The laws of the universe largely determine where our golf ball is going, starting at impact. Once it's (hopefully) in the air, you're at the whims of the wind, gravity, and everything else you likely forgot from your high school physics class. What golfers interpret as bad breaks are just the randomness of the game.
At the moment though, we don't care. When you get that unlucky bounce, it feels personal. That's because we're all human and it's impossible to control your reaction sometimes.
Golf can be cruel and seem unfair at times. This is a part of the game that unfortunately unites us all, no matter what our skill level is.
I'll tell you all a brief personal story that will hopefully make you feel a little better about your own game.
Getting to the Top of the Mountain
For the past 4-5 years, I have been focusing more on playing competitive golf. In the New York Metropolitan area, there are tons of big events to test your game on some of the great golf courses in the world.
Last year I finally started to break through in some of the qualifiers I play in. After posting some good rounds, I found myself gaining entry into some of the top amateur and professional events in the area.
One tournament, in particular, I get nervously excited for is the Hebron Championship. It's played every year at Bethpage Black, which I believe is one of the most significant tests of golf in the world. It's a two-day tournament with a cut after the first round, and I've never played particularly well in it because The Black Course can be downright terrifying in tournament pressure. You are always one shot away from disaster on the Tillinghast masterpiece.
When you tee off at Bethpage in a tournament, it feels like you're at the top of a rollercoaster about to make a steep drop - you know there is nowhere for your golf game to hide. My goal was merely to make it to the next day, which can require shooting anywhere between +6 to +10 because the course is that difficult (most other events you need to shoot even par or just over for comparison).
Round 1 would prove to be one of those magical days that tends to happen for all of us from time to time. I hit my driver far and straight, a prerequisite for scoring on the demanding 7,000-yard layout. Every testy par putt I needed seemed to drop, and even a short birdie putt on the 9th hole to make the turn at +1. I had been in similar positions before but didn't take anything for granted, because the back nine is possibly the hardest test any golfer can face.
In the back of my head, I was trying not to wait for the other shoe to drop, as it has done so many times before on the finishing stretch. I crossed the road between the 14th and 15th holes at two over. Anyone who has played Bethpage Black knows that whatever good deeds you have done up until the 14th can quickly disappear on the last four holes. Intimidating isn't a word that does the final stretch justice.
Then something interesting happened - I didn't make any big mistakes. A 10 footer for par dropped on the 18th hole and secured a two-over 73. I knew it was a special round, perhaps one of the best in my life considering it was in a tournament situation. I signed my card and found out I was tied for 4th with a real opportunity to win. I had one of those, "what just happened?" moments. I thought back to every shot I had played that day and felt immense satisfaction.
I often look back at the scorecard as a reminder of what I am capable of as a golfer; it's the cleanest one I've ever had on that course. It felt like shooting a 66:
What Goes Up Must Come Down
I finished my first round in the late afternoon and would have to tee off the next morning. There wasn't too much time to think about what had just happened, but it didn't stop me from texting everyone I knew who would care, and bragging about it on Twitter.
I knew there was a chance I could win the tournament, but it wasn't an expectation. There were so many talented golfers competing in the field. I was looking forward to the challenge and didn't feel all that nervous. On the first tee, I hit one of the best drives of my life. An extra shot of adrenaline left only a 110-yard wedge shot into the tiny first green. After an easy par, I felt comfortable.
You always hear how difficult it is to back up a good round on television broadcasts. Well, I found that out the hard way, and then some.
My position in the field was hard to keep out of my head, and there was no question I was on a shorter leash mentally that day. There was a little less freedom in every swing, chip shot, and putt. While I didn't play poorly on the front nine, every putt that seemed to drop the prior day rested on the lip of the hole.
I made the turn at +5 for the day, which I figured had mostly eliminated my chances of winning. However, if somehow I could shoot under par on the back nine you never know (there would be a playoff at +5). Either way, I was reserved to grinding it out and trying to post a good finish.
Bethpage Black has a way of wearing you down though. After 27 holes in the Long Island summer heat and humidity, I started to fatigue both mentally and physically (I probably should have gotten a caddie that day). A string of bogeys peppered with a couple of doubles left me reeling. The boat was getting leakier and leakier, and I had run out of ways to plug the holes up.
Arriving at the 18th hole at a whopping 15 over par for the tournament was not in the blueprint that day. Despite not being able to salvage the round, I was determined to make par on 18. A photographer was perched on the tee box ready to snap photos of us mid-swing, and even a small gallery of golfers was watching from the nearby Red Course. I wanted to finish in style.
I ripped my 3-wood up the right side of the fairway with a slight draw. After barely watching the ball I was so confident that it was a perfect tee shot that I picked up my tee and didn't even watch it land. And then it happened...
You Have to Be F*cking Kidding Me
My playing partner, who was a very friendly college kid, exclaimed, "oh boy, that's not good." I asked him what he meant, and he told me that my tee shot hit something and ricocheted to the right into "the junk."
I jokingly told him he was nuts, and that there was no way that my ball wasn't in the fairway. He was insistent that a gust of wind had pushed my ball to the edge of the fairway and must have hit a sprinkler head or rake from one of the traps.
When we got down to the fairway, my ball was nowhere to be found. The marshall confirmed that my tee shot had hit a rake and was somewhere in the fescue and bunker area, which was nasty as ever with mid-summer growth. After a five minute search, we were unable to find my ball. I couldn't help feeling a mixture of self-pity and anger. I was mentally fried. Bethpage Black, like it had done so many times before, was thoroughly under my skin.
I couldn't believe what had happened and dropped a few F-bombs that could be heard from afar. My score at that point was meaningless, but it was a matter of pride. For about two minutes I completely lost my composure and then had to sprint back up to the 18th tee. It's a steep hill to climb back up, and probably one of the worst walks of shame you can make in a tournament.
I slapped my second tee shot into the left rough, barely found it, and continued my fall down the tree breaking every branch along the way. The day ended with my first tournament snowman of the year - a tidy 8 to finish with an 88 and plunge me down to a tie for 34th.
A lot of players who played well the first day struggled in the second round (tournament results), but as I signed my scorecard, I couldn't help but feel profoundly embarrassed and still a bit angry. I could not wrap my head around that gust of wind and crazy bounce off the rake. It felt like a cruel way to end a tournament that less than 24 hours later had been a real triumph for me.
Back to Being Practical
By the time I got back to my car, I was able to put things back into perspective. The day had not gone well, but I knew that was a possibility going into it. The bounce was unfortunate, and perhaps one of the worst ones I had ever seen (well actually I didn't see it), but that's part of the game.
I was going to have to put my tail between my legs and tell all of my friends and supporters about the day. But I knew people wouldn't care. It's a tough course, and whatever embarrassment I felt about the round was more my issue. Looking back I don't think about the second round or the errant bounce; I'm more encouraged by what I did on the first day.
But enough about me, let's talk about you.
I'm sure all of you can sympathize with what I was feeling that day on some level. All of you know what it's like to feel like you have conquered the game in one round, and then feel lost entirely and dejected your next time on the course. You've seen balls take crazy bounces that seem to destroy your day. It's all part of golf.
Golfers have a difficult time comprehending just how much of the game is out of our control. For some of us, it's harder than others. I've had to learn the hard way many times, and my pain hopefully is all of your gains.
Yes, the game might seem unfair at times, but that's just our interpretation. You aren't owed a good bounce just as much as you aren't due for a bad one. The best you can do is accept the randomness on some level - I believe you'll have a much better experience overall. That doesn't mean you can't get upset when it happens, but I can tell you from experience that the more successful golfers have a way of putting it behind them faster.