A Humbling Yet Blissful Round at Shinnecock

‘Kindly replace all divots,’ the small sign said
Jon Diat took advantage of a golden opportunity Monday to pose with the U.S. Open’s silver cup.

I will be wearing two hats, so to speak, at the coming U.S. Open at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club — one as a volunteer on the leaderboards committee for three days, and the other as a credentialed reporter, a rather fun and unique combination.

When an email from the United States Golf Association’s public relations department arrived a few weeks ago, inviting me to Monday’s media preview at the club and inviting me, as well, to play the course that day, I was both flattered and anxious. Playing on such a famous stage where four Opens have been held in three centuries would indeed be a rare treat, though at the same time I wondered just how embarrassing my performance would be. Would I literally tear the course up?

While I love golf, and have played it since the age of 4, I stopped playing about a decade ago as work and family commitments became more time consuming, and switched to tennis, which is usually over in an hour rather than the four or five it takes to play a round of golf. I love tennis now, but the opportunity to play Shinnecock was just too good to pass up, my extreme anxiety notwithstanding. 

I resurrected my clubs from the basement, where they had been buried, but bad weather initially inhibited my plans last weekend to go to the range so I could remove the heavy coating of rust that had formed on my backswing. 

On Sunday, however, there was a slight break in the weather and I hightailed it to Montauk Downs to hit a few buckets, and to see just how poor my putting was.

You won’t believe this. I didn’t believe this. It was as if Jack Nicklaus had entered my body and had transformed me into Arnold Palmer: I could do no wrong. From driver to pitching wedge, I hit just about every shot perfectly. I was dumbfounded, even to the extent of regretting that I hadn’t played for so many years. I drove home aglow with confidence. I slept soundly that night.

Monday was glorious. The sun was out, it was warm. I walked with a sure step from the club’s parking lot to the media center at the left of the first hole, just beyond the famous clubhouse that Stanford White designed. Memories of watching Tiger Woods teeing off in 1995 at the first hole, in his first U.S. Open, came flooding back. His drive landed in the middle of the fairway. . . . Reliving the moment gave me goose bumps. Then I saw a small sign that said, “Kindly replace all divots.”

As we were given an overview of the tournament by senior U.S.G.A. officials during lunch, I was distracted by the growing knot in my stomach as my tee time loomed. There were television cameras and reporters from all over the world at this press conference. All sorts of languages were being spoken. Suddenly, I began to feel my arms, legs, and chest tense up. I began to sweat.

I decided, as we exited the vast media center, to join up with a few other mainstream reporters on the range to loosen up. A very bad decision, as they say. The lightning I had captured in a bottle and had clutched fervently the day and night before had escaped: Only rarely did a shot go the way I’d planned. Slices would be followed by duck-hooks, divots got deeper and more pronounced. It would take many months, I thought, before the root systems I’d scrambled would revive.

In approximately 20 minutes I had fallen apart utterly. That’s all it took. Rust? No, it was massive corrosion, acute metal fatigue. In a word, I had crumbled.

The 14th hole, where my group began, is a 525-yard par 4. That’s about how long all nine holes are at Poxabogue (where my 92-year-old mother got a hole in one the first time she ever played, in 1964, by the way). The U.S.G.A. officials had announced proudly at the press briefing earlier that that hole was playing 75 yards longer than it had in 2004, the last time the Open was held there.

Frankly, I could see no reason for the change other than to further punish a hacker like me.

Playing bad golf for 18 holes is not great fun. Needless to say, I didn’t keep score. I can’t count that high anyway. The course record still stands, suffice to say. Maybe 62 was my score on the front nine, though my pencil would have run out of lead by then.

Still, it was a privilege to play Shinnecock, a truly magnificent and historic golf course. You could feel the electricity as you walked by the numerous grandstands, pavilions, and tents — just what the players must feel in such an arena, surrounded by 40,000 spectators. It was bliss.

I doubt I will ever have another chance to play Shinnecock; the damage I inflicted was just too great. I know I’ve been banned for life. But that’s okay. At least I can say that I actually played there, and that means something to me. 

Meanwhile, tennis, anyone?