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Only one woman has withdrawn from the Olympic golf games.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?

 

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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.

Anchored Putter Ban – My Two Cents

The PGA recently decided that it was against the proposed ban on the anchored putting stroke. The USGA responded. That’s the news.

I think this is a great opportunity to discuss the history of this ban (and others). The USGA recently proposed a rule change that would go in effect January 1, 2016. The ban is on anchoring the putter to your body while making a putting stroke. Here’s an infographic to help. Many PGA tour players, including Keegan Bradley, use this method. Phil Mickelson’s used it; Ernie Els uses it; Ian Woosnam; the list goes on. Thousands of amateurs use this method as well. In fact Dave Pelz, the short game guru, recommends using the method on short putts and a more “traditional” method on long putts (I don’t have a link for that. I just remember it from one of the Golf Channel Academy’s he hosted). It’s becoming more and more popular with the kids because the anchored style helps quiet other movements typically made during a putting stroke.

The USGA argues that anchoring is not consistent with the spirit of the rules of golf, specifically Rule 14-1. The gist is that, as Nick Faldo eloquently put it recently, “It’s called a golf swing, not a golf hinge.” Another argument is that, seriously, it looks funny. And, truthfully, it’s only in the short swings that this technique works — you wouldn’t, for example, anchor your driver to your belly and expect to pipe one down the center 250 yards. The proposed change to Rule 14-1 would, in effect, provide a bit of consistency through every shot on the course.

Opponents of the rule change suggest that the USGA, once again, is making an already difficult sport more difficult. By taking this option away from amateurs, some have said, people will be leaving the sport in droves because it’s far too difficult. The change will lead to people getting called cheaters, would be golfers staying away from golf because they can’t get that darn putting stroke down, golfers who’ve used this method for years will leave the game.

I played a round of golf a couple of weekends ago with a 20-year-old junior college player that uses an anchoring style putting stroke. He said that his putting has improved dramatically since changing to the belly putter. Like many junior golfers, he hit the ball a ton, far past me on every drive; he had no patience for hitting solid iron shots; and 100 yards and in, it was a guaranteed missed green. But, what struck me is his putting. He made one putt over 4 feet. In 18 holes he made one 6 footer. He missed countless 2-3 foot putts. In no way, shape, or form was he frustrated by this. After all, his putting improved dramatically since changing to the belly putter. To say that I was shocked is an understatement.

Before that round of golf, I was indifferent to the rules change. I hadn’t been convinced that a rule change was necessary or unnecessary. There’ve only been a few major champions to use that style and no one argued that they won because of prowess on the greens. Can you name me a great putter that uses the anchored style? Hint: no.

But, what to do about this kid? His putting improved and, yet, he was awful on the greens. watching him miss a 4 footer three inches outside and long by 2 feet, smile, nervously “tap in” – nothing was a tap in that day – and walk off the green as though this was something normal, made me ask myself, “What is wrong with the USGA?”

I’ve been a USGA member since 1994, going on twenty years here. They host some of the best championships out there; they’re affordable enough that, if you are a golfer of any stripe, you can qualify to play. They very much are the guardians of the rules of golf and have led the way in research on sustainable golf course design. They support a program that aims to speed up play, asking players to play from the tees that best suits their game. The mission and their overall actions demonstrate that they hold the amateur golfer in the highest esteem and consideration.

Recently, though, it seems like they’re going for the opposite. I was disappointed when they banned square grooves – technology that can generate more backspin on impact and leads to greater accuracy out of tricky lies. People flocked to golf stores and websites to purchase square groove wedges because it helped players keep approach shots on the green. I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on this one, though, because it’s the technology that leads to that ability (sort of…).

But, outlawing a swing is a little far fetched. I don’t believe that people will leave golf because they can’t use the anchored putting stroke. I don’t believe that professionals who use the putting stroke will fall from the top of the world rankings to the bottom when they have to use a more “traditional” stroke. I DO believe that golfers that use the anchored style will enjoy the game less – and that’s a problem. The more putts they have during a round of golf, the longer it takes – that’s a problem. People that were already complain about 5 hour rounds will be apoplectic about taking 6 hours out of their Saturday afternoon and likely will play less rounds every year – that’s a problem. Long story short, increasing the number of strokes on a golf course is not good.

The PGA Tour is making the right call in rejecting the proposed ban. The USGA should rethink its decision “for good of the game.”