My Career High

My Career High

Dear Ron:

Sorry it has taken so long for me to reply, but McCord made me write replies to both fan letters he received this year before he let me out from under his desk. It was either that or “deal with the cigar thing,” whatever that means.

Anyway, with regard to the best shot I ever hit, there is one that kind of sticks in my memory and I will do my best to describe it for you. I say, “do my best,” because to be perfectly honest with you, to this day I’m not sure if the whole episode wasn’t a figment of my imagination. The shot itself was real, and that’s a fact, but whether or not it looked the same to the crowd as it did to me is another story.

It was the final of the 1990 Dunhill Cup, which was in effect the three-man team championship of the world and yours truly was, through no fault of my own, the gallant skipper of the Irish side. My two teammates were Ronan Rafferty and Philip Walton, and we were up against the old enemy, the English.

The event was played in October over the hallowed turf of the Old Course at St. Andrews, and on our way to the final I’ll be damned if I can remember which teams had the decency to lose to us, but I’m fairly sure some of them must have been communists. As captain, I had chosen to play in the last of the three matches and was drawn against my friend, the veteran Ryder Cupper and formidable match player, Howard Clark.

Now, I’m not proud of this bit, but these were different times, and even though there was a lot of money at stake, it was still considered silly season. And I was considered silly. Anyway, that day I teed off with what Saddam Hussein might have called, “The Mother of All Hangovers.”

Had it not been for the kindness/bigotry of the Scottish spectators, it was a match I surely would have lost. You have to understand that after the Scots are knocked out of any team event in any sport, they will instantly become rabid supporters of anyone who is playing the English. That’s just the way it works.

Now as I mentioned, I wasn’t feeling exactly spiffing, and subsequently, after a dozen or so holes of medal/match play, some blundering, and one near fall into one of the Coffins, I found myself a couple back of Howard. Trust me, in professional golf, there is no worse feeling than to hit a three-foot putt so fat that the bastard finishes short of the hole. But then, as I made my way from one green to the next tee, in an Elijah-and-the chariot-of-fire-descending-from-the-heavens kind of way, a shiftless, tweedy-looking sort in the crowd made contact with me.

Don’t ask me where it happened, because I can’t remember. St. Andrews is a magnificent enough illusion at the best of times, but when you can’t tell whether you’re blown up or stuffed, it’s like a day-trip into golf’s hall of mirrors. (By the way, I’ve always wanted to rename the hazards at St. Andrews. Screw the principal, and his nose too. I mean, what kind of a nose has only one nostril?)

“Hey, Jimmy!” this idiot hissed [for that is the customary way to hail a stranger in Scotland]. “Ye look like ye might need a wee biff on the magic bongwater!”

I glanced over at the crumpled overcoat of a man with an impossibly small head, crowned by, of all things, an Oakland A’s baseball cap. With skeletal fingers, the wee man was clutching a dirty pewter hip flask to his chest, as if it contained a genie of some kind. He was grinning broadly, displaying a mouth full of broken china, and his eyes were closer together than a racing dog’s balls. The right shoulder of his coat was shiny and worn, so instantly I knew he was a caddie, and a lifer at that.

“Aye, go awn,” said his gormless pal, who had a face like a half-chewed caramel, looked equally lit, and had the demeanor of someone who might just have a betting slip favoring the Micks about his dingy person.

I stopped, and hesitated for about a millisecond, which was about an hour longer than needed to get the crowd involved. I was going to look like a fairy if I didn’t take a hit on the flask. Accompanied by a few hoots, at least one holler, and an indeterminate number of slaps on the back, I threw a good swallow down my neck and spent the next few minutes trying to cough up an internal organ. In certain parts of Scotland, the locals still make their own firewater, which is then covertly distributed in unlabeled whiskey bottles. (They don’t have to tear off the old label, because as soon as the bottle is refilled, it jumps off by itself.)

I don’t know what the stuff was, maybe some kind of industrial cleaning product, but I couldn’t speak for about four holes. It had the unfortunate side effect of making the entire golf course seem somewhat mauve, but boy did it straighten me up. I played like a man possessed, and by the time I’d signed my scorecard, I’d halved the match, and the final was tied. To decide it, Howard and I had to play a sudden-death playoff.

My two caddie pals were waiting for me at the edge of the practice green before I teed off, and once more I felt it best to comply with their instructions. After all, they seemed to know how to get a man around St. Andrews. Howard and I halved the first two holes, but as fate would have it, this trip would end on the next, the legendary Road Hole.

I stood on the tee, gazing at the building in front of me with its famous lettering emblazoned across the wall, “Old Course Hotel.” I hadn’t a clue what line to hit my tee shot on, and was waiting for the ground to stop moving so I could tee up my ball, when, sensing my confusion Harry, my faithful sack-dragger, muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “Hit it at the ‘F’ in Hotel.”

I looked at him, then back at the letters on the wall.

“Harry,” I said, “there is no ‘F’ in Hotel.”

Harry looked at the ground, shaking his head. “No, no, no, you idiot,” he hissed under his breath. “I said hit it at the EFFING hotel.”

“Oh yeah,” I nodded. “I thought that’s what you meant.”

So I hit it at the effing hotel, and the right-to-left wind drifted the ball back to the left edge of the fairway. Howard missed the fairway left, then pulled his second way left of the green, leaving his ball with one of the world’s most impossible chip shots, from behind the ghastly little toilet bowl known as the Road Bunker. This was my chance. One good swing, a high draw with a 3-iron, land the ball on the little nasal outcrop at the front of the green/mauve, and let it run up toward the back lip, and hope the slope takes it around behind the hole.

I’d love to say I remember the swing, but I don’t. I swung, it flew, and suddenly it got deafeningly quiet in my head. I do, however, have a lasting image of the ball, hung up in a sepia sky, drifting past the cherry-picker camera and descending dream-like down in front of the backdrop of the crowd in the bleachers behind the road. As the ball landed on the front of the green, people began to stand up. Carried back to me by the breeze, the roar began to build, and the silence was gone.

Like the undertow from a Mexican wave, the crowd noise sucked the ball toward the back edge of the green, perilously close to the little lip over which lies the tarmac road and the dreaded limestone wall, and then it gently blew my little egg back down and around behind the flagstick, where it nestled about 15 feet from the hole. Two putts from there, and I had won the Dunhill Cup for Ireland, on the most famous hole on the most famous course in the world.

It is a moment that no one will ever be able to take away from me, largely because even I don’t know where I put it.

They gave each of us a nice trophy and I don’t know where that is either, but I do remember filling it with something special that evening and passing it around in the lobby of the Old Course Hotel. Hey, trophies are overrated anyhow, because unlike memories, they gather dust and can’t be embellished. Everyone in the lobby of the Old Course Hotel saw mauve that night, and the last thing I remember was the overcoat and his pal, hand in hand, skipping across the 17th green toward the Auld Gray Toon.

The shot I hit that day is special to me because of the stage and the cast of characters involved. The Old Course is a whisky-soaked cathedral, the caddies are its clergy, and for me its most sacred ground is the Road Hole, with that green which can be either high altar or sacrificial pedestal, depending on the journey you take to get there, and what it does to your mind along the way. Even if it’s not green, it’ll grow on you.

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