In the Rough: the long game
By Charlie Mitchell
The author and golfer at Congaree for the Palmetto Championship. Images courtesy of the author.
This may come as a terrible shock to many of you, but before I began writing this column in January, I had a rather unfamiliar relationship with golf. Yes, it’s true. Though I grew up around the game and played often when I was younger, I allowed my familiarity with it to wane in my teenage years and become almost nonexistent during my collegiate “studies.” Why I gave up on golf during my school days, I cannot say. Perhaps it was one too many rounds played on foot in the Southern heat of summer, as the heavy bag of clubs dug into my sunburned shoulders and the incessant perspiration dripping from my hands made gripping the club nearly impossible. I think it was one of those youthful summer days on the course, when most of my friends could be found cavorting around the country club pool and running up unreasonable bills at the snack bar, that I began to hate golf. Such was my indifference that I all but gave up on my game. I wasn’t very good anyway.
At some point during the past decade, golf’s abnormally long and persistent tentacles found me once again. Perhaps it was the nostalgic calm of watching a golf tournament on television that stirred in me a desire to play. Maybe, like so many relationships, the game and I needed time and space apart from each other to realize our mutual understanding. Or maybe I was just bored while living at my parents’ house after graduation. Whatever the case, in the summer of 2017, just after graduating from the University of Alabama, I found myself on the golf course almost every day, chasing my still-unrealized dream of scoring below 80. Each day after work, I walked the hundred yards or so from my parents’ house to the course beneath soaring pines and leafy maples to hack it about on one of the finest sets of holes in the city. During those golden afternoons I generally had the place to myself. The serenity of playing alone became my meditation, and my own mind remains to this day my preferred playing companion.
I say all of this to highlight the integral role that golf has taken in my life of late. Beyond simply playing more, I have taken a renewed interest in the PGA tour, keeping up with the players and trying to understand the professional approach to playing better golf. I have found a new love in attending golf tournaments. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to accompany my dear friend, Dr. Jonny Kleinmann, to the Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia, my first taste of truly elite professional golf. We had a wonderful weekend with his warm family and I got to experience Augusta National, a place I had drooled over every year on television but never thought I would see in person. Sergio Garcia won that year. We caught up with him at the third hole on Friday, two days before the final round. As Sergio walked past us along the ropes, an enthusiastic spectator to our right shouted, “This is YOUR year, Sergio!” Indeed, it was.
After that, I was hooked, but it would be four more years before I attended another tournament. This time I accompanied my father to the PGA Championship at Kiawah, but you already read about that last month! Most recently, my friends, Will and James McKeachie, invited me to join them at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree in Ridgeland, South Carolina. I hopped at the chance, not just because I was still glowing from the melee at Kiawah but also because I knew Will to be deep philosophical thinker and a raconteur of highest regard — good company for a lengthy day in the car and on the course.
A persistent drizzle on Sunday morning could not dampen our spirits as we sped south on Savannah Highway through the enchanting expanse of the ACE Basin. Congaree is situated on a charming piece of property just off the highway near Ridgeland and exudes Lowcountry appeal. Sprawling live oaks adorned with quintessential Spanish moss frame sleepy views of coastal forest and marshland amongst which the golf course is laid like a felt carpet. As we stepped onto the grounds I was immediately struck by the meticulously maintained condition of the course. Fairways were perfectly clipped to a millimeter and the edges of sand traps seemed to have been trimmed with a slide rule.
(L to R) James McKeatchie, Charlie Mitchell, Will McKeatchie.
The first golfer we encountered was popular Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, whose ball had lost its way and ended up in a clump of natural shrubbery very close to where we were standing. Tommy managed to chop his ball free with an impressively struck four-iron, and it streaked like a laser toward the flagstick. We decided that anybody capable of a shot like that was worth checking out, so we decided to follow him and ended up doing so for the next 13 holes. With significantly lighter crowds than the major tournaments, Congaree was a spectator’s dream, and we found it easy to get a good view of the action. Even the crowd surrounding South Carolina’s own Dustin Johnson was surprisingly manageable, not the swarms I was accustomed to seeing at the majors.
Tommy Fleetwood takes a swing.
I was glad to have Will nearby, as he knew much more about the players than I did and was helpful with bits of trivia and statistics. He also bought a bottle of water for me later in the afternoon when the sun had burned through the morning mist, which I thought was quite kind of him. We had a fabulous time and circled the course at least twice, pausing for notable players along the way. I was particularly happy to see an old favorite of mine, Luke Donald, holding a commanding position on the leaderboard and playing wonderful golf at 46 years of age. I watched him sink two tricky birdie putts and cheered heartily for both. By the end of the day, as shadows lengthened on the fairways, all three of us were bushed and starving. We made it to a Waffle House before a real crisis set in and rehashed — ahem — our day fortified by bacon and eggs.
A week later, I found myself at the old family homestead in Richmond, Virginia. My brother had recently moved into a new house and wanted to celebrate the occasion by consuming massive quantities of boiled crawfish and Miller Lite in his backyard. I was tickled to be invited, of course, but what really got me out of bed was the promise of 18 holes the following morning with my dad at the Country Club of Virginia’s Tuckahoe Creek course. Besides having an amusing name, the Tuckahoe Creek course happens to be, in my opinion, one of the finest courses to look at in the area. Tucked behind an amoebic neighborhood of large lawns and established flora, the Creek’s proximity to the James River and surrounding floodplain give it a secluded atmosphere, though the city is just minutes away. Large swathes of the course have been “naturalized” and wildflowers bloom throughout the warm months, making the whole experience rather bucolic.
None of us played particularly well, which we decided to blame on the wind. There were moments of brilliance, to be sure, but these proved elusive and unsustainable as we made our way through the afternoon. A better summer’s day we could not have designed, however, and our camaraderie fortified us even when the game bared its teeth. Besides being with my dad and brother on an ideal Father’s Day, the highlight of the afternoon was the hotdog I got from the newly renovated snack bar beside the driving range. These all-angus beef dogs are butterflied lengthways by a skilled chef before being laid carefully in a brioche bun, the resulting trench a theoretically perfect receptacle for any condiment of your choosing. I found this to be less effective in practice than in theory — just ask my formerly spotless shirt front! — but I did offer my seal of approval to the name. These flayed frankfurters are affectionately known as “ditch dogs.”
I closed out the weekend with a drive back to Charleston, checking the U.S. Open leaderboard the entire way. I watched as poor Louis Oosthuizen, then in the lead, shed precious strokes on the back nine only to lose by one shot to chubbier-by-the-year Spaniard Jon Rahm. It was Jon’s first major title and a deserving win made even sweeter after a devastating forced withdrawal just weeks before at Memorial, where he led by six shots in the final round. I realized, amidst my frantic refreshing of the online leaderboard when I should have been paying attention to the road, that I was once again enamored with golf. Eighteen holes had not been enough that day; I could have played 18 more. I would have no problem following the PGA tour around from tournament to tournament like a hippie chasing the Grateful Dead. There is now something so familiar, so timeless, about the game that I feel as if I could exist in it forever.
Charlie Mitchell has been swinging a golf club since he could stand. He remains humbled by the game and the lessons learned both on the course and in the clubhouse. Always eager for enlightenment, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.