Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Nemesis/My Love

It's a hot day at the golf course.  Maybe I'm not drinking enough water because I'm about to step on the 13th tee and I'm already exhausted.  The group ahead of me, a bunch of old timers smoking cigars, has already waived me through.  I tee up my ball, take an easy practice swing and launch my best drive of the day, a high fade that settles into the right side of the fairway.  I have a decent round going today and I think to myself: a par would be terrific right about now. Nevermind that I haven't even bogeyed this hole in weeks. A poor second shot. A mediocre third.  What is it with this hole?

Look on the back of any scorecard and you'll find a few small numbers that tell you the level of difficulty of the golf course.  Without going into complicated math, one of the numbers is called the slope rating.  If you know what you're looking for, it's a fairly easy way to tell whether your game suits a particular course.  In other words, it tells you how hard the golf course may be.

Theoretically, experts from the United States Golf Association visit a golf course about once every ten years and rate a golf course based on a number of factors;  for example, they take into account the length, topography, and elevation of the course.  They consider the size of the greens and the width of the fairways.  Are the holes straight or doglegs?  Is there a beautiful pond, preferably fronting a short par 3, that likes to collect new golf balls? How tall is the rough? Are there lots of deep sand bunkers? Are there convenient trees to hit your ball into?  And what about that hole that lines up next to the busy road, the one where you wait for cars to stop coming, hoping it's not the one time in your life when you'll pull a shot left of the fairway, over the fence, and through the windshield of a passing truck.

According to the USGA, a course of average difficulty has a slope rating of 113.  My home course ranks as a whopping 106, which is to say that it's an easier than average course, according to the USGA's experts.

And they're correct, of course.  The holes are not terribly long. The number of sand traps can be measured on one hand.  Bodies of water are mostly out of play.  It's difficult to lose a golf ball. The rough isn't too rough. Yes, there's that pesky sand trap just in front of the green on the 3rd hole.  And number 5 is a tougher dogleg than it looks.  Sure, the green on number 7 can be tricky.  There's that branch that grows out into the fairway on the eighth hole.  And that old oak tree on the par 5 12th, so perfectly placed short and right of the green that I nearly always end up behind it somehow.

But collectively, it's a not a difficult golf course.  Just 17 holes of slightly less than average difficulty, which I've grown to love. 

Then there's the par 4 13th hole, a hole so well designed and so difficult that a bogey seems like a great success. It's a frustrating hole for a number of reasons.  It's far more difficult than any other hole on the course;  but it's really frustrating because it's the only hole on the course where I've never shot par.  Every day when I approach the tee box, I ask myself: is today the day? The day when I'll finally get it in the hole in 4 strokes?

My playing partner Wolf says it's become my white whale.
It's the longest par 4 on the course at 425 yards.  The tiny map on the back of the scorecard doesn't tell the whole story.  It's true that it's a mostly straight hole. But at the end of the fairway, you'll find the green is elevated nearly three stories above the rest of the course, which presents additional challenges. 

According to the course's website, its name is Old Smokey, as in On Top of Old Smokey, I assume.  As in good luck getting your ball on top of the hill on your second stroke. My players partners and I call it the Hill Hole.  Some days I call it a lot worse.

A par on the hill hole would start something like this:

1. Relax, because you have a pretty decent round going already.  Nevermind that this could be a turning point in your round if you score a 7 or worse. Just hit a good drive.
2. Nice drive.  Now grab that 5 wood and swing away.  No need to lay up. Nevermind all those trees at the top of the hill to the left of the green. Forget about those woods that will eat your ball if you miss to the right.  Oh, the cup is cut into the side of a hill on the edge of the green?  No problem.  You mean you can't see the flag from the bottom of the hill?  See those 3 trees way up there behind the green?  Aim at the middle one.  Hope you get a good bounce.

I wish it were that easy.  Usually my ball ends up on the top of the hill, left of the green, facing a nerve-wracking downhill chip into the slimmest green on the course. Or worse, what happened to me last week when I somehow managed to hit a low drive that clipped the ladies tee markers and flew directly into the air and ended up behind me. I average more than a double bogey on the Hill Hole. Just once, I want to par it. Just once.

Which brings me back to the final way in which the USGA rates its courses.  After taking into account all of the feasible obstacles a course presents, one final rating category must be considered.  The USGA ratings manual explains it well:  Psychological: "Psychological is the evaluation of the cumulative effect of the other obstacles. The location of many punitive obstacles close to a target area creates uneasiness in the mind of the player and thus affects his or her score."

Maybe it's just in my head.  It's just a big hill, right? Nothing scary about that at all. Nothing to worry about. I'll keep that in mind on the course tomorrow because I'm looking for revenge.  My latest score on the 13th hole?  Triple bogey 7. 

The hill hole wins again.


  1. Good to hear from you again! I'm at Book Expo America and at a new media conference called Blogworld. I'm learning some stuff.

  2. Nice description of how one hole can get into your head, intimidate you, and bring out the worst in your game. I've always wanted to go back to the first course I played and see if my game would regress to its starting point.

    I once hit a forward tee marker myself. They were designed like little granite tombstones, and the ball rocketed back to about 30 yards behind the tees I was using. I've repressed the score I got on that hole.