Thursday, April 22, 2010

Golf is Hard

When it comes to hitting a ball with a stick I'm usually pretty good. Tennis, baseball, softball (which is baseball for fat old people), ping pong and badminton have been no problem. A little instruction and I can hang. I may not be the best but I won't embarrass myself. A few years ago after playing Links on the original Xbox I decided to give golf a try. Like guitar there was an early quick learning curve where I didn't care too much where the ball went. I was just happy to be learning a new activity. Then I hit the wall the separates the beginner from the enthusiast and I got stuck. For over a year now I haven't felt like my golf game is improving.

I'm not out there just hacking either. A former neighbor of mine who really knows his golf gave me some free instruction. I've been going to the range. I've done some practicing in my backyard. I've even listened to the occasionally useful advice of my friend Chris. Still I suck. I never hit the green in regulation, I get no loft from my irons and when I use the driver I have a slice that could take turn 1 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. When I do drive the ball straight it's usually straight into the woods on my right.

First I blamed my clubs. Which is not that much of a cop out because the first set of clubs I bought was a starter set. It cost me about $200. To show you how cheap that is you can spend much more than that for a good driver alone. After playing for a few months I knew my driver was garbage. Last year I bought a new driver. It's a Slazenger and it's really nice. I noticed my driving improved immediately. Even now, as frustrated as I can get, my drives off the tee are better than they were.

Next I bought a new putter because the putter from my starter set, which I actually liked, started breaking down. I noticed it's plastic was peeling away. I payed about $20 for a new blade putter at Dick's Sporting Goods. It's fine. Putting is the one part of my game that doesn't make me want to hurl my clubs into the woods.

In the last few months I've been purchasing new irons at local thrift stores. Now I have a nice set of irons that are a big step up from the cheap stuff I had been using. You know what? I still stink up the golf course each time I play.

It's not that I am swinging from the heels each time or flailing away like Ted Knight's grandson in Caddy Shack so that when I make contact the ball just spins wildly off my club. I do make great contact on occasion and get some nice true straight flights from the golf ball. Sure, the mechanics of my swing aren't perfect. Whose are? The problem is in my brain.

It's because that damn ball is just sitting there. In all other sports when you hit the ball you are reacting. You don't have time to think. Fastball down the middle? Swing! If you are on the move in tennis, chasing down a tough shot by your opponent you don't have time to say to yourself, "Let's see, the opposite baseline is 78 feet away, I am moving to my right, my opponent is rushing the net. If I lob the ball and rush the net myself I should be able to volley the ball to my right and win this point or if I take a big swing now I might be able to hit a passing shot down the right side. Hmmm, he's not moving fast enough to get to the passing shot. Passing shot it is. Whammo!" You just see the situation and hit that passing shot. That's the big reason that one of the hardest shots in tennis is the overhead smash because you have way too much time to think about what to do with one of those.

With golf all the possibilities of your shot face you as that little white ball sits there at your feet. Did I pick the right club? Will I fly the green? Will it be too short and roll back into the water? OK, nice easy back swing. Keep your arms straight. Be smooth. Shift your weight forward. Keep your head down. KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN!!! Of course, whoever you are playing golf with is watching you. If you're really lucky then you're on the first tee and twenty or so strangers are watching you sweat. It's horrible! Sometimes I think it would be easier if someone would toss the ball in the air so I could hit it with a baseball bat.

Yogi Berra said that 90% of baseball is half mental. 99% of golf makes me want to go home and go to bed and the the other 1% keeps me coming back again and again. Just when you get to the point you are considering driving the cart into a water hazard in the hope the battery will create enough of a current to electrocute you, you will hit that one shot. It may be 9 iron shot that hits the green and stays on the green, giving you a rare chance at a long par put. A putt that you will miss but sometimes just putting for par is enough. Or it could be that one monster drive of the day. It's long, it's deep and it's straight. Of course you are going screw up the approach shot but at least you had a shot at hitting a green in regulation. Or it could be a nice long putt. Sure, the putt may be for double bogey but reading the green correctly and putting the right touch on the ball and putting the ball in the hole will hold off thoughts of suicide for at least the next two holes. Golf is so hard that one successful series of shots can complete your whole spring. It's so hard that golfing companions deliver heartfelt congratulations with an sincerity men usually only show when drunk. Strangers playing the hole next to yours will congratulate you on a nice shot and likewise. It's called golf etiquette but I call commiserating in shared misery. We all know how much the other is screaming at himself inside his head about an earlier shot that spun off into the trees. Bonds form on golf courses that are otherwise only seen in boot camp, combat or on really bad little league teams.

I have wondered if golf will ever get any easier and, judging by the expression on Phil Mickleson's face as he was winning the Masters late on Sunday, I am now thinking it won't. My shot's may get more accurate but then I'll expect more and then swear as much as before. At least I'm outside getting some sun.

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