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 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.