April 27, 2005

Making Divots With C.U.'s Tiger

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Now I kind of know what it feels like to play with Tiger Woods.

A week and a half ago, Chris DiMarco, a golfer on the PGA Tour, was within striking range to win his first ever Masters. Problem was, he was facing Goliath. And Goliath’s name was Tiger Woods.

Tiger hit drives over 50 yards past DiMarco, used a pitching wedge outside of his challenger’s four-iron and made chips which Moses would have difficulty concocting. And while I was watching this tantalizing face-off — DiMarco versus Tiger, David versus Goliath, one-hit wonder versus living legend — DiMarco seemed to grow shorter and shorter as Tiger bombed his shots eons past his.

Being a casual golfer, I would have felt humiliated. But how could I replicate this feeling? By finding the Tiger Woods of Cornell, of course.

Meet senior Kevin Scelfo — the captain of the Cornell golf team. Kevin is like Tiger in many ways — he can beat me by 20 strokes with only a nine iron, and when he has the driver in his hands, it’s like he’s aiming for Fiji every time. While Kevin does not have a Swedish goddess for a wife, he can hit the long ball straight and far — making him a perfect candidate for my humiliation.

Kevin, who was surprisingly willing and friendly enough to play nine holes with me considering my appalling golfing ability, is not the stereotypical rotund, beer chugging golfer that you might expect. In fact, he is currently training for the Ironman triathalon this summer before taking off for London where he will work for HSBC as an investment banker. Golf will surely come in handy for Kevin in the business world for those friendly bets — “I can win any corporate outing with one club,” he tells me without any hint of sarcasm on the car ride over. As I would find out, his statement would be well-justified.

After checking into the clubhouse, I picked up some rental clubs. Pal Joey woods, Pal Joey irons, no-name putter. I’ve heard of Titlist, King Cobra, Ping, but never of Pal Joey. So I searched the words “Pal Joey” on Google and you know what the first ten hits were? A 1957 movie starring Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra. Great.

A guy named Andrew, an economics major, joined us on the first hole and I knew this was trouble when he teed off and bombed one down the fairway with his spaceship of a driver from the gold tees. Kevin played back too, and as he took a few practice swings, he told me that the driver was his favorite club.

“If I could hit driver all day long, I’d be on the tour,” he said with a smile as he went to tee-up.

Kevin’s routine prior to hitting comes down to this: take one practice swing, stand back, pick a spot from which to hit the ball, wind up and smack the crap out of it.

Hitting from the first tee is probably the worst shot in golf. For one thing, all the groups behind you are watching every practice swing, saying to themselves, “We better not have to wait behind this slow bastard.” For another thing, when you play with a pair of golfers who just bombed their drives down the fairway, you have to hit the ball decently from the closer white tees — meaning the typical 50-yard shot will not do.

After taking a few disjointed swings and reminding myself to keep my eye on the ball, I pulled back and swung, watching the ball start out straight before violently turning right and into the rough.

“Not bad, it’ll play,” Kevin kindly assures me, as we walk to my buried ball.

My second shot miraculously found the fairway, but when I walked up to it, I found another ball next to it — it was Andrew’s first drive.

Meanwhile, Kevin found the rough on the left, but somehow smacked his second shot over a bundle of trees and onto the green. After taking a few hacks, I found myself on in five, and proceeded to stop keeping score.

While Kevin is an exceptional golfer and has played since he was four, his one admitted weakness — his short game and more specifically, his putting — seems to exemplify the true difficulty of golf. It is why, when asked to compare himself to a pro golfer, he says Fred Funk because Funk hits every green and fairway, but does not have an exceptionally strong short game.

“And Tiger’s wife is a little too hot,” Kevin reminds me.

Putting would seem like the simplest thing — you’re hitting a ball with a flat stick over a relatively short distance (a 280-yard Kevin Scelfo drive versus a 28-foot putt), and really, that should be the end of it. Not so, even for Kevin, who said although he was hitting every shot well at the Ivy championships a week ago — helping his team to a record-tying second place finish — his prior putting problems got into his head.

“That’s the worst thing you can do when putting.”

His luck was typified on the last hole of the tournament, where on a difficult par-4, he got on in two and wanted to make a birdie to end his Cornell career. But, after he guaranteed to the crowd that he’d sink the putt, he pulled the ball past the hole.

If not for anything else, the game of golf is a sport just for the mental capacity it takes not to drown yourself in the lake after missing a six-footer. It is about the highs and lows, the times you “feel it” and the times when you “feel it” and still suck.

“I’ve played every day since I was five and I still haven’t figured it out,” Kevin tells me later. “It doesn’t make sense sometimes.”

Imagine playing in competition as Kevin has, and the effort to suppress feelings of self-doubt would probably be 100 times greater. While he relishes the competition, Kevin said that there is something relaxing about only playing for fun. For one thing, he can enjoy other hobbies — like training for the Ironman or beating a pair of ladies in Beirut the night before (he asked me to work that in).

Meanwhile, I’ve lost two balls by the third hole and decided to switch to a “lucky” brand-new Nike ball. The funny thing about golf is that when you are at my level, you never really know when you’ll pull yourself together. And I finally did on four.

After hitting a remarkably straight drive with my driver, I whipped out my Pal Joey three wood for the next shot from the fairway. With the wind at my back, I relaxed and swung — hearing the sweet sound of a solid golf shot and not the clank which echoed in my ears during the first three holes. The ball swooped straight down the fairway, fading a little bit right before pushing itself onto the green. After putting to seven feet within the hole, I took a gimme — a well earned par no matter what anyone says.

The last few holes were unfortunately marred by my consistently atrocious play. After the par, I proceeded to hit my “lucky” ball into the water on the next hole. My Pal Joeys continued to fail me as Kevin and Andrew kept on hitting fairway after fairway, green after green.

During this time, Kevin and I talked about a lot of random topics — the rise of Cornell golf, how Kevin helped make the water bottles at the courses’ proposed new vending machines $1 instead of $1.50 and how Sun Sports Editor Chris Mascaro makes weight for sprint football.

After it was all said and done, it didn’t really matter how short my drives were in comparison to Kevin’s, how many mulligans I took off the tee, how many putts went straight into the bunker. What was ringing in my head instead was one shot, that one shot out of 70 which I’d brag to all of my friends about, which I’d remember for weeks — the one that helped make par.

As Andrew said as he reached his car, “They say you don’t have to be good at golf to enjoy it.”

And really, it didn’t feel that bad to be hitting it short.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain appears every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao