For baseball players it’s called “Spring Training”.
For football players it’s called July “training camp”.
I don’t care what they call it in basketball or hockey, I don’t watch either and never will.
For The Great White Shank, it’s called Opening Day, when the 2014-2015 golf season begins. Sometimes Opening Day starts in January when I start getting ready to play my first round of golf in the New Year with my Goodboys pals in Vegas; this year it began in October with a sun angle in the afternoon creating large shadows on the putting green at the Sperstition Springs driving range. It will end end nine months hence, in July and the 2015 Goodboys Invitational weekend, when the final weeks of preparation will take place on an empty range under shimmering blue skies, temps hovering around 110, and precious little shade anywhere to be found. Between now and then my golf game will dance the mambo of expectation vs. reality, of technique vs. score, and – more than anything else – the never-ending goal of improvement that may or may not manifest itself when all is said and done.
At this time last year, hopes ran high that I’d be able to make some major strides towards my goal of playing bogey-and-a-half golf. I was coming off a Goodboys Invitational weekend where I had played consistently well; in my mind, the sky was the limit. As it turned out, the 2013-2014 year featured some very high highs and some extremely low lows – particularly during the last two days of Goodboys Invitational weekend, where, following a 94 on Friday I put up some huge numbers and the golf equivalent of a meltdown on Saturday and Sunday.
The whole experience was a extra-large portion of humble pie, so I was extremely hesitant about picking up the clubs again – so much so that I hadn’t even given my clubs a glance since July. But yesterday was sunny and only in the high ’80s, and the night before I had had my first golf dream in months, so I begged off work early Friday afternoon, slathered myself with SPF 50 sunscreen, tossed my bag in the trunk of my Saturn, and headed over to the Superstition Springs driving range.
There was no expectation about what I was trying to do – I figured just shaking off the rust ahead of a visit back to Massachusetts for a round or two of golf with friends and family was about as good an excuse as I could muster up. Turning into “the Springs”, however, it all felt like a homecoming day, and seeing and exchanging pleasantries with my swing coach Alex Black only made me feel more like I had come home.
“How’s your game?”, asked Alex. “How did your Massachusetts weekend go?”
“One good day, two bad”, I responded.
“So what do we have to do to make it three good days?”
See, that’s what I like about Alex – he’s incurably optimistic and knows exactly how to make his flock feel good about themselves. But this year, I know what I have to do, and it has nothing to do with Alex or technique – rather, it’s all about attitude and a return to basics: namely, finding my old mojo and making solid contact with the ball and dealing with the results no matter what.
You see, I’ve given my whole approach to the game last year a good deal of thought. Sometimes while watching the desert landscape slide by on my way up to Scottsdale to pick up bunny supplies. Sometimes late at night after the twins had long retired for the night, just me and a glass of Pinot Grigio as mosquitoes swarmed around my head. Sometimes while soaking in a hot bubble bath in the tub. And what I came up with is this: I spent too much time and energy wrrying about technique, score, and on-course strategy, and too little time simply enjoying the game for what it was. I had wrapped myself so tightly around improving my game and my handicap that I lost the simple appreciation for playing the game as a game and letting whatever happens happens.
I could feel the old demons trying to fill my head as I drove to Superstition Springs, checking off all the things I wanted to do: reduce pressure in my grip, bring my hands more into my swing, tee the ball up lower, play the ball a little further back in my swing; I could feel it all starting to make me crazy. And it was only after I had paid my money, exchanged greetings with Alex, and found a quiet stall to whack my large bucket of balls that I truly realized what my goal for 2014-2015 had to be:
Get back to basics.
So the only thoughts I put into my mind was how great it was to be back out on the driving range, away from the stresses of work, away from the twins and all of their health issues, away from every expectation I might have brought upon myself in previous years, and focus only on making solid contact with the ball. I made a conscious effort to play the ball in the middle of my stance, even just a little back in my stance, not caring where the ball went – the goal of this range session was purely to re-introduce myself to making solid contact with the ball.
My first five shanks with a pitching wedge showed I was pretty rusty, so rather than getting all flustered I took a break and said hello to a few of the familiar faces I had come to know at the Springs over the years. It was funny to see how little the faces and swings had changed. Returning to the task at hand I proceeded to have one of the most satisfying range sessions I had ever had – not because the ball always went where I wanted it to (though oftentimes it did), but because I achieved the kind of solid contact with the ball I had set out to do. And by the time I was 3/4 of the way through my bucket I was hitting all of my irons with confidence.
One of my goals this year is to improve my overall play from 120 yards in – my 7, 8, and 9 irons and pitching wedge – so rather than spreading the balls out equally across all my clubs as I have done over the years, I spent half the bucket hitting balls with only those clubs. And while Alex thinks I would be wasting time working on a “stinger” off the tee, I allocated a dozen balls to work on a stinger with my 3-hybrid and 5-wood with pretty good results. Again, playing the ball a little further back in my stance than I have been seemed to help out a lot.
I then spent the next 90 minutes working on my short game around the Springs’ putting green. It was only then I realized just how much I had missed the whole concept of practice – not for what I might score when playing a “real” round of golf, but simply to allow my brain to disengage and focus on something other than home and work. I could feel the old joy coming back. Afterwards, over a cold beer at the grille, I realized just how refreshed in mind and spirit I felt.
So here’s to the 2014-2015 season – I enter it with a 26.1 handicap, tied with fellow Goodboy “Possum” Shepter. I don’t know where I and it will end up come the end of Goodboys weekend next July (God willing!), but whatever the result, I know I’m going to have a much better time achieving it this time around. I’m going back to basics and keeping everything in perspective.