ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Hitting a few practice putts beside the first tee of the Old Course in St. Andrews, I can barely focus on the stroke.
My mind keeps wandering back to that damn shot: Oct. 28, 2006.
In fact, practically every time someone asks me about the Old Course, a nightmarish vision of that ugly, pathetic excuse for a tee ball on the first hole resurfaces.
On a calm, sunny October afternoon, with scores of onlookers, from R & A brass in their sport coats to Japanese tourists behind their video cameras, my tee shot off the first flew so far right it went over the white fence and practically onto the West Sands beach.
I'm a single-digit handicap and I missed the widest fairway in golf. It wasn't even close.
The member I was with wouldn't even let me hit another tee ball. I had to drop a ball in the fairway. My score was officially bogus without finishing one hole.
I walked down about 220 yards, dropped a ball by the fence and bladed a 5-iron dead left and into the burn. I fished my ball out with the embarrassingly large metal retriever, then gave the ball right back to the burn with a chunked wedge.
I walked off the first hole DQ'd, but gave myself a "10" for good measure. Then on the second, I blasted my drive right into the gorse.
So much for the "Left is right, right is wrong" advice on the Old.
Fast forward to the present. I'm on the practice green waiting to get paired up as a single, but my head is on a continuous swivel toward the starter's hut. Having played the new Castle Course in the morning, it's close to 4 p.m. now, and I fear my window for a full 18 holes is shrinking on this late April day.
Minutes later, the starter finally emerges from his shack and tells me two Swedes have agreed to let me play with them.
Finally, I've got a shot at my ghosts.
I decide to let my partners, who were playing the Old for the first time, go first. Peter, a kid who can't be more than a year or two out of college, stepped up to the tee. A 4-handicap, he gave a quick swing to the ball, which caused a hook that barely made it off the ground and scooted across the 18th fairway, settling just a few feet from the white fence that separates the course from the road.
For some reason, this horrible shot from a good player calmed me down. I walked up to the tee swelling with confidence for some reason. Suddenly I felt like a member who'd played this shot a thousand times.
My hands still feeling a little too light for my liking, I picked out a point in the distance on the left side of the fairway.
"Slooooooooow" I told myself in my backswing - and to swing through the ball toward my target on the follow-through. I looked up and the ball was in the air with a little fade, landing smack dab in the middle. I picked up my tee and strutted down the fairway like it was no sweat. Inside, I felt like I had just solved the stock market.
It didn't matter that I botched my approach shot and finished the first with a bogey; I had stepped up to the first tee and knocked one right down the middle like a grizzled member.
Next up: The Road Hole
I had one other ghost to slay that day: my tee shot on the Road Hole 17th, which I blasted off the Old Course Hotel O.B. last time around. This time, I aimed especially left, as wind was blowing balls straight to the right, and hit it safely into the left rough, like an Open Championship leader protecting a two-shot lead.
Though I had slain my two ghosts, a few more surfaced, like a slice on No. 9 into the gorse (causing a double bogey), and an idiotic layup that landed inches away from the Hell Bunker that didn't give me a stance on the ball (you don't want to fall in about 10 feet).
So that's all the more reason to start thinking about how I can get back to the Old Course just one more time ...