Sunday, September 19, 2010

Playing Naked

Bobby Jones once said there is golf and then there is tournament golf, and they do not share much in common.

This is true.

When I caught the golf bug at the ripe old age of ten and began swatting balls around Harrington Field in Cuyahoga Falls and on my made-up course in my parent's back yard, I envisioned being a PGA Tour player, beating Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. A typical scenario that kids do in order to spice up the experience.

But then something interesting happened when I got to be around the age of fifteen. I got good. I was shooting in the low 80's and getting the attention of people, like the local high school golf coach. At the age of sixteen I made my first hole in one. My dad would take me with him to the local 'Hustler's Haven', Good Park Golf Course in Akron, and would set up money matches with me as his partner - "Tellya what, Hoss. Me and my son will play the two of you, five bucks a hole, straight up. Look at my son. He's 125 pounds. You'd be crazy not to take that bet."

They usually did, and we usually won.

I was deceiving. Being slight of build, at 5-foot-9 and the aforementioned buck twenty five, I basically looked like a Q-Tip. It was, after all, 1974, and I had my Starter Afro going. I didn't boom out prodigiously long drives. Instead I was adept at consistently finding the fairway off the tee, getting my next shot at or around the green, and from there I had uncanny touch. I could get it up & down from the ball-washer. I had a great feel for distance with my wedges, and I had a silky-smooth putting stroke. I never three-putted. Never. Inside six feet I was automatic - you might as well conceded the putt because I was going to make it. I knew I would and you knew I would. And it was this attrition-style of play, that by the end of the match would have you feeling like you just went through a five-hour Chinese Water Torture, that would end up putting some nice coin in my pocket. You'd pay me just to get me out of your sight.

So, naturally, I built upon these experiences and tried my hand at playing competitively.

Now understand - playing for money and playing competitively are two entirely different things. Playing for money is beating one person who is in your company. Beat him and you win. Playing competitively is trying to beat a field of unseen adversaries. The talent pool is much deeper, and psychology is not a factor. Fewest amount of strokes wins out of 80 or so competitors. USGA Rules strictly enforced - no grounding the club in hazards (paging Dustin Johnson), no seeking advice (What did you hit there? 6 or 7 iron?), play it as it lies (Hey my ball rolled into a divot mark. Can I move it?). Pressure. Pressure cooker pressure.

This is what Bobby Jones meant.

Jones retired from competitive golf at the age of twenty eight, after winning the Grand Slam in 1930. Many were shocked that such a prodigious talent would leave the stage at the absolute zenith of his career. But for Jones, it was a no-brainer. Publicly he would state that he was an amateur, and that he wanted to pursue a career as a lawyer (which he did). But privately, and later in his books, he revealed the true reason for his abrupt retirement. Pressure. In a typical tournament, Jones would lose anywhere from 15 to twenty pounds simply through nerves.

Golf is not a reactionary sport. By that I mean it is not played through instinct. For example, a Linebacker see the play begin and reacts - his instincts tells him where to put his body to make the tackle, and a half-second later, he reacts. Golf is not like that. The ball sits there patiently waiting for you to hit it. There are no Safety blitzes, no shot clock. Take your time, the ball is patient. So the pressure created by this dynamic can be stifling - if Ray Lewis is bearing down on you, that's not pressure. That's panic. A golf ball waiting to be perfectly placed between a water hazard and a bunker 250 yards away in a tournament situation? That's pressure.

So my competitive golf career began when Dan Costill, my high school golf coach (and Driver's Ed teacher) suggested I try out for the golf team. So I did. And then something funny happened. When I was announced to the first tee, with all the other recruits standing around, I went blank. Then I went numb. I suddenly forgot how to push the tee into the ground and place the ball on top of it. My hands shook, my mind started racing and some unknown phantom body snatcher spirited away with my cocky attitude and swing. I took a couple of deep breaths, scanned my brain for something...anything to latch onto. I addressed the ball and I swung...

I hit it 50 feet.

The guys snickered. Coach Costill turned away. Panic enveloped me. I concluded the best reaction would be anger, and I slammed the club to the ground with a 'That came out of nowhere' incredulity, then placed my hands on my hips. I then took out my 3-wood, stomped to my ball, and with a total abandonment of my pre-shot routine, took an angry swipe at my ball. I whiffed. Now I have been taken over by evil demons and just took a virulent lunge at the ball. It went about a hundred yards forward, fifty yards left.

In the span of about two minutes, I had totally forgotten how to play golf.

Now, unlike team sports, where if you make a mistake you have a coach on you eager to point out corrective measures, golf has none. It's just you. Naked. Raw, unvarnished nakedity. I had to regroup. I took out a 7-iron just to advance the ball. I did. A few swipes later and I had finished my first round of competitive golf with a smooth triple bogey.

I did not make the golf team.

Coach Costill suggested I play some local amateur tournaments. He also strongly suggested I work on my mental toughness, alter my grip, learn to draw the ball, and practice practice practice. I did. Two years later, as a Senior, I tried out for the team again. This time I made it.

I have done some golf teaching in my time, and I will relate those experiences in another story. But here is what I have learned and imparted on my students -

If you want to break 100, learn how to putt.
If you want to break 90, learn how to chip.
If you want to break 80, learn course management.
If you want to break 70, play tournaments.

Learn how to play naked.

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