Putting From the Mountaintop

The highs and lows between two flatstick miracles

Editor’s Note: This is part five (read part four here) of a year-long series tracking our editor as he attempts to reach a 10-handicap. 40 percent of the time, his pull-cut is now working all of the time.

It was going in. Heads were shaking, voices were rising, odds were getting blown, physics were being thoroughly defied. This putt, which my playing partner struck somewhere near the Canadian border, was now barreling down the length of the 10th green at Hazeltine National and refusing to leave the line of the hole. It was one of those moments where a shot takes long enough to unfold that you can appreciate a golf miracle happening in real time. 

Golf, of course, has a unique etiquette to these events. When a receiver is running under a 60-yard bomb, or a long three-pointer begins its downward arc, there is a collective building of anticipation as the crowd noise crescendos to hopefully meet the explosion of a spectacular play. Golf is too fragile, too impetuous for that. Too many things can go wrong on the way to the bottom of the cup—golf’s fickle gods have turned so many close calls into all kinds of heartbreaking near misses that players now dread the curse of an early celebration. (Or, as a friend of mine more bluntly puts it when joy flips to devastation: “Get your mouth off my ball!”) And so, there is an art to observing our game’s special moments. Proper preparation usually begins with someone letting out a hushed “No way…” and continues into someone else, a little louder, pushing it along with a “Come on…” and that usually gives way to tense, silent heartbeat of anticipation. Only when a group is absolutely, positively, 10,000% certain that the ball is dropping will the shouting begin. 

When the ball finally disappears, that pandemonium is well-earned.

The 10th green at Hazeltine National.

In our case, the college-age caddie who was a complete stranger 10 holes ago was now leaping into the arms of the putt’s author like they were Mike Hicks and Payne Stewart at the 1999 U.S. Open. “I’ve never seen a putt that long!” he bellowed as we all went crazy in our own weird ways. We didn’t quite hit Rory vs. Reed at Hazeltine’s 2016 Ryder Cup decibels, but in the moment it felt damn close. In the gleeful mayhem of the moment, we didn’t get an exact measurement of the putt, but some post-round, semi-CSI investigative work landed it somewhere between 90 and 100 feet. That caddie wasn’t lying: None of us had ever seen a bomb like that. I doubt we ever will again.

It’s always a glorious walk to the next tee box after those moments: high fives, “Can you believe that?” comments to no one in particular, everyone beginning to hone the way they’ll spin this yarn for years to come. But I must admit, my journey to No. 11 was tinged with selfish melancholy. I couldn’t help wishing a shot of mine would do something special; at that point in the round I would have taken one merely approaching the general area of where I was aiming. Everyone in our group will remember That Putt forever, and tell anyone who will listen of its glory. What I will leave out of my retellings of that hole: A 10-minute search for my drive on the right side of the fairway, only to find it somehow 120 yards behind me in a fairway bunker on the left side, leading to yet another excruciating double.

With about four months left, my year-long charge to a 10-handicap has slowed to a stubby, spinny, chunky lurch. The plan was to arrive triumphantly at Hazeltine for the biggest moment of TGJ’s event season and show off my shiny new swing. Instead, real life—a trip to TGJ HQ in Southern California, chasing two little ones around, preparing for the imminent arrival of a third—once again reared its crazy head and I had barely hit a ball in a month.

But I felt strangely confident walking to the driving range. The history nerd in me was inspired by the setting: Y.E. Yang’s chip! The Rich Beem dance! Team USA at a Ryder Cup! Hazeltine was where underdogs like me thrived. Anything could happen. I proceeded to have one of the best range sessions of the year, striping everything I pulled out of the bag. When I piped a drive into that skinny first fairway in front of a small crowd, I felt something memorable in the offing. I was gonna Y.E. Yang the shit out of this round.

Instead, I ended up with one of the few times in my golf life where Tiger and I probably felt the same: How in the world did this all go so wrong?

The day after Hazeltine, I was battling a wild emotional cocktail of feeling grateful to even have the opportunity to play at a place like Hazeltine and borderline embarrassment for how I played. My handicap, which had dropped to 12.7 with a bullet in July, had now bounced up to 13.2. A group of TGJ employees and I wandered from our hotel over to the Mall of America to kill some time before our flights home. Among the 50-foot Lego sculptures, M&M superstores and actual roller coasters, someone spotted an attraction we couldn’t resist: Moose Mountain mini golf. So, off we went with our double-sided rubber putters and chipped, rainbow-colored balls. It wasn’t a 90-footer, but I dropped an ace on the first hole and rarely missed after that. It appears that perfectly manicured, major championship greens are not for me; I need giant stucco trees, hollowed-out plastic logs and bumpy astroturf to thrive.

I learned on Moose Mountain that golf miracles really can happen anywhere. So I’ll be back at the range tomorrow morning, working toward another one.