Sunday, January 22, 2012

Golf Genes

I've started to think some things are in our genes.  But for a long time, I wondered if golf was in mine.

Look at any sport and you'll find fathers and sons, cousins, sometimes brothers who have played the game at its highest levels. Baseball is full of them. Football too.  And of course, golf has seen its fair share of famous father and son golf pros--Craig and Kevin Stadler, Jay and Bill Haas, and the ultimate Sunday afternoon partners, Old Tom and Young Tom Morris

Move beyond fathers and sons and you'll find even more.  Keegan Bradley, Last year's PGA Rookie of the Year, has a very famous aunt--Pat Bradley, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Even Arnold Palmer's grandson, Sam Saunders, plays professionally. And that's just the beginning.

Clearly, it helps to come from a long line of golfers.

Is it surprising then, considering my golf game, that I don't come from a family full of golfers? When I started playing golf, I couldn't name one golfer in my family--not my father, not my brothers, not even an uncle or cousin.

That's changed a bit now. Though my father is not a life-long golfer, he did eventually take up golf in his 50s, after I'd already grown up and moved away. Now, we play golf together every chance we get.

I was worried that somehow the game just wasn't in my blood, that I wasn't genetically designed to swing a golf club. But then my father recently produced this gem:

That's my grandfather, playing in uniform in 1946.  That big mound in the background? Mt. Fuji, of course.  I had no idea he was a golfer, though my father says he only ever played when he was in the military.

Still, if you count my grandfather's military career and my father's late entrance into the golfing world, my family is working on three generations of golfers. As proud as I am to say that, it does knock out another one of my reasons for playing bad golf (Excuse #3,472: non-golf genes).

Of course, I look at that picture and wonder if my grandfather made the putt.  But even if he didn't, I know this:  my golf teacher would compliment his posture.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mechanical Voices

"You cannot hit a golf ball consistently well if you think about the mechanics of your swing as you play."--from Golf is not a Game of Perfect by Dr. Bob Rotella

As a golfer who has spent the better part of the last two years studying the fundamental mechanics of the golf swing, it's a difficult lesson to take to heart. When I practice, I'm nearly always thinking about the mechanics of my I aligned correctly? Is my grip ok? Am I transferring weight correctly to my front side? In other words, I'm driving myself nuts with thoughts as I try to swing.

Those thoughts are okay if I'm at the driving range after work hitting a bucket of balls with my 7 iron, working on that goofy new posture my golf teacher has me practicing. If you listen to Dr. Rotella and the rest of the guys who know what they're talking about, they'll say that when you hit the course, you've got to forget all those mechanical voices and just play. Have fun. Enjoy the walk. Enjoy the good shots you hit. Forget about the bad ones.

It's harder to do than it sounds.

But I am learning to do it more and more lately, learning to trust my swing, another of Rotella's mantras. Sometimes when I'm getting out of the car at the golf course or lacing up my golf shoes, I get a little nervous, worried that I may somehow have forgotten how to play, that today might be the day when I shoot 129 and forget how to hit a sand wedge, my favorite club in my bag.

I was extra nervous when, at the end of December, I got a chance to play a round with my father at the course where I'd played the first golf of my life.  It's been ten years since I've played that course and my golf game has grown tenfold or more in those years.  Still, I was worried that somehow my game would revert
to its old ways, that I'd be on the 7th hole and my body would remember that I was supposed to hit the ball into the water, because that's what I'd always done.

We teed off early in the morning, hyped up on coffee and granola bars. I saw the round as an end-of-the season golf test, eager to see whether the progress I've made this season could be taken from my home course, a flat open layout with little trouble, to a narrower course with smaller greens and multiple water hazards.

Well, I managed to navigate the narrow opening hole, a par 5 with out of bounds on one side and a creek crossing the fairway. As we played the second hole, I could tell my short game was solid, as usual. By the third hole, I was warmed up, though I did manage to lose one brand new golf ball on a terrible drive that ballooned into the woods; I bogeyed the hole anyhow. I cobbled together a good front nine--a few pars, a couple of scrambling bogeys, topped off by a chip-in birdie on the par 5 ninth hole.  I stepped to the 10th tee feeling great.

The new 10th hole is what used to be the first hole on the course. It's where my golfing career had begun years ago when my best friend's father had handed me a 3 wood and told me not to swing it like a baseball bat. I wondered if this might be the right time for my game to fall apart. I hadn't hit a bad drive since the 3rd hole of the day. I was due.

What I remembered as a dusty, long hole with a brown ditch running the length of the right side and a stand of battered trees next to the tee had grown into a beautiful driving hole--a wide open expanse of fluffy fairway that was still bright green even in late December.

My tee shot was a beauty, a climbing line-drive that followed the left side of the fairway before settling with a fade right into the middle.  It's a very long par 4, but as I approached my ball I could see no reason not to aim right at the green. Solid contact with a 5 wood would surely get me there.

I'd done a pretty good job of keeping the mechanical voices out of my head. But as I settled in over my ball with my 5 wood, something strange happened. I started thinking back to the first time I'd ever played the hole, remembering countless whacks at the ball and the amazement that I couldn't do it very well. Mechanical thoughts crept in. As a took the club back, I thought keep it low, turn, relax, turn, weight shift...

The club slammed down into the ground several inches behind the ball, taking a massive, ugly divot and sending the ball scooting down the hole only 80 yards. You're not supposed to take a big divot with a 5 wood, but I'd done just that; I hit the worst shot I would hit all day by far.  A 4 iron and a good chip later and I'd bogeyed the hole, still a score I was not unhappy with.

But was it a fluke? Or had I actually reverted back to my old golf game? Judging by the rest of my round, it was an aberration, but it did happen at a peculiar moment. Were the golf gods laughing a little and offering a lesson in humility?

All I know is the next voice I heard was my own: Don't think. Just play.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Getting Past the First Tee: Questionable Golf Holes

A brief description of the high handicapper's mindset as he approaches the first tee:

"Please...just let me get it airborne. Just this once. A weak pop-up to the right? Great! A dying 100-yard screamer to the edge of the fairway? Works for me! A 280-yard banana-ball that flies 100 yards into the woods and out of bounds? Ummmm, well...okay, sure! But hey...anything will do: just don't let me top the goddamn thing." --from When Bad Things Happen to Bad Golfers by Gary Perkinson and T.J. Tomasi

I've managed to overcome most of my first tee jitters and I don't worry too much about topping my drives anymore.  Sure, my banana ball comes and goes (in my dreams, it goes 280 yards.)  I'm more likely nowadays to get 14th or 15th tee jitters, when I know I have a good round going and I don't want to blow it on the last few holes.

In retrospect, I've come to believe that my past first tee jitters might actually have been because I was playing on golf courses with lousy opening holes. In fact, I might even say that most of the courses I've played in my golfing life have had poorly designed opening holes.  What could be a worse way to start a round than knowing something bad is likely to happen on the first hole?  I suspect it's a little like going on a blind date and tumbling head first down a set of stairs as you approach your date's door. Misery sets in before the fun begins.

Most of the reading I've done on golf course design has taught me a few lessons about what makes for a good opening golf hole.  Combined with my own opinion, here's what a good opening hole should look like:

1. It should probably be a par 4.  Par 3s make for a long line at the clubhouse--anxious golfers waiting to get the first hole over with.  Also, more time for first tee jitters to settle in.

2. It should have a fairway that is fairly easy to hit. No one wants to play from the trees on the opening hole.

3. It should not require any shots over water. (See first tee jitters).

4. It should not cross a road. (You want to add to the pressure the possibility of hitting a passing car?)

Maybe that's ideal, but I've played courses which broke all of these rules and then some.

There was the opening par 3 hole in Tennessee where the line for the first tee stretched around the clubhouse. Bad opening hole.

When I was in graduate school in Georgia, I played on a course that began with a long, dogleg par 5 which required a 3rd shot over a pond to reach the green. I was having a hard time getting my ball consistently airborne at the time. Bad opening hole.

But the absolute worse opening hole I've ever played takes me back to my high school days.  As a member of the JV golf team, I had playing privileges at two different private clubs in our small town.  Both clubs actually suffered from dumb first holes, but the worst was at the course on the side of town closest to the airport.  (As a side note, this course was also next door to a rifle range, which was a little disconcerting on the 6th and 7th holes, which ran parallel to the range.)

About that first hole:  It all began with a blind, uphill tee shot.  Just off the front of the first tee, the fairway climbed a gradual hill for the first 175 yards or so--enough so that you certainly couldn't see where your ball might land--and then dropped off and ran downhill to a generous landing area.  It made for a silly opening tee shot because you couldn't see when it was safe to hit because it was impossible to tell when the golfers playing in front of you were out of the way. The result was that a lot of golf balls were flying around on that first hole.  A lot were too close close for comfort.

To remedy the situation, the pro at the club had a telephone pole and mirror installed at the the back of the first tee box.  The idea was that you could turn around, look straight up at a cloudy mirror pointed at the bottom of the hill and tell when the group in front of you was finished.  The problem was that the mirror was pointed at the the middle of the fairway, so if the group in front of you weren't chasing down perfect tee shots in the middle of the fairway, they were invisible.  It didn't take long for us to accidentally hit into a couple of groups. 

Our solution?  We turned the freshmen on the team into forecaddies and made them run to the top of the hill and signal back when it was safe to hit. This system worked well until one day our golf coach watched as we sent a freshman to the top of the hill.  Our coach drove over on his golf cart and wanted to know what was going on. We told him our system and even he agreed it was pretty smart. Then he volunteered to drive up to the top of the hill, make sure the hole was clear and watch our tee shots. So we let him. He didn't usually hang around us JV golfers too much, instead preferring to watch and coach our better players who had a little more game.

Anyhow, three of us teed off as the coach watched.  Then our freshman player stepped to the tee, hit a high popup--a moonshot of sorts--that went about 150 yards and came down directly on top of the coach's golf cart, bouncing loudly off the roof of the cart and into the rough.  Normally, the coach would zoom off at this point to the other side of the course to watch the good players.  But he stuck around this time as we climbed the hill and tried to spot our tee shots.  When we got to the top of the hill, he waved us over to his cart.  I think we all expected a demand for an apology, or at least some sort of speech about the importance of yelling "fore."

Instead, he cracked a broad smile, looked across at our foursome, a bunch of middle-class high school kids that had no idea what we were doing and simply said, "No wonder you guys are on the B-team."

And off he went.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Nemesis/My Love

It's a hot day at the golf course.  Maybe I'm not drinking enough water because I'm about to step on the 13th tee and I'm already exhausted.  The group ahead of me, a bunch of old timers smoking cigars, has already waived me through.  I tee up my ball, take an easy practice swing and launch my best drive of the day, a high fade that settles into the right side of the fairway.  I have a decent round going today and I think to myself: a par would be terrific right about now. Nevermind that I haven't even bogeyed this hole in weeks. A poor second shot. A mediocre third.  What is it with this hole?

Look on the back of any scorecard and you'll find a few small numbers that tell you the level of difficulty of the golf course.  Without going into complicated math, one of the numbers is called the slope rating.  If you know what you're looking for, it's a fairly easy way to tell whether your game suits a particular course.  In other words, it tells you how hard the golf course may be.

Theoretically, experts from the United States Golf Association visit a golf course about once every ten years and rate a golf course based on a number of factors;  for example, they take into account the length, topography, and elevation of the course.  They consider the size of the greens and the width of the fairways.  Are the holes straight or doglegs?  Is there a beautiful pond, preferably fronting a short par 3, that likes to collect new golf balls? How tall is the rough? Are there lots of deep sand bunkers? Are there convenient trees to hit your ball into?  And what about that hole that lines up next to the busy road, the one where you wait for cars to stop coming, hoping it's not the one time in your life when you'll pull a shot left of the fairway, over the fence, and through the windshield of a passing truck.

According to the USGA, a course of average difficulty has a slope rating of 113.  My home course ranks as a whopping 106, which is to say that it's an easier than average course, according to the USGA's experts.

And they're correct, of course.  The holes are not terribly long. The number of sand traps can be measured on one hand.  Bodies of water are mostly out of play.  It's difficult to lose a golf ball. The rough isn't too rough. Yes, there's that pesky sand trap just in front of the green on the 3rd hole.  And number 5 is a tougher dogleg than it looks.  Sure, the green on number 7 can be tricky.  There's that branch that grows out into the fairway on the eighth hole.  And that old oak tree on the par 5 12th, so perfectly placed short and right of the green that I nearly always end up behind it somehow.

But collectively, it's a not a difficult golf course.  Just 17 holes of slightly less than average difficulty, which I've grown to love. 

Then there's the par 4 13th hole, a hole so well designed and so difficult that a bogey seems like a great success. It's a frustrating hole for a number of reasons.  It's far more difficult than any other hole on the course;  but it's really frustrating because it's the only hole on the course where I've never shot par.  Every day when I approach the tee box, I ask myself: is today the day? The day when I'll finally get it in the hole in 4 strokes?

My playing partner Wolf says it's become my white whale.
It's the longest par 4 on the course at 425 yards.  The tiny map on the back of the scorecard doesn't tell the whole story.  It's true that it's a mostly straight hole. But at the end of the fairway, you'll find the green is elevated nearly three stories above the rest of the course, which presents additional challenges. 

According to the course's website, its name is Old Smokey, as in On Top of Old Smokey, I assume.  As in good luck getting your ball on top of the hill on your second stroke. My players partners and I call it the Hill Hole.  Some days I call it a lot worse.

A par on the hill hole would start something like this:

1. Relax, because you have a pretty decent round going already.  Nevermind that this could be a turning point in your round if you score a 7 or worse. Just hit a good drive.
2. Nice drive.  Now grab that 5 wood and swing away.  No need to lay up. Nevermind all those trees at the top of the hill to the left of the green. Forget about those woods that will eat your ball if you miss to the right.  Oh, the cup is cut into the side of a hill on the edge of the green?  No problem.  You mean you can't see the flag from the bottom of the hill?  See those 3 trees way up there behind the green?  Aim at the middle one.  Hope you get a good bounce.

I wish it were that easy.  Usually my ball ends up on the top of the hill, left of the green, facing a nerve-wracking downhill chip into the slimmest green on the course. Or worse, what happened to me last week when I somehow managed to hit a low drive that clipped the ladies tee markers and flew directly into the air and ended up behind me. I average more than a double bogey on the Hill Hole. Just once, I want to par it. Just once.

Which brings me back to the final way in which the USGA rates its courses.  After taking into account all of the feasible obstacles a course presents, one final rating category must be considered.  The USGA ratings manual explains it well:  Psychological: "Psychological is the evaluation of the cumulative effect of the other obstacles. The location of many punitive obstacles close to a target area creates uneasiness in the mind of the player and thus affects his or her score."

Maybe it's just in my head.  It's just a big hill, right? Nothing scary about that at all. Nothing to worry about. I'll keep that in mind on the course tomorrow because I'm looking for revenge.  My latest score on the 13th hole?  Triple bogey 7. 

The hill hole wins again.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Golf Stats. Life Stats.

All the golf books say to do it.  Entire websites are devoted to it.  In his book Breaking 90, Johnny Miller offers up this tidbit about the usefulness of golf statistics, even for the average golfer: "There are two steps in building the consistency required to shoot scores in the 80s.  First, you need to keep track of the parts of your game that work well and those with which you struggle."  He then goes into mind-numbing detail about his personal method of marking scorecards during his heyday in the 70s, even bragging about how elaborate his personal system was. 

So, I listened to Johnny Miller.  There are worse things a struggling golfer can do.

As the snow begins to melt in Indianapolis, I'm stuck staring at a database of golf statistics from last season, trying to decipher the data, obsessing about what I hope to accomplish in the coming golf season. 

A few highlights from my 2010 golf season:

1.  I played 658 holes of golf and finished the season at 904 strokes over par. Ouch.
2.  I walked no less than 111 miles over the course of the season.
3. I hit 42% of fairways.
4. I made 7 birdies, nearly all of them on par 4 holes and never on a par 5.
5. The stats say my putting is better than my driving.
6.  My best 18 hole score of the year was an 86. My worst? 115 (It was on a course I'd never played before, early in the year, I had a weird pain in my left hip, it was a little bit muggy outside, I think the hot dog I ate after the front 9 was bad, etc.)
7. I make a par every 5.88 holes I play.
8. My record in match play was 1-6.
9. I played 11 different golf courses.
10. One time, the gods were happy and I played 13 holes in 3 over par.

Miller says the whole point is to become more familiar with your game and how to plan practice time more effectively.  And what have I learned? Don't sweat the par 3s, because I play them much better than I thought I did.  Watch out for par 5s.  A bogey ain't so bad. Golf stats are boring.

So, I've been thinking... 

Let's assume athletes use statistics as a way to gauge improvement or decline.  What are the rest of us to do?  How do we know when we're on the road to self-improvement in our everyday lives? Should we be keeping life stats to see how we're doing?  What would make for a statistically pleasing existence?  To get us started, I've tracked some statistics from my own life over the past week:

1. Miles driven: 87
2. Papers graded: 96
3. Turkey sandwiches eaten: 4
4. Occasions on which I exchanged pleasantries with the Fed-Ex guy: 2
5. Trips to gym: 1
6. Times I stood in front of the bedroom mirror in my underwear and mimed a golf swing: 19.
7. Weird golf dreams where it's the first day of the golf season, I'm late to the course, and my golfing buddies are already there decked out in old fashioned golf knickers, linen caps, and matching vests: 1.

Ben Franklin was doing this sort of thing years ago, of course.  Franklin called it the Thirteen Virtues, a list of self-written rules he hoped to follow in order to arrive at what he called "moral perfection."  If followed closely, a person could expect to become sincere, industrious, frugal, humble, and chaste, among other noble qualities.  Franklin himself carried around a chart and marked when he broke a rule.  

After spending a week focusing on each virtue, Franklin offered these encouraging words to all would be stat trackers: "I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it."

No doubt I'll be a better golfer this season than last.   Better why? Because I understand where I'm going:  straight to the range to practice my driving.  The stats say it's the weakest part of my game.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Up to a Considerable Point...

"Up to a considerable point, as I see it, there's nothing difficult about golf, nothing. I see no reason, truly, why the average golfer, if he goes about it intelligently, shouldn't play in the 70s."  --from Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf

Yes, Mr. Hogan. Whatever you say.

I think we must assume that "going about it intelligently" includes some form of instruction--lessons from a local golf pro, reading a trove of instructional books from the local library, watching hours of the Golf Channel, trying out the latest tip in Golf Digest. 

My own history with golf instruction is ridiculously brief: 

1.  The summer after fourth grade, my best friend's father takes me to the local public course, previously the home of a cow pasture and much dust.  He hands me a club and offers two pieces of advice: "It's not a baseball bat.  And you're not Superman." Much fun ensues.

2.  In 10th grade, I join the junior varsity golf team at school. Why? Some of my friends did it. We talked
about girls a lot. We got to play for free 5 days a week. I had nothing else to do? I borrowed a set of clubs from a friend who'd never used them. My parents bought me a golf bag for Christmas.

3. One afternoon, the high school golf coach, a sun-tanned ex-pro from Florida, emerges from the bar at the country club where we practiced and where he was a member.  "Today we're learning how to chip." Groans.
An hour later, with little success, he mumbles and sends us off to the course. 

4. One day at golf practice the coach watches me tee off.  "Are you really holding that thing like a baseball bat?" he asks.  He teaches me a proper grip that afternoon after practice.

5. After that, it's all books.  Books about proper mechanics, the swing plane, the mental game.  I've read sections of instructional golf books that even teach the best way to hit off of pine needles, a cart path, or even out of shallow water, if necessary.

Right now, I have seven golf instructional books checked out from the library. I've had four of them since May.  I've renewed one of them 14 times. Desperation? Perhaps.

Most are helpful, if only in small ways.  A little book called When Bad Things Happen to Bad Golfers--which wins the award for best cover: a frustrated golfer standing knee deep in water--reminded me of proper ball position with each club.  Breaking 90 with Johnny Miller has brought me back to my first golf lesson: You're not Superman. Hit the shot you know you can make.

Then there are ridiculous books like Golf in the Zone. It promotes many goofy things, most notably: 1. Avoiding coffee.  2. Listening to relaxing music on the way to the golf course. 3.  If you're an extrovert, "Punch the air, jump about, or give a roar of delight" after a good putt.

As a result of reading all of these books, I have a better idea of what's wrong with my swing (my backswing is too upright?) and I have a better idea of how to fix it. But, I fear my golf swing is a collection of parts, not yet its own.  It's a little like one of those sculptures you see at junk shops--an ash tray made out of bottlecaps and wax, a birdfeeder constructed from Diet Coke cans and toothpicks. It looks like something you've seen before, just a little curious.

I'm a goal-oriented guy.  One goal for the 2011 golf season? Read less. Practice more.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Work in Progress

It's a Thursday night in late June, nearly sunset, an extraordinary summer evening.  I'm walking up the 17th fairway, hurrying to finish my round before sundown, when I see them:  A young father, not much older than myself and his son, about eight years old.  They're getting ready to tee off on the nearby 15th hole. I watch as the father chooses a club for his son, lets him take a jerky practice swing, and points at the target in the distance.  The son hits the ball with all his might, a 50 yard screamer down the fairway, turns and high-fives his father.

I've heard this story before:  How a father picks up his son from kindergarten early on a Friday and drags him to the driving range to hack his first balls.  How that Christmas he buys a junior set of golf clubs, wraps it himself, and hides it from view behind the Christmas tree.  How the next summer they will talk their way onto the back nine of the local course just before sundown to secretly play a few holes. 

It's a good story.  But it isn't my story.

Though I have learned a great many lessons from my own father, he did not teach me the game.  I'm a self-taught golfer, never having had any formal lessons.  It's not something I'd wish on anyone wishing to play golf regularly.  Go take some lessons. Do it the easy way.  Still, it's a good feeling knowing that my own golf swing, both its faults and successes are my own.  No one has ever taught me to take a proper divot or explained to me the proper position of my right kneww during the backswing. And that's okay. I figure it out, bit by bit, working on one thing at a time.  One day, I spend time working on my grip.  The next day, I work on my hip turn.  It's a formula that's worked well for my developing golf game, a formula I also followed with sorting out my own life after I got married too young, became a father, then got divorced.  One thing at a time. Day by day. Practice makes perfect. Insert your own cliche here.

My daughter is nearly 7 now.  Will we ever be out on the links, just the two of us, playing the 17th hole, just trying to beat the sundown?  We'll see.  I don't need to know the answer right now. It's part of me trying to be more patient, like when I go to the driving range and hit 75 straight 9 irons, knowing that one day, those monotonous practice shots will serve me well.

I'm left with the following question:  Has golf taught me patience, a humility that I can carry over into my own life?  Or has my life taught me patience, a perseverance that will positively impact my golf game?  Does the answer even matter?