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The Pressure of Playing a Golf Course Only One Time

Waverly Oaks

The excitement that proceeds a round of golf at a new course is always a little different than going to back an old haunt - the blood pumps a little bit faster and the list of swing thoughts grows a little longer. In preparation, I’ll peruse the scorecard and any other information I can find on the website, if I’m feeling extra puckish I’ll take a look at Google Maps satellite views. I’ll imagine my opening tee shot, practicing the swing in my mind with the proper club, starting the day off on a good note with a perfectly placed drive. I’ll map out my travel plan, including a detour for an iced coffee, so I’m not rushing to the first tee.

Over the last year, I have played dozens of brand new courses as I try to play every course in Massachusetts. I have also returned to courses I have played previously. The courses I am familiar with aren’t always a warm blanket on a cool evening, some of them have their own little demons hiding around the course. Poor shots and big numbers spin in the back of my mind, but so do birdies and great par saves and what iron I like to hit into a particular par 3. There is less guess work as I plot my way around, and that is a nice feeling. But there can be such a thing as too much knowledge.

The courses that are brand new to me have nothing but possibility and hope. Any bad thoughts that creep into my mind are internal issues I need to work out myself - they are a “me problem” not a “course problem” and they can be worked out with a stiff drink or a long session on the couch. Having a golf game that “travels” is a great quality. It means you can show up at any course and play well. Some players, most players, play their best golf on their home course (or some variation of a home course). That course knowledge leads to lower scores. Stick players on a course they’ve never seen and ask them to hit shots they’ve never hit, and suddenly the scores creep up a bit. It’s natural and normal. There’s also the “ignorance is bliss” round where golf feels easier at a new course. Sometimes that’s due to low expectations and other times it’s because the stars align for that one particular day. I’ve played Boston Golf Club three times in the last year, my best round was the first one. BCG is a place that makes you think about where not to hit it. And once those thoughts entire a player’s mind, it can put them in some tight spots after defensive swings.

Another interesting thing that plays in my mind as I play a new course is the desire to play holes a certain way so I can feel like I’ve experienced it as it was intended. After all I might never play some of these holes again in my life. This weekend while playing at Trull Brook, we stood on the fifth tee box, the hole is a hard dogleg left (image an “L”). The tee shot was completely blind and very narrow, requiring a 230 yard shot to beat the dogleg and have an open look at the green. I wiped a horrendous hybrid onto the adjacent fairway. I was annoyed at the poor shot, and as I walked to my ball and descended the hill I caught a glimpse of the green. It was a lovely setting. The tall trees fall away and the golfer is left looking at a green framed by two bunkers in front. Behind the green is open space, a few golf holes, and then the Merrimack River. After playing the first four holes on tree lined holes, it was like a pressure valve had been released. However, my tee shot did not earn me that 150 yard shot into the green. Instead, I had to hoof over to the next fairway and try to punch a 6-iron through some trees.

My little adventure was not how the hole was drawn up, and that was too bad, because I would have loved to have hit that approach shot. It really did look lovely.

This is why I think a lot of par 3 holes end up being signature holes. The architect can take driver out of our hands and place the golfer exactly where they would like us. It’s like a photographer holding us by the shoulders and positioning us in just the right spot. A hole like 17 at Sawgrass doesn’t work if players have to hit an excellent drive to put them within 130 yards of the hole. The excitement is that everyone is on equal level on a hole like that. Seven at Pebble Beach is the same. We get the view we’re supposed to get; we can’t mess it up. Playing a great par 3 is a golfer’s birthright. What happens from there is up to us.

Golf courses are drawn up to be played a certain way, but the beauty of the game is there are all sorts of ways to play every hole. And I sometimes have to remind myself of that fact. Yes there are shots I wish I had the chance to hit from specific parts of the course, but he game is meant to bring you to various parts of the course. Designers send you in the wrong direction sometimes, and so can bad bounces, the slope of the land, or a stiff breeze.

Back when I had a home club for about ten years, there were rounds I’d play where not a single thought went through my mind. I knew what club to hit and where to hit it. Decisions were limited to what I’d grab at the snack shack. To wake myself from that boredom, I would sometimes pick a different club to hit off a tee or try a different approach into a green. Some people do the same thing by playing a half-set or using hickories or some other old technology that fires their brain a little differently and sparks a new interest.

Being able to play with hickories or a half-set is both a privilege and mindset. The privilege exists if a player knows they’ll get to return to the same course the next week and tackle it with a full set or with whatever they’d like. In a recent No Laying Up video, DJ played Jacksonville Beach Golf Course with all the flagsticks pulled.

What a cool idea! It’s a public course down the road that he’s played a ton of times, so he can afford to try this fun experiment without feeling like he’s missing out. But there is also a mindset that I envy in golfers that can show up to a course and understand that how they see the course on that particular day is going to be their own original journey; no matter what clubs they bring with them, they don’t care because they’re playing golf and for them that’s what matters. If the scores add up to a nice number at the end, great, if they don’t, that’s fine, and if they don’t even want to do any math and just enjoy the walk, they aren’t going to let anyone change their mind.

My golf mindset goes back and forth, and sometimes it depends on my reconnaissance mission before my round of golf. If it looks like I can enjoy a half set, I’ll pull some clubs out (NOTE: I wrote my piece about a half set before DJ wrote his in the Golfer’s Journal….). If I know the new course I’m playing is a one-timer that’s also near the top of my bucket list, then I might get a bit of extra sleep and clean off my clubs before tossing a full set into the trunk.

The feeling of wanting to enjoy some success at a new course while also trying not to put pressure on myself to find the line of charm on signature holes is new to me. I’ve always wanted to shoot a good score, but now I can feel my brain rewiring a bit. That might be due to all the golf courses I have seen in the last 11 months or it might be because I’m getting a little older. The truth is any experience on a golf course is a great experience (and a small step in a larger goal I have set for myself…). The clubs on my back or the path I take don’t matter. What matters is trying to play with the understanding that playing a course perfectly is impossible, but the trying to find the best way around is damn fun, even if I have to play from an adjacent fairway every now and then.

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