Oh, I remember THAT day quite well, as you will see. Almost 20 years in the past now and I remember every shot.
It was the day I was shown the difference between intelligently played, well-executed, GOOD golf and…well…whatever it was I was doing at the time. I remember that I was about 17 years old, was playing with a set of hand-me-down clubs and, while I had been playing on my high school’s golf team, had yet to break 80, let alone par. At that point in my life, golf was just for fun, not the harmful obsession it has become currently. Yes… I meant harmful. I know you know what I mean — in a good way.
Anyway, here is some lead-in information for you — everybody likes a little preface, yes?
Growing up in Fort Fairfield, Maine has SOME advantages when you are in high school. Notably, that the drinking age in nearby New Brunswick, Canada is only 19, and everybody and his sister has a fake ID lying handy. So Saturday night is the night where we… um… stay inside and play board games and NOT go to the bars and clubs across the border until 2 a.m. or sometimes 7 a.m. Right? You noticed I said “not,” right?
As it so happened, after my buddies and I finished playing Monopoly (or at least Boardwalk) until 4 a.m., it was now my turn to play designated driver to get everyone home — a responsibility I had loathed all evening long. After all, Boardwalk games can get pretty intense… as you know, and some get spent from the intensity of sedentary competition and in need of help home. So, after dropping off the last of this ill-conceived carpool (you know, the guy who won Park Place?) I found myself deciding between sleep… or golf.
Sunday is pretty slow up in Aroostook County, Maine. It is (I think literally) the section of the United States with the oldest population percentage to be found. Most folks are either off to church or waiting outside the one restaurant left in town to have someone else cook them breakfast. At 5 a.m., Fort Fairfield is a still a ghost town, more or less.
So, I decided I would play golf. I figured I could go out and play nine holes and be back before my parents became unwilling to cook me breakfast. That, and the nice note I left, “Woke up early, out playing golf… be back soon” would SURELY cover up the clandestine board-game sessions my friends and I had the night before. Surely.
So, I pulled the clubs out of the garage, threw them into the back of my pickup truck (yeah, four guys in a two-seater for an hour… not fun) and off to the golf course I went. It was 5 a.m., but because Aroostook Valley Country Club is really in Canada, it was actually 6 a.m. course time. A half-hour before the course officially opened, but I knew the assistant pro and he just waived me up to the tee where, to my surprise, I found another gentlemen just setting down his clubs. I figured no one would have been at the course at that hour, but I was wrong.
The elder gentleman (to be referred to affectionately as Old Dude for the remainder of this article), looked at me in something that might have resembled disbelief and disgust all rolled into one, and gave a look to the pro, who shrugged his shoulders and walked off quickly trying to avert his eyes from the cold glare Old Dude was giving him. I thought to myself, “Oh boy, another grouchy old fart. Maybe he will let me play through.”
As I approach the tee, expectations high (old dudes always play slow right?) he asks me, “And who might you be?” I told him my name without him even looking up to acknowledge the information. Old Dude, I was betting, was a retired potato farmer, and having worked during various harvest breaks (another Aroostook Country tradition where kids take three weeks off from school at the end of September and beginning of October to help out on various farms and come back sporting about $1,000 to $2,000 at the tender age of 12 or so) knew that you don’t mess around with that crowd or get pushy. A man I used to work for could, in his 60s, stack two potato barrels full of ROCKS on top of each other and dead lift them; you know, to make the point with unruly farm hands. I shook his hand once at the end of a season and cracked a bone in my third knuckle!
But, I digress.
So again, I had stated my name, and old dude says, “Yep, I know your father. Milton isn’t it?” My father had been a federal loan officer and worked with farmers in the area.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Okay, well pick up those clubs and keep up. I don’t like people behind me.” Oh rats! There goes breakfast back home! He is going to putter around and this will take forever. He was kind of an odd sight too — he appeared to be at least 70, but was wearing jeans, a pair of (real) spikes that looked older than me, no glove and a well-worn cardigan sweater (even though it was late May). He was also carrying his bag, and I didn’t know too many folks that age that didn’t ride carts at our club. Also, his leather MacGregor bag appeared to be pretty old and the faces of his irons were browned at the bottom. In hindsight, there were sooo many signs that I missed that day!
Standing up to the tee (uphill par 4), he gives me the honor: “Tee it up kid… we don’t have all morning.” I hit the nicest slice about two bills down the right side, saved only by the fact that it sliced into the No. 18 fairway, so I still had a look at the green. Old Dude steps up with his persimmon driver and stripes it down the middle to a place I had yet to reach, even at my age on a straight drive… with a metal driver. Caught me totally by surprise, too, because his swing was about half as long as mine and he didn’t even swing hard at it. Sooo…. note to self:
Lesson No. 1: Compact swing and good tempo are better than a haphazard flail.
Two more strokes for me, and I am on the green, which I proceed to three-jack (or three-putt in layman’s terms). Old Dude barely misses his putt for birdie, and walks away with par. On to the second hole – a short par four, blind tee shot over the crest of a small hill.
Old Dude now has the honor. This isn’t a hard hole, but trees do line the sides of it. Old dude pulls what appears to be a semi-rusted 1-iron and fades it off the left side into the fairway. I stand up with driver again and flail it into a collection of trees down the right. As we were walking off the second tee, Old Dude says to me, “You been drinkin’ boy? Helps if you change your clothes once you get home. I can smell it on you even if it ain’t on your breath.”
Whoa! I figured I was going to get sassed into oblivion for that (I should have been), but he just picked up his bag and walked off. As I got to my ball in the trees, Old Dude yells over, “I might have an ax in my truck if you need it.” Great, getting heckled by a man four times my age, first thing in the morning, too. A chip out and pitch on later and I have a 20-footer for par. Old Dude throws a dart into the flag and taps in (with the leading edge of his wedge…grrr) for birdie. I three-jack this green as well. Already I am five strokes down to him in two holes. Nice job, Dan. Not!
Lesson No. 2: Strategy trumps distance.
So, there is no way I was going to beat him now. I never really felt like I wanted to play AGAINST him when we started, but he heckled me, so I was determined to beat him on at least a few holes and get back the honor. Moving onto the par 5 third hole, dogleg left and downhill. I had reached before with a good drive and a 9 iron.
“Go ahead and take the honor while I debate with nature,” he said to me.
OK, time to hit a good drive, and I did. Hit a corker — nice draw that cut the corner. Perfect flight. OK, Old Dude, top that. Old Dude, however, comes back to the tee and pulls a 5-iron and hits it right into the middle of the fairway, still within sight at the top of the dogleg.
My mentality at that time was that any par-five was a two-hitter, and he just hit a mid iron?? Why?
So, we crest the hill and he hits another 5-iron down (to what appeared to be) dead left and short of the green. OK, so he saw my big drive and that must have rocked him a little. Now I just hit it on and get my eagle or birdie. Perfect strategy; failed execution. I thinned my shot, which, to my credit, still ran about 190 yards down hill and into the front green-side bunker. Old Dude has a wry smile at my misfortune, and calmly walks down to his ball and wedges it to the green where it stops within about six feet of the cup (yeah, he made it). I blade my bunker shot and take four more strokes to get down.
He tells me afterward, “You should give up trying to reach this in two. Hit down where I did where you have a clean shot to the pin.”
Lesson No. 3: Position trumps ego.
Hole No. 4, a steep downhill par 3 with a listed yardage of 170. It only plays about a 7 or 8-iron, though. Old Dude steps up with (that darn) 5-iron, and literally chips a shot down off the tee, which runs almost the full distance down to the green. No practice swings, no checking aim-line, no pretense; just drops the ball down onto the turf and chips it. Ball ends up about 18 feet past the pin, but with an uphill putt. I hit a flush 9-iron that the morning wind blows into the bunker on the high side of the green. From then on, it is a repeat of the previous hole (bladed wedge). Old Dude casually takes his two-putt while whistling some made-up tune for my enjoyment.
Lesson No. 4: Don’t make things harder than they have to be (And don’t embarrass your family name by blading two wedges in a row with a witness).
Okay, onto the par-5 No. 5. Dogleg right, to an uphill green. Old Dude still has the honor, so he pulls a persimmon 3-wood out (club looked older than me) and carves a nice pull/fade around the corner. Didn’t throw down a tee this time either. Just drops it down on the bare turf and punches down on it — you could see some turf fly. Ball got maybe 25 feet off the ground and ran like it stole something. I was now tired of hitting it in the junk so I pulled a 3-iron. I pulled it left, down the improper side of the hole and the ball rolled into a grove of trees, the only advantage being that the brush was cut away from the trees so I had an opening.
I punched out to about 8-iron distance from the green. Old Dude, however, was feeling lucky and hits that persimmon driver off the deck just short of the green. Chips it up and down for birdie. I, well, I am not going to tell you what I did on the rest of the hole or you would lose all respect for me. (If you haven’t already!)
Lesson No. 5: Patience is key, know when to go for it and when not to.
At this point, I have lost all face with Old Dude. I could see him make looks like Tiger Woods did when he was paired with Phil Mickelson during the Ryder Cup. (He hit it WHERE?). We hadn’t exchanged a word since the third hole, until he asked me, “How is Milt doin’? He still working for the Farmer’s Home Administration?” Yes, I replied. “Is he teaching you golf?” No, I said. “You go over and ask Sean (the assistant pro at the time) for some lessons. Watching you play is taking years off my life.” He gave a little laugh with it in a transparent attempt to soften the blow, although I knew he totally meant what he said.
But, there was something so pure about the simple honesty of the statement that I didn’t get too “teen” about the way he said it. I actually did go to the assistant pro and take some lessons after that. It was beneficial.
Lesson No. 6: Swallow your pride and recognize good advice when it comes your way — just only take it from good players.
Sixth hole: downhill par 4, dogleg left. Old Dude takes out (that rotten) 5-iron and hits another chip and run down the hill, and then hits a half 8-iron onto the raised green. Got a little unlucky in that he blocked it a little right and had a sharp downhill putt. I hit a nice drive with my (then) normal draw and found myself at the base of the raised green. Turf was wet down there, but I (luckily?) mis-hit the shot high on the face of my wedge, so it still managed to get on the green, resulting in my first par of the day. Old Dude (apparently on purpose) toes his putt down hill off the fringe that rims the cup and rolls about 10 feet further than he deserved. He missed the come-back putt and made bogey. I figured I would see some kind of emotional outburst, given how gruff he had been before, but no. He just picks his ball out of the cup and moves on to the next hole, no different than when he made birdie.
Lesson No. 7: No one cares if you are mad; don;t waste the energy or lose focus
Hole No. 7 – short par 4 with a couple humps in the fairway that drag the ball into the left rough. I finally had the honor under my own steam! Mission accomplished, until my ball found the aforementioned “wash rack” that drained my shot into the left rough behind a bush, essentially blocking me out. Old Dude turns dead right on the tee box and hits his shot (with some iron) about 30 yards right of the fairway onto a shelf in the rough that was trampled down due to the proximity to the Porta-John. Pretty much the only flat lie on the hole. From there he hits a short iron onto the green and two putts. I hack out and bogey out. The honor is now lost much faster than it arrived.
Lesson No. 8: The fairway always isn’t fair. Hit it to the spot that positions you best.
Ahh, the closing stretch. The eighth hole is a short, 155-yard par 3 that is slightly uphill and into a light breeze. Old Dude pulls a 4-iron! Whaaat? Come on! The way he had been hitting the ball, I knew that was way too much club for him. He ended up taking a half swing and hit it to about 15 feet. I totally underestimated the wind, and the uphill part, and tried to power an 8-iron onto the green. The good news is that I only came up about 10 yards short rather than the 20 or so I probably should have. I got lucky on a chip and got up and down, and Old Dude burned the edge of the cup with his putt so we both walked away with par, one of us happier than the other, however.
Lesson No. 9: Don’t be stupid. Hit the shot the conditions require and be informed by more than just yardage.
Now came the final leg of our nine-hole adventure. One of the tougher holes on the course: An uphill par 4 with a dogleg left, into an elevated green, guarded by trees on either side. The green slopes hard towards the fairway. Old Dude steps up with his driver and hits a huge hook, but starts it over the right-side trees. At first I thought he just blocked it, but then it took a hard turn left and dove into the fairway where it ran out quite a bit. I got lucky with another draw and cut off a bit of the left corner into the fairway. I cleared him by about 10 yards, only due to the line. Old Dude could move the ball!
At this point, we are nearing the green with the porch of the clubhouse being nearby. The “breakfast club” was now present on the porch, enjoying its meal and we now had an audience. Old Dude is in the middle of the fairway and hits one of his punchy little irons, which lands in the throat short of the green and runs up onto the front of the green, leaving an uphill putt. I was on the left side of the fairway with eyes for the flag to impress my new audience (who cared more for their ham and eggs than my shabby game. I was 17, remember).
I had to carry an edge of a greenside trap, but I only had 8 iron into the green. Alright, I decided I would hit a cool looking little spinner into the green near the flag and let everyone see that I could back up a ball. (Yeah, I could slice and blade wedges out of bunkers, but still back-up approach shots on greens. Don’t ask me how that works. It still makes no sense to me 20 years later).
So I hit my little spinner over the trap and it lands near the flag just as planned, and then spins back just as planned, and keeps coming back the full length of the green and into the deep greenside bunker which never should have been in play in the first place (not as planned). Old Dude takes his easy two-putt for a round of 2-under, 34 on our nine. I blade another wedge (which flies the green and hits the concession stand at the halfway point – a 130-yard lob wedge!) and not so calmly take an upside-down six in front of my unofficial fans.
Lesson No. 10: Good spin is not always backspin, and don’t play stupid shots to impress people who never cared in the first place.
At this point, you couldn’t have paid me to keep playing that round. I just hung my head, shook hands with Old Dude, and walked back to the clubhouse to mope and sulk and hopefully get a few of the cart girls working at the tables to feel bad for me. That was the first time where I had played golf with a legitimately good player. I totally underestimated him at the beginning because of age, appearances and gear, and I never should have. He was 10 times the player I was. Probably still is; guys like that live forever!
It was depressing at first, being handed my lunch and shown how far I had to progress to be any good at the game, but was also the impetus for me to get better. I got over that experience pretty quick; I took the lessons Old Dude suggested I take from the assistant pro. I also went out and tried to learn all those punchy irons like Old Dude did. I actually figured out how to hit them in time. I also changed my course strategy to allow for more creativity, and more ease of shot making.
Mind you, 1994 is pretty much the beginning years of the Internet, and there wasn’t yet all the knowledge to be readily found as there is now. Also, there wasn’t the proliferation of golf books to be found back then, at least not where I lived — the nearest mall was three hours away! Heck, I didn’t even know who Ben Hogan was back then! Pretty sad, huh? But it was this experience that led to increased interest, practice and research, and (eventually) an overall better game. The one thing I truly regret about the situation (apart from creating a lingering odor of fail around the course that is still present two decades later) is that I never got Old Dude’s name. He kept playing after nine holes while I sulked my way off the green.
I was a little uncomfortable around him, as you likely have gathered. I assumed he was a farmer from the area. If you have ever met one of these gentlemen before, they can be a demanding and intimidating lot –- years of physical labor with every season being the difference between a livelihood and the poorhouse. Makes for tough characters, and when you are 17, sometimes the best you can do is keep your mouth shut, which I did. I mentioned Old Dude to my dad, but he unfortunately couldn’t put a name to him.
There is one more lesson to be learned here, and that is if you don’t vary whom you play with from time to time, you will never have the type of experiences like the one I just shared with you. You don’t have to ditch your friends, but every once in a while, you might consider asking to play a round with an unknown “old dude” and learn your own lessons. Get schooled GolfWRX!