The hangover was a serious problem. I felt it as soon as the alarm went off and it hit me right between the eyes. Reaching for a glass of water by my bed, I climbed out of another hazed awakening in the rental condo that was ground zero for my golf vacation. Our annual guys trip always makes for a few tough mornings, but that day was the worst yet. We had a high noon tee time on the hardest course in America and my head felt like I had been kicked by a mule.
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort has one hell of a reputation. It hosted and roasted the best players in the world during both the 1991 Ryder Cup and the 2012 PGA Championship. From the tips, it boasts the highest course and slope rating combination in all of America. Architect Pete Dye carved the course out of the South Carolina coast, creating a Molotov cocktail of sand, water, and wind. From its debut in the Ryder Cup matches to everyday resort guest play, the Ocean Course has been dismantling golfers for nearly three decades. Trust me when I say that trying to tackle such a place while battling the demons of the night before is ill-advised.
The steady decline of my alcohol tolerance had been brought on by my rapid acceleration into marriage, fatherhood, and life in my early thirties. I am reminded of this each time I travel with our gang. As I shuffled my way through a muddled morning routine it became increasingly evident that I may be trading birdie putts for blowing chunks on the Ocean Course. It was a terrible feeling.
The first time I played the Ocean Course was on my honeymoon. It was a glorious day with my new bride and I loved the golf course, but my game was not up for the test. I’ll never forget how much the wind blew my shots around while inflating my score that afternoon. I spent four years dreaming of a redemption round and as that tee time finally approached I was laid up on a couch watching the ceiling spin.
The heat index was creeping up on triple digits as we pulled up to the bag drop and the stiff wind made it feel like we were under a hairdryer. I was headed for sweaty mess territory, but I had to press on. If I bailed on our group of fifteen guys I’d never live down the shame. The only way through that black hole was straight on to the other side.
After consuming an anecdote of Gatorade, Aleve, and CBD oils, I managed to make it to the driving range for a warm-up session. That’s where I met Mike, my looper for the day. We made some small talk and he chuckled as guys were giving me hell for my obvious struggles. The ball was flying all over the place and the pounding headache made it hard to find any rhythm at all. The sun was straight above our heads and I was sinking low as we boarded the transport to the first tee.
Nausea did seem to displace the nerves at least. I remembered the first hole well and I asked Mike to hand me a hybrid to start the day. “I need to ease into this thing,” I told him. With a deep breath and a slow turn, I sent the ball on its way. Through my squinting stare I watched the shot sail out in front of our group and I found the first of many fairways that day. I grabbed another water and prayed that I could repeat that move a few more times. Luckily someone was listening.
The bogey-bogey start was less than impressive, but I felt like the ball was going where I wanted. On the third hole, I faced dire straits when my approach bounded over the buried boxcar green. I needed an up and down to get a par on the board but my wedge game was feeling less than great. “Let me see that putter Mike.” My caddie companion obliged and from twenty feet off the green I rolled the ball up to within a snuggly distance to the pin. It was just the spark I needed. Mike gave me a nudge of encouragement and we pressed on.
Somehow I was able to string together a series of par saves that included a wide variety of results. I putted from off the green a few more times to kick in range and even managed to clip the pin on an overcooked bunker shot. I knew that the scores were being authored by a shaky hand, but somehow they kept coming in at par. I was managing my game and my condition about as well as I could have hoped for. There was no way to know what would happen next.
The wind continued to intensify as we walked up to the ninth hole. It was blowing something fierce and through the clouds of my mental state, I recognized the prevailing winds from my first time on the course. As my playing partners sized up their challenges I stood on a hill facing the same shot I had four years prior. That’s when I heard a faint voice whisper “Ride the wind.” I’m not sure if it was Bagger Vance, Shivas Irons, James Earl Jones, or God, but something told me what to do and suddenly I was overcome with calmness. The peaceful feeling was unlike anything I’ve ever felt on a golf course.
I focused on the shot at hand and made a mighty swing of a six iron. The ball climbed high up against the gusting wind to form a towering draw. I could see the flight pattern illuminate before me and the ball nestled to within ten feet of the cup. I missed the putt, but when we climbed into the shuttle for the tenth tee I became convinced that I had just unlocked some new form of my highest potential.
If you have ever found this feeling before you will know what I mean, but if not you may think I’m nuts. My mind was entering into what felt like a trance. I had experienced this before, but it is rare and I never know how long it will last. On a day when my body was ready to give up on me, my mind found the extra gear I needed. Dare I say it, but I was in the zone.
The ensuing back nine was a bit of a blur. Facing 30 + mile per hour winds I was sliding into some sort of hypnotic state. There was chaos all around me as my playing partners were losing their balls and their patience, but I barely saw them. Mike was there with me for yardages, but in hindsight, I don’t remember a word he said along the way. While my friends were battling the course, I felt like I had found the cheat codes to a video game.
Then the putter got hot.
After a series of swings that set me up for scoring, I made birdie putts at 11 and 12 while nearly clipping a “turkey”- three in a row, at the 13th. The cup was starting to look like a basketball hoop and on each stroke I saw my immediate future. I could visualize my arms raised and a confident fist pump gesture following another holed putt. All I had to do was let it happen and I did.
In those moments my hands weren’t my hands. In my mind, I was Seve Ballesteros. There was new and radiant energy emitting from my body as I glided from shot to shot. The feeling was euphoric.
At the 14th hole, we turned our backs to the wind and began the home stretch march to the clubhouse. I could sense that the round still had much to give. There was more joy yet to come and it was predetermined to be my day. Despite a bogey, I rebounded by pouring in par putts at the 15th and 16th to keep the momentum alive. As I walked over the dune to the difficult 17th hole I found myself wandering in and out of consciousness. The everyday noise that stifles my thoughts had gone silent and at that moment I was one with the game.
From the tee box, I could see the ocean to my right. The waves were crashing up and down the beach and the timing of it all acted like a metronome in my mind. Perched on the horizon was the stately clubhouse with a series of flags waving at a frantic pace. This would be the site of another special moment. I unleashed the smoothest of swings and the ball carried dutifully towards the flag. It landed in the center green and careened off a slope towards the hole. I walked up to the green knowing I would make the putt.
In the pond between the dunes and the green, there was the largest alligator I’ve ever seen in my life. My confidence had reached such a level that I felt like I could ride him in the same fashion as the mechanical bull I vanquished the night before. Everything was in slow motion and once again the people playing with me disappeared. The putt slid slightly down the hill and found the center of the cup. I stuck my putter in the air and turned my attention to the finale.
Mike the caddie pointed to the left side of the clubhouse and said, “put her right there and let it ride.” I just nodded at him with a quiet affirmation. Like many swings that day, I made a pass at the ball that resulted in something magical. The cut spin on the shot was shaping the ball flight perfectly into the fairway and I looked back at my caddie as if the day would never end. Unfortunately, there was an end and as we walked up the 18th hole it was clearly in site.
We walked at a steady but slowing pace up the fairway of the final hole. The crowded clubhouse veranda was now populated by the late afternoon onlookers who watch golfers come off the course each day. Draped in summer attire with cocktails in hand they were the gallery who bore witness to the best round of my life. But like many stories, the ending was amiss.
When I arrived at my ball in the 18th fairway I looked up to take in the scene around me. For the first time in hours, I became cognizant of my friends. They were looking at me from forty yards away in the same manner that baseball teammates stay away from a pitcher with a perfect game on the line. Seeing them and the crowd of onlookers and the sea crashing nearby brought me back to where I was. I’ll never know why, but as I took a long gaze at my surroundings the cloud I was on seemed to lower back down to earth.
My approach the final green came up well short and I could feel myself returning to my body. I wasn’t watching from above anymore. I was on the ground and in my shoes again. Perhaps it was because I realized a birdie would yield an even-par round, but either way, the golf gods had determined that my time was up.
Instead of a perfect finish, I tapped in for a bogey. It didn’t matter though. I had just come through something that defied logic. It was supernatural. I had floated and glided and sailed gently around the hardest course in the country while battling a hangover and a two-club wind. Mike put on a big smile and congratulated me on a special round. My friends stood and stared at me like I had just performed some sort of miracle.
“Holy shit man.”
“That was really something.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that.”
We exited the green and the round came to an end. The sun was beginning to lay down over the dunes and happy hour was in full swing. I strolled up the gentle slope to the clubhouse veranda and finally paused to appreciate what I had just done. My score was 74. It wasn’t the lowest of my life, but that round was by far the best I ever had. By this time, my hangover had subsided and our larger group was anxious to know how our foursome had fared. After all there was money and pride on the line. I walked into the Ryder Cup bar and a smile climbed across my face. It was the happiest I’d ever been in golf.
What began as a dreadful morning had morphed into a day that I’ll never forget. I don’t know what happened out there on the Ocean Course, yet I’m confident that it was metaphysical in nature. People will call me crazy for suggesting that the game of golf left me with an out of body experience, but it happened and it was incredible. My round of golf that day was only possible because I allowed myself to go into something that I didn’t fully understand. I’ve got a feeling that the hangover from those feelings won’t be so easily shaken.
There is no way to know if I’ll ever find that state of mind again. The golf gods are cruel and fickle. They tease us all with a poor sense of humor, but on occasion they breathe some powerful wind into our sails and carry us to newfound places. Such magic is real, but fleeting. Just when we think we have harnessed its power, it disappears like a kite lost on the breeze. On my day at the Ocean Course, golf became a portal to another plain of existence. Perhaps, if I’m lucky and mix my spirits just right the night before, I can ride that wind again someday.