Lost On the Links 

The first challenge at Saint Andrews is where to hit the ball and how to stay out of trouble.

Before we tee off at Saint Andrews, we must digress for a golf story. In its first century of existence, golf was banned by King James II of Scotland in 1457, because he felt it was distracting young men from their archery practice. This ban was held for 45 years -- one can imagine the tension: golfing versus defending the realm -- until 1502, when James IV, that wayward grandson, gave it up and started playing golf himself. So, if you play golf, you may lay the blame on James IV of Scotland.

With history ringing all around me, I walked to the first tee at Saint Andrews in something of a daze. I came over a slight rise and was awakened by a 30 mph wind right in my face. Now, I thought, I feel like I'm on a golf course.

I am accustomed to a range of problems on the golf course, but standing on that windswept plain of grass and heather, without a single tree, there were no indications which way the first hole went. Off on the horizon, halfway home to Memphis, looking right into the wind, I could see a solitary flag. Certainly that wasn't my target. But it was the only one I could see. So, with too much pride to ask the starter for directions, I pulled out a driver, swung with the might of the ages, and when my first shot at Saint Andrews was complete, I could still read the label on the ball. Nine additional shots later, I had finished my first hole and remembered that I didn't really like playing golf.

There were two shots of note that day -- of positive note, that is. One was getting out of a bunker which should have come equipped with a ladder or a rescue team. Standing in it and facing the flag, I could see naught but a wall of green 10 feet high. I was sufficiently steamed at being there -- for I had been wronged by the wind -- so I took out a wedge and my frustrations, and, lo and behold, the ball ricocheted off that wall of green straight into the air and disappeared. I crawled on hands and knees out of the bunker, traversed the peak between myself and the green, and was astonished to see my ball sitting just three feet from the hole. Under more pressure than a non-golfer can know, for it was a par putt, I centered myself and sank it then pumped my fists wildly out there alone on the windswept plain.

The next hole -- and my last, for the rental clubs were due -- was the 10th, and for once the wind was at my back. If you've ever wondered why the first nine holes are called "out" and the last nine "in," it's because at Saint Andrews, back in 1400 when they hacked a path through the bushes for the first time, they went away from the starting point for a while then turned and played their way back. And if you've ever wondered why they play 18 holes instead of, say, 19, it's because that's how many they first built at Saint Andrews. I now made "the turn" and assaulted the 10th hole. Fourteen-hundred, by the way, was also my approximate score at that point.

With help from Ma Nature, I arrived greenside on the par 4 in just two shots. The green was the size of Tom Lee Park. (Some of Saint Andrews' greens have two different holes on them and can produce putts up to 100 yards long.) So when I putted for the three, striking the ball after a nearly full backswing, I was really thinking of the five I might get later. But the ball headed for the flag like a colt for its mother, like water for a drain, like a Scot for a pub. In spite of all its previous wanderings, it stayed true to course, even as my wonder and enthusiasm built. The damned thing looked like it had finally realized its purpose. I stood transfixed as it closed in, then with a loud, rattling clank, it struck the flagstick and disappeared.

In the history of golf at Saint Andrews, which is to say in the history of golf, no celebration has matched the show I put on that moment. I shouted, danced, leapt, fell, and wallowed. I would be truly embarrassed by it, except that no one saw me, it being a miserable March day when nobody else was out there. I finally collected myself and, so that I could later brag to the fellas back at Galloway, counted the steps between me and the ball-filled hole. Thirty-seven. That's about an 85-footer, I'll have you know, and a birdie at that.

I then made a rare good decision. Despite the fact that I could probably have squeezed in one more hole, I made like a Scot and headed for the pub.


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