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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.