My golf vacation


I loved lemon drops until the night I saw Darby O’Gill and the Little People. For those of you who weren’t around in 1959, Darby O’Gill was a reasonably popular Disney movie back then. I ate more than my fill of lemon drops at the movie and then horked all over the car as we drove home.

We learned the next day that the lemon drops weren’t entirely to blame—I spent the next week fighting a stomach virus—but the experience soured me on lemon drops for years. (If you’re wondering why I had some for the photo, my father in law loves them and my wife is paying him a visit later this week.)

Golf was getting to be like lemon drops for me last month. I’d eaten more than my fill of it and had horked all over the course, the scorecard, and my handicap. But just as with my post-Disney up-chucking, it wasn’t just a golf overdose that was the problem.

I’d fallen behind on a lot of little things around the house and property to the point that I found myself feeling hurried getting to the course and getting back. That haste was translating into a fast, choppy swing and impatience with bad shots. Of course, that only led to a faster swing and more bad shots. (Any parallels drawn between the tasks and my 1959 stomach virus are entirely the responsibility of the reader.)

So I’ve been taking a little vacation from golf. I’ve accomplished a lot around the house and property and generally messed around. I’m ready to hit the course again and I’m looking forward to the game as a game. I’m not thinking about how I can stop my downward slide and if I really should be playing instead of building cabinets, painting, or whatever.

Ronfucius just contacted me about being his partner at the opening match of the season, so the game is afoot. When the pros return to Kapalua I’m back on the course.

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‘Tis the season of giving shanks

Vaaler #8

Like everyone else, I’m accustomed to my golf game going up and down. I’ll have periods where I make steady progress as my scores creep lower and lower. Then something will inexplicably break, my scores will shoot up, and I’ll start the process over again. You’d think that the bad periods would become fewer and less intense with practice and experience, but I’m beginning to wonder.

I’ve kept my handicap in single digits for longer than ever before, coming up on 3 years now. I was feeling pretty good about my game, winning more than my share, and looking forward to lower scores if I could just get a little more consistent in a few spots. Then it happened.

I played in a tournament with the best golfer in our area and saw a few things in his swing I wanted to incorporate into mine. You can guess the rest.

Since then I’ve had the worst stretch of golf I can remember. I actually shot 100 in one round (my index was 7.1 at the time) and hit more shanks and worm-burners than I could count. Every time I stood over a short iron I had nightmarish visions of killing someone standing off to the right. The only reason I could muster the courage to hit the ball was all of my playing partners wisely stayed to my left and behind me.

I paid a visit to our pro and he saw some alignment problems that I am working on fixing. Things are getting better, but it’s still pretty bad. I don’t fear the shank anymore. Instead, the last time I played I hit two of the worst drives I’ve hit in years. They were off the heel, dead left, and went under 50 yards.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember why I play golf. I play this game to have fun and hang out with the guys, not to prepare for a winning career on tour. I’m glad the holidays and the weather are giving me an enforced excuse to stay off the course and remember why I want to get back out there. A little break may be just what this turkey needs.

On the other hand, the last time I had a shank attack I cured it by buying new irons. It worked, too, so maybe this won’t be all bad. Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat ….

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Can blogging make you a better golfer?

Macbook in grass

In an educational and ironic twist of fate, I faced exactly the situation I posted about in my last post. We held our club championship over the weekend and I started the final round 2 strokes out of the lead, tied with one of my foursome members. I figured both of us had a decent chance to overtake the leader, who was playing in a different foursome. Since my fellow competitor was the only person I could really keep track of during the round (no scoreboards, remember?) I just tracked my tournament progress against him. For simplicity, I’ll call him Bobby, because that’s his name. (A word of warning to readers: Serious golf nerdyness follows.)

 Bobby was on fire the first nine and couldn’t miss a putt, no matter the length. I was putting well, but my long ones were all lipping out or missing by tiny margins while his were falling. He made the turn 4 strokes ahead of me.

I gained a stroke on 10. When we stepped onto the 13th tee I was 3 behind. The 13th, as you may remember, is the par 5 I wrote about in the post.

 We both hit nice drives, with mine about 5 yards longer than Bobby’s. The green was marginally reachable for both of us, but with a back pin we were unlikely to get close in 2. We both pulled fairway metals from our bags. Bobby hit a low hook into the hazard. I stood in the fairway holding my club and arguing with myself.

Psychologists know that if you ask a person to monitor and record his or her behavior, the simple act of observation changes the behavior. The observation process also signals a commitment to engage in behavior change. For example, if a smoker is trying to quit and records each cigarette smoked, the number smoked will likely drop even before any behavior change program begins. My blog post was the equivalent of a smoker monitoring cigarette consumption.

Edited for brevity and family viewing, I stood in the 13th fairway thinking: “Look, you idiot. You just wrote about this hole. You should lay up. Lay up! Listen to yourself, bozo!”

If I hadn’t blogged about this hole I wouldn’t have been nearly as convincing as I argued with myself. Stupid Charlie would have been likely to outwit smart(er) Charlie if smart(er) Charlie hadn’t written about the go for it vs. lay up choice. Stupid Charlie probably would have gone for it with a head full of churning uncertainty. I’ve seen him up close, and that’s how he is.

Instead, smart(er) Charlie won. I put down the fairway metal and pulled my 48-degree wedge. Firmly committed to a lay-up shot, I dinked a 100 yard wedge down the center. I followed this with a 7-iron to 5 feet and birdied the hole. Bobby bogeyed after losing his ball in the hazard, for a 2-stroke swing.

I managed a tie with Bobby by the 16th tee. Unfortunately, I bogeyed 17 and fell 1 back. Bobby sank a 15-footer for par on 18 to win by 1. The other leaders had fallen away, so Bobby won and I took second. I guess I need to figure out how to write a blog post that will improve my game around the greens.

Bobby and I are now 1 and 1 in the big annual tournaments this year. Ronfucius and I beat Bobby and his partner in sudden death in our team tournament a few months earlier. (Coincidentally, I won the playoff with a birdie putt after a 7-iron close to the pin. I love that club.) We may not be Spieth and Day, but we have fun.

Turk discovers the photo shoot set

Turk discovers the photo shoot set

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Watch that scoreboard?

I was watching Morning Drive on the Golf Channel a few days ago. They were discussing the value, or lack of value, in scoreboard watching. It seems that William McGirt told Tiger Woods that he (McGirt) never looked at a scoreboard to see where he stood during the back nine, and Tiger said something to the effect of “You’re an idiot.” McGirt has since changed his ways and came in at a tie for second last week in Mississippi.

We don’t have scoreboards to watch in the tournaments I play in, but it’s always seemed to me that the value of knowing where you stand relative to the field depends on whether you can do anything with that information. Most of us can barely control where the ball is going on any given shot, so knowing that we should go for it or play safe is a crapshoot anyway. McGirt and Tiger have a much better chance of making use of the information.

I’ve won more tournaments by waiting for my opponents to make a mistake than by trying to do something special in an effort to win. If I need to make a long putt and I concentrate on “Be sure to get it there,” I’m more likely to miss long than make. My long putting skill, such as it is, lies in nestling up near the hole for a tap in. Sometimes they go in. If I try to make sure the putt gets there I’ll probably hit it through the break and have a tough 3 or 4 footer coming back, if I’m lucky.

I’d like to say that I’m sticking to my game plan, but that implies more choice and control than I realistically have. It’s more accurate to say that I’m sticking to what I think I might be able to execute properly, even if it looks like a cowardly plan from the outside. I’m laying up with a pitching wedge on that par 5 because I just might worm-burn my fairway metal into the hazard. The lay up probably gives me a better chance at birdie than going for it in 2. I’m no William McGirt, much less a Tiger Woods.

Green 13

On the other hand, I remember that towering fairway metal shot I once hit into the green on the 13th hole, and ….

As Roberto DeVicenzo famously said, “What a stupid I am!”

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Patience in golf really does pay

Trees Number 5

A few years ago I described a hole at my home course that I played contrary to my typical style. (Reprinted here.) I used a “hit it and hope” approach because there didn’t seem to be any smart strategy, at least not one I was capable of executing. The photo above shows the hole. That line of trees down the left side made it next to impossible for me to hit a drive into a spot providing a reliable shot into the green. The hole doglegs left at the end of that line of trees.

The target spots in the fairway were just too small to hit with any consistency, especially with hard ground and a slightly downhill/sidehill fairway. I needed a career drive to hit it all the way into the dogleg with a clear shot at the green. On the few occasions I managed to hit a drive that far, half of the time I hit into the fairway bunkers guarding the far side of the dogleg. I wasn’t the only player with that problem. Everyone I knew had chosen some odd way to play the hole, including hitting it across the rough and waste area to the left into the adjoining fairway.

Now several years have passed and it’s an entirely different hole. We’ve had an extended drought. The trees were already suffering from oak wilt, a fungus spread by beetles that is usually fatal for live oaks. That’s why the trees look so leafless in the top photo. The drought stressed the trees past the point of no return, and they have now been removed.

The photo below shows the new hole, sans trees. You’ll also notice that we’ve had some rain and the grass is greener. The shot is taken from the same spot as the top photo; you can see the twists and turns in the cart path and other features that are duplicated in both shots. But, as you can see, it’s an entirely different hole. It’s now possible to hit a drive down the fairway and count on a shot into the green, assuming you can stay away from that grove of trees down the right side. It’s a fair hole now. It’s easier, but it’s also fair.

No trees Number 5

They always say you need to be patient in golf, but I’m not sure they mean to be this patient. On the other hand, I guess if you are patient enough you can out-wait trees. I wouldn’t recommend it as a regular strategy, though. Your pace of play would be way too slow.

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Farewell to Belly Putting

I’ve been considering getting back to active blogging and the golf rules changes, particularly the anchored putting ban, gave me the push I needed.

Several years ago I published a ditty on anchored putting on the anniversary of Dr. Seuss’s birthday. With no further fanfare and in light of the anchored putting ban, here is the sequel.

Farewell to Belly Putting


Will Your Innies Now Be Outies?

So now you cannot belly putt.
You must not jam it in your gut.
You must not anchor to your chest,
No matter if that’s how you’re best.

The belly putt is history.
They say it’s not a stroke, you see.
The belly putter, it’s still good.
You just can’t use it like you could.

So run that putter up your arm,
Your ball will roll just like a charm.
Don’t whine and claim that it won’t work,
It works for Kooch, and he’s no jerk.

You still can use the sweeper, too.
Just keep some air ‘twixt it and you.
So swing that broomstick free and clear,
It works for some that way, I hear.

Or maybe bend that sweeper ‘round,
Face the hole and stare it down.
It’s not croquet if you don’t straddle,
So be like Snead and putt sidesaddle.

But I’ll just go on left hand low,
It’s how I’ve been for years, you know.
I tried the broom, I poked my gut,
I learned one thing: I just can’t putt.

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Going Left Hand Low

I’m very slow to make big changes in my golf game. My basic operating principle is that I’m having trouble because I’m not executing properly, not because I need to try to learn another way to play. But after years of having repeated bouts of putting trouble of the same kind, I finally made a change. I’ve gone to a left-hand-low putting grip. (I play right-handed.)

I’ve been plagued by two types of putting errors. First, I leave a lot of putts short. If I try to hit them harder I tend to lose the line or hit them way too hard. Second, I tend to push and pull short putts. I can beat this problem for a while by reminding myself to not look up until I hear the ball drop into the cup, by working extra hard to create a repeating pendulum stroke, by trying to keep my stroke smooth, by putting with my eyes closed (on Morning Drive, Suzann Pettersen said she’d been doing this and she won today, so it may not be as crazy as it sounds), etc. but the problem always comes back.

Since I’ve gone to left-hand-low, my most common miss on longer putts is a foot or two past the hole and I miss very few short putts. When I miss them, I can feel that I haven’t let my low hand lead toward the hole, so it’s pretty easy to fix.

The biggest thing I’ve noticed about the feel of putting left-hand-low is that I now have a pronounced feel of a pendulum stroke. It’s like my leading arm easily swings toward the target. With a standard grip I was always working to find a comfortable sense of balance between the hands, but my stroke is more comfortable now.

That seems to make my stroke more confident, so I don’t leave things short so often. I’ve holed more long putts and burned more edges from long range since I’ve made the change.

I’m still working to find a really comfortable grip, and may try a larger grip on the putter. It sometimes feels like my right hand doesn’t know where to go or what to do, but the feeling of not doing much with the right hand seems to be what makes this system work for me. I’d just like my grip to feel a little more natural.

I suppose that will happen eventually. For now, I’m off the watch the RBC Heritage and study all the left hand low grips I can find.

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Coming Home To The Masters

I look forward to all of the majors, but I do more than look forward to The Masters. Watching The Masters is an annual ritual, an emotional experience for me. I’ll miss a day or more of other tournaments to play golf, take care of projects, or whatever. But I block time out to watch The Masters and don’t let anything intrude. (Luckily, my wife understands and is fine with this.)

300px-AugustaNationalMastersLogoFlowersI’ve thought a lot about why I feel this way. It’s just a golf tournament on TV. If I have something else to do, I’ll walk away from most shows on TV without a second thought. I always prefer doing to watching. But for me, The Masters is more like doing than watching. It engages me in a way no other tournament does.

I’ve come to the conclusion that The Masters is like coming home. Not just coming home after a day or two, but coming home after a long time away. The Masters is played on the same course year after year, and I think that has a lot to do with my feelings.

I come back to the same immaculate course every year at a time that nature is waking up and the season is full of promise. I come home to scenes that recall images of the beauty of past years and memories of former heroics and spectacular collapses. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never really been there but go only in my TV-fed fantasy. It’s still like I’m coming home.

My history may have something to do with how I feel about The Masters and coming home. My wife and I have lived in our current house for 10 years, and that’s longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. By my best count I’ve had 23 addresses, not counting dorms and apartments as an undergraduate and the several years I travelled with no fixed address. I looked at Google Street View a while back and the house I was born in has been torn down and replaced with a much larger, upscale place. If I really wanted to go back home, I don’t know where I’d go.

So Augusta, Georgia in the spring is as good a place as any for me. It’s stunningly beautiful and full of tradition. It welcomes with open arms returning heroes and those looking for another chance. I can only imagine what it must feel like to drive down Magnolia Lane when you really belong.

I’ll be happy returning to my memories. That’s all any of us can really come home to.

(Image by pocketwiley, via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0 license.)

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Some Advice on Texas Hill Country Golf

Rory McIlroy stepping on a prickly pear cactus. Charl Schwartzel disturbing a fire ant bed. Billy Horschel dislodging a rock with his punch shot from the trees. It delights my little Hill Country soul to watch the best and brightest bang their way through the Valero Texas Open and my daily golf world.

I don’t play at the TPC San Antonio – it’s a bit too rich for my blood – but I get to play with the rocks, cactus, and ants.

Don't hit it anywhere that looks like this. Trust me. I know.

Don’t hit it anywhere that looks like this. Trust me. I know.

Here’s a little tip from someone with local knowledge, guys. Stay in the fairway. There aren’t nearly as many rocks and cactus in the short grass. There may still be a few fire ants, but not nearly as many. And you get a free drop from the ants.

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Saving the Round

“Manage the screw-up quotient. That’s what life is. Deft management of the screw-up quotient.” (From Edisto Revisited by Padgett Powell)

Lately I haven’t been managing the screw-ups very well. I keep turning mid to upper 70’s rounds into low to mid 80’s rounds by having just enough bad holes to wreck my score. I can look back at each round and say, “Here, here, and here are exactly where I messed up.”

My home course is pretty intolerant of screw-ups. It’s possible to (and I have) hit it out of bounds off of every tee. Most of the fairways are relatively narrow and this is the windy time of the year. The lies are tight due to the long drought we’ve experienced and it’s easy to find yourself dealing with tree trouble even if you haven’t hit it far off line. But you can manage your way around the course if you pay attention and don’t compound your errors.

When I’m scoring well I avoid doubles by giving some thought to my tee shots and playing recovery shots for what they are – a chance to manage the screw-up quotient. When I’m not scoring well I just bang away off the tee and then whack away at improbable miracle recovery shots. After a few of these management errors I flail harder to try to make up for it and there goes the round.

I know things are slowly getting better because I can spot the individual shots that wrecked my score. When I’m playing poorly I just have a generalized sense of bad golf, not specific recollections of bad shots. If I could just manage the screw-up quotient a little better I’d have a chance to erase most of those doubles.

It also wouldn’t hurt if it would rain a little (at night, of course) and the wind would lie down.

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