The little pine trees along the right side of the fairways seemed innocuous enough. Short and stout, built to create some separation between the 8th and 9th holes. As my golf ball drifted in their direction from the tee box, I assumed my competitive round had started like most of them - with a nervous swing that looped to the right like a kite searching for a gust of wind on a calm day. My playing partners teed off and we headed on down the fairway in search of our golf balls. We had 54 holes of golf ahead of us.
I blew into my hands, cold from the late April Upstate New York air that seemed to cut through bone. The forecast was bad for the next two days, and without my mom around to tell me to pack an extra layer (or two), I was rather underdressed for the occasion. The reality of playing college golf in the northeast is two fold. First, no one is really very good. If we could golf our ball, we’d be down south or out west. Sure, there were some studs that played up in this region over the years, but for every Keegan Bradley there are 1000 versions of me.
Second, you’re going to play in horrific conditions - snow, sleet, gale force winds, hail, and whatever else the golf gods wanted to whip up at Stow Acres or Yale or, in this particular case, Seven Oaks Golf Club in Hamilton, New York. I could make a solid argument that the excellent college players should have to fight the harsh elements, sharpening their game for the next level, while the shitty college players (read: me) enjoyed their final days of competition in a Truman Show bubble - where bounces were fair and the weather was consistently sunny and 75.
So, back to those innocuous pine trees lining the 8th hole. As I approached the area where I thought my ball had landed, there was no sign of any white orb in the rough. It hadn’t careened into the adjacent fairway either. There’s a moment for every golfer that the blood starts to pump just a little bit faster when it starts to settle in that he might not find the golf ball. Sometimes it happens on the tee box when the shot is clearly in trouble, flying towards the woods. In those instances, the player can return to his bag, pull out a second ball and hit a provisional. A “just in case I can’t find that horrible shot I just hit” ball. It sucks to lose a golf ball, but it particularly sucks to lose a golf ball during tournament play, and it really sucks to lose a golf ball when you didn’t think you should lose a golf ball. My mind started racing as I continued scanning the ground for like a police volunteer combing the ground for a murder weapon. My mind raced as I paced back and forth, the dew collecting on my shoes and starting to seep through into my socks. It already felt like a long day, and I had hit one shot.
The denial stage when looking for a golf ball is a short one, it has to be. You only had five minutes to search for a golf ball back in 2004 (in 2021 a player has three minutes). Anger begins to creep in. You blame everything except for yourself. It was a bad bounce or a gust of wind or the club you hit or the shaft or it’s the golf ball.
Maybe a bird chirped in your downswing or a shadow from a playing partner distracted you or maybe this is just the dumbest hole that’s ever been designed and it should be blown up.
As my playing partners migrated over to where I was looking, they were kind enough to offer a cursory search for the ball, too. As the three of us marched up and down, heads craned in prayer (mine more than theirs…), it started to sink in that I’d have to do one of the more embarrassing things in golf. I would have to walk back to the tee box and hit a new ball - golf’s version of the walk of shame. Suddenly, as my playing partners are on the green, I’m standing on the opposite side of the hole starting over. It’s a false start in the 100 meter dash, but the other seven runners are watching from the finish line, wondering what the hell you’re doing. Going back to the tee box also holds up the groups on the course. Sometimes, going back to the tee leads to an awkward moment with the group behind you, they’re watching (and judging) as you half-jog and half-walk back to the tee. Once you reach the tee box, the welcome can be icy and awkward. They’re almost afraid to treat you like your bad golf is contagious.
However, the hardest part about returning to the tee box is that we are always taught to hit a provisional if there’s the slightest bit of doubt about where a golf ball landed. It speeds up play. When you don’t hit a provisional, it makes you look foolish and prideful. It says to the people on the course, “I’m going to find that ball at all costs. I’m a God damn golfball hound dog. I’ll sniff it out, and I’ll hit it again.”
In my case, I wasn’t prideful. I hit my ball into a relatively open field, without an out of bounds stake or heavy copse of trees or shrubbery anywhere near where my ball landed. To this day I believe a singular, diminutive pine tree captured my golf ball for no good reason at all. It’s the only explanation I can come up with. When one of my playing partners looked up in one of the trees, my heart thrummed a bit more. I at least knew what to do if the ball was lost, I’d tuck my tail between my legs and return to the tee box and start again. The pageantry that goes into other rules in golf can be overwhelming and more confusing than the Bar Exam (or so I imagine…). Finding my ball in the tree would mean calling for a rules official or trying to muddle through the process with my group.
So I slipped two balls into my pocket (just in case…) and returned to the tee box with my driver, the same club that got me into this mess.
I started the 2004 Patriot League Championship with a snowman 8 on the eighth hole. Appropriate given the cold weather. It took me 15 total shots to play the eighth and ninth holes at Seven Oaks Golf Club, my first two holes of the tournament due to the shotgun start format.
17 years later, not much of the round or the event has stuck with me. I remember that we could hear live music from most of the course during the practice round. Seven Oaks weaves through Colgate’s campus, and on this particular weekend students were celebrating Spring Weekend. A cruel name given the location of Colgate and the time of year. Holy Cross’ Spring Weekend often felt more like January, too. This weekend was probably my introduction to music on the golf course, covers of Bob Marley and Phish songs wafting through the air.
As I wandered aimlessly through my first round, hitting more shots than I had hoped, I also recall one particular hole. Not for the design or lost golf balls or great shots, but I remember it because of the bull horn. A few frat houses lined the holes at Seven Oaks, so the early part of the round was rather quiet as the college kids slept off their hangovers from the night before. However, one group of frat boys decided to take advantage of their green side frat house. I remember hearing a booming voice through a bull horn a couple times as we walked the course, but it wasn’t until I turned the corner of a dogleg and saw the scene on the lawn just right of the green that I realized what was going on.
The boys had set up lawn chairs and a keg, their revelry from the night before still present in the form of red solo cups and cans of beer strewn about their lawn. It was a familiar sight to my sophomore eyes and needless to say, I was a bit jealous of their set up. I was still quite a ways from the flag and pulled out a long iron I intended to bash up onto the green and earn some applause from the gallery. I recall hitting a solid shot, but between the cold air and wet ground, the ball came to a stop ten-yards short of the green. As I turned to put my club back in the bag and make my way towards the green, the leader of the frat boys used his bull horn to say, “C’mon, you can do better than that!”
This was my first and only experience with a heckler on the golf course. His pals released a chorus of laughter that cut through the wind far better than my Titleist. I laughed and put my head down, trying to not earn any more of their attention. The guy had something to say after each of our approach shots, however, they were incredibly respectful as we were hitting our shots. As someone that watched friends launch all sorts of things from the windows of Holy Cross’ Wheeler dorm, I was surprised at their golf etiquette. I got ready to hit my third shot, only about 20 yards from the frat boys, and I could feel all their eyes on me as I pulled my sand wedge back for a chip shot. It ended up rolling onto the green, but I still had some work to do for my par.
The boys clapped for the shot, it was the warmest I felt the entire day. I turned and acknowledged them with a little wave. It was a very cool moment that would have been made better if I had sank my par putt.
Unfortunately, I didn’t. A little “ohhhh” from the boys and then their attention turned to the next group on the fairway. A new set of victims for their bit of fun.
It hailed that day and the wind blew hard enough to knock golf bags over. A truly miserable experience that was made worse by my horrific score.
If returning to the tee box after a lost ball is embarrassing, standing in front of a huge scoreboard with your name at the bottom falls in the mortified category. While most golfers will say they wouldn’t wish for opponents to shoot high scores, every golfer will tell you that they just hope one person shoots a higher score than they do when their scores are on display. I stood staring at the scoreboard just hoping one score would come in higher than mine. The scores rolled in and all of them were better than mine.
After 18 holes in the Patriot League Championship, I was DFL (Dead Fucking Last.). Finishing dead last in a one round event would suck, but after the round you’d pile into the van and head home joking with your teammates and reliving the shitty shots and laughing it off as the butt of the jokes for a little while (and maybe reminded of those jokes on a text chain 17 years later…).
But to be DFL after one round of a three round event is daunting. I had to eat some crappy boxed lunch, try to regain the feeling in my hands, and go back out for an afternoon round knowing my name was at the very bottom of a massive scoreboard for everyone to see.
The pressure is enough to make you shoot another embarrassingly high round. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try on every single shot during that afternoon round. During those 30 seconds when it was my turn to hit the ball, I was trying very hard not to suck at golf. I was failing 30 seconds at a time. When Tiger says that he always tried his hardest, I don’t think he’s talking about when he’s actually hitting the shots. Anyone who has played golf wants desperately to hit the ball where they are aiming. Where the lack of trying seeps in is between those shots. The self talk and preparation, the thought process around what club to hit. I was trying my ass off to hit good shots, but I wasn’t trying my best during those moments between shots. Instead of thinking or planning I was just praying, hoping, and worrying. Three horrible things to do on a golf course, it’s the sign you’ve lost complete control.
When golf gets hard, things start moving quickly, which also makes it difficult to feel like you’re trying. The moments between shots happen faster and faster. In the blink of an eye the club is in your hand and you’re standing over the ball again, gripping harder and telling yourself that this shot is the one that’s going to solve everything. This is the shot where you’re going to find it, whatever it is - a feel, a sensation, a pulled muscle… whatever.
I remember none of my second round because it zipped by before I could hold any of it in my mind. The only thing I remember is returning to the scoreboard and staring at my name. it felt like it was in flashing marquee lights “Sean Melia starring in The Worst Golfer On Property!
There’s a lot of talk about the challenges of sleeping on a lead, particularly on the weekend of a pro event. The nerves and anxiety can keep a player up all night, shots and situations swimming through their mind - some good, some bad, all of them consequential. Players can buckle under the pressure of playing with a lead. Some choke in grand fashion on the final hole and make a triple bogey after climbing into the water like Jean Van de Velde. For others it’s a slow burn, like Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters.
I have no doubt sleeping on the lead is hard, I can’t say from experience, but I have competed in enough matches to feel uncomfortable with a lead on the final few holes. I couldn’t imagine heading home, eating dinner, and climbing into bed with a lead to protect the next day.
However, sleeping on DFL is something I do have some familiarity with. And it sucks. You get the pats on the back from teammates or complete strangers filled with pity or the encouraging words or the excuses - It was tough out there today.
But all the excuses don’t add up when you move your eyes to the top of the leaderboard. Those guys managed to golf their ball in these horrible conditions. Did a tree swallow any of their golf balls? Did the frat boys toss their ball in the hole for them when they weren’t looking? Probably not. They’re just better than me.
I imagine we spent the evening eating dinner at local Olive Garden or Long Horn Steakhouse, eating breadsticks of a Bloomin’ Onion and drinking a few Roy Rogers while reliving, and trying to forget, our rounds of golf in the miserable weather.
The loneliness that exists on any pro circuit must to crippling when things are going great or horrible. I was glad to have a group of guys who would make me laugh and tease me. It helped. But I still had to sleep on DFL and make my way back to the course the next morning with my name holding up everyone else’s name on the scoreboard.
My third day was a little bit better, but not good enough to chase down the guy in second to last place. He was safe and probably slept like a baby knowing some hack from Holy Cross was trying to chase him down.
Those 54 holes at Seven Oaks was probably the low point in my golfing life as far as performance. I ended the 54 holes having taken 282 shots finishing in 48th place - DFL. Even 17 years later, that’s a tough pill to swallow. I did some digging on the internet to find the full results, curious to see the score of the player that finished second to last. But it seems the evidence has been burned, even on the internet. Probably for the best.
While the memory still stings a little bit, as I remember that weekend and my wider college golf experience, I am also reminded of ridiculous van rides with our coach chain smoking cigarettes as we zoomed down freezing cold highways with the windows open, and trips to IHOP on snowy mornings after tournaments were cancelled, or bitching about Yale’s ninth hole (we still do that to this day…), and flying through a lightning storm on a prop plane from Philly to Boston.
So yes, DFL in the Patriot League Championship sucked, and needless to say, I did not return my Junior year to defend my title. But at least I can say my worst golf is behind me.