Sunday, May 31, 2009

Finally..Another Round

Yesterday, I spent almost 3 hours at the driving range, taking full advantage of the $10 “all-day” pass. Unlimited golf balls, bunker practice, putting practice, and plenty of targets? Who could resist that?

I was preparing for two reasons: first, I knew I was going to be playing golf today, and so I wanted to keep narrowing my focus as far as my current weaknesses on the course are concerned. Second, I’m going to get a chance to play Grand Cypress in Orlando next weekend, and I want to make sure I don’t stink up the place.

To be honest, other than additional mileage, I wasn’t really focusing on any one aspect of my game when I was at the range. Anytime I came across a few bad swings, I’d try and diagnose the problem—such as a few pull-hooks with my mid and long-irons midway through my routine. So, I’d drop a club to the dirt and make sure I was aligned properly. After discovering that I was in fact lined up at my chosen target, I determined that it was my strong left-hand that was to blame. So, I spent 30-40 balls working on my timing so that I could still use a strong left-hand and still keep the ball in play.

Personally, I love a strong left-hand grip. I never have to worry about going right, and as long as I stay focused, I usually produce either a straight shot or a little draw. I also usually make pretty solid contact with the ball, as a strong left-hand grip encourages hand rotation. Plus, as I’m more a fan of an abbreviated backswing, I rely on solid contact to hit my irons to respectable distances. The problems I’ve noticed only occur when I lose a little focus and over-cook a shot, which results in me being 30+ yards left of my intended target. But hey, nobody’s perfect.

The only real problem I came across while jamming out with my iPod at the range was my driver. I still play with a Titleist 975D (I know, I know…I need to get something from like…this decade), and so if my game is a little off, the club isn’t really as forgiving as some of the nitrogen-infused 600cc driver’s out there today. I couldn’t seem to hit the thing straight, and by the time I got around to practicing with it, I was already a little wobbly from the 200+ balls I had smacked beforehand. So I was swaying all over the place, and couldn’t seem to get a handle on hitting the ball straight. Normally, I love my driver, and can’t help but hit it well. But I just couldn’t get it together, and I was a little concerned about my upcoming round and how I would fair on those faithful 14 swings.

Today, however, was pretty successful. My driver was still quite unpredictable, and caused me pain and suffering on 3 or 4 holes, but I was a fast learner, and kept it in my bag for most of today. The course I played was a local muni course near my apartment, and measured 6,800 yards from the tees we were playing. The tips were around 7,000, but my buddy wasn’t having it. Oh well. The course relies much more on placement than yardage, as the architect crowned most of the fairways to solve any and all drainage issues. This of course sucks hardcore if you catch the wrong part of a fairway, as your ball will ricochet into the nearest gator-infested swamp if given the opportunity.

I finished the day with a 78. I had with 4 birdies, 3 three-putts, and 2 drivers that were so far left I think I offended some of the Republicans who were playing the course today. It was a highly sporadic round, as I started bogey-birdie-bogey-birdie. At the same time, however, the round almost felt easy, as I lipped out three birdie attempts and one eagle attempt. I switched back to my old putter, which for some reason can hold a better line than my new one. The touch is a little different, and that probably explains my affinity for three-putts. Overall, however, I feel like I’m on the verge of some really great scores. My focus is there—I think I just needed to hit a few more fairways.

But, golf is such a game of “what-ifs,” so who really knows what could’ve happened.

We’ll see what happens next weekend. I’m planning on playing 27 holes on Saturday and 18 on Sunday, so I should get an even better idea of how my game is holding up. And I don’t care what anyone says—I’m playing the freakin’ tips. If Torrey Pines is over 7,600 yards, I need to sack up.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Day Pass

Tomorrow I’m going to try and meet up with some friends to play, so I figured today I’d hit the range and try to practice a few areas of my game that have been plaguing me lately: driving, bunker-play, and putting. I decided to splurge, and spend $10 at a local range for a “day-pass,” which meant unlimited balls and a special area of the range with a bunker, putting green, and rest-area where you could drink water, beer, whatever. Well, I don’t know about the beer, but that would’ve been a prime location for a cart-girl to drive by, seeing as how half of the people I ran into today looked pissed off at their golf games.

I also discovered how perfect the location of the range was: facing directly into the wind. In my opinion, that is optimal, because any hint of side-spin you put on the ball is amplified 100 times over, and any distaste you have for non-stop wind will be conquered after a couple hours of unrelenting gusts. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I get extremely frustrated when playing under windy conditions. For the first 10 or 11 holes, I tend to fare better than most, but by the time I reach number 12, I’m ready to decapitate the nearest squirrel or wrestle an alligator I’m so angry. I think players who obtain an unyielding level of patience in the wind undoubtedly have an edge. I’m not saying I’ll ever get to that point, but it’s nice to dream, right?

I began with slow, half-swings with my pitching wedge, focusing on impact, alignment, and my grip. After I felt I had a good handle on my golf swing again, I moved to my 7-iron, where I promptly pulled 6-7 in a row like a champion. That’s the thing with my grip: I like it to remain strong, so I can say hello to at least two knuckles on my left hand, as my resulting shot normally ends up crisp and long. If I lose focus on squaring up at impact, however, my left hand naturally rolls all my hopes and dreams 40 yards left of my intended target. And with all the wind in my face today, that is no exaggeration.

But being that far offline my first several swings really helped me to pinpoint exactly why my ball ended up so poorly, and I soon learned to hold-off on releasing my hands till the last possible moment, garnishing a solid shot with a draw.

The other problem I have with a strong left-hand is lining up my driver correctly. The longer the club, the more my strong left hand can wreck havoc on my resulting flight pattern, but I’ve found if I simply focus on a slow, smooth swing, the shot normally ends up right where I want it to go. Now, when I try to smash the living hell out of the ball Angel Cabrera-style, that’s when a strong pull-hook will result, and I’m back to the drawing-board. That is, unless I focus on trying to play a fade, which usually results in a straight shot.

Then I hit the bunker, but I was little disappointed, as the lack of sand made it nearly impossible to hit a high, floating bunker shot that landed and stopped quickly. My first few attempts rocketed over the green with the style and grace of an F-14 Tomcat. Then I remembered an old article I read back in the day which explained that to hit a soft and short bunker shot, you can try experimenting with a short follow-thru. The tough part, which I found out very quickly, is that it’s hard to keep your swing under control when you know the follow-thru is going to be so damn abbreviated. My first few attempts were way too fast, and it wasn’t until I adopted a lazy, Fred Couples-esque backswing that I was able to start hitting the shorter bunker shots I wanted to.

The heart-breaker today was my putting. For the last few months, I’ve been using a new putter: The White Hot Tour #9 by Odyssey, but for some reason I’ve been having a real problem lately keeping it on line. I originally purchased the putter because when I tested it out on the fast-as-hell artificial store greens, I liked how well it rolled the ball on a slick surface. The hybrid nature of the putter made me feel like I could get creative with fast down-hillers, playing the ball off the toe and just nudging the ball in the hole. Unfortunately, the greens I’m rocking-out on these days are all pretty slow with a lot of bumps, and so a true roll or a delicate touch isn’t really needed. Half of the time, I figure I could use a 7-iron and putt more effectively. So, in an act of desperation, I went back to my old putter, which I had used for about 10 years. It’s an old-school Odyssey that I don’t even think they make any more, but it was so easy to line up my putts and keep them on my intended line. The putter also had a much needed “pop” whenever the ball came off the club face, conquering all of the little imperfections on the green on its way to the hole. I could also control the distance without a problem. So, after hardly any deliberation at all, I decided to go back to my old putter for now. I know everyone changes putters, so it shouldn’t really bother me. I guess I was just hoping this new putter would come through in the clutch for me. But, it wasn’t meant to be for now.

I finished out my day hitting half-swings with my lob, sand, and pitching wedges, zapping in yardages with my rangefinder to see what I might be able to utilize inside 100 yards. Granted, a healthy wind was in my face, but after 15-20 swings with each club, I found that my lob wedge went an average of 58 yards, my sand wedge went 84 yards, and my pitching wedge went 95 yards with half swings. I remember I dialed in these yardages one faithful summer and won a crap-load of side-bets with friends, so practicing these shots should prove to be worthwhile. After about 30 minutes, I had dirt and sand caked all over my arms, face, and legs. The combination of wind in my face and the fresh layer of sand and fertilizer the range-crew sprinkled in my brief absence on the putting green caused for quite a few blasts of crap in my face, and by the time I had had enough, I looked like a cinnamon-glazed donut.

I have high hopes for tomorrow. Thus far, I’ve taken a somewhat casual approach to working on my game, but I think now is the perfect time to tighten the screws as the golf rates drop for the summer and my game gets back in recognizable shape. I don’t know where I’m playing tomorrow, but I don’t care. It’s just so nice to play regular golf again.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Lesson Learned?

So I was finally able to hit the links yesterday after an unnecessary hiatus. Honestly, I don’t know what the problem was. I guess the unfortunate part of having weekends off is that this is also the only time when friends and other plans can actually take place. Stupid friends and their jumbled priorities.

I have been going to the range every weekend, but yesterday was the first time in a while that I’ve been able to tee it up and get a better idea of my progress. There were some positives: all of my irons, from my 3-iron to my lob wedge, seem to be cooperating in the contact department. I don’t think there was a single shot yesterday that I didn’t catch just the way I wanted to. Even my short game is holding up. But, like any round, there were some noticeable negatives: my driver was all over the place, I couldn’t hit a bunker shot to save my life, and I wasn’t hitting the majority of my putts on my chosen target line.

Some friends from work heard that I played golf, and so they wanted to meet up yesterday for some “twilight” discounts. They had heard I used to caddie, so I can only assume that their expectations were high. But I didn’t care. I was just there to assess my own game and see where I stood.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to warm-up at all before we kicked things off. Surprisingly, however, after some quick stretches and a few swings, I felt comfortable over the ball and thinned my driver up the middle. I still play with a Titleist 975D, and—even though I love that club and feel like I can smack the crap out of it at times—the head can be a little unforgiving when you’re not ready to tame the beast. But, seeing as how golf is all about managing your mishits, I just figured as long as I was in the fairway, no big deal, right?

And I just had a random but important thought: I need to sign up with the nationwide handicapping service and get an official handicap going. Sure, practicing and playing is all well and good, but if I can’t consistently measure my progress, there’s no point in doing any of this.

I started off with a couple pars and a bogey, after a high tee shot faded over into a lateral hazard. For some reason, I just wanted to rip at my driver on that hole, without considering the effects of the wind. I must admit, I do get quite impatient with the wind at times—almost like when I play poker with friends…after a while I get so bored with playing it safe, I decide to take a big gamble out of the blue. And, just like on the poker table, this habit never seems to pan out very well for me.

On the fourth hole, a par-5, I smoked my drive and hit a long iron to about 20 feet. But I couldn’t hit my putt on the correct line, and missed my eagle quite handily.

I misjudged the wind again on 5, underestimating how much it would knock my ball down, and ended up short of the green, which annoyed me because the hole was just a simple freakin’ par 3. Fortunately, the pin was up front and I was able to convert my par after a crisp, spinning lob wedge which checked up next to the hole. My co-workers were blown away by that, but I have to admit, the spin was somewhat unintentional. I had a thin lie, and I just wanted to make sure I didn’t catch the shot fat or thin, so I struck down on it and didn’t really follow through. I guess I was just giving MYSELF a clinic on how to hit that shot.

I pulled my drive on the par-5 6th, and ended up in a fairway bunker. For some reason, I’ve always liked hitting out of fairway bunkers. Well, as long as there isn’t a massive lip preventing me from hitting a long-iron. Fortunately, I had enough room to get a 4-iron over the lip, and ended up about 70 yards from the flagstick. It was at this point I had some more luck come my way: my third ended up being a low, spinning sand-wedge that landed 2 feet from the hole, skipped about 15 feet past, and spun back to about 10 feet. None of my playing partners saw it, as a couple of wayward approaches kept them occupied in the trees to the right. But I think I’m glad they didn’t see my shot because any praise I received would’ve been undeserved. I mean sure, I hit the damn shot, but I was actually trying to come in a little higher at the pin, and I ended up tensing up at the last minute and hitting a crisp, low sand-wedge that seemed to break-dance in front of me. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to pull that shot off consistently on purpose. I ended up missing my birdie, and began to notice a pattern—when I miss my line, it’s always a push. Maybe I need to try and hook my putts.

On 7, 8, and 9, my drives were all over the place, and I scrambled my way to either a bogey or a double on each, finishing the front 9 with a crowd-pleasing 40. My playing partners were impressed, and it was difficult to hide my frustration. I wanted to be as carefree and relaxed as they all were, but I was just frustrated at myself for losing focus and not keeping my drives in the fairway.

Perhaps as a subconscious reaction to my poor course management thus far from the tee-box, I hit a long iron on the 10th, trying to avoid the lateral on the left and trees on the right. And surprise: it worked out great. Sure, I had a longer iron into the green than I would’ve liked, but I walked off with a carefree par that made me feel like I stole something.

My defensive play came with two ho-hum pars on 11 and 12, but 13 is where I threw all of my focus out the window and decided to try and take advantage of the tailwind. The 13th is a funky par-5 with a wicked dog-leg right. The hole forces the “smart” player to play a safe tee-ball to the left, safely avoiding the water and setting up an easier second shot. The “manly” golfer, however, can aim right over the water and try to cut the dog-leg. The downside, however, is that even if you’re able to carry the water, the narrow fairway slopes away from you at that point, and it is very easy to run a ball past all the “desirable areas” and into the rough behind any number of bushes or trees that will successfully block out any and all attempts at hitting a shot toward the hole. My result was the latter, and I had to punch out sideways just to try and get on the green in three. Unfortunately, I had a brain fart with my punch shot and didn’t even get it out of the crap on the left, resulting in a crowd pleasing double bogey.

I made a similar mistake on 15, where I tried to fire at the green from the tee, ignoring the trees in my way and predictably hitting one of them, blocking out my approach shot and leading to another bogey.

I was able to stop the bleeding with a birdie on the par-5 17th, with a rare putt that actually utilized the speed and line it was supposed to, making me feel stupid for hitting the ball any other way.

The par-4 18th at this course is known as “The Spoiler.” From the sky, the fairway looks like a boomerang surrounded by water. You can either play it safe and aim for the fat part of the fairway on the right, leaving yourself a long iron in to an elevated, narrow, two-tiered green, or, if you’re a “manly” golfer like me, you can be a complete idiot and try to carry the water on the left, effectively cutting the dog-leg and leaving yourself a much more manageable shot into the green. In theory, that plan sounds great. In reality, however, trying to stop a bombed drive on a narrow fairway isn’t really that easy. And, perhaps even more unfortunate, is that if you are unable to stop your creamed tee-ball in the narrow fairway, you’re in the water on the other side.

Well, I decided to screw myself twice on this hole. First, I thinned my tee-ball, splashing down in the water on the left. Using my newfound frustration, I crushed my second tee-ball and bounced through the fairway into the second water hazard. I dropped a ball, hit my 5th shot pin-high, and then two-putted my way to a triple bogey.

And that, my friends, is why that hole is aptly named “The Spoiler.” I turned my semi-decent round into a sod-fest by the 18th hole. I finished the day 40-41, and screwed myself out of another good score by a lack of focus and stupidity. I mean sure, par golf can be boring to watch on television, but I would’ve been much happier leaving the course with a score a little closer to par than that. When am I going to learn?

Oh well. But, on the plus-side, I hit a lot of solid shots and my swing is feeling much more automatic than a few months ago. Now, if I can just get my putter on line and tighten the screws on my driver, maybe next time will be different. Then again, I think if overall I can adopt a better pre-shot routine to focus on the higher-percentage plays from the tee, I think I’d see 3-4 shots fall off my game overnight. But, this is golf. Who knows what I might screw up tomorrow.