Small Ball

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Golf is a game that needs to be played. It requires more than turning on a TV, or reading expert tips to increase your distance off the tee by 15 yards. Golf requires going down to a course and hitting a small white ball repeatedly with a club. One does not build a house with just a blueprint; it requires picking up a hammer and nails.
 
So, toward the end of the fifth week of an ever-more eventful cross-continent America-Canada tour with my girlfriend Mia and my son Gabriel, they asked me if I was up for a round. Was I ever! I wanted to play golf more than anything. After weeks of visiting places like Malibu Country Club and Stevinson Ranch as part of my duties for being Greenway Golf's Ambassador of Fun, my rediscovered enthusiasm for the game had finally rubbed off on the two most important people on my life.
 
Or, maybe it was just that Mia and Gabriel were looking for something, anything, to distract them from the fact that we were stranded at a campground half a day's drive from Medicine Hat, Canada, waiting for the local Toyota dealer to get my previously-loved Prius back on the road.
 
Using logic, we took the northern route to escape the heat of the Plains States on our final leg from Washington State to South Carolina. What we got was 100-degree days, vicious Canadian sand fleas, limited sleep in cars, tents, and Toyota dealer parking lots. We were sick of driving. We were sick of treacherous mountain roads. We were sick of mile after mile of sun-scorched, wheat-filled plains that looked just like the mile after mile of sun-scorched wheat-filled plains we tried to escape. If we didn't have some fun, we'd soon be sick of each other. So, let's play golf.
 
OK, the course that Mia and Gabriel chose would not excite the chairman of Augusta National, but it did involve a golf club and a ball. This Canadian Inter-Provincial campground Putt-Putt beauty had good carpet, slight breaks and walls that bounced true. Oh Lord, there's nothing that I hate worse than mini-golf where the walls have ridges or irregular brick so that you can never get a straight bounce. It's like sleeping on an uneven floor at a Trailways bus station ' it's just plain irritating.
 
As we approached the first tee, Mia and Gabriel had the audacity to mock me for, of all things, bringing my own putter to the course. Did they expect me to leave my trusty Never Compromise in the hatchback of that godforsaken loaner? This magical putter was personally built, designed and signed by my pal, Brian Pond. Listen, when the Jolly Green Giant goes to someone's house, he brings his own green peas. When I play golf, I bring my Brian Pond-signed Never Compromise putter. Am I obsessive, as Mia and Gabriel seemed to think? Or do I just know that a master craftsman or even a crappy golfer like me should always use his own tools?
 
At first glance the course seemed fairly straightforward. Well, as straightforward as golf can be with waterwheels, swinging logs, giant plastic buffaloes and two holes where balls come out of a beavers butt. Still, it would take a well-placed uphill putt off the first tee to get it into the beavers mouth, and I appreciated that.
 
I stepped off the first hole at 28 feet, which confused Mia and Gabriel as I did it. The only way to really know how far it is is by stepping it off.' I said, with some degree of embarrassment, then added 'I'm just trying to help y'all.' Here I was, trying to show them the right way to play the game, and theyre looking at me like Im a freak.
 
On No. 1, both Gabriel and I made straightforward 2s. Mia clocked a 5, which was under the per-hole maximum of 6, as she proudly noted. Mia is a person that takes great pleasure from all things, even those she does very badly. It's a trait I wish she could grant to all humanity.
 
Through five holes, by some minor miracle, I was even par. It has been a long time since I was even par through five holes anywhere, putt-putt or real golf. I birdied No. 6, a sharp dogleg left through the requisite revolving windmill and I found myself 1 under par. This was perhaps the first time I have been 1 under on any course in the past 25 years. And boy, the juices were flowing. So, naturally, I bogeyed the next hole. Back to even.
 
Then, reminiscent of Tigers glory days, I bounced back with a birdie to go back to 1 under, where I stayed at the turn. Mia and Gabriel were 13 and 14 over, respectively, at this same juncture.
 
Oh, did I mention that they do NOT play golf? Because, they certainly pointed this out while informing me that I was quite possibly the only jackass ever to play miniature golf with his own putter, who stepped off every hole and crouched Camilo Villegas-like to figure out the slope as the ball whisked past a plastic badgers paw.
 
Hey, this wasn't the easiest course in the world. And, I had never played it before. I had the Canadian altitude 'thin air' to account for and those two were just jealous that they were 15 shots behind and playing for second. This was my 2000 U.S. Open and the game was with myself, which is the way I believe Mia saw me sleeping in the very near future ... by myself.
 
How I bogeyed No. 11 to go back to even, I do not know. The pressure was getting to me, perhaps. I really did want to shoot under par. These were the exact same feelings I remember from junior golf when I had a plan for every shot. Back then, I could lag anything close to the hole and was nearly impossible to beat once on the green. Then, as now, the only thing that existed was me, my putter, that pale blue ball and my connection with the hole. I was in the zone.
 
It doesn't matter if you are qualifying for the U.S. Amateur or playing some rinky-dink Canuck putt-putt, when you are 'zoned' the world ' rotationally-molded plastic wolverines and all ' is a beautiful place.
 
Most of the shots were 'blind,' meaning that you could not see the hole from the starting point. Oh Lord, theres nothing I hate worse. Apparently, the course designer had one trick ' blind putts, which he used over and over and over again. Its called mailing in your job, Mr. Wacky Golf Designer, and its ruining the game of miniature golf!
 
When I birdied No. 15 to go back to 1 under, I knew that my dream of a sub-par round was possible. OK, it was not a dream as big or beautiful as winning the 100-meter dash in the Olympics, or the dream of seeing Madonna retire from the public eye, but it was my dream to shoot under par in this Canadian backland. Millions of Canadians have come to my home state of South Carolina and played the 10,000 miniature golf courses of Myrtle Beach, so somehow playing under par at one of their national treasures seemed fit and deserving. Thanks for John Candy, Steve Nash and round bacon but 'In your face, Canada! I will trounce your Inter-Provincial Campground Miniature Golf Beauty!'
 
I stayed even through 16 and 17, while Mia and Gabriel were in a death struggle for second at something like 25 over par. Then, we came to No. 18 a hole of the likes I have never seen in all my years of playing the game.
 
This deceptively-wicked wonder required an uphill putt of about 20 feet onto a narrow ramp. Hit the ball crooked and it will miss the ramp entirely. Hit the ball slightly short and it won't make it up the ramp. Perhaps I chastised the course designer too soon, for his closing hole is one for the ages.
 
Ball speed is equally important as accuracy, because once up the ramp the ball then goes into one of three holes in a skee-ball-like configuration. The smallest hole ' the one I wanted ' took one stroke off your score. Another hole added one stroke and the third added two strokes.
 
This was no simple game of chance. This shot required a touch heretofore uncalled for on this hot, sweaty Canadian day. With a degree of preparation that would have had Sergio Garcia yelling at me to get on with it, I stepped off and studied every inch of that bright-green indoor-outdoor carpet. I examined the weave, and then plotted my balls course around a poorly-joined seam and cigarette burns.
 
Only when satisfied did I strike the pale blue ball. I watched as it followed the precise course I had envisioned. After 15 feet it broke slightly to the right, but still had enough speed to climb up the ramp, where it just touched the rail to slightly change course and arrive at precisely the right angle, at precisely the right speed, to fly through the air and land squarely in the minus 1 hole.
 
Well, I have been playing golf long enough to know that the lowest score in the game is a hole-in-one. There are no zeros unless they occupy the White House, or desire to do so. And, to score a minus 1 was plain crazy talk.
 
Still, Mia, who is soon to get her PhD in Statistics, insisted my score was a zero ' the stroke off the tee combined with the result of landing in the minus 1 hole and a final tally of 4-under 38.
 
I asked the course attendant, What's the course record here? She squinted her face as if this was the most odd question ever asked and said Gee, I don't know, everyone just throws their card away. I took that to mean that I now held the Alberta Provincial Park record.
 
Gabriel nudged Mia 61 to 64, both well-deserving of pie and ice cream.
 
As I watched the two people I love most in the world, I realized that, even stranded in a strange land, all was perfect in my silly universe.
 
I have a girl that loves me and a son that tolerates me. Sometimes. I realized that if I can get so worked up and excited over Canadian putt-putt, then somewhere deep inside me I really do want to get my golf game back.
 
Here I was, wrapping up five weeks away from home, working at some of North America's best courses ' Malibu Country Club, Stevinson Ranch, Bandon Dunes ' and this little whack-a-hole showed me just how much I missed the game and how I desperately want to go enjoy these greater beauties at a real course again.
 
It was in those moments with Mia and Gabriel that I knew I was in a perfect place. I am the luckiest man in the world. That, and I just shot four under. Take that, Canada!
 
Email your thoughts to Michael Fechter
 
Editor's note: Michael Fechter, orphan worker and humorist, has the best job in golf: he's paid to be the Ambassador of Fun for golf courses across America. His 'job' is to make the courses he represents across America more interesting, unique and fun. Enjoy his humorous series on getting back into the game as he struggles to get his game into the shape it was nearly 30 years ago when he won his only personal junior 'major,' the Al Esposito, on America's easiest muni with rounds of 71-71-75.
 
Related Links:
  • The Gratitude Project
  • Greenway Golf