1. Vidalia, Georgia VIDALIA, GEORGIA
The soil was perfect for onions and for golf. It wasn’t a place people visited unless they were interested in one or the other, and as I didn’t care for onions on anything, I was in Vidalia for one reason: to give my buddy a haircut.
Brendan was a former college player with a legit scratch handicap, and our regular matches were the benchmark against which I measured the health of my game. (It wasn’t very healthy, if you asked him—he denied my ever beating him, though I had eyewitness accounts to the contrary.) He was ten inches shorter than me, with a ponytail he’d been cultivating for the last five years, and I couldn’t decide which of those details frustrated me more when it came to his closing me out on the seventeenth hole.
We were the same age, raised in suburbs on opposite sides of Philadelphia. My side left my accent flat, while Brendan possessed a regional twang that less charitable folks might call hoagie mouth. His idiosyncrasies were widespread: A former Deadhead turned therapist, he golfed in obnoxiously tinted pants and proudly slept in the nude, aside from a scrunchie that kept his hair out of his face (yet he often wondered aloud why I refused to share a hotel room with him). His texts typically included a phallic vegetable emoji, and the signature line in his emails read By the power of Grayskull! At one point, he had programmed the keyboard on his wife’s phone to change the word she to nipples and to convert his name to balls. He cherished the small joys in life, but I don’t think anything gave him more joy than saying, in simple terms, “Tom, you cannot beat me.”
I was playing well, and had certainly been playing enough—two hundred rounds over the last four months—yet our match in Georgia felt like the only one that mattered. Our ongoing debate was tired; it was time to put proof on the record and teach balls a lesson.
Brendan was so confident that he wagered his hair; if I won, he would submit to the clippers, terms that immediately placed his wife on my team. If I lost, I had to get us a game at the course of Brendan’s choosing, anywhere in America. When it came time to pick a date and place for our showdown, I zeroed in on the week I would be in Georgia and invited him to thirty-six holes at the Ohoopee Match Club, the only venue suited to such a contest.
It was a course built specifically for grudges: No real pars on the scorecard, no set tee markers, holes designed for risk-taking and one-upmanship. The winner of the previous hole picked the teeing ground for the next one, and if your dustup wasn’t finished by eighteen, or if the loser wanted quick vengeance, there were four extra holes to settle all grievances. Forget your tally of total strokes—all that counted was winning golf holes, and without a course rating, you couldn’t post your score if you wanted to. The only news of consequence at Ohoopee was in the club’s motto, a question embroidered on belts and hats in the shop, and one we had both traveled a long way to answer: WHO WON THE MATCH?
Though I had met this Brendan at a golf outing in Pennsylvania farm country seven years before, I had been battling Brendans for decades. They were those voices in my mind’s outer rim, put there to remind me that I couldn’t make this putt, or miss that pond, or win this match. They hammered down hope, turned the possible into the unlikely, and replaced my potential with my shortcomings. The idea that someday I might not hear them kept me sticking tees into the ground. After all, there had been a time before the Brendans; maybe there could be a time after them. I believe it was Lao Tzu who said, “A journey of a thousand golf courses begins with a single hole.” And mine began beside warm blue waters.
My dad had let me tag along on an excursion to the Dominican Republic, an annual reward trip for stockbrokers who’d made their numbers, where he and his colleagues skipped meetings for tee times and smoked cigarettes by the fistful, the collective stress of a week away from the stock ticker hanging thick around the resort.
I was fourteen and headed into my first high school golf season that spring, ready to make, or get cut from, the varsity team. I had spent the winter clipping balls off the mats at an indoor range under the tutelage of a leather-skinned golf pro determined to get me swinging harder. Faster, harder, he would say. You’ve got muscles—use them. He could always teach me to back off, but I had height and needed to use it. And he was right. I was flexible enough to figure out a straightish trajectory, and the balls were bouncing past flags I hadn’t noticed before.
I stepped up to the first at Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog, undaunted by its name and reputation as a ball filcher. So much grass. No more rubber tees. It all looked friendly and simple. I pushed my tee into the ground and swung faster, harder. Fairway. I reached for a 9 iron and spun a divot out of the turf like a dealer tossing playing cards. Ten feet from the pin. Up on the green, my ball turned for the hole not with effort but with inevitability. I’m pretty sure I smiled, but I didn’t feel the need for much more. Golf, after all, was easy.
I dumped a few in the ocean that afternoon, but mixed in six birdies as well, tempting my dad to find his boss in the foursome behind us and tell him he was quitting to ride his son’s coattails to the Tour. I didn’t make any birdies the next day, and though I did make the team that spring, I struggled as fifth man while golf reality set in, a reality I would wrestle with for the next thirty years of my life.
They were years of trophies and shanks; days of junior club championships followed by being cut from the college golf roster; moments of minuscule handicaps followed by a tournament where I ran out of balls and a letter from the USGA placing me on competitive probation for carding such a robust number. Golf took more than it gave as I labored to prove I was better than I was, because for one day in the Dominican Republic, I had been. Golf was easy once, and like an addict chasing the feeling of his first high, I searched the world over for the day when it would be again. I hoped it would be this day, here in Georgia, with a friend I was playing for his hair.
When we finished our morning eighteen at Ohoopee, I was up two holes at the halfway point. As we walked off the green and approached two elegantly prepared lunch plates—we were the only golfers on the property, as if they knew to clear the stage—I asked Brendan how he was feeling about the match.
“Great. Not worried at all.”
But for some damn reason—the same reason behind my life’s every missed cut, shredded scorecard, and three-putt on the last—I was.