It’s not every day that a fourteen handicap sets a course record, but on a recent trip to Portugal’s warm, sunny Algarve region, I shot the lowest round ever at Jack Nicklaus’s new Monte Rei Golf & Country Club. The picture of calm, I holed a twelve-footer for birdie on the eighteenth green. My achievement stood until my playing partner, a young assistant pro, two-putted a moment later, lowering the mark from eighty-nine to seventy-three. It wasn’t exactly Al Geiberger posting a fifty-nine on the PGA Tour, but the record was mine—at least until it wasn’t.
While it’s true that most records are made to be broken, mine probably should not have been set in the first place. As a golf journalist I’ve been lucky enough to set several course records simply by being the first player to complete an official eighteen-hole round on layouts that wouldn’t open for months. Several years ago, after playing the Ocean Course at Ginn Hammock Beach in Florida (another Nicklaus course) with my family, Wallachs actually held the men’s, senior’s and women’s records simultaneously. The staff trailed behind our pioneering group with buckets of sand and hand-filled our divots to return the course to its pristine condition so nobody could tell we’d played. Not even Jack had been all the way around the track yet. You just can’t feel too bad when your course record is broken a few weeks later by the Golden Bear himself.
But the experience of playing virgin layouts runs deeper than simply posting a number that holds for a month (or a minute). It’s more about exploring uncharted territory; score is merely the trailhead. If only for a moment, I am the Captain Meriwether Lewis of golf, headed into unexplored terrain with the hope of returning—whole, but possibly changed—to the place I started. And with luck I might, like Lewis himself, have a few adventures en route, encounter friendly natives or indigenous fauna, and come back with a good story or two.
At Monte Rei, for example, which is located in a remote area outside the tiny medieval town of Tavira, local laborers were still putting final touches on underground irrigation and other features of the golf course that would become invisible to the resort guests who came after. Having never seen an actual golfer on the course before, one worker came running toward us on the thirteenth fairway after we’d hammered our tee shots. In his hands, like fragile eggs, were the balls we’d hit—one down the middle and one just off to the left in a bunker. Eager to impress the assistant pro with his energy and initiative, the worker had retrieved our drives so we wouldn’t have to pick them up ourselves. It was a rare entertainment to watch the assistant pro explain to him in Portuguese, with no shortage of hand gestures, that the rules of golf require players to hit those balls again—from exactly where they landed. Which seemed to strike the worker as a dumb way to spend the afternoon.
But such is life on the true frontiers of golf, where divergent cultures first interact. In six months that same worker may long for the days when he wrought a beautiful new landscape out of dirt. He may look with disdain at the heavy trail of golfers pounding endless drives into the fairways he’s manicured, then marching past him to hit again, like the inevitable armies of progress, like manifest destiny in polo shirts.
Last year I had the honor to tee off in the first group ever at Robert Trent Jones II’s Chambers Bay Golf Club outside Tacoma, Washington. I played with Jay Blasi, one of the architects; John Strawn, the CEO of RTJ II at the time; and Tony Tipton, a county executive. In our own ways we’d each plotted to be first to play the course, and so we ended up as a foursome doing it together. The links lay before us, green as unripened fruit.
When we teed off on the first hole, directly toward the blue waters of Puget Sound, I took stock of my competition, perhaps the way Amundsen sized up Scott as they raced to be first to the South Pole. At least one of the others was a better player. I knew I’d probably need to hole out before him on the eighteenth green to claim the course record, even temporarily.
But although I marked scores in my notebook for most of the front nine, nobody else was even keeping track. Sure, we noted the first par (mine) and the first birdie (the architect’s) ever made on the course, and we tallied the progress of our two-man best ball match (the CEO and I beat the architect and the county executive on number eighteen). But keeping score seemed in some way like walking in a beautiful, untrammeled land and wondering how much money subdivided lots might eventually bring. The golf course certainly didn’t care who was first or best among us, or even that we were there at all. And neither, really, would anyone else. On that sunny March day in the Pacific Northwest, with the mountains ringed around us, our particular Corps of Discovery found that in this case, “first” was really just another form of “best,” that such labels just don’t matter, and that a richer experience had occurred for all of us, together, at a deeper level entirely.