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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Nice Stroke

One afternoon after we'd completed our round, not too long after I came back to the game, I overhead one member of the Star Fort Ladies' Golf Association say to another, "Beth might make a fairly good golfer if she could putt."  Then they both laughed.  I resolved to do something, anything, to improve my putting.  I embarked on my self-improvement program by asking others what I should do.

"Just stroke the ball," Alma suggested.  I had no idea what she meant.  Stroke the ball?  I thought we were supposed to hit the ball.  I watched intently as people putted, trying to figure out "stroke" (as opposed to "not stroke."

"Don't try to guide the ball," Aileen instructed at the end of an especially humiliating 4-putt effort during which I had helplessly watched as the ball rolled back and forth to the right of the cup, repeatedly.  "You're pushing it."  I thought I had been stroking it, and walked off the green with no clearer idea of what I was doing wrong than I had when I made the initial putt.

I sneaked out of my office (I was the boss, so I could get away with this) and spent secret time on the practice green until I was going home with a backache.  I read books on putting and I learned Ben Hogan envisioned a line from his ball to the cup.  Only when he had established a flowing vision of that line did he attempt (and generally make) his putt.  I tried that and it worked, so long as there was no break in the green between my ball and the cup.  Then I tried creating a zen-type field around my ball and cup.  Not much success, although I did manage during that period to seriously retard my foursome's pace of play.

I'd been watching other golfers hold up their putter and squint through one eye at the cup, and then putt.  What was that about?  Plumbing the putt?  Like a carpenter's plumb line?  "Which eye," I asked Janice Padgett one day, who seemed to do a lot of plumbing and make a lot of first putts.  "Why, whichever one works," she drawled in her Tennessee accent  Indeed.

My golf lessons, which were stuck on the 7-iron for several sessions, finally progressed to putting.  Mr. Billy -- who has probably forgotten more about golf than most of ever knew in the first place -- began adjusting my grip.  Before he was finished getting me exactly set to his satisfaction I felt like a contortionist, and I had my putter in a vise-like grip that ensured putting failure.

I bought a putter like Aileen's, with 2 white balls that were supposed to improve my alignment.  It didn't help.  I complained about my putting problem to Wes during our Sunday night phone chats (before we discovered Google Hangout, which is infinitely more fun).    He suggested a blade putter.

"Easier to handle, Mom," he advised.

Mr. Billy helped me select a blade putter, after subjecting me to a series of mysterious and somewhat byzantine tests to determine what kind of blade putter was best suited to my putting stroke.  The issue seemed to revolve around a choice between a straight shaft and an angled one.  Mr. Billy assigned me the angled shaft.  My putting did not improve, and I was beginning to realize that I wasn't going to be able to buy a decent golf game.  Still, I struggled on for another year or two, forfeiting my dollar round after round to the better putters in the Star Fort Ladies Golf Association.

One Friday night I filled in at the last minute at the monthly couples round and was paired with a guy I'd never met.  Greg changed my golf life.  He taught me to putt.  Greg's putting lessons are fairly simple:

"Why are you afraid to hit the ball?" he asked me as putt after putt came up short during our first session.

"I'm afraid I'll go past the cup."

"And that would be bad because . . . ?" he challenged, with a smile and a raised eyebrow.  "It can't go in the cup if it doesn't get there."  What extraordinary wisdom that man brought to changing my game of golf.

I started trying to get the ball beyond the cup on my first putt.

"Think of your putter as a small paintbrush," he suggested, "and paint the line you want the ball to travel."  When I got that part he added a caveat: "And then hold the putter at the forward end of the line.  Putts need follow-through too."

When I took a big backswing while trying to follow this set of directions Greg reminded me that my ball didn't need a line behind it, only in front of it.  Interesting concept.

And Greg taught me this warm-up drill: on the practice green, put down a few balls in a row and one after another, send them to a cup (uphill for a while, then downhill for a while, then some left and right breaks) by placing the putter head against the ball and painting the magical line.  No backswing.

"A great putt goes in the cup," he told me.   "A good putt goes 2 inches beyond the cup and stops.  Anything else is a miss."

I stopped fretting about making my shoulders behave like a pendulum, keeping my arms in a V, and figuring out what constitutes a correct putting grip, and started focusing on getting the ball to the cup.

The first time I was able to actually follow Greg's suggestions -- try to send my ball beyond the cup, paint an imaginary line (is that what Hogan was doing?), and follow through -- my ball rolled to a stop just beyond the cup.  From the fringe, waiting for her turn to putt, Alma told me, "nice stroke."