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The laws of the universe largely determine where our golf ball goes, starting with the impact. As soon as it is (hopefully) in the air, you are in the whims of the wind, gravity and everything else that you have probably forgotten from your high school physics lessons. What golfers interpret as bad breaks is just the randomness of the game.
At the moment, however, we don't care. If you get that unfortunate bounce, it feels personal. That is because we are all human and it is sometimes impossible to control your response.
Golf can be cruel and sometimes seem unfair. This is a part of the game that unfortunately unites all of us, regardless of our skill level.
I will tell you all a short personal story that will hopefully make you feel a little better about your own game.
Reaching the top of the mountain
In the past 4-5 years I have focused more on playing competitive golf. In the New York Metropolitan area there are numerous major events to test your game on some of the great golf courses in the world.
Last year I finally started to break through in some of the qualifiers in which I play. After posting some good rounds, I noticed that I had access to some of the best amateur and professional events in the area.
One tournament, in particular, that makes me nervous is the Hebron Championship. It is played every year on Bethpage Black, which I believe is one of the most important tests of golf in the world. It is a two-day tournament with a cut after the first round and I have never played so well in it because The Black Course can be frightening in tournament pressure. You are always a shot away from a disaster on Tillinghast's masterpiece.
The 4th hole at Bethpage Black (photo credit: Rees Jones, inc.)
When you tap Bethpage in a tournament, it feels like you are on top of a roller coaster making a steep slope – you know you can't hide your golf game anywhere. My goal was only to make it the next day, where you have to photograph somewhere between +6 and +10 because the race is so difficult (most other events that you have to photograph, even par or just over for comparison).
The iconic warning sign on the first tee
Round 1 would turn out to be one of those magical days that happens to us all from time to time. I hit my driver far away and straight, a requirement for scoring the demanding 7000-yard layout. Every testy par putt that I needed seemed to fall, and even a short birdie putt on the 9th hole to make the turn to +1. I had previously had a similar position, but I didn't take anything for granted, because the back nine is perhaps the most difficult test that a golfer can face.
In the back of my mind I tried not to wait for the other shoe to fall, as it has done so many times at the finish. I crossed the road between the 14th and 15th holes on two. Anyone who has played Bethpage Black knows that all good deeds that you have done until the 14th can quickly disappear on the last four holes. Bullying is not a word that extends justice last.
Then something interesting happened – I didn't make major mistakes. A 10-footer for par fell on the 18th hole and secured a two-over 73. I knew it was a special round, perhaps one of the best in my life considering it was in a tournament situation. I signed my card and found that I was stuck in 4th place with a real chance of winning. I had one of those, "what just happened?" Moments. I remembered every stroke I had played that day and felt immense satisfaction.
I often look back on the scorecard as a reminder of what I can do as a golfer; it's the cleanest I've ever had on that course. It felt like photographing a 66:
What must come must come
I finished my first round in the late afternoon and should turn the next morning. There wasn't too much time to think about what had just happened, but it didn't stop me from texting anyone I knew and boasting about it on Twitter.
I knew there was a chance that I could win the tournament, but it was not an expectation. There were so many talented golfers competing in the field. I looked forward to the challenge and didn't feel so nervous. On the first tee I hit one of the best discs of my life. An extra shot of adrenaline only left a 110-yard wedge in the small first green. After an easy par, I felt comfortable.
You always hear how difficult it is to support a good round in television broadcasts. Well, I discovered that the hard way, and something else.
My position in the field was hard to keep out of my head, and there was no doubt that I was on a shorter line mentally that day. There was a little less freedom in every swing, chip shot and putt. Although I didn't play badly on the first nine, every putt that seemed to drop the previous day rested on the edge of the hole.
I made the turn at +5 for the day, which I thought my chances of winning were largely eliminated. However, if somehow I could shoot substandard in the background nine, you never know (there would be a playoff at +5). Anyway, I was reserved to grind it out and try to post a good finish.
You don't want to miss fairways on Bethpage Black (Photo credit: Rees Jones, Inc.)
Bethpage Black has a way to carry you down. After 27 holes on the Long Island summer heat and humidity I started to get tired both mentally and physically (I probably should have had a caddy that day). A series of bogeys peppered with a few doubles let me go. The boat was constantly leaking and leaking, and I had no more ways to close the holes.
Arriving at the 18th hole with no less than 15 over-par for the tournament was not in the blueprint that day. Although I could not save the round, I was determined to be equal to 18. There was a photographer on the tee-box ready to take pictures of our mid-swing and even a small gallery of golfers looked from the nearby Red Course. I wanted to finish in style.
I tore my 3-timber on the right-hand side of the fairway with a slight draw. After barely watching the ball, I was so sure that it was a perfect tee shot, that I picked up my tee and didn't even see it landing. And then it happened …
You must be F * cking Kidding Me
My playing partner, who was a very friendly school child, exclaimed: "Oh boy, that's no good." I asked him what he meant, and he told me that my tee shot struck something and shrank back to "the mess."
I jokingly told him that he was crazy and that there was no way not to have my ball in the fairway. He insisted that a gust of wind had pushed my ball to the edge of the fairway and should have hit a sprinkler head or a rake from one of the traps.
When we came to the channel, my ball was nowhere to be seen. The marshall confirmed that my tee-shot had hit a rake and was somewhere in the swing and bunker area, which was filthy as ever with growth mid-summer. After a five-minute search, we couldn't find my ball. I couldn't help but feel a mixture of self-pity and anger. I was deep-fried mentally. Bethpage Black, as it had done so many times, was thoroughly under my skin.
About where my ball landed (photo credit: Rees Jones, Inc.)
I could not believe what had happened and dropped a few F-bombs that could be heard from far away. My score at the time was meaningless, but it was a matter of pride. For about two minutes I lost my calm and then had to jump back to the 18th tee. It is a steep hill to climb up again, and probably one of the worst shame you can make in a tournament.
I hit my second tee-shot in the left fight, hardly found it, and continued my fall along the tree and broke every branch along the way. The day ended with my first tournament snowman of the year – a neat 8 to end with an 88 and dump me to a draw for the 34th.
Many players who played well the first day struggled in the second round (tournament results), but while I signed my scorecard, I could not resist but felt deeply ashamed and still a little angry. I could not wrap my head with that gust of wind and crazy about the rake. It felt like a cruel way to end a tournament that had been a real triumph for me less than 24 hours later
Back to its practicality
By the time I returned to my car, I was able to put things in perspective again. The day did not go well, but I knew that this was a possibility to go into it. The bouncing was unfortunate and perhaps one of the worst I've ever seen (well I actually didn't see it), but that is part of it.
I had to put my tail between my legs and tell all my friends and supporters about the day. But I knew people wouldn't care. It is a tough course and whatever embarrassment I felt about the round was more my problem. In retrospect I don't think about the second round or the wandering bounce; I am more encouraged by what I did the first day.
But enough about me, let's talk about you.
I am sure you can all sympathize with what I felt at a certain level that day. You all know what it's like to feel like you've conquered the game in one round and then feel completely lost and saddened on the course next time. You have seen balls take on crazy bounces that seem to destroy your day. It all belongs to golf.
Golfers have a hard time understanding how much of the game is beyond our control. For some of us it's harder than others. I have had to learn the hard way many times, and my pain is hopefully all your profit.
Yes, the game sometimes seems unfair, but that is just our interpretation. You don't really owe a good bounce if you don't owe it to a bad one. The best thing you can do is accept the randomness at a certain level – I believe that you will generally have a much better experience. That doesn't mean you can't get angry when it happens, but I can tell you from experience that the more successful golfers have a way to leave it behind faster.