This past week, I was shocked to learn that I was giving up 35 shots to my opponents over the nine hole match in our Friday golf league.
Our league’s format is match play, counting each two-man team’s total score on a hole, then adding the handicap differential. The “handicap” is based on averages of previous weeks.
Thirty five, I later learned, was the biggest differential anyone could recall. I was giving up four shots a hole because my partner was out for the week, and the numbers were based on my handicap alone.
To make matters worse, in the absence of my partner, whatever I scored would be doubled—to represent his score. That meant I couldn’t have a single bad hole.
Par on the first was doubled for an eight. My opponents shot a 5 and a 6, but subtracted four, so they won the hole.
On the par 3 second, a bogey produced another eight. Another six and a five for them scored a net seven.
A good drive and a solid six iron got a par on the third. My four, however, was matched by one of my opponents, who holed out on his fourth shot from from the fairway. His partner got home in seven. Another eight to seven net.
And so it went. I kept my cool through most of the round, telling myself that if I played smart golf, they would blow up on enough holes to let me win. So I took no risks. I hit woods to fairways, played to the wide side of the green andlaid up rather than take a risk.
Hey. It works for Tiger. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve watched him play a solid Sunday round while allowing his opponents to beat themselves.
But it didn’t work for me. On nearly every hole, one of my opponents managed to either match my score or to get just one worse.
They made some spectacular plays. Two shots holed from the fairway. A couple of impossibly long putts. A drive that hit a series of trees and cut through the inside of a dogleg. A pitch out of the woods that somehow managed to miss twenty trees until the last, when it richoched off the final trunk, made a left hand turn and landed four feet from the hole.
After six, I had to win out to take the match. But even after losing the seventh, I managed to stick to the game plan. If I was going to lose, it would be on my terms.
By the final hole, however, the frustration got to me. I hit my three wood fat off the tee. Then I repeated the maneuver from just in front of the ladies tee. The grass was long there, and I should have played a higher lofted iron, but I just didn’t care. I finally got home with a triple bogey.
That was the hole where they subtracted only three.
At the end of the day, I found that I’d actually played a very good round, shooting a 44. But it wasn’t good enough. I lost seven holes by a single shot on each.
There wasn’t any money on the line in the match, but I felt a lot of pressure. I knew that to have a chance, I had to play my absolute best. Any less, and those four stokes would kill me. It was, on many levels, nerve wracking.
There was also a real feeling of isolation. When playing with my partner, I know that if I blow up on one of the holes, there’s a good chance he’ll pick up the slack. That’s been good enough to keep us in the middle of the league rankings. On my own, I couldn’t afford a single bad stretch.
It all gave me a better appreciation of the pressures faced by tour players. They’re out there with no one to fall back on. And there has always got to be the feeling that they can’t afford to make a mistake. To win, they need to play as well as they possibly can. And even then, that might not be enough.
It wasn’t for me.