Monday, June 19, 2006


A fundamentally sound, rhythmic swing can sometimes wither under tournament pressure

On the golf course, a man may be the dogged victim of inexorable fate, be struck down by an appalling stroke of tragedy, become the hero of unbelievable melodrama, or the clown in a side-splitting comedy.
--Robert Tyre Jones (The World of Golf)

Clang! I turned around to see what had made the loud metallic sound. It was a hot, sunny Sunday, and a moment earlier I had been perusing a 10 foot birdie putt on the 16th green at the Flint River (formerly Turner Field) Golf Course. It was the third and final day of the second annual Albany City Amateur, the brainchild of Orthopedic surgeon and outstanding golfer Dan Rhoads. Fifty intrepid golfers, including defending men’s champion Brandon Anthony, a former Darton standout, women’s champ Abby Fitzgerald, the blonde bomber from Lee County High School, and senior (55 and older) champion Dan Rhoads, had teed up on River Point Golf Course Friday morning.

Golf writer Grantland Rice once opined that there are three different sports: golf, tournament golf, and major championship golf. Truth to tell, there is only one sport, with only one set of rules promulgated jointly by the United States Golf Association and the The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The golf course we played Friday at River Point was the exact same course, except for the placement of the holes on the greens which I had played in a practice round on Thursday. Yet Friday I shot 85 (45-40) and Thursday I had shot 80 (42-38). What was the difference? Simply put: pressure. The internal pressure which tightens our muscles and makes our throats tighten-- that’s why they call it choking.

Different people handle pressure in different ways. Some respond well to it and become unnaturally calm, able to make full use of their faculties. Some lose their composure and their perspective. A rare few handle it with their usual equanimity, neither losing nor gaining by the experience. In golf, unlike other sports, it is relatively easy to discern the differences, either by watching strokes made or by adding up the numbers of strokes.

If an observer had seen my tee shot on the first hole at River Point on Friday, typically the most nerve wracking experience any golfer endures- not just the first shot of a round, but of a tournament, with gallery, tournament officials, and fellow competitors looking on- he or she would have concluded that I handle pressure with grace and ability. The beautifully launched three wood split the fairway, leaving me a reasonable approach to a very difficult opening par four. I made my par on the hole and breathed a sigh of relief. Which lasted for all of about three minutes, until I teed it up on the second hole and made not just the worst shot of my day, but possibly one of the worst since I first picked up a club at the age of 13. The ball ricocheted off the hosel of my driver, caroming into trees at a 45 degree angle left, not even 50 yards from the tee.

I managed a bogey on the hole, but on the third tee, the experience repeated itself, leading to a double bogey this time, and after another poor shot on the fourth, I found myself five over par, with the most difficult holes of the nine ahead. In simpler terms, I choked, ending up with 45 for the 9 holes, a number I was more familiar with the first year I played golf. My only consolation was in knowing that the blessing of a curious, searching intelligence can be an absolute curse on the golf course.

Excessive golfing dwarfs the intellect. Nor is this to be wondered at when we consider that the more fatuously vacant the mind is, the better for play. It has been observed that absolute idiots play the steadiest.
--Sir Walter Simpson (The Art of Golf)

More aptly put, an active imagination is the problem. Make one bogey, and the mind wonders if another is around the corner. Make a bad swing resulting in a lateral movement of the golf ball (called a “shank,” a word never uttered out loud on a golf course by most superstitious golfers, including this author), and surely more must be coming.

I observed just such a tragedy on the 7th hole at Flint River, which locals still call Turner Field, as one of my playing partners lofted his second shot on the par four at an impossible angle directly into the adjacent pond. I’ll call him “Bob” (not his real name) to avoid any further embarrassment, as he appears later in this story. Bob had hit the most impressive drive of the three of us, 275 yards to the middle of the narrow fairway, not 100 yards from the elevated green. The other player (I’ll call him “Stan,” because that was his name) and I had already hit excellent- and unexpected- shots onto the green and had putts for birdie awaiting us after we climbed the omnipresent incline--all of the course’s greens are elevated at least 10 feet because of federal regulations following the 1994 flood. Bob dropped a second ball to play, and as Stan and I watched with barely veiled anxiety, Bob hit another shot into the drink. His third effort reached the green and he made an 8 on the par 4, but he repeated his horrid experience on the next hole as another lateral shot ended up in the same pond as the previous hole.

Speaking of drink, Bob had requested, nay demanded, some form of alcohol before the round even commenced. A truly bad sign for a playing group is when one member comes to the first tee, announces that he had a terrible case of the shanks (that dreaded word which should never be uttered in mixed company) on the practice tee, and declares his need for hard liquor ere he strikes his first shot of the day. A small vial of scotch was duly produced by a sympathetic onlooker, and after imbibing an ounce of same, Bob started his day with a fierce backswing, a torrid downswing (his clubhead speed was astonishing) which produced a duck hook left into the trees, a lost ball, and a triple bogey 7 on the first hole.

Things didn’t get a whole lot better for Bob after that, but he did hit an occasional competent shot here and there, providing some evidence that, absent his nerves, he had some natural ability at the game. He shot a miserable 51 on the outgoing 9, but worse was to come on the back nine. He made it all the way to the 16th hole without further incident, although the continuous consumption of various forms of alcohol (some of which was purchased at the clubhouse at the turn) made me grateful for my decision to walk all three rounds of the tournament. If he crashed our cart, my clubs could be replaced.

Truly, he was a nice enough young man, and we all sympathized with him. When it comes to on course train wrecks, we have all been there- even the best among us, as Phil Mickelson can sadly attest as he threw away the United States Open after leading by two shots with three holes to go, finishing his round with two terrible swings and a disastrous double bogey.

As I turned away from lining up my putt on the 16th to see what the metallic sound had been, I saw Bob, with two pieces of what used to be a putter, one part in each hand. He had hit his driver out of bounds on the hole and had to make a lonely drive back to the tee while the group behind us waited for him to retee and drive again. On the 18th hole Bob drove it into the woods and made another high score. I hit into the woods, too, but the Leprechauns took pity on me and miraculously my ball appeared in the fairway. I finished the round and the tournament with a par, just as I had started it. Bob putted with his wedge on the 18th hole, and for good measure, he broke that club as well. Perhaps before his next round, Bob can take heart from the sagacious advice of President William Howard Taft (1909-1913):

Golf in the interest of good health and good manners. It promotes self-restraint and affords a chance to play the man and act the gentleman.


Anonymous bob finkelstein said...

Golf. The memories I have are of crisp late spring or early fall temperatures in the morning with the smell of fresh grass and sometimes wet grass from the sprinklers, enjoying quiet time with someone from the family.
Never could play with any respectable style or form and did not feel that I could ever.

6:55 AM  

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