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A Life of Memorable Golf

Now, this was interesting. It hadn’t occurred to me that for golfers there might be a virtue in forgetting—the sooner the better. I’ve always assumed the opposite: that if I could only figure out how to exploit it, my photographic memory ought to give me some sort of advantage over my amnesiac friends. If visualization is a useful tool, surely sitting in a hotel and picturing the holes you’ll be playing ought to help immensely. And even if it doesn’t, I still really enjoy visiting the courses in my mind. In idle moments, I take a deep, almost Wordsworthian pleasure in visualizing my gallery of golf holes.

I should point out that it’s not only in Scotland that I do this. It’s pretty much everywhere—local courses and ones overseas. In mid-September, I had a fantastic trip to the north of Ireland, playing six courses in six days. Sitting here in New Jersey, a month later, I can see, very clearly, virtually every hole we played. I know that numbers eleven and twelve at Carne are short, quirky, downhill dogleg par fours and that the par threes are numbers two, seven, fourteen and sixteen. I know that Enniscrone, a fantastic course west of Sligo on Killala Bay, has a relatively flat middle section starting at the fifth and works its way back into some monstrously dramatic dunes beginning at the par-three eleventh.

I should also note that my memory for certain other things is good but not extraordinary. (In some areas, my memory seems to be actually deficient. I’m terrible at remembering movie plots, for instance.) I’m decent at memorizing piano music, but only decent. I do have lots of poetry stored in my head that I recite for my own amusement when I’m driving alone and get tired of the radio. The difference between those areas of memory and this golf course thing is that I’ve worked hard to memorize all that music and poetry. The golf courses are just there, retained with no conscious effort.

The official web site of Moe Norman, the late, weirdly talented Canadian golf legend, avows that he could remember the exact yardage of 375 of the 434 courses he played. That skill I can’t claim, which is probably good, because some chalk Norman’s extraordinary memory up to autism.

I also went to the web site of the World Memory Sports Council, an organization that actually holds a World Memory Championship each year. Events include memorizing decks of cards, random words and numbers, and faces and names—everything, it would seem, but golf courses. The site also offers a series of memory tests. After trying to memorize playing cards and doing a pretty lousy job of it, I was interested to see that memory athletes draw a distinction between tests of "pure memory," meaning memorizing things with no discernible pattern or logic, and those where knowledge of a specific field helps.

Of course, there’s not much that’s really random about golf courses. You know that there are going to be three basic types of holes: par threes, fours and fives. You also know that most courses have four par threes, four fives and ten fours, and that if they are not classic links courses, chances are that numbers one and ten will begin near the clubhouse and numbers nine and eighteen will end near it. That’s quite a lot to have in place before you’ve even reached the first tee.

Yet there is still a part of this I just can’t explain, that being the sort of gyroscope I seem to have in my head that always keeps me oriented. Plunk me down in a strange city and I’ll have a pretty good idea how to get back to my hotel. I’ve always wondered whether this visual and spatial memory might not have helped me in some alternative career it’s probably too late to pursue. I once asked Tom Doak if he thought it might mean that I’d have made a good golf course architect, and he said yes.

Now that my talent has been identified and chortled over and marveled at by my friends, I pay far more attention to a layout than I ever would have before. So perhaps Bruce is right and it’s become a distraction. But if doing my thing gives my friends pleasure, well...I don’t mind doing it. I’m the Idiot Savant, and I’ve got a reputation to keep up.

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