Walking through the spectator village towards the first tee at Gullane, ready for the Scottish Open Pro-Am, I felt like a condemned man. It brought to mind The Green Mile. Only, in this instance, given the summer we’ve enjoyed, it was more like The Yellowy-Brown Mile.
Chances of a stay of execution? None. My moment of reckoning was scheduled for 1.30pm and, to make matters worse, a large crowd had gathered to bear witness.
Granted, it’s very likely they were there to see defending champion Rafa Cabrera-Bello than me. But consider this: bunkered ed Bryce Ritchie had very kindly alerted our Twitter followers to where, when and with whom I’d be teeing off.
Just found out our man @MMcEwanbunkered is teeing off at the first in today’s @ScottishOpen pro-am. Be there at 1.30pm to watch him fill his pants. He could also possibly kill someone. #ASIScottishOpen— Bryce Ritchie (@Bryce_bunkered) July 11, 2018
I won’t lie, the thought occurred to me – more than once – that some folk were there purely on his advice.
I got to the tee early. Too early. Early enough to see people turn up, realise the grandstand was full and so gradually line the sides. By the time Rafa appeared – to hearty, appreciative applause; not the silent indifference that greeted my trembling arrival – there must have been three or four hundred people standing around peering in. It took every last ounce of my resolve not to bolt in the direction of North Berwick Law.
At precisely 1.30pm, the shotgun fired. A moment's disappointment washed over me as I realised it had missed. Bang, quite literally, went my final chance of a reprieve. There was really no escaping it now. I was going to have to subject these poor folk to my shambles of a golf swing.
From 20 yards further back, Rafa rifled a long-iron up the fairway. Ball-striking perfection. I could hear a pernicious voice in my head snigger and mutter something along the lines of “aye, follow that”.
I grabbed my driver – like there was ever a chance of me not putting a 460cc head behind my first shot of the day – and walked out with all the confidence I could summon.
As I put the tee in the ground and pegged up the ball, it occurred to me this was tantamount to tightening my own noose. Truth is, that happened weeks earlier when I’d accepted an invitation to play.
“Michael, would you like to join us in the Scottish Open Pro-Am?”
“Count me in,” I had replied with naïve conviction. I could have made any number of excuses: “too busy”, “on holiday”, “washing my hair”. But no, I’d voluntarily approached the bench, ready to plead guilty for crimes against the golf swing.
God knows why but I took a step back to get a better look at the hole. Big mistake. In front of my eyes, the fairway appeared to shrink to the width of a Rizla paper.
I puffed my cheeks and indulged myself a quick practice swing (as much to lower the crowd’s expectations as anything else).
I then walked up to the ball and addressed it. At least a million thoughts danced in front of my eyes.
These three were particularly foremost:
“If you accidentally knock the ball off the tee, somebody’s going to shout ‘one’, everyone’s going to laugh and you’re going to be the butt of the joke.”
“If you top this, everyone’s going to laugh and you’re going to be the butt of the joke.”
“If you freshie it, everyone’s going to laugh and you’re going to be the butt of the joke.”
That’s when it dawned on me. My biggest fear was not failing at something I’m not especially good at in front of hundreds of people. My biggest fear was being the butt of the joke. Growing up, I’d been there regularly. Being bullied as a schoolkid isn't a fun place to be. It’s cruel and it's isolating and it sucks. Worst of all it can haunt you - if you let it.
I was letting it. I was, to some weird degree, allowing the past to infiltrate the present.
No chance was I having that.
And so I blocked everything else out, swung as best I could, slow back and slow through, sending the ball down fairway with a bit of fade. It came to rest in the right-side semi-rough. Good enough.
The crowd applauded generously to which I responded with something more highfalutin than is appropriate for a man of my meagre talent: a tip of the cap.
Not the butt of the joke. Not this time. This time, I’d had the last laugh.
This? This is what it’s like to step out of your comfort zone. This is what it's like to stand your ground, when your better judgment is howling for you to resist and run.
It's not easy. Not by any means. But believe me, it's worth it.
The next 17-and-a-half holes? A walk to both remember and savour. But that's another story for another day.