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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How Far Is It, Really?

How far to that bunker?  The little creek? Over the pond? The big tree on the left side of the fairway?  The front of the green?  The questions that plague all of us and questions that are particularly acute when we step onto a course we play rarely or have never played before.

The Links at Stoney Point, Par 5 2nd hole
I'm playing The Links at Stoney Point tomorrow and I've already started fretting about the 2nd hole.  It should be an easy par 5, so long as I can avoid that bunker on the left about half-way down the fairway, and I had the hole under control until they remodeled and changed the course of the creek that intersects the fairway right right at the green.  Now I worry.  How far from the bunker (once I'm past it) to the creek?  The green is huge, but the front fringe is practically in the water.  And shifting the creek unbalanced my sense of distance.   I need to recalibrate.

There was a time when questions about distance dominated my golf thoughts.  Apparently I'm not the only golfer who obsesses about distance.  Golf courses and the equipment industry anticipate us.  There are fairway distance markers -- at my home course the markers are variously colored concrete blocks set flush into the fairway, which work fairly well to get ballpark estimates of distance to the green, unless my ball encounters one on its journey, as it has from time-to-time, occasionally with disastrous results.

One fatal collision sent my ball, that had been on a near-perfect course for an ideal layup to get across the dreaded pond on the #8 hole at Star Fort, into a skyrocketing forward bounce and a dead-center plop into the pond.  (I tried, unsuccessfully to have the markers declared immovable man-made objects and claim relief for the interference.  Despite a vigorous and passionate presentation of my case, I ultimately accepted the standard 1-stroke penalty, which still doesn't feel fair.)  That layup shot was as near perfect as a mortal golfer could have made it.

Then there are sprinkler heads with yardage information, also embedded in the fairway but less likely to provide a point of impact for my balls.  Like the concrete markers, aiming sticks, and boulders positioned at strategic points in the rough along fairways everywhere, the little sprinkler heads can provide a degree of guidance as I make my way down the fairway.  The problem, of course, is that all these markers provide gross and not always accurate estimates of distance to the green.  They don't help much with the other factors in the which-club-should-I-use equation or in navigating the various obstacles I encounter along that journey I take 18 times in every round I play.

There are range finders for those who are trying to fine-tune their distance estimates.   I've had several: the first one, a snazzy little yellow number made by Callaway, fell from the roof of my car to its death on the parking lot when I forgot to put it back in my bag following the round when I first broke 90; the second one was adopted by another golfer when I left it in a cart; the third one, which needs a fresh battery, is currently at the bottom of my "golf purse," which carries everything from dirty towels to protein bars, to baggies of grapes I should have discarded last week.

Monster Miller at the June
Interclub Tournament @
Lakeside Country Club
Santa brought Beth Miller one that she wears on her wrist, and I've considered that model but haven't taken the next step and actually bought one.  When I can I try to play with Beth because she looks at her wrist and mumbles numbers before she selects a club.  If I listen closely, I get distance information, although not much club selection guidance because Beth is a monster on the golf course.  (She's also 20 years my junior and 5 inches taller.)

But back to the matter of distance, and why I've come to understand that it may be less important than I originally believed.  Why not? you ask.  Because knowing how far it is to the tree, the bunker, the front of the pond, the green is only one piece of a more complex puzzle.

One day when I was playing a round with Alma, who typically makes enviable 2nd shots with a 3-wood that has an eye-catching yellow and black shaft, I asked her how far I should be able to hit with my 3-wood.

"A woman should be able to hit a 3-wood about 200 yards," she told me with complete authority and a very sincere look.

I spent months trying to squeeze 200 yards out of my 3-wood.  I'm challenged to get 200 yards out of my driver.  On a low humidity day at higher elevations, maybe.  At 1200' ASL and 90% humidity, no such shot is in my bag.  And that became my first distance breakpoint: if it's more than 200 yards, it's beyond my reach.  I take a simple approach to the problem: I give it everything I have with the biggest weapon in my arsenal, aim for the middle of the short grass, and hope for the best.  One of the things I love the most about golf is that if I don't get to my desired destination, I get another shot.  Nobody takes my ball away from me or makes me sit out for a while.

It has been my experience that fairway distance markers and rangefinders are often less helpful than the golf course lore that circulates among golfers.  There's a large oak tree squarely in the center of the #1 fairway at Indian Valley, a little more than 150 yards from the forward tees.  That's a reachable point for me.  I need to avoid that tree.  The overhanging branches and the underlying acorns that mimic a small field of ball bearings create a formidable obstacle course.

Jane Lybecker, ever the perfect hostess, told me the first time I played the course to shoot to the right of the tree, not the left -- send the ball up the hill and let it roll left and forward.  (The same distance, to the left of the tree, would have placed the ball in the scrubby rough, behind some irritating little trees.)  There's a similar challenge on the par 5 #18th hole at the Wild Dunes Links Course.   The obstacle in this case is the wind, not an oak tree, but the problem in both cases isn't distance, it's course course management.

When Greg began coaching me, one of the first questions he began to ask as I would set up my shot was, "Where to you want to be if you miss your shot?"  The fairway, of course.  I always prefer the short grass.  But Greg was challenging me to think beyond the obvious.  I want to be clear of that tree with an open 2nd shot -- what do I need to do to get into that position?  I want to be positioned to take advantage of an offshore breeze as I take on the dogleg and head toward the green -- what do I need to do to get into that position?

For short hitters like me, distance is rarely the primary problem until I'm within 75 yards of the green.  From the tee box to that last 75 yards, my problem is course management.  Range finders don't help.