The Back Nine

While perusing the collection of documentaries on DVD at the local library, I ran across The Back Nine which tells the story of a 40-year-old’s pursuit of his dream to play golf on the PGA Tour.

I thought it an interesting subject, given the rather common fantasy of most passionate golfers to have the talent and mental fortitude to play the game professionally.  Unfortunately, Jon Fitzgerald - the subject, author, co-producer and co-director – has neither the talent nor the fortitude; and to throw in a little extra, he also doesn’t have the time.

Hmmmm …

You could see where this was heading halfway through, which is about where I stopped watching.  If you really don’t have the time to devote to this “dream” of yours, why should I waste my time watching it?  I’m just thankful I didn’t have to buy it!

Jon lines up FOUR … count’em!  … FOUR coaches, a life coach, swing coach, and two other I-can’t-even-remember-what coaches to help him mold his game.  He even goes out and wins his very first amateur tournament, surprisingly enough with a 12-over-par round.  Now, I’m in no position to criticize another man’s golf game; but you have to wonder if his competition was even ambulatory with those scores!

Shortly after this comes the “WTF? moment”, when Jon outlines his struggle to find enough time in his whirlwind producer, film festival organizing, family-man life to devote to his game.  When one of his golf coaches relates a conversation where Jon plans to spend “a whole ten hours a week” on his “professional” golf game, I lunged for the video remote’s Cease & Desist Button!  Even the coach seemed incredulous at what little golfing he planned to do!

If I spent 10 hours-a-week on “nothing but golf”, I might just get my gargantuan handicap down to No Longer Embarrassing Myself.  But even the Worst Golfer Alive could figure out where this time-starved project was heading …  Absolutely Nowhere! 

Apparently all that I missed by not watching the rest of the story was Mr. Fitzgerald’s struggle to balance the demands of his professional life and his family with his desire to play golf.  I’m not sure how that differs from any other Regular Working Joe, who has to scrape together enough time to fit in his golf.  And in addition, he also spends a good part of the project reconnecting with his two fathers.  In other words, it turns into a guy’s version of a Lifetime Movie!

Me thinks Jon Fitzgerald was just looking for a Pay Day.

Give me a break …

Recommendation:  Don’t bother!

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Choking down a day at Pebble Beach

pearlpbLiterally, I was choking down my Pebble Beach experience.  My big chance to play one of the iconic golf courses in the country and the sport, and an hour-and-a-half before our tee-time my Anxiety-O-Meter was shutting down my internal organs!  I had NEVER felt like this before playing a round of golf.  As much as I tried to relax; to take in the surroundings; to enjoy my Eggs Benedict, I was very, very close to a Critical Mass Event!

There were several possible reasons.

  • We had left Mission Ranch, where we had stayed the night before with the woman folk, at 0-it’s-still-so-freakin’-dark hundred hours, so it felt like we were sneaking onto the most famous golf resort in America like a pair of illegals.  I half expected the immaculately uniformed attendants and valets to lay hands upon us and eject us from the premises!
  • Everything about this place is intimidating when you allow the mystique of Pebble Beach and the potential heights of its golf experience to get a stranglehold on your emotions.
  • And of course, every golfer can appreciate the phenomena of First Tee Jitters.  Now just multiply that by several orders of magnitude and suddenly those Eggs Benedict are like trying to swallow a chunk of fairway turf.  My biggest fear was cleaving a foot-sized divot from the first tee and seeing my golf ball mocking me from its perch, untouched by my TaylorMade!

Yes, that would explain a lot!  But eventually it passed, though I’m not sure exactly when or how.  After a ride out to the range and a bucket of balls, it was time to face the legacy of Pebble Beach and those golf legends that had played there before us.

Of course I had to make a few adjustments to my golf-playing expectations, given my surroundings, the difficulty of some of the holes we would play, and the fact that I was still battling the flight side of my fight-or-flight survival instincts.

  1. I knew – or at least expected – that unless I morphed into my Tiger Woods PGA Tour video game icon, the quality of my golf game was going to be a distant second to the overall aura of playing Pebble Beach.
  2. I was going to enjoy the atmosphere, scenery and uniqueness of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, regardless of how well or poorly I played.
  3. I wasn’t about to permit the demons of my sporadic golf game to ruin such a monumental day!  But – may Johnny Miller forgive me - if I did chunk up a big piece of Pebble Beach fairway, it might just be ground-under-repair for a few months; because THAT hunk of turf would be heading back East with me if I had to wear it as a hair hat the rest of the trip!

And then we were on the first tee!  I think that the overload of panic I felt earlier that morning somehow mitigated the horrendous crush of first-tee jitters I had anticipated.  The first tee area wasn’t nearly as crowded as I had anticipated for our 9:00 a.m. tee time, which I’m sure helped.  And all the ancillary distractions of meeting our caddy, Josh (another first for me!), our playing partners, and even the relatively tame layout of the first hole allowed me to swing my driver without hurting anyone.

Of course, that dreaded high fade didn’t help.  But I wasn’t the only one who needed to hit a provisional ball off the 1st tee.  The second drive was much better; and I played the first two holes pretty well, including a bogie on the par 5 #2 hole.  On Hole #3 you get your first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.  It’s just a teaser for what’s to follow; but it’s enough to make your putter take notice!

First glimpse of ocean at #3

At #4 my dastardly fade cost me my first ball on the first true ocean hole.  (I would only lose 6-8 for the day, which was far better than I expected!)  Then the REAL FUN began.  #5 is a par 3 that runs along the ocean cliffs; and I didn’t play that hole too badly, given the difficulty of finding my pulled tee shot after it bounded down the cart path.  My brother, Pat, deposited his tee shot off a tree and into what was purportedly Charles Schwab’s backyard!

Little bro, Pat putting on #4

Holes #6, 7 and 8 are three of the most beautiful holes in golf.  And I would say that #8 is indeed one of the greatest holes I’ve ever played!

The second shot up the hill to the second fairway and green of #6 is the first of those grip-grinding moments you face at Pebble, at least if you’re a short hitter like me and it looks like you have to clear a 8-story building to reach the upper portion of the fairway.  You have to marvel at those strong and brave enough to play right-to-left over the most dangerous portion of the sea cliff.

The par 3 #7 was the setting for my closest encounter with Pebble Beach greatness!  #7 is not particularly long at 106 yards; but the backdrop gives you much pause.  Golf jail here is in the form of a high, steep ocean cliff surrounding the green.  No one in our foursome found the green most likely due to an overabundance of caution.  Once I travelled down to the putting surface, I found my tee shot in the green-side bunker left of the pin.  In a classic “ugly but effective” moment, my semi-crisp sandwedge barely cleared the lip; was slowed by the thick grass lining the top of the trap; and tracked right at the hole.  (My cinematographer has the video evidence!)  Despite shouts of encouragement (“It’s right at the hole!”), the ball struck the edge of the cup and rolled away.  Of course I missed the comeback putt, but that couldn’t diminish the thrill of almost holing out from the sand of #7!

My “almost” sand shot position can be seen just pin high in the sand!

When we arrived on the tee of #8, Josh – our caddy for the day, warned us not to hit anything further than 200 yards off the tee.  His advice was timely given the amazing challenge awaiting us.  All four of us hit perfect tee shots to within 20 feet of the edge of the fairway, only to look down at one of the most awe-inspiring approach shots in golf.

The approach shot on the magnificent #8 at Pebble Beach

Two balls later, I had just missed clearing the yawning sea chasm.  My playing partners were more successful; but that was the kind of day it was for me.  Regardless, I was pumped at having played the kind of golf shot I might never see again!  The fascinating part of #8 is that there is no protection whatsoever – aside from politely placed signs warning of a steep drop – to keep an unsuspecting golfer (as difficult as that might be to imagine) from taking a slip ‘n slide dive into the most hazardous hazard known to the sport!

The above photo and those following show the dramatic changes in fog conditions we encountered resulting from the cool ocean layer.  Shortly before playing #8 in bright, clear sunshine, this was the view down #6 (below).  The fairway lies just left of the bunkers.

The fog was a minor nuisance.  But it did curtail the number of dramatic photo-ops we encountered, especially on those holes along the cliffs and lower shoreline (#17 & 18).

Infamous #18 along the beach from the green

This is what #18 looked like from the green down the fairway (left). You can make out the well-known seawall and sand trap that line the craggy shoreline that is death for any stray shots.  Off in the distance you can see the form of the two trees that mark the aiming point for drives off the tee.  My lone disappointment was not being able to appreciate the full incredible vista of #18 from the tee box.

It was just that kind of day on the Monterey peninsula!

The rest of our round from #10 through #16 – though devoid of spectacular vistas – was full of excellent golf holes and mind-boggling putts.  My one recommendation for anyone looking to experience Pebble Beach (or Spyglass Hill which will be posted later) is to spend the extra cash and arrange for a caddy to accompany you.  You cannot ride a cart up to your ball at Pebble as carts are always restricted to the cart paths; so the caddy (hauling both our bags) is advisable for getting the most out of your round.

In addition, the putts alone on some of the greens REQUIRE an experienced guide.  I could have easily 4 or 5-putted a number of greens without the assistance of Josh.  The first few times your caddy tries to give a read on some of the greens, your brain won’t allow you to follow his advice.  Your mind simply can’t overcome the difference between what the eye sees and what you’re being told to do.  After just one or two bad misses though, you learn to listen to your caddy and tell your brain to shut up, sit down, and enjoy the ride!

On #14, which we were told is shaved like cue ball for tournaments, I faced what looked like a severe uphill 20-foot putt.  Not so fast, counseled Josh.  It’s actually a DOWN HILL putt!  (Putting so near the ocean turns everything upside down.  Downhill can be “up”; and uphill “down” depending on your orientation to the sea.  The physics of which I cannot comprehend!)  Josh points to a spot barely 3-4 feet away from my ball and a good 8 feet - directionally – AWAY from the flag!  “Trust me.”, he says.  “Hit it here and gravity will do the rest!”  So I hit it where I’m told, then watch in disbelief as the putt breaks not once, not twice, but three times as the ball meanders UP the 8-inch slope.  The putt finishing just inches away from the hole!

Trust me, take a caddy!