A heated philosophical debate began with an evening nine. It was on my home course, where breaking 80 for me has always been a big deal, especially since it starts with a front nine that’s two or three shots harder than the back. I posted a bunch of back-nine scores in the 30s, but they always came after a lackluster start. By my English major math, a solid chance at 79 depends on me not being more than five on the turn.
Fast forward to the other night. My teenage son and I started just before 6pm, and since I knew I had to be back for an 8am meeting, we were only planning on playing nine holes. To complicate matters further, I had tweaked my back earlier in the day, so I was probably swinging around 75% (let’s stop at this point in the story to acknowledge how incredibly lame I sound).
Still, for some reason I had found a groove, and when I stood on the ninth tee, I boldly told my playing partners I was going for 39. With solid drive, a clean corner and a putt of steel, the closing birdie put me down to three more.
Summoning three consecutive clutch shots on command might have been the most impressive 10 minutes of my golfing life. Less impressive: I had to go, and I knew what I was leaving behind. It was getting dark and I had accepted a conference call that I couldn’t ignore. It wasn’t until we walked to the car that the thought hit me: Wait, can I just come back and finish tomorrow?
Now, at this point, we should acknowledge the official position on this: for handicap purposes, the USGA does indeed allow you to combine scores from nine holes to arrive at a full 18. So if I came back the next day, or even a week later, and shot 40, I could post 79 on GHIN. Additionally, we know that tournament golf games are interrupted by darkness or weather and postponed all the time to the next day, and those 18-hole scores count like any other.
So in that sense there was no technical debate that I could come back the next day, leave on the 10th and continue my “tour”. But that’s not really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about whether something “matters” in the nebulous way you talk about it with your friends, no different than when someone asks you if you had a hole in one, or the last time you were in a fight. And when I asked if the tour should count on Twitter, the answer was a definite yes.
In other words, it was complicated.
I even got heartbreak from co-workers.
The original tweet and a poll that followed elicited a wide range of passionate responses. While a major faction cited GHIN rules as well as tournament precedents, more than half of those polled said a true first time to break 80 must be more than 18 contiguous holes – on the same day, same clothes, the looming prospect of a career breakthrough bigger and bigger with each stroke.
Spoiler alert: I agree! While my friends and social media followers thought I was seeking permission to take my 79 any way I could, I wouldn’t “count” it either. Over the past 24 hours, I’ve given this topic the depth of thought that I should give to more serious matters – LIV vs. the PGA Tour, inflation, arm locks – and determined that the debate taps into all the ways golf challenges us, and where it personally tests me the most.
In my case, I wouldn’t be concerned about fatigue, and if anything, a night’s sleep knowing precisely what was at stake on the back nine would only magnify my nerves. Also, for a player of my level, much of the game is about an indefinable rhythm that comes on suddenly and disappears just as abruptly. Given this, you could say that 79 shots over two days could be considered more impressive that if done in one.
Except it wouldn’t, because for me, the biggest challenge in golf has to do with our expectations and the obstacles they create. Although my game has taken an encouraging turn recently, at least a small reason why I played so well the other night was the context. It was late. I had back pain. While that sounds like ingredients for mediocre golf, these are actually the elements that lowered the stakes and freed me to play. In an alternate scenario where I know my turn is continuing, I might expect my grip to tighten as I silently add up my score.
Taking the discussion a step further, you could say that your view on the matter is dictated by what a golf score means to you in the first place. With the exception of low-stakes gambling and B-flying club championships, none of my golf courses “count” in any meaningful way. And it’s less about what I say to my friends at the bar than what I want to say to myself.
Breaking 80 is a barrier that has dominated every lap, and there’s a reason I haven’t broken it before. When this happens, I want no doubt that it has been deserved.