Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hole In One

We'd just finished the 5th hole when my ten year old daughter asked me if I'm going to become a professional golfer. 

"Well, it's a little late for that," I told her.

"I know you're old, but you always make a hole in one," she said.

I took a long look at the hole we'd just finished: a short track of green AstroTurf, an uneven hill down the right side, two well placed bricks perfect for a ricochet shot.  With my bright green golf ball, I'd gotten a lucky bounce for a hole in one. 

"It's my turn next," she said.

We started playing just after she turned 3.  Since then, my daughter's been in love with mini golf, or kid golf as she calls it.  We've played in multiple states, fun courses, bad courses, old courses, pirate-themed courses, plain boring courses, and an incredibly cool UFO themed 9 holer in Chattanooga.

She's got a strange, tall posture when she putts.  Her backswing is too short.  Her hands are too far apart.  Once, I tried to help her out with her setup position.  Her response made too much sense to ignore: "Quit making it so hard! Just let me have fun!" 

When she was 6, I told her I'd send her to a week long golf camp that met for a few hours every morning.  She didn't have any interest.  "I'm a kid. I just play kid golf," she told me.

I'm not terrific at kid golf.  I try to be, but the balls are too hard and the rubber putters are too soft.  And how in the world am I supposed to read the right amount of speed to get it through the bridge and over the back of the brontosaurus, but hit it soft enough so it doesn't go into the moat of stagnant water behind the hole?

But since the beginning, she's always been after the hole in one. I'm good for a few each round and my daughter usually makes a few too.  But what she really can't stand is when I make a hole in one on a hole and she doesn't.  She came up with a new rule that we play by: If I make a hole in one, she gets to play the hole until she does too.  It's made for some long, frustrating afternoons.  But I'm always, always amazed at the pure joy that erupts from her when her purple golf ball finally trickles into the hole, even after the 47th try.  It's a vertical leap, a yelp, flailing arms, the sound of another kid golf hole conquered.  Once she threw her putter as high as she could in celebration;  I caught it just before it hit the nearby pond.

I've never made a hole in one on a regulation golf course.  But one of these days, on what is sure to be something like my 4,389th attempt, my swing will be perfect, the bounce will be pure, and I'm going to put one right in the hole.  And when I do, I'll be jumping for joy, just like my daughter.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Putter Without a Name

The first time I shot my low round of 79, I stood on the 18th tee knowing all I needed was a double bogey to break 80.  The 18th was a dogleg right with a narrow tree-lined fairway.  I hit my drive into the trees. My second shot was a pitch out to the fairway.  I hit a thin 8 iron over the green.  My chip came up short.  I had two shots to get it in the hole and an iffy lie on the collar of the fringe. I hit a soft chip with my sand wedge, a touch too hard.  I was left with a five footer for double-bogey and a 79. It was going to be up to my putter.

The truth is, putting has always been one of my strengths.  My drives go left and right.  My iron play comes and goes.  But as far back as I can remember, I've always been one of the best putters in my group.

I've even had the same putter in my bag since I was in high school.  It's not a brand name you've heard of or one you could sell on eBay for extra cash.  It's just a simple little blade putter that used to be black and shiny. I don't use a putter cover for it anymore because it's so beat up now it wouldn't matter. I'm pretty sure my father bought it at Kmart for 17 cents when the local store went out of business. 

Some golfers are notorious for naming their putters, the most famous of which is the great Bobby Jones and Calamity Jane. I've heard of putters named Thor, Goose, Paco, and Fozzy.  But I've never given mine a special name.  It's just my putter, the only club in my bag I haven't replaced in the past 3 years.  

But a few years ago, I decided I needed a new putter.  I'd heard about putters that made it easier to line up a putt, putters that made it easier to not leave a putt short, putters that "accentuate the face angle at address, and highlight the face angle throughout the stroke."  Et cetera.  Et cetera.

I did a bunch of research, tried a handful of models, and ended up with this heavy gold thing that looked like a spider descending from a titanium spaceship.  One guy told me it looked like C-3PO's private parts. I think he was right.  After two months, I ended up giving it away and going back to my trusty old putter.  I don't think I'd describe myself as a feel player, but that club just never felt right.

Later that same summer, I was on the prowl again, giving it a go with a used Yes! brand putter named Sophia.  These things come with names stamped right on the back of the putter, lest you forget.  I tried to make it work. She had a soft face and a tender grip, but we never quite worked out.  I had a tendency to come up short.  So I gave her back to the previous owner and went back to my old putter for good.

I was glad to have my old putter back, cracked grip and all.  Because a few weeks later, when I stood over that five foot putt for a 79, I knew I'd make it.  Right in the middle of the cup.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Round That Got Away

When I guessed the right club from 160 yards into a strong wind and the ball hit the flagstick, I knew something was happening.  I try not to pay much attention to my score, but as I tapped in for the easy birdie, I knew exactly what I was shooting: I was even par after 7 holes.  Everything was going my way.

It was a week before Thanksgiving in Indiana, too cold to golf.  Too windy.  But I had the day off work and was determined to play.  It was just me and a couple other diehards on the course. I put on my winter hat and headed to the first tee. I wasn't expecting much. It had been a few weeks since I last played.  I hadn't counted on it being so windy.  I was already cold.

I hit a mediocre drive that settled in the right rough.  As I lined up my second shot I was already thinking: It's going to be one of those days.  Pitching out from under the trees. Hoping for bogey. If only I could hit it hard and low, fade it a little left to right, I might make the front of the green.  I set up the shot, took my stance, swung without thinking too much.  The ball did exactly what I was trying to do. It landed just short of the green. A good chip and a short putt later and I'd parred the first hole. No big deal.

But the good shots kept coming: par, par, birdie, bogey, par.

Seriously? This has to be my best start in a while, maybe ever. Surely I can't keep this up...

A few years ago someone gave me Dr. Bob Rotella's book, Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect and this has always stuck with me:

"Most golfers, if they play often, have experienced a string of holes where everything fell into place, and for a while at least, they played the golf they had always sensed they were capable of.  For one golden hour, perhaps two, the golf ball went where they wanted it to go and they strung together pars.  There is no such thing as a golfer playing over his head.  A hot streak is simply a glimpse of a golfer's true potential."

Call it whatever you want.  But I had it.  I was on fire. I was in my golden hour and I could do no wrong. I was hitting good shots, making the putts, watching all the breaks go my way.  After nine holes I was one over par, my best opening nine ever. I had to pee and nearly stopped in the pro shop, but I was getting anxious and thought stopping would throw me off.  So I held it.  I had to keep going. 

I've shot 79 twice in my golfing life, once after a streak of playing nearly every day for two weeks, and once out the blue at the very beginning of golf season.  But neither round was magical.  They were just rounds where I didn't screw anything up. 

But somehow this seemed different.

On the back 9, the wind was blowing even stronger.  I made par on the first two holes, no sweat. By this time, of course, I’m thinking: This is my career round, but by how much? Two strokes? Four? Seven?  Keep this up and you might shoot 72.  Imagine the celebration that would come later.  Would anyone believe me?

I even managed a par on the Hill Hole, my former nemesis.

Enter the 14th hole, a 149 yard par 3.  There are no sand traps, no water in front of the green, plenty of room to miss to the right if you want to hit a safe shot.  It's a huge green.  The flag was right in the middle.  It should be a 7 or 8 iron, 2 putts and another par. This is not a scary hole, except for the woods to the left.  

As I’ve become a better golfer, I’ve learned that I will occasionally and inexplicably hook a ball to the left, way left, not even close to the right direction.  This is apparently a common thing as ex-slicers overcome a chronic case of missing everything to the right.

And that’s exactly what I did.  I hooked my tee ball deep into the trees to the left of the green.  I knew it was gone the second I hit it.  It wasn't even close.  50 yards to the left.  I had no choice but to tee up another ball.  And I did it again, a huge hook, this time even worse. I teed up another ball and came up short of the green. By the time the hole was over, I’d made a quintuple bogey 8. Career rounds don't include quintuple bogeys.

After that, all the breaks went the other way: a bad lie in a sand trap, a backwards kick off a tree, a hard bounce off a sprinkler head.  I went on to double bogey 15, 16, 17, and 18. As I tapped in my putt on the last hole, I noticed that I was cold again and had a headache from the wind.  My feet hurt.

Hobbling back to the parking lot, I couldn't help but dream about what could've been.  Any golfer knows that's no way to think, reliving every missed putt or sliced iron. But the worst part was I knew it would be the last time I'd play my home course for the season before the cold winter weather moved in for good.  I didn't know whether to be thrilled with the best 13 holes I’ve ever played or to stew about the last 5.

Either way, I knew it would be a very long winter.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Black Market

"It's good sportsmanship to not pick up lost golf balls...while they are still rolling."--Mark Twain

One time when I was 16, my grandfather had to drive me to golf team practice.  Before I got out of the car, he handed me a five dollar bill and said, "In case you get hungry."  So, I went in the pro shop, looked at the grill menu and bought a brand new sleeve of three golf balls.  On the first tee, I showed them off to all my buddies; then I lost them all on the front nine.

New golf balls were a rarity among my high school friends.  On the B team, we played with any balls we could find, mostly scuffed and waterlogged balls we'd find in the rough, far away from the fairways.  And since none of us were any good and we were regularly hitting out of the rough, we found lots of abandoned golf balls.  With my friends, it wasn't as easy as you got to keep the balls you found.

Like a lot of things in golf, there seemed to be an unwritten rule on the B team about who got to keep the balls. There were three rules which we had to follow:

1.  On the next tee, each player was supposed to announce any balls he'd discovered on the previous hole.  There were usually one or two each hole.

2. The most senior player on the team had first dibs on any balls, whether he'd found them or not.  He could simply claim them and they were his.  One year, we had one guy who would take every ball just because he could.  By the end of our nine holes, his bag must've carried 10 pounds of balls.

3.  If the most senior player didn't want them, they went on the black market. You could barter with teammates for your found balls, trade balls in the same way kids trade baseball cards, or just give them away to teammates who needed them.

A lot guys traded cheap cigarettes for golf balls: (I'll give you three GPCs for that shiny, sort of new-looking Titleist.)  One guy always carried mini Snickers bars in his golf bag, which he used to trade for balls.  Mostly, I chewed sunflower seeds which carry no black market golf ball trade value whatsoever.  Sometimes, the bartering went on for multiple holes until a deal was reached.  I mostly ended up with a bunch of beat up Top Flites.

Sometimes we'd make a bet for a ball. (If I beat you straight up on this par 3, you give me that ball with the Houston Oilers logo on it.)

These days, I mostly play with new balls, though not very expensive ones.  I still pick up balls here and there, but I'm spending less time these days in the rough where all the lost balls end up.  Though, next time we're on the course and one of my buddies stumbles on a nice one, I might just challenge him for it.

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, starting way back with the ultimate Sunday afternoon partners, Old Tom and Young Tom Morris.  Move beyond fathers and sons and you'll find even more. 

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

Is it surprising then, considering my poor 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 swing...am 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.