It started hours before we arrived at the 17th tee box during a father-son golf trip: We called it The Old Dogs vs. the Young Pups. My dad and Rob vs. Eliot and me. A tradition that was, at that point, three years in the making. There was a trophy and some hats. The previous two spring breaks had brought us to Myrtle Beach, and our dads, mainly Rob, decided we needed to step up our game up and travel to Bermuda. Eliot and I weren’t going to argue with that idea.
So there we were, a few rounds under our belt on the island, including a really cool, nerve-wracking trip around Belmont Golf Course which basically weaves through a neighborhood. We probably added to the roofers market with some wayward wedges during that particular round.
This day at Mid Ocean was the crown jewel, though. And as we waited to start our round on the first tee, the topic of hole-in-ones came up. Rob, an excellent golfer who was in his early 50s at the time, lamented that he had never collected an ace, but recalled a few close calls and balls burning or hanging on lips. Most golfers have those close calls, the tee shot that willfully avoids the cup. Among our foursome, there were zero aces. It was a welcome topic considering the first tee discussion usually involved a whole lot of Old Dog haranguing for a couple extra shots for my dad (a shot a hole except for the par 3s was always the starting point, and from there the Old Dogs would lean on their business acumen and push it to a shot a hole.). However, on this particular day, the issue of handicaps had already been settled, or maybe I just erased it from my memory for the sake of this story. It shouldn’t be sullied by handicap negotiations.
As we made our way around Mid Ocean, Eliot and I, the Young Pups, were putting the hurt on the Old Dogs. We could have given my dad two shots on every hole and it wouldn’t have mattered. He was having a bad day; and his partner - smooth swinging, easy talking Rob - was a bit flustered with the C.B. Macdonald layout.
We called this little event the Piss Pot Invitational, and the trophy was firmly in our grasp as we made the turn for home on the back nine. Standing on the 15th tee, we were dormie - four up with four to play. Our teenage bravado mixed with our inability to close the match crept in like slow moving storm.
We lost the 15th hole (“Punch Bowl”): 3 three up with three to play.
We lost the 16th hole (“Lookout”): 2-up with 2 to play.
So we came to the 17th hole, which is named Redan. A famous template hole of Mid Ocean’s architect C.B. McDonald. A proper Redan green slopes away from the player at a diagonal from right to left. A bunker protects the left part of the green. Redan style greens are most receptive of shots that arrive near the right side of the green; from there the land will catch the ball and carry if safely onto the green.
During this round, we had no idea that this hole design existed on hundreds of courses around the world. All the Young Pups knew was that we were on the ropes and the Old Dogs, mainly Rob, were howling and barking under their breath, reminding us that they were coming after us.
“The Old Dog for the hard road,” they loved to say when a big putt found the bottom of the cup.
The 17th at Mid Ocean sits near the ocean, off to our left, the 18th fairway was the only thing separating us from the water. Naturally, a bit of left-to-right wind off the water made this shot more complicated. The Old Dogs’ caddie, named Red, who became a staple of our stories from that trip for his laissez faire attitude toward reading greens (a wave of the end of the flagstick in the general area we should aim our putt) explained that the hole works best when the ball comes in from the right.
The sun was bright that day, too, so when Rob and my dad stepped up to hit their shots, it was hard to trace them, but our caddies assured us both shots were safely aboard the putting green based on where we saw they initially landed. The pressure was mounting, and I stepped up to the ball to hit my shot.
My shot shape did not suit this hole, between my power fade, a white-knuckle grip, and a left-to-right wind, my shot could have landed somewhere off the coast of Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Luckily, it found dry land, but it was way right of the target.
Finally, it was Eliot’s turn. He drove his tee into the ground determined to shut the Old Dogs up once and for all; they were huffing and puffing on the tee box, still trying to save a half-point in our week long best-ball match-play event. Either Eliot ignored Red’s advice as to how to attack a Redan or he hit a shot he didn’t intend to, but his mid-iron soared through the air, ignoring the wind and the slope of the land and slammed just a few feet short of the cup. The evening sun glinted off the ball as it came to rest rather close to the cup. There were no other balls on the green as far as we could tell.
A fist pump from Eliot and suddenly the only thing we could hear was the crashing of the waves off the 18th fairway. The barking was gone. A kick-in birdie was all that stood between us and a full point on this glorious day at the Mid Ocean Club. Considering the looming ocean on the right side of the 18th hole, I was looking forward to a pressure-free tee shot coming home.
Eliot and I walked to the green together, relieved that we were about to avoid a catastrophic loss that Old Dogs would hang over our head for years.
Sometimes as you walk to the green, a golf ball that looks close to the hole gets farther and farther away as you approach the green. It’s a confounding optical illusion and just another way for golf to kick you in the gut. But Eliot’s golf ball remained in its spot just shy of the cup. We scanned the green for the other golf balls, one had collected down the opposite side of the green. It belonged to my dad. Two balls on the green, I took my wedge and went hunting for my ball. Rob, however, was wandering aimlessly at the back of the green. He checked the bunker and rough around the edges of the green. Given the slope, the ball could have gone anywhere. The six of us searched and searched to no avail. Rob' was mumbling under his breath. There’s nothing like hitting a shot and having the ball disappear; the only worse feeling is when a caddie gives advice that you follow perfectly only to have the advice prove ill-fated. I could hear Rob wishing ill-will on Red. Something about the ocean and a long fall off the 18th fairway. We had given up on the ball, and then Eliot finally, proudly, walked to his ball ready to roll home a match winning birdie.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “Dad.” The blood drained from Eliot’s face.
Rob, at the back of the green, looked at Eliot and seemed to understand. He rushed to the flagstick and peeked into the hole and there was his golf ball. Rob was an energetic guy, loved life and loved winning. He danced around the green, celebrating the moment, a moment that we had discussed just a few hours earlier on the first tee.
Eliot and I were fuming like you’d expect any selfish teenagers to behave. The Old Dogs had pushed the match to the 18th hole, we were choking like, well, Young Pups. Eliot had hit one of the best shots of the trip and probably one of the best shots of his life. He’d been beaten by a hole-in-one, and his dad was reveling in this crazy turn of events. From confusion at a disappearing golf ball to discovering it in the cup is almost a cliche. How many times have you looked for a ball around a green and gingerly, carefully so as not to be caught, checked the hole… just in case, only to discover an empty cup.
We sulked our way to the 18th hole, our fate already set in stone. I blew my ball into the ocean and the Old Dogs secured a steady par (net or gross, I’m not sure…) to win four straight holes and snatch a half-point from the Young Pups.
Since that hole-in-one, which was the first one I had been a part of, I’ve seen a bunch more. Some have been in my group, I’ve been lucky enough to make an ace, and I’ve also seen aces from patios (the 18th at Turner Hill) and during one week in the summer of 2019 I walked past two par 3s as other groups made hole-in-ones. All told, I’ve been around nine hole-in-ones (I’m happy to rent out my bit of good luck to the highest bidder…), but that day at Mid Ocean Club is the hole-in-one I continue to return to.
Part of the reason I return to it is because of how I reacted in the moment, for which I feel guilty. I was pissed off and annoyed and didn’t enjoy the moment. I also come back to it because Rob and my dad have both passed away over the last seven years. After the trip to Bermuda in 2001 we made a 2002 trip to Ireland for a week of golf, battling over the Piss Pot trophy through the dunes of southwest Ireland. After college, we always threatened to make another big golf trip back to Ireland or maybe Scotland. To hold us over and keep the Piss Pot flame lit, we’d have a local match each year for the trophy, the Mid Ocean story always retold and strokes always negotiated. Some things never change.
That next trip never happened, a golf version of Cat Stevens, those busy years in our 20s for Eliot and I zipped by and we never hopped on a plane to go barking and howling at some far off courses.
Those rounds with the Old Dogs are some of my favorites, not just because of the fun, far-off places we played, but because of the stories they created. That ace at Mid Ocean is a story Rob loved to tell, but over the years it has turned into one of my favorite golf stories to tell, too. It brings that foursome back for a brief moment. The Old Dogs and the Young Pups navigating a Redan under a bright Bermuda sun.
There will be a day when I get back to Mid Ocean, hopefully with Eliot alongside me. We’ll poke around the clubhouse and find Rob’s name on the hole-in-one plaque, we’ll look around to see if anyone is interested in our story, and we’ll lean in and hear a soft bark before heading out to the first tee as a twosome in body, but a foursome in spirit.