Words by Matthew CrossmanPhotos by Geoff Cunningham
Light / Dark
Sometimes my job feels like a great big con. I have talked editors into paying me to jump out of an airplane, go to dog-mushing school and drive the fastest and most expensive production car in the world. This past summer I embarked on what I thought would be a fun little joyride, but surprisingly became my most pressure-packed, emotional roller coaster yet: I convinced the editors of this magazine to give me three months to hunt my first hole-in-one.
We devised this Epic All-or-Nothing Hole-in-One Quest with simple rules: I would play the same track, Pheasant Run Golf Course, all summer. I chose it because it was near my house in suburban St. Louis, 15 of its 18 holes are par 3s, it has lights and, perhaps most important, it has a wonderful and accommodating manager. The always-smiling Dana DelVecchio, who loved the idea from the start, encouraged me every time she saw me during the Quest and let me hit as many shots per hole as I wanted, assuming I was considerate to the players out there. Could some consider victory in this quest not to be a “true” hole-in-one? Perhaps. But we agreed that the bravery of someone at my skill level taking this on would make an ace possibly even more rewarding than one in regulation play.
The Quest would run from June 1 until August 31 or until I cracked and ran screaming into the woods. From the beginning, I saw the Epic All-or-Nothing Hole-in-One Quest as a contest with no in-between: The only possible outcomes were the joy of a hole-in-one or the misery of failure.
Man, was I wrong.
June 1 Round 1: Shots 1–7 With: Dad and brother
First shot on the first hole on the first day of the Quest and the “people are watching” nerves engulf me, even though my dad and brother are the only people actually paying attention. They’ve seen me hit every bad shot you can imagine—and some you can’t—so there is no reason to be nervous. But I am jittery, finally coming to grips with the weight of the task before me: I’ve played golf for 35 years and have never made a hole-in-one. And now I’ve got to do it in three months.
At the height of my game, when I was single and had no kids, I shot in the high 80s to low 90s. But that was 20 years ago. Now I’m married with two children and don’t play nearly as often. I’m happy if I break 100. That’s hardly a golf résumé that screams, “Ready yourselves, for surely an ace is coming!”
But I love a challenge, and this suddenly seems like one of the most daunting I’ve ever faced. Companies that insure golf events for holes-in-one generally agree that for a duffer like me, the chances of an ace are roughly 1 in 12,500. My hope is that by repeatedly playing the same 15 holes, I will beat those odds through sheer repetition. Part of me thinks that after a few hundred shots, I will get dialed in and maybe, just maybe, match one good swing with one lucky bounce off of the flagstick. The other part of me understands I might be a hope-filled dope.
That’s a lot to think about on the first shot on the first tee on the first day. I take a deep breath and swing my 9-iron. I make solid contact, and a few seconds later the ball plops onto the far left side of the green. The pin, however, is on the far right. “That’s 47 miles from the hole,” I say to myself, “but I’m dancing.”
It is a good start. It doesn’t last. By the fourth hole my tee shot is so far left it is almost right and at least one too many clubs besides.
We agree to call it after nine because the heat index is 99 degrees. As we cool off in the clubhouse, I ask the superintendent—he’s tatted up and rides a Harley and I like him immediately—if he would mind moving all the pins to the left, as that’s where my shots apparently go. He tells me I should just aim right. Thanks, pal. But I WAS aiming right.
I notice him noticing my Detroit Tigers hat; I grew up in the Motor City and my parents and three brothers still live there. He tells me the surest way for me to get a hole-in-one is to wear a St. Louis Cardinals hat. I would do anything to complete this Quest…but I won’t do that.
June 3–4 Rounds 2–3: Shots 8–41 With: Dad
My dad is 79 now and still hits it well. He got a hole-in-one a couple of years ago. We’ve been golfing together since he got me started, and he still wants to play golf every time he sees me, almost as much as he wants to see his two granddaughters. But full disclosure: I am only 99 percent happy for him when he hits the first “That’s right at it!” shot of my Quest. It rolls a few inches to the right of the pin, and he makes the putt for the first birdie of this mission. Not bad for an old man.
As we play, memories of golfing together rush back. Most of them are about being together more than the shots we hit. But two from a course cut out of a Michigan forest stand out: The group ahead let us play through. As they watched, we both absolutely striped our tee shots. We tried to act natural walking off the tee. We climbed in the cart and, as soon as we were out of earshot, he looked over at me and said, “I won’t tell them if you won’t.”
June 9 Off day: 74 shots in
At the outset, I envisioned the Quest as a solitary endeavor. I planned to play mostly alone because I wouldn’t want anyone with me—nor would they want to be there—if I was hitting, say, 10 shots per hole. But a photograph I receive today makes me think otherwise.
My friends from high school are on their annual golf outing in northern Michigan. Jason—a man I’ve been friends with since first grade—texts me the news that one of our buddies got an ace. He sends me a picture of the foursome. In it, all of them beam with delight.
I call the picture up on my phone repeatedly for days. Their smiles…so huge, so genuine, so joyful. And it’s not just the picture that I love: It’s the story behind it. Their laughter as they tell it. Let’s just say that Bobby, the guy who got it, was not quite sober when he hit the shot. There was a sprinkler involved, one of the guys was shirtless for no apparent reason and they made a delirious, goofy dash to the green to confirm the ball had actually dropped in the hole.
I want that experience. My life story unfolded in between rounds of golf with Tim and Brian and Chris and Roger and Ryan and a dozen more. I golfed with them in good times and bad, with good shots and bad, from childhood to high school to college to a career that has taken me to four states. Now I don’t live near any of them, and I miss those guys more than I knew before I started this trip.
My jealousy and joy over this image convinces me: I want my own picture. I want witnesses to share the glory—if, you know, I actually get a hole-in-one. I want to share the anticipation with someone as we zip to the hole to confirm the ball is in. I want to hug someone on the green. I want to smile so hard that I laugh with someone, anyone, in a photo I’ll cherish forever.
I make a list of new friends to play with who can pick up my life story where the others left off. It includes Joel and Matt and Mike and Kevan and Josh and Dave and Tom. I would rather try to get an ace with them and fail than try alone and get one.
Ha, no—that’s a lie.
But I really hope someone is with me if I do get one.
June 21 Round 12: Shots 196–246 Alone
My plans for companionship today were dashed. Boredom and frustration haunt me. After 45 shots, I can’t concentrate enough to swing the same way two times in a row. It’s also possible that I’m not good enough to swing the same way two times in a row. Three weeks in and I’m more worried than ever about this ridiculous idea.
I’ve spent tons of time working through the benefits of making one. But what if I don’t? There is, of course, the obvious embarrassment of failure. Beyond that, my daughters are growing up so fast; do I really want to miss an important life event for a three-month disappointment? And what if the editors decide that a failed mission isn’t worth running the story at all? How will that affect other editors I pitch on future writing ideas?
So far I have nothing to show for my efforts except an elbow that won’t straighten all the way and mounting fear that I won’t be able to pull this off. I am tired of going to the golf course and not only not getting a hole-in-one, but not even coming close. Doubt has all but swallowed hope.
Another reason I wanted to take on this Quest was to force myself to learn diligence, a trait I’ve lacked for far too long. A few years ago, I made a list of classic books with the thought that reading them would require the perseverance I lack. I started Moby Dick, 1984, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Grapes of Wrath and Les Misérables. I didn’t finish any of them.
I’m mildly buoyed by the thought that even if I don’t get a hole-in-one, at least if I stick with this Quest until August 31 I will learn to keep going when my concentration wanes, my form disappears and I want to wrap my 5-iron around a tree.
So as badly as I want to just go home after that 45th shot, I force myself to play more. And it pays off: A few holes later, I hit a towering 7-iron, straight on target. It drops down from heaven like a dart from God and stops 9 inches from the hole. The closest so far in the Quest.
When I’m back in my car I look at the picture of my hand covering the distance between my ball and the hole and I feel a powerful adrenaline rush. I weave in and out of traffic even though I’m in no hurry. I am wired for hours, swooning in the renewed belief that anything is possible.
June 23 Round 13: Shots 262–304 With: Both daughters
I take my daughters (ages 8 and 11) to the park and library and am heading home when I realize I am only 2 miles from Pheasant Run. I know going golfing with me won’t sound like fun, so like any good parent I bribe them with candy bars.
My girls have never been to a golf course and think it’s a playground. I feel bad telling them to stop running on the first green, but make up for it by letting them run everywhere else. They bound across the fairway to pick up my errant shots. They particularly like getting them out of the sand, which is good because I hit a bunch in there. They offer piercing questions and commentary, like “Why can’t I do cartwheels on the green?” and, “You can’t play No. 18 because it will take your ball,” and “Do the balls float? Putt-putt balls float.”
The next morning, my 8-year-old asks, “When are you going golfing again?”
“Why?” I reply. “Do you want to go again?”
She gives me the cutest, knee-bucklingest, heart-meltingest smile I’ve ever seen and says, “Please?”
July 3 Round 17: Shots 425–454 With: 8-year-old daughter
The girls were marginally interested in the Quest before I took them to the course. Now after every round, someone (usually the 11-year-old) asks, “Did you get a hole-in-one?” Every time, I say, “No, and you would know already if I did, because I would call right away. You might even hear me yelling all the way from the course.”
Today I ask the 8-year-old to record my shots with my phone. She has never watched golf on TV, but she pretends to be a commentator. She adopts a slight British accent. I hit a grounder and declare it terrible. Her expert report: “Don’t exactly agree with you, but, right-right, okalee-dokalee.”
I laugh all 947 times I watch it the rest of the summer.
July 4 Round 18: Shots 455–505 With: Chris
Today I’ve brought my friend Chris, with whom I have golfed many times in the last 18 years. When I asked him before the Quest started whether he thought I could get a hole-in-one, he said I needed to add another zero to the 1-in-12,500 odds.
We talk about how the Quest has improved my game. I tell him I am hitting the ball better and making more putts than usual. Which is not saying much, but still: Lately it feels like I’m putting into a hole the size of a Frisbee. As we make the turn, I have hit the green nine tee shots in a row. “Before I started this, would you have thought I could have hit nine—”
“You could have at least thought about it for a second,” I say.
July 7 Round 21: Shots 545–617 With: Daughters
The more shots I hit, the more I think of the famous quote, wrongly attributed to Einstein…
July 9 Round 22: Shots 618–687 With: Daughters
…that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again…
July 10 Round 23: Shots 688–711 With: Mike
…and expecting a different result. Einstein never said that, which is appropriate since I’m never going to get a hole-in-one either.
July 15 Round 26: Shots 859–890 Alone
I have worn two gaping holes into a pair of shorts, and now the grip on my 5-iron is torn. Worse, the grip on my 7-iron is loose. That’s my favorite club.
I’m also losing my grip on reality. Two days ago, the heat index was 107 when I teed off, and it got hotter after that. When I finished, I was so zapped that I forgot my laptop in the clubhouse. I returned to get it, decided to play a few more holes, left again and didn’t realize until today—again, two days later—that I left my 8-iron and putter in the cart. Thankfully someone returned them.
The heat, frustration and monotony have officially sucked all the joy out of this assignment. I want to throw my clubs into the lake, where they would be reunited with a couple dozen of my golf balls.
July 18 Round 30: Shots 1,032–1,079 With: Kevan and Mike
The ball climbs deep into a St. Louis night thick with humidity and the whiff of a coming rainstorm. It doesn’t reach as high as you’d hope, but thin though the contact between ball and 9-iron might have been, the Titleist heads straight for the hole nestled in the back corner of the green.
It is Wednesday, July 18, 2018, about 9:30 Central time, when gravity drags the ball to earth on the ninth hole at Pheasant Run Golf Course. The beautiful, dimpled white orb skips across the putting surface, and the friction between grass and ball rubs off precious speed. The ball slows as it continues its journey toward the hole. Hole and ball converge on each other in time and space…they meet as one…the ball starts to drop…then changes its mind and spins out.
And that is how my friend Mike McLaughlin dang near gets the first hole-in-one in my Quest.
Family and friends have often asked me what I’d do if someone else got a hole-in-one during my Quest. That’s easy: I’d brain him with my 7-iron.
I’d go with the 5.
August 1 Round 35: Shots 1,446–1,552 Alone
I show up to the course at 6:15 a.m., alone and bummed. This date has loomed large in my mind since the beginning. One month to go. I’m feeling the pressure. My editors said they will run the story if I don’t get it…but do I even want my name on such a depressing spiral? The shadow of the August 31 deadline will darken every shot from now on.
On top of that, real life is getting in the way. I’ll be unable to golf for six of the next 14 days. I don’t want to sound desperate…but I’m desperate. I consider taking the super’s advice and wearing a St. Louis Cardinals hat.
August 2 Round 36: Shots 1,553–1,589 With: 8-year-old daughter
Early on a lazy summer Thursday morning, I peek into my 11-year-old’s room. She’s asleep. My 8-year-old is awake and reading. I ask if she wants to go with me to the golf course. She says no.
As I walk out of the house, I think about the text another friend sent me about his hole-in-one. He got it alone. “The most anticlimactic ace ever,” he wrote. “Not a soul within yelling distance. Make sure someone is there when you sink it.”
I like his confidence of “when you sink it,” even if I don’t share it.
That text, along with the hole-in-one photo, continue to shape the Quest. They are why I invited Joel and Matt and Mike and Chris and Kevan and Josh and Dave and Tom and dragged my kids along too. I don’t want to play alone again, so I step back inside and return to my daughter’s room. “Honey,” I tell her, “I’ll buy you a donut if—”
She jumps out of bed, gets dressed and is in the car before I finish the sentence.
She waits until we get to Pheasant Run to eat her Boston Kreme from Dunkin’ Donuts and exults in its deliciousness. When she’s done eating, she sits in the driver’s seat of the cart and steers while I work the gas and brake, which her feet can’t reach.
I stand on the tee of the 117-yard 12th hole. She cheers, “Daddy, Daddy, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, no one can!” She has been singing that for weeks. She is not tired of it, and I never will be.
Motivated to give her the memory of a lifetime, I flub the next two shots.
Using my 9-iron like a rake, I drag another ball from the pile on the ground in front of me into my stance. I look toward the green, as if to make sure it’s still there. The red flag—signifying the hole is in the front today—hangs limply.
My daughter dutifully starts recording video on my phone.
I swing for the 1,589th time of the Quest.
The ball rises slowly, like a child roused from bed too early. It’s high and soft and straight on target. “That has a chance,” I say quietly. The ball drops lightly to the ground, like that sleepy child finally putting her feet on the floor.
It lands just short of the green, bounces once and rolls toward the hole.
“That’s close,” my daughter says…and, for reasons we will never know, she chooses that second to stop recording.
It’ll stop soon.
It has to stop soon.
The hole appears like the opening of a tunnel and the ball is a train.
And suddenly, the ball clangs against the pin and disappears.
For a fraction of a second—for as long as it takes to think, “Did that just happen?”—I am stunned, flabbergasted, speechless. Then I realize the green is empty and the hole is full.
I throw my 9-iron in the air and yell, “YEEEEEAAAAAHHHHH!”
I look at my daughter. I think my bellowing scared her. “Are you recording?” I ask. She says yes, which is not technically true. But she chooses that second to restart the video. (In her defense, I told her many times not to record in between shots because that kills my phone’s battery and overloads its memory. When she stopped recording a fraction of a second before the ball went in the hole, technically she was being obedient. Parenting sucks sometimes.)
We’re still on the tee box. I have been the owner of a hole-in-one for approximately 30 seconds. She asks, “Should we call Mommy?”
Not yet. Before we call, I want to verify that it’s in, even though I have no doubt. I want to make that delirious dash to the hole. More than that, I want to record that dash to the hole, our dash to the hole. Goodness gracious, I can’t believe this is happening, but my daughter and I will make a goofy dash to the hole to verify I got a hole-in-one and we will record it and I get to watch it every day for the rest of my life.
We pile into the cart. I speed to the green and skid to a stop when we get there.
“Boy, am I glad I went with you!” she exclaims as we climb out.
Isn’t that rich? She’s glad she went with me. I hope one day she understands how true the reverse is.
We run to the green. She’s still carrying the phone, and running as fast as she can in the jangling video.
We get to the hole.
We look down.
A red 6 looks up at us.
“It’s in!” she says.
I hug her. She hugs me back.
I walk into the clubhouse with my hands raised in victory. Dana knows instantly what it means. She is shocked and excited and congratulates me. I would buy everybody a round but it’s 8:30 a.m. and the clubhouse is empty. My daughter and I return to the 12th green for more pictures with goofy grins and arms raised. Together.
It’s time for the triumphant call. I finally have an answer to the same question my 11-year-old has posed hundreds of times over the summer: “Did you get a hole-in-one?”