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.


Kiwi said...

Score's irrelevant in m/plsy. In the same round you be twice as defensive on some holes and twice as aggressive as normal on others. As long as you win.

I swear I'm the worst putter ever under pressure. Club champs 1/4 final match I played on sat. We both played awful in a mini hurricane. I find myself 2 up with 3 to play, then 3 jack the last 3 holes for bogey to go too a playoff. Bear in mind I had had 3 3 putts earlier in the rounds. I finally win on the 20th.

Matchplay does funny things too your head sometimes.

Anonymous said...


Playing in the wind is never easy, old pal. I played a links course over here in the wind last year and hit a 4 iron (which normally goes around 210-215) about 130 into the wind and over 300 yards wind behind. It just screws everything up. It was blowing about a 3-club wind last weekend and I won our roll-up of 12 with a score of 3 over par (Nett). Just look at what happened at Birkdale last year and Augusta the last couple of years when the wind blew. So I wouldn't worry too much about your score - windy conditions should be treated as fun and an opportunity to go out and play some shots that you might not otherwise play and try to control your trajectory a little. Saying that, I'm really finding it tough to play decent punch shots at the moment - I'm far too handsy. I'm thinking about it too much, I reckon. I don't know whether I fit the dictionary definition of a feel player, but if I start thinking about what I'm doing, I'm lost. And I can't do that Pelz drill that you recommended ... anything inside 100 yards, I just try to visualise what I want the ball to do and my fingers will be able to imagine the ball coming off the club and that governs all club and shot choices from there.

Also, man golf sounds like terrific fun, but it does not lead towards your best score. There are times when playing the sensible shot and aiming for the middle of the green is the right thing to do, much as I hate to admit it.

Your buddy's drive on 17 sounds almost exactly like my friend's shanked approach to the Road Hole at St Andrews, except instead of just a kid on a bike, he almost took out one of those serious cyclists with the aerodynamic helmet and the lycra after narrowly missing an old lady coming back from doing her shopping in town. I would have been crying with laughter if he had got a two-fer ... it would have made the whole trip for me.

Christ, I do go on a bit. Sorry about that.

Hi Kiwi! How's it going, man? I'm off out for my first evening game of the year tonight with my friend Short Fat Hairy Steve. I've been waiting 6 months for this. Going down the range can only be so much fun. Enjoy your long cold lonely winter, pal. It's lovely over here - temperature in the mid 60's, sunny and glorious. it's going to be a good year.

Sorry I haven't commented much recently - they expect me to do work at my new job! How inconsiderate! But I will make more of an effort in future.