Round two: the wind was picking up steam. In the flow, it felt like we had barely played nine. As we passed other competitors on the course, we traded friendly waves. John and I were striking our irons crisply off the links turf. Playing the course for a second time, we had a better idea of what to do, hitting run-up shots and positioning the ball much better. Still, the wind contributed to bogeys and worse.
Again, the sixteenth did me in. It's a misnamed par four, 468 yards into the teeth of the wind with the second-meanest green on the course (if it were a par six, I would have parred it all four times that day). The second shot is hit over (or in my case, into) several bunkers and huge mounds all over the fairway. Those lucky enough to get near the green have an almost impossible chip onto a mounded green that would have made Donald Ross feel inadequate. After putting out for my double, I collected myself and hit my tee shot at seventeen into the exact divot I had left on my chip that morning. Played a decent shot and made another bogey. I chipped in on eighteen for an eighty-four.
The match with John was all-square. We had been playing for five and a quarter hours and felt remarkably fine but famished. We changed our shoes and went into the clubhouse for lunch. I don't recall what I ate, but there was a lot of it, and I don't think I chewed. Every six minutes or so a new group would arrive from eighteen and another would get up and return to the first tee. This was assembly-line golf. Everyone ate hard. Nobody talked. One exception, Martin Watters, was rethinking the wisdom of "one more pint the night before"; during the second round, he had topped his ball from a lie in deep rough and hit himself on the nose.
Thirty-six to play.
Round three: the sky was growing cloudy over a two- to three-club wind. We reloaded on water and cookies. I took two more Advil, then pushed my drive on the first hole into thick rough. (Amazingly, after deciding during lunch to hit five-iron off the first tee, I forgot. Brain-dead.) Never found it; took a six. On the downwind second, I nearly drove into the small creek cutting across the fairway 290 yards from the tee—with a three-iron! After we both hit solid drives on the blind third, John played my ball (two-stroke penalty). On the downwind par-five fifth, I hit into and out of a succession of fairway bunkers, each time attempting a miracle recovery. My mind was going numb. On the tenth I tried to hit driver off the deck into a three-and-a-half-club wind and didn't finish the swing. Bad idea. Bad execution. Numbers were piling up fast. A grinding par at eighteen left me with an eighty-nine to John's ninety-two. I was two-up. Only eighteen left.
Weather: The wind was now kicking up for real (about four clubs) and the temperature had dropped. Lower back tight. Cookies gone. Put sweaters and windbreaker back on. Again, I used driver on the short first hole. Again, I found the rough. How often must I repeat: "Use the five-iron!" The low point came at the eighth, where I had a ten-foot putt for birdie. I ran it by. Upset about the carelessness of the first putt, I missed the comebacker. I rimmed out the six-inch tap-in and suddenly faced a four-footer for double bogey. Missed it. If golf balls have souls, this one was evil incarnate. It is now resting somewhere near the eighth green, waiting for another unsuspecting victim.
I half dragged my bag to the ninth tee. It was heavy; my back was a knot. Golf sucks. John kept his distance. Nothing to say after a five-putt.
But there must be something psychological about making the turn for the fourth time of the day and knowing it is the last. Two plow horses morph into thoroughbreds and bolt for the barn as if there is only one mare. We actually were running out of holes! On fifteen, with John one-up, my eight-iron approach rolled just off the green and down into a valley eight feet deep. Executing a Mickelsonic flop shot off a tight lie for the up-and-down of my life, I put a dagger in John's heart. He had counted me out.
Yet he calmly ripped his next drive down the middle into a stiff wind on number sixteen. After my drive leaked into the rough, I proceeded to make my fourth double of the day on that hole (you win, MacKenzie). John had me dormie, two-down with two to play. The long, gruesome, par-three seventeenth awaited.
I hit another choked-down driver. This time, the stronger wind held it up and it came to rest fifteen feet above the hole. John hit a nasty three-iron into knee-high rough. We found his ball and he made a miracle bogey. I needed a par to keep the match going. Imagining marbles in a bathtub, I babied my putt and it stopped well short. Now I had a nasty sliding downhill five-footer to keep the match alive. I don't remember taking the putter back. The ball went in.
One-down with one to play. The par-five finisher.
I could barely breathe. I pulled back my driver and accelerated through the ball—220 yards into a stiff wind, right down the middle. Take that, John. He answered with an identical drive. Both of us hit careful long-iron second shots down the middle avoiding the bunkers. Now the approaches. Time slowed and we savored the moment. John struck his shot right at the stick. A little too firm. It bounded off the raised green and left him with an impossible up-and-down. My nine-iron wound up fifteen feet below the hole. John did not convert, and I made a defensive lagging par to win the hole.
Then came one of the most gratifying handshakes of my life. Two buddies travel from America to England to play seventy-two holes in twelve hours. Match ends all-square. Neither deserved to lose.
Adrenaline gone, we luxuriated under long, hot showers. In true British fashion, we donned coats and ties and retired to old leather chairs in the historic wood-paneled clubhouse for drinks and amusing stories of the day. Oxford-educated Mike Hall, a four-handicap from St. George's Hill Golf Club, estimated that he swore close to 1,000 times during the day. That's roughly three curses per shot. And Mike is an English gentleman.
Longtime members wore their LXXII ties and heartily welcomed new members to the 72 Hole Club with, "Cheers, well done." All participants signed a copy of the Littlestone Golf Club History for me. Event founder and president Trevor Barnes awarded the trophy to Martin Hayes, a winner for the sixth time and now just the third player in thirty-one years to fire four rounds in the seventies, netting a 292. I carded a 319, good for eleventh place in the nineteen-man field.
It is now spring in Chicago. Al Qaeda remains on our minds and Madeline, my eight-year-old, has a math test tomorrow. But a glowing fireplace, Van Morrison and a 1977 Ardbeg single malt spread a warmth through my golf den, forcing all serious or mundane thoughts to take a backseat to memories of seventy-two holes at Littlestone. With less than thirty days until the 2003 event, I remind myself to use a five-iron off the first tee.