Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Windy Lesson

Today I played with a friend at a familiar 6800-yard track in order to determine who would be crowned “Master of the Universe.” He’s an old college roommate with an ultra-competitive spirit, and we engage in our regular ritual of “man golf” every time he visits. For those of you who don’t know, “man golf” can be defined simply as: going for everything. No laying-up. No conceded holes, and certainly no complaints when the trash-talking begins. Personally, I felt a round of ultra-competitive match play would suit my present practice schedule just fine and dandy. We started our round at 8:06 am, and by 9, somebody decided to turn on the wind.

First off, I have to say that I’m really enjoying my golf swing right now. All those sessions working on a solid impact position and pre-round stretches have me nice and loose over the ball, and my swings are becoming more and more aggressive. I’m getting more confident with shaping shots, whether it be keeping a ball low or drawing a shot around an obstruction. All signs point to progress, but there’s nothing like playing in 30-40 mph winds to bring in a little humility and point out just exactly what’s wrong with your game.

I started out strong, with some ho-hum pars and solid chances for birdie. My driver was even behaving, and I almost drove the 3rd, a 343-yard par 4. My friend, in an act of sheer manliness, one-upped me and drove the bastard, leaving himself a 30-footer for eagle. My ball was in a bunker roughly pin-high, and that’s when the trouble started.

As an aside, I consider long greenside bunker shots to be among the most difficult to play, simply because there so much room for error. At least with a fairway bunker, you can just rip at the ball and try to pick it clean. But when you have to control the distance from 30-40 yards out, your instincts kick in and touch is the last thing on my mind. I tend to go for rule number one and just try to get the ball out of there. Unfortunately, that means flying the green on many occasions, and today was no different. So while my buddy tapped in for a crowd pleasing par (his belly putter occasionally fails him), I now had to hit a flop shot to a tight pin from behind a hill to save my par. Now don’t get me wrong: I love flop shots. In fact, with a slight breeze in my face, I felt pretty much unstoppable in my quest for par, as I could use the wind as a back-stop in case I flew it a little too far. Well, that would’ve worked if I had actually hit it solidly. Instead, I caught it a little heavy, and I was unable to convert my par.

I share this story because it seemed to be the through-line for my entire performance today: good drive, decent iron into the green, and then either trouble with the putter or trouble getting up and down. I don’t know what was with my putter today, but I couldn’t hit it to save my life. I never struck the ball squarely, and my ball never started on the right line. My 15-footers turned into defensive lag-putts for much of the back 9, as sudden wind gusts would often break my concentration and cast some sort of “yip-spell” on my hands and shoulders, making me look more like Kramer bursting through Seinfelds’ door than a golfer making a good, smooth putting stroke.

Meanwhile, the war waged on, and the match went back and forth almost the entire day. On the par 5 9th, my opponent stuck his second shot 15 feet above the hole, giving him a tantalizing look at eagle to square up the match. I caught my tee-ball a little on the toe, and so I wasn’t able to get my second shot all the way to the green. I pitched the ball to 10 feet, and watched as my friend burned the left edge to miss his second eagle attempt of the day, tapping in for birdie. For some reason, I felt very comfortable over my putt, and struck perhaps my only solid roll of the day, dropping the ball in the center of the cup. It almost made me look like I knew what the hell I was doing out there.

I think the main reason I struggled with my short game today was the cut of the fairways and areas around the green. It’s been awhile since I’ve played off of tight lies, and so pitches and flop-shots almost felt like new experiences for me today. I think because my main focus thus far has been my impact position and shaping shots with my irons, I should start to shift my focus more toward zeroing in on shots around the greens so that I can practice off of tight lies, as well as nailing down the big 3: my half swings with my lob, sand, and pitching wedges.

In “Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible,” Mr. Pelz has a great section about “7:30, 9:00 and 10:30” golf swings. In fact, if you get nothing else out of the book, this is the most valuable lesson you can learn. His theory is that if you carry 4 wedges (he suggests the three I’ve mentioned along with an “extra-lofted wedge,” which I believe is 64-degrees for those who like to flip pancakes before their round), you will then have 12 yardages from inside of 100 yards. He advises readers to tape the numbers right onto the shaft of these clubs after shooting in the yardages with a laser. Several years ago, I half-assed this exercise and obtained three yardages: my half swings with the three wedges in my bag. Without too much gushing, let me just say that I dominated the golf course that summer from inside of 100 yards.

Now, I understand some of you are more of the “feel player” persuasion, and don’t believe in getting this technical. But I think this exercise makes your job that much easier out there, as you don’t even have to think about a thing: just grab a club and hit the yardage you’ve dialed in a hundred times before.

But back to the round for a moment. I’ve already established that I sucked it up with my wedges and putting today, and that my long game was pretty solid. I also discovered one more little nugget about my ability: my focus in the wind. I found that after 10-11 holes of dueling it out with the wind, I began to lose focus. More specifically, I start to lose focus throughout my golf swing. Normally, I envision a shot in my head and make a swing at the ball, trying my best to replicate it. Well, by 14, I took my aim, thought about nothing in particular, and swung for the fences. No thoughts, no focus. It was unfortunate, because I had 3 blow-up holes today that could’ve easily been avoided had I kept my focus down the stretch.

Well that, and I could’ve won the match with a little more flair. Due to my blow-ups and lack of focus, my buddy was 1-up through 16 holes. Fortunately, I won 17 and 18, but some of that was because he jacked his drive on 17 so far out of bounds I thought he was aiming for the kid on the tricycle over the road. He almost nailed him too. The kid might’ve been crying, but I couldn’t hear him because of the wind.

Even though we were playing match play, we did keep score, and I posted a horrendous 83 today. But, that’s what I get for not converting pars around the greens. Blow-up holes are so much easier to deal with when you only need one-putt to finish. Then again, I did learn a hell of a lot about where my game stands right now, and I’m glad I was out there playing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Balance This

So, I will be brief. I was scheduled to play golf this weekend, but the weather never really got the memo: it rained hard in the morning, so I waited and waited; then by the afternoon, when the sun was out and I swear I didn’t see one damn cloud formation in the sky, it began to rain right as I pulled into the golf course.

After 10-15 minutes of solid, zero-visibility-esque rain, it was like someone decided to turn off the shower and give me a window to do SOMETHING with the few spare moments of daylight I had left. So I raced inside, bought my tokens, and headed back to the range, trying to think of something worthwhile that I could practice. At this point, I think I need more time on the golf course to identify where my weaknesses lie, because I’m really starting to stripe the ball on the range and I need to find some humility. It’s hard to feel penalized or demoralized on the range.

But anyway, I decided after striking a few shots that what I really need to work on is balance. It’s incredibly fundamental, and should have been taken care of at this point, but for some reason I can only attain a balanced follow through about 60% of the time. I don’t consider myself to have a wild swing by any means, but I would say—if anything—I tend to wobble forwards shortly after impact. Well, not so much wobble, but usually feel like I should take a step forward with my right foot after impact. Which sounds funny, but I almost think I saw a drill somewhere that instructed people to do that after hitting the ball, in order to insure a proper weight transfer. So I guess I got the whole weight-transfer thing going for me—which is nice.

To combat my instinctive “walk-thru” on the follow-thru, I started focusing on a balanced finish. To accomplish this, I focused on staying more centered throughout the swing, even the follow-thru.

The results weren’t that great.

My shots started fading right (which never happens due to my strong left hand), and with an occasional wind gust, my 5-irons turned into banana-split-machines. After 10-15 of those, I decided against the exercise altogether, and went back to my occasional “un-balanced” follow-thru. Now, I know what Jim McClean and the rest of the top-10 professional instructors would say: only practice and patience with a new swing thought or move will yield an effective change in the future. Yeah, yeah nerdy-nerds. To hell with that. I’d rather stick to an unconventional follow-thru that works for me. At least I’m getting down and thru the ball the way I want to.

Plus, the way I figure it: after impact, who the hell cares what your body is doing anyway? As long as you strike the ball the way you want to, and can do it consistently, you could let your club go right after impact and see how far it goes. One of my favorite golf books included that drill as its main focal point, in order to help people feel what a good impact position would be like (the drill was to have you learn what position your hands would have to be at during impact in order to launch a golf club the farthest you possibly could).

But I digress. So I worked my way through the bag today, and realized one painful practice session I must endure—at some point—is to drop a bucket of balls in front of my 3-iron and have a duel. I realize I don’t hit my 3-iron that often, but I want to feel like I can smoke the damn thing—rather than thin the crap out of it and send that wonderful jarring sensation up the shaft, into my hands and throughout my entire body. Perhaps I could even shape some shots at some point. But hey, let’s not push it. I just think that if you can strike a 3-iron consistently well, the rest of the sweet-spots in the bag must look like birthday balloons.

I think so, anyway.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Major Championship Simulation

As I waited for the torrential rainfall to cease from the comfort of a local bookstore, I began to notice that I was shaking. After three cups of coffee and a small breakfast, I guess I hadn’t anticipated the effects of indulging in a little overdose of caffeine. But then I thought…hey…I could use this to my advantage and spice up my practice routine today. I mean seriously: how often am I shaking and jumpy over a golf ball? I would imagine it would be the exact same sensation that anyone OTHER than Tiger Woods would feel standing over a 3-footer to win a major. So today I decided to see how my ball-striking would fair against an unpredictable golf swing.

So as I was saying: I was super-caffeinated. Not only that, but it was windy, the ground was wet, and there was a little nip in the air. In essence, everything around me was working against a smooth, repeatable swing. And, to make my situation a little more interesting, I vowed not to stretch or warm-up either. Looking back, I’m still not sure why I WANTED to make the practice session that hard on myself, but it certainly yielded some interesting results.

I decided to bring only three clubs with me to the range: my 3, 5, and 7-irons. The way I saw it, the 7 would be used to practice my impact position with if things started to go awry (which they did quickly), my 5 would be used to practice shaping shots (in case I couldn’t hit anything straight), and my 3 would be used as the ultimate test of nerves (because I don’t own a 2-iron).

I walked up to the teeing-ground, plopped down my clubs, dropped the balls, grabbed my 7-iron and shanked the living crap out of my first shot. The guy next to me started laughing. I lined up the second shot, skulled it into a bunker 100 yards out, and looked up to see that same jack-hole chuckling and crossing his arms. I guess he was just getting comfortable, preparing for my third attempt.

This was when I paused for a moment and thought about why my first two swings royally sucked. I mean yes, it was obviously a combination of all sorts of unfavorable factors, most notably the jack-ass next to me who had now stopped his practice routine just to scrutinize mine. But then I thought about my impact position, and realized that regardless of what my swing looked like right now, I needed to make sure that my left hand was slightly ahead of the ball at impact and that I caught the ball with a descending blow.

So, for my next trick…

I focused on a slow takeaway and then really tried to drive the club-head down and through the ball, trying to prevent my body from tensing up at impact and catching the ball thin. And what do you know: a decent shot. Granted, it didn’t go as far as I wanted because I caught it a little on the toe, but a decent shot nonetheless.

Without looking at Mr. Jack-Hole, I pulled another ball into position and took an aggressive swing, really trying to drive the club-head down and through the ball. The resulting shot was a keeper. Crisp with just a hint of a draw, right at my intended target. I looked over to see Mr. Jack-Hole watching my ball take its last few hops. He turned and then started hitting balls again.

What, am I not that interesting anymore jack-hole?

After a few more successful 7-irons, I moved to my 5, where I ran into similar problems as I eased into a longer iron. And by “eased into” I mean the equivalent of Kramer bursting through Jerry’s apartment door on Seinfeld. I almost cut the first few balls in half, jarring the club-head and sending that unforgettable “thwang” up the shaft and into my entire body. I had forgotten how well the wind and cold amplify a bad golf swing.

To get into the groove with my 5-iron, I decided on hitting a few punch shots. I kept trying to imagine hundreds of people watching me, and that every single swing had dire consequences. Surprisingly, I started hitting my 5-iron really well. I moved onto the full swing, focusing on a smooth takeaway and driving down with my left hand, which yielded consistent results as long as I kept my balance. That wasn’t always easy with the wind and my caffeine overdose.

After another 10-15 balls, when I started getting cocky in a herky-jerky sort of way, I decided to try and shape a few shots. Now, due to my strong grip, hitting CHAMPIONSHIP hooks is never a problem. It’s the cuts and all-out banana slices that I can’t seem to pull off. So after a few hooks that scared the crap out of the fish in a nearby pond, I attempted a banana split. It didn’t really work out so well: my first attempt slammed against the hozel of my club and Mr. Jack-Hole turned once again to admire a familiar sound. Soon, the fish came out of hiding and laughed with Mr. Jack-Hole at my horrendous shot. I would’ve tried to explain to him that I was TRYING to do something like that, but I had a feeling he’s heard that one before.

So I weakened my grip, slowed down my swing and just tried to make good contact. Eureka…finally a small cut. Nothing to write home about, but at least Mr. Jack-Ass or Jack-Hole or whatever his name was lost interest once again, and I could get to focusing on my caffeine and artful slices in peace.

After a few more successful fades, I pulled out the 3-iron, which looked like it had zero-degrees of loft as far as I was concerned. Or, maybe high doses of caffeine result in frightening hallucinations. My first few shots were low and short, as my descending blows that SEEMED to work with a 5-iron laid over a little too much turf as far as the 3-iron was concerned. I suppose Mr. Jack-Ass would’ve turned around again but he was too busy whiffing his driver 10-15 yards in front of the tee. Must be that new Taylor Made Driver. At least it looks nice.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to hit a solid 3-iron. I hit a few that went far enough to be considered for 3-iron-dom, but I never caught one very well. So I guess that’s an important thing to keep in mind: when the pressure is on, I should probably try to juice a 4 or 5-iron than hit the 3. And if I NEED to make sure I hit the ball long enough to carry some trouble, just take the 4-wood. Higher-percentage plays are always a good idea, even if they make you look like a sissy-girl. From my past experiences with caddying, I can’t tell you how many players stood over a golf ball full-well knowing that they probably weren’t going to be able to pull off their upcoming shot. I know this because they would all look up at me before their valiant effort and mumble: “You sure this is the right club, Tom?” Yet they all still tried to hit it, and they all regretted it later. Serves them right for taking me as a caddie.

Just kidding.

All in all, today was a great practice session. It proved to me that I can still hit solid golf shots, even when my body is doing its own thing. The only thing I wasn’t able to test today, which I should focus on in a future practice session, is the use of caffeine with my short game. As Dave Pelz says, when you’re in a pressure-packed situation, adrenaline always attacks the small muscles first. I was using a lot of my bigger (ahem, manly) muscles today, and so I may not have seen the full effects of my experiment. If I had been trying to putt, bump-and-run, or flop a shot in a pressure-packed situation, it might have been a different story. That will most certainly be on my schedule for a later date. Or, perhaps I’ll make sure I’m highly caffeinated when I join up with an unknowing twosome or threesome.

Take care everyone.