A word of caution for early bird golfers from the ‘worst’ golfer of Lahore
The yellow disc high over the trees shone brightly like a fluorescent copper tray. It could have passed for a pale sun, except that the background sky was black and the perfect sphere was surrounded by countless stars. The billion distant suns bursting with ancient light were all eclipsed in brightness by Venus, the "Morning Star", which was wooing the earth’s solitary companion with a lovely lap dance.
I could have stood there for hours taking in the awe-inspiring spectacle. But star-gazing was not why I was out there in the darkness. Rather, I was standing at Lahore Gymkhana Golf Course’s tee no. 1 in the freezing winter pre-dawn, waiting for light to triumph over darkness in the morning edition of their twice-a-day battle, so I could tee-off for my morning 9 holes.
I waited, together with my faithful caddy Kamran, for a few more minutes under the starry sky, content that once again I had managed to beat the earliest of the so-called "early bird golfers" to the first tee, if only just. Not far behind me, members of this species of golfers known as the "early birds" were already flapping their wings to take off. These creatures, almost all of them middle-aged businessmen and industrialists, are a breed apart from the hordes which flock the Lahore golf courses in the afternoon.
Despite sharing the same time slot, I am, of course, not an early bird. The real early birds are all God-fearing souls who get up in the morning and head for their mosques and mussallahs and bow to the Almighty, pray profusely that their playing opponents have a sudden attack of yips just as they are about to attempt that delicate putt, and then make a beeline for the golf course.
I, on the other hand, am your garden-variety sinner who hates getting up in the morning. I get up an hour before the call of the muezzin not because it is the ideal time to say my Tahajjud and interface with the Creator, but only because, as much as I dislike getting up at such a godly hour, this masochistic routine allows me to beat the early birds to tee no. 1, and as a consequence finish 9 holes unimpeded and get done early enough to reach office well before 9 o’clock.
For reasons which will become clear very soon, I play by myself. Golf is one of those rare sports which does not require an opponent. You are really playing against the course because the "standard score" for each hole, called "par", is set beforehand by the club management, based largely on the distance between the tee and the green of that hole. The upshot of this scheme of things is that there is no escaping personal responsibility. Everyone plays with their own ball. No one ever touches your ball. The ball is always stationary when you hit it and you hit it from where you hit it because you hit it there with your previous hit. You can take virtually as much time as you need to prepare for your shot and you may use any of the 14 different clubs which you carry in your golf bag.
I give this lengthy explanation to make clear why I play alone. Most people of course do not play alone. They play in groups or "flights" of three or four players -- referred to colloquially as "three-ball", "four-ball". Even though I am a two-ball like most men, I play as "one-ball". The real reason, of course, is that I am terrible at the game and the humiliation that follows every errant shot when others are around is instant and severe. Given that I am arguably Lahore’s worst golfer, it’s best for everyone, including myself, that I play alone thus ensuring that whatever happens on the golf course stays between me and my balls.
Getting back to the tee no. 1, the moon was majestic and the sky still a darker shade of grey, but the caddies of the first flight of early birds had started arriving with golf bags of their "sahibs" and so it was time for me to hit it off into the darkness.
Being the first player on the course, I had the entire real estate to myself, meandering merrily along with no one ahead to hold me up. It was just me, my caddie and some wildlife most notably squirrels, of course, and the ubiquitous black kites -- the bird of prey we call cheel.
The cheels congregate in surprisingly large numbers on local golf courses in Lahore, especially at Gymkhana -- a testament perhaps to the relative abundance of small-sized wildlife in this "jungle in the city".
While no one else dares to touch your balls on the golf course, the rule does not apply to cheels. Every time they see a ball lying in the grass, they swoop down, thinking, I suppose, that it’s an egg, and try to pick the ball up with their claws. They usually fail because of the shinny slippery surface of the ball, but plenty of times they do succeed and I myself have fallen victim to their daylight robbery more than once.
Being alone, I soon moved well ahead the first flight of those other early birds. After my usual poor start I gradually began to play well -- "well" being a very relative term. By the time I arrived at the tee of hole no. 6, darkness had completely vanished and I was feeling pleased with myself for having put together a string of bogeys which was pretty good by my lowly standards.
Hole no. 6 is perhaps the most interesting hole at Gymkhana. Although it’s the shortest par-4 on the entire course, most people find it very intimidating given that it is heavily guarded by numerous sand bunkers and especially because players cannot see the fairway when standing at the tee and are required to hit their tee shots over a wall of trees beyond which lies the fairway and the green.
Paradoxically, this is my favourite hole and I have parred it more often than any other hole on the course. I relish the fact there is no visible fairway to aim my tee shot towards -- you give me a target and sure as hell I will miss it. In this case, with no particular spot on the fairway available to target, I just take a general aim over the trees and let go, often with great results.
This morning, as usual, I let it rip over the trees and hit the ball very long -- too long for my own good, it turned out. I drove the ball "straight" but it ended up in the trees to the left of the fairway because as you move close to the green, the fairway curves to the right on this "dog-leg right" hole. Since my ball ended up in a spot which was very close to the green but from where my next shot in the direction of green was blocked off by heavy trees, I had to hit the ball back in the direction of the tee, away from the green, in order to get on to the open fairway, sacrificing a shot as a consequence.
I then had a lengthy discussion with my caddy about what club to use to play the next shot. Caught in a range which was "between clubs" -- the ball was too close to the green to use a longer-range club, but too far to be within the reach of a shorter-range club -- there were a number of different options but no obvious choices.
My caddy insisted that I should use a loftier club such as sand wedge which would allow me to lob the ball over the green-side bunker and land the ball on the green -- the putting surface -- from where I could put the ball in the hole in standard two putts. I argued, on the other hand, that sand wedge was a difficult club to hit and that chances were high that I might either "top hit" the ball or, conversely, "duff" it. In either case the ball would end up in the deep bunker lying between the ball and the green. I also pointed out that the actual hole (called the cup) was set way back on a plateau at rear of the longish green which would require the ball to roll up a steep slope in order to reach the vicinity of the hole.
This, I feared, meant that even if I didn’t "top" or "duff" the shot and managed to get the ball airborne, because of the shorter range of a sand wedge, the ball would come to rest on the lower part of the green far away from the cup, almost certainly requiring an extra (third) putt beyond the "regulation" two putts to complete the hole.
Based on these calculations, I suggested to my caddy that I go for a flatter 8-iron chip-roll rather than lobbing the ball high with the sand wedge as he wanted. Kamran wouldn’t have any of it and said I was opting for the wrong shot. He said that if I tried to play the 8-iron chip-roll too "gently" then it might not get the loft and the distance required to clear the bunker. If, on the other hand, he continued, I played the shot firmly enough for the ball to lift sufficiently off the ground, clear the mound between the bunker and the green, and pitch on the finely manicured green itself then the momentum of the ball would make it travel past not just the hole but the entire green and it would roll down to the heavy tall grass called "rough" 10 feet below the putting surface. This would ruin my hole and probably the entire morning round, he feared. "From where you are, you cannot make the ball hit with the 8-iron stop on the green," he declared unequivocally.
I may have many other weaknesses but I am not a gambling man. But in this instance, I decided to roll the dice and opted to go for the 8-iron chip. Kamran’s face fell immediately. He takes all our disagreements very personally and I like that. To me that means he has a stake in every one of my shots. He is an extremely good professional-level player but he is not a coach and does not understand that I cannot play the same ideal copybook shots that he would play in the same situation.
To cut the long story short, I executed the 8-iron chip perfectly -- neither too gently nor too hard. I chopped down on the ball as if I was playing a wedge, putting a little extra backspin on it in the process. The ball flew over the bunker and the mound, landed on the green and rolled towards the back, climbed the steep slope and, helped perhaps by the extra backspin I had put on the ball, came to a gentle stop on the high plateau about 10 feet from the hole. Sure, given my inept putting skills, it would still require two putts, but I had now ensured a very-much-acceptable bogey while a bad double-bogey, or worse, loomed large just moments earlier.
I looked triumphantly towards the caddy, beaming a huge smile, and said: "I told you I could do it".
"Good shot", he said grudgingly, making it obvious that he thought that technically I had played the wrong shot, even if the results had turned out to be unexpectedly great.
As we walked towards the hole, I lectured him some more on how I really knew my game and he should accept the fact that in our disagreements I was almost always right. The poor chap had little option but to nod silently. I promptly finished the hole in two putts thus ending up with a "good 5", a recovery bogey on the par 4 hole after having hit the tee shot into the trees to left of the fairway.
I then walked towards tee no. 7 smug in the knowledge that I had finally arrived. With my cap in my hand, I was swinging it repeatedly, pretending to replay the shot I had just executed. I gave myself extra marks for having stood up to the over-bearing caddy. "He should stick to being a caddy and not pretend to be a coach", I thought.
And then the sky fell upon me. All I heard was a "whoosh" behind me followed a tiny fraction of a second later by a loud thud on my head as if someone had whacked me with a spiked hammer. A searing pain ran down my spine as the attacking UFO dug its razor sharp talons into my scalp. The cap went flying out of my hands as I was knocked forward by the thump from the rear. Literally rendered senseless for a second or two, I only saw a blurred mass of grey zip past me but the shrill whistle and whinnying cry made it clear enough that I had been the victim of a cheel attack. The terror that I had once experienced upon watching Hitchcock’s The Birds many decades ago surged through my traumatised body with a vengeance -- only more immediate and more real, this time. Life is stranger, and more brutal, than fiction.
Fortunately -- unlike in The Birds -- other nearby black kites chose not to follow in the flight path of their belligerent fellow raptor and thus spared me the deathly fate of many of the characters in The Birds. My life having been spared, I set about trying to understand what had just happened. I looked around: there was no ball lying in my vicinity which might have made the cheel come swooping down from the skies. "What had made the cheel act like a WWII Japanese Kamakazi pilot and aim straight for my skull?", I wondered. Did my balding crown present itself as a sumptuous egg that the poor cheel couldn’t resist? To be fair, I have been called an egghead once or twice by more street-wise friends.
And then it hit me -- this bird attack out of nowhere was divine retribution for my hubris -- one of the seven deadly sins. Thou shall not act proud, God had once told a certain People of the Book long ago and I had been nothing if not haughty following my little chip shot. Convinced that my end was at hand if I didn’t, I repented immediately and promised to never fall victim to such delusional hubris - which is nothing but a form of idolatory-of-the-self.
It was also revealed to me in that moment of truth that my Mr. Kamran was not to be belittled ever again. I immediately accepted him as my coach and mentor, not just my bag-carrier, and from that point on have addressed him with reverence as "ustad jee". In an abundance of caution, I have stopped using him as caddy lest I commit some other blunder, knowingly or unknowingly, and end up losing my head altogether next time.