In the end, it was my swing coach Alex Black who, during my last lesson, in the midst of suggesting a couple of minor swing changes that totally screwed me up for a spell, got it right by pointing out a couple of flaws in my grip and my approach to playing golf that I totally forgot about during my Goodboys Invitational golf weekend. Had I recollected those suggestions on, say, the Friday of Goodboys weekend as opposed to the Tuesday after, I might have saved myself a boatload of strokes and no small amount of angst.
It’s the Tuesday after Goodboys and I’m on my way up to the beach to catch some rays and waves. I’m driving the very same route I took just four days prior when it was Friday and the upcoming weekend was filled with all the expectation, promise, and high hopes that comes with every Goodboys Invitational. And while dipping my toes in salt water is first and foremost in my mind, I’m still feeling the bitter sting of disappointment in the way I played throughout the weekend.
Some folks would be more than satisfied with posting a 94 at Sagmore-Hampton like I did with that 44/50 on Friday, but I know how much of an opportunity was missed to put up a really low number. Sure, my fellow Goodboys didn’t want to hear about it at the time, but how can anyone be satisfied with a 94 when you played the six par 3s at +12? In my mind, that’s pretty pathetic. I knew at the time that the 94 was only the result of the best possible course management I could ever conjure up and grinding it out big time. Even while enjoying that cold Sam Summer at Sagamore’s rustic clubhouse while watching the British Open on a big-screen TV, I knew I wouldn’t be able to repeat that performance on Saturday and Sunday if I didn’t play and strike the ball a whole lot better.
On Saturday at Wentworth By The Sea I made some really poor swings on the two par 3s (more triple bogeys) before making a series of really poor decisions on the par 4 forth (quad bogey) before rallying on the final four holes for a decent front-nine 55. Then, on the back nine, I got sloppy on some really easy opportunities before my game completely fell apart on the last four holes to post a 58 and a 113 total. And I’ll be the first to admit that I lost my focus and composure – something I hadn’t done in years.
On Sunday at Black Swan, I was actually pretty satisfied with a front nine of 53, considering it featured a triple bogey on a par 3 and a ten on a par 5 – both the results of going against the very plan I had set out at the start. Missing consecutive four-footers for par and bogey to finish off the front nine was disappointing, but I still felt like I had turned a corner after bogeying the par 4 tenth after a poor drive wide left. Unfortunately, I then made a series of poor swings (and equally poor decisions) on eleven and twelve (another par 3 triple bogey), then pulled my drive into the woods on thirteen. The rout was on to a ghastly 63 and a 116.
I know what you’re asking: how on God’s green earth, after all the time and preparation put in over months prior to Goodboys weekend does The Great White Shank let rounds get away from him like that? The only thing I can say is that, when you’re fighting your swing and grinding away and missing fairways it’s not hard to be a paying customer on the triple-bogey train. What bugged me most about the weekend was that, even when I was making good swings or putting up a good number on a hole, I just didn’t feel right about my swing to the point where I simply couldn’t trust it anymore.
When I reached the New Hampshire seacoast, the last thing on my mind was hitting golf balls, but something drew me back to Sagamore-Hampton. I didn’t head there with any intention of playing golf – I just wanted to hear the breeze through the trees and watch a couple of foursomes tee off, just as I had just a few days before. The Sam Summers served at the bar were just as cold, but I felt like an intruder, like someone who had returned from a war to see everything looking the same, but feeling different inside.
Still, while it was great to soak up the atmosphere for a time, the beach beckoned. It was only when I saw the very same driving range the Goodboys had gathered at on Friday that I immediately changed my mind about not touching a club again for at least three months. The afternoon was sunny and hot, but I grabbed my clubs out of the trunk, paid for a large bucket, and headed to the far end of the near-empty range.
It was just me, my clubs, and a bucket of balls. I dropped a ball, stretched a little, and grabbed my pitching wedge as I normally would do. And then I just stood there. It was so quiet, I felt that making any kind of movement would disrupt the sanctity of the moment, so I didn’t do anything. Minutes passed. If the guy behind the ball counter was looking at me, he would be thinking I was having some kind of health issue, but I just couldn’t bring myself to hit a ball.
Why then and there I’ll never know – maybe it was because the pressure was totally off me. No Goodboys Invitational, no competition, no preparation, no handicaps, no golf course, no other golfers. But that’s when Alex Black’s words from my last lesson popped into my head as clear as day, as if he were standing right next to me. We had been finishing up our lesson, and he was having me hit some pitching wedges to all kinds of different targets.
“Whoa. Not sure where that crept in, because you didn’t get that from me. Your grip is too strong and you’re choking the club. Not only is that going to promote the kind of ‘jumping at the ball’ you’re complaining about, but you’re losing yardage by not allowing yourself to snap through the ball.”
Wow, I thought. He might have been watching a video of my entire Goodboys weekend. Jumping at the ball. Fat hits. Lost distance with my irons. Not to mention a few shanks thrown in for good measure.
I weakened my grip just a tad, loosened my grip on the club a tad more, and took a swing. And suddenly, it was there – the swing I was supposed to have brought to Goodboys weekend but didn’t, the swing I knew I could trust, and actually be a little aggressive on when I had to. More importantly, there was the kind of ball contact I’d seldom experienced from the moment I stepped foot on New England soil just a week prior. Not every ball was hit perfect, of course, but I felt like I was once again one with my swing.
And then I remembered something else Alex told me after we had finished hitting balls. He had a couple of minutes before his next lesson, so Alex offered some additional advice for me to consider:
“Like most amateurs, you’re too distance-focused, allowing the distance to the center of the green to determine what club you grab, and you do it without thinking. But let me ask you: does the GPS in the cart know what skill level of golfer you are? Does that distance marker in the fairway know your abilities? Common wisdom says to focus solely on the shot you’re about to make, but I’m telling you, you should be thinking about your next shot, where you want to be hitting your next shot from. This does two things: one, it takes the concept of automatic club selection out of your head; secondly it forces you to think creatively and strategically on every shot, on every hole. There’s the solution to your “golf ADD”.
“Let’s say you’re in the middle of the fairway, 162 to the center of the green. Second shot on a par 4, third shot on a par 5. But there’s water to the right and not much of a bail-out area to the left protected by a large sand trap. Lots of players will automatically pull whatever club they think they can hit from that distance, but is that the smart play? Knowing what’s in front of you, do you really want to be putting on your next shot? Is that the high-percentage play? What’s your comfortable distance hitting to the center of a green? If, like most high-handicappers, it’s somewhere between 50-100 yards, you know your next shot is a pitch from that distance to the green, meaning you’re laying up. So rather than grab instinctively for that 5-iron or whatever, you pick out a spot in the fairway where you want to hit that 50-100 yard pitch, and that’s where you hit to.
“Then, on the next shot, you do the same thing. You’re now lying, say, 75 yards to the green. What’s your next shot? Where do you want to be putting from? What’s the shape of the green, the layout? You see, doing this forces you to think about playing the entire hole, until the ball is safely in the hole. You do that, and you’ll be surprised not just how much better you are playing, but that you are enjoying the experience more and gaining confidence as you solve little problems, one after another.”
The bucket was still half full when I downed my Gatorade, grabbed my clubs and headed back to the car. My Goodboys year was over. There was still plenty of time to catch some sea air and walk a beach without any thoughts whatsoever about golf, so that’s exactly what I did.
Johnny Miller would say that The Great White Shank choked, that he couldn’t handle the pressure of a Goodboys Invitational weekend. And he would be right. I didn’t play well, wasn’t able to troubleshoot my issues and resolve them on the range before each round, and, worst of all, allowed myself to get caught up in the misery that comes with not knowing where the ball is going to go on your next shot when you’re out of position forty yards off the fairway and in the kind of thick spinach you never see out here in Arizona.
In the end I have no excuses. As they say, it is what it is.
The weird thing is, as much of a step back this year was in terms of my Goodboys Invitational performance compared to last year, I feel far better about my swing and my game at this point than I did after last year’s Goodboys. There are those who will laugh when I say I know I have the ability to play bogey (or at least near-bogey) golf regularly, but I don’t care – that’s the way I honestly feel, and whenever I pick my clubs back up again in three months or so, that will be my goal. I know there’s work to be done both on the physical side (tweaking my swing plane) and mentally (actually, a lot of work learning to be more disciplined and improving even more my course management), but these are not huge changes.
If I learned anything this year, it’s that I can’t take anything for granted – I can’t just assume that when I’m about to play a round of golf that either my game will be there or it won’t, and if the latter I’ll just figure something out as I go along. I’m not good enough, and will never be good enough, to take that kind of approach. Instead, I’ve got to use my time at the range more wisely and hone a swing I can rely on and trust, and identify the clubs that will always get me out of a jam whenever adversity strikes.
If I can do that while further improving my ability to manage my way around a course and learn to play for the next shot there’s no reason why I can’t play bogey or near-bogey golf.
And come the next time I hit the driving range, the New Year’s Day of my new Goodboys year, that will be my goal.