Golf is a funny game. It should be easy, right? The ball is just sitting there. You have a flat grooved blade on the end of a stick to hit it with. There are no other golfers out there playing defense. Like I said, it should be easy. However, some of the terms used to describe the game are frustrating, maddening, mind boggling, and many other expletives not suitable for this blog. You probably know them all, and have used a few, if you play.
The game will throw you a bone every now and then. Mysteriously, it will allow you to forget all the duffs, the divots, the hooks, the slices, and the dribblers just long enough for you to crush a drive right down the middle, or loft an 8-iron to within five feet of the pin. And you get excited, and you come back for more. But it’s never all good. That’s what I’ve noticed about my friends who play a lot and truly are very good at the game. They get just as frustrated as I do, despite being 20 strokes better than me (and you should see the back 9!) Everyone gets frustrated. Why do so many people play a game that drives them so nuts?
Well, for one thing, it’s a beautiful game played in natural landscapes in the great outdoors. Usually, you can drive around in fun little carts. Often, a young lady in another cart will show up selling adult beverages. And then there’s that one shot. The one great one you hit. It gives you hope.
Here’s a brief overview of my history with golf…
I wasn’t too bad as a kid. I’m talking 11 to 13 years old. I was playing naturally. I hadn’t developed any bad habits yet. I hadn’t started to overthink and overanalyze it. I just hit the ball with the stick and then went and hit it again. I didn’t play a lot, but I enjoyed it.
I hardly played at all once I got to college, because baseball was my mission and my main pursuit. The two swings really do not help each other. They are fundamentally different, each in their own maddening way. But… Many of the flaws in a baseball swing seem to travel right along with you to golf. I had a tendency to “drop my back shoulder” in baseball, and that forces your shoulders to be out of alignment, forcing the bat to be a little too low and the swing to be a little too long and loopy. And you see that fastball right down the middle but you pop it up on the infield. That was such a problem for me I finally rebuilt my stance completely, to correct the issue. All the way through college, I kept my hands very low and then pulled them back as the pitcher began his delivery. Sometimes it worked, because it relaxed me, but often it didn’t. Remember, baseball is a game that will make you a well-paid star if you totally fail at hitting the ball safely 70% of the time. Fail 70% of the time in the big leagues for 15 years and they will make a plaque for you at Cooperstown. So I changed my stance to one where I held the bat straight up and very high. The purpose being I wanted to stay on the right swing plane and avoid the pop-ups by keeping my back shoulder up. That changed me as a hitter. I was 27 by then, and had missed my window to keep playing pro ball, but I was playing high level ball with the Sauget Wizards and geez it was fun to crush the ball regularly, hit .390, bang 25 bombs a year, and drive in 90 runs. It took me that long to figure it out. It sure was great when I got there.
I brought that same original loopy swing to golf, though, and I have a real hard time hitting the ball straight with my driver. I have a natural slice, and it’s because my back shoulder is dropping a bit and that opens the club face. Open club face means side spin on the ball. Side spin creates a slice wherein the ball comes off the club going straight but then takes a right turn. Slices go into the woods. Not fun.
I got better once my post-baseball business career arrived, and played golf a lot more. I finally got good enough, in my late 20s and 30s, to enjoy a fun day out on the course and not let the bad shots bother me. I was never going to be a scratch golfer so I didn’t aspire to anything more than having fun. Then, when I was around 30, I hurt my lower back for the first time, actually playing tennis (which I did successfully for many years thanks to the guidance of brother-in-law Lonnie Smith.) And then a few years later I hurt it again. And again. Finally around 45, it was just impossible to play golf. When you can’t tee the ball up or get it out of the cup without the stabbing pain of a pinched nerve in your L4/L5 disc, it’s no fun. The clubs soon began to gather dust.
I’ve had a lot of back treatments over the last 20 years, and they at least allowed me a lot more flexibility and a lot less pain. The injections aren’t fun, but they work. Still, over the last 10 years I haven’t played more than 12 or 15 rounds of golf, and in the last five years I basically didn’t play at all. The one round I’ve played in the last five years was with my SIUE roomies at our reunion in Seattle. Lance got us on at the historic Broadmoor Country Club, and it was a disaster for me. At my best, it would’ve been a very big challenge, with tight fairways, bunkers galore, and thick pine forests along every fairway. It was really no fun, but I’m glad Lance, Oscar, and Radar had a good time. I finally quit hitting tee shots and just messed around with my short game once they got near the green. And I put the clubs away again. I hadn’t even taken them out of the travel bag I shipped them to Seattle in.
When we lived out in Liberty Lake, we played a few times and pain-wise it was encouraging. At least I could swing the club and tee it up all by myself. I’d have a good hole or two and then two bad ones, but Barbara and I were out there. Funny thing, though… We never once played at Meadowwood, the course we actually lived on. We played at Trailhead because it was pretty much wide open with room to make mistakes.
When my birthday was coming up, back in June, Barbara brought up the idea of me getting new clubs. My old set was really old. So I did it. I went and got fitted for a new set of carbon fiber TaylorMade clubs, including two hybrid clubs in place of a 4-iron and 5-iron. I’d never even held a hybrid, much less swung one. With the new clubs in hand, Barbara and I headed for the driving range at a nearby course here in Woodbury. The clubs were great. The swing was mostly the same. But we had fun, and we went back. And then again. And today I met my buddy Terry Blake and his son Dylan for another large bucket of balls. With each trip to the range, and with these new clubs, I got a little more consistent. I think I graduated all the way up to “pretty bad” instead of the “hopelessly horrible” status I had right after I got the clubs.
Today, I hit 60 balls. I started with the 9-iron and worked my way through the 8 and 7, and all that went pretty well. The 9, actually, was a joy to hit. Nice high lofted shots to the target green. That’ll keep you going.
The hybrids are fun. I’ll use them off the fairway and off the tee, and they’re pretty easy to control. For some reason, I don’t seem to slice with them.
The driver, though, is a big oversized monster and I’ve never swung one of those before. The first day out, I was terrible with it. With each day at the range, I get a little better but I still have a long way to go and the slice says “Hey, I’m still here buddy” way too often. But, incrementally I’m getting a little better each time.
So when we were done, Terry said, “OK, let’s pick a day and play a round here.” The course is called The Ponds at Battle Creek here in Woodbury, and it’s a pretty little 9-hole track I’ve played once before. Let’s just say other than the one long drive you have to hit over the Atlantic Ocean (or is that Lake Superior?) it’s pretty forgiving. Use your worst old ball when you tee up on that one.
We all agreed. Terry will pick the day and I’ll screw up my courage to get back out there. I have the new clubs, a new bag, and some new golf clothes. Birthdays are good. I’m into birthdays. If the scorecard ends up looking like a horror movie, it won’t be because of the clubs, bag, or apparel. It will be user error. I’ll give it my best, with the sole mission being to once again forget the bad ones and just enjoy the day. I’ll hit enough of those seductive good shots to get myself lured back into thinking I can figure the game out. It never fails.
Dylan is a very good athlete. He was a stud infielder for his high school baseball team, and then played at St. Olaf College for a really good team there. I’ve seen him play. He’s good. Really good. Like thousands of other high school and college athletes, though, he was robbed of his senior season when Covid-19 hit and everything was shut down. That’s a shame. I was lobbying hard to get him to consider trying to play at least one year of professional ball in an independent league. I happen to have a good friend and former SIUE teammate named Bill Lee, who is the Commissioner of the Frontier League. It’s a very solid independent league in the Midwest. I thought Dylan could hold his own there, and since all the Major League clubs scout the players in that league, maybe he’d get a chance to play a little in the minors for an MLB organization. It was not to be.
He looks to be a pretty natural golfer, too. He crushed more than a few drives. Between the three of us, I’d say we had our moments today. Good, bad, and awful, but we hit enough of them OK to make the thought of getting out on the course seem appealing. It will be fun.
As for the headline today, it should ring a bell with any of you who actually watch golf on TV. For some reason, golf announcers seem to always include the word “golf” in just about everything related to the game. “Tiger is really playing solid golf today on this golf course. His golf swing is smooth, he’s hitting the golf ball a mile, and these news golf clubs he has are working.” I’m not sure why that style is so prevalent, but it is. It’s almost universal on the TV shows.
Football is like that too. How many times will you hear the announcers say “That’s a fine football play by a good football player. Just look at him running around on that football field.”
You’re welcome. If you hadn’t noticed that before you will from now on.
And if you get out there on your local golf course, to swing your golf clubs and hit those golf balls, remember this: Even the best players in the entire world still hit them into the woods or into the water. Even the best players in the world can miss a 5-foot put by 10-feet. It’s a hard game. And the ball is just sitting there, doing nothing. You don’t have to hit a round ball with a round bat. You don’t have to hit it when it’s coming at you at 95 mph. You don’t have to live with the frustration of crushing it despite all those odds and then wincing when another guy makes a diving grab of your shot and throws it back. It’s just sitting there. Mocking you. It’s a very challenging game. It may very well have been invented not by the Scots, but by the Devil himself.
So that’s all the frustration I can write about today. When Dylan, Terry, and I strap it on to play 9 holes at The Ponds, I’ll be thrilled to shoot 55. Thrilled. No, honestly, I’ll be thrilled. One step at a time in the reclamation of my golf game.
If this installment didn’t drive you too nuts, please click on the “Like” button below. The more “Likes” the better. And maybe those likes with tap into the inner golfer in me. We can only hope.
See you next week!
Bob Wilber, at your service and trying not to slice.