Standing in fairway of the 457-yard, par four 18th hole of the Leven Links, there was no decision. I was going for the green. As Fred and Matt debated their layup targets, I was brimming with adrenaline for opportunity to hit the perfect shot.
Somewhere along my journey as a golfer, I changed. One of the many truths revealed to me on the Scottish links is that I am a different golfer than I used to be, than I was even as recently as the beginning of this season.
During one of our evening conversations reliving the day’s golf in Fife, Fred stated, I thought jokingly, that I had likely scored the most birdies during the trip to that point. When I realized that he was serious, it stopped me cold. “Who? Me?” I recoiled.
That wasn’t my game. My normal methodology was conservative, defensive golf. My strategy was a balance of achieving the best score while losing as few golf balls as possible, the result of a lack of confidence and a lack of skill.
Sure, when everything clicked I might muscle up a drive as far as, or further, than our regular Golf Trip members. Still, making multiple birdies per round, retrospectively, was a factually accurate observation, still didn’t feel true.
I had close to 200 yards to carry Scoonie Burn, which separated the fairway from the green. The wind at my back had calmed and my ball was on a little mound, giving me a slight uphill lie, which might sap valuable carry distance from my shot.
Reflecting on Fred’s comment, it sharpened my recollections of our Scottish trip, constructing the unlikely conclusion that the 18th holes on many of those courses were the most fun. Not the best holes strategically, or containing the best scenery, but the most fun holes to play because of how I played them, which was a function of my attitude while playing them.
At the end of the round, when the lure of “posting a number” has long since dissipated, and the Nassau matches were largely decided, it was a chance to go for it! Without consciously realizing it, I had become and embraced the role of the guy that goes for it.
And, Oh My! What fun that can be!
In years past, that was never the case. I watched as my best golf friends played with that aggression, trying to impose their will on their games and the course, hoping, or even expecting, to be rewarded with the occasional nugget of glory, paid in the form of eagles and birdies.
But now I was the one taking on the risks, occasionally enjoying the spoils of winning the wager against the golf course, while also occasionally failing spectacularly. It was entirely different.
I was too close to hit the 5-wood, which would safely clear the water, but might end up in the clubhouse or the pro shop behind the green. I was going to hit my 3-hybrid, and it was going to take everything I had to get it over the water from that ballooning, uphill lie.
At our getaway dinner, we discussed how we arrived at the golfers we’d become, and how who we play with, almost as much as our innate physical abilities, shaped us as golfers. It was as insightful of a golf conversation as I can remember having.
I listened intently as Fred described “growing up” in golf playing with guys that were considerable longer hitters than him. To compete, and occasionally win, he had to develop a deadly short game touch on and around the greens, which he retains to this day. It wasn’t until he joined our Golf Trip that he began focusing on adding much needed distance to his game to keep up and compete.
In my case, I had essentially grown up in golf valuing stroke play competition, playing conservatively, trying to avoid that “big number” on one or two holes, in order to post a respectable 18-hole score. The guys I played with regularly played a much more swash-buckling, all-or-nothing, match play style of golf.
They might have two birdies and a bunch of pars on their scorecard, but they were also likely to have a handful of double or triple bogeys. My desire to beat them and my crushing need to not be embarrassed, not be laughed at on the course, meant I tried much harder to keep my ball between the lines. My internal strategic thought was, “I can make bogey from anywhere.“
The newfound joy in trying to pull off the difficult shot, fully knowing the risks, represented more than just an advancement of my own game. It reflected a deeper, more comprehensive psychological shift that permeated the breadth of my life, not just my golf game.
So on the 134th hole of the trip, the last hole of the last round at the last course on the last day of our Scottish golf trip, I went for the green with a deep breath and a full heart.
I played my best golf in 2019. Despite posting big numbers in a couple of tournaments, I will end the season with my lowest handicap index ever (something starting with a “7”). And that’s all fine and lovely.
More importantly, after long contemplation, I think I had more fun playing golf in 2019, a direct result of taking on a challenge head on more often. I played the back tees regularly. I played against better players. The game became much more meeting the next challenge than trying to control the next result.
At some point during the year, I discovered my now-favorite golf anecdote in the story often told of the late Bruce Edwards. Edwards caddied for Tom Watson and Greg Norman at various times, and would often get asked to contrast the two golf superstars.
When Greg would get to his ball and find it sitting in the bottom of a divot hole, his head would go down and he’d mutter something about the bad luck he’s always had. Same divot hole, same lie, when Tom would find his ball there, he’d pause, and a smile would slowly cross his face. ‘Bruce,’ he’d say, ‘Wait till you get a load of what I do with this one.’
This story, whether true in fact or just colorful and apocryphal, became my truth in 2019. It was my truth in Scotland. My interpretation is less about reckless abandon than a reminder to eliminate fear of the result. It is the formula for playing memorable golf.
I hit the ball as hard as I could, as good of contact as I could, on my intended line, an all systems go success. Watching the ball fly, in that moment in the Leven Links fairway, I had no regrets.
There were scads of other holes across Scotland where I’d made the strategic decision to take the more aggressive line. Being out of position in links golf means that playing directly towards the hole is going to bring disaster onto the short list of likely results.
On the 15th hole at Carnoustie, for example, I was so far right of the fairway that my caddie said, “If this were medal competition, I’d put a pitching wedge in your hand. But, today, you might as well go for it.” It was likely the most brilliant piece of advice any caddie could have given me in that moment, and will likely stick with me for years.
As it turned out, my gentle fade needed to be less gentle on that particular shot, because the bunker I ended up in cost me two strokes on the hole. Nonetheless, the thrill of trying to pull off that shot, creating the indelible memory of that hole and that moment, will stick with me longer than my memory if I saved par on a given hole.
Peering towards the green, tracking my ball against a setting sun, I thought I saw a small splash, so small that I kept reasonable hope that I’d seen a splash of sand from a recently top-dressed green rather than Scoonie Burn. I walked at a quick march towards the green to find out if I’d pulled the shot off.
One of the wonderful aspects of links golf is the ability to hit the incredible recovery shot. Since there are few or no trees on the course, the sky is a wide open canvas on which to try to paint a masterwork of a recovery shot.
Frankly, it’s backwards and counter-intuitive, given that links golf is often best played along the ground. If you’re out of position, the next shot is going to be much more difficult to execute, but it will largely remain possible. A tree lined fairway may likely require a knocked down, punch out to advance the ball toward the green or back to the fairway.
There’s a beautiful metaphor for life in links golf. It can be challenging. Rarely was the way forward a straight line from the tee to the green. Things happened to the ball and the best laid plans along the way that no one saw coming.
But there was always a chance to get back on track. And there was an element of the unknown to the risk -reward calculation on every shot because of wind, or turf, or bunkers that you couldn’t quite see. It reinforced that life is in the living, not the planning or worrying.
The splash I’d seen was, in fact, water, as I found my ball resting at comfortably in the burn. In years past I would have never attempted that shot, electing to play it safe, trying to save my score by trying to get up-and-down for par.
Instead, I took the chance, I gave the shot everything I had. It didn’t work out, but I wasn’t sad. I knew that no one thought less of me because my potential 39 on Leven Links’ back nine mushroomed to a 42 on the final hole. It was a beautiful exercise of what kind of a thrill golf can offer.
And I’ll spend the rest of the winter contemplating whether that feeling only exists in far away places, which close friends in tow and a $2 Nassau on the line. Can the thrill of going for it, of playing memory-making golf forged from a competitive fire, adapt to everyday golf? I don’t know, but I intend to find out.