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500 shots at a hole-in-one brings out the best (and worst) in a golfer

May 26, 2019

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

When stepping onto the tee box of a par-4 or par-5, the only thing that crosses my mind is to hit a nice drive. I’m not thinking about seeing that shot drop into the hole.

The tee box on a par-3 though – that’s a different story.

Like many golfers, I understand the odds of a getting a hole-in-one are low – roughly 1 in 12,500. But that doesn’t deter the weekend warrior from thinking to themselves ‘Is this the one?’ every time the distance of a hole is less than 200 yards.

The optimism just before making contact, the disappointment that often follows impact. Even after a good shot, we’ve all shouted ‘Be the right club!’ or ‘Get a little (enter direction here)!’

Pars are solid, birdies are great – but nothing tops an ace. So would the chances of one going in improve if you had a second shot from the same spot? What about 10 tries?

How about 500?

March 23, 2017

Before checking into our hotel on a family vacation in San Diego, I noticed a par-3 course across from the parking lot. Presidio Hills Golf Course.

I had seen it the year before, but didn’t get the chance to play. This time I was determined to get a few swings in. So on our second day I strolled over a little after 9 a.m., rented a graphite-shaft pitching wedge from the early ’90s, a blade putter and a ball.

As expected with a new club and no chance to get warm, my front nine was a mixed bag of bad and worse.

Walking to the 10th hole, a 60-yard shot with fencing left and long, I just wanted to steady the ship. I did just that by hitting a half wedge to the front of the green and watched it drop for the ace.

There was no hands in the air or high-fives though – just a pit in my stomach. This was a nightmare in terms of golf success. I was not only playing alone, but there wasn’t another soul on the course.

As I went to return the clubs and ball, I told the course attendant what I had accomplished.

“Neat, no one probably saw it though, so that sucks,” he said.

Indeed it did.

The plan

My idea was simple, if not a little crazy. Find the right hole on the right course and take 500 shots to try and get a hole-in-one. There was no thought of how quickly I could get one – I fully expected to hit all 500 balls, but anything could happen.

My first phone call was to The Fairways in Cheney, a course I had played just that week and many times before. After talking with head pro Dakota White and director of instruction Derrick Campbell, we settled on the 125-yard 17th hole.

The hole plays about 10 yards uphill and is protected with bunkers to the right and short left. It features a large green, allowing the crew to place the flag in several spots. There are no water hazards, no chance to lose a bunch of balls – just a straightforward shot. Or so I thought.

‘That’s the pin?’

After arriving at the course on a perfect Monday afternoon, I was joined by our Washington State University beat writer Theo Lawson, who I convinced to be my assistant. We chatted with the guys for a while in the clubhouse, grabbed a large bag of Titleist Pro V1 practice balls and then headed up the hill next to the driving range to the 17th tee.

The first thing that came into sight was the green. We peered over the right bunker and my eyes immediately went to the hole location.

“That’s the pin?” I said to Theo. “This might be tougher than I thought.”

The hole was cut on the far left side of the green and maybe six or seven paces from the front. It was protected in front by the left bunker and about 10 yards of downhill rough past that before the hole.

There was an opening on the right to try and swoop in a low draw and get the ball running to the hole, but the slope of the green kicked everything to the right.

This was going to take either the perfect shot, or more likely a lucky one.

As I walked down to the tee box for the first time, I wasn’t thinking about the slight helping breeze moving the white flag or what the exact distance of the shot would be. All I could think about was how in the world I would get a shot close.

Shot 1

The difficulty of the shot continued to grow once I got down to the tee. The left bunker – and hill behind it – make it so I could only see the top half of the flag. So even if a shot found its way into the hole, I wasn’t seeing it.

With Theo situated on the green, I took a final check of the distance – 129 yards – and pulled out my 9 iron.

With no stretching or warmup, the first few shots didn’t make the notes, to say the least. The ball bag had about 200 in it, but I was sure to pull out 10 at a time to keep track.

As the number of shots entered the teens, I started to get dialed in on my strike and number.

“That one is about three feet behind the hole – really good shot,” Theo said of my 13th shot over a phone call, since I couldn’t see anything around the pin.

“Get left,” Theo yelled as my 18th shot settled four feet from an early ace.

Still nothing was really scaring that hole location. It was scaring me.

Shot 90

Still no winner, but some good-looking 9-irons. I found this part of the challenge the most difficult to accept.

Good shots aren’t rewarded in the hunt for an ace – they’re just another miss.

As I was nearing time for a break and chat with Theo about what was working best, Dakota’s cart pulled up. The second-year head pro welcomed me and pulled out the course’s FlightScope launch monitor.

After letting a few groups play through, I was able to hit some shots with the tool. Getting to know my exact carry distance, attack angle, swing path, face angle and dispersion was a much-needed mental break from just thinking about the hole.

“I’ve hit a few pins and knocked a couple of flagsticks over to the side, but I’ve never had a hole-in-one,” Dakota said. “Honestly, I don’t even think about it on par-3s. I guess I’m young enough in my golf career that I’m not stressing about it.

“I probably think about it more on driveable par-4s where I go ‘Man, that would be kind of cool.’”

Once I hit shot 100 it was also time for a hat switch. I moved from my blue Under Armour cap to a hat my soon-to-be brother-in-law got me from Kapalua in Hawaii.

Shot 113

It was time for the reinforcements to show up. My wife, Jordyn, came out to the course as soon as she was off work. After a quick “Hello” and “How was your day?” she headed up to the green to help out Theo.

A few more groups played through. The course was busy for a Monday night, but with perfect weather it was hard to imagine being anywhere else.

At this point my swing was dialed in and the juices were flowing, so I put the 9-iron back in the bag and pulled out the pitching wedge.

What ensued was a string of about 100 pretty good shots – a few great ones, actually – but none found their way to the bottom of the cup.

Shot 200

Thanks for nothing, Kapalua hat (sorry, Ben).

It was time to channel my inner Joel Dahmen – it was time for the bucket hat.

Shot 220

Pitching wedge goes back in the bag as Dakota takes the launch monitor, says goodbye and heads back to the clubhouse.

“Pressure’s off now, just go get one,” he said.

With the 9-iron back in play, Theo, Jordyn and I game-planned the best way to attack the pin. Going straight at the flag was a sucker play. Instead I decided to put the ball back in my stance, close the face and hit a low stinging draw.

If I couldn’t fly the ball close, I was going to use the ground and hope one found the right line.

Shot 281

I found my groove. Every stinger had the perfect draw to it, I just had to start it on the correct line.

As shot 281 left the club, I shouted “Be the one!” – two hops in the rough just left of the bunker slowed the ball down enough for it to have a chance. After the shot crested the hill and out of my view, I looked up to Jordyn hoping for a reaction.

The only thing cooler than seeing my own ace would to watch my wife’s reaction. Instead I saw her put her hands on her head and yell “Barely missed to the right!”

On to the next one.

Shot 400

There’s something special about a round number, but to be fair I wasn’t thinking about making one as much as I was counting down my final 100 shots.

Two blisters, including one on the base of my right index finger, had started to form – I knew my shots were numbered.

That’s what makes shot 400 so special.

Still trying to sling in a low draw, I had to add a touch more height to avoid hitting Theo, who was in front of the green picking up balls.

The shot was struck well enough and on the right line. My initial thought was that it needed to go a little more. Instead it needed to settle.

Much like 281, once it got over the hill all I could do was look at Theo. Look and listen.

“Clank”

It hit the flagstick, Jordyn and I heard it back at the tee box. We just didn’t know if it dropped in after.

Theo’s hands shot up in the air, my heartbeat jumped 20 beats per minute.

Theo’s hands fell to his head, I fell to my knees.

The ball finished three inches away after knocking off the stick.

Shot 481

Having a broken spirit is one thing. Having a broken blister – that makes it hard to keep going.

I was 19 shots from my limit. Had I been 100 or more, I might have stopped. There was no way that I was calling it quits, though – I had 19 swings left and I didn’t need the full use of my right index finger to hit them.

Shot 500

None of the last 50 or so shots even came close to an ace. That’s when I reminded myself that even after coming up short, I wanted to end the night on a high note.

The final shot finished 18 feet right of the pin – a shot I’d be happy with on any other occasion. So for the first time, I grabbed my putter, walked up the hill and lined up the birdie attempt.

My four-hour-long experiment was finishing with a golf ball at the bottom of the cup.

Barely able to grip my putter, I left the birdie putt short. Still, a two-putt par was fine by me.

My wife took my picture with the flag and we joined Theo in picking up the balls scattered around the green and in the bunker. With the balls collected and clubs put away, it was time for the golf shoes to come off, sandals to go on and a much-needed dinner stop.

There was no ace, but there was one flagstick hit, two incredible helpers, 35 or so shots within tap-in range feet and 100-plus shots in the bunker.

I went into the experience thinking a hole-in-one would get easier to achieve with more shots. I now realize that the hole has no idea if it’s your first or 500th attempt – it’s a combination of skill and luck that allows you to throw your hands up in celebration. Hopefully it’s a combination I find sooner rather than later.

“Why don’t you just go home? That’s your home. Are you too good for your home?” – Adam Sandler as Happy Gilmore.

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