Dinged By The Donkey

Picture by illinoisreview.typepad.com
Picture by illinoisreview.typepad.com

Do you ever play golf at a course and know before you tee off you’re going to play bad?  Does this happen at a course that is a repeat offender?  It does for me and happened again yesterday.  Why do these nemesis courses hold a spell over us and what can we do about it?  Do you have any strategies?

The Plan:  I ventured out to Poolesville, a seemingly innocuous municipal track in western Montgomery County, where I never play well.  My approach would be to play it while in the midst of a hot streak and hope my good play would carry over for the day.  The game plan was to warm up exactly as I had for my two previous rounds: chip, putt, hit range balls, and go.

I knew I was in trouble after my first chip on the practice green rolled 30 feet past the flag and off the surface.  The greens were lightning fast, and the first three rounds of the season I had played on slow to medium speed greens.  So the entire time I was warming up on the range, I was thinking, “How am I going to handle these fast greens?”  Coincidentally, I didn’t strike it well while warming up.  See anything wrong with this picture?

So off I went and I immediately short-sided myself with my approach on #1.  I flubbed a pitch shot which led to a double.  It seems I double this first hole every time out, which is a source of frustration and is always in the back of my mind.  Fast forward after six holes and I was 8-over with three doubles on the card, and I got downright mad because this meaningless muni was beating me down like a rented mule.  The course was totally in my head.

The adjustment:  When your game goes to crap you can either give up or change something.  Never give up.  Usually, I’ll make one of two types of adjustments depending on how bad the garbage smells.  If my head is full of swing thoughts, I’ll dump them all and just fire at the target, but this wasn’t a swing pretzel day.  I wasn’t hitting it well, but the culprit was poor course management.  The second type of adjustment is to mentally start over.  I quickly recalled a comment a reader once made about a round they had played with Mike Weir.  They said that Mike was playing this particular course for the first time and didn’t make a putt all day, but shot 67 because he never missed a green in the wrong spot.  Exactly the reminder I needed.  So I drew a line on the scorecard after the sixth hole to represent a restart on #7, and scribbled out three words:  “BELOW THE HOLE” on the card.  I find that if you place a visual reminder somewhere, it often works to solidify and reinforce a commitment you need to make and I needed to stop shooting at the flags and ensure that when I missed my targets, they missed in the right spots.

There’s a lot to be said for good course management even if it means playing more defensively.  After the adjustment, I went into stability mode and played the last 12 holes in 3-over par (2-over on the back nine while only hitting one green in regulation).  At the end of the day, the carnage wasn’t too bad but the course had won again.  Next time out, I’ll be armed with some better course management strategies and hopefully will be able to clear all remaining mental baggage.  I’m gonna get you Poolesville!

 

How Do You Set Your Goals?

How do you set your performance goals? Conventional thinking is that goals should be SMART:

  • Specific.
  • Measurable.
  • Attainable.
  • Relevant.
  • Time Bound.

I usually come up with SMART goals for the season that center around achieving a specific scoring average, reducing number of putts, improving my GIR, etc., and I suspect yours look similar. But what about that secret goal you keep in the back of your mind that you’re afraid to publish because you might not get there. Should you put it out there? Don’t be afraid; do it! Everyone has these “stretch goals” and if you clearly envision them and formulate your improvement roadmap to hit them, even if they are long term and seemingly out of reach, you’ll ultimately feel more in control of your destiny and can take a more methodical approach and weather the inevitable ups and downs. And oh baby, if you hit them, watch out!

My new stretch goal, is to sustain a period of excellence over a short burst of time that tells me, I can still play to the level that I once did when I played my best. Specifically, the goal is to repeat a scenario I experienced once in my life in the mid-1990s when I played three straight rounds on three straight days at par or better. I was in the “Zone” for all three rounds and have never come close since then. Playing one round in the Zone is fabulous, but three in a row was incredible. I’m thinking of this because I tasted the Zone last week for a brief five-hole stretch, and loved it. Despite the quick exit, the touch has me juiced and motivated.

Changing your stretch goal because of current circumstances or the realities of life is fine as well. I try to keep my SMART goals in the current season (Time Bound), but the stretch goal is elastic. For example: In 2011, my stretch goal was to lower my handicap to zero from five. The lowest it had ever been was between a 1 and 2 back when I was in my 20s and playing a lot more golf than I do now. Was that a reasonable stretch goal? Maybe, but I quickly learned that a working desk jockey playing 35 rounds a year in his mid-50s and practicing once per week wasn’t going to hit pay dirt, so I adjusted. I am modeling after a guy on tour who is two years my junior (Vijay Singh). There is nobody more dedicated to improvement and excellence, but the truth is, Vijay cannot play as well as he did 10 years ago no matter how long he practices and how badly he wants to compete. I’m not telling Vijay to quit, and I love it when he goes low for a short stretch like he did at Northern Trust, but I don’t expect him to win a regular tour event any more.

So hopefully I will be entering the “Vijay Zone.” Perhaps a place where no man has gone before. Do you have a secret stretch goal?  Care to share?

Hot Start To 2015 Golf Season

HotNot sure what is going on with my golf game but I’m enjoying some early speed in the race for improvement in 2015.  I started the year with a modest goal of being able to walk 18 holes by the end of April and not experience any physical symptoms from my HCM.  Today I walked my second 18-hole round without difficulty and managed to back up last week’s 2-over 74 at Myrtle Beach National with a 1-over 71 on my home course.  I can’t recall coming out of the blocks this fast in the last 10 years and am trying not to over-analyze the reasons and just enjoy the ride.  But over-analyze is what I do, so here goes.  Maybe you can find a nugget or two that might help you.

The first key is a lesson I learned from last year’s dreadful start (92 on opening day) and some excellent advice I received from The Grateful Golfer.  Jim reminded me not to take the early season results too seriously and to ease into my game after the long winter layoff.  In 2015 I did this by walking 9-holes on my executive course on consecutive weekends and playing several balls without keeping score.  As a result, I relaxed for the start of the 18-hole rounds and played with less sense of urgency.  Jim, thanks for the reality check!

Second, I’ve sometimes found that if you are physically ill, or worrying about your health, it takes your mind off your golf game and you play better.  Has this ever happened to you?  I recall playing a round one year in my mid-20s when I was sick to my stomach and shot lights out.  Weird but true.  To be honest, my disorder is always on my mind and when I’m on the golf course I am filled with gratitude that I’m just able to play the game I love, and am not worrying about results.

Third, I’m beginning to wonder if this Rx I’m on isn’t having a positive effect.  Beta blockers are illegal on the PGA Tour for a reason.  They lower your heart rate and theoretically help you deal with pressure and nerves to an unfair advantage.  In my first 54 holes, I have yet to three-putt and feel very confident, calm, and trusting on the greens.

Finally, and most importantly, I heeded the advice of The Birdie Hunt and committed to returning to basics and not overhauling any part of my game over the winter, as I had done to disastrous results in previous years.  My only thoughts during practice and play are to check alignment, make a full shoulder turn, and clear my hips on the downswing.  Contact with my irons was solid last week and again today with 14 GIR.

So I’m going to continue to try hard not to try too hard and just let the game come to me.  Hope you can do the same.  How’s the opening of your season going?

How Tiger’s Masters Helped My Golf Game

The most awesome thing about golf is that it’s the one sport where amateurs can relate to issues their favorite touring pros are suffering from.  Despite the difference in skill level, it’s possible, on occasion, to achieve greatness at the same level as the best players in the world.  For example, a middle-aged round belly like me has no idea what it’s like to try to hit a 95 mph fast ball 400 feet over a wall.  I’ll never know, but I could conceivably birdie the toughest golf hole on a tour track with a couple purely struck shots and a little luck.

from thesun.co.uk
from thesun.co.uk

So, this past week, I eagerly anticipated the return of Tiger Woods to active competition, and was paying particular attention to Tiger’s chipping since both he and I have been suffering from the chip yips for a protracted period.  I’m sure my problems were much worse, but his were more magnified.  Either way, I was paying close attention to see how he handled himself under the pressure of a major.  I heard all the pre-tournament talk from Tiger about how he, “worked his ass off,” during his long layoff, but the true nugget was when I learned he changed out all his wedges.  Ever since I changed my wedges out a couple years ago, I’ve struggled greenside with my chips and pitches using my 58.  The bladed low ball has become an unwanted playing partner and the longer it stayed, the more it started to infect my thinking and other parts of my short game.

Fast forward to Masters Thursday and I was at Whispering Pines in Myrtle Beach practicing for my Friday round at Myrtle Beach National.  The blade ball had reared it’s ugly head again and I was starting to panic with the prospect of hitting low screamers from tight Bermuda lies.  Then I remembered Tiger changing out his wedges and figured what the heck.  I started hitting the same shots with my 54 instead of the 58.  Bingo!  All touch and feel returned, as did the nice little “thump” you get from a purely struck short shot off a tight lie.  After a few adjustments for the lower loft, I was making clean contact every time and getting them close.  I was thinking the blade ball was being caused by too much bounce on the flange of the 58, but still wasn’t sure.

The next day, during my pre-round warm up, I chipped with the 54 and actually made a couple.  Then I went out and shot a tidy little 2-over 74 which was unexpected, but felt natural with the returned boost in confidence.  If you don’t think a little confidence in one small area can take your game a long way, you are highly mistaken!  I didn’t hit the ball that great, but was relaxed and got it up and down out of some trash can lies.

I used to play these shots with a 56, then moved to the 58 with the new clubs, and now it’s down to a 54.  So what’s four degrees of loft here or there?  Has this ever happened to you?  Please share if you have a similar experience.

Thanks Tiger!

 

2015 Masters Picks

77Augusta National, like no other venue tests a player’s patience, persistence, and concentration.  To win The Masters, players need to contend for 63 holes then charge on the back nine on Sunday.  More important than shooting a very low round is avoiding a bad day.  A deep dive into the tournament archives  reveals that over the last 60 years, avoiding one bad number has been the key to Masters victory.

Jack Nicklaus is arguably the greatest Masters player of all time.  From 1959 through 1993, Jack had only three rounds of 77 or worse in 125 played; just incredible consistency.  He won with two 74s on the card in 1963 and a 76 in the second round in 1966.  But when players card a 77, it’s basically over.  In the last 62 years, only Nick Faldo in 1989 has won the tournament after recording a 77 for one of his four rounds.  Go back to Sam Snead in 1952, for the next round of 77, to find another champion.     So as we don our green jackets and settle into marathon coverage with our pimento cheese sandwiches, know that as soon as your favorite shoots 5-over for the day, he’s cooked.  Just ask Greg Norman (1996) how that works.

For 2015, let’s see who can avoid the big number and who’s primed to win it.  Get your Calcutta ready.

Group 1:  “Masters Champions.”  (Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods)  Adam Scott has shot three 77s or worse in 48 Masters rounds, but none since 2008.  Good recent consistency, ball striking is in excellent form, but his putting is horrible after switching from the broomstick.  Might make the cut, but you gotta roll the rock.  He will not contend.  Defending champion Bubba Watson is in excellent form.  Bombs it off the tee, short game is razor sharp, 2/24 at 77 or worse with rounds in 2011 and 2013 respectively, and he’s controlling his emotions.  Great value play at 10/1 odds.  Three time champion, Phil Mickelson has played 84 Masters rounds and fired only two at 77 or worse; amazing consistency for the proverbial roller coaster rider.  But Lefty will hit 45 years old in June and hasn’t been in good form over the past two Masters.  Scores are going up with age.  Maybe he makes the cut.  Tiger Woods; no chance.  Just listed as a courtesy.

Group 2:  “Other Major Winners.” (Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose)  Rory McIlroy brings the Air 3-Iron show to Georgia and is a bit off mentally.  Game is suited for Augusta with his high ball flight, but five of 22 Masters rounds are at 77 or worse; with one each in the last five tournaments.  Enough talent to finish top-10 in his sleep, but I want to see him get over the psychological dumpster on this track before I ride him.  Martin Kaymer has only one 77 out of 20 rounds but has never finished higher than 31st.  You need to be a great chipper to win at Augusta.  Kaymer is not and is more comfortable putting from off the green.  I don’t like the fit.  He will make the cut but bide his time waiting to defend at the U.S. Open.  Justin Rose has only three bad rounds out of 36 and has never missed a Masters cut.  Last five years have all been top-25 finishes.  Is moving in the right direction and is more seasoned with pressure since his U.S. Open victory.  Will be in the top-10.

Group 3:  “First Major?”  (Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Ricky Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Jason Day)  Matt Kuchar has the best shot in this cast.  His short game and putting could be best on tour and the ex-Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket is very comfortable on the grounds.  Could be his year but he already feels overdue.  Dustin Johnson is playing great but doesn’t have the short game to win here.  Sergio Garcia has a long record of futility at Augusta.  Six bad rounds out of 54 were mostly early in his career, but he’s got that choke mentality on the back nine on Sunday and that’s where The Masters is won.  Ricky Fowler tied for fifth last year and has not missed a cut in his four appearances.  With only one bad round in 16, I look for a top-10.  Henrik Stenson is the world’s #2 player, but as Judge Smails said in Caddyshack, “Some people just don’t belong.”

The Judge from spartanswill.forumotion.com
The Judge
from spartanswill.forumotion.com

Henrik hasn’t belonged at Augusta because the course is in his head.  He’s got three rounds in the 80s and five at 77 or worse out of 30.  Awesome ball striker but historically poor around the greens, despite some improvement this year.  Despite the angst, he’ll rebound and post a top-20.  I keep asking myself when Jordan Spieth will win a major.  He’s always in contention, but burns a little hot at times and must control his temper in this event.  He’s not the straightest ball striker but that won’t hurt him at Augusta.  Missing 3-5 foot putts will, and I’m not sure he’s sold on this looking at the hole part time putting method.  If he figures it out, could win it.  Patrick Reed is not one of the top five players in the world but is in the top 10.  Awesome in match play format but has a very short Masters history.  Needs more seasoning and will not contend this year.  Jason Day was my pick last year and continues to disappoint.  Always gets close and seems to make back-to-back bogeys at the wrong time.  Flights it high like Rory and is suited for the venue, but struggles to control his distances on short irons.  Miss with too many wedges here and you can’t win it.  Look for another top-10.

Final Predictions:

Winner:  Bubba Watson to repeat and weep.

Runner Up:  Jordan Spieth cools his jets and gets closer than ever

Third:  Rory McIlroy keeps all his clubs in the bag, breaks the bad number streak, but no career slam this year

Who do you like?

Bubba Watson from usatoday.com
Bubba Watson
from usatoday.com

Playing Augusta National

I have never played Augusta National and it’s item number one on my life’s bucket list.  Is it on yours?  I’ve often figured there are two ways to get on.  First, win a tour event and get an automatic invite to The Masters.  The road map for this DC-based wacko idea used to be shoot two rounds of 68 in pre-Kemper Open qualifying, then four straight 68s at Congressional Country Club to win the event.  Zero chance of that leads to method #2.

Play as the guest of a member.   This requires a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon type activity since I don’t know any members personally.  One time, I was one degree away back in the mid-1980s when I actually played a round of golf in Sea Island, GA with an Augusta member.  That’s as close as I’ve come other than getting a Larry Mize autograph.

Maybe Condi will invite me. from philmickelson.com
Maybe Condi will invite me.
from philmickelson.com

Have you ever thought of playing Augusta or actually played it?  I’ll bet some college players out there have had the opportunity.  How many degrees of separation are you from playing Augusta?  Will it ever happen?