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How I Hit A 30,000 Yard Tee Shot
Or, how my golf ball ended up in your ream of paper.
It’s amazing how people will respond when you call them up, tell them you’re a writer, and ask them ridiculous questions. Like, for instance, when I asked a man to check around a paper mill to see if he could find my golf ball.
“It’s a Nike. Give me a call if you find it.”
A little over two years ago, my brother and I were playing the nine-hole Crowne Plaza golf course just west of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. As we were preparing to tee off on a long par-4, we heard a train rumbling along the tracks that ran along the right side of the fairway. It was a Norfolk Southern engine, slowly pulling a few dozen cars.
We should try to hit it, one of us — I’m not saying who — chuckled aloud. Wouldn’t that be fun.
Even if I thought it was possible, I really didn’t want to hit it. I had just cracked open a brand new sleeve of golf balls. These were much too nice to bang off the side of a train car. Also, I was not 12 years old. My brother let me borrow his oversized Taylor Made driver anyway. I do not hit drivers well. I have a tendency to cut across the ball, and slice it. The ball usually lands 30 yards to the right of where I am aiming.
I teed up a ball, aimed for the middle of the fairway, and swung.
At first, it looked like my shot might clear the train. The engine was already down near the green, and all that was left were tankers and open cars filled to the top with wood chips. My ball arced toward the convoy before touching down in an open car with a puff of chips.
I reflexively jumped into the air. I high-fived my brother. I handed his driver back to him; I would not be using it for the rest of the round.
I have never hit a hole-in-one. I haven’t had an eagle in years — does the Wii count? I was cut from the junior varsity golf team in high school. I had pretty much just reached the apex of my golf career.
Somewhat incredibly, I’m not the first person — or storybook character — documented to have landed his golf shot inside of a moving train. That honor seems to be reserved for a guy named L.H. Vernon. In 1937, he hit a tee shot at the railroad-bisected Ballarat Golf Club links near Melbourne, Australia. As he did, a train rolled out from behind a stand of trees. “To the surprise of the golfers,” said the local newspaper, “the ball landed the engine cabin and continued its ‘journey’ by train.”
A ball landing on a moving train is also a major plot point in a beloved children’s book. In “Paddington Goes To Town,” Mr. Curry asks Paddington Bear to be his caddie. When he hurts himself by slipping on a marmalade sandwich, Paddington not only takes over for him in the golf tournament, but also wins the long-drive contest by accidentally knocking his drive into a passing train. Big hitter, that Paddington.
I wanted to know where my ball went. I emailed Robin Chapman, the public relations director for Norfolk Southern and gave him the important details of my shot: Time, location, direction of the train, description of my superb athletic prowess, and so on. My ball, Chapman said, landed on local P59. It was on its way from Asheville to Blue Ridge Paper in Canton, North Carolina. By his estimation, my tee shot had traveled 17 miles, or approximately 30,000 yards.
Fastidious gentleman that I am, I called Blue Ridge to try to get some closure. A nice enough security guard named Jack Hawkins picked up the phone. “We make pulp and paper here,” he said. “That’s pretty much the basic thing.”
I told him what happened. Amazingly, he didn’t hang up on me. To the contrary, he seemed genuinely amused by the the fact that I had expended so much energy on the matter. “That oughta be some sort of record,” he chuckled.
(Sadly, my feat comes up rather short when it comes to setting records, actually. In 2006, a cosmonaut hit a shot from the International Space Station that orbited Earth for three days before burning up in the atmosphere. NASA thinks that shot traveled 460 million miles. No fair.)
All indications are that my Nike ball likely arrived at the mill a few hours after my tee shot. The train car would have dumped its cargo into a big pile of wood chips, where they — and my ball — probably stayed for three or four days. Then, most likely, the pile went through a screener that’s designed to weed out imperfections in the wood, like knots or errant tee shots. That screener surely caught my ball, Jack said. From there, my 30,000-yard tee shot likely came to its final resting place in a waste fuel pile. Blue Ridge Paper, it appears, had given the object of my greatest feat a Viking funeral.
I asked Jack what would have happened if my ball somehow made it through Blue Ridge’s screening process. “It might contaminate our products,” he said.
I gave him my name and number and told him to give me a call if they ever found my ball. “Ohhhh-kay,” Jack giggled, signaling that there was no way in hell anyone would ever find it. He never called back.
So what happened? Nothing, really. I hit a lousy shot. I took a two-stroke penalty. My golf ball probably met a hellish end. If not, you might have just printed your resume on it.
But in the end, I did learn a valuable lesson: Next time, hit the 3-wood.