One reason for my affinity for the game of golf, especially in recent years, is my growing appreciation for how it mirrors so many truths about life in general. And, I believe, no aspect of golf is more life-like than the “blind shot.” This personal essay explores the concept of blind shots in golf and draws parallels to blind shots I’ve experienced in my life more broadly.
I’m always on the lookout for interesting golf courses to play—and the older, the better. I’m a “hickory golfer,” which means that I play with hickory-shafted clubs like ones used during the 1920s. That decade is regarded by some as the golden era of golf in the United States. It was a time of unmatched growth in popularity for the game, as well as the emergence of household-name golfers such as Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Glenna Collett. Large numbers of ordinary people began playing (it had formerly been a game for the wealthy), and new courses were being constructed at a rapid rate.
Orono Orchards Golf Course (now known as Orono Public Golf Course) was one of those; it was established in 1924 on the site of a former apple orchard near Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since I began playing with hickory golf clubs, I’ve grown very fond of this course. I’ve learned to appreciate its old-school features such as small, elevated greens with false fronts, which set it apart from modern courses constructed over the last forty years. Oh, and it also has lots of blind shots.
A blind shot is one in which a golfer is not able to see his target, which is usually a fairway landing area or a green. It happens when a topographic feature such as a ridge or hill obstructs the golfer’s view. Hole #5 at the 1922 Wolf Hollow Country Club in Pennsylvania is one of the more extreme examples of a blind shot that I’ve faced. From the tee, a golfer only sees a large hill. He knows that the fairway and green are beyond that hill, but if he’s not familiar with the hole it presents a challenge to know where to aim his shot. Even if one is acquainted with the course, it’s still difficult because one must rely on his memory rather than sight to guide the shot.
It is what was there, you see. —Eddie Hackett (early Irish golf architect)
Blind holes and shots were inevitable on courses established during the early 1900s in the U.S. They were defined by the existing terrain since large earth moving equipment wasn’t yet available. Some modest land forming was done then to create greens, tee boxes, berms and bunkers, however if a hole crossed a large ridge or hill, as in the case of the fifth hole at Wolf Hollow, it would almost certainly include a blind shot.
Hole #4 at the 1922 Seymour Country Club in Indiana is another case in point. It’s a par 4, 408 yards long, and traverses a ridge that crosses the fairway about 100 yards short of the green. Golfers hitting their second shot from the fairway can’t see the green because of the ridge. The course managers have constructed a tall pole behind the green with the number 4 at its top, which serves to guide players towards the green.
In the early days of golf in the United States, caddies were common at courses such as the Wolf Hollow and Seymour country clubs. It was usual practice for one of the caddies to position himself at the top of the hill or ridge on a blind-shot hole and to serve as spotter for the golfers in his party. His job was to inform them when the previous golfing group had moved out of range. He would also watch the balls hit by golfers in his party to be sure they were not lost after they cleared the hill and went out of the golfers’ sight. It was a practice that originated in Scotland, the home of golf. An 1892 rule at one Scottish course stated:
Players will make it a rule, before striking off, to send a caddie forward to the top of the ridge to signal when the party in front has left the green.
After caddies ceased to be used at most courses in the U.S., managers devised other ingenious ways to guide golfers on holes with blind shots. The fourth hole at Seymour Country Club, for example, has a dinner bell mounted on the pole behind the green, and when a party of golfers completes putting, one of them walks over and rings the bell loudly. This signals other players behind them (who are out of sight beyond the ridge) that the way is now clear for them to hit their blind shots.
In my time playing blind-shot holes, I’ve encountered a number of such bell-based systems. I’ve also seen other approaches used to either view beyond the obstruction or to inform golfers that the way is clear to hit. One of these is a mirror mounted on a tall pole behind the tee box on a par-4 hole at Hyperion Golf Club in Iowa. By looking up at the mirror, players can tell when golfers beyond the ridge in front of the tee have moved out of range.
One the most technological (and expensive to install) approaches I’ve seen is at Glenway Golf Club in Wisconsin. Its managers installed a stoplight on the tee box of a blind hole where the fairway is not visible because of a large hill. The stoplight is connected via underground cable to a control station located in the fairway beyond the hill. This control station is beyond the range of most drives on this hole. When a party finishes hitting their drives, one of them flips a switch on the stoplight, which turns it from green to red. Subsequent golfers who come to the tee then know from the red light that other golfers are in the fairway beyond the hill and it is not yet safe to hit. After playing their shots from the fairway into the green, one of the golfers in the forward party goes to the control station in the fairway and flips another switch there, which changes the stoplight at the tee back to green. The golfers there now know it is safe to hit.
Leave it to the Scots, however, to devise the most elaborate means for guiding golfers on a blind hole. The Elie golf course near St. Andrews has a ridge running across the first fairway, which blocks the golfers’ (and starter’s) view of the fairway and green. So fifty years ago the club acquired a periscope from a British submarine and installed it into the starter’s hut beside the first tee. It extends thirty feet into the air above the hut. The starter simply sights through the periscope to assure that a golfing party is out of range before starting a new group from the tee.
On eleven of the 18 holes, you can’t even see the area where the drives land. —Jack Nicklaus (1970)
The best-known golf course in Minnesota is Hazeltine National. When the U.S. Open championship was played there in 1970, many of the golfers were unhappy with the course and its layout. Even Jack Nicklaus, the most successful golfer of that time, was not pleased with the large number of blind shots from the tees. Yet some golf architects favor blind shots believing that they bring excitement to the game. There’s no denying the suspense that results when one hits a blind shot and then has to climb the hill or ridge to learn the outcome of the shot. For example, I recently played a blind shot into an elevated green at Orono Public Golf Course. I was hitting up a steep hill and neither the green nor the flag stick were visible beyond the crest. After I stroked my ball, I watched it fly up and over the hill crest and disappear. I knew I’d hit it well, and the ball appeared to be following a good trajectory towards the hole. As I walked up to the crest, I felt a palpable sense of anticipation. I feared that the ball might have gone beyond the green and into tall grass that grows behind it. So I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t see my ball on the green. I immediately looked behind the green, but it wasn’t there either. An instinct told me to look for my ball in the hole—and there it was. It was magic! My emotions were a mix: gratitude, a sense of accomplishment and, yes, a touch of relief.
The earliest golf course designers accepted the existing ridges and hills of the landscape as natural hazards and incorporated them into their course plans. Golfers then accepted blind shots as “the rub of the green” and relied on concentration (and memory) to overcome them. As technology changed, so did golf courses. Blind shots have been virtually eliminated in courses designed over the past eighty years. For example, the architect of the 1933 Augusta National course, one of the most famous in the world, was Alister MacKenzie. He had an aversion to blind shots believing they were unnatural and should be rarely encountered on contemporary golf courses. He maintained that “blindness of all kinds should be avoided.”
Even Leo Feser, the old-school designer of Orono Orchards Golf Course, succumbed to this change in attitude about blind shots in the 1930s. When he initially laid out his course in 1924, there was a blind shot over an existing hill in front of the first tee. The fairway and green were not visible from that tee and the green could only be seen after golfers hit their drives and walked to the crest of the hill. It was reminiscent of the initial hole at Elie golf course in Scotland (except that there was no periscope to see beyond the hill). After listening to complaints about that blind hole #1 for several years after the course opened, Leo decided to make a change. He brought in earth moving equipment and took down the hill. Today the only reminder of “Leo’s hill” is the grass, which grows less well where the hill used to be. And the green is now clearly visible from the tee box.
Some contemporary architects have held the line on keeping blind shots a part of the game. Foremost of these may be Pete Dye, designer of a number of well-regarded modern courses such as Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Dye originally felt that blind holes were not good for golf—until he met the famed Scottish/American golfer from the 1920s, Tommy Armour. After Dye expressed his dislike for blind shots, Armour responded, “That shows how much you know about the game of golf.” He went on to explain that blind shots invoke a golfer’s recall of a hole as much as his current view of it. In other words, blind shots draw on a player’s experience and memory, not just his physical skill. Dye now believes that strategically-placed blind shots help enhance a golfer’s interest in a golf course, and he’s been known to even create them on otherwise level terrain. Yet aside from his courses and those of a few other contemporary architects, blind shots are largely a thing of the past. However, the emergence of modern sensitivities to the adverse environmental impacts of golf courses may help to curb the trend towards large-scale earth moving and land-forming when building or renovating courses. And perhaps the long-ago perspective of the blind shot as simply another “rub of the green” may return as well.
When I began playing golf during my childhood in Terre Haute, Indiana, I never faced any blind shots. The two municipal golf courses where I mostly played were on level terrain with their greens in plain view from the tees. In high school I began playing courses with more varied terrain and began encountering some blind shots. Like Pete Dye, my initial impressions were not always favorable. I regarded them as extremely difficult and unfair. That perspective has changed for me now, however, and I now consider blind shots to be the most intriguing and meaningful aspect of the game for me. It is this more recent high regard for blind shots that, in part, accounts for my affinity for Orono Public Golf Course.
I do still find blind shots to be frustrating at times, and especially when my well-stroked shot results in an undesirable outcome through no fault of my own. A bad bounce is one example of this. I recently played a blind mashie-niblick shot into an elevated, out-of-view green at Orono Public Golf Course. As my ball cleared the crest of the hill and moved out of sight, it appeared to be heading towards the green. Then all of a sudden my ball reappeared as it took a high bounce sharply to the right! It had apparently landed on a compacted, unseen bank in front of the green and careened off-line. I shook off my disappointment, but there’s no denying I felt like I had been robbed. In consolation, I muttered to myself: “That’s golf.”
My response to that recent blind shot incident at the Orono course (and its irregular bounce) might just as well have been: “That’s life.” I’ve concluded, in fact, that most of my life-defining decisions are similar to the blind shot in golf. Let me elaborate.
Some of the blind shots of my life have involved decisions to reach out to long-ago friends. By using social media venues, I’ve had some success locating people with whom I’ve had little contact in decades. In 2004, for example, I developed a desire to reconnect with long-ago friends from my junior high school homeroom class in Terre Haute, Indiana. There were no yearbooks to consult from that time, of course, so I relied on my memory. I was able to come up with five or six names of former classmates, and one of them was Mark Fletcher. I had not been in contact with Mark since our 9th grade year forty-three years before! I found his name in a listing on “Classmates” and sent him a message reintroducing myself and expressing an aspiration to work with him to somehow organize a reunion of our class. It was as blind as any shot I’ve ever taken in golf. Afterwards I waited anxiously to see how my effort turned out. Within a day I received a note from Mark titled “Hello from another 8A3.” It read (in part):
It is great to hear from you. Ahhh, the innocent days of Woodrow Wilson Junior High School and the group we had for homeroom…Do you still play that coronet?…I don’t get back to Terre Haute much since my parents died. Things have changed so much…Hope to see you this summer—I look pretty much the same except for gray hair and gray beard. Stay well and take care. Peace, Mark
I was ecstatic as I realized that my blind shot had found its way into the cup. With Mark’s help, we located sixteen other classmates and we all came together six months later in Terre Haute for a reunion and a tour of the old school. It was magic. I felt gratitude, a sense of accomplishment and, yes, a touch of relief.
My marriage to Mary Ann forty-five years ago was another blind shot in my life. She and I were only in our early twenties when we met and our courtship lasted just nine months. Metaphorically speaking, on the day of our wedding in July 1970 we could barely see to the top of the hill let alone to the green beyond. Together we made our best effort at a blind shot and through the years since then we’ve watched our ball sail over the crest of the hill and towards the green. We’ve not experienced the bad bounces that sometimes divert a blind shot from its intended course. Although the final outcome of our shot is yet to be revealed, we are confident (after these many years together) that our ball is heading straight into the cup.
It was the last significant conversation my younger brother Phil and I had. He was critically ill with cancer and in hospice care; he didn’t have much more time. It was March; Mary Ann and I had traveled to see Phil at his home in New Mexico. We expected it would be our final time to be with him.
About a day into our stay, after mostly ignoring the gravity of the situation, I decided to follow Phil into his room and have a “brother-to-brother” talk. We hadn’t done such a thing for a number of years, but it seemed to be right to do now. However, when I broached the subject of his disease and the big questions it raised about what was yet to come, he brushed me aside and said he didn’t want to talk about it. I replied that I respected his wishes, although inwardly I was intensely disappointed. We talked for a few minutes about a few innocuous things and then, just before I left his room, I raised one more subject:
“Have you made any decisions yet about what will happen with Poundie?”
Poundie was Phil’s eight year-old dog and his dearest companion.
“I worry about that all the time,” he replied.
“Well, Mary Ann and I have talked it over and we want you to know that we’ll be glad to take care of her when the time comes.”
He looked at me with a quizzical expression and then angrily asserted, “There’s no way my dog’s going to the Pound!”
I held up my hands to deflect the intensity of his words, and I responded as calmly as I could:
“No, Phil, I didn’t mean that. I intended to say that we’ll take Poundie home with us to Minnesota and she’ll live with us at our house.”
Tears welled in his eyes; it was the first time I’d seen Phil cry since the memorial for our beloved uncle three years earlier.
“Would you do that?” he asked in a subdued voice.
“Of course we will,” I replied, and I touched his arm softly before leaving the room.
We never talked about Poundie’s situation again. In response to my offer, Phil didn’t say “yes”—but he didn’t say “no” either. That’s the way it was between us as adults more often than not.
After returning home from that final visit with Phil, I sensed that I’d played yet another blind shot, and one day I would be proud owner of his dog. It’s now been over a year since he died in April 2014. Mary Ann and I did receive ownership of Phil’s dog, and after a name change, Pouncer has become well established in our home. She’s none the worse for wear, it seems, and it’s hard to imagine our lives now without her. I can affirm with absolute certainty that this blind shot found its way into the cup. And in the process she also found her way into the bottom of my heart too.
There’s one more aspect of the blind shot in golf that translates directly to my life. Blind shots are inherently risky, and it’s always possible to follow other options that reduce or eliminate those risks. For example, I could choose to “lay up” and not hit my ball beyond the crest of the hill. This would avoid having adverse things happen to my ball after it leaves my sight. I would then walk to my ball and hit my next shot with the green/flag stick in full view. But this risk-avoidance way would reduce the likelihood that I could attain a good score (a par or a birdie). Such approaches to golf, or life itself, takes much of the zest and reward out of it. After all…nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Oh, sweet blindness A little magic… —Laura Nyro
I intend to keep swinging away in the future whenever I face blind shots in my golf game—no lay ups for me. I’ve also come to realize that my most enriching friendships and experiences have usually come to me because of previous blind shots in life. So laying up won’t be an option in my forthcoming life journey either. I plan to just keep swinging away.
Oh, sweet blindness—a little magic, and gratitude, a sense of accomplishment and, yes, a touch of relief.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2015. All rights reserved.