Two years after turning his back on the sport, an embittered hacker travels to Kauai and rekindles the flame.
Author Tom Chiarella Illustration Barry Blitt
LET ME START at the end. Me, in the middle of my first round of golf in two years, trekking between the 12th green and the 13th tee box, on the silky tropical backside of the Puakea Golf Course in Kauai. Me, waving my partner along in the cart, so I can just walk and think. Me, coming off a dumb play, a bad putt, kicking myself a little for believing that there would be any comfort in the game of golf. Me, getting frustrated with the aimless conversation of my playing partners. Me, thinking about nothing at all except my next shot.
I’d quit golf cold two years before, sure that the game offered only frustration and disappointment. Now here I am beginning my comeback: a tough round on a fierce course in Kauai, the country’s most remote and rewarding golf mecca. The sprawl of mountains, jagged and muscular, scales back my worries. The trade winds blow, a little Cessna crabs its way through the sky above me. I stand at the far-western fringe of the United States, on Hawaii’s major western island, looking at a 205- yard shot into the sun. It’s a golfer’s moment, both mundane and particular. I find myself acting like a golfer: squaring up, clearing my head, digging my spikes into the tee box. It’s been a while since I acted like a golfer.
And I won’t save it. I won’t make you work for it. I’ll just state it right here: In about 10 or 15 seconds I’m going to hit my first hole in one. Thirty-two years of golf behind me, countless thousands of swings just like it, a million wishes for this very thing, and now here it is. Right away, I pretty much know that this is the beginning of my return to that most pitiless of sports.
When you quit golf, no one cares. Your regular partners stop calling faster than you’d expect. The prized clubs disappear into the great maw of forgotten possessions in the back of your garage. Now your stories are about traffic, movies or traffic on the way to the movies. Other people tell stories about playing Pebble, about chipping in to win a best ball; they rattle on about greenies, birdies, woodies, Arnolds. To you, it all starts to sound like childhood stories about distant cousins. Your genes are in there somewhere, but does it even matter anymore?
What I remember about the last time I played golf before I quit is how my hands felt—sore and overtight—on the alligator grip of my sand wedge. It was just after my second miss in a row from the same trap, my fifth miss in three holes, the last shot I’d take in an afternoon spent digging around in the carcass of my suddenly failing game. My ball thoroughly, somewhat hyperbolically, flew the green, cleared two bunkers on the other side and rolled out of my sight.
If you’ve ever played—or never played—you can fill in the excuses. I’d swung too hard or looked up. Caught it flush instead of blasting the sand. Whatever. No one saw it but me. No one cared but me. I was playing alone on a tough course that I’d always liked, standing there, feet screwed into the sand, in the torpid hotbox of an Indiana summer’s day, and a groan rose in the crankcase of my chest. No one heard that, either. But I can tell you I despised myself just then, the way I looked, the way I sounded, the way I wallowed in the unfairness of an unremarkable moment in a difficult game. I would never be a great golfer. Not even a good one.
The ball settled somewhere that afternoon, in some frog hole by some drainage pond, maybe. But I’ll never know, because I walked off after that. I put my clubs in my trunk and did not take them out for a year. When I did, they sat in my downstairs closet for another year. I left the game. I was done.
I didn’t announce my retirement; I simply stopped. I regained my Thursday evenings and recouped Saturdays entirely. I started congratulating myself for taking on tasks I’d previously put off. Hanging shades, learning to grill lamb shank, making cobbler. For a while I played tennis, then racquetball, then basketball. After a year, no one asked me about golf anymore.
There came a night, as I pulled into the parking lot before a Zumba class, when I caught sight of the cold sunset at one end of the parking lot, cutting through a set of snow-heavy fir trees. Facing west, thinking that spring would come soon, I realized I was eyeballing the trees as if there were a green in front of them, as if the whole icy scene were a setup for a stiff gap- wedge from 95 yards.
I knew then that I wanted to play again. I knew it would happen. But I didn’t want to revisit those sites of past ignominy, frustrated, angry, hacking away in that same old Indiana sand trap, burdened by the same old expectations.
I started looking for new places to play. I began pawing the magazines again. I looked for snatches of great courses as I passed them on the highways or from the windows of planes. None of this made me a golfer again. A golf course is always a vision, even at a distance, even to a nongolfer. I needed to play. I needed to get my hands on a club. I decided that I would go west to do it.
So I signed up for a five-course tour of Kauai—from the jungle traverse of Princeville, the top-rated course in the state, to the sunny Poipu Bay hugging the cliffs of the south shore, to the still- remarkable Kauai Lagoon, I knew this excursion would challenge the best golfer in the world. I also knew that plainly this was not me.
This was the end of my retreat from the game. But I did not practice. I couldn’t see what good it would do. I vowed not to swing until I arrived at the first tee. By doing this, I guaranteed that I would not be any good, nor was there any chance that I’d be great. I set out that first day to be only one thing: a golfer. I’d figure out the rest as I went.
And so, deep in the trip, I found myself facing down a 205-yard bomb, looking between two trees toward a flag on the front end of the green. As I said, I ciphered it awhile, and I took my swing. It felt great from contact on. The ball rose in a high, controlled draw, straight into the sun. Right away, someone said, “That’s in the hole!” And I half-brayed out a guffaw, claiming that with my luck I’d never see the ball again. The old me expected the worst, but that version of me was at his end.
None of us saw the ball land. “That really was a good shot,” said another. “I think it’s in the hole. I think you did it.” I didn’t want to expect that much. I didn’t want to expect anything. So I decided to smile; I decided to tell them how happy I was already.
This month, Esquire writer-at-large TOM CHIARELLA celebrates the first anniversary of his return to golf.
The lowdown on Kauai’s top courses.
PRINCEVILLE HANALEI: MAKAI GOLF COURSE
This Robert Trent Jones masterpiece is considered one of the top courses in the country. Bring your A-game. www.princeville.com
POIPU BAY GOLF COURSE
Tiger Woods counts this longtime home to the PGA’s Grand Slam event among his favorite courses to play. Its only competition is the resort’s amenities. www.poipubaygolf.com
KAUAI LAGOONS GOLF CLUB
When none other than Jack Nicklaus opened this course in 1989, it was called “the golden age of golf courses in Hawaii.” Stay gold, Kauai Lagoons. www.kauailagoonsgolf.com