Going to the course as a single ranks right up there with root canals for a lot of players, but honestly it’s something that never really bothered me. Everyone has a horror story or three to share about being paired up with some strange, less-than-ideal playing partners, but I guess I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve really never had a regrettable experience playing golf with strangers over the years. Having been a former member at a private club in Northeastern PA for a number of years, the initial meet-n-greet period was always something that I enjoyed, as I got an opportunity to get to know some of the people that I would be sharing my new golf home with. And, of course, some lasting friendships were formed that extended well beyond the time that was spent chasing the little white pill with sticks in hand on the weekends.
But regardless of where I’ve played, be it at a public venue or a private club, I’ve always been a bit hesitant in disclosing my level of skill when asked by strangers that I’m playing with for the very first time. Naturally it’s near the top of the list of the official icebreakers that immediately follow the formal introductions, usually following the “so where are you from” and “what do you do for a living” probes that traditionally occur when golfers prepare to spend what amounts to half a day with each other in the golfing trenches. Being what some would consider an above-average player (depends on the day, mind you), I guess there’s a small aspect of my self-conscious that would rather avoid answering the query altogether, as it invariably leads to this unwarranted-yet-warranted need to live up to the expectations of the questioner.
It’s eerily similar to the “eNob” syndrome, which is the acronym for “embroidered name on bag.” I’ve played with a few eNobs over the years and I’ve always pondered why they’d want to advertize how badly they suck at golf. It’s not that they lack confidence, obviously, but that they struggle to comprehend their realities as players. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t apply to head professionals/teaching professionals, or the standard run-of-the-mill plastic bag tags with names on them. So relax. The plastic bag tags have always been and will always be socially acceptable for hackers and accomplished players alike, and grassroots professionals have always enjoyed the distinction of having their names on their bags for obvious reasons. The eNobs I’m referring to are the wannabe touring pros who’ve yet to figure out that they have to win more than just a couple of club championships to assume that pinnacle of success. But that goes without saying….
Anyway, the point is that I’d simply rather avoid disclosing that information to strangers verbally and allow my golf game to speak for itself. That way if I do suck, which I occasionally do, then it’s not like my ego has to spend most of the round thinking of a laundry list of justifications as to why I sucked afterward. How many of us have experienced the pain and torture with a self-professed “gamer” and thought to ourselves by the 5th or 6th hole, “3 handicap my ass.”
Meandering off to a completely different story as it relates to playing with strangers… I’ll never forget one of the greatest lessons I ever received early on in my golf life, a lesson that really caused me to alternatively consider the true meaning of the word handicap.
I’d just moved to Western Kentucky and found a reasonably nice course shortly after settling in, a layout that was definitely a few rungs higher on the difficulty ladder than most of the low-end open field pastures I had occasionally frequented prior. The greens were nice, the course was well maintained overall, and it wasn’t narrow by any means, but narrow enough to remind you that really bad swings generally come with really bad consequences. After playing there a few times I decided to get an annual membership. I remember going up early one morning about a month into my membership, and checked in with the pro shop to see about getting out for a quick round. The head pro told me, “Certainly, no problem at all, Scott. Just so you know, there’s another annual fee member looking to play with someone, he just called and he’s about 2 minutes out. It’s your call, but I think you’d enjoy playing with him.” I said, “Sure, that’s fine. I just want to get a round in today, no problem.”
I paid my cart fee and told the bag boy to load me up on a cart, and then I walked over to the putting green to get in a few practice putts while I waited for the other single to join me. About 2 minutes later a car pulled up to the bag drop and the bag boy fetched his bag out of the trunk and loaded it onto the passenger side in my cart. I spent the next 5 minutes or so consumed with trying to figure out why I suddenly couldn’t make a 5 footer, and then I saw a guy with only one arm walking toward me. “Are you Scott?” he asked. I was a bit confused, to be quite honest, but I quickly got my wits about me and said, “Yes sir, that’s me. And you are?” He stuck his hand out and said, “Bill, but most people call me Willie. I’ll answer to both, whatever you prefer.” I shook his hand and said, “Nice to meet you, Willie. I guess you and I are playing together this morning?” He said, “Yeah, if that’s alright with you. If not, I completely understand. But I promise to not hold you up.” I smiled at him and said, “Well, I’ll try to not hold you up as well. Let’s head on down to the tee, shall we?”
On the way to the opening tee box, Willie informed me that he’d be playing the most forward tees. He reminded me to play whatever tee box I felt comfortable playing. Figuring that I’d be outdriving him by hundreds of yards on every hole, I felt somewhat obligated to play the tees further back than I normally would. The opening hole was rather benign, short and wide open. I hit an okay tee shot that missed the fairway by just a few yards, and then watched Willie hustle to the forward tee box to put his ball in play.
Now in my mind I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I can promise you that I wasn’t expecting what I saw with his first swing of the day. Willie gripped the club with his left hand no differently than I would with my right, then slightly strengthened his grip just the least bit as the head of the club rested on the ground behind the ball. The ball was teed up normally, and everything about his setup looked no different than anyone else I’d ever played with. With exception, obviously, of him only having one arm. He took the club back nice and smoothly, and then just let gravity take over.
I watched in absolute astonishment as his ball took to the sky and never thought about leaving the center of the fairway, passing by my ball by at least a good 40 yards. I honestly didn’t know what to say at that precise moment, but habit pulled me out of my moment of disbelief long enough to offer the traditional “Nice ball.” Willie smiled and said, “There ain’t a feeling like it in the world, is there?” and gave me a wink and a nod as he hustled back to the cart.
On that opening hole that morning, he hit his 2nd shot just short of the green but then chipped his ball to about 5 feet, and nonchalantly walked up and putted it in as though it was a 2-footer. I recall 3-putting that opening hole to card a bogey, and on the way to the next tee box I remember thinking to myself something along the lines of, “You just got beat by a 1-armed golfer.” It was at that point that I informed Willie that I would be moving up to my normal tees to play the remainder of the round, and he said to me, “Play whatever tee box you enjoy playing, kid. I’m just along for the ride today.”
What a ride it ended up being, for me at least. We shared some interesting conversations that morning, and I’d learned that he lost his arm in Vietnam. He talked about how he’d just gotten into golf before he was drafted for the war, and that he was immediately addicted to the game. He confided that his biggest frustration while he spent his time recovering in a military hospital being, “I’d never get to see how good of a golfer I could’ve become.” But he held no resentment whatsoever about his misfortune, and went further to concede that a lot of his friends never made it back home to worry about something as trivial as golf. Outside of that he really didn’t talk much about the war, other than occasionally joking that “Charlie” probably robbed him of several club championships later on in life.
Judging by what he could do with a club in only one hand, there was no doubt in my mind that that was the case.
I never got to play with Willie again after that day. A few months later I learned that his wife became ill and passed away, and he was said to have packed up his belongings and relocated somewhere out in the Midwest. I do remember going into the pro shop after the round that day and thanking the head pro for giving me the opportunity to play with Willie. The head pro said, “I figured you’d enjoy it. Special guy, ain’t he?”
In more ways than one.