It was a shot that never should have gone in. He was dead; in jail; out-of-the-hole. A handicap stroke in hand, wasted by circumstance and failure to capitalize, surely, victory on this critical last hole was ours and a very critical half point in our Ryder Cup-style grudge match, or so my partner and I thought…
The scene of our own little golf drama would play out in one of the most fabulous and inspiring golf settings in all of the world, the Old Course at Ballybunion in Ballybunion, Ireland.
Sometimes, time and space have a way of creating circumstances that seem to lift you out of the mundane, the ordinary, and let you float on a plane of the extraordinary. Such was the case two weeks ago. The circumstances surrounding why we were there are not of particular note: Eight guys who are old friends, most of whom went to school together, winding our way through the incredibly beautiful Irish countryside, ribbing each other at every opportunity, engaging in rip-your-heart-out matches and enjoying some not-so-cold pints in the glow of our far to infrequent company with each other. A celebration about where we came from, in as much as where we are today.
Yes, it is of note that two-time (consecutive) national collegiate basketball champion coach Billy Donovan was among our wandering nomads. Not withstanding the worthy merits of Billy’s accomplishments and the success he so richly deserves, to us, he is just Billy. A kid we grew up with, graduating together in a blink of the eye, some 20 years ago. This is not to say that we are not immensely proud of him. However, for my part, I think I am prouder of the man he is, verses the success he has had. Billy is a warm and genuine person; a great father, husband, son and friend. When you consider that he has maintained his humble humanity in a world where egos and self indulgence are the order of the day, Billy is one of the rare cases on the national stage where you can feel secure in offering him up as a role model for your children.
While the pairings were set prior to our setting out, the match in question began to build in hype the evening before. Due to my frequent travel to this beloved country, our group of eight merry men had grown to almost twice that for a raucous dinner and eclectic mix at McMunns, a peat-fire warmed pub in dark tones, tucked away in the village of Ballybunion. Among the assembled were Jim McKenna, the Secretary of Ballybunion; Brian O’Callaghan, Ballybunion Head Professional; Stephen Mallaghan (the Mallaghan’s own Carton House in Dublin, site of past Irish Opens); and Jim Corr of the band, The Corrs. While most of the evening’s discussions reflected our lot in life and thus, focused on the activities of our children, the pitch of the evening seemed to grow in proportion to the liberal flow of Guinness. The room in which we were assembled reminded me somewhat of a cave and it was probably a good thing as our volume and laughter must have seemed primitive at times.
None-the-less, our dawn wake up call the next morning arrived with particular abruptness and before we had time to finish our scones, there we were, beneficiaries of the generosity of Jim and Brian, and standing on the first tee, gazing over the famous graveyard that patiently and eternally awaits the death of any tee shot sliced out of the box.
My partner was Billy Creamer, a friend for most of my life, with whom long ago we had made a pack that even if one of us developed into a scratch player, we would always play the game even, head-to-head, GHIN index be damned. On this day, we were to face the team of Donovan and John Pelphrey, the newly minted head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks (John was often emblazoned with the Razorbacks logo on his golf apparel that looked to me, like a wild hog, and I was forced to wonder if the Irish people thought this giant of a man at 6’ 7” was a member of a society that worships the beast. I guess in a sense, he does).
The match unfolded as a punch-counter punch affair with the Donovan-Pelphrey team building a 3-up lead through 12 holes on the wings of Pelphrey’s steadiness and the sand-trailing Donovan, whose handicap warranted a federal investigation.
On the par-5 13th tee, Creamer turned to me and declared that the time to erase the deficit had arrived as the sand in the hour glass was getting thin. On my third shot, I hooked a 7-iron to the back left pin and two putts later, we shaved their lead to 2 up.
The 14th hole at Ballybunion Old is an uphill, 135 yard, par-3. My partner, Creamer, won the hole with a commercial green-in-regulation and two putts. One down.
I was the first to hit at the par-3 15th hole, one of the greatest par-3s in the entire world. Downhill, the green is dotted some 200 yards away, nestled between mountainous dunes and separated from the tee by rolling heather and gorse that seems to circle and stalk, waiting to devour your ball like a lion on a gazelle. The wind started to swirl and we decided that the hole was playing more like 210 yards. I started to blindly reach down for my 5-wood when my searching hand was blocked by the hand of my curmudgeon-like Irish caddy, Sean, who whispered, “the wind is shifting, Lad. Hit your tree-wood and git your arse into it.” On cue, the wind was now quartering hard, left to right and into our faces. I started my tee shot some twenty yards left of the pin and let the wind float the ball back to the target. The ball landed in the dead center of the green and rose up the ridge in the middle of the green to settle some 20 feet below the pin. My partner employed a similar approach and after crushing his 5-wood, he would finish a similar distance above the pin. Donovan and Pelphrey, apparently not benefiting from the cagey wisdom of Sean, both pushed their tee shots well right of the green into some devilish rough. Two pars later and Adams and Creamer had brought the match to all square.
The match moved on to the par-5 16th hole. This hole is a beautiful, dog-leg left that is reachable in two with a well placed drive that must be threaded between a large, protecting dune and some sadistically placed pot bunkers. As he had done all day, my gruff, cigarette dangling caddy Sean pierced directly into my mind, casting aside any egotistical and unrealistic aspirations and instructed me on a route befitting my humble game. None-the-less, I recklessly lashed at the ball with my driver, catching the ball thin, near the bottom of the face. However, luckily, the face was square at impact and the ball sailed off on its intended line, cleared the large dune by the slimmest of margins, and settled into what Sean referred to as “light rough” (and what I would consider deep rough even by U.S. Open standards). When we reached my ball, I was surprised to see that it was sitting up rather decently. What transpired next was a bit of a revelation. One day earlier, from a similar lie on this hole, I nearly reached the green in two by using my 21 degree, fairway utility wood. “Hit your 8-iron,” sternly implored Sean, once again contradicting my unspoken mental considerations. “No, Sean, I think I’ll try my utility wood,” I calmly countered. It was at this point that I realized that in relative terms, Sean clearly had as much riding on this match as I did! “It’s the wrong f***ing club!” he growled through clenched teeth and he handed me the 8-iron.
Of course, Sean was once again right and my 8-iron shot split the fairway. Meanwhile, Pelphrey and Creamer plodded along with neither player threatening to influence the outcome of the hole. However, Donovan’s efforts had a significant impact. He hit a good drive to the left of mine and somehow avoided the pot bunkers. From there, he blasted a 3-wood up the long, narrow fairway that is lined by eight-story deep heather dunes on each side. Hit with a slight left-to-right cut that was accentuated by the left-to-right wind, his shot landed some 60 feet up the side of the steep hill.
Now, I have played this course many times and I have never seen this prickly, gorse shrouded monster release a victim from its grasp. Yet, as if bending fate to his partner’s will, Pelphrey’s refrain of “Bounce! Bounce!” seemed to coach the ball in a slow motion descent whereby it bounced all the way down and back to the fairway, less than 20 yards from the green. My ball was sitting 150 yards from the green and it was not lost upon me that with the stroke I had to give Donovan on this hole, he laid net one over 100 yards closer to the target. The pin was cut front center, just clear of a steep false front and at the bottom of a green that played like an inclined pool table. “It’s up hill all the way,” informed Sean. “Hit an extra club and don’t be afraid to swing at it.” What transpired next was my finest shot in Ireland. I laced a 6-iron to within 4 feet of the cup and felt confident that with a one-putt birdie I could at least negate Donovan’s stroke advantage. Alas, it was not to be as the great coach pinched a brilliant, low arching, high spinning wedge directly at the pin that settled some 3 feet below the hole. Two birdies later and the net eagle put Adams and Creamer back down one heading to 17.
The 17th hole is a 370-yard, par 4, dog-leg left that plays down hill. Pelphrey hit one of the most massive drives I have ever seen, blasting down the right center of the fairway and disappearing from our sight behind a knoll. Donovan’s drive went into the left rough behind a hill that would block him from reaching in two. My drive ended in the right rough and I would push my approach shot into the rough on the right side of the green, pin high. Last to hit was my partner, Bill Creamer. Unfortunately, he topped his tee shot and it plummeted down a cavern that seemed like and endless abyss. So, we all set out in different directions to negotiate our way to the green. Donovan put his third shot safely on the green, some 20 feet from the pin, sitting net two.
Pelphrey’s drive was hit so far that he rolled through the fairway entirely and his ball came to rest on some ground that appeared to be under repair, yet it was not marked. Off the difficult lie, his approach missed the green. Somehow, not only did Creamer and his caddy find his ball, but he managed to advance the ball to within 120 yards of the green. Being an experienced player he knew that Donovan was sitting on the green in net two with a 1-up lead on the 17th hole and that the situation was getting very, very tight. Creamer, however, rose to the occasion, punching a low 9-iron directly at the pin, where it landed, bounced once and spun to a stop less than 2 feet from the hole. From our respective positions in the rough, both Pelphrey and I failed to get up and down and Donovan failed to convert his par/net birdie. Creamer then tapped in for his unlikely par (given how the hole began) and we headed to the final hole with the Donovan and Pelphrey side still holding a 1-up margin.
The situation was now do or die. We had the honor on the tee box at the 379-yard, par 4, dog-leg left, final hole that plays longer due to the uphill finish to a well protected green. I liked hitting first because I felt that a couple of good drives in the fairway would put a little pressure on the competition. Bill Creamer hit first and he split the fairway with a long draw. My drive finished to his right, giving both of us a clear shot at the green. Billy Donovan hit his drive left and we lost sight of it behind a large dune just off the fairway. Once again, John Pelphrey hit a massive drive straight down the middle. Things got interesting when we got to our balls in the fairway. Donovan’s ball was not visible and required some searching to find. While this effort was underway, Creamer and I each hit our approach shots. We both left our shots on the front fringe in very manageable positions to make par or better.
Donovan finally found his ball in some ankle deep grass. While not the deepest grass we had seen that day, it was dense and as he slashed down with his club, the grass wrapped around the neck of the club, causing the face to shut down and the ball to rocket out well left of his intended line and settle somewhere in a far worse position, in much heavier rough, atop a dune near the green. Pelphrey’s approach also missed the green and settled in the light rough, giving Creamer and I the sense that with Donovan lost in some Druid pasture and Pelphrey missing the green, we stood a pretty good chance of winning this hole and halving the entire match. We whispered as much to one another in a conspiratorial tone as we stood by our golf balls waiting to putt our third shots toward the pin. This is when something happened that not only had I never seen before, but doubt I will ever see again. Donovan found his ball nestled down into a nest-like lie among twisted heather and unforgiving gorse. Even getting a club on the ball was probably a one in ten chance at best. “Come on, buddy, get it close,” encouraged Pelphrey, while Creamer and I exchanged knowing smirks.
Donovan drew his club back like a sword, stabbing it down upon his entombed ball. What happened next seemed to have taken place in super slow motion. The ball jumped from its lie like a scared hare and appeared very much like it had been sculled out of its rabbit hole. At the height and speed the ball was traveling it had no chance to touch the putting surface and would surely result in an equally difficult lie on his next shot as the ball was on a direct course to slam into the twin dune that sat on the opposite side of the green. That is when I remember hearing Pelphrey’s voice barking out desperate commands. “Bounce off the hill! Bounce off the hill!” which, incredibly, the ball started to do. Somehow, its movements seemed timed to my ever increasing heart rate and with each agonizing beat, the ball would hop from one inextricable patch of heather and gorse to another, following the commands of Pelphrey as if under power of voice remote control.
In what seemed to play out in a matter of excruciating hours, that were probably only a matter of mere seconds, I suddenly heard an even more terrifying revision in Pelphrey’s orders. “Get on the green, get on the green, catch the slope!” he implored. It got worse when he started to shout, “Get in the h,” and with that the ball slammed into the pin and disappeared into the cup. The reality of the shot hit me in the solar plexus and drove me backwards to the ground as sure as if I had been scissor kicked. While in my incapacitation, it was reported to me that Creamer collapsed first to his knees, then into a fetal position on the ground. Meanwhile, reminiscent of Nicklaus at the 1970 Open Championship, Donovan threw his club into the air in a moment of exuberance and charged down the hill, a scene that John Pelphrey later recounted reminded him of something out of Braveheart. Embracing on the green, their screams of joy and our outbursts of shock were so loud that our second foursome, some 400 yards away said they thought the bells in the churches of Ballybunion started to ring off the echo. At the very least, every head in the club house turned to find out what had happened and the sight of two men hugging and dancing while two others lay slain for the most part spoke for itself.
For the record, Pelphrey, Creamer and I all made par on the hole, which is not a particularly noble feat after the hole, and the match, had been decided. We also spent a good amount of time searching for Donovan’s club in the heather.
In a magic place like Ireland I should not be surprised that something magical happened. I guess when it comes to match play competition, and more importantly, a grudge match between friends, you can’t count your win before you have it and you should never underestimate the coaching skills of Arkansas’ John Pelphrey or the never-say-die resolve of Billy Donovan.