BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Five hundred and twelve dollars. Five hundred and twelve dollars. Five hundred and twelve dollars. The words, like a mantra, kept rolling over in my brain. Because that’s what was at stake, as I stood over the ball. I had to make a right edge, five-foot putt on a manicured, glass-smooth green, to avoid losing the 5-1-2.
I remember exhaling, approaching the ball, placing my putter behind it. I remember my mind telling my arms to begin the stroke. And I remember that my arms were in no mood to listen. So I stood there, frozen, with the rest of my foursome looking on, as I tried to act like a mediator, negotiating a deal between two warring factions of my own body.
I had tried to get out of it, actually, on the way to the green. We were playing a golf gambling game called backgammon, and, right there on the 18th hole, it had gotten completely out of hand.
The way backgammon works is that there is a starting bet on each hole (in our case, two dollars) that can be doubled by an imaginary doubling cube, like in real backgammon. There are other permutations, ways you can “double back,” keep control of the cube, etc., but most of the time, the way it plays out is: one player hits a bad shot, the other guy says “double” and the first guy says, “your hole.” Note I said most of the time. The real fun of the game is when egos get involved, as they inevitably do in golf, and when old rivalries surface, because that’s when everyone gets out of their comfort zone.
Which is where I was, on that late afternoon on the North Fork of Long Island. I had, somehow, smoked a drive (which, for me, was like 220 and finding a piece of the fairway), my partner was also alive, and our opponents were in trouble. They were also much better players than we were. So, when I said “double,” they said “double back” which meant, if I accepted, that they kept control of the cube. I accepted. And it went on like that all the way to the moment I had put the ball to five feet, and then one of them put theirs to two inches.
My partner looked at me. To this point in the match, we were down about twenty bucks. If I we accepted the double, we’d be playing for five-twelve. If we turned it down, we’d lose $256.
“We can’t accept,” I said. “It’s too much money.”
“If we don’t,” he said, “why did we even show up to play?”
And so that’s how I found myself, a 15-handicapper, paralyzed, frozen in place, unable to move.
All golfers have a memory like this, right? Of a moment they realized they weren’t quite tough enough to play the game. It may not be because money was on the line. It might be because they had a chance to break 40 on the front nine or win the C flight at the club championship or find just a way to get off the first tee without total disaster.
What happens to most of us is: we fail. And this failure takes us over, sometimes for the rest of the hole, sometimes the round, sometimes for an entire season of golf. Being that close to our own limits of self-control and sturdiness—and then crumbling—feels humiliating, defeating, crushing. Because we know the only thing standing in between us and success on the golf course is us. Is our own ability to gain control of our own emotions.
All this came to mind, yesterday, as I stood inside the ropes and watched Rickie Fowler play his first hole at the PGA Championship at Bethpage. This was the first time I had ever been that close to a world-class golfer going about their business in a major championship.
Rickie, the current best player never to have won a major, made one bad swing after another, and doubled the hole. I looked for a shoulder slump, for some sign of the kind of embarrassment I would have felt, for that inner crumbling. Instead, all I saw was focus on the next shot. And then the next.
“Oh,” I thought to myself, “he’s a machine.”
Fowler went on to play the rest of the round in three under par to finish one under for the day, keeping himself in contention for the title.
People often say that golf isn’t a great game to watch in person. It’s better on TV. And I’ve given a lot of thought to why this may be the case. The reason is: the closeup camera angle, which allows us to project all of our own feelings, emotions and thoughts onto the player we’re watching.
Even as I walked 30 feet from Fowler, I couldn’t quite do it, couldn’t quite get a sense of what was going on in there. Couldn’t quite find something I could relate to.
But then, I happened to be standing outside the scorer’s tent when he approached, just after the round, and there it all was. He looked so slight and small, and older, too, than he had on the course when he started his round. He looked like Clint Eastwood in one of the later Westerns, the gunfighter who had won the day’s battle, but at great personal cost.
Looking into Fowler’s eyes, I saw a man who had wrestled with his demons, found a way to win, but knew they were coming back, the next day, to try and beat him again. And I saw a man who had learned, once again, that he might very well be up to the task.
As Rickie walked by me and into the tent to sign his card, I thought about what it is that makes these elite golfers different from the rest of us, from the rest of the sporting world, too. And I came to see that it’s their isolation, their will, the conversations that we can’t hear, no matter how close we get to them. The ones where they, somehow, find a way to convince themselves to take action, at the exact instant most of us would bail out.
And that’s what put me back on that 18th green, struggling to make my arms work, knowing that the best outcome I could possibly hope for was to never, ever, put myself in that position again.
Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman) is co-creator and showrunner of the hit Showtime series Billions.