Evolution of a Golfer
The fateful day was May 30th, 2007. I received an email from a friend of mine, who was a PhD at a major educational institution, asking me to play golf. Given that I was seriously considering getting my PhD at the time and I had reached out to him to discuss that very topic, I was almost obligated to accept. Despite not having played golf since hitting a few balls with my grandfather when I was 5 years old, I said yes and the tee time was set for Thursday June 7th at the Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta, GA.
I scrambled to find someone to teach me the ins and outs of the game, so I wouldn’t totally embarrass myself on the course. And after doing my best to get down the basic etiquette and concept of the game, I was off to the course. June 7th, 2007…a day that will live in infamy!
As you can all imagine, the round was brutal. The gentleman I played with was extraordinarily strict on the rules of golf. In fact, I thought I was going to get strangled to death after I walked across his putting line on one of the first few greens.
Nevertheless, I survived and posted a 121. Not good by any stretch of the imagination, but I was strangely intrigued by the game.
For the remainder of the year, I played a few times with a variety of friends on a variety of courses. Given that I really didn’t have anywhere to practice, my game really didn’t improve very much. Nevertheless, this infectious disease called golf was beginning to take hold deep into the core of my soul and it compelled me to buy my very own clubs.
At this time, I was consistently hitting 118. No matter how much I practiced at the range, no matter how many times I tried to fix my slice, no matter what I did…118!!! Given that my IQ isn’t too extraordinarily low I derived that if practicing every day wasn’t leading to improved scoring, I must not have any idea of what I was doing wrong. So being the genius that I am, I decided to take golf lessons.
As an aside, I was struggling with some pretty significant health issues. However, I don’t really want to dwell too much on them as it is indeed a fairly unpleasant part of my life…which, in fact, I am still dealing with. However, the pertinent part of the health saga is that since day one of my golfing career I have had to deal with some fairly intense pain. This pain was focused mainly in the joints of my legs, specifically my hips. In fact, in 2008 I had my left hip completely replaced and in August of 2009 I will have my right hip replaced. I mention this for a couple of reasons; perhaps the main one is that in a couple of spots within this story I will reference the pain I was experiencing. Now that you know some of the story, these discussions of pain will have some context.
Anyway…back to the story…118 consistently…time for lessons.
I actually started my lessons at Golftec. Golftec is company that has many high tech golf teaching facilities across the country which I would recommend to almost anyone. These lessons were video taped, so I could study them, see my faults and, hopefully, begin to fix them. Below is a video of my first swing in my first lesson.
Any experienced golfer will be shocked that my score was consistently around 118 with a swing like that. I mean the stability of that base just lends itself to consistent contact with the ball. There might be a little sway in the legs, but it is barely perceptible. Obviously, I am being sarcastic. This swing is AWFUL!!!!! How I could hit the ball at all may be a testament to my hand-eye coordination. Nevertheless, the swing itself is AWFUL!!!!!
Despite my ugly swing, I pressed on.
Given my health, I was ordered by my doctor to put no weight on my legs for eight weeks as my left femur was crumbling. So, I was relegated to using crutches 24/7. I remember my last round of golf before my 8 week sentence. It was at St. Marlo in Suwanee, GA. I didn’t have much time to put together a foursome, so I snuck out to the course by myself. I was playing well and approached the 18th with a chance to break into the 90’s for my first time ever. I sliced my driver way out of bounds and ended with a double bogey to record a 101!!!
Frustrating for sure, but it gave me a burning desire to get back out there and break 100. As the calendar switched for 2007 to 2008, my handicap was over 30. Once again, not good at all…but it is what it is. As this disease called golf took even more control of my body and mind, I was seemingly forced to join a country club. This would give me access to a nearby practice facility and private golf course. St. Ives was the club and I have been extraordinarily pleased with this decision from day one!
Another milestone in my evolution occurred during a vacation to the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club located on the beach in Florida. I played a round with my wife and for some unknown reason, I hit the ball really well, escaped sand traps in one swing, and ended up posting my first score in the 90’s!!! I was wildly excited. However, this was right around the time the economy and stock market began to implode and was, in fact, the week/weekend that Bear Stearns was bought by JPMorgan for $2/share. Given that I am a portfolio manager, this made for less than completely relaxing vacation experience. Nevertheless, I was in the 90’s for the first time!!!
After this boost of confidence, my anal retentive predisposition took over. My study of the game revealed terms like fairways hit, greens in regulation, and putts per round. All the T.V. announcers talked about these, and other, stats and all the golf websites seemed to track these things. Why shouldn’t I?
My first round of anal retentive statistical analysis began at Bears Best in Suwanee, GA. The thing that stands out in my mind for that round was the fact that my average drive that landed in the fairway was 274 yards. BUT, I hit 6 of 14 fairways and had 7 tee shots that went out of bounds and resulted in a massive amount of penalty strokes. I can’t remember my exact score, but it was in the 105 range. The more and more I thought about this a very obvious observation smacked me right in the face. There is simply no way in the world someone can post a solid golf score with 7 O.B.’s…and I don’t care who you are!
Armed with this information, I began to wrap my mind around it and, in fact, altered my approach to the game. You see, my biggest issue was that one of my regular playing partners routinely booms his driver 300 plus yards. And being a neophyte to golf, I felt compelled to try to match him. This led to fairly long drives when I hit it well, but wildly erratic accuracy.
As I began to improve my accuracy my driver length dropped from the 270’s to the 250’s. But my accuracy improved by a good amount, but I was still experiencing a fairly large amount of penalty strokes due to O.B.’s off the tee. So, one day I tried something drastic. I benched my driver. I vowed to not hit it at all for an entire round. Not even on 580 yard 5’s. Not once, not ever. Interestingly enough, I hit an 89!!!! It was my first round in the 80’s and all without a driver. Talk about things that make you go…hmmmm!
Unfortunately, this revelation didn’t lead to an unprecedented drop in my scores. My scores varied wildly within the 90’s range. This is probably due to the fact that I went back to the driver, despite my success without it. But I figured if I was ever really going to be good at this game, I would eventually have to learn how to hit it. So, I worked at it.
During this time my femur crumbled more and more, and eventually I had to have a total hip replacement in November of 2008. Given this, my golf game was on the shelf for quite some time. I began 2008 with a 30 plus handicap and ended it with an 18. Not a bad year’s work, all things considered.
As my rehab progressed, I was eventually given clearance by my surgeon to begin to putt and then, a little later, chip. Mentally, I put my past discoveries and my physical limitations into perspective and decided that my only shot at being a good golfer was to be a short-game wizard. Given my physical condition, I was most likely never going to be able to smoke my driver 300 yards. So in order to score, I had to take advantage of my chances every single time I got around the green. In my mind, that was (and is) the bottom line.
Upon my return to the game itself, I actually began playing at a level that was much better than I expected it to be. I returned to being a 90’s golfer right off the bat. Now, I wasn’t out of the woods just yet in regards to the rehab and the pain…but I was getting better day by day.
As I pressed on, my short-game led the way and my wedges were beginning to become a thing of beauty. In fact, I started to sneak into the high 80’s on a number of occasions. However, I began to experience some wild upward swings in my scores. In fact, I registered a whopping 105 at one point.
In light of this, I ran immediately to the pros at St. Ives and had some emergency lessons. What they discovered was that the swelling and pain in my surgically repaired left leg was causing me to do some funky things in my swing. Therefore, they broke it down to a really basic swing. After their lessons, I had the mental image of simply keeping my arms straight, rotating my chest around my spine, all the while maintaining the triangle between my arms, then rotating back into the ball, and compressing the ball at impact. Frankly, this worked like a charm.
Over the course of the next few months, my 18 handicap dropped to 15. And I played in my first few tournaments. These two tournaments were best ball tournaments at one of the best courses in Georgia, Cuscowilla Golf Club. My playing partner and I ended up winning both tournaments and we “ham and egged” it quite well. I had numerous pars, but numerous double bogeys. However, my partner would par during my doubles and vice versa. The most interesting thing that occurred during these rounds was the elevated heart rate and general feeling of nervousness that would overwhelm me from time to time on the short little putts which presented themselves throughout the rounds. I had success with them, but that feeling…that strange anxious feeling…was something I will never forget.
Given the memories of this feeling, which is a feeling familiar to all golfers who have ever played in tournaments, I had in-depth discussions with my regular playing partner on how to replicate it. It was our thought that if we really wanted to be good golfers, we would have to replicate this feeling and successfully over come it time and time again. With this in mind we developed a Golfer of the Year Tournament.
The Golfer of the Year Tournament is a three-tiered golfing tournament. From the weekend of the Masters through the PGA Championship, my golfing partner and I compete for this title. The three areas we compete in are: a net cumulative stroke play contest, a match play contest, and a specialized award that penalizes anyone who leaves a putt short. The idea is to have a stretch of the golfing season where it is time to perform and not simply work on our games. In fact, we demonstrate the progress we have made over the prior year and the beginning portion of the current year. We crafted the tournament to insure that every round, hole, and shot are important. If you are getting beat on a given round, the stroke play event maybe lost for the day…but you better not let it get out of control or you will jeopardize the entire season. Furthermore if you quit mentally and loose one hole after the other, you will also put the match play event in danger. And finally, if all is lost you better make sure you concentrate on all your putts and not leave them short. The great Tom Watson is quoted as saying “100% of putts that don’t reach the hole will not go in”. And that is our thoughts behind this last contest. Give your self a chance to make putts and never quit on the golf course.
I can’t tell you the boost to my game this format has given me. My scores have dropped to the low and mid 80’s and my handicap has dropped to 12 in just a few months. I have learned to focus on every shot and every hole…no matter what.
As I type this, my right femur is now crumbling and I will be having it replaced in the next few weeks. In fact in order to be able to play the game, many times I have to assume a chipping stance with all my clubs. This keeps all my weight on my left leg (ironically, it is now my “good” leg). I have had some interesting comments concerning standing on the tee box, holding driver, and getting ready to hit a chip down the fairway with my “Big Dog”.
I would argue this is a process that most golfers don’t go through. However, I believe it is making me a better shot maker. When my right leg was bad, there was a period of time when I had to keep all my weight off of it. Now, I have to do the opposite. Because I’ve had to do that, I have experienced first hand how these types of swings and weight distributions affect the flight of the ball. And even though this necessity might be viewed as a downer by some, I think it has been a blessing to me and my game.
An example of this blessing and the benefit it has had on my game came just a few days ago. While playing a par five, I hit a nice drive and then a solid 3 iron. However, my ball wound up on a severe side hill lie with the ball about 3 feet above my feet. The distance to the hole was about 140. This would be an 8 iron for me usually. But since I would have to choke way down on the club in order to make solid contact, I knew that an 8 was the wrong club. In fact, it was my belief that hitting that 8 would have put my ball in the 30 yard long and extraordinarily deep bunker that lay between my ball and the hole. With all this in mind, I grabbed my 6, choked down on it and swung hard as heck. I made great contact; the ball flew high and straight, flew the trap, and came to rest 2 feet from the pin for an easy tap-in. Birdie!!!!
All this is great and does demonstrate how my golf game has evolved over the two years I have been playing the game. Nevertheless, scoring well and lowering my handicap is not how I measure my evolution as a golfer. In fact, I think as someone evolves as a golfer they evolve as a person. Given that I am a male, I choose to say that golf has made me a better man.
Why do you say this...is a question that someone may ask me?
For starters, given the very nature of the game you must demonstrate perseverance in order to improve. Time and time again, golfers will mis-hit shots. In fact, many classic golf quotes state that golf is a game of misses. And how you deal with those misses will determine how well you play the game. If you add in the health issues I have had to overcome, the perseverance required becomes even more pronounced.
I think everyone would agree that life also requires perseverance. I think it is fair to say that during everyone’s life they will encounter “mis-hits”. And their success in life will be significantly impacted by how they handle those “mis-hits”. Do they whine and cry, pout, or quit after the “mis-hit”? Or do they keep their chin up and try to find another way to get the job done?
Furthermore, if you play golf by the rules and track your score accurately, you will have a handicap that accurately reflects your ability. Therefore when you go out and play in a tournament or have a bet on a game, your actual game will be in-line with where your handicap indicates it should be. However, your integrity will be called into question if you score much better or much worse than your handicap suggests you should. Armed with this information, people will treat you accordingly. If you are have an ego-driven handicap and have artificially lowered it, good luck finding someone who will want to be your partner for a tournament or big money game. If you are a sandbagger, I hope you don’t want to make any friends or have people trust you.
Much like in the game of golf, your integrity will be tested and tried through the many adventures you will encounter in life. If you handle those tests with integrity, you will have the trust of your friends and people will turn to you when the pressure is on. If the integrity you’ve demonstrated in life is in question, you won’t have many backers when the chips are down.
When it comes to the lessons you can personally learn in the game of golf, I think none is more important than the mental and emotional control that the game teaches you. This applies to whether you are on the road to posting your best round ever or the wheels are falling off the wagon. Keeping control of your emotions and remaining mentally aware of what needs to be done is the key to being successful in those situations. This directly applies to life.
I think Rudyard Kipling said it best in his classic “If” poem.
If you can keep your head about you, when all those around you are loosing theirs…;
Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it. And which is more you’ll be a man, my son!
This lesson may be learned in golf, but it applies directly to life.
By playing the game of golf and evolving as a golfer, I have become a better husband and father and, in fact, a better man.
Ever since I’ve been playing golf, I’ve struggled with intense pain. In fact, to play the game I have to take a large amount of painkillers. Even with that medicine, I struggle for many days after my round to simply walk. Nevertheless, I play the game. Time and time again, I am asked why. Why do you play the game given all the pain you are in? If you have to ask...Frankly, you'll never get it.
I love golf…truly LOVE it!
And because of this game, I am a better man.
-MacArther "Mac" Plumart, CFA July 21, 2009