A few weeks ago I returned from a thirty day trip to the UK. For the first week of the trip, I was with my wife, sister, and brother-in-law, Bill. While the ladies toured, Bill and I golfed — Gullane #2, St. Andrews New, Carnoustie, Castle Stuart, and Royal Dornoch.
I dropped them off at the airport in Inverness and began a three-week journey beginning with a drive south through York down to, yes — it’s true, Deal, England, on the coast of Kent. After more than a week in Deal golfing at Royal St. Georges, Princes, and Royal Cinque Ports, I drove over to Rye Golf Club for a hickory golf tournament, and from there to Liverpool for an overnight before arriving in Prestwick for the World Hickory Golf Championship.
In all, I played twenty-five rounds of golf in the four weeks, walking each course usually with a caddie. I worried in advance that my legs wouldn’t handle the challenge, but they didn’t let me down though I went to bed bedraggled and woke up stiff with aches the length of my body. Standing up straight was a daily challenge.
I’ll be seventy-four years old in a few weeks and asked myself during the trip and afterwards, Why did I do it? Then I thought of Don Quixote, an old man who confirms the reality of his dreams by reading volumes of heroic tales, then, one day, decides to become one of the heroes, a knight-errant he so admires.
I’m actually a small fry in comparison with the Man of La Mancha — he held nothing back, nothing in reserve, as he flung himself towards fulfilling his dream of rescuing the fair Dulcinea. He risked madness, I risked only physical impairment and the predictable humiliations of a once-good golfer now subject to topped drives and fatted mid-irons.
But there were rewards: the good cheer met at every golf club, the layering of green on green as the morning and evening sun reflects off the grass, the squawking of sea birds as they swoop down and glide overhead, the satisfaction of recovering from a dubbed shot with a well-directed niblick out of tall grass, and the removal of caps and shaking of hands with mates who understood my quest.
I arrived at the World Championship after stinking up the Rye Golf Club with missed fairways and way too-numerous sand shots. Wasn’t I supposed to improve by playing golf each day for three weeks? I had hoped to build confidence for the tournament, but instead had filled my mind with images of missed shots of every kind. Hardly the place to start for a three-day tournament in high winds on three demanding links courses close to the sea.
My only option was to do what the Don did — completely believe in myself regardless of how absurd that seemed. Could I hit fairways after missing most of them at Rye? Could I get out of sand traps in one shot rather than two or even three? Could I make approach putts that end near the hole rather than three or four feet away? Could I make three-footers? None of it seemed likely after my two rounds at Rye.
I decided to do nothing to prepare except believe the days at Rye had been an aberration, to put them behind me, and start over by swinging easy and believing in myself. On the first tee of the first day, I hit it straight down the middle, and I started accumulating pars with the occasional bogie in spite of the 30 mile-per-hour winds with even higher gusts.
It seemed as if a different golfer was playing Prestwick Golf Club than the one who played Rye a few days earlier. When the day ended I was in first place in the 70+ age division and 8th among everyone who had played that day. I felt no sense of accomplishment but gratitude, that such a day had been given to me.
I was still in first place after the second round and stepped up to the first tee of the final round trying not to think about ‘blowing it.’ Again, I said to myself, swing like you believe the ball will end up in the fairway, and I did that. For seven holes.
On the eighth, I drove the ball low into the thickest part of the rough. We found it, but I had to drop out, costing me a stroke and a double-bogey. On the ninth, I repeat the same error carding another double. I was ‘blowing it,” I thought. But for only a moment.
‘There’s a lot of golf left,’ I said to myself on the 10th tee. I decided not to touch the driving club I had used on the previous holes and pulled a different club out of my bag to hit my tee shot. The feel and look of the club carried no reminder of the two tee-shots before. I was re-starting my game, and knew I would hit the fairway, which I did.
I hit all the fairways on the back side, making pars from off the green whether from twenty-yards out or from two sand traps. My niblick (sand wedge) and putter had decided to take courage from the return of my tee-shots to the fairway. In golf, everything is connected, everything, especially mind to body.
Winning any competition has always felt to me like a gift. There are so many times I have lost — it’s natural I am grateful to have won. And on this occasion, the result was Quixotic in two senses. The trip itself in search of the perfect golf experience which is always unattainable. But the example of Don Quixote gave me the faith to believe the unbelievable and send the ball down the middle.