The rain starts to lightly fall as I line up for the final shot. The droplets land on the inside of my glasses, blurring my vision.
“Come on man, the rain is coming,” said Trey Whitnell, senior accounting major and member of the Union golf team. We’ve reached the end of our 18-hole slog through an incredible amount of sand and water traps, the green dropping off into a creek that would take an errant ball into the unknown.
I had to make this shot. The hole was only two feet away, but I could feel the pressure building. It starts with the brain envisioning missing the shot. Then your stomach feels like it’s churning like a washing machine. After that, your heartbeat raises and your knees shake and you just swing, hoping it’ll go in.
Just 40 minutes before this moment, Whitnell and I joked about the way the mini-golf course looked like nobody had played on it in a week. Leaves and other trash were strewn about before I took the first shot.
We couldn’t play real golf because I had a shoulder surgery that made me so weak in my left shoulder that I can’t take too many swings without it getting sore. I also lack the ability to drive the ball past the tees from furthest tee. It would take 12 strokes for me to reach the green, and that would be miserable for both of us. This was the only version of golf that would still allow for Whitnell’s skills to show up some and I could still play and be, potentially, competitive.
Despite going to a mini-golf course, Whitnell wore his Union golf polo, fancy Nike golf hat, nice shorts and good shoes for the task. I wore a red, backwards hat that said “Gary Coal Diggers” on the front, a random T-shirt I found on the floor of my room, running shoes and glasses, which help with my depth perception.
The lone worker ran ahead of us with a leaf blower to clear our side of the course before we took our first shot. He clearly didn’t expect anyone to show up any time soon and looked flustered when we got there. He didn’t tell us that’s what he was doing and I was about to take my first shot when the machine came alive, removing trash and leaves from the greens but making the rest of the place even more messy.
The first two holes went just fine though. We both made par. My confidence started to grow as I realized I could hang with him in the short game. Maybe I can even win.
Whitnell plays the game with caution, constantly reading the green and always hitting seemingly the right amount of force each time. He was, maybe, a degree or two off on the angle needed to get a hole-in-one.
I play with reckless abandon. I can’t read the green very well, so if I go first I can’t see how he approached the hole. It’s pretty simple though. Just hit the ball hard initially and I’ll wind up closer than if I undershoot anything.
It got interesting during hole three when I made par once again. Whitnell had a relatively easy five foot putt to make. As the ball approached the hole, it broke away from the hole at the last second because the green was slightly raised around the hole. His next shot was on the rim then rolled around the hole and came back out. He tapped the next one in.
“Mini-golf is nothing like real golf, jackass,” Whitnell said, clearly exasperated at the way the ball wouldn’t respond the way he wanted.
“Whatever man,” I said smugly. “You’re just feeling the pressure.”
I shot first on the next hole. It had a sharp curve in it and had a fake hole location to throw us off. I decided to swing hard and let Whitnell feel the pressure as I’m able to get away with horrible mechanics. The ball rocketed toward the barrier, about to bounce toward the hole, when it hit something and hopped the brick barrier. It was out of play, Whitnell laughed and I slowly died inside.
I missed a five footer for bogey and wound up with a double bogey. Score tied.
According to Whitnell, I “jam” the ball into the hole. Meaning, I hit a hard putt that, if on target, should “jam” into the hole forcefully, but could also either jump back out or, if I miss, go right by the hole and leave me with another long putt. He hits the ball softly, almost gingerly, so it’ll either drop right into the hole or be so close to the hole that he can just tap it in.
His strategy is smarter and safer, but I don’t have the muscle memory or experience reading greens. Even though we’re playing on essentially carpet with random bumps throughout it, Whitnell’s knowledge of how the ball should react to the different ways the ground comes up and down is far superior to my own.
We both won a hole by one stroke for the next two holes, but I began to pull away on hole seven. I birdied a par three and Whitnell bogeyed the hole. I remained in control for the next four holes. Everything I hit was probably bad, but it kept working out. On hole 10, I hit an awful initial shot that bounced off the wall five different times on hole with no bends at all. I was maybe eight feet away and sank the putt to stay on top anyway.
“I can’t be stopped,” I said. “It’ll be awesome to finally beat a collegiate athlete at something.”
“Mini-golf is not real golf,” Whitnell said for maybe the fifteenth time that day. If he says it enough then maybe the fact that I’m beating him won’t sting so bad. “I’ll have to remind everyone of that…unless you choke.”
Golf is a game that requires a specific set of skills: great depth perception, accuracy, hand-eye coordination, balance and an enormous amount of fortitude. Mental toughness is the undoing of many golfers that should be successful.
A lot of professional and collegiate golfers can have a great streak for a couple of holes, but the ability to stay on top of the game through 18 or more requires tough person. Whitnell’s last sentence made me freeze for about five seconds. Those five seconds consisted of me repeating the same three words over and over again: “don’t blow it.”
I birdied the next hole and continued to walk confidently to the next hole, but my mind was racing. I spent way too much time trying to read the greens and thinking about the intensity needed to make the next shot. I wasn’t feeling it.
I wound up in a sand trap on hole 12. This course has sand traps with actual sand and some of them are really deep. I don’t have a sand wedge to help me, so I have to try to get it out with my putter.
I did the only logical thing and just hit the ball as hard as I possibly could. Sand flew in all directions, my body was twisted in the way a pro would be after a good, hard swing and my ball was gone.
I didn’t make contact and the ball sunk deeper into the sand, almost out of sight, because I only kicked up a ton of sand. Whitnell pointed and laughed like a group of first grade boys seeing one of their friends holding hands with a girl. I was humiliated.
I got the ball out on the next shot and recorded a triple bogey, effectively losing my lead and giving it to Whitnell who birdied the hole.
My hole 12 was a lot like Jordan Spieth’s final hole 12 in the Masters this year.
That hole completely threw off the rest of my game. I suddenly felt too big for the course and never had the right foot placement, all of my shots took bad bounces, I wound up in two different sand traps on one hole, I whiffed on all the mid-range putts I made in the front nine.
Literal storm clouds took over the sky and thunder could be heard whenever I was in mid-swing. I realized that I was holding a metal rod and images of a cartoon getting struck by lightning while holding an umbrella came to mind. I kept seeing myself being burnt to a crisp due to lightning and the beatdown that Whitnell gave me on the back nine.
Through the front nine I shot six over par and Whitnell seven over. Through the next eight, Whitnell shot three under par and I shot eight over par.
Back at the final hole, my glasses blurred, knees knocked together, stomach churned and I went for the two foot tap-in.
I missed. The rain that held back for the last three holes let loose a deluge. In frustration I kicked the ball into the cup for another bogey and watched the ball go down into the hole that appears to go one forever. As it went down into the abyss that all mini-golf balls go to, I ran away from the small course with Whitnell, hoping to never return.