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Monday, February 27, 2017

The Politics of Golf, or How Much is Too Much?

I honestly don't have any issues with Presidents who play golf. I think golf is a perfectly appropriate way to spend time. It enhances physical and mental health.  Simply put, the game of golf adds years to life.

So I was intrigued by this tweet from Kyle Griffin:

Who could possibly begrudge another person 4 or 5 hours strolling around in the woods, breathing fresh air and listening to the birds, and occasionally engaging in some mild stretching and swinging exercise?

As this debate about Presidential hours spent on the links swirls around the Twitterverse, I recall an exchange I had with my non-golfing partner some years ago. I was dancing toward the back door with 2 balls and some tees in my pocket, heading for my regular Tuesday morning tee time with my women's league. The kitchen floor needed to be swept, the grass needed mowing, and I hadn't opened my mail for a week.

"I thought golf was something you did when your work was done," growled the non-golfer as I picked up my car keys.

"Perhaps golf is something I do in order to find the energy to complete those other lingering, undone tasks I really don't enjoy," I rejoined as I skipped out the door.

I didn't vote for Trump and I don't support his politics or his policies, but I don't begrudge him his round of golf. It's a game of peace and tranquility and civilized competition. He may need those rounds for his mental and physical health just as much as I do.

Let's keep the links a politics-free zone. We all need that!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Today I Finally Played Some Real Golf!, Almost


Today I graduated from the driving range to the golf course!

Mary, one of my favorite golf buddies, called a couple of days ago and asked if I was ready to play some golf. The weather has been beautiful - South Carolina winter weather, sunny, in the 60s, not much wind. I've been getting bored with the range, even though I knew my game really isn't up to speed, so we made a date. I told her I would probably only play nine holes. (I'm still rebuilding my stamina.)

Then I talked with my PT team. They assured me that my titanium knee is firmly in place and I've made good progress regaining strength in my quads and hamstrings, and encouraged me to give it a try. "Use one of your clubs like a cane if you get in uneven ground," they advised as I went out the door.

So I met Mary this morning at the golf course and we ran into two more members of our women's league, Bonnie and Alma, and decided to play a foursome.

I was tremendously excited when I stepped up to the first tee. I haven't hit a tee shot for almost twelve weeks and I've really missed golf. I wanted to mark my return with one of those Mighty Girl shots.

It wasn't my best tee shot - not anything close to my Mighty Girl fantasy - but it was far from my worst, and my knee didn't do anything awful (like break apart). We were off!

The first hole was rough. I'd forgotten how to pitch and I'd forgotten how to putt. The putting came back quickly. After a vile 4-putt on the first I found my rhythm and 1-putted the next four holes. But the pitching and chipping - the heart and soul of my short game -  continued to be troublesome. (I think I'm trying to do with my wrists what I should be doing with my body, but I need some time on the range to get the feel of proper leg work and work out the problem.)

When I found myself in a greenside bunker on the 3rd I had a lapse in confidence. My knee didn't feel ready for sand and I said so. Nobody teased me. Nobody needled me. I felt accepted.

I tended the flag while Mary, Alma, and Bonnie putted out and we all walked off the green together. As we passed the bunker Bonnie stepped in and retrieved my ball. I was moved by her incredible kindness, but not surprised. After all, ours is a game grounded in courtesy. Even in the heat of intense competition - and today could hardly be characterized as intensely competitive - true golfers know our round will be more pleasant it we practice simple good manners.

There were a couple of pars on my scorecard today, and a few bogeys. Not too shabby for my first post-surgery round. There were also a couple of snowmen - not unexpected for that first round. And by the time we'd finished the 7th hole I was simply out of gas.

I tended the flag for the last two holes the first nine, put my clubs back in my car, and went home to ice my knee and take a nap, content in the knowledge that playing golf is, as my friend Becky promised, just like riding a bicycle. Most of the elements came back quickly and I'm completely confident that my short game will be back in form too. I'll give it another try on Thursday - perhaps I can finish nine and execute some respectable chips!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

My New Knee - Back to the Game

If I wanted to keep playing golf, I needed a new knee. This is my report on my first 10 weeks after my knee replacement surgery.



It's been 10 long, painful weeks since I submitted to the inevitable and got a new knee. I've been nursing a worn-out knee with no cartilage for years - the result, I suspect, of bad genes, arthritis and two decades of running, running, and running.

I held off as long as possible with those miraculous cortisone shots, at first every four months. Gradually the duration of effect diminished - from 16 weeks to 14 weeks to 12 weeks. When I showed up in my orthopod's office last fall 10 weeks after my last cortisone injection and confessed I was nibbling tramadol in order to play a full 18-hole round, he lifted his eyebrow and delicately suggested it might be time for a "permanent solution" to my knee problem.

I knew what he meant and I didn't like it.

The thought of some surgeon slicing open my leg, peeling back my muscles and tendons, sawing off the ends of my tibia and fibula, drilling holes in them and inserting titanium implants that vaguely resemble a natural knee joint, and a plastic disc that functions as cartilage doesn't leave me feeling warm and fuzzy and optimistic.

Still, my back was against the wall - the cortisone shots weren't going to work much longer and eventually my knee was going to decompensate. I scheduled the surgery.

I talked to other golfers. To a person, they told me they wished they'd gotten their new knees sooner. I took comfort from the fact that Freddie Couples has the same titanium implants. I jogged half an hour per day in the pool for three months before my surgery, conditioning my leg for the trauma.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the emotional devastation I felt during my first week post-op, when I couldn't lift my foot, or even reposition it on it's little pillow. Despite assurances that everything was securely in place, I was initially terrified to put any weight on my leg and maintained a white-knuckle grip on my walker.  But over the subsequent weeks the physical therapists had their way with me.

From small early steps - showering independently, putting on my socks and shoes - I progressed to leg lifts, short walks - first with my walker and then my cane, flexing my leg - 90, 95, 100, 120 and then 130 degrees. Each increase involved pain. Days rolled into weeks. I worked on balance and stability.  I shifted from pain medication to tylenol. I started driving again.

Yesterday, under a sunny blue sky on a shirtsleeves-warm January day I drove to the golf course and pulled my clubs out of the trunk. With a couple of wedges, my 7-iron, a hybrid, and a bucket of balls in hand I walked (without my cane) to the driving range and got back to doing what I love - hitting golf balls.


At first I was awkward. Herky-jerky. But it didn't take long to relax, let muscle memory guide me, and start road testing my new knee.  She performed beautifully - I've named her Justine.

I started with some short chips and pitches, but the lure of the full swing was irresistible! I took a deep breath and relaxed into the process: Such incredible joy from watching my balls fly straight and true, down the range to their targets. I twisted and turned and pivoted without pain or fear.

When my bucket was empty my heart told me I could continue hitting balls forever, but my head knew better. I needed ice and tylenol.

I think I'm still a week or two away from taking Justine onto the golf course. I still need to check out my long irons and the big girls - my driver and my fairway woods - on the range.  But I'm certainly closer to that round than I was 10 weeks ago.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Putting Problems? Try This Drill



 

If you want to lower your score you need to reduce your number of putts. This is how I did it.


Whether you play golf for bragging rights or money - I confess right here that I play for both - you know as well as I do that half your strokes, more or less, are going to be made with your putter. I don't care if you're a scratch golfer, a bogey golfer, or just one of us who prays to break 100. That flat stick should be your best friend.

When I came back to golf after a three-decade, career-building hiatus I faced a lot of relearning. The game had changed in some subtle ways and equipment had changed dramatically. I bought a gently used set of clubs and then launched a search for the perfect putter. Three flat sticks later I accepted that I couldn't buy a good putting game and put myself in the hands of Mr. Billy, a natty octogenarian who taught me how to read greens.

Mr. Billy also gave me a goal: 15 putts per 9 holes. And he convinced me to keep track of my putts, hole-by-hole, the same way I keep my total strokes. It didn't take long for me to buy into Mr. Billy's basic thesis: If I wanted to lower my score fast I could do it by eliminating 3 and (gasp) 4-putts.

By the time I got to Mr. Billy I'd tried several different flat stick design and settled on a fairly basic blade putter. Mr. Billy convinced me that I had a user problem, not an equipment problem!

Once I learned the basics of reading greens and grasped the nuances of different grass grains I was still left with two basic putting problems, direction and distance. I was long. I was short. I grazed the left side of the cup, then the right. I'd gotten to the 2-putt level but the coveted up-and-down 1-putt eluded me. And I needed some 1-putts to achieve Mr. Billy's 15 putts per nine holes target.

I shifted to a new teacher - some times you need a new teacher to learn some new tricks. One of the tricks I've learned from Tommy has become my favorite and regular putting drill. I regularly use this drill as a part of my warm-up routine. It takes about 15 minutes and more often than not I'm able now to reach Mr Billy's 15 putts per nine holes target.

Here's the drill:

Using 3 balls, on the practice green before I tee off for my round, I putt from 10-15 feet. I putt the first ball long, the second ball short, and the third ball to the cup. Holding my finish for three slow beats seems to eliminate my tendency to let my club head wobble and reduces my near misses; and the long-short-center sequence helps me calibrate green speed.

I perform this 3-ball drill five times: up hill, down hill, with a right break, with a left break, and on an essentially flat approach without a break.

Then I'm ready to play golf. I don't think much about my putting during my round. I relax and let muscle memory take over.

Give this drill a try and let me know how it works for you.




Thursday, August 25, 2016

What in the World Happened to My Tee Shot?



The wheels came off my round when I made the turn - where, or where, did my dependable tee shot go?

I was really looking forward to my regular Thursday round this morning. I've been doing some work on my short game - tweaking my bump and run shot, changing a couple of short irons in my bag to get better coverage from 70 to 90 yards out - and was eager to test out the changes on the course.

Things started out well enough. I had 5 up and downs on the front nine and despite a triple bogey on the dreaded water hole and a missed birdie putt (depressingly short) I was looking at a fairly good score when I made the turn.

Then the wheels came off. My consistently dependable and predictable tee shot didn't make the turn with me.

On the 10th hole my tee shot went left and I ended up in a fairway bunker. That wasn't terribly worrisome. Sometimes I lose my rhythm when we make the turn and it takes a hole to get it back. So I came out of the bunker with my five wood, made good progress down the fairway, and finished the hole with a bogey, a good score for this girl on the long par four.

Then I did the same thing on the par five 11th hole, only this time I hit the cover off the ball. It was flying off to the left and headed for OB, but hit a tree and bounced back into the fairway. Thank you, golf goddess! Two good three wood shots later I was sitting at the front of the green and again walked off with a bogey. This time a waster opportunity - I can easily shoot par on the 11th hole.

The long par three was trouble-free - my five wood was behaving. But trouble came back in a big way on the 13th. In an attempt to get my driver back under control I choked down about three inches. I still hit left, but now pitifully short, and it sounded like I'd hit a marshmallow.  The trouble continued on the 14th - left, short, and mushy.

By the time I teed it up on the 15th hole I was terrified of my driver, so I left it in the bag and pulled out my three wood. That was a good decision, for a while. I didn't get the distance my driver generally delivers, but I did advance the ball and land it in the fairway, which was an improvement over what had been happening.

Then the troubles shifted to my par three tee shot on the 16th hole, this time with a five hybrid. Left. Never mind that I managed to get the ball out of the rough, up over a bunker, and onto the green with a magnificent flop shot.  What was going on with my tee shot?

I stumbled through 17 an 18 using my three wood off the tee, but it wasn't a pretty finish. The short game changes seemed to work. With 13 putts on the front nine and 16 on the back, I managed to salvage the round but I'm left dreaming about the round I could have had - the golfer's endless quest for that round when it all comes together simultaneously - and wondering what in the world happened to my tee shot on the back nine?

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Olympics and Me



Despite dire predictions and a rough start, golf's return to the Olympic Games has been a glorious success!

I'm a 74-year old jock of mediocre talent. Yet even with these fundamental limitations, I love to compete - on the golf course, in the swimming pool, on a small sailboat, at the bowling alley. It's not in my makeup to play at anything just for the sake of playing. My genes are calibrated to competition.

Watching first the men and then the women who play golf at the highest level of competition make their return to the Olympic venue has sharpened my own competitive impulse and unleashed the flow of my competitive juices. There's no way around it. I love watching Charley Hull and Lydia Ko going head-to-head, battling the wind, the golf course, and each other in their quest for Olympic gold.

But I'm also enjoying Aditi Ashok's excellent performance and I'm applauding Maha Haddoui because, even though she's dead last in the Olympic field and very likely to finish in that position she's unleashing those same competitive juices that so energize me. I know how good it feels to compete. It's a pure, near-spiritual experience. Therein lies the bottom line for athletic performance and the essential core of the Olympic Games, ancient and modern.

Of course competition is about winning, but it's also about engaging, about the willingness to take risks, to measure self against other. What was all that grinning about as Usain Bolt pushed ahead of Andre De Grasse? What are all those hugs and high fives and fist bumps between competitors about when the contest has been decided?

Those naysayers who have denigrated golf's return to the Olympic venue just don't get this aspect of the game. K.M. McFarland just doesn't get it - golf didn't "land in the Olympic rough" as McFarland falsely claims, and it was never about providing an international showcase for Tiger Woods.

Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth may have decided to take a pass on Rio but Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, and Matt Kuchar didn't; and Lydia Ko, Ariya Jutanugarn, and Brooke Henderson are on the golf course and engaged in a fierce battle for Olympic gold as I write. The following galleries for both the men's and women's Olympic golf competition have been large and enthusiastic and national television viewerships have exceeded expectations.

Peter Dawson knew what he was doing when he assured the IOC that the sport embodies and would embrace the Olympic spirit and the IGF has done a fine job of reopening the Olympic venue.  All-in-all, 2 weeks of Olympic golf have inspired, entertained, and taught me a few things.

Monday, July 11, 2016

US Women's Open - Did Lang Win or Did Nordqvist Lose?

Did Brittany Lang with the 71st US Women's Open or did Anna Nordqvist lose it when she grounded her club in that fairway bunker on the 2nd playoff hole? The same question might be asked of others who were battling for the top of the CordeValle leaderboard Sunday afternoon.

The back nine on Sunday at the 71st US Women's Open was packed with drama - much more than any of us expected. And it wasn't limited to Anna Nordqvist's tragic mistake on the 74th hole.

There was Lydia Ko's massive stumble that began before she made the turn, starting with her bogey on the 8th and her double on the 9th - the result, I think, of a rare and unusual course management error on Ko's part that sent her tumbling down the leaderboard. That was the end of Lydia Ko's bid for the championship not because she fell back three shots - Lydia Ko is perfectly capable to picking up three birdies in nine holes - but because it was the end of her focus. By the time Lydia Ko made the turn her confidence in her game was badly shaken. The woman with the flawless short game who had started the final round leading the field, carded two more bogeys and ended her final round with a 75.

Then there was Sung Hyun Park, who had for 54 holes delivered the kind of golf most of us can only dream about, climbing into contention against almost impossible odds including a language barrier that should have proved insurmountable. Park's caddie gets a big shout-out from me. There's no doubt that his creative and professional work kept his player in contention until the magic drained out of her flat stick Sunday afternoon on the back nine. Those three back nine bogeys were what made the difference between hoisting the trophy and a 3rd place finish for the Korean who told the media she didn't feel her game is yet ready for the LPGA. Indeed? It looks ready from where I'm sitting.

Still, there's nothing like the pressure cooker environment of a major to wear players down to a nub and it was no surprise that at the end of 72 holes of regulation play two seasoned professionals were heading for a playoff. In addition to being friends - the kind of friends who play practice rounds together and who have competed against each other for many years - Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist are both splendid golfers. They have solid technical games and the mental fortitude that is forged in the heat of repeated competition. They both play with incredible grace and impenetrable resolve.

The 3-hole playoff began on the CordeValle par-316th hole. Lang and Nordqvist matched each other shot-for-shot for the 73rd and 74th hole, including errant tee shots on the 74th, Lang into the right rough, Nordqvist into a fairway bunker on the left. Then came the grounded club and subsequent penalty decision, rendered mid-way through the 75th hole, that put Nordqvist two shots back. I'll leave debate about the timing of that decision to others. It was a properly rendered decision.
Yes, the wind was howling. No, Nordqvist didn't ground her club intentionally. Yes, the grounding barely occurred. But the Rules of Golf are clear: there was indeed a violation, no matter how small, and the penalty was imposed as soon as the decision was reached.

While nobody wants to win on the mistake of a competitor, the fact of the matter is that every win comes on the missteps of competitors. Certainly, Lang and Nordqvist advanced to the top of the leaderboard on the ladder of Ko's and Park's missteps.

In the game of golf technical skill is only one element of the winning equation. Club decision and course management strategies, the direction and strength of the win and the speed of the greens, and many other factors - some well beyond the players' control - all figure into ultimate success or failure. That's the allure of the game.

Let's not detract from Brittany Lang's enormous triumph at CordeValle. In the game of golf, the survivor of the contest hoists the trophy!

Friday, July 8, 2016

If Only Life Could Be More Like a Golf Round - A Modest Proposal


What would life look like if we lived it using the principles that inform our rounds of golf?


I've often thought we could settle most human disputes with a round of golf rather than with guns and bombs - I'll explain how that might work in a later post. I've even considered the viability of substituting a round or two of golf for those political debates that periodically clutter up our television viewing schedules.

But what if our social life could be reshaped to most closely resemble a round of golf? I think we would see a dramatic decline in conflict and violence. The very structure of the game is designed to minimize violence and hostility while preserving the spirit of competition that draws me to the game.

Consider the possibilities -
  • In the game of golf we all play by the same set of rules and are subject to exactly the same penalties for violating those rules.
  • In the game of golf the playing field varies while the target remains constant, providing balance in competition. This adjustment of the playing field gives older players, younger players, and physically weaker players an equal chance to reach the target in regulation when competing against stronger players.
  • In the game of golf our equipment is standardized and uniform. Which 14 clubs we choose to put in our bag is a personal decision but there will be only 14 clubs. 
  • In the game of golf cheaters are disqualified from further competition.
  • In the game of golf we accept the inevitability of bad shots and play on, trying to do better on the next shot, the next hole, the next round.
  • In the game of golf we accept the inevitability of good luck and bad, the fortunate bounce in the right direction, the lip out instead of the drop. We typically applaud the former, groan about the latter, and play on.
  • In the game of golf our scores are public knowledge. We keep each other's scores and sign each other's scorecards as well as our own - there are no secrets.
  • In the game of golf, when the round is finished we sit down together, settle our wagers, and replay the round - the good moments and the bad ones - while we eat and drink.
If we could devise a strategy to translate these basic principles from the game of golf to the game of life I submit that we could achieve that kinder, gentler, saner world that Meisterbuerger envisions.
Perhaps the USGA could launch a Guns-for-Clubs exchange program!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Salas Effect

Brittany Lang, Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Lewis, Brooke Pancake, Lizette Salas,
& Jennifer Song ready for the Women's Health Classic Pro-Am at Stony Point.
The Self Regional Healthcare Foundation Women's Health Classic is in full swing at The Links at Stoney Point even though the tournament action is still three days away.  The topiaries that will reappear at the Festival of Flowers in about 6 weeks are artfully placed around the clubhouse, the leaderboard is up and waiting to record the action on the course, the spectator seating is where it needs to be, and the months of planning and hard work are behind Jim and Denise Medford.  Show time started at 7:30am Monday morning with the first of three Pro-Am events.

Friday, April 24, 2015

I'm Taking That One Home With Me!

My golf game has been up and down recently.  The grass is growing again and because I'm hitting off almost fluffy green stuff rather than dry, dormant brown stuff I've finally stopped skulling my chips and my trusty flop shot has returned but, of course, there are other issues.  Golf is sort of like marriage -- while I tweak it over here, something else tends to pop out over there and at times I feel trapped in an endless, futile search for the perfect round that doesn't exist.  I probably need some therapy around this issue because my rational self knows golf doesn't work that way and it's just not going to happen.