So I got lost playing golf the other day. Not lost in the moment or lost in reverie. And definitely not in the zone. I’m talking physically lost, as in “where the fuck is the 12th hole?” lost.
An explanation is in order since I wouldn’t want any of you to worry that I’d had some sort of minor stroke or early onset of dementia. For all I know those things may have already happened to me, but I don’t think they contributed to this particular fiasco. I was a guest of my brother-in-law at the Menlo Country Club where he is a summer member. He’d played there once before, and although I grew up just miles away, it was my first time on the course.
My sister (his wife) had described the place to me as very old school, but I hadn’t appreciated how true that was until I got out there. This isn’t just a course that regards putting hole numbers on the tee boxes as gauche. That absence of any identification just provides the finishing touches of obscurity and exclusivity. We’re talking about a layout that has no logical sequence. For example, you leave the green on one hole and find two tee boxes side by side. Clearly only an interloper such as myself would assume that the nearest is the one for the next hole.
But that isn’t where we went wrong. Making the turn, we played number 10, a sharp dog leg left that goes uphill. Done with that, we looked up to our left where we saw another tee box. Alright, number 11, or so we thought. This was another dog leg par 4, but longer and even more uphill. As we were trudging up the hill, towards the green, my brother-in-law said something I can’t ever remember hearing on a golf course: “I think we’re on the wrong hole.”
“I think this is the eighteenth,” he said, and that statement, in and of itself, seemed almost equally absurd to me. I looked around and the clubhouse was nowhere to be seen, just a dried swath of California chaparral that sloped away from what had to be the 11th hole. Courses don’t end like this. The 12th tee box had to be just around the corner.
As it turns out , my bro-in-law was right. But here’s another factor that contributed to our predicament: there wasn’t a freaking person around to ask for help. Nobody. So, bewildered that two guys with advanced degrees could get lost on a golf course, we walked back the fairway formerly known to us as the 11th, toward the 10th green since we felt pretty sure that was where we went wrong. Sure enough, down a rather steep slope was a tee box, unblemished by anything as utilitarian as a sign with a number on it, that looked like a reasonable candidate for the elusive 11th hole that we sought so desperately.
The whole experience underscored how much the sport has changed over the decades. The very design of these quirky private clubs express the “Members Only” ethos that defined golf for so long. They are just physical embodiments of the old adage that if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it: if you have ask where the 11th tee box is, you clearly don’t belong. In fact, when playing the Peninsula Club, another bastion of Olde Northern California just up the road from Menlo, I have suspected that the illogical sequencing of the holes is a form of booby trap, designed to expose trespassers: “Why look Higginbotham, that fellow just walked off the 5th green and directly to the 8th tee box. Let’s arrest him!”
The very lack of people–anybody– to whom we could confess our disorientation also reinforced the feeling of exclusivity. It was a typically beautiful summer late afternoon in the Bay Area and there was nobody within five hundred yards of us. Even the anticlimactic 18th hole made me realize how standardized our expectations are of what a golf course should look like. We’ve all played enough courses in Arizona or Florida to know that the 18th hole is the one with the best view of the Big Building. But not on these old courses. They weren’t built with a brochure in mind.
They also clearly weren’t designed with liability insurance in mind. The Claremont course, across the Bay in Oakland, has fairways that cross each other at right angles. Back in the day this was an easy solution to the limits of the terrain. You didn’t move a lot of earth in order to make the holes follow each other like a strip of disemboweled intestines. If you found yourself sort of backed into a corner, you just cut straight across some other fairways. It just created another opportunity to meet fellow members, offering an additional chance to make plans to meet for cocktails later on the veranda.
Which leads me to a final clarification. My confusion about how to navigate the course should not be construed as any sort of indictment of the club membership. My interaction with members was limited, and sadly so when we were in desperate need of some contact, but everybody was friendly in that guarded, do-I-know-you-from-somewhere kind of way that marks one’s comings and goings in such surroundings. Perhaps I was just the recipient of the universal ability of species to recognize fellow members: I was just another white haired guy who looked like he spent a bit too much time in the sun. I belonged, at least in theory, if not in practice.