I’m standing on the eighth tee at Kokopelli Golf Course, a tight little track just down the street from me. On the front there’s lots of water designed to protect holes that aren’t really all that long; on the back the holes are protected by their very tightness. In short, while a little under 6,000 yards from the middle tees and probably not all that difficult, the track does require you to hit the ball straight off the tee. Otherwise, you’re either wet, banging balls off of people’s houses, or threatening traffic whooshing by just beyond the fences.
I look at the scorecard and I’m already at 45 strokes and five lost balls.
The group ahead of us is slower than molasses, so I’ve got plenty of time to think about my predicament. I’m sure my key instructor Alex Black would not be pleased at my ball-striking. I’m certain my de facto sports shrink Dr. Bob Winters wouldn’t be pleased, either. For not only have I not struck the ball well, but I’ve made some abysmal club choices that have penalized me severely: a 4-hybrid smashed over a fence left when a 5-iron lay-up would have done; two tee balls topped into Davy Jones’ locker where the water shouldn’t even have been in play.
I’m standing by my lonesome under a lovely shade tree while my three playing partners are comparing their drivers while we wait. The Corona I just bought from the cart girl is cold and refreshing, and even with my score being what it is I’m not as much upset as I am quietly frustrated. I know I can play better than this, yet my thoughts are all about how I’m going to survive out here today. I’m desperately in need of a range session, but that’s not an option at this time. There’s just me, my clubs, and a rapidly-depleting supply of orange Wilsons under a lovely shade tree on a warm and sunny Black Friday. Which gets me thinking: I’ll bet there are plenty of golf balls at the Dick’s Sporting Goods store at the Fiesta Mall just a ten-minute drive away. If things don’t improve tout de suite I may be making a run there instead of the usual hot dog at the turn.
“You’re thinking too much.” I’m surprised to look up and see Amanda, the daughter of one of the guys in the other cart, who had walked over while I was obviously deep in thought. She’s joined her dad and her uncle for the round, and up until now she’s spent the majority of her time either looking bored or texting her friends. I’m guessing she’s thirteen, quite pretty for her age, with long blond hair and a young model’s complexion – beach girl pretty like so many girls you see out here in Arizona. Maybe someday she’ll grow into the stuff a young man’s dreams are made of.
Today, she’s playing amateur golf instructor with The Great White Shank.
“Whenever I’m playing lousy at tennis, I know it’s because I’m thinking too much. Just thought it might help…” she says earnestly. “That’s what I tell my dad.”
“Thanks for the advice”, I tell her with a smile as she turns and heads back to her cart, texting away. “I’m sure you’re right. Thanks.”
And of course she’s right. I have been thinking too much. I’m thinking about where I want to hit the ball. I’m thinking about how I want to hit the ball. I’m thinking about how not to make a mistake and not hit where I don’t want to hit the ball and not hit how I don’t want to hit the ball. In short, my brain has been so full of swing thoughts and shot thoughts that I hadn’t been able to execute anything with any kind of confidence. Even the best golfers go through this: you become so afraid to fail you have no room in your head for success. And in that moment, Amanda did for me what Romeo did for Roy McAvoy at the U.S. Open driving range in Tin Cup – she got my brain out of the way.
When it’s my turn to hit I put my 3-wood back in the bag and pull driver. Hole #8 is a long, narrow par 5 that runs along the side of McQueen Road on the right and a long line of houses on the left. I walk to the tee with no swing thought in mind other than to take the club back straight and drive through the ball like I’ve been doing since I got back from Massachusetts. (After a couple of disappointing rounds to close out my New England golf season I realized I had been taking the club back too outside and circular rather than straight back. As a result, my swing had become too upper-body with a low finish by my right shoulder. The fix was easy: take the club straight back and keep my lower body quiet as the club lags and I drive through the ball and finish on top of my right shoulder.)
My drive is high and long. My second shot, a 5-wood approach is the same. A chip and a two-putt later I make par and proceed to go the rest of the day bogey-bogey-bogey-double-par-bogey-quadruple (more about that in a second)-bogey-bogey-bogey. Were it not for one poor club selection – a 4-hybrid I hit OB when everything in my body was screaming for a 5-iron – I tore the course up and turned what could have been a 115 or more into a passable (given the start) 105. Even with that nine on fifteen I still shot 49; replace that 4-hybrid with a 5-iron and take a single bladed chip away and I’m looking at a 45, perhaps lower.
Sitting at the grille over a cold beer, I think about all the golf I’ve played this year and all the balls I’ve hit and realize that – at least score-wise – I’m not a whole lot better than I was at the start of the year. And yet, I feel as if I’ve made incredible strides (at least for me) and am really just a few tweaks away from playing some really consistent bogey – bogey-and-a-half golf. At the start of the year I could shoot anywhere from 98 to 115 and not know why I did or didn’t play better. Now, I’m anywhere from 90 (my best) to 112 (my worst) but am striking the ball so much better. Better yet, I know my flaws and am able to work on them and correct them in a way I never could have before. From here on out, if I want to get better it’s all about consistency off the tee and improving my short game technique.
Not that any of this matters in the grand scheme of things, of course. But I’ve got one round left this year at Superstition Springs (where it all started back in February) before I bring my Golf Quest 2013 to a close. And hopefully then my brain won’t be getting in my way.