I broke 50 today at my nine-hole home course. Whoop-de-doo to you too, but for me it was huge. Never mind that I’d already broken 100 on two separate occasions playing two balls through for an 18-hole score -- I’d choked so often and so stunningly on the ninth hole over the past couple of weeks trying to best the half-century mark on our punitive little track that I was now on a mission from god to break 50.
Only over the past three or four weeks had I even started to come close to 50 on a regular basis at Timber Trails, our par 34, 2,600-yard course that is light years more challenging than those statistics would suggest. My good rounds were in the low 50s, my bad rounds no more than 55, so I had at long last achieved what beginning golfers strive so hard for -- namely, consistency (of a sort, since I’m still only starting to threaten the 50-100 level).
My big breakthrough came when I first played another course. I had played a couple of rounds on a nice public course in Vernon, New Jersey when I first started, when I still thought my slap shot automatically qualified me to hit golf balls and I hadn’t yet realized that not all swings were full swings. I played a tournament once in Foxwoods in Connecticut with a bunch of NHL players, a scramble in which I hardly ever took a shot that counted (Ken Morrow accounted for most of our shots, although I did come away with Bill Fairbairn calling me a good friend and Ed Van Impe inviting me to fish with him at his house on the coast of Vancouver Island). And I played three nine hole rounds at the 18-hole Rookery course near Marco Island when I went to Nick Faldo golf school last February and again in June to make up for the first session getting rained out halfway through.
But I never knew what I was doing any of those times. Otherwise, I’ve played a hundred rounds or so at Timber Trails at my country home in Lake Naomi in northeast Pennsylvania. What makes TTGC so vexing for players at all levels despite being such a short course is how small it is -- the fairways are so narrow that even marginally errant shots are in the woods, costing you at least a penalty stroke and often another stroke trying to recover, and the greens are so tiny that missing the pin by ten yards means a likely landing in the woods, the water, or a bunker, turning what would be a two-putt anywhere else into at least an up-and-down attempt, more often a chip or a wedge (maybe even after another penalty stroke to pull your ball out of the woods) and then your two-putt.
It was so bad that I started keeping track of the penalty strokes as I kept score so that I could better gauge how I might have done on a normal course, where many of those errant shots are hittable. And don’t get a TTGC member started on the sand, so packed down from all the rain that hitting out of a bunker is almost like hitting off the cart path.
Then we went to Jack Frost National. Jack Frost is a new course about ten miles away that boasts no parallel holes -- you can’t see any other hole from the hole you’re on. TTGC cut a deal with Jack Frost to give us an 18-hole alternative -- up to three rounds at $20 per round, including cart, the hope being that we would like it so much, we would sign up for a membership (fat chance of that -- gold members at TTGC already play Timber Trails for free for a modest add-on cost to our comprehensive Lake Naomi Club dues).
Unlike Timber Trails, Jack Frost is wide open -- the fairways at least twice the width, the greens around three to four times the square footage. Suddenly, tee shots that were in the swamp or the woods at TTGC were still playable, often still in the fairway, and approaches that were in the sand or the ferns or the leaves at TTGC were on the green -- 50-60 feet away perhaps, but still a two-putt on those lightning fast greens. And even though there are a ton of bunkers, the sand is soft and hittable -- on one par four, I hit three bunkers along the way and still shot a five because it was so easy to get out of them.
Sure, at 6,200 yards from the white tees (7,200 yards from the tips), Jack Frost was long, but even that was a boon to me, since I could drive every hole that wasn’t a par three and then hit fairway wood (my favorite club) to within a wedge of the green -- taking my troublesome long irons out of play. The severe uphill and downhill slopes, and the resultant side-hill lies, were something I wasn’t used to at the flat Timber Trails track, and it took me a few holes to adjust to the speed of the greens, but once I did, I shot 51 on the back nine, better by far than anything I had shot to date.
But none of that mattered as much as the psychological impact. I came back from my round at Jack Frost elated -- a feeling that was confirmed in two more trips there -- because now I knew that I was actually capable of hitting good tee shots and good approaches. The short game was never my problem -- of course, everyone can always improve in every area, so I always work on my short game, but that was not where I lost shots, it was where I always made up shots.
One of my golfing buddies here always brought up the shot allotment argument in favor of working on the short game -- 75% of your allotted shots are either getting onto the green or being on the green. Yes, I countered, except that it was always taking me three shots to get in that position rather than the allotted one, so I needed to concentrate on improving my ball striking.
Now all of a sudden it was made clear to me that my ball striking wasn’t really all that bad -- it was just that Timber Trails was unfairly punitive to people like me who couldn’t yet thread a needle on every single tee shot or fairway shot. The yoke was removed from my shoulders, the stress was relieved in an instant. And as is so often the case, that alone was enough to straighten out my shots back at Timber Trails. Not only do I rarely slice the ball out of bounds to the right or pull it into the woods on the left like I used to, I no longer beat myself up when a good shot ends up bad -- it's not my fault, I hit the ball well, it’s this damn postage stamp of a course that punishes me for a good shot.
Since that day, every score has been in the low- to mid-50s. The number of shots that end up out of play is down to a small handful. Likewise the number of lost balls and the number of penalty shots. And of course the length of my shots is up too now that I’m no longer bending them so badly.
But I still couldn’t break 50. I was getting better, so my opportunities to break 50 were getting better. Which meant that my meltdowns on nine were all the worse. The first time, I found myself on the ninth green needing a two-putt -- about ten to twelve feet uphill, with only a tiny break, to finish at 49. I don’t know what came over me -- I blasted it by the hole, I guess trying to power it straight in and take the break out. My eight foot downhill putt coming back caught the right lip, did a 180 onto the left lip, and hung nearly halfway over the cup -- where was Bill Murray when I needed him? 50.
The very next time out (this doesn’t count in the string of meltdowns), I was not having a good round, but one last good full swing from the fairway put me on the fringe at 48. I was about 25 feet away with a huge break, so I figured I didn’t have a chance. I missed the cup by about an inch -- 50 again. The groundskeepers tending to the greenside bunker behind me groaned at how close I came. One day later, on the same green needing two putts for 49, about twelve feet away, but downhill with a tricky break. Blasted it by again, missed the comebacker by three feet to blow my chance at breaking 50, and then pushed the three-footer wide in disgust to not even get 50.
But it wasn’t just what happened on the green. On the ninth tee, we had a bit of a wait. Dave, my usual playing partner, commented on how much we had both improved over the past year. He had started just last summer and has gotten even better than me, but he is a former Brooklyn homicide detective who is strapped, so once he got his full swing under control, he outdistanced me by a mile (and now that his putting is catching up to his ball striking, he’s scoring in the 40s regularly -- and when he learns how to chip and pitch properly he’s going to get even better).
Well, I made the mistake of responding by pointing out how much better we’d gotten at keeping the ball in play since we went to Jack Frost and stopped worrying about the dang woods at Timber Trails. For example, I said, I hadn’t hit a single ball out of play so far that entire round. And that left me in position to break 50 even if I doubled bogeyed. I also just jinxed myself, I pointed out. Sure enough, despite focusing as hard as I could -- perhaps because I focused as hard as I did -- I hit my tee shot into the woods. Penalty stroke, wasted shot recovering to where I should have been off the tee, and my approach shot left me needing a four-putt for 49, and I couldn’t even do that. Choke!
Can’t get any worse than that, right? Wrong! Next time out, I reached the ninth tee at twelve over -- exactly my target of an average of a bogey and a half per hole that would net me a 99 on a par 72 course. At par 34, all I needed was better than a snowman to break 50. I hadn’t been playing all that well, but I’d been scrambling like a maniac -- I skulled one shot that had to carry a creek that bounced on this side of the water, skipped off the surface, and ran right up to the fringe to put me that close to hitting the par five green in regulation. I hadn’t cost myself a single penalty stroke the entire round, and I was putting lights out.
This time I didn’t say anything to anyone to jinx myself. Instead, I just proceeded to put my tee shot into the woods. It was a good hit actually, the kind I no longer beat myself up about. It was a little left -- at Jack Frost, still in the fairway. But at TTGC, it took an extra skip to the left, hit the cart path, and went just a few feet into the ferns under the trees.
No problem, I thought -- I should be able to find it and still get the ball to the green with plenty of room to spare. Except that I couldn’t find it. Just a few feet off the fairway, and the ball was lost in the dense foliage -- penalty stroke. I was so upset I shanked my next shot right, which took me off line for the dogleg right, so I had to pitch up just to recover and was lying four with two hundred yards to go. No dice. I ended up with a 52 after blowing another shot.
And that’s still not the end of the story. Next time out, I was on fire. I was at just six over through five -- a par, two singles, and two doubles. An average of double bogey over the last four holes would get me 48, and the way I was hitting -- good tee shots, good approaches, good putts -- there was no way I was going to double every remaining hole, especially after striping my tee shot on the par five sixth. Even after a good lay-up hit a sprinkler head and bounced into the creek, even after I shanked my subsequent wedge, the penalty shot and the poor recovery pushing me to triple bogey, I felt that it was only one bad break and one bad shot, nothing that was going to stop me.
And sure enough, I played the next two holes well and reached the ninth tee at 11 over. This time, even a snowman would break 50. Well, the snowman choked again. I topped my tee shot and then shanked a four iron that cost me another stroke getting the ball back to the dogleg’s knee. Lying three with less than 175 yards -- still a piece of cake. This time, I caught the four iron pure and put the ball pin-high, 15 feet to the right of it. Problem is, this was Timber Trails, so 15 feet right, pin-high, meant I was in a bunker. And this bunker was like concrete. It took two swings to get out, and that still left me a chip and two putts. Do the math -- nine. 50. Again. This one really hurt because I had done so well on the first five holes, had had only one bad hole (due largely to bad luck) before I got to nine. Then I shot a nine on nine. Arggh!
Today didn’t seem like I’d ever get a chance. I was not hitting the ball well at all. Doubled the first, did OK with a four on the par three second, tripled three after hitting a tree with my tee shot and shanking the second into the woods for a penalty, doubled the par three fourth after a good tee shot went just ten yards off line into the ferns, and started off five with a slice into the swamp that I hadn’t done since I first went to Jack Frost and took that load off my mind.
But then things changed. I think a lot of it had to with one of my partners. Dave was playing great -- he ended up with a 43, which I believe was his best score ever (he claims to have shot a 40 once, but he didn’t know how to score penalty shots so I’d bet it was more like a 45 -- today, I kept score for him). But Kevin, a beginner who has only had a lesson or two, was struggling through the first four holes. He can hit the ball well when he hits it, so I told him to stop worrying about his swing and just concentrate on maintaining his posture -- if you hold your posture, I told him, the club will end up back where it was when you first addressed it, and you’ll get a good hit. He started doing it on four, even though his good tee shot ended up next to my good tee shot in the woods. He continued on five and throughout the rest of the round.
As he got into a decent rhythm, I was finally able to get into one. After taking a penalty for putting my tee shot into the swamp, I cranked a fairway wood over 200 yards to just off the front of the green. I ended up with a triple due to a bad wedge into the green, but on six -- the par five -- I hit back to back 200 yard shots to get me to the creek in two, something I’d never done before (I usually have to lay up my third shot in front of the creek or try to hit a long iron over it). I parred it, then got single bogeys on each of the next two holes even though my tee shots were both in the woods -- I was able to hit out without penalty on the par three seventh, and then I whacked another 200 yard fairway wood right onto the green after taking my penalty stroke on eight.
So there I was on the ninth tee again with a sub-50 round unexpectedly within my grasp. I needed a five to break 50, which is like par for me on a long par four like our ninth hole. I hit it over 200 yards off the tee right to the dogleg, lying one in the exact same spot I had lain three or four during my last two tries. I hit three iron the remaining 175 yards right onto the green -- in regulation. Suddenly, all I needed was a three-putt to reach my elusive goal. But I’d been there before, so I wasn’t counting any chickens this time. It was a long putt, but it was uphill with only a little bit of a break. I didn’t drain it, but I left myself a simple three-footer to not only break 50, but do it by more than just one stroke. I’d finished par-bogey-bogey-par on the last four holes to shoot 48.
Now if the psychology works like it did after my first round at Jack Frost, getting off this schneid should send me into the mid-40s in my upcoming rounds. Right?