The afternoon sun is shining and I can feel the wind on my back. An ideal setup to start the round.
I’m feeling loose, albeit a bit nervous. It’s not my first time teeing off on the first hole of a golf course. Far from it. I’ve been playing the sport for 20+ years. But this time is different because my girlfriend is watching me play for the first time.
Her name is Allison, and I don’t know it at the time, but nearly four years later, we will get married.
We’re at Bennett Valley Golf Course in Santa Rosa, CA, which is the course I play most often because it’s less than 10 minutes from my apartment. You’d think I’d be comfortable on the par five first hole given how much I’ve played it, but it usually gives me fits.
Par on any given golf hole is tied to its length. It accounts for two putts on the green (the short-grass area where the flag is located) plus however many shots it would take a typical player to get to said green. A par three is usually 200 yards long or less, a par five is typically close to 500 yards long or more, and a par four is somewhere in between those two.
The first hole at BVGC isn’t particularly long for a par five. But it makes up for its meager length with an absolutely ridiculous amount of large eucalyptus and evergreen trees, a nearly 90° dogleg to the left, as well as a creek that meanders across the width of the hole roughly thirty yards in front of the green. The longest players can reach the green in two shots, but almost never go for it due to the myriad ways a slightly errant shot can get them in trouble.
But on a day where the wind is helping, it has me considering going for it. That is if I can manage to hit a good drive off the tee.
I shake the hands of my two playing partners—a couple of older guys who I’m pretty sure I’ve seen out here before. I’m a better-than-average player and I can hit it plenty far, so I’m teeing off from the blue tees, which makes the course play as long as it can play, whereas they’re teeing off from the white tees about twenty yards ahead of me. They hang back as I tee up my ball, take a few practice swings, pick a few pieces of grass and toss them in the air to gauge the wind, and then line up my shot. I feel confident and try my best to think of a specific target, a spot in the right-center of the fairway, instead of picturing my most common miss on this hole—a bailout to the right where there’s a grove of the aforementioned evergreen trees. I take the club back, swing down through the ball, make solid contact square on the center of the club face, and look up to see my ball sailing exactly on my target line.
“Wow, great drive,” one of my playing partners says. I say thanks and shoot a smile toward Allison as I slide my driver back into my golf bag. It always feels good to start off with a solid shot.
Allison and I chit-chat while we walk up the fairway to my ball. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking that I might have a chance to go for the green in two shots. I don’t do it often here, but the conditions are ideal. The one problem is that I have to wait for the group ahead of us to finish up, which means I’ll be sitting around waiting for a while before I can hit my shot.
Waiting is one of the peculiarities of golf.
It’s a sport that takes several hours to play—oftentimes rounds on full courses can take upwards of five hours—and yet you spend only a small fraction of that time actually playing the game. The rest of the time is spent traversing the manicured grass between your shots, waiting for the group ahead of you to play their shots, and waiting for your playing partners to play theirs.
Meanwhile, your ball is indifferent to who you are as a player—it simply reacts to the way you deliver the club face to it and responds to the complex physics involved accordingly.
There aren’t many similarities in the sporting world. People have compared hitting a golf ball to shooting a free throw in basketball or pitching a baseball. But both of those feel far more athletic and natural than golf does because the ball is at least moving around. A golf ball just sits there waiting for you to hit it.
I once played with a guy who said, “The nice thing about the golf swing is that there are only 47 things that can go wrong with it.” He was joking, but honestly, he probably wasn’t off by much.
Ben Hogan, a golf legend and arguably the best ball striker of all time, famously said, “There is no such individual as a born golfer.” If you’ve ever grabbed a club and tried to hit a shot, you no doubt understand what he meant. Hitting a round dimpled ball with an oddly shaped tool and attempting to send it in the general vicinity of a specific target isn’t quite as innate as catching a football or kicking a soccer ball.
Perfection is unattainable in golf. Yet every once in a while, you hit a shot that feels pure and flies through the air exactly as you pictured, and there’s no other feeling quite like that. This is why golfers get obsessed with the game. It’s why a player like Tiger Woods, who’s almost unanimously considered the greatest of all time and has achieved basically everything humanly possible in the game, is still out there practicing and trying to compete in tournaments, despite the challenges in his personal life off the course and his countless surgeries over the years. It’s why golfers spend thousands of their hard-earned dollars on new equipment and lessons and bucket after bucket after bucket of range balls, waiting for that familiar fleeting feeling of a purely struck shot.
I can’t see the pin (another word for the flag) from where my ball is sitting in the fairway. It’s obscured from view behind the giant eucalyptus trees on the left-hand side of the hole. Normally I wouldn’t attempt this shot, instead opting to lay up well back of the creek where my playing partners are standing by their balls waiting for me to hit, which would leave myself roughly 100 yards to the hole with a clear view of the green. With the wind at my back, just a five iron in my hand, and wanting to impress Allison on the first hole she’s ever seen me play, I can’t resist giving it a go. But in order to do so, I need to curve my shot from right to left, which is called a draw, so I avoid the trees. This poses a slight problem since my typical shot shape is left to right, which is called a fade.
To hit a draw, I set up to the ball with my body aimed well to the right of where the pin is and I turn my club face closed to the left a bit. The idea is to swing my normal swing along the line where my body is aimed and the slightly shut club face will produce the draw spin I need to get it curving correctly. It’s a shot that’s tough to pull off for a beginner, but fun to play as you get more advanced.
After a few waggles of my club to stay loose, I take the club back, swing through, and look up to see the ball flying just as I intended. It’s majestically climbing in altitude with a nice right-to-left curve on it. It skims past the trees out of sight.
“Be right,” I say.
A moment later, I hear one of my playing partners yell, “It went in the fucking hole!”
The odds of making a hole-in-one are 12,500 to 1. For pros, it's 2,500 to 1.
But I didn’t make a hole-in-one. I made a two on a par five, which is called a double-eagle, or an albatross for short.
An albatross is extremely rare. Some studies have estimated the odds to be 6,000,000 to 1, while others say only 1,000,000 to 1. Only. There are roughly 200 of them made in the U.S. each year. PGA Tour professional Xander Schauffele made one during a tournament in January of this year, which marked the 132nd albatross on tour since 1983, which means there have been just 3.3 albatrosses made on average each season by the best players in the world.
The odds are so slim because an albatross usually involves a much longer shot than a hole-in-one and the vast majority of amateurs aren’t capable of hitting it far enough to get anywhere close to the hole.
After I walked up to the green and grabbed my ball out of the hole, I walked over to Allison and said, “That’s basically the best thing you’ll ever see in golf. That doesn’t happen all the time. It’s all downhill from here.”
She laughed, but I’m not sure she fully understood how big of a deal it was at the time. To this day, she remembers how excited my playing partners were about it, probably more than she remembers the shot itself. Neither of them had ever witnessed an albatross before. And odds are, they never would again either.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to play a round of golf at a local private course with a group of guys from an online chat group for Bay Area golfers. I was a last-minute substitute because one of their friends had injured himself and I happened to have a rare free Sunday. I had play a round precisely once since I made a trip to Bandon Dunes in Oregon over two years ago, and it was rainy and cold that day. But the weather was supposed to be perfect this Sunday, so I decided to join them.
Partway through the round, I was chatting with one of the guys about how they all met while we waited for his buddy to play his shot. I eventually asked him how old he was (early 30s) and I shook my head when I realized I had over a decade on him and his friends. But I was also proud of the fact that I could keep up with the two of them who were very solid players, sometimes even outdriving them off the tee.
The conversation also made me realize that I’ve been playing the game for over 30 years of my life now. It’s probably the one thing I’ve stuck with the longest in my life. I love the game. But that doesn’t mean it’s without its flaws.
Golf is expensive and elitist—making it feel unapproachable for many people. And it has historically been a game reserved for people that look like me (i.e. white dudes). A lot of work has been done to bring the game to the masses. For example, the Youth On Course program allows golfers under the age of 18 to play at over 2,000 courses across North America for just $5. Meanwhile, the private course that’s just over a mile from my house has an initiation fee that has ranged from $50,000 to $150,000 over the years and has annual dues of $19,800. I’ve been lucky enough to play there twice—once with an employee and once with a golf pro friend—for a grand total of $20. The course was nice, and impeccably manicured, but not $19,800 per year nice.
The game has had its issues at the highest level recently too. It made mainstream news last season as scores of top players from the PGA Tour left for a new upstart league called LIV Golf to the tune of multi-million dollar windfalls, funded by none other than the Saudis. Many of the LIV players were featured prominently in the Full Swing docuseries on Netflix, which was produced by the same outfit that did the hugely popular Formula 1 docuseries Drive to Survive. I cringed as player after player explained away their decision to say yes to the cash as a choice that was made solely for their families. The idea being that they could work less and make more money—something just about anyone would say yes to, of course, were it not for the fact that you’d also subsequently be turning a blind eye to the countless human rights abuses the Saudis have made over the years. What kind of message is that for these players’ kids? That it’s okay to ignore egregious acts if your employer pays you enough money?
For these reasons, over the past couple of years, I hadn’t been paying as close attention to the game as I used to. I was saving money and not watching the rich get richer.
But getting out on the course again brought me back to what I love most about the game—the elusive purely struck shot.
Throughout the round, I had several close calls where the ball rolled over the edge of the hole. After my third shot on the last hole, a 529-yard par five, I was just off the green on the right-hand side, leaving me with about a twenty-foot chip shot.
I turned to one of the guys in my group and said, “I feel like I’m due to make one.”
“Hell yeah, you are,” he said.
I grabbed my pitching wedge, took a couple of practice swings, hit the shot, and watched it bounce a couple of times before rolling smoothly down the hill, right into the center of the hole.
I’d love to hear from you:
Got any golf stories of your own?
What do you think of the LIV Golf situation?
Have you watched Full Swing on Netflix? What did you think of it?
What other sports do you love to play?
One last thing. If you liked this piece, could you please let me know by giving the heart button a tap?
What a story. The Dude Abides.
I'm married to a golfer and for many years we picked our vacations with golf courses in mind. So we went to Ireland and Scotland. He played in Normandy and Belgium. Portugal was also on the menu. I thought about playing and even took classes but the time the sport requires stopped me (and I don't handle frustration well, lol. I'm likely to sit down in the grass and cry!). On the other hand, I enjoy walking the courses with my husband. I consider it a good round when I collect more balls from the rough than he manages to loose. There was an afternoon in Scotland in the wind and rain though that got us both hitting the pub afterwards!