Monday, November 28, 2005

My friend’s bad habits are wearing off on me. He is in the habit of checking the weather in far away places. Weekend and ten day forecasts are among his internet favorites, and rarely do they apply to his home zip code.

I suppose I am jumping the gun. Let me get back to where it all started, the week before Thanksgiving. My friend, Jeff, and I played a municipal course he had raved about near Tacoma, Washington. We both live in Seattle and he had assured me that the hour drive to Lake Spanaway was worth it. At the risk of getting off topic, he was right; Lake Spanaway would easily have been the best course I played last week if not for the events that transpired the Saturday after Turkey day.

When Jeff and I played we talked about what we always talk about: Bandon, Oregon. You see, besides our unbridled passion for the game, Jeff and I share an affinity for the Bandon golf courses along the southern Oregon coast. Jeff informed me that the weather had been terrific for almost two weeks in Bandon. He knew I was traveling to Eugene for family and festivities and thought I should keep an eye on the Doppler radar. I agreed. I was half-hearted about it because Bandon is expensive, a bit far away, and certainly not my first priority over the holiday weekend.

Unlike Jeff, my affection for the Bandon courses grew from afar. When I started playing golf I heard about them. My Dad found out I was interested in playing them and he began clipping articles, emailing reviews, and generally encouraging me. I was not a good enough golfer, I told myself, to justify the expense involved in a “Bandon Trip.” Well, last summer I played a lot. My schedule freed itself and my game began to flourish. I befriended a pro, played 5 or 6 times a week, and lived at the range. My game got better, my index fell, and my confidence soared. The day I shot 80 from the tips of my local municipal I finally decided to make my way down to southern Oregon.

Then my life got in the way, the trip got postponed, and my time evaporated. I was lucky to get a round in every few weeks and the clubs started to feel foreign in my hands. The problem was further compounded when my estranged clubs were stolen from my car. Insurance provided a new set, but new clubs, inconsistent play, and cooler weather did not bode well for my game. In short, the timing was awful a month ago when my Dad called and told me that he was getting a deal and I needed to head down.

I finally got my chance to play Bandon. Due to outside circumstances I was able to play just one round and it was on the newest course of the three, Bandon Trails. I had prayed to break 100 and came away with a spectacular 92. Good weather and good play snuck in that day and I have been all smiles ever since. Of course, my golf game fell apart immediately thereafter. I began finding time, squeezing rounds out in the rain, and trying to get back to my mid-summer form. I even traded my ‘new’ clubs in for a set more like the ones I had lost. Nothing worked, my scores grew and my swing was leaking oil fast.

Then, despite failing swing and suffering confidence, I checked the Doppler this weekend and decided to make a break for it. One thing I have learned, when a course like Bandon Dunes is within your grasp, let your golf swing worry about itself and go for it. I drove two and a half hours through the rain, barely trusting the satellite images I had seen just hours before. Nevertheless, my excitement grew as I turned south on 101. When I passed Coos Bay the sun broke (of course it did) I knew something special was in store.

I walked on as a single with a choice of tee times. Late November may be the best time of year to sneak in18 at Bandon. The temperature never dropped below 55 degrees and my excitement seemed to keep the clouds at bay. I chose a time an hour out and went to the practice facility. Bandon might be worth the drive for the range and putting area alone. I was practicing a twice breaking 90 foot putt when I realized I only had a few minute before my tee time.

I rushed to the tee, shock my playing partners’ hands and tee’d off. I played inspired golf. I might have to bronze the putter. Every mistake was followed by a smart decision and the golf gods’ praise. I scored par on a tricky dog-leg after a penalty drop and a blind approach that scared the hole on its way to resting six feet left and hole high. Did I mention that six feet was a gimmie that day? Ladies and gentlemen, it was a day that will keep me coming back for years. After all, imagine if I had showed up with my game in tune? Next time, a real review of either Dunes or Trails, maybe both…

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Winter of Our Discontent

With Thanksgiving upon us, I felt it was time to address a common ailment suffered by most weekend hackers, duffers, and even some single digits: seasonal rust.

Let’s face it; in most parts of the country, golf slows down around the holidays and waits, like the rest of us, for the thaw. When spring returns, we approach the new season with enthusiasm only to find our game has fallen a few steps behind our imaginations. The low numbers we remember posting in August balloon as we search for our swings.

Most of the rust falls off a golf swing fairly quickly. Even if it that were not the case, there are simple solutions to keeping old man winter away from you full swing. Driving ranges remain open, covered, and heated year round. Banks also remain open to cash golf pros’ checks. They even make equipment cheaper and more enticing to try during the off-season while the new stuff trickles in to tease us for next year.

The real trick is the short game. The short game goes first and returns last. It is a lot harder to motivate oneself to get out to a practice green in the winter. If motivation and bravery in the face of the elements are not your hurdles, then the lack of daylight can still obstruct the pure of heart.

I am not writing to lament. I am writing to bring a solution. Make a covered short game practice facility for yourself. The idea struck me while reading about Michael Jordan’s basement in Chicago. The man has a 9 hole putting course in his house. Why can’t I? Because I live in a modestly sized home and split the rent with my brother is the answer. Then inspiration hit harder one night when, in an effort to annoy my brother, I was flopping golf balls into a laundry basket. He was sitting on the sofa, the basket was next to him, and my misses tended to graze his head. Naturally, the game turned into a betting affair and shortly thereafter I had created an indoor course.

I have been using this model for a couple of weeks. The golf season is still lingering here in the Pacific North West and my creation has already brought about a revolution in my short game. Now, I have one!

Originally, I tried chipping the ball to various spots with different clubs. That progressed to combinations and eventually I had laid out a course. A typical hole will be something like this: chip past the chair but short of the door, the more room you leave to the left the better for the next shot; then chip under the table and short of the sofa; etc… In the end, try and leave a medium to long shot to a small circle, maybe two feet in diameter. Count the strokes it would take to do it perfectly, add one as a tap in, and you have figured out par. Play the course with one club, then again with another. It is challenging with a putter, SW, or an 8i. It has taught me all about trajectory and spin control on short chips and longer runners. There are linoleum hazards, penalty strokes for unplayable lies against a table leg, and numerous opportunities to wager. I have found playing the whole course with one club has helped my game a great deal. My course suits itself to a 60 degree wedge as stopping the balls short is a premium on 6 of the 9 holes.
Maybe the most important thing it has done for me, that an indoor putting machine (a glass on the floor) never has, is create a little pressure. In golf, every shot counts and your score matters. With my new indoor short game clinic, the same is true. There are course records, memorable shots, and a real element of competition.

In a small house, I have a 9 hole course. Par is an unattainable 36. I’m getting better but the third hole is a beast.