It started with the hat. After thirty years of swing changes, grip adjustments, videos, acupuncture (don't ask) and the occasional lesson, I decided to heed the wisdom of Yogi Berra, who said, "90 percent of this game is half mental." Yogi was talking baseball, but everyone knows that golf, the irrational pastime, is more mental by far. It's all about visualization—projecting success from within. I would succeed by picturing myself not as a splay-footed hacker but as my old favorite warrior, the Great White Shark.
That was the theory, anyway. And the setting was perfect: a year-end family trip to the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Florida. The resort is home to Tiburón Golf Club and its two Greg Norman-designed courses, the Gold and the Black. Tiburón is Spanish for "shark," and the place is full of sharkabilia: a dorsal fin on the Tiburón logo, Greg Norman Estates wines in the bar, and everywhere photos and paintings of Norman—a man so full of swash and buckle he could will himself to make birdies. I knew I'd play better if I could get into that head. Or at least that hat.
It was a black straw ten-gallon special, fifty-four dollars in the pro shop. That made it the most expensive hat I'd ever bought, but then this wasn't the Econolodge. This was the 295-room resort where Norman puts up twenty-four pros during his annual Shark (now Franklin Templeton) Shootout. "The linens and pillows are perfect," Brad Faxon gushed last year after lolling in Ritz-y sheets with their thread count of 350, well above the luxury-linen standard. "This whole place is perfect."
My kids made a perfect mess of our imposing welcome gift, a candy painting of the hotel on a chocolate easel, resting on a bed of snowy sugar balls. Let the hyperactivity begin! We enjoyed thrice-daily food and drink in the Club room, frolicked on the hotel's putting green and in its pool, and took ten-minute shuttles to the Ritz-Carlton beach resort on the Gulf. And on December 31, which broke as warm as a summer day in Queensland, I pulled the black hat over my flowing blond locks and set out for the Black course.
Actually I have no locks, just tufts and sideburns. But in my new hat I could have passed for an unshorn Samson, and I smote my drive at the 376-yard opening hole and squinted, Normanic, as it flew. The Shark in his prime was the longest straight driver the game had seen, the king of what we now call "total driving." I channeled him much of the day, pounding tee balls, chipping out of orange coquina-shell waste areas, making a few putts. Once, picking my ball out of the cup, I touched the brim of my hat and nodded to an invisible gallery. Thanks, mates. So what if I rinsed a ball at the par-five eighteenth?I had played a big, bold, broad-shouldered round and shot an eighty-five that could have been a sixty-five with a dozen breaks and no missed putts.
That night I thumbed through Golf Travel by Design, with a foreword by Greg Norman ("Many golfers could lower their handicaps immediately by picking up a book like this. . . .") and rang in the new year with a bottle of Norman Estates Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir. The Shark's 1999 Shiraz had gotten intriguing reviews ("Just what you want in a lover: spicy, rich and firm," said Esquire), but the bubbly was perfect—tart and potent—and in the first minutes of 2003 I planned a grand assault on the Gold course at Tiburón.
Reading Shark Bites, the Tiburón newsletter (SEAFOOD EXTRAVAGANZA—CASUAL ATTIRE AND LOBSTER BIBS OPTIONAL), I pondered the similarities between Norman and me: We are both family men over forty, both former driving-range workers and both wear black straw hats. And neither of us could win the Masters. Norman just missed capturing half a dozen majors he might have won, while I have never met a six-foot putt I could not miss.
New year. New hat. New man. I awoke blinking in the sun and staggered ("chardonnay" is French for "Advil") to the first hole of 2003.
The Gold course's opener is a 573-yard par five. Boom. My tee shot left me with a four-iron to the flag. I might have eagled the hole had I hit my second shot on the green instead of in the blue. The approach splashed. Bogey. The rest of the front nine was a mess: a triple and two doubles. And then, sudden as a lightning bolt, came the dumbest birdie of my life.
On a short par four, I hit a drab drive into a fairway bunker. With 131 yards to the green, I heard the Shark: "Catch the ball with a strong descending blow, mate." But the lie, the wind and the shadow of my hat conspired to create a descending suck. I skulled a twenty-hopper that kicked, swerved and finally rolled between two bunkers onto the green. The ball stopped an inch from the cup.
Two holes hence came a legit bird. A drive and a Sharklike three-wood reached the green on a par five. My eagle putt lipped. With a second birdie, I was in the red for the back nine, and a few pars later I faced the most mental of acid tests: Could I keep it together for one more hole—make par at the last to shoot 45-34 on New Year's Day?
I pounded a drive on the watery 451-yard par four that fronts the hotel. A few guests, sipping the year's first cappuccinos and Bloody Marys, saw my approach rise and fall fifteen feet from the flag. And that's when the Mizes, Faldos and Gamezes of outrageous fortune got after me. I couldn't help thinking, Three birdies in nine holes would make my year. And bad questions crept under my hat.
What if I gag it?Would that ruin my year?My career?My legacy?