Midlife Mulligan

One duffer considers pulling his sticks out of storage

By Tom Allen

“So you’re movin’ to the Sandhills? What’s your handicap?”

“Uh, eyesight’s not great.”

A golfer friend raised the question, when a job move brought the family to Moore County in 1998. He joked. I was serious. But perhaps a new job in a new town called for embracing the favorite pastime.  

I played that first 18 holes, 20 years ago, at the Southern Pines Golf Club. A gracious hacker from my new congregation invited me to join a church charity foursome.

“I’ve never played,” I warned.

“We’re awful. You’ll fit right in.”

“Let’s do it.”

One guy secured a set of clubs and provided tees and balls. Another loaned a pair of shoes. Wife, Beverly, recalled her college P.E. elective. “You’ll need a glove.”

“A glove? Why? For what hand?” Novice is an understatement.

My heart rate doubled on the first tee. Had I missed the club selection chapter of Golf for Dummies? At least I grabbed a driver. A par-4 loomed. The ghost of a weekend hacker whispered, “Hit it straight down the middle. Head down, knees bent, eyes on the ball. Grip, squeeze, swing.” I topped my first shot, then sliced a mulligan. On the green in four, or maybe six. Two-putt. Or was it three? I shot 118. Or was it 128? No matter. I had a blast. After 18 holes of whiffs, lost balls and unplayable lies, I was hooked. Maybe captivated is a better word.

My first set of sticks cost $120, at Sam’s Club. On to Walmart for gloves, tees and sleeves of Titleists. I owned plenty of khakis and short-sleeved polos. A church member left a couple of caps in my office cubbie. FootJoys completed the ensemble. At least this duffer looked the part.

My first par was memorable — the sixth hole of then Pinehurst No. 5, a par-3. I topped my tee shot. On in two. Inches from the hole. Tap, plop, sweet. I hollered. Friends shushed me, with something between a smile and a frown. Is exuberance bad etiquette or just not cool?

Over the years, I hit the driving range after work, even took a few lessons. I gradually lowered my score, nearly breaking 100 on a perfect spring day at Mid Pines. If you’ll allow a couple of mulligans and a gimme putt or two, my scorecard would read 95.

I shot a 46 on nine holes at Knollwood, once. Double that (which I’m sure would have happened had we played another round) for 92. A fudge, for sure, but I can dream.

With time, club selection and reading lies came easier. With help, I grasped the lingo. “It’s a bunker, not a sand trap,” a low-handicap friend once chided. I even had a “most incredible shot” story. The 18th hole, old Pinehurst No. 1, a par-3 that concluded the round. My tee shot was short of the green, second shot in the bunker and a really bad lie. I pulled out my sand wedge, a Christmas gift from Beverly (that cost more than my set of clubs). A perfect out, and into the hole. I yelled. My buddies yelled. Fist pumps and high fives. Yes, sweet.

My worst day? The summer of 2002, Pinehurst No. 6. I was playing the best ever. My friend trustingly pulled forward, anticipating another hit down the middle of the fairway. I shanked a shot off the sixth tee, popped my cart buddy above his left eye. Eight stitches and he was fine. Me? Sick the rest of the day. Just pull the pin and let me crawl into the hole.

The most fun round? When I turned 50. Three buddies and I played what was then National Golf Club. We were probably the only ones on the rain-drenched course. Talk about mulligans. By the 18th hole, we were putting with our drivers. Soaked and humbled, we laughed and made memories.

I haven’t played in five years, but three Pinehurst U.S. Opens, a trip to the Masters, up close with Tiger, Phil, Fred Couples and Davis Love III remain highlights. My clubs rest in a storage unit, next to my grandmother’s mahogany four-poster bed. Life intervenes — caring for parents at the end of their lives, raising two daughters, seeing them off to college, walking one down the aisle. Between work and marriage, family and friendships, golf’s allure faded. But who knows? Maybe I’ll take another swing this year, when I turn 60.

Because sometimes, on that perfect fall day, when the temps are cool and the fairways green, a voice whispers through the towering pines, “Head down, knees bent, eyes on the ball.” I grip my 3-wood, squeeze and swing. Straight down the middle. On in two. Tap, plop. Sweet. Very sweet.  PS

Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.

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