The First Tee

Golf bets are won or lost on the first tee.

Before the first ball is even hit.

Golfers will know what I am talking about. If you are not a golfer, then let me explain.

All men are not created equal. And nowhere is that more evident than on a golf course. On one end of the spectrum you have someone like Tiger Woods who shoots in the mid 60s, and on the other end of the spectrum you have someone like me who shoots in the mid 110s. Based on those numbers, you might say I am twice the man Tiger is, but it doesn’t work that way. The lower your score—the fewer times you hit that little white ball—the better you are.

So if you are about to play a round of golf and want to wager on your performance against the other people in your twosome or foursome, you must first beg and cajole and threaten them to give you a certain number of “strokes.”

A “stroke” allows you to lower your score on a hole. It’s supposed to even out the playing field. It’s like the point spread on football, baseball and basketball games. The better golfers (Tiger) have to give the less talented golfers (me) strokes, allowing me to take a stroke off my score on a certain number of the holes. Which means if I shoot a five (it could happen) on one of those holes, I can take off a stroke so my net on that hole is a four, while whoever I am playing against has to stick with what they actually shot on that hole. Whoever has the lowest score wins that hole.

I’ve mentioned Tiger twice, but, obviously, I’ve never played with him. I have, however, played a lot of golf with a very good friend of mine named Paul. Love him to death, but he’s the stingiest bastard I ever met, at least when it comes to giving me strokes.

Based on how well Paul plays golf, he should be giving me at least 12 strokes, allowing me to reduce my score by one point on 12 of the hardest holes on an 18-hole course.

What Paul gives me is four strokes.

I know. Ridiculous, right?

I argue. I whine. I point out that he beats me every time we play by a much wider margin than four strokes. I question his masculinity. I use the p-word.

And Paul still only gives me four strokes.

This all happens on the first tee while everyone is stretching before taking out their drivers for the first shot of the day. Because the details of the bet have to be nailed down before the first ball is hit. Paul knows this. So he make his measly four-stroke offer and says, “Take it or leave it.” I know there is no way I can win the match with only a four-stroke buffer but I am a gambler and the thought of participating in any endeavor—be it golf or questioning how long it will take for a traffic light to change—without betting on the outcome is impossible for me. Paul knows this as well. So he waits patiently until he hears a petulant, “Oh, okay whatever,” from me.

Then Paul smiles, tees up and crushes the ball 240 yards down the center of the fairway. I tee up, but before slicing my ball into the woods on the right side of the fairway, I always turn and say to Paul, “You know golf bets are won or lost on the first tee.

That they are, my friend” says Paul.

But not just golf bets.

All bets—or decisions—that we make in our lives are impacted by the terms we set beforehand. In a perfect world, hopefully we negotiate everything in our favor before we take the first step. But most of us don’t do that.

Think about how many personal relationships you’ve entered into, how many business decisions you’ve made, and how many agreements you’ve shaken hands on only to wish at some point in the process that you could go back and renegotiate the terms? If people weren’t making bad bets on the first tee, then the dictionary would not be filled with words like divorce, bankruptcy, lawsuit and counseling.

Jack, another good friend of mine, always asks when I start a new project, “Are you setting yourself up for success or for failure?” The emphasis on that statement is the setting yourself up part. When I accept the poor terms of my golf bet with Paul I know I am not setting myself up for success. I am letting my desire to gamble override common sense. But I’m not alone. How many bad bets are made because people allow pride or anger or self confidence or stubbornness to stop them from setting up the bet to the best of their advantage?

When I was 14 years old I used to play golf at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana where my dad was stationed as a pilot flying KC-135 tankers. I was stuck playing with my Mom’s flimsy golf clubs, but my Dad told me that the day I broke 100—played 18 holes with a score under 100—he would give me his much nicer set of golf clubs. Of course, that meant he could then buy himself a new set, but that’s besides the point. I played all summer, usually by myself, trying to bust that 100 mark.

One day I was approached on the first tee by a short, but tanned and fit, older man who introduced himself and asked if he could join me on the course. I welcomed the company and quickly told him about my goal of breaking 100 and getting those clubs. He started giving me advice on every hole and seemed even more excited than me as the day progressed and it appeared I was easily on my way to shooting under 100.

Golf etiquette dictates that you never hit your ball if there is a chance it will land near the golfers playing in front of you. We were on the 18th hole and it appeared that the foursome ahead of us was well out of range, but I hit an incredibly long drive that landed right next to one of the golfers, a young man in his late 20s. The golfer looked back at us angrily, then picked up my ball and threw it a good hundred yards back toward me.

Oops,” I said, walking forward to pick up my ball.

Leave it,” barked the older man I was playing with, in a harsh voice very different than the one I had heard on the earlier 17 holes.

The older man strode ahead, picked up my ball and walked all the way up to where the golfer who had thrown my ball was. As they stood facing each other I noticed a few things. The first was that the young golfer was a full head taller than the old man. The second was that the golfer was not saying a word; the old man was doing all the talking. Then the golfer took my ball from the old man’s hand and placed it where it had originally landed next to him. He started the long walk back toward me. Head somewhat bowed, he walked up and sheepishly said, “I’d like to apologize for that.” Then he turned and walked back, passing the old man.

I didn’t ask any questions. I finished the round with a 98. The old man was as happy as I was. “Tell your father I said you earned those clubs,” he said.

When I got home I told my Dad the whole story. He was proud I had broke 100 but he was even more interested in who I had played golf with. I told him the man’s name.

Holy shit,” said by Dad, eyes wide. “You played golf with the Base Commander.

For anyone stationed on a military base, the most powerful being in their world is not God or the President of the United States. It’s the Base Commander. Those guys are hard as flint and tougher than a trapped grizzly bear.

Chances are the golfer who threw my ball was a young officer enjoying his day off. He bet that he could throw a golf ball back at another golfer who, truth be told, had been discourteous. I can understand that. He weighed the consequences—what are a young kid and an old man going to do?—against the reward—self satisfaction—and placed his bet on getting some revenge. He lost that bet.

Which brings me back to Paul. Like I said, a nice guy. But still. Four lousy strokes?

I don’t know how he sleeps at night.

Read past W.O.W. stories.

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