SI Vault
George Plimpton
February 06, 1967
The author survives, in a manner of speaking, two of the most testing holes in golf, but then looks up from a gully where he is searching for his ball to discover that he is holding up Arnold Palmer—and the Army
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February 06, 1967

Beneath The Eyes Of Arnie

The author survives, in a manner of speaking, two of the most testing holes in golf, but then looks up from a gully where he is searching for his ball to discover that he is holding up Arnold Palmer—and the Army

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Superficially, one might think that after my catastrophes of the day before, and earlier events on this, the second day of my play in the Crosby, I would consider my handling of the tee shot on the 16th at Cypress Point to be a considerable success. For a moment I thought it was, but only for a moment.

The 16th at Cypress Point is one of the famous golf holes of the world, certainly one of the most difficult and demanding par-3s. In the 1952 Crosby the average score of the entire field on the hole was 5. The golfer stands on a small elevated tee facing the Pacific Ocean that boils in below on the rocks, its swells laced with long strands of kelp and, occasionally, with a sea lion lolling in there, turning lazily, a flipper up, like a log in a slow current. It would be a clear shot to the horizon if it weren't for a promontory that hocks around from the golfer's left. On the end of the promontory, circled by ice plant, is the green, a 210-yard carry across the water. There is a relatively safe approach to the 16th, which is to aim to the left of the green and carry a shot 125 yards or so across the water onto the wide saddle of the promontory. But from there the golfer must chip to the green and sink his putt to make his par.

Many players are critical of the 16th at Cypress. Gardner Dickinson told me that he thought it was no sort of golf hole at all. His point was that risking a direct carry to the green, particularly if any sort of wind was blowing in the golfer's face, was ill-advised and "cotton-pickin' stupid," and the sensible golfer was penalized for the shot he should make—that is to say, to the saddle of the promontory from where he must get down in two for his par. The chances of birdieing the hole playing it that way are, of course, almost nil. Dickinson himself would not try the long shot. (One's whole daily score could be affected; Jerry Barber got a 10 on the hole the year that he was PGA champion.) He always chose the safer route, cutting across as much ocean as he dared with an iron, aiming for the promontory saddle, all the while mumbling and carrying on and pinching up his face in disgust as if the kelp surging back and forth below him in the sea were exuding a strong odor.

The spectators loved the hole, though. They gathered on the wooded bluff above the tee, some perched on the wide cypress branches, squat-shaped, like cranes. When a player motioned—somewhat theatrically, one always felt—to his caddie for a wood, and the caddie, warming to the drama, removed the woolen cover with a flourish, there would be a stirring in the trees, like a rookery at dawn, and a stretching forward, since the spectators up there knew the golfer was going to "go for it."

And it was a wonderful thing to see the perfectly hit shot, to hear the click of the club and the ball soar off over the ocean, as senseless an act, at first glance, as watching someone drive a ball off the stern of a transatlantic liner, the ball rising up against the wind currents and high above the line of the horizon beyond. Then, with its descent, one realized the distant green had become available, until it was a question of distance, whether the ball would flash briefly against the cliffs that fronted the green and plummet into the ocean, or whether the green itself would suddenly be pocked by the whiteness of the ball, the feat done, accented by a roar and clatter rising out of the trees behind the tee.

Here was the distinction of this ocean hole at Cypress, it epitomized the feat of golf—excessively, Dickinson would say—namely, the hitting of a distant target with accuracy, a shot so demanding that it was either successful or, with the ocean circling the hole on three sides, emphatically a disaster.

When our foursome reached the 16th tee the wind was slight. Amid a stir of excitement Bob Bruno, my moody pro partner, went for the green with a wood. He made one of his best shots of the day, it seemed to me, and behind us the cries came out of the tree-tops. Bruno wasn't so sure. The ball had landed on an area of the green that we couldn't see from the tee. He thought he had "come off" the ball somewhat, a bit "fat," he thought, and that as a result the shot might have caught the ice plant. Not being at all convinced that the hole was secure for our team, he suggested that I play my shot safe and short for the promontory and, done with his advice, he walked away and stood looking out at the sea.

I motioned for a wood, a three-wood, a club I had been feeling comfortable with that day, and again there was a hum of expectation and interest among the spectators. Abe, my caddie, coming forward with the golf bag, said, "If you're going for it, you'll be needing a driver. Two drivers."

He was speaking loudly enough for some of the spectators to overhear.

"I'll take the wood, Abe," I insisted.

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