This week is Golf Digest's annual Hot List Summit, a congregation of scholars, scientists, retailers and testers searching for the same goal: What clubs belong in your bag? Assistant editor Joel Beall is your Hot List Summit correspondent.
"You lost today kid, but it doesn't mean you have to like it."
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
I have found solace in that quote during various defeats throughout my life. Be it the end of relationships, work projects gone awry, sporting losses, there was something consoling, even virtuous, regarding a valiant effort that fell short.
But there was nothing honorable about my flop in the Golf Digest Hot List Summit's Grudge Match.
Among the Hot List judges, the Grudge Match -- an 18-hole two-man best-ball battle -- is like the Ryder Cup mixed with the antagonism of the Hatfields and McCoys. Winners have bragging rights for the entire year. Given the love our group has for prodding one another at every opportunity, a Grudge Match victory is the ultimate hammer in the jabbing tool belt.
This year's match featured yours truly teaming with Mike Stachura to take on the roving cloud of sadness that is Keely Levins and Mike Johnson. The format is handicap adjusted; Stachura stroked on 13 holes, Johnson seven, Levins five. I got none, which was fine; I'd make the pars, Stach would roll in the net birds. If we played our hand right, this rodeo would be over by the 14th hole.
It became quickly apparent that we brought the wrong deck of cards to the table.
Or rather, "I."
Earlier this week, I was making it rain with the driver. On this day, the only water falling was from eyes, in tears of horror at the places on the course my tee shots were discovering. I was in the rough on seemingly every damn hole.
Oh, and remember that flatstick whose effectiveness I was championing? I didn't hear a peep out of that guy. I looked like a 5-year-old at a putt-putt more concerned with the windmill than the 15-footer.
My partner Stach was playing well, but since I was dead weight, he was left to combat the evil forces of Johnson and Levins -- both whom have very sound and steady games -- by himself. After 10 holes, the good guys were down two.
Luckily, even a broken clock is right twice a day, as I helped us win the next two holes. Then Stachura, who was grooving it off the tee, dropped a net eagle and birdie, bestowing a two-hole lead over those fools with four to play. We managed to halve the 15th, preserving the advantage.
What happened on the 16th is a bit of a blur. It was like being in a car wreck; you're not quite sure what happened, only that it wasn't good. I believe we were done in by a net birdie. Our lead was down to one.
The 17th is a par 3 playing at 188 yards. I hit a weak 7-iron and found myself with quite the lag. No worries, I thought. Keely and Mike -- who, if I haven't been clear to this point, are the worst of people -- are not in proximity of the hole, either; all I have to do is lag this baby up there and we'll be good to go.
One slight problem: three-putt. Keely found the hole in two strokes. Even.
At this point in the round, we were playing in darkness. As I had never played this course before, I had no idea where to hit my tee shot on the 18th hole, a double-dogleg par 5. After picking out our location, I smoked a 3-wood, playing it safe to keep it in the fairway. Imagine my disgust, then, when I found my ball sitting down in cabbage encircled by trees.
Worse, because of the lack of light, we couldn't find Mike's ball. He had to take a drop, meaning it was coming down to me against those monsters, who were both stroking on the hole.
I was 335 yards out, buried in the rough, had to keep it under tree branches for 40 yards while also making it over a lake that called for a 170-yard clear. In the dark. I had no chance.
Except, miraculously, I somehow hit the shot of my life, making it past the trouble and down the fairway, leaving 110 yards to the hole.
I instantly remembered the words of wisdom from my masseuse Roberta. As I'm dealing with neck issues, I went to the on-site massage therapist in the morning to alleviate some pain before the match. Roberta felt the tightness and was visibly worried about my golf prospects. When I left, she told me she would pray for me, and that "miracles can happen."
Damn straight they do, Roberta, because that shot required divine intervention.
However, Johnson, that sandbaggin' S.O.B., put his third shot on the fringe, about 15 feet from the hole. All he had to do was two-putt for a net birdie. In short, I needed to stick this approach.
Instead, I left myself a 25-footer. If I missed, we lose.
Despite my putting woes, I felt relatively positive over the line. I found the track, breaking right-to-left downhill. I hit the putt how I wanted; it followed it's intended path...
...but it didn't go in. My prayers, along with Roberta's, went unanswered.
Mentioned above, it's one thing to lose with your best efforts. It's another to pull a total no-show. My drives looked like someone had tipped over a fireworks can, with the blasts screaming in every direction. The final damage on the green was five three-putts. My irons left much, much to be desired.
Not that Levins and Johnson didn't earn their win. While I hope they get struck with an incurable case of the "rhymes with clanks," they persevered, winning the final three holes to capture the match. That, my friends, is grinding at its finest.
After the round, I was filled with internal rage, all aimed at the person in my mirror. (Although, I do want a piece of the lazy bum who decided this course's hardest handicap holes should be par 5s, meaning I had to birdie each to match a par. Thanks a lot for costing us three holes, pal.)
Rather, I was ashamed. Ashamed that I wasted a strong showing from my partner. Ashamed that I couldn't back up my smack talk. Ashamed that, after hitting and putting well this week, I couldn't do it when it counted. Ashamed that I was letting a round of golf piss me off this much.
But as I was walking off the course, I saw a group of buddies sharing a drink, and...
You know what? No. This is not one of those happy-ending "discovering the true meaning of life" narratives. I'm sure there's merit to that argument; perhaps, one day, I will share these feelings.
But today, I lost. And it doesn't mean I have to like it.