With one round of golf left to play in Groundhog Cup XX, I can make one prediction with great assurance.
I am not going to win it.
(If you clicked here because you thought this weekend's premier American sporting event was a football game, and you wanted to read yet another article hyping it or predicting the winner, I apologize. The confusion is perhaps understandable. Both the Super Bowl and the Groundhog Cup are contested during the first weekend in February. The difference is that in the Super Bowl, young men put their brains in jeopardy to win a championship. In the Groundhog Cup, much older men play for a championship in a way that suggests they have already sustained serious brain damage. Or so it seems to me after two decades of humiliation and futility at this event.)
The 'Hog started innocently enough. Eight middle-aged men, frustrated by the long, cold winter of '97 in Maryland, decided to fly down to Florida for a weekend of golf around Groundhog Day. But then the founders decided to make this modest little getaway a tournament. A stroke-play tournament, strict rules of golf, which means putt everything out and count every stroke. With betting. Now it has 32 players, and we are all older, but the original rules still apply. My golf game is frail enough in the summertime, when I've had some practice, and the rounds are casual, four-ball affairs. Those are the rounds with plenty of conceded putts I tell myself I would have made if I'd had to. They're rounds where on the occasional disastrous hole I can and do pick the ball up and blithely say, “I'm in my pocket, partner. Play well.” There's no picking up putts at the Groundhog. There's no pocket to hide in during a disaster. The 'Hog is merciless. It exposes the flaws in my game the way a hurricane exposes the construction flaws in a cheap Florida condo.
It's always, it seems, a different flaw. Sometimes, at the 'Hog, I drive the ball well. Then my putting collapses. Or I drive and putt fairly well, but can't seem to hit a short iron. One year, long ago, I got to the tee of the next-to-last hole of the final day tied for the lead. My snap hook chose that moment to make an appearance, and my hopes disappeared into a thick Florida forest.
This morning, in the second round of the 'Hog, it was an old and familiar flaw, my short game, that flared up to destroy me. On my tenth hole, I put my second shot into a creek that fronts the green here at Grand Cypress. I dropped a new ball and faced a tough little pitch shot of perhaps fifteen yards that needed to clear the creek but stop quickly. Twitch. Splash. Lunge. Splash. Spasm. Plonk (my fourth ball hitting the retaining wall on the other side of the creek). Splash. I would have done better trying to kick the ball over the hazard. By the time I finally managed to scrape the fifth ball over the creek and onto the green, then take the predictable three putts, I had made an even dozen strokes, and my already dim chances of being in the money for this year's 'Hog were gone.
(That's someone else's ball hitting the creek in the picture at the top of this post, by the way. I'm not quick enough to send my own ball toward the creek, grab a camera, and photograph it splashing in.)
There's an old golf saying that applies here. It would be that half the contestants in the Groundhog Cup don't care that I made an excruciating twelve. The other half wishes it had been a thirteen.
That's in part because I am not the only player doing badly in the 'Hog. Indeed, on a per capita basis, the Groundhog Cup each year sees more disasters than France did in 1940. My twelve on the 10th was not the highest score of the tournament. It was not even the highest score in my foursome this morning. For the first time in decades, I posted a score in triple digits. And my score was second-best in my foursome. We are all golfers with handicaps that say we should be shooting in the 80s or, at worst, the 90s. But no one has ever played to his handicap in the Groundhog Cup. The birdies we see each year at the Groundhog Cup usually have feathers, like the heron, above left. And the canny Groundhog veterans are the ones who bring a ball retriever to fish balls out of the hazards. They may dump a few in, but at least they won't have to go back to the pro shop to buy replacements.
I suppose there are reasons for this futility. It's winter and we're out of practice. The courses in Florida are penal, with lots of water. The weather, even though it's Florida, can be cold and wet, as it is this week, and we play our tournament rounds early in the morning so the real zealots can go out after lunch and play another 18.
In my own case, though, I have to say it's the pressure of tournament play. I don't handle it well. As it happens, I have been the co-author of a number of books (assisting Dr. Bob Rotella) on the psychology of golf—how not to choke, if you will. My Groundhog Cup history thus puts me in a position analogous to that of the minister caught in flagrante with the choir director. I am much better at preaching than I am at performing.
I tell myself that I shouldn't care what I shoot at the Groundhog, that the exercise, the (occasional) sun, and the fellowship are what's important. I can't quite make myself believe it, though. The other day, over the golf course, an evangelical skywriter was putting religious exhortations into the blue. (More than likely, this evangelist was thinking of converting not us Groundhoggers, but the crowds at Disney World, a couple of miles away. Groundhog golfers, who tend to miss Sunday morning church with regularity, are considered incorrigible heathens, for the most part correctly.) I took a picture as the little plane labored over its message. “U + GOD = Happy Face,” it eventually said.
Maybe so. I can bear witness that there are not many happy faces at the Groundhog Cup. I am afraid that down here in the pothole bunkers and water hazards, we may be beyond the sight of even the Lord Himself.