those things often. So I do feel truly blessed, and I’ll never forget June 7, 2012. It was one of the greatest days of my life … but it also feels unfinished.

Maybe it is.

I started playing golf when I was 14. My mom didn’t want me playing junior high football, so she dug holes in our backyard, stuck coffee cans in the ground and marked them with little red flags. She bought me a starter set of clubs and turned me loose. A few broken windows later, I fell in love with the game. And even though I still played football, that year marked the start of my quest for a hole-in-one. 

Twenty-six years later, I finally got one. It came on one of my favorite courses in the world – Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston. I live just a few minutes from the classic John Bredemus-designed parkland course that opened in 1936. Memorial Park played host to the Houston Open from 1951-63 and challenged some of golf’s greatest legends. Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino played there. Arnold Palmer won the 1957 Houston Open at Memorial Park, and Jackie Burke Jr. won there in 1959.

The course drips with history.

There’s something uniquely special about walking down the same fairways in which Hogan and those others showcased their mastery. Talk about following in the footsteps of greatness. Can you imagine what it would feel like to play football with your friends on Lambeau Field? Or pick-up basketball in Madison Square Garden?

That’s what playing golf at Memorial Park feels like to me.

So there were we on the seventh tee. Like so many times, I was playing with Vince, a friend who is more like a big brother. He got his first hole-in-one six years ago at Royal Oaks Country Club, and I was honored to be there. I know he feels the same about seeing mine.

Our threesome also included John O’Reilly, the longtime Houston TV and radio sports broadcaster. Among other posts, he was the voice of the Houston Oilers in the mid-1980s. It was by chance that Vince and I were paired with John, who couldn’t have been more enjoyable. He encouraged and complimented us throughout the day and hit several great shots of his own.

That’s part of the magic of Memorial Park. It’s the best place to play as a single or twosome because you almost always get paired up with great people who often become your friends. As the day progressed, I learned that John and I have friends in common, including my Texas Links colleagues Kenny Hand and Charlie Epps. John and Charlie hosted a nightly golf radio program together in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

I’ve been writing Texas Links columns with Charlie going on four years. He’s known as “The Golf Doctor” to most, but he’s really the godfather of Houston golf. He’s been a professional for more than 30 years and has won every award there is to win from the Southern Texas PGA section. Spending time with him and soaking up his knowledge is one of the great perks of my job.

In fact, I spent the afternoon with Charlie the day before my hole-in-one. While in Argentina a couple weeks prior, Charlie had an epiphany about Ben Hogan and the “secret” to the golf swing. Charlie figured it out, he told me. Then he showed it to me during a 90-minute lesson. 

We’re planning to write a book about it together, so I can’t tell you the secret here. But I can tell you it works. I played a quarter-century without knowing this move. Then one day after learning it, I made my first hole-in-one and shot 74.  

So you tell me if it’s legit.

By the time we reached the seventh hole, I was in a rhythm at 1-over par. I three-putted the second hole for bogey and made pars everywhere else. I had grooved Charlie’s secret move and was hitting the ball pure and straight. To be fair, the five years I spent working with Neil Wilkins, another of Houston’s decorated golf pros, put me in the position to implement Charlie’s move. Starting back in 2006, Neil straightened out my nasty slice and took 10 shots off my handicap. If I lived closer to his academy at Sienna Plantation, I would be able to see him more often. Neil is the one who fixed my golf swing.

Charlie is helping me fine tune it.

As Vince and I often do, we had a short discussion about the seventh hole before hitting our shots. The hole played 176 yards and into a slight breeze. The pin was cut in the back-right part of the green, tucked behind a sand trap. I debated whether to hit an easy 5-iron or a hard 6-iron.

Neil taught me to never go long on a back pin (or be short on a front pin). If you’re stuck between two clubs with a back pin, he taught me it’s better to hit the shorter club hard. That way, even if you end up short, you’re probably still on the green. In course management terms, it’s called playing aggressively to conservative targets. 

I decided to hit the hard 6-iron.

“This hole begs for a cut shot,” I said to Vince. “I’m going to aim at the middle of the green, and my ball should cut toward the pin.”

I swung with confidence and hit the ball crisply. It started at the center of the green and began cutting to the pin. I’m pretty sure I held my follow-through pose until the ball landed. Golfers do that when they hit good shots. My ball bounced once and disappeared.

This is where I first felt cheated. We didn’t see it go in the hole because the bottom of the pin was hidden behind the lip of the sand trap.

“That might be inside the leather,” Vince said, meaning he thought it could have been within three feet of the hole. I wasn’t sure. It could’ve bounced over the green for all I knew.

When we got up there and didn’t see my ball, something in my stomach dropped. Time sped up and stood still at the same time. I nervously walked to the flagstick and looked down.

My ball was in the hole.

You’d think after 26 years of chasing golf’s Holy Grail, I’d scream and jump and do 15 cartwheels across the green. You’d think I would have Tebowed or kissed the ground.

I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t do anything at all. Vince and John gave me high-fives and I think one of them bellowed a celebratory shout. I don’t remember.

“I think you were in shock,” Vince said later.

He might be right. I remember not knowing what to do, so I smiled and asked Vince to take a picture. Then we moved on to the next hole. When the round ended—I bogeyed the 18th hole and shot one stroke off my career low—I offered to buy drinks for Vince and John.

But Vince was running late. And John already had a soda in his hand. So John and I went inside, sat down and talked for a bit. He told me about his career and we traded stories about Charlie and Kenny. We also promised to play golf again together soon.

It was a great day, an unforgettable one. But if I’m honest, it felt a little hollow. I should have insisted on buying drinks (as I did later that night with Vince and Tony Belzer, my other brother). As it happened, one of the best moments of my life felt incomplete.

Can you imagine turning off The Shawshank Redemption while Andy Dufresne crawls through the sewer? You wouldn’t get to see how one of the all-time greatest movies ends.

What’s the point of achieving a lifelong pursuit without complete closure? Why can’t I let it go and focus on the glorious achievement?

Maybe it’s not for me ponder. Maybe my closure is writing this story.

Or maybe it means I’ll get another hole-in-one someday so I can get it right. I promise you this much: If it ever happens again, whoever plays with me that day is getting a drink bought for them whether they like it or not.