My annual Golf Trip that distracts me from blogging for one week every December is not some casual, loosely-planned getaway. Now in it’s 8th year, it has become a regimented week of routine and tradition with almost military-like precision. There is an afternoon warm-up round, an evening dedicated to brutal drinking games, a full day of Golf, another evening for brutal drinking games, a day of Ambrose Golf, more drinking games, a Stableford Tournament where we play for the prestigious Brown Jacket, a night spent playing “Drisk” (The Drinking Game of Global Domination), and two other nights of brutal drinking games. If you hadn’t already gathered, it’s a trip that has little to do with the Golf and more to do with mates hanging out on a Golf Course. And drinking.

I tell this story not to gloat about my splendid holiday habits or to condone binge drinking, but as some background for the tale I’m about to tell. You see, for all the lack of Golf-oriented purpose and elements of serious sport, there is one day on Golf Trip which is indeed, all about the Golf. This is not the Stableford Tournament (as some of my mates would perhaps believe), but the day of Team Ambrose. Let me explain why.

Golf, to me, has always been a sport that severely lacks a competitive edge, or more precisely, an avenue to express (and satisfy) a competitive desire. Many golfers would probably disagree with me, pointing to the competitive streaks in some of the best golfers throughout history. Those reading this blog might even point to Michael Jordan, a very keen golfer, as evidence that golf can sooth even the most ruthless of competitive souls.

Golf, so they tell me, is a sport where one challenges oneself – it’s just you, the ball, the trees, and your atrocious slice. There’s nothing or no one to harass you, allowing you to channel and apply your focus on a completely different level from most sports.  I get that. I’m all for competing against yourself, against the elements, with the challenge of getting better and slowly shredding that handicap. But that alone, for me, can never stoke the competitive fires as much as seeing an opponent in front of you, trying to stop you, trying to make sure he (or his team) is ahead when that final siren sounds.

This is both why I love basketball and struggle to embrace golf. For reasons that I’ve learned over the past decade during which my sporting interests (and ability) peaked, I do not excel in sport unless I can see the guy I’m trying to beat, unless I can see his face, sense his emotion, and gauge just where his head is at. I sometimes don’t fully wake up in basketball games until my direct opponent scores against me, or until someone steals the ball from me. It’s then the competitive juices start flowing and I want to go back down the other end and punish them. I deliberately look my defender in the eye every time I’m dribbling down the court or facing someone up on the wing – it can tell you so much about a player, how focused they are, and how willing they are to compete. I listen out for comments the opposition shout to each other – “stay close to number 10!” if I’m shooting well, or “he can’t go left!” if they’re defending my admittedly average dribble. I don’t brush off these comments as I probably should, but instead pick the ones that resonate with my competitive spirit, and set about proving them wrong.

These are the things that I pay attention to on the court, whether I’m playing or just watching. In basketball mentality and mindset are valued just as much as physical abilities, because it is a sport where each competitor, essentially, is naked. There is no armour, bats or helmets to disguise you. There aren’t 10 or 17 other teammates to hide behind. There isn’t a 300-foot pitch to distance the gaze and grasp of every opponent and teammate. There isn’t the comforting serenity of a lonely fairway. It’s ten guys running through and around each other on every play, within arms reach, within ear shot, with only four other people you can trust, with a clock running down, with the scores glowing twenty feet away. A mental weakness or lack of spirit can easily stand out in basketball, more than any other team sport I know. And it’s that nakedness that amplifies the competitive spirit of the true greats. It’s why you can sense when Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant is about to take over a ball game – sure it’s a team sport, but one man’s willpower alone can still overwhelm the other five. You can see it. You can feel it.

I’m not for one second comparing myself to these legends of the NBA. I enjoy a competitive game of sport as much as any average bloke does. But for some reason, it’s that competition and battle of wills that makes the game enjoyable for me. If there’s no score, I’m less likely to be interested. If there’s no opponent to trash talk, I’ll get bored. Basketball fulfils that need more than any sport (or thing) I know. Golf never will. But it does come close…

For those unaware, the Ambrose version of Golf involves playing in teams, whereby after everyone tees off you choose the best collective shot for the team, with everyone hitting their second shot from that spot. So in two-player Ambrose you essentially get two shots from every spot, which naturally increases the probability that one of those shots isn’t lost in the woods, and ultimately results in a better score. Ambrose Golf creates several intriguing dynamics that normal Golf lacks. There’s strategy in the order of taking shots – who’s your most reliable hitter? Should they go first? Or maybe wait till last in case everyone else screws up? Maybe Bruce will hit around the trees to be safe but George will aim straight for the hole because he hits further? There’s the extra pressure on close putts and chips – George and Bruce both missed the putt, so it’s all up to you to secure the par for the team. And it is all about the team. How often do you jump up and high-five everyone in a game of normal Golf? In Ambrose it happens almost every second hole.

It’s essentially the best elements of team sport combined with Golf, and it very quickly gets those competitive juices flowing. You sense a role within your Ambrose squad, especially if its three or four men deep. You keep asking about how the other team’s are scoring when you pass them on the fairway. And you silently curse to yourself when you hear them celebrating on the next hole 350 meters away. Can’t believe those wankers got a birdie… We really gotta nail this next hole. So when it comes to Ambrose day on Golf Trip, I awake wide-eyed and legitimately excited for the day ahead.

Except this year (well, last year) was a little different. You see, the Ambrose teams are decided based on your handicap, which is adjusted based on your individual scores in the preceding three days of Golf Trip. We then rank everyone from best to worst, and choose the fairest teams. Normally this is a fairly simple matter, owing to the following:

- There is a small group of players (four to be exact) who are actually good at golf (I am not a part of this group) who can regularly hit in the low 90s or maybe even the 80s on a good day. They are, as I like to describe them, the “Franchise players”.
- There is another small group of players who are semi-decent but wildly inconsistent, and could score anywhere between 95 and 115. But if required to hit a simple 120m shot up the fairway (because the preceding players shanked their shots), this group of players will most often deliver. For that reason we call them “Safeties”, and I’m proud to admit that I am indeed a Safety.
- There is the final group of players who generally don’t play golf, score anywhere from 120 to 180, and often arrive at Golf Trip with their father’s clubs from the 1970s. You know, the ones that look like they were made by a blacksmith at Sovereign Hill. These players have no official name, but they’re sometimes called “Crap Golfers”.

As it turns out, the Ambrose teams can be pretty conveniently organised by ensuring each team has one Franchise player, one (or two) Safeties, and one (or two) Crap Golfers. It’s strange but there isn’t really anyone who sits on the fence between these groups – there really are only three types of golfers on this trip.

Except this year. Thanks to a startling jump in form over the first few days of Golf Trip, my good mate Sam suddenly found his handicap at an all-time low. Sam is also the Mark Price of my Thursday night basketball team. He’s hit more threes than anyone in the history of our club, and also has a signature layup that involves an overly exaggerated ball-fake to the right before laying it up with his left. It’s the kind of move Mark Price would make if he found himself hurtling towards the rim, and it curiously works 95% of the time. So while I respect Sam’s basketball talents, he had been, up until this point, a fairly average golfer. He was always a Safety, like me. But this year his magical touch saw an end to that. Reading out the scores which he had spent the last four hours calculating, my mate Pete declared that Sam had the fourth best handicap.

Holy shit! Fourth? That means you’re a Franchise Guy!

It sure did, as our other perennial Franchise player had suffered a curious drop in form (perhaps owing to the excessive drinking). We all debated possible line ups, and quickly settled on the teams. Thanks to an odd number of players this year, I would be in the team of four – the others were groups of three. To balance out this advantage, we were given one Crap Golfer, two Safeties (me included), and the lowest-ranked Franchise player…

Sam.

To be continued in Part II: Joe Default and his Merry Men


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