Sounds like surfer lingo for the great local surfing spots, but at the Kokopelli Golf Club driving range they’re targets for folks to aim towards when they’re practicing. “The Cleavage” is way, way out there – more of an aiming point than a landing area, actually, where the juxtaposition of two large mounds creates, well, a small area of cleavage that makes for a real tight target for driving accuracy. “The Bunghole” is a big gaping hole that can play anywhere from sixty to 130 yards depending on where the hitting areas are set up, and “The Trench” is a long, low area along a series of mounds on the left side of the range that (supposedly) creates a natural boundary between the range and the first hole.
It’s an unusually warm Friday afternoon and I’ve snagged the best spot on the range – the far left slot. I like it for three reasons: 1) being a lefty, I don’t have to distract any “normal” golfer hitting in the slot to my left; 2) it has a slight downward slope to it at its far end, allowing one to practice hitting balls a little below your feet; c) the left-hand side of the hitting area is typically virgin grass left unscathed by the ravages of right-handed hackers; and, most importantly, d) “The Cleavage”, “The Bunghole”, and “The Trench” are all perfectly lined up for you.
I’ve paid my $11 for a large bucket, made a quick stop in the men’s room to dampen one end of my golf towel (only hackers walk over to the water bucket to dip their clubs in for a cleaning!), set my clubs up on the stand provided for my slot, and take a moment to admire how beautiful my Callaways glisten in the sun. For a brief moment I can imagine myself at some fancy Scottsdale or Gulf Coast resort, the weather is so perfect. Closing my eyes I take in the happy sounds of a driving range with the sound of whacks, whooshes, and the chatter of folks enjoying a pre- or post-round lunch just a couple dozen paces behind where we’re all hitting balls today.
Back in the old days, having folks sitting right behind me with nothing to do but watch people hit and comment on their swings would scare the bejeezus out of me, but those days are long past. Nowadays, not only do I not care if folks want to watch me hit balls, I almost crave the opportunity to put on a show for folks so they can see just how far I’ve come in just a year’s time. This time last year – before the Alex Black lessons, before Paper Tiger, before all the hard work, and, most especially, before the new move courtesy of that Rickie Fowler look-alike, I never actually knew what game or swing I would find whenever I hit the driving range. It was like Forrest Gump‘s box of chocolates – I never knew what I would find. More often than not, it wouldn’t be pretty.
Those days are long past and hopefully never to be seen again. Since that Rickie Fowler intervention my game has settled into a very nice, predictable place where all I’m now doing is trying to improve my consistency in terms of focus, contact, and accuracy. Also gone are the days when I’d just hit balls for the sake of hitting balls. I used to smirk at guys who would treat every ball they were hitting at some hacked up, sodapop valley driving range as if they were in contention down the stretch at Augusta National (who the hell did they think they were, Tiger Woods?), but nowadays I’m that guy, and if the folks next to and behind me want to smirk, let them – I’m not out here here to simply hit balls, I’m here to work on my game – with purpose.
The Kokopelli range is pretty crowded today. To my right is an old-timer practicing his woods and spraying them all over the place. A young couple is next to him: she’s learning the game and he’s patiently trying to teach her to get the ball in the air. As usual, the music playing is classic ’70s tunes, and more tunes than I can count I remember playing with my brother Mark back in our old Top Priority band days. Hearing The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” start playing, I can still remember the bass line I used to play and for a moment feel like the dinosaur that I am.
The feeling passes quickly, however, and its time to get to work. The left elbow actually feels good today: the 2-lb. weights I’m lifting while I’m doing my walks must be starting to help. And between the eight pounds I’ve lost and the inches I’m shrunk around my middle from those annoying “Laplace in Place” excercises during my Eades diet really show: in my teal Margaritaville “Poker in Paradise” t-shirt and bright white shorts I look and feel great. I do some stretching – another thing I used to hurry through – and take a few practice swings. I feel rusty from not hitting balls for two weeks.
My first two pitching wedges towards “The Bunghole” are ugly and fat, a cause for panic back in the old days but I know that’s just the rust. I can hear (more like feel) a table of guys snickering behind me, so I turn around and see them laughing amongst themselves. “Don’t worry, boys”, I tell them with an air of happy confidence, “the show’s about to start!” and we all share a good laugh. And then the show does start – three pitching wedges, three 9-irons, three 8-irons, all dropped into “The Bunghole”, all featuring a similar high lovely fade trajectory (complete with the same “Vogue” posing I’ve cultivated from all my recent hard work. I may not be Phil Mickelson out there, but the guys aren’t sickering anymore.
I’ve got my routine down pat. Place ball on ground. Take five steps back and pick out my target, then then find a spot 3-5 feet in front of the ball that I can use for a aiming point. Keep my eye on that spot as I walk towards the ball and take my address. One look at the target again to visualize how I want the shot to look, a sight move left with my upper body to square up, then make my swing, clearing out the hips as I come through in order to strike the ball crisply. Hold the high finish no matter if the ball is struck pure or sculled fifty feet. Wipe the clubface off with my towel, then repeat as many times as necessary to make three good shots in a row.
Today my 7-iron is misbehaving for some reason, so it takes ten balls to hit three in a row to the target I planned. But the 6- and 5-irons seem to me the best I’ve ever hit with close clubs – six balls perfectly struck “on the screws” into the middle of The Trench, around and beyond the 150-yard marker, right where I aimed. Before I hit my irons (especially the 5 and 6), I’ve taken to saying to myself “let the club do the work” since I’m prone to overswinging with them. (The biggest hole in my game right now is on par 3 holes where all too often I’m jumping at the ball, leading to mis-hits and big numbers. If I want to break 90 I can’t be shooting rounds where I’m +6 or higher on the par 3s!)
I take a long swig of water and walk over to a nearby shady spot for a break. The driving range was once the most nerve-wracking and anxiety-ridden place on the face of the earth; now it’s a place for inner peace, enjoyment, and personal satisfaction. I take a few minutes to watch the mourning doves scurrying around and a bunch of water-birds doing laps in the lake by the first hole. I take in a few deep breaths of clean desert air and do a “Laplace in PLace” exercise while watching the sun glisten off the water; I feel as if I’m in a small slice of paradise right here on earth. Knowing I’m better shape physically has really made a difference in the way I feel mentally (the fact I’m now finished with those dreadful two-a-day whey protein shakes doesn’t hurt either, I can tell you that!).
Time to get back to work. I pull the socks off my 3- and 4-hybrids and start tattooing one ball after another using The Cleavage as my target. These clubs still need a little work – my big miss is a slice left – but with each range session I’m getting more and more accurate and consistent. For whatever reason, the four seems to misbehave more than the three, the latter of which I proceed to stripe on the screws five in a row. As with all my other clubs, before they’re put back in the bag they all get a nice wipe-down with the towel: first the wet side, then the dry.
It’s on to my fairway woods, and now my focus changes. I’m no longer just hitting shots towards The Cleavage, I play a game with myself by envisioning the more difficult holes I’ve played that I’m most familiar with as well. For example, #3 at Trull Brook. Or #12 and #14 at Passaconaway, or #7 at Butter Brook, #14 at Superstition Springs, #18 at The Ledges, those narrow par 5s on the back nine at Wentworth By The Sea – each gets their own turn in my focused fantasy game.
As I’ve been doing since that encounter with the Rickie Fowler wannabe, all my trajectories from my 5-wood, 3-wood, and driver seem mind-numbingly the same: they start out straight and high, then as they start to fade slightly left, the ball appears to drop out of the sky like a quail bagged with a 30 odd six. It’s an optical illusion, of course, because the ball isn’t just dropping out of the sky, it’s still devouring yards like Obamacare with with folks’ pre-existing medical plans. I’m not sure how many yards I’ve gained since deploying this new move – it’s more than a few – but it’s the consistency and accuracy I’m looking for the most and achieving every time out.
My bucket is done, so I head off towards the chipping area and putting green where I will spend the next two hours. Fellow Goodboy “Vegas” Clark wants me to focus on five-footers placed around all kinds of holes and holeing ten in a row before I move on to the next one, so I do that for an hour. Then it’s over to the sand trap where I hit fifty balls in an attempt to perfect my sand game; I figure out my recent problems there have all been the result of over-swinging. Then it’s over to the chipping area where I lose count of hitting 60-degree lob wedges and pitching wedges from all kinds of angles and heights. No more than twenty feet away from me is someone’s back yard, and a handsome young couple (the wife is a stunning blonde) are having martinis on their patio. I feel as if I’m in Vegas. Two worlds separated by a single wrought-iron fence.
I’ve been out here for more than three hours and the sun is starting to dip behind the horizon. I feel the first cool dampness of approaching dusk on my skin and pack up my things. Kokopelli has a lighted driving range, so as I walk towards my car I say hello to a couple of guys heading in for their own range sessions. If my diet allowed alcohol, it would be a perfect time to stop at the grill, order up a burger and a glass of pinot grigio, then take my turn watching others hit, but that’ll have to wait for another time. As I stow my clubs in the trunk, I think back on a good day, a productive day, and really feel as if I’m close to taking the next step in my goal of playing in the 90s consistently and breaking 90 on occasion. I’m a month away from Vegas, and next week I’ll play a round at Lone Tree to take the next measure of where things stand.