One thing I don’t remember is when I first realized that my knack for remembering golf holes and courses was unusual—that other players can’t think their way, hole by hole, through every course they’ve played in the last ten years, recalling the par of each hole and its general length (short, medium, long), its position on the course and what it looks like from the tee. I can do all that, and for ages I assumed everyone else could too.
The fact that this was no ordinary talent probably dawned on me sometime during a trip to Scotland, when I turned to a buddy at dinner and asked, "How’d you do on number ten?"
Almost certainly he scrunched up his face, cocked his head to one side and said, "Uh . . . which one was number ten?"
And if we happened to be having this conversation at North Berwick, I’d have said, "It’s the first hole after you turn at the far end, the first hole playing back into the wind. You know: the medium-length par three where you hit down out of the dunes. The two previous holes are par fives, and the one after it is a par five too."
Or, if we were having this conversation while licking our wounds at Carnoustie, I’d most probably have said something like, "It’s the long par four just before the snack shack. It’s got a line of trees down the left, and there’s a little stream that loops in front of and down the right side of the green." If we were at Cruden Bay, I’d have said, "It’s that short par four with the really elevated tee, the one where Bram Stoker supposedly sat and got inspired to write Dracula while looking out at the ruins of Slains Castle."
It’s odd to find out that something you’ve taken utterly for granted is, in fact, a weird, if probably useless, talent. Mine quickly became a source of giddy amusement to my friends, a stupid human trick that I’d be called upon to perform whenever we got tired of talking about movies or baseball or why Dave insisted on ordering the cheese course at virtually every dinner. For them, it was like discovering your dog can "count" by pawing at the ground: Despite the fact that his doing so serves no earthly purpose, you’re ridiculously proud of him, and he, sensing your delight in some doggy way, is more than happy to oblige.
On one trip, we happened to eat lunch at a pub near Carnoustie that had placemats showing the layouts of some of the most famous courses in Scotland. This was the occasion for a real test. "Okay," someone said. "Give me . . . the third at Dunbar." Ha! That isn’t even one of the tougher holes to recall: "It’s a slightly downhill par three, medium length, with the clubhouse on your left," I answered. "After that you head through the gate in the stone wall and out onto the main expanse of the course for holes four through seventeen before coming back through the wall for eighteen. Am I right?"
Of course I was. It did not take long for someone to christen me the Idiot Savant, a name I now wear with far more pride than makes sense, even though I still have trouble believing that what is so easy for me is just about impossible for them. Indeed, that is how I finally came to appreciate the unusualness of this thing I can do—the "savantness" of it, if you will. At first I thought these guys were kidding me when they said they couldn’t remember much about a course a day or two after playing it for the first time. I’ve conducted an informal survey of most everyone I play golf with, and it does indeed seem as if my trick is as far beyond them as string theory is. My friend Bruce, for instance, describes himself as the "anti-Merrell": "By the nineteenth hole, I seriously cannot remember most of the holes I just played," he tells me. "But I think that is good. I stay in the moment. I don’t bemoan everything for ages."