As I prepared to tee off from the back tees on the 14th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links, my caddie, Joel, instructed me to “aim it right between the white tee markers” that frame the front of the teeing area.
Before each of the previous 13 tee shots, it had been his practice to pick a spot out in the fairway -- a tree or sand trap – to use as an aiming point. But with the renowned Monterey Peninsula fog growing thicker by the moment, there was no directional aid off in the distance on this hole, one Joel had just informed me is the most difficult par 5 each year on the PGA Tour.
With our visibility reduced to less than 50 yards, this tee shot would be a blind one.
As much as for the quality of its golf course, Pebble Beach is known for its natural beauty. Robert Louis Stevenson once referred to the area as “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea.” Indeed, when the air is clear, the views are breathtaking. And one can’t help but feel extremely fortunate to be on this property, which is regularly ranked among the best golf courses in the country.
However, on this day, the meeting of land and sea produced view-shrouding fog.
As the summer sun heats up dry air farther inland, that air begins to rise, pulling in the cooler, moist air that had been relaxing happily over the Pacific. Silently and gracefully, like a dancer, the fog rises and dips, stretches and recoils, turns and flows. It thickens along the coast and burns off as it ventures too far over land. One moment, the dancer has her arms wrapped around you; the next, she dashes away and seeks the shelter of a nearby cove. She is a fickle and flighty entertainer. And at this moment, she had become bold, prominent, unavoidable.
I had come to Pebble Beach to celebrate my 50th birthday, a checkmark on a bucket list, perhaps the only checkmark for the only item on my personal bucket list. And while I have spent some 35 of my 50 years playing golf, I have never exactly been in the expert class. Once content to simply hack the ball around my local municipal courses, I have worked hard in recent years to improve my game. I regularly shoot in the 80s for 18 holes.
But my play had been rather erratic in recent months. Perhaps it was the knowledge that I was on my way to Pebble, mixed with the fear that I wouldn’t play well.
Maybe I’ve simply passed my prime. For whatever reason, I hadn’t been scoring as well as I had wanted to in recent outings.
On this day, though, I wasn’t going to let spotty play bother me. Good, bad or indifferent, I was going to enjoy this round as if it were my last. And through the first 13 holes I’d had a bit of all three. Taking a triple bogey on the first hole after driving my tee shot straight down the middle of the fairway was probably one of the bad moments. Getting a birdie on the second hole definitely qualified as one of the good ones. And when I sliced a tee shot into stock-trading mogul Charles Schwab’s backyard on the fifth hole – well, I suppose I had to treat that lost ball with indifference. It was either that, or risk electrocution on the massive wire fence he has ringing his property.
So, Chuck, just between you and me, we’ll consider that ProV1 a little donation, OK?
But back to the shot at hand. All golfers have faced blind shots Usually, it’s because the rise or fall of the hole they’re playing makes it impossible to see where the ball will land after it is struck. Playing into a dense bank of fog is a bit different, though. It feels more restrictive, almost suffocating. And you’re still faced with the real prospect of hitting your ball and having no earthly idea where it will end up. Fortunately, because I had Joel on my side – as he headed out toward the fairway to try to keep tabs on my ball – there was a decent enough chance that I would find mine after I hit it, as long as I didn’t duck-hook it out of play.
As I pegged my tee into the soft, damp soil and placing my ball onto the tee, it occurred to me that since I won’t be able to see where my ball goes, there’s no use in worrying about it. As Arnold Palmer said, hit it and find it. No sense in trying to guide it or coax it. My only option is to trust my swing and let it go.
And that’s much of what life is about, isn’t it? The more we try to guide or force ourselves through it, the less control we seem to have.
Certainly, the other, lessez-faire extreme is fraught with its issues as well. Bulldozing your way through life with reckless abandon will surely lead to disaster at some point.
But somewhere in the middle, there is a good place, a peaceful place, a quiet satisfaction that only comes about from hard work and dedication, a positive outlook and the bravery to live life in the moment, experiencing its ups and downs as they happen.
Serenity. That’s what came over me as I faced a tee shot into a thick fog on one of the hardest golf holes at one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. And so, after aiming directly between the two white markers on the front of the tee box, I made my swing.
As it turns out, I didn’t need to see the path my ball traveled. I knew right where it was headed the moment I hit it and was able to walk through the fog directly toward it. And there I found it, some 260 yards away, precisely in the middle of the fairway.
Had the fog not engulfed me, I might have been distracted by the fairway bunkers that lay in wait for wayward tee shots on both the left and right of the fairway. As I stood over my ball, they were all too clear. That fickle dancer that had been so full of embrace back on the tee box was now slowly, quietly slinking away.
Her retreat reveals a hole that stretches 572 yards from the back tees, making a gentle turn to the right at just the spot where my ball landed, heading uphill. What makes the 14th hole at Pebble Beach so difficult is not necessarily its length or elevation change (nor is it, in this case, the fog), but the putting surface. Imagine a modest backyard pool turned upside down and covered in a thin layer of grass. The result is a preposterously small spot on which to land a golf ball and expect it to stay put rather than roll off to one side or the other. This tiny putting surface is also fronted by a yawning bunker, the likes of which no amateur golfer would want to face.
Seeing all that, I flinched. I pulled my second shot – a 4-hybrid from a perfect lie in the middle of the fairway – hard to the right (I’m a lefty, so for me a pulled shot goes to the right) and behind a small stand of cypress trees. I’m now faced with a shot of about 145 yards, from the rough, around the cypress trees, to a green that I cannot see – blocked, not by fog, but by trees.
As we waited for the group in front of us to clear from the green, Joel casually told me to hit a knock-down, hooking, 7-iron around the trees and onto the back of the green. Joel, it should be noted, plays to a 2-handicap. And while maybe he and Phil Mickelson regularly practice this sort of shot, I do not.
Just as I began to question my ability to hit the required shot, I saw clarity, as I did through the fog. I have a moment to catch my breath and realize that I’m at Pebble Beach, playing golf, having the time of my life. So, I took a few practice swings and, after Joel gave me the all-clear, I swung, sending my ball hooking around the cypress trees – a low, curving, running shot that I could no longer see. But I didn't need to: It was on the back of the green, right where it was supposed to be.
I wish I could say that I made the uphill, 20-foot putt for birdie, but the putt wasn’t even close. I pushed it wide. However, I made the treacherous downhill 4-footer and walked away with a chest-thumping par. I also walked away with a reminder that in golf, as in life, you don’t always get to see where you’re going. Sometimes it’s best to trust yourself to get there and appreciate the journey along the way.
Ken Giglio has been playing golf for almost as long as he has been writing and speaking. Despite being left-handed, he learned to play the game using right-handed clubs. Eventually, he switched over and now stands on the correct (for him) side of the ball.
When he’s not on the course, Ken works as a public relations consultant and voiceover talent. He previously spent 20 years working in radio, including 13 years as a broadcast newsman for The Associated Press.