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The Solstice Survival was born at the intersection of Passion and Stupidity: Seven guys playing 54 holes on three courses in triple-bogey heat on the longest day of 1994. It was fun. Plain and simple. We blew off work, outlawed cell phones, played golf all day and whatever happened, happened. We’d deal with it tomorrow.
As with all good golf experiences, this one was recounted time and again. We regaled at one guy’s 11 on a tricky par 5 for days; at another’s three-putt from 2 feet for weeks; and at another’s 14-yard shank out of bounds for months. And then someone said, “Hey, why don’t we turn this into a tournament?”
And the Solstice Survival was born. Now more than 1,000 golfers in the Midwest and Northeast participate in Solstice Survival events throughout the month of June. We have even held Solstice Survivals across the pond in the historic bump-and-run districts of Scotland and Ireland.
The Solstice has developed a cult-like following. Foursomes sign up in January for a event still half a year away. One guy who has become a Solstice regular postponed his honeymoon to play in the Solstice Survival. With players like that, is it any wonder that the Solstice has become the most looked-forward to day of the golf season?
Don’t fool yourself. Length matters. In golf anyway. Face it. It helps to be long off the tee. And you have to be able to drop a lengthy putt every once in a while to nail good scores. It’s even good to be long with those irons. Yes, hit it straight, and, sure, make good contact. Take pride in the short game. But be prepared to deal with length.
Still, you don’t know what real length is until you play an event in the Solstice Survival, where rounds meld into days, loops pile upon themselves, and your path across a simple 18-hole course becomes a sort of arcing trek towards the horizon, an odyssey worthy of Greek theater. Animals make their way across your path, but you press on. Simple ponds become whirlpools, swallowing your best efforts again and again.
Every once in awhile, girls appear as distant sirens. The clubhouse is the traveler’s mirage, coming closer, closer, closer, before fading as you set out once again. OK, so call it Greek dinner theater.
Three tournament-quality rounds in one day. Not just any day either, but the longest day of the year – the solstice – this is golf played from the moment the sun pierces the horizon until it finally drops wearily westward some 15 hours later, holing every putt, recording every swing. You thought 320 yards off the tee was long. That was before you played 54 holes in one half spin of the mother planet. Let me tell you friend, you don’t know “long” until you play the Solstice Survival. Missing the same putt on the same green three times in one day. That’s long. Taking a 2 on a hole, then coming back to make a 7, only to return hours later for the rubber match with that single flagstick. That’s long. Using up an entire tube of sunscreen. Drinking your way through the better part of a case of water. Long. Slipping behind in your match, finding yourself down 5 with 33 to go. Long. Long. Long.
A day is a fairly simple thing. The world turns. The sun pierces the darkness, then pervades, before drizzling away into the dark once again. You might think it contains a finite number of possibilities on the golf course. Play the Solstice Survival and you come to understand that every nine holes is a lifetime unto itself and every hole is a chance for redemption. Depending on how you start, you may feel that there isn’t enough redemption in the world for you.
On my first trip through the Solstice series, I found myself at 3:55 in the morning, driving a rental car through the jet-black countryside looking for a simple turnoff, a little white sign in all that darkness. I wish I could report that the sun was up. I wish I could say that I had the sense that daylight was on its way, that the planet was circling, that birds were stirring and lights were flickering to life in the windows of the fast food restaurants and gas stations. But let me tell you that 3:55 a.m. is the dead of night, even on the longest day of the year.
I was looking for the course, and I’ll be damned if a golf course you’ve never been to is easy to find at night. I passed it once, then missed it again, stopped for directions and missed it yet again on my next trip. When I finally located the turn, I realized this represented a first. It was 4:20 in the morning and I was running late.
A little while later, I clink my way towards a tee box I can barely see, thinking, for a half a moment, that I might walk the first nine holes, just to get loosened up. The grass is wet, as in so wet that you might be walking through a field of drenched mop heads. I shake hands, newly introduced to the three strangers I’ll be playing with that day. These guys are solstice veterans – slathering on the sun block hours before it barely even makes sense to assume there is a sun, let alone one that will burn you, carrying extra shirts, piling bottles of water into the cart baskets. One of them, a guy named Richard, wears wide terry cloth armbands across the middle of his forearms, in the manner of an NBA point guard. As they urge me to the tee box, I ask, “What’s with the arm bands?”
He shrugs. “I’m expecting to sweat.”
Sweat, I think, as I tee up. The air is cool and damp. It’s hard to imagine sweating. As I look down at the ball, I can see that my shoes are wet, and I cringe. These are old shoes, my most comfortable shoes really, but the waterproofing long ago wore off. My swing thought is, “I should have waterproofed these dogs.”
Now a first swing, at the very crack of dawn, can be a lovely thing. The day looms. I am playing in a first-class event. A bagel sits on the seat of my golf cart, a cup of coffee steaming in the cup holder. I don’t know these guys, but I’m told they’re all three nearly scratch golfers. For a moment, I’m unsure why I’m there. Me with my 12 handicap. Me with my worn out shoes. My feet are damp even now. Never mind, I tell myself. Just hit the ball. The problem is, I can’t.
I chop the ball on my first swing. Then I whack it out of its buried lie in the weeds, hack one up near the green, chili-dip one a few feet, somehow chip the next one close and tap-in for a double. Jitters, nerves, whatever. I tell myself it could have been worse. I try to make small talk. On the second tee, I whiff the ball. Then, buried in a heavy, wet lie, I slash again and come up with nothing. Then again, dribbling the ball. Then again. The guy with the armbands sits in his cart.
“Take your time,” he says.
To a man stricken with the chops, lying four not 75 yards off the tee on a tough par 4, a man facing 53 more holes of golf, knowing that he’s essentially played himself out of contention in 10 easy swings, there is no crueler phrase than “take your time.” What else would I take? I can’t take a swing that’s for sure.
Richard is trying to be nice. But it is going to get worse. I cannot get off the tee. I open 6-8-5-9. My golf self has chosen this moment, here at the opening of the Solstice Survival tournament to unveil the worst case of the shanks I have ever suffered. Standing on the fifth tee, no one is speaking to me. My partners are silent. I can’t blame them. I keep telling myself that later, that very night in fact, we’ll be sitting around laughing at this. But night has never seemed so far away. By the fifth hole, I hate the game and myself so thoroughly that I am considering walking off. The fifth hole is an elevated tee. It’s a little before 7 in the morning when we get there. The view is remarkable, especially in the morning light. It’s about then I realize why I’m playing. I enjoy this. I used to anyway. I like the views, the little peaks at the world that a golf course offers you. That’s when I realize that, in golf, the trip starts over again and again – on every tee. I make myself swing slowly. I force myself to swing through it. It is a half swing, nothing really, but I make contact and the ball rises. I have vanquished the shanks, fought my first battle with myself, with the course, with the game itself and had my first epiphany even.
It is 6:55 in the morning. So the first nine goes ugly, with me carding a 51. But things do loosen up and my group starts to warm to me when I shoot an indifferent 43 on the back. At 10:15, we circle back around to the first tee, and I decide I am going to abuse those first five holes the way they abused me the first time through. I play angry. I play focused. I par all five and never look back. This time I get through the first side with a 39. And so the day has swung, and I have moved from the depths of misery to the brink of success in the course of a few hours. This, I learn, is the essence of the Solstice Survival. Failure and redemption. What more does golf offer except the chance to test yourself against these very possibilities?
As we make the turn on our second round, one of my playing partners, a big lunk named Jeff, slaps me on the shoulder.
“51-39,” he says. “There’s something you can tell your grandkids about.” He looks at his watch. “We have to hustle.” And he’s right. We’ve only played 27 holes after all.
For non-golfers, it is often the time commitment to golf that puzzles them most. After all, one round can take five hours, soup-to-nuts. “I don’t have time to play,” they’ll tell you, implying that anyone who would give five hours over to any single activity doesn’t really understand the essential post-modern nature of the Daytimer.
You can really get under the skin of the tribe by telling them you played twice in one day. “36 holes?” they say, “Don’t you have better things to do?” Tell them you played three rounds and the non-golfer will lose connection. You either become a threat to the continued success of the Western world or you cease to exist. In either case, you are marginalized – as a lout or a wingnut. But you learn to ignore their harping. You don’t need their permission. You play on.
The halfway point of a Solstice survival event gives you a moment to contemplate. You tick off the list – what you have done well, what to keep in mind as you try again. Life in this tournament is like being in a barber’s chair, sitting between the two massive mirrors, regarding an image of yourself inside another, then another. A chance, inside another chance, inside another. Optimism abounds. Play a hole poorly, and everyone reminds you that you get to do it again. Play it well, and you can’t wait to birdie it twice. “There aren’t a lot of coulda’s and shoulda’s in the Solstice,” one of my partners tells me as we thrash around in the tall grass looking for his ball. “The Solstice is all about the moment. You play and you don’t have time for regret.”
As the day passed, my confidence grew. Trapped with three players who were long off the tee, I groped for more distance. In the middle round, I started hitting my driver off the fairway. I found that it wasn’t as hard as I’d thought, and that if I just stayed down on it, I could clobber it. I began to keep up with the big boys, though just barely. My partner that day was amazed, though I can’t say if it was my bravery or my stupidity that he liked. In the middle of the Solstice both are available in large quantities. I started laying into the driver off of nearly any lie. And, to my utter joy, it was working.
“You should bottle that shot and sell it to the short hitters of the world,” my partner says.
“I could make an instructional tape,” I say.
“You need a snappy title,” he says, working on the title while I slapped another driver, throttling this one through the rough. He settled on the “The Dinger off the Deck” after I resheathed my newfound weapon. In that moment a telemarketing phenomenon may have been born.
The next day, in another Solstice event, I used the dinger off the deck to shake off the late-day chaos of a bad nine. I’d blown up at the start of the third round, carding a 50 on that nine. I found myself tired, achy and annoyed by the perpetual sun and water on the left. My troubles started when, after missing a two-footer, I knocked a ball away from the cup instead of holing out.
“I’d forgive you if I could,” one of my partners says. “But we just played 37 holes with no gimmes. How much time does it take for you to get a rhythm?”
“Some of us are beyond help,” I say. Then, for nine holes, I was once again caught in the depths of my own worst game, spinning yet another 50. The problem this time was I’d made a wager with my partner, an older guy named Frank, who played the front nine lights out, storming to a 10-stroke lead.
On the 46th hole, with nine remaining, I bore down. Armed with my own specialty shot, I clipped away at Frank until I nailed him, by throwing my driver out of a deep rough past the green on a tough par 4. Staring at a 5-foot par putt, Frank watched in dismay as I made a tough up and down for par. Then he three-putted. When I hit the driver out of the fairway on the very next hole, I could hear him groan. Fifty-four holes and the thing I remember best was that distant groan. It was all I needed to make the day a success.
The last real discovery of the Solstice Survival is that there are lots of discoveries to be made. You might assume you know the world pretty well. Surely you think you understand the game. But at 4:55 a.m., at the edge of a golf course, all bets are off. The world is steamy at these dim hours. The grass is wet. The light is slow in rising. Same thing is true at the end of the day. Greens are harder than you could have ever imagined. Wind blows hot. The grass feels heavier at your feet. When you are headed to the clubhouse, bearing down hole No. 54, you start to take inventory of your aches.
Feet, knee, hands, lower back, neck. At the end of that first day, I was a mess. I ate my plate of food, I drank my beer, and I sat on the deck of the clubhouse, my partners wandered in and, yes, we laughed about my case of the morning shanks. The lessons had fallen into place the way they always seem to when I play golf. Orange sunlight needled through the trees. Somewhere around here my day had begun. It seemed to me a long lifetime ago.