My fellow competitor left his first putt a woeful 5 feet short of the hole, and as he approached his ball it was clear that he wanted to finish. Finish he would – with style. As he read the break, I turned my back to the hole and began the walk down the slope towards my mark, which sat some 30 or 40 feet from the cup on the other side of the green. When I arrived, I turned back towards the hole expecting to see my competitor partway through his pre-putt routine. Turns out he’d already hit and missed the 5-footer, leaving it an inch left of the cup. I caught him just in time to witness the most ridiculous, yet brilliantly straightforward, act of cheating one could imagine: hand picks ball off of green, hand puts ball into hole, hand extracts ball from hole as if the 5-footer had dropped. Bogey magically turned to par.
“CHEATER! Are you joking? Really? I’m standing right here! Did you think you could get away with that? I’ve sweated every 2-footer all day long and you’re going to pull a f*#@ing stunt like that in broad daylight?”
In a heated qualifying round with a college golf team position at stake, these are all the things that would characterize a normal reaction to the rabbit-out-of-the-hat shenanigans I’d just witnessed. But I said nothing. I was too stunned to react. I putted out, wrote down two pars, and walked to the next tee with my head down.
More than fifteen years later I continue to be surprised at how vivid this memory is for me. It’s seared in my mind, each millisecond a stand-alone frame. I can rewind and play it forward in slow motion, and each time I feel the same degree of incredulousness I felt back on the day when that immaculate par was made. The thing is, what haunts me most is not the egregious cheating action of my playing partner, but rather my own inexplicable inaction afterwards. It’s difficult to look back at that craven, timid kid and accept that he was, well, me.
Part of getting older is learning to embrace our former selves, to recognize our less than perfect pasts as indispensable precursors of the improved people we’ve grown into. But I can’t seem to wrap my arms around this skinnier, wimpier version of me. No, instead of coming to peace, I’ll continue my puffy-chested attempts to make things whole by immediately and confidently calling penalties for every rules violation I see. Two strokes here for teeing up in front of the markers. Two strokes there for grounding a club in the bunker. When my wife stops playing with me for good, I’ll have only that wimpy kid to blame.