I'm standing on the 16th tee with a score to settle. I can vividly recall the embarrassing day over 25 years ago. It was at this spot when, as a middle-schooler in a junior tour event, I simply couldn't carry the water with my drive.
Now back at Eagle Crest Golf Club in the summer of 2020, armed with titanium equipment and the vigor of adulthood, I'm oozing confidence on that same tee as I swing easy and let it rip over the marsh, through the treelined fairway right down the middle.
I end up lipping out a 20-foot eagle putt to make a stress-free birdie - on a hole that back in that Power-Bilt Junior Tour event I carded a 16 en route to a 18-hole score well north of 100.
It's good to get back home.
When you take a golf trip somewhere new, you experience unfamiliar places and exciting new courses. But there are no chances for redemption. There are no nemeses to slay, no landmarks or people that jostle memories loose from the depths of your brain.
2020 has been grueling by many measures. So maybe it was the uncertainties of the present that stirred a craving to go back, a chance to return to a place where there was never too much to worry about besides the next report card. So I packed up the CR-V with my family and dogs and ventured home to Michigan for a while to escape the Texas heat and see some old friends.
I was especially eager to play some courses of my youth I hadn't seen since I began writing about golf for a living. Having now played 600 or so courses in two dozen countries, what would I think of them?
Turns out, it was as fulfilling as any golf trip I've ever taken.
Adding to the enjoyment of my visit was that most of the public courses in my home town are doing swell, in part because of some friends who stuck around. My high school teammate Andrew Walton has been spearheading recent multi-year efforts at Ann Arbor's two municipal courses. They're both in better shape and more environmentally sensitive than ever. My swing coach Dave Kendall scooped up Washtenaw Golf Club with some investors, made it public and is plotting a restoration. (I could never get on those shady fairways as a kid, only park members' cars.) Another one of my teammates, one-time U.S. Open qualifier Patrick Wilkes-Krier, works with Kendall at the Kendall Academy at Miles of Golf, a brick-and-mortar retail facility and range still thriving in the age of e-commerce. They passionately teach a new crop of aspiring area golfers.
It's been an epic summer for the golf business. Tee sheets are full everywhere. I left town for the south in the early 2000s, around the time everyone started to realize there were way too many mediocre courses. Some of my old stomping grounds are sadly gone: Hickory Sticks was always a fun, rustic course to play on the outskirts. We loved it in high school because they were a rare course that would rent golf carts to teens (a mistake, frankly). Ann Arbor Country Club, dating back to the 1920s, is no more. Lake in the Woods, according to Google Earth, is now a disc golf course.
Just before my trip I was serendipitously reconnected with a couple old high school teammates through The Grint, a scoring and handicap app with a social component. Another old friend caught wind of my visit via Instagram. I hadn't spoken to them in 20-ish years, and yet walking the fairways of Leslie Park, the home course of our high school team, felt like old times, especially when our tee shots on the 6th hole strayed right and kicked into the apple orchard as always. Leslie got the best of us that day. It usually did. Along the way we'd laugh about how whenever we'd see our high school coach watching us from a distance during a match we'd inevitably crumble under pressure.
Unlike the hundreds of rounds in high school here, we were finally old enough to lick our wounds with a beer on the patio afterwards. We spoke less about golf than we did of skipping class.
On a Tuesday afternoon I carved out some time in the schedule to visit the golf course I've played more than any other, Huron Hills. This place was the best babysitter in town. My folks would drop me off around 9 am and for $6 I would play until the late-afternoon, usually 36 holes and sometimes more. As I checked in I saw a handful of kids on the putting green.
Y'all don't know how good you have it!
Playing this 5,000-yard muni from the 1920s alone was one my favorite round in years. Each footstep triggered a memory. Of past golf buddies and our shenanigans, all those times getting caught in rainstorms. One time, on the 14th hole, I slipped in a ditch while looking for a ball, cut my leg on a rusty pole and had to get a tetanus shot. During sleepovers we'd sneak out here at night and set off bottle rockets.
All these years later, the strategy of the course is burned in my head: Stay left on 1, don't go above the hole on 8 and 10, land it short on 9 and 18. Aim at the park bench on 13. Some trees are gone, others are new. The once tiny pines planted on each hole 150 yards from the green are now massive.
The three-day Herb Fowler Tournament held here each August was the climax of an Ann Arbor junior golfer's summer. Scores were immortalized in the local sports section. My best-ever round in that event was a 5-over 72. On this day, playing alone as a 38-year-old skipping work and void of tournament pressure or teenage angst, I shot a 71. I wanted to tape my card to the clubhouse wall.
Instead, I bought a soda and a souvenir hat for $9. My wife needed the car that day so I had to order a Lyft to get back to our AirBnB. Sitting on the porch as the afternoon wave of golfers arrived felt awfully familiar. The clubhouse still smelled the same. It was like I was waiting for my parents to come get me all over again.
Life in 2020 is complicated. Some fleeting moments can make you feel young and blissfully naive again. So before you begin planning your next vacation to an exotic new place, ask yourself if you've been home lately.