There are six of us standing behind the tee box on the 17th hole of the Seaview Resort's Bay Course in Absecon, N J. The flag is about 120 yards away, on the left side of the green, 20 feet behind a large sand trap. We are firing wedges, nine-irons, eight-irons and even a seven-wood or two into the early-morning mist, the idea being for one of us to hit the ball into the cup off the tee. Technically, of course, it would not count as a hole in one, because regulation aces have to be scored during regulation rounds. There is the story of one Lew Cullum of Largo, Fla., who in 1966 hit his tee shot into the lake on the 145-yard 11th hole at Yacht Club Estates Golf Club, near St. Petersburg, and followed it by depositing three more tee shots in the same place. His fifth shot, however, found the cup, thus earning him a 9 on the hole.
But I'm not expecting an ace anyway. Although two members of my group—Seaview head pro Matt Gillogly and assistant pro Andrew Rogers—each have had a hole in one (though not on the Bay 17th), I am positive it will not happen over the three-hour period set aside for our seemingly pointless endeavor. I have nothing to prove with this hole-in-one experiment except that I am not hole-in-one lucky. I've never gotten a hole in one, I never expect to, and I've never played a round in a group with anybody who did get one.
But I'm convinced there is a parallel universe out there, one in which holes in one are as common as mulligans: Hole in One World. Aces reported to Golf Digest, the hole-in-one clearinghouse since 1952 (the year the magazine began sending out report forms to every clubhouse in the country), range from about 38,000 to 42,000 per year. Newspapers regularly run reports of 80-year-old grandmothers and 10-year-old grandsons who "aced the 110-yard 12th with a three-wood." A number of insurance agencies make good money by providing hole-in-one insurance to tournaments in which cash prizes, automobiles, golf vacations or, in the case of the National Funeral Directors Association tournament, a casket is given away for aces. Indeed, there is nothing in sports that seems at once so remarkable and yet so pedestrian as the hole in one.
There's even one man who makes a living off his hole-in-one reputation: Mancil Davis, a fast-talking, wisecracking former club pro, who is now the director of event management for the National Hole In One Association. Davis, 42, played junior golf in Texas against Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite and, in 1975, briefly tried the PGA Tour. He quit because, he says, "my caddie made more money than I did." Davis can't drive and can't putt, but what he can do is find the hole from the tee. The self-proclaimed King of Aces puts his hole-in-one total at 50, and that does not include, he says, the 10 or so he has made at corporate outings, in which he stays at one par-3 and fires tee shots at the flag all day, in much the same way my companions and I are doing right now. Davis's career path was set early. He had eight aces in 1966, when he was only 12, and earned an appearance on I've Got a Secret, where he stumped the formidable mixed foursome of Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan, Bess Myerson and Betsy Palmer.
But no matter how I analyze it, 50 holes in one by one man (and that's not even the record; more on that later)—not to mention 40,000 per year in a country that produces more duffers than dentists—seems like an unnatural conquest of the odds, which, by the way, are about 13,500 to 1 for an amateur golfer, about half that for a club pro and about 3,500 to 1 for a touring pro.
Now, there are hole-in-one parameters. For an ace to be official, it must be witnessed by at least one person willing to sign the scorecard and must be scored on a golf course with no more than six par-3s. But there's a lot of gray area. Touring pros usually count only the holes in one that they score in competition—there have been 26 in 38 men's and women's Tour events so far this season—yet among the 46 holes in one credited to Art Wall Jr., the hole-in-one king of Tour golfers, are many that he scored in casual play at his home course in Honesdale, Pa.
As for the thousands and thousands of aces by amateurs, well, let's think about it. In golf a 95 becomes an 89 with a few conceded putts; a snowman becomes a 5 if those white stakes near the woods are considered decorative landscaping and not out-of-bounds markers. Is there any reason to believe that hole-in-one claims are an island of probity in this confounding game, in which otherwise honest souls routinely compromise their integrity over a $2 Nassau? Tom Weiskopf, who has made 16 aces (in both practice and competitive rounds), says there were snickers about Wall's holes in one even among the pros. "I don't care if you're standing on the same 90-yard hole, hitting a wedge into a green shaped like a punch bowl," says Weiskopf. "Thirty or 40 aces is a helluva lot."
Still, there's no doubt that some golfers just seem to have a knack for aces. Davis says that psychologists have done tests on him and found that "my brain waves are different, much more positive, when I'm hitting a six-iron on a par-3 tee than when I'm hitting a six-iron from the fairway." Well, it figures that brain waves would be involved when you hit a ball that measures at least 1.68 inches in diameter into a hole that measures 4.25 inches in diameter from distances of 100 to 496 yards. (Oh, yes, there has been a 496-yard ace; more on that later, too.) Or, as Mac O'Grady, the Tour's only certifiable spaceman, once said: "A hole in one is amazing when you think of the different universes this white mass of molecules has to pass through on its way to the hole."
I ask my hole-in-one partners if they think much about brain waves or different universes when they're on a par-3. "Right now I'm thinking about blisters," says my friend Bob Fink as he hits his 50th shot of the morning. It passes through several universes before landing in a sandy one in front of the green.
The first hole in one, according to The Golfer's Handbook, a British publication, was scored by one of the sport's earliest notables, "Young" Tom Morris, in the first round of the 1868 British Open. It happened on the 8th hole at Prestwick in Scotland, which, with classic British precision, was measured at 166 yards, four inches. In Prestwick, a volume that sits among thousands in the library of the U.S. Golf Association in Far Hills, N.J., Morris's scorecard from that round is reproduced. It bears a single vertical slash at number 8. Rounds were 12 holes in those days—boy, there's an idea that deserves reconsideration—and Morris went 50-55-52 to win the Open.