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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Captains Choice With A Twist: But Was It Real Golf?

I'm always open to a new golf adventure and my golf pal, Pat Ellison, has never given me bad advice or suggested an out-of-town tournament that disappointed, so when she forwarded an entry form for Puttin' On The Ritz, a tournament that promised "captains choice with a twist," I knew I needed to take a close look.  After I looked I wrote a check and blocked out the date on my calendar.

With 92 participants, Puttin' On The Ritz might be the biggest golf event I've ever played.  I could feel an electric excitement as I made my way through the breakfast buffet.  I felt like I was in the middle of a flash mob on the practice green.

My team was the first wild card at Puttin' On The Ritz and it was a very fine draw!  As the round unfolded I was equally in awe of Ginger -- my 90-year old teammate who played a steady, consistent game right down the middle of every fairway and who reminded me with every shot she took that I have many, many years of golf ahead of me -- and of Karin -- our A player whom we elected to captain our team while we waited for our turn at the first tee -- who brought the added value of a leadership style that combined technical skill with the ability to bring out the best game all of us carried in our bags to our team effort. We played a round of golf the likes of which I've never before experienced, carded 60 and took runner-up on a scorecard playoff.  I'm on for next year!


A couple of weeks later, with memories still fresh, I was riding down the road with my buddy Pat and two other golf pals, going to yet another tournament, and Puttin' On The Ritz came up for discussion.
How was it?
Terrific, Pat and I chorused together.  Really terrific . . .
But before we could start unfolding the details of how really terrific Puttin' On The Ritz was for us, there was a question that stunned me:
But was it real golf?   
What is real golf, I mused?  Puttin' On The Ritz was team play rather than individual stroke play, but some of my favorite competitive events -- The Solheim Cup, the Ryder Cup, the Curtis Cup -- are team play.  The teams were sufficiently balanced that there was no handicapping at either the individual or the team level.  Did something else, more elusive, more abstract fuel that question?   Perhaps it's format that determines whether or not an event is real golf?   Surely it's not divergence from the sacred Rules of Golf, not among golfers who play winter rules year-round, who approach the concept of relief rather casually and liberally, who occasionally make a practice putt or two in the middle of stroke play, and who tend to turn a blind eye to the occasional whiff.

The Twists in Captain's Choice

There were enough twists and turns around the basic captain's choice format to keep my team returning again and again to the rules sheet, but the first three were fairly routine stipulations:

  • maximum score on any hole was a triple bogey (my team carded only two bogeys -- nothing worse -- but other teams took advantage of this caveat) -- but is this really any different from picking up after a bogey when we play Stableford? 
  • we played from the forward, red tees, but when a team carded a birdie they backed up to the gold tees until they carded a par or worse, then moved back up to the red tees until the next birdie (my team moved back and forth regularly and easily -- it was a small adventure to play about half the holes a bit longer than usual, but it wasn't a real hardship and it did level up the playing field)
  • teams were required to use two drives from each player (my team struggled with this requirement because Karin never missed the fairway and consistently hit the ball a country mile -- the rest of us were less predictable, which was why we weren't the A player)

Lessons in Strategy

The real fun began with the pink ball.  Each team was given a pink ball, to be kept in play and rotated among team members "until it is either lost or the game is over."  My team protected our pink ball.  That ball was never hit over water and it never saw the rough.  We knew that pink ball needed to finish the round, even without knowing the details of why.

The twists began to feel like a corkscrew when we got to the string.  Each team was given 25' of pink string and a pair of children's scissors.  We used the string to "extend" shots, snipping as we made our way around the course, and returning unused string (and scissors).  As with the pink ball, it seemed fairly clear to me that the point might be to use the string economically and strategically and return some to the clubhouse.  The baggie (which also contained the pink ball) was labeled with our starting hole.  "They" knew who we were!

We made good use of our string by working hard on our first putts when Karin got us on the green in regulation and on our chip shots when she didn't.  It just made sense.  The goal was simple.  We needed to get close, within a foot, and we did!  The string, snipped off a foot or so per hole, converted our close 1st putts and our well-placed chips from the pars they would have been into birdies and over the course of the round I found myself considering new strategies to manage my short game.

And then . . . we played the par-4 third hole with our 7-irons.  We played the par-5 eighth hole with 4 different clubs, 1 per team member.   Those two holes started me thinking more broadly about my clubs, about coordination. and sequencing.  I know golf's played one shot at a time, but those single shots line up into a progression from tee to bottom of the cup and as we played that par-4 with our 7-irons I began to feel that progression in a new way.  I'm thinking differently about how I play a hole as a result of that small, 15-minute exercise.

There were three special opportunities -- a toss, a gimmie, and 4 kicks -- for creating a strategic advantage.  My team used these opportunities, which would clearly violate the Rules in conventional competition, to strengthen our collective short game.  However, I confess that I've entertained fantasies about all three!

First, we used our free toss of the ball (and who hasn't wished for a free toss?) to get up and over the menacing lip of a deep green-side bunker and save our par on that hole.  Who among us hasn't yearned for that toss?

Second, we used our free kicks of the ball to extend a couple of short chips -- not as easy as it sounds. If you've ever tried to kick a golf ball, you already know this can get a bit tricky.  Golf balls aren't intended to be kicked.  They're intended to be struck squarely by a metal club face.  And since most of us generally play by the rules of golf and don't move the ball with our feet during normal competition, we were all remarkably inexperienced at golf ball kicking.   We practiced our kick techniques and found that a side kick tended to be more effective than a straight-on toe kick but as a general rule I don't recommend secret kicking the ball as an advantage.  Two of our kicks were ineffectual and one actually made things worse.

We used our third special opportunity -- a "gimmie" on the putting surface which did count as a stroke -- to card a par on the par-3 17th hole, which we were required to play with only our putters.  Have you ever attempted even a modest tee shot with a putter?  The darn thing just won't deliver a straight shot off the tee.  You need to aim left, well left.  With a monumental effort we actually managed among the four of us to get a ball onto the green in two shots, claimed our gimmie and walked away with a grateful par!

So, was Puttin' On The Ritz real golf?

If real golf is a sporting experience that challenges and sharpens my skills, Puttin' On The Ritz was, indeed, real golf.  If real golf heightens espirit de corps and sweetens competition among friends, Puttin' On The Ritz was real golf.

The game's incredible flexibility and the diversity of golfers are two of the many things I love about golf.  It's a game I've played lovingly with my cousins and our grown children on the humblest of courses on the western Oklahoma prairie with a set of old clubs dragged from the dusty bowels of a farm shed, fetching stray shots from the rough and dropping them back onto the fairway because the cousins all agreed that life's too short to chase after bad shots; and it's a game I've played with vicious intensity and the closest thing I have to bloodlust at the annual WSCGA match play championship.

I've played on beautifully groomed tracks and I've played on courses that resembled cow pastures.  I've warded off rattlesnakes as I hunted my ball in the Mare Island rough.  I've teed off at 5am and wrapped an icy towel around my neck to avoid heat stroke playing golf in the desert in August.  I've played in rain so heavy that my ball made a rooster tail when I putted it.

Like Puttin' On The Ritz, each of those rounds carried with it opportunities to discover another of golf's lessons -- about myself, about others, about course management, about a particular shot or a particular lie -- and they have all been real golf!