For Love of Country, For Love of the Game

Golf is my favorite game. When people ask me what I’d do if I won the lottery, I reply, “Play golf.”

No, that’s not to say I’m particularly good at it. I’m not particularly bad, but not great either. I get around the course in a way that many would not be embarrassed by. But, that’s not the point, either. The point is I like to play. I’m just as envious of retirees in North Carolina as I am of tour pros. They get to play when they want to.

…when they want to…

A short time ago, Rory McIlroy said he didn’t get into golf to grow the game. Predictably there was some backlash. And, rightfully so. But, for now, I’m going to do something controversial. I’m going to give him a brief pass. He, like the rest of us, can play when he wants to. That’s his right. Well, that’s his privilege, anyways.

If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll see that I have a high opinion of golf. Not only as a pastime, but as a philosophy. I think there are great lessons to learn on the course — how to treat others; how to deal with victory and defeat; what silence means. And every golfer learns through their life. I think Rory will learn that in life, as in golf, you play the course you are presented. (Coincidentally, Rory deserves a breakfast ball here.)

As a friend pointed out to me, “What if Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had taken Rory’s position?”

Jack and Arnie came up at a time when golf was running pretty ragged. The purses were small. Crowds were made up of the same people that had been there for 40 years. Then they showed up, not to grow but, to play the game. And something happened. People became engaged. The game started to change. They could have continued as they were. They didn’t, thank God, and they evolved. Suddenly, they were talking to TV cameras, signing autographs, piloting planes, getting their pictures taken with models; bring the game to the masses.

They had to. Not only was it their right, it was their privilege to do so.

Only one woman has withdrawn from the Olympic golf games. Citing concerns over the Zika virus, who could blame her? But, it’s only one.

The ladies of the LPGA are taking full advantage of the privilege to play in the Olympic Games. The climb to the LPGA Tour is steep. College, mini-tours, part-time jobs, carpooling across the country, funding pitches to would-be sponsors, couch crashing, and push-carts. Then, once you’re in the Show, you make one-seventh of a man’s salary (if you’re in the top-2 on the money list). Most LPGA players will tell you that the game must grow in order for the LPGA tour to thrive.

So, the privilege to play in the Olympics, one of the many ways to grown the game, is a no-brainer. Hell yes, sign me up!

The question is not, “Why not, Rory?”

The question is, why don’t all the men of the PGA Tour see that growing the game they love to play is a privilege?

 

What I Learned Watching the Pros

I traveled to Williamsburg a few weeks ago for the LPGA’s Kingsmill Championship. Now, if you’ve ever gone to a golf tournament, even to an avid golf enthusiast like me, they can be pretty boring if you don’t have a plan. You can follow your favorite golfer through her round if you’ve got your running shoes on and you’re in excellent shape. You can hang out at one hole and watching dozens of golfers hit into the green or off the tee. Of you can do what I do. I like watching the pros practice. I learn from their routine and I hope to pick up some pointers just by observing.

This tournament I was lucky to watch Lexi Thompson, Suzann Pettersen, and Joanna Klatten on the range. They each go about practice and warm up in a different way but there’s much to be learned from them all. Here’s what I learned.

From Lexi: swing for the fences or give it all you’ve got. She and other LPGA players have swings built for speed. Low and slow on the takeaway. Long arc. High hands. On top of the ball. And then let it all go. She clobbers the ball. On her toes — there’s not a part of her that’s not swinging into the back of the ball. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Take a look at Laura Davies circa 1995. She’s on her toes at impact, too. Do what you can to get as much speed out of your swing as you can.

From Suzann Pettersen: I watched her hit little half swing sand wedges at a target around 75 yards away. If there was a laundry basket out there, she’d be in it 80% of the shots. But, she was not concerned about that. She was making the same swing over and over again. Maybe 20 times. Then she increased speed to around 80 yards. Another 5 shots. 85 yards. 90. She then started worrying about where the ball went. She has a literal definition of “warming up.”

From Joanna Klatten: Hit the ball straight. This is a lady that is second in driving distance on tour. But she also hits about 9 fairways a round. That doesn’t sound like a lot from a tour pro but when you watch how straight and far she hits the ball, it’s impressive. I watched her hit about 20 drives and each one was on a frozen rope straight as an arrow. While she hits the hell out of the ball, she makes every effort to put the ball in play. And her swing shows it. Again, it’s not the textbook Adam Scott, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, boring swing of the PGA tour. But it gets the job done. And when you hit the ball straight, you don’t have to hit fairways. You just can hit them.

Of course, there are many terrific female golfers out there that you can learn from. My favorite teaching coach, Anya Alvarez, offers some terrific insight and tips through social media. Check out the LPGA’s twitter list of players. It’s worth subscribing to.

Can Golf Save Congress?

An article in NPR posited the idea that if members of Congress played more golf together, like in the olden days, they would get more work done.

It’s an interesting idea — one that has been proposed many times over in different forms. If members of Congress drank together, ate dinner togeter, took trips and retreats together. If their spouses did volunteer work in DC together, if they moved their family to DC so their kids could go to school together, we could break through the incivility and gridlock.

In the late 1990’s, the Aspen Institute hosted 3-day retreats hoping to bring members of Congress from both sides of the aisle together to get to know one another — and face the issue of incivility in Congress head on. Around 200 Members, their spouse, and children attended. Did it work? Sort of.

But, what of this idea of bi-partisan golf? It’s an interesting idea to me because there can be no expectations of it working. There would be no panel discussions, no conference rooms, no “educational” or “official” purposes. Just golf.

When Speaker Boehner and President Obama went on their golf summit, I bet there was little talk about legislation. That’s not what golf for business is about. Now, many people will disagree with me on that. But in my experience, a round of golf is about 3 1/2 hours of meaningful conversation and about 30 minutes of work conversation. And usually, the work talk is positive (or, at least neutral) — “Can you give me your thoughts on a report I’ve written?” “We’ve got a conference on trade coming up, you should come.” “How do we break through with this group I’ve been wanting to meet with?”

I’m not saying we walk away giving up our principles. “Sure, John, I’ll repeal ACA and you forget this whole estate tax thing. Sounds like a deal. Aren’t you glad we played a round of golf together?”

That’s not how it works. But, that’s not the point, either. The point is that they’re talking — something which neither side is fond of doing with the other.

So, how might we make this happen?

As I’ve said before, there are many fantastic golf courses around the DC area. I’m not sure, though, that a golf outing in the tradition sense is the best way to go. It’s been done over and over again with little success and it’s hard for non-golfers to take part and even harder for large groups.

Enter Top Golf. To just hang out, fellowship, eat burgers and fries, drink beer and wine, and hit golf balls — a recipe for civility if I ever heard one. And there’s a Top Golf facility just down the road from the Capitol that’s open late.

Immediately following suspension votes on a Monday evening, put the Members on a bus, and arrive at the range in 20 minutes.

The great thing about Top Golf is that a beginner can participate — something necessary when trying to build some cameraderie. I’ve been to Top Golf with complete novices and scratch golfers and both enjoyed the experience. Also it’s a fantastic way to bring people into the game in a judgment-free environment.

Spending four years working in Congress, I saw first-hand how civility can deteriorate. The use of social media and YouTube to embarass members of Congress, a 24-hour news cycle, and constant campaigning, help to drive colleagues apart.

It’s up to the members themselves to decide that civility in government is important and that they have ownership over it’s success and failure. Golf is a tool that can help bridge the divide and maybe bring some people to the game as well.

Time Management

I’m on a flight to San Francisco. My clubs are freezing to death under this aircraft. I’ve ordered golf balls to be delivered to my hotel. And I have a round with a friend scheduled for Saturday morning.

While up here, I’ve been writing my workplan for my job. I’ve been going back and forth between that and a few other projects, checking my email, skipping through music, and preparing for tomorrow and Friday. It occurs to me that I’ll be working harder over the next few days than I usually do. So, working until 9:00pm my time doesn’t seem sustainable. It’s time to update my blog.

But, before I get into the meat of it, I want to share with you my two goals for the year:

  1. Update this blog more frequently; and
  2. Play in at least one qualifying tournament for a USGA championship.

Both of these are heavy lifts for me because 1) I don’t have a lot to say that’s interesting to me, much less anyone else, and 2) I’ll have to continue playing my butt off over the next couple of months in order for my application to even be considered. I’ll worry about that another day.

Today… Time for Nine

The golf powers that be, in an effort to increase participation in golf, have begun promoting several ideas that will,  hopefully, change the way old fogies like me think about how we play. The Tee It Forward and Time for Nine programs, unlike the While We’re Young campaign, ask golfers to change some fundamental philosophies on how golf is to be played. I’ve long been for playing from the appropriate tee box (and, let’s be honest, you probably should be playing from the one just in front of the one you think is appropriate) and for moving away from the “ladies” and “seniors” tees terminology that prevails, to this day, on golf courses. Time and time again, I’ve spent hours behind a foursome that proudly plays from “the tips” because either they “want to get their money’s worth” or they think they’re Greg Norman and then get frustrated when they can’t reach a par three. It sometimes drives my playing partners crazy when I say that I’m playing from the middle tees – especially since I’ve never played better than I am right now. But, no, it’s no fun for me to hit 3-irons into every par four. So, I tee it forward…

And yet, playing nine was a much more difficult sell.

It wasn’t always like that. Me and my dad used to go out on Sundays and play a quick nine while I was learning the game. I know we had to have played a full 18 on occasion but I don’t remember doing that until I was in high school. We’d go out to Cleveland Country Club (which, I’m sad to say, doesn’t exist anymore) after church, buzz around the course in our cart, and be home for the evening service. Now, it helped that CCC only had nine holes but there was the option to play 18. We didn’t take it, though, because there were other important things to do that day.

But, then, I started playing golf by myself and with friends. We’d go out on Saturday. We had a full day to play. And we’d take it. The only reason we would play just nine was if we it was too hot – and it was never too hot – or if we had a date – and we never had dates. In high school we would play as much as we could until the sun went down. Sometimes that was 12 or 11 or even 10, but never just 9. Playing nine holes was for old men and kids. Not us.

Then came college golf, a time when more is more, when playing golf was a mission and there was no way to play too much. But, on a short day, we’d play a “cut nine” (holes 1-5 and 15-18) only because we spent part of the day on the range – never ideal.

This same attitude towards playing only nine holes remained (remains?). I love playing golf but, just like those guys playing the tips, I only want to do it if I can get a full round in. That is: until last year.

I went out to play with some beginners on the White Course at East Potomac Golf Course in DC. It’s a short course of par fours and threes, the longest is probably 360 yards. Not much of a challenge but it’s a lot of fun. We got nine holes in and then went to the club house to have a burger and beer. It was a blast! I learned that I enjoyed getting around the course quickly and having some time in the day to do other things. I think I even went to Lowe’s afterwards just to look around.

Then I played Langston, one of my favorites, and had time to just barely get in nine holes before I had to be somewhere for a friend. Got nine in and then spent my afternoon helping her out.

I played a quick nine when I went home a few months ago. Then I played tour guide of my hometown with my girlfriend, something that was very important to me.

I started a round out at Glade Valley in early January. It got too cold and I had no problem at all leaving the course sitting pretty at 1 over.

I’m getting a bit didactic here, but I want to make sure that you know I’m starting to practice what I preach. Life is perfectly fine if I just get in nine.

Now: Obviously, I’m a die-hard golfer – there’s really not much I’d rather do – and I’ve learned that playing nine holes is a god send for a busy schedule. But, there’s a catch.

It works well only if you’re actually busy afterwards. Beware the resentment trap. Don’t get discouraged that you lost time to doing nothing when you could have been playing golf. Schedule something right afterward – or else, play 18. Playing nine is something you can do; it’s not something you have to do.

The USGA is on to something here and golf courses around the country are making it possible to pay for nine holes again. It’s not going to solve the slow play issue, but it certainly will make it possible to get in more golf each year than you might have. And that’s a good thing.

Here’s a list of courses that Golf Digest has put together that offer nine hole options.

Bethpage State Park, Black Course

A few weeks ago I played a round of golf on one of my bucket list courses: the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, NY. It’s hosted two US Open championships (2002, 2009) and a Barclay’s (2012). The course is listed as one of the toughest in the country. And, Golf Digest ranks it number 42 on its list of top-100 courses in 2013. Pilgrim golfers from all over travel to Long Island to play one of the few affordable tracks on that list. That I got to play it is a gift that will be difficult to repay.

I’ve been playing golf regularly for around 20 years. During that time, I’ve played over 100 golf courses with friends and strangers alike. I’ve been paired with people that, at the end of the round, I wish I’d gotten their number so we could play again some time; I’ve been paired with people that I couldn’t get off the golf course soon enough; and I’ve been paired with people that made the round all the more memorable.

Golf, unlike other sports, forces you to be sociable. You can go about seven holes without saying a word to your playing partner but, eventually, someone’s got to talk. You’re out there for four hours (at least!) with no one but you and a couple strangers.

My round at the Black Course was made possible because of a connection a golfing buddy of mine has with a former employee at Bethpage. Without that connection, we would have been on Long Island just attending a wedding (a perfectly fine reason to go to Long Island and I certainly would have gone had not the promise of playing one of the finest golf courses in the land been made). However, we got an 8:30 tee time on the Saturday of the wedding and were thrilled about it.

We arrived well in advance of our tee time and spent some time buying tschotskes in the proshop. My buddy got a headcover embroidered with the famous sign posted behind the first tee box at the Black. I got several scorecards, pencils, ball-markers, yardage books, and some other things I’m sure — for my best friend, my dad, another golfing buddy, and just in case, some extras.

When we went to the starter he pointed us to our playing partners — a father and son from just down the street. They quickly discovered, without even asking, that my buddy and I were from out of town and about to embark on this journey for the first time. We weren’t coy about it. I think we took pictures off the first tee for 5 minutes before we even thought about teeing it up.

For those of you who have only seen the Black on TV — as I had only seen it — when Johnny Miller says that the fairways are tight, he ain’t kiddin’. The first fairway looked about as wide as my thumbnail from the tee. And it started a mere 200 yards away from the tee. The only choice was a driver. I missed the fairway but, through some geometry, was able to get a par after a layup on the second shot.

I’m not going to walk you through my round. That’s boring and far too visual for my descriptive abilities. However, I’ll provide you with my main takeaway.

The two gentlemen that we played with could not have been better playing partners. They knew we were out-of-towners and knew that this was a special round of golf for us. It well could be our last time on the Black and they made every effort to make it enjoyable. They gave us some advice, but didn’t give the course away. It was clear we were there to experience Bethpage, not to be hand-held through it. On blind shots, they offered some guidance; on other holes, they let us look at our yardage books and figure it out for ourselves.

Mostly, however, for me, at least, they let us enjoy it together. My buddy and I had been talking about getting up to Long Island for years. “We should go up there and stay at our friends parents place.” “When do you think you can take a weekend? We’ll spend it in the car in the parking lot.” “You think we’ll get up there this year?”

Now, after waiting, we were on the golf course of our dreams! During our round, we joked about how difficult it was. We stood there staring at some stunning golf scenery. We counted off our yardages and talked about the shot we wanted to hit. After making difficult putts, we looked at each other as if to say, “Holy crap, that was a tough par.” It was perfect. Our partners made it so.

In golf, the best playing partners are the ones that enhance the experience. It’s a social game. Like with any other social event, the person you experience it with matters. We’ve probably all been at parties, at work functions or meetings, at a restaurant, and had to “deal with” rude, obnoxious, overly self-centered, loud, angry, negative, and otherwise unbearable patrons, co-workers, or guests. We remember them as such and we don’t ever forget them. That’s a real bummer.

On the other hand, when we get to experience golf and life and work with generous, positive, good-natured, and courteous people, it makes even poor rounds, dinners, projects seem much better.

I hope that I’m the second — offering advice when necessary, providing positive feedback, having a beginner’s mindset, and smiling.

Oh, here are some pictures from the course.

2013-08-10 08.15.04 2013-08-10 08.13.56 2013-08-10 10.14.56 2013-08-10 10.26.43 2013-08-10 10.50.30 2013-08-10 11.02.59 2013-08-10 11.16.44 2013-08-10 11.37.50 2013-08-10 12.33.55 2013-08-10 12.43.26 2013-08-10 12.54.23 2013-08-10 13.39.01 2013-08-10 13.45.55 2013-08-10 15.01.32 2013-08-10 15.02.06

Sitting…Waiting…Writing…

This is a post dedicated to a friend and coworker who’s thinking about writing a blog.

 

I’ve always thought of golf as a series of significant steps in a direction without a destination. I’ll give you a semi-practical example: the first time you break 100, you set a goal to shoot 90, then to break 90, then to shoot 80, then break 80, and so on. You just keep going. It’s a grind, but it’s very Zen-like.

I’ve thought a lot about golf — now, every once in a while, I put my thoughts down on blog — and, since I’m waiting for my new clubs to get here, I think I’ll take a few minutes to remember the clubs I’ve carried over the years.

 

Dunlop’s

I got my first set of real clubs in 8th grade. They were good. Very solid. I broke 90 with those clubs at Cleveland Country Club (what used to be Kirbywood Golf Club, now this). I used them until my junior year. When I got my next set, my dad took the Dunlops.

 

Titleist DCI Oversize + Gold

When I first hit the Titleists, the ball flew off the club-face. It was like nothing I’d ever hit before. The guy at Golfsmith recommended them because, at the time, they were some of the most forgiving yet reasonably priced golf clubs on the market. Plus, they were Titleists — very popular among the pros.

I broke 80 with those clubs my junior year. I shot 79. I worked my tail off for that 79, by the way; harder than I ever had before. I remember hitting a pretty decent drive down the right at Cleveland Country Club (correct, the one from before) and hit a really weak lay-up with a seven-iron. Then a nine-iron into the green for a pretty basic two putt.

I used those irons into college, much to my chagrin. Toward the end, I couldn’t make a connection with the long irons. When I finally snapped the 7-iron at the grip after getting really upset with its apparent lack of consistency, it was time to move in a different direction.

 

Ping ISI-S

My teammate and friend in college let me borrow his set of Pings one day while I was getting frustrated on the range with my Titleists. I was fighting a slice from the pits of hell. Every shot brought me closer and closer to self-immolation. The Pings felt a little shallower so I compensated by swinging a bit more from the inside — dropped my right elbow to pull the club down. Thinking about it now, I could have done all of that with my Titleists and probably would have had the same results. But, man, I was desperate. The first several swings felt great, the ball was in the air and not screaming to the right after slowly dragging through the air for 90 yards.

I played a round and hit a lot of greens that I was aiming at — I was immediately hooked. Eventually the flight straightened out and I was able to get some distance back that was severely lacking.

Well, my friend moved back to Sweden and he took his irons with him. It was a sad time, not only because I haven’t seen my friend for years but because those irons saved my game.

 

Hogan blades

Immediately following my Pings, I switched to the next logical step in my progression to a more forgiving iron — Hogans.

They felt great for a while, I was finally gaining weight so I was able to put a little extra oomph behind the ball, and, frankly, what else was I going to do?

 

1994 Callaway Big Berthas

Eventually, reality sets in, and the clubs that got me through that second year of college golf, along with countless rounds between Texas and DC, weren’t cutting the mustard anymore. I needed something cheap and easy to hit. I discovered a website that gave me both.

I always coveted the Berthas. Colin Montgomerie, still one of my favorite players, hit ‘em. Annika Sorenstam hit ‘em. And Jim Colbert hit ‘em. Why wouldn’t you want them?

I’ve been playing with those since 2007. They’ve been good to me. But, times are changing. I’m getting older. And the swing isn’t what it used to be.

 

Cobra Baffler Irons

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My first club

My first golf club was a “Medalist” 7-iron that my grandfather cut down to a reasonable length for me when I was a kid. I don’t know how old I was. I don’t know how well I hit the ball. But, I remember spending time with my dad out at Packsaddle Golf Course (now Lighthouse Country Club) hitting the ball. It was the best gift I’ve ever been given.

What did I learn last weekend?

That I’m a bad listener.

I played 9 holes with some friends this weekend. We reserved two tee-times for eight folks. Three of them have never played golf before. Two of them, my old roommates, had played before but didn’t get out hardly at all.

Sounds like a disaster, right? But not in the way you think.

I was astonished at how well my former roommates played. Astonished, mostly, because I had no idea that they played golf! One of the women seriously ripped at the ball — taking divots off the fairway — beating down 200 yard drives. The other had a short game that many 15 handicappers would die for. We played a scramble and we used a good number of their shots.

I lived with them for two years and didn’t know that they play golf…and do it well. Why didn’t I ever ask?

To tell you the truth, I was so much blown away by their ability, I could hardly concentrate on the fact that my other friend, the beginner, was asking me for help.

Just hit the ball,” I would say, like a complete asshole.

When was golf ever that simple? As just hitting the ball?

She responded with, “It seems more complicated than that.”

She’s right. But, why didn’t I help her?

The next day, I was standing on the 14th tee box on East Potomac’s Blue Course looking down at my grip — I’ve added that to my pre-shot routine — and realized, “You jerk. Start with the grip!”

Had I taken a moment to show my friend how to grip the club, it would have made a huge difference for her. It would have led to taking a stance properly, keeping her head down. THEN HIT THE BALL.

And I would have thanked my old roommates for showing my friend how to hit the ball.

Next time, if I can.