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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Let There Be Golf!

hunting the short grass at Bodega Bay
I've been getting ready for my annual summer ambassadorial tour -- a veritable whirlwind of visitation with people I love but who live far away -- Wes and his son, Devin, in California; Charlie, who's generally doing summer theater somewhere, this year on the Olympic Peninsula; Charlie's daughter, Reilly, the archeologist who gets distracted by the fauna when she drives around a golf course with me, occasionally rolling a few putts just to be polite but really much more interested in lizards and alligators; Aunt Mickey, who keeps her golf cart battery charged and her country club membership active even though she's not picked up a stick since her 90th birthday; my cousin Doug, who tells me life's too short to deal with bad drives, then retrieves errant balls from the rough -- mine as well as his -- and deposits them squarely in the center of the short grass before we take our 2nd shots.

Like me, Doug is firmly committed to the easy life that's promised by staying in the short grass.  Wes, who's more reckless off the tee, seems to thrive on the challenge of finding the short grass.  It may be an age thing.

There will be golf matches.  I must be ready.  I can show no weaknesses.  The self-imposed pressure has been roaring upward, as has the number I write in the far right-hand square on my scorecard, as I've anticipated this annual summer golf fest.

What I need to do is: (1) sharpen my accuracy off the tee, which will (2) take the worry out of my 2nd shot and increase the likelihood that (a) I'll be on the green or right in front of it and (b) be left with a short chip to get up and down or (c) be left with an easy mid-range iron shot to the center of the green, which will (3) put me in the best possible position to finish the hole with no more than 2 putts.  How's that for a plan?  How am I ending up in the rough, behind a tree, for my 3rd shot?  Or in the bunker?

My swing.  That's the problem.  We all know it's all in the swing.  And the grip. And the weight shift. And the club face. And the cocked wrist.  And the position of the head.  And the feet.

After I contemplated all these elements and took a few practice swings I realized that the real problem is rooted in the human physiology: My body is not a pretzel and my brain is not able to process and then convert all these commands simultaneously into coordinated physical action.

I need to tighten up my game, not completely deconstruct and reconstruct it.  I went back to Tommy, my favorite PGA teaching pro, and got on his schedule.  I needed more than a one-time fix.  Tommy loves junior golf and junior golfers, and I don't qualify.  But Tommy has also effectively nurtured women golfers and built local women's golf leagues.  I can forgive him referring to us collectively as "girls" because he consistently treats us like people and turns us into better golfers.

Over a series of several sessions Tommy sharpened my accuracy, period: off the tee, down the fairway, close to the green.  And he didn't use a diagram or start talking about hinged wrists and fulcrums and leverage.

How?  Tommy's quick.  Years of teaching experience have sharpened his diagnostic skills and his bag of instructional tricks.  Happily, Tommy did not send me to yoga or to the gym to lift free weights.  I would not have gone.  I confess: this 70-something girl golfer does not possess that level of training commitment.

Drill #1. He put 2 tees in the ground about 18 inches apart, drew an imaginary line between them, placed a ball on the virtual line, positioned me perpendicular to the line, and told me to hit the line, not the ball.

Result: I stopped hitting behind the ball. (We all know, of course, that solid ground has considerably more resistance than a golf ball, so if one hits only the golf ball rather than solid ground and then the golf ball, the ball will travel farther upon impact.)  He promised me a 20 yard increase on my shots, and he delivered on his promise.

Drill #2.  He told me to consciously make the outside of my gloved hand (for me, my left hand) take my club to the target, thereby counteracting the Failure to Follow Through Devil who trails along beside me on the golf course, keeping me company and running up my score.

Result: My shots, which had already gained some distance because of the virtual line, now started going straighter throughout their flight, rather than twisting off to the right, as has been their bad habit.

Do these two drills 25 times a day and come back next week, he told me, while I sucked on my water bottle and wiped sweat off my grips.  I did as he instructed, without a ball, in my back yard.

Then Tommy added a component that's hard to implement alone.  Once he was convinced that I was striking on the imaginary line and taking my club to the target with the back of my left hand, he stood behind me and when I reached a particular point in my backswing, a point that felt to me like about half-way through my takeaway, he bellowed NOW!  That was my cue to reverse direction, bring my club slamming down onto the invisible line, and then take it to the target with the front of my gloved hand.

We did this for about half an hour, out in the broiling South Carolina sun, on a driving range with no shade, in the heat of the day.  I hit ball after ball after ball, and Tommy stood behind me bellowing NOW! NOW! NOW! until I got the rudiments of a new swing rhythm going and balls were flying off my club in long, high, straight arcs.

I sucked more water and wiped more sweat.

Tommy took my 4, 5, & 6 irons away from me and told me to use my 5 hybrid.  Girls generally need a slightly heavier club head, he explained.  I took that to mean that this girl who refuses to lift weights and build upper body strength needs a heavier club head.

At our next session Tommy added another component.

Drill #3. He stuck the tip of a club shaft under the outside edge of my right foot and made me do it all over again: Takeaway, NOW!, Hit the Line, Left Hand To The Target.  Takeaway, NOW!, Hit the Line, Left Hand To The Target.  Takeaway, NOW!, Hit the Line, Left Hand To The Target.

Result.: In four easy steps I found myself actually shifting my weight and following through on my swing, the thing I'd believed was likely not physically possible (old, stiff body, etc).

Those 4 easy steps took 10 shots off my game.  I can discard the geometric instructions to achieve a perfect golf swing, the ones that require the physical dexterity of a 14-year old contortionist and the mental flexibility of a quantum mechanics physicist, and get back to enjoying my round and my companions.

Let there be golf!,  I say.