Wednesday, August 20, 2008

V-Day: On Clubs, Grooves, and Balls

Picking up where Geoff Shackelford left off a little while ago on this new rules change for grooves in irons and wedges, I've got a tangentially-related story to tell. It involves me shooting an even-par round of 34 on the back 9 of the Easiest Course in the World for only the 10th time in my life while playing 2 very different kinds of golf balls concurrently. But it's really a personal history of golf equipment. And a meditation on the difference between competitive golf and social golf. And a report on the mental side of the game. Yeah, it's that kind of tangentially-related story. Sorry.

There is a relation, nevertheless. The revolution in golf equipment that this rules change is a very partial response to came about midway through my playing career, as I finished playing college golf. As I've been keeping my key golf stats from 1984-2004, back when I was playing regularly and, at the beginning and end of the span, regularly playing tournament golf, I have some data to back up my memories. And, I think, to support the case that the rules change won't have a big impact on scoring for anyone but the most elite amateurs and professionals.

When I first started playing golf seriously in high school, my woods were made of wood, my irons were forged, and my ball was a Titleist DT. I was a short hitter, made shorter by the fact that I didn't like the driver in my set and instead used a 2-wood off the tee. So I relied on my fairway woods, wedges, and putter to keep my scores respectable. I was the classic kind of precision/finesse player, which served me well on Hamilton College's short, par-35 9-hole course that I played most often, but didn't travel all that well all that often to Colgate University's Seven Oaks, the Robert Trent Jones-designed gem in central NY that I played with my dad and brother on the weekends. I didn't begin to experiment with metal woods until college and eventually settled on one of the original TaylorMade Burners for my driver (which looked like today's 7-woods), but it still didn't change the kind of player I was all that much. In fact, when I played shorter courses, I switched to balata Titleists, which didn't fly as far as the DTs I was used to but which gave me greater touch around the greens, helped me stop my irons sooner on approach shots, and generally allowed me to better work the ball because of their softer covers and higher spin rates. I was still such a short and low-ball hitter that I vividly recall switching to a different metal driver (a hand-me-down from my younger brother, who had moved on to a newer model years before) the week before I was to play Bethpage Black from the back tees in the ECAC Championship, in hopes of carrying the ball further off the tee. (That didn't work out so well; I couldn't reach most of the fairways, had to hack out of the heavy rough usually still short of my playing partners, and usually faced a difficult fairway wood shot to the green that would more often than not find its way back into trouble. I went 102-98 and finished dead last.)

So although I dropped my scoring average at Hamilton from just under 50 in 1984 to just under 40 in 1990 (and my personal bests each year from 43 in '83 to 35 in '90) and at Seven Oaks from around 90 in 1987 to around 83 in 1990 (and my personal bests from 84 in '87 to 77 in '90), I remained the same kind of golfer throughout the 1980s. I never averaged more than 6 greens in regulation, never came close to averaging a birdie a round, and hardly ever shot 37 or below for 9 holes. In fact, I didn't shoot an even-par 9 until 1990, when I did it twice at Hamilton (one of them coming in the best 18 holes of my life on that course, a 71 with 26 putts, many of which I still remember today).

All that changed fairly dramatically when I switched to the new, larger-headed Titleist driver. I started hitting the ball higher and carrying it much further--and the results were striking. I went from averaging 5.83 greens in regulation in 1990, the previous best summer of my golfing life, to 7.45 in 1991, from .857 birdies per round to 1.062, and from a 39.7 scoring average at Hamilton to 38.5. Most important, I went from shooting 37 or better only 6.5% of the time to 14.8% of the time. The next season, although my GIR went down and my scoring averages levelled off, I averaged 1.32 birdies per round, shot even-par on 5 9-hole rounds, and went under par for the first time with a 34 in mid-July. Even though I would focus on my graduate studies year-round from fall 1992 to spring 1998, I still spent enough time in Clinton in 1993 to lower my Hamilton scoring average another stroke, to 37.43, and shoot my first 33 there; even afterwards, I was able to keep my game respectable while going from averaging over 40 rounds per summer down to less than 7 between 1994 and 1996.

During that time away from competitive golf, 2 major changes occurred, 1 physical and the other technical. I started using Nautilus equipment regularly. As my body changed, I was forced to change my swing, which had been very lower-body, hip-turn, and timing-oriented, to take advantage of my increased upper-body strength. More important, I needed to simplify my swing into something that would be easier to repeat with fewer repetitions. Particularly late in my grad school career, when Tiger was tearing up the amateur circuit and people were beginning to show that his big shoulder turn coupled with a less pronounced hip turn helped him hit the ball so far, I was putting the finishing touches on a set-up and swing that hasn't really changed all that much since. And as I started to play again more regularly in the summer of 1998 after I finished my dissertation--coming close to 30 rounds again for the 1st time since 1993--I moved to Fredonia and discovered the Easiest Course in the World.

Don't get me wrong, Hamilton is a pretty easy course. With 3 par 4s under 325 yards, 3 longer par 4s between 385 and 425 yards (2 of them downhill), 1 short and 1 long par 3 (both uphill), and a short par 5, it has a lot of birdie holes, despite being hilly and having its fair share of trees and water in play. By contrast, the Easiest Course in the World has no water in play, no sand traps, and tree trouble on only a few holes, plus it's very flat. Although it's a couple of hundred yards longer than Hamilton, and has just as tiny greens, it's significantly, well, easier. Only 4 of its 18 holes are really difficult pars (and 3 of them come on the front, which has more birdie holes than the back), its 3 par 5s are all reachable in 2 when the course isn't soaking wet (and for longer hitters than me, even then), and its fairways are wide, rough low, and greens slow. The second I saw it, late in the summer of 1998, I knew I could break 70 there. It took me 3 years to do it--a 68 in late August 2001--and I've only done it 5 times since then, with a low of 66 the following August. But it's definitely the kind of course where I expect to have a chance to go under par almost every time I tee it up--particularly during that stretch between 1999 and 2004 when I was averaging almost 60 rounds a year.

It's no coincidence that I broke 70 for the first time in 2001, for that's the summer that I switched to the Titleist Pro V1. Not only did it go further than the DT--much further--but it was almost as soft as the balata balls I had given up playing in the early '90s. Combined with a shift to a TaylorMade driver, my switch to the Pro V1 allowed me to really attack golf courses for the first time in my life. 2001 was the 1st year my scoring average went under 80, my birdies per round went over 1.37, my GIR average went over 7.5, and I shot 37 or better more than 20% of the time. My best season came the following year, when my scoring average reached its career low of 77.23, my birdies per round a career high of 1.542, my GIR a career high of 8.14, and I shot 37 or better 36.1% of the time. I think it's fair to say that I benefitted from changes to the ball more than any other advancement in golf technology. I went from carrying my drives 200-230 yards in high school to 225-240 yards in college to 240-260 yards in this next phase of my competitive golfing career. And it's not like the changes mattered only on easy, short courses. Playing in the Utica City Amateur at Valley View 7 years between 1991 and 2000, I shot 76 or better once in 14 tries. In the next 4 years I did it 5 times out of 10, with a low of 73 in 2001. I qualified for the New York State Mid-Amateur tournament for the 1st (and only) time in 2002, by which point I had lowered my handicap to a 2.

Admittedly, my putting also improved during this period, due in no small part to my switch to an Odyssey White Hot putter that really fit my eye--and loads of off-season practice during long western NY winters and frozen and muddy springs. My total putts and putts per green in regulation reached career lows during this period. But that could also be an effect of the switch to the Pro V1, not just because I was hitting my approach shots closer to the green and to the hole, but also because I was probably rolling that ball better than others. In 2003 I got married and in 2004 onechan put a dent in my sleep schedule, so my performance dropped off a bit before I basically gave golf up between 2005 and this summer, but I can say for sure that switching from forged irons to Callaway Steelheads in an effort to get more length and accuracy out of my iron play--as well as to specialized wedges (52-degree and 58-degree Vokeys)--as I did in the middle of this stretch, did not have the desired effect. My GIR actually went down and my putting average actually went up, while my birdies per round rate once again fell below 1.35. It was frustration with this step back that made it easier for me to step away first from competitive golf, then from all golf, until this summer.

Late this May was virtually the 1st time I touched my clubs since 2005, when I played all of 4 and a half rounds, so my expectations were very low. I was shocked to find myself making solid contact from my 1st time out. By my 3rd time, I was actually 1-over in my 1st 8 holes before utterly collapsing in the wind. Which brings me to my story. The par-34 back 9 on the Easiest Course in the World has 4 fairly tricky starting holes but 5 fairly easy closing holes. It's flat and wide open, with even fewer trees than on the front, but its greens are tiny and the wind is always up. It's the closest to links golf I've ever played and it's given me fits: I've only shot 1 34 there in 2000, 6 in 2002, and 2 in 2004.

The day I shot my 10th 34 there at the end of last month was the windiest of any of the rounds I've played this year and among the windier days I've played in my life. It was the first time I decided to play by myself and to challenge myself by pitting a 4-year-old Pro V1 against a newer Callaway ball. It was a brief experiment, as I switched to a Nike distance ball that I found near where I lost the Callaway on the 4th hole. But putting my normal ball up against a rock like the Nike ball taught me a lot about my swing and short game that day. The rock definitely went longer and straighter. I actually got over the 2nd par 5 on the front with a 5-wood on my 2nd shot--a hole I rarely reached in the past unless the course was dryer than it had been that day. But I also had a lot less feel around the greens with it. I blew my chip on that hole, a simple little downhill run shot of about 40 feet, a full 15 feet by the hole and missed the birdie putt. For awhile these factors cancelled each other out. I was 3-over with the Pro V1 between the 5th and 12th holes and 1-down to the rock after a 6-foot birdie putt with it on a long par 3 actually found the bottom of the cup. But my 5th 1-putt in a row with the Pro V1 on the next hole, a long par-4 that I tripled with the rock after being right near the green in 2, turned the tide. Even though I hit the remaining 5 greens in regulation with the rock, I was 1-over during that stretch, thanks to 3-putts on a par 5 I hit in 2 and also on the very next hole, a short par 3 with a sloping green. Even though I hit 8 of 14 greens with the rock, I had 27 putts. With the Pro V1, by contrast, I only hit 5 greens in that same stretch (thanks to the wind playing havoc with my approach shots), but I only had 21 putts. I hit 3 greens in a row on the middle of the back, finally making a birdie putt on the very same par 5 I 3-putted with the rock, so I was 1-under on the back heading into the final 2 holes. And I was well aware that I had never gone under par on the back in my life.

This summer I've actually been drawing the ball off the tee, something unheard of in my early-season high school and college days, when bad timing would lead to weak fades and slices as my arms would lag behind my hip turn. But my other early-season nemesis--wedge problems on pitches between 15 and 75 yards--reared its ugly head on the 17th hole. My previous rounds had been sabotaged by fluffed, chunked, even skulled partial-swing wedges and even that day my putter had bailed my pitches out quite often. On 17, I hit my best drive of the year, a nice little draw that started out over the right rough, which the wind helped bring back to the middle of the fairway about 50 yards short of the pin. So of course I fluffed my 3-quarter-swing 52 degree wedge--I decelerated out of fear I had taken too long a backswing. But my short game was so good that day with the Pro V1 that I easily got up and down (tying the rock when I missed a short birdie putt with it).

All I needed was a par on the long 18th, a slight dogleg right with a strong left-to-right helping wind that day, to go under par on the back for the 1st time in my life. So of course I popped up my drive and then missed the green with a 5-wood that the wind pushed further right than I expected (I thought I could draw it in against the prevailing wind), leaving myself a tough chip that I couldn't get within 10 feet of the back left pin. Just like the other 2 birdie chances I couldn't convert on that side, I missed the par save for my 1st bogey with the Pro V1 since the 8th hole. I had made putts of all kinds in that stretch, including an insane 30-foot downhill-sidehiller, but couldn't get any of those 3 in my last 5 holes to fall. The 8th 33 of my life was not meant to be, I guess.

But why didn't I collapse in the wind this time like I had earlier that month? How could I have shot 1 of the best 9-hole rounds of my life in only my 4th or 5th round of the season, a season in which I played every other week rather than every other day? I have to attribute it to getting a better feel for the characteristics of the Pro V1 while playing in a match against the Nike ball. The match itself helped me keep at bay just about all the nervousness that might usually be associated with a run at a 32 or a 33. But it was really the contrast between the 2 balls themselves that helped me the most. On my full swings, I had to choose different clubs on my approach shots (the Nike ball was a half-club to a club longer than the Pro V1), align myself very differently (in anticipation of the lesser wind effect with the Nike ball), and make subtle adjustments to my swing itself. On my pitches, chips, and putts, I felt so much more comfortable with the Pro V1 in the midst of my struggles with the rock. I can't go into any more detail without getting too technical or sounding too mystical, but the bottom line is that after I played through my 2nd foursome on the 9th, I could devote my concentration entirely to the contrasting playing characteristics of the 2 balls.

To pull this tangent back to something approaching a circle, if I had to rank the most significant technological innovations in my golfing career, my list would look like this:

1) Balls
2) Drivers
3) Putters
4) Irons and Wedges

I'd probably rank hybrids #3 if I had been playing any golf the last few years. I definitely want to get a 3-hybrid and retire the Callaway 3-iron, which has been a huge disappointment, but playing as little as I have I've had little inclination to do so. So if I'm playing competitive (or any) golf 6 years from now, I'll probably take the opportunity to upgrade my entire set: move on to Mizuno irons and wedges (the brand I ended up not going with when I made my big failed iron switch earlier this decade), try to find the right mix of woods and hybrids to go with the new irons, and probably try out the new putters while I'm at it to see if I like any better than my White Hot #2. Or maybe by then I'll just be playing virtual golf on the Wii. Who knows? All I know is that if the new rules hurt the longer, wilder players in any way, shape, or form, I'm for them, but I just don't see them having much of an impact on my game.


Terminally Curious said...

What a great post. An inspiration to all of us who struggle to get better!

The Constructivist said...

Thanks, Jim! I think it's interesting that my game improved twice after multi-year breaks from the game. I highlighted the technological factors here, but I think as much of that had to do with appreciating playing for itself and not putting too much pressure on myself for immediate results. Also, getting a distance from my game allowed me a better perspective on my usual weaknesses and kind of "cleared the muscle memory," allowing me to rebuild good habits almost from scratch.

I certainly don't recommend this path to game improvement! My game is certainly not yet ready to take on the road, but I've broken 80 my last 4 rounds at TECitW and if I were to play again this summer (which is doubtful) I'm pretty confident I can set a goal of breaking 75 rather than 80.

What this summer gives me is good options for the future. If I want to play competitive golf again, I have to put some intense work on those 15-75 yard shots and start playing a wider range of courses. But kids and finances would most likely put a crimp in that, at least until imoto is in school. It's something to look forward to, though.