A big part of golf's appeal is that it is upright bordering on uptight, all about integrity and respect and rule abiding. As anyone with a thing for librarians knows, their primness is exciting for the possibility that just below the surface beats the heart of a party animal, or at least a friendly cart girl. Golf is no different.
Author Dan Jenkins made famous his Fort Worth, Texas, home course, "Goat Hills," with tales of rules flouted and redrawn there. "On other days at the Hills," Jenkins once wrote, "purely out of boredom, we played the course backward, or to every other hole, or every third hole, or entirely out of bounds except for the greens, which meant you had to stay in the roads and lawns. We also played the course with only one club, or just two clubs, and sometimes at night."
These shenanigans are inspired but not particularly surprising at an east Texas dog track. More remarkable is the fact that, every now and then, even the game's most hallowed grounds let the wild dogs run. Last year, the Old Course at St. Andrews—St. Andrews!—decided for a few select days a season to let golfers go around in reverse. As in days of yore, play begins on the first tee but heads to the seventeenth green, then from the eighteenth tee to the sixteenth green and so on, clockwise around the "left-hand circuit." One could argue, I suppose, that this is merely tribute disguised as joviality, if that word can be applied to the Scots. But what then to make of the wacky men of Augusta National, where, it was lately reported, the members also will sometimes play the course in reverse?Is Bobby Jones rolling in his grave?More likely grinning, I'd wager.
Indeed, there's a private-club tradition to use Monday closures not just for course maintenance but for the staff to play the layout "cross-country," i.e., from the third tee, say, to the seventeenth green, and so on. This silliness isn't confined to off-days. One of my favorite weekends each year is a team event at Roaring Gap Club in the mountains of North Carolina, where one of the competitions is a hole played from the sixteenth tee to the first green. The par fifteen measures some 2,325 yards, depending on your preferred route.
None of these variations on our "great game of honor," however, could have prepared me for a recent excursion into the deepest regions of golfing absurdity.
Darkness had just fallen when I opened the unmarked package. Inside was a lone compact disc, which I slipped into my portable CD player. An unmistakable pulsing tune began. Bah, bah, bah-dah, bah, bah, bah-dah: the theme from Mission: Impossible.
"Good evening," intoned a dead ringer for the familiar deadpan voice. "For immediate release to all agents. We have a special alert that a diabolically clever and unquestionably mean-spirited villain has been spotted along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Our information indicates that he and a band of followers have moved into an unlikely hideaway in the Low Country of the Carolinas known as the Chechessee Creek Club. His goal is to destroy the hallowed game of golf by lacing its eighteen holes with lightning-fast greens, minefields, explosive hazards and other various and perilous pitfalls."
The message went on to say that thirty to forty other "agents" from around the country would be trying to outdo me in the duty of protecting golf from "excessive difficulty."
"Good luck," it concluded. "This disc will self-destruct in fifteen seconds."
Bah, bah, bah-dah, bah, bah, bah-dah.
The next day, my buddy Richard called to say that, as I'd suspected, it was he who had sent the invitation. (Maybe I was cut out to be a secret agent.) But that was all he could tell me—or he'd have to kill me.
I was in, no questions asked. Chechessee Creek is a two-year-old, caddies-only, golf-only club hidden halfway between Hilton Head and Beaufort, South Carolina, with a superb Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore layout. I'd play its Senior Ladies Four-Ball if they'd let me.
Maybe it was my wraparound shades, but I felt more than a little like Tom Cruise as I strolled to the first tee on a perfect spring morning. Our foursome in the two-man best-ball competition—Richard and I, along with another member and his guest, all single-digit handicaps in our thirties—was greeted by the tournament rules committee chairmen. Miguel and Lupe looked suspiciously like the guys I had spied earlier mowing the greens. Now they were delivering detailed instructions as to the rules for the day—or so I supposed.
"Buenos días," Lupe began. "Aquí están los órdenes actuales del torneo . . ."
We nodded our monolingual heads knowingly (note to self: agents need language skills), then teed off on the par-four opener. Only as we reached our drives did we notice something unusual: no flagstick. But there was a hole, about eight inches in diameter, visible in the green's steep false front. My seven-iron approach nearly pierced the target before retreating lazily into the fairway. It wouldn't be the last time. Employing sand wedge, pitching wedge, putter and then sand wedge again, I eventually carded a six.
Mission Impossible was rapidly gaining clarity.
Written directions awaited on each tee box. As at Augusta National, every hole had been given a name. Instead of "Golden Bell," "Camellia" and "Pink Dogwood," however, it was "Superintendent's Revenge," "Over the Pond and Thru the Woods" and "Flush Your Troubles."