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Monday, April 3, 2017

Rules of Golf vs Sportsmanship: The Sad Case of Lexi Thompson and the LPGA Decision

It all looked good Sunday afternoon as Lexi Thompson and Suzann Pettersen made the turn at the ANA Inspiration. If I hadn't know it was the LPGA's first Major of the 2017 season I might have assumed the scene was a fast-forward snapshot of the Sunday singles matches at the 2017 Solheim Cup.

Thompson had a slender 2-shot lead and Pettersen was pushing hard. The golf was fantastic!

Then disaster struck. A viewer email calling a 3rd round violation on Thompson landed in the LPGA's inbox and backstage the wheels were set in motion to assess the situation. As Thompson and Pettersen battled through the 10th and 11th holes, video of the situation was called up and reviewed. A decision was reached and then the contenders were advised, first Lexi, then Suzann, and then the other players who were still on the course.

Thompson fought through disbelief and tears and got herself back into contention, only to lose on the first hole of a playoff.

In the end, as we all know, the 2017 ANA Inspiration champion was neither Lexi Thompson nor Suzann Pettersen, but So Yeon Ryu who was, herself, caught in a double bind not of her making, feeling that the 4-stroke penalty imposed on Thompson was essentially unjust but at the same time wanting to claim the ANA Inspiration victory.

The LPGA's official explanation of this fiasco leaves begging a number of questions: How long after the completion of a round can or should accusations of rules infractions be investigated? Why would the Tour management not rely on the rules on-course rules officials who accompany each group?

Judy Rankin, commentating on Golf Channel, and Dottie Pepper, commenting via Twitter, both expressing dismay, were in agreement: once the issue was put on the rules officials' table they had no choice but to address it.
But is that actually the case? Did Tour officials have options they failed to exercise? Ron Sirak and Beth Ann Nichols were alike appalled.

Was Any Action on the Part of the LPGA Rules Officials Even Necessary?

How the rules officials addressed that email remains problematic. There is always a certain imprecision involved in replacing the ball to the exact position where it came to rest. There is, as well, a given difference in perspective between Thompson, who was standing a bit to the side of her ball when she marked and then replaced it, and the camera that recorded the act, perhaps exacerbating the lack of precision by visual distortion. And there is the issue of time lapse - more than 24 hours between the questioned action and the rules infraction accusation.

That's the rules part of this situation. Now, for the sportsmanship part. How did the players respond? To my complete astonishment, they played on. Not one of them challenged the validity of the time lapse. Oddly, any of them could have been the target. It was Thompson because she was leading and on camera.

Where Does Sportsmanship Eclipse All Else?

What could Pettersen have done? Had she been more generous than she is - and I can't help but recall her behavior at the 2015 Solheim Cup that raised a similar question of rules vs sportsmanship - Pettersen could have simply picked up her pitching wedge rather than her driver when she teed off on the 13th hole - or the 14th, 15th, or 16th - and let Lexi pick up those 4 shots she'd just lost.  That she didn't speaks to Pettersen's flawed understanding of sportsmanship.

What could So Yeon Ryu have done? She learned the full scope of the situation when she was waiting in the scoring tent and the look on her face spoke volumes. Ryu, one of the kindest and most gentle players on the Tour, was appalled by the decision. And yet she, too, failed to take action - it could have come with her chip onto the 18th green in that playoff hole - within her control to right what she clearly believed was a fundamental wrong.

Alternatively, Ryu might have at least invited Lexi to join her in taking that Poppy's Pond victor's leap. Even a symbolic leap, which Thompson might or might not have accepted, would have sent the message Ryu (and the vast majority of the fans who were following this "situation") felt.

In the end, this situation demoralized the entire field and left LPGA fans in dismay. Let's put a stop to this obsession with the rules and put a stop of viewer-generated reviews of completed rounds. We're tarnishing the sportsmanship that has historically informed how we play the game.

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.