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.