Goodbye Mr. Chip

As I sized up my ninth shot – on a 185- yard par-3 with no water hazards or out of bounds – I knew with every fiber of my being that I couldn’t get that ball onto that green from 20 yards away. There is no more lonely or helpless feeling in all of sport. I was competing – or rather failing to compete – in a qualifier for the Carolinas Mid-Amateur at Rock Hill (S.C.) Country Club, the only A.W. Tillinghast design in the South. I was pleased with the way I was playing coming into the competition, with the exception of chipping, which is a weak area in my game. But I was practicing diligently and while I wasn’t the best chipper you ever saw, I was far from the worst. Little did I know. Don’t worry, this won’t take long. On the first hole of the qualifier, I hit a good tee shot, hit a sand wedge to six feet and missed the birdie putt. Not to worry, a cast iron par to start. On the par-3 second, I tugged my 6-iron a little to the left of the elevated green. I had enough green to work with and thought I could just chip up and have a four- or five-foot putt at a par. My ball was lying on some loose, sandy soil, so I took an 8-iron to bump the ball into the side of the hill and, hopefully, pop up on the green. Instead, I chunked the 8-iron and moved it only about 10 feet. I took a wedge for my next one and all hell broke loose. I bladed that shot over the green. Then I bladed another one over the green. And another one. And another one. And another one. And you can see where this is going. By this time, my three playing partners were turning their heads, afraid to watch this gruesome wreck, and the group on the tee was no doubt wondering what that idiot was doing walking back and forth across the green while everyone else was standing still. After the third one, panic set in. It felt as if I was trying to chip holding a live rattlesnake. When I got a look at the aforementioned ninth shot, I was as bewildered as I’ve ever been on a golf course. I was 20 yards from the green and I couldn’t play. Could. Not. Play. So, I did the only thing I knew to do – I removed my hat, apologized to my playing partners, shook their hands and walked in. That won’t please the Carolinas Golf Association but I hope that executive director Jack Nance will understand that I was fully and completely unable to continue. I had a full-blown case of the chipping yips. As I walked to the parking lot with my bag slung over my slumped shoulders, I’m certain that all color was drained from my face and I was quivering inside, unable to understand or comprehend what just happened here. Before I go any farther, understand that I realize this is only golf. I have a friend who is dying of brain cancer. I know that a lot of people have it worse than I do and mine is a high-class problem. But a minister once told me that, yes, others have it worse, but if you hit your thumb with a hammer, damn it, it hurts. And my psyche had just been hammered as hard as it’s ever been hit. Nothing will expose your frailties in this game with any more vengeance than competition. If I had been playing with my buddies, I would have picked up at double-bogey and we’d have moved to the third tee, no harm done. Was it nerves? I don’t think so, not entirely. I was a little nervous on the first tee, just like everyone else. The previous week, I had played in a senior amateur event and finished tied for second, so I had an unfamiliar shot of confidence heading into the qualifier. Was it technique? Certainly that needs improvement and I frantically worked with a teacher within hours of leaving the golf course that day. We figured out something I can work on. I still won’t be the world’s best chipper but maybe I can find a way to get around the golf course. I wasn’t entirely certain that would be the case the next morning after the qualifier. I found myself driving to Pinehurst, with a starting time that day on the famed No. 2, a place you don’t want to play if you have chipping issues. In fact, during the drive, I wanted to be just about anyplace else doing just about anything else than taking on Pinehurst No. 2. I talked on the phone during the trip to my friend Rob, who has competitive golf experience. He assured me that almost everyone who has ever competed has a similar story they can share. He said that a buddy told him, “Once you’ve posted 89 in competition, and everyone has, you’re not afraid of it anymore.” That’s not what I’m afraid of. I fear that I’m going to really like bowling. But 89 is not a good score in that game, either.


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