The calendar may tell us that we are already two weeks into spring, and the industrial-strength potholes and frost heaves that infest our public ways and wreck our vehicles may confirm as much. But for many north country golfers the season of hope and promise officially begins on Thursday, the opening day of the annual Masters golf tournament at the magnificently manicured Augusta National Golf Club course in Augusta, Ga.
Before we know it — obligatory setback snowstorms of spring notwithstanding — area golf courses will be open for business and golfers will be hacking and flailing away in hopeless pursuit of bogey-free golf.
Next weekend, though, is for watching the Masters on television and picking up pointers from Tiger and Phil and Sergio and assorted young Turks hoping to walk off with the green jacket that comes with the winner’s considerable prize money. Suitably fired up for the start of the local season, amateur golfers throughout the snow belt will attempt to provoke Mother Nature into hurrying things along by practicing their chip shots in the backyard and honing their putting skills on the living room rug.
In searching through my sports file I found numerous clips about Masters tournaments of the past. But none was as interesting as a wire service clipping detailing a spectacular flameout by professional golfer John Daly in the Bay Hill Invitational tournament in Florida, a warm-up event held two weeks before the 1998 Masters.
The free-swinging 1990 Professional Golfers Association Tour Rookie of the Year had two major tournaments on his resume — the 1991 PGA Championship and the 1995 British Open — when he took an unheard of 18 strokes on a par-5 hole at Bay Hill. The accomplishment earned him instant cult-hero status with high-handicap weekend duffers whose most important tools in the golf bag are telescoping ball retriever and global positioning device.
Known for his grip-it-and-rip-it style and his colossal drives, Daly was at 2-under for the tournament when he came to the sixth hole, a dogleg left with water down the left side. Using his driver, he hit his first shot into the water. For his second try, he moved forward to cut down the angle of the dogleg — a shot of some 300 yards — and, using a 3-wood, drove the ball into the water again. That was followed by another 3-wood into the water. And another. And two more.
When he cleared the pond on his seventh try, the ball plugged in the muck surrounding the hazard. Taking a drop, he pulled his 6-iron from the bag and hammered a shot into a pile of rocks near the green, the ball ricocheting into a nearby sand trap. He blasted out of the trap and two-putted, for an 18 on the hole, completing the horror show. So much for gripping it and ripping it. Goodbye top 10 finish. Farewell, fat paycheck.
So it turns out that God has a grand plan for equalizing things, after all. If the legendary John Daly, a guy who makes his living chasing after a golf ball, can drive six balls into the water and chalk up 18 strokes in the process, it shouldn’t be a big deal when a weekend warrior duck-hooks his drive off the first tee and takes out a headlight of the club pro’s Cadillac in the parking lot. Stuff happens. That’s what the do-over Mulligan shot is for.
I suspect that most golfers have felt the pain of an incident similar to Daly’s at some point along the way. My moment came at the Palmyra golf course a few years ago when, like Daly, I bullheadedly deposited six balls into the miserable little frog pond that fronts the par-3 eleventh hole and walked off with a well-earned 17 strokes added to my scorecard.
“I would have bailed out a little sooner,” Daly’s playing partner Tom Watson had said of the Daly performance at Bay Hill. “It’s both a tragedy and a comedy when you do something like that.”
Watson had a point. For me and my playing partner — a man who once went from tee to pin-high greenside entirely through the woods bordering a par-4 hole at Bangor Muni before holing-out from the puckerbrush for par — the Palmyra 17 was, indeed, a near-tragic experience. While the comedy was playing out we had feared we’d both die laughing.