Here’s part II of the interview.
Tom: You follow the professional side of the game well enough to blog about it, so the next question should be pretty easy. You’ve just found out that your 4th guy on Saturday can’t make it, and you’re permitted to invite a Touring pro to fill in. Who is your pick?
Me: Does it have to be a player playing today?
Tom: No, you can go back as far as you want.
Me: I gotta go with Arnie. And I know your next question and I’ll go ahead and respond to that while I’m at it. Palmer played the game the way most of us weekend warriors play – he left nothing on the table. He lashed his tee shots with driver, he attacked pins, and he achieved enormous success playing golf that way, his way. He came from a working class family and brought his blue collared attitude with him to the course, and people who came to watch him could relate to that. And people always said that Arnie made an effort to go out of his way to connect with the fans, but I don’t believe that. I don’t think that Arnie was going out of his way to connect with fans, that was just his personality and it came natural. I’ll tell you a true story, a personal account, that is just another classic example of that.
The 2000 Senior US Open was held at nearby Saucon Valley Country Club, and I went there to watch the tournament for a couple of days. The last day I was there, I think it was Friday’s 2nd round… I decided to follow Arnie’s group for a few holes. The teeing area was 5-6 rows deep on this one hole and I decided to motor on down to the fairway to watch them hit their 2nd shots. Well, I’m standing there with about 10-12 other fans, and next thing you know – a ball whizzes right by me and caroms off the tree right in front of me, stopping about 10 feet away in the deep rough. One of the course volunteers came over and made sure that no one bothered the ball, right… and I ask the volunteer, “Whose ball is that?” He said, “It’s Arnie’s.” Sure enough – I look back toward the tee box and I see Arnie walking in our direction with his head down. So a couple of minutes pass and Arnie is finally there with his caddie and they’re surveying the situation. He’s got nothing. That tree that he clipped with his ball just ahead of me is between his ball and the hole, and it’s a nasty lie in some pretty deep rough. He’s 200 yards from the green and barring a miraculous shot – he’s probably looking at having to make a putt to save his par. So he’s studying the situation and making small talk with his caddie, and they decide on a club. Arnie pulls out a fairway wood. He takes a few practice swings and studies the lie a little more. And then, believe it or not, he looks at me, ME of all people, smiles and says, “Young fella, what would you do in this situation?” There’s probably 50-75 people standing there in the gallery, but Arnie was looking dead at me. I said, “Well, Mr. Palmer, with all of these people watching me and this being a US Open – I’d probably whiff the shot.” The people in the gallery start laughing, and Arnie is laughing right along with them. “Well, that’s not exactly the visual I had in mind,” he replied. “But at least you’re honest.” And then everyone started laughing again and Arnie gave me a wink and a smile. And, just like typical Arnie, he swung his fairway wood with his patented lash, and after the ball took off he leaned to one side as he tried to use every ounce of his body english to curve the ball back toward the green. About 5 seconds later the gallery surrounding the green erupted with applause as Arnie’s ball had somehow made it to the putting surface. He just gave all of us a parting smile, nodding to us, handed his club to his caddie and continued his march toward the green. But that’s who Arnie was… he was the type of player who just felt at ease with the fans. And for him to take 20 seconds out of his life, in a major championship no less, to allow me to be a part of his life for just those few precious seconds…. do you have any idea how special that made me feel? Long live the King.
Tom: Wow – that’s a great story, and a great memory that you’ll never forget. And although I’m the one asking the questions – I would’ve picked the same guy had you asked me. I’ve always been an Arnie fan too.
Okay, so another “you’ve only got one choice” question. You’re playing your last round ever, and you can play any course in the world. Which course are you playing?
Me: Augusta National. And I really don’t feel the need to explain.. If you’re an avid golfer, Augusta National is probably tops on your golf bucket list.
Tom: So let’s talk more about the game itself. Or more specifically – your own personal game. What motivated you to become a better player?
Me: I recall a round several years ago, a round where I just so happened to be a single that day and I joined up with three players that I’d never met before. I think I was an 8 or a 10 handicap at that time, not bad, not great, but somewhere in the middle. I hit the ball a pretty long way back then, and I’ve always been a pretty good putter. In my mind I was a solid 4 handicapper but my scores and my handicap obviously revealed otherwise.
Well, there was one guy in the group, his name was Dean. I remember it very well, because I got my first “real” golf lesson that day courtesy of Dean. It wasn’t anything mechanical… he didn’t offer me swing advice or anything like that. In fact – Dean was pretty quiet and just tended to his own business. So I’m playing with these guys and I’m hitting the ball a good 10-15 yards further than anyone else in the group off the tee, and I recall playing decently that day. And there was a point, somewhere around the 11th or 12th hole, that I tallied up Dean’s score and he was 2-under on the round. He had yet to make a single bogey. Well, Dean carded two more birdies coming in, both coming on the par5′s, and he finished the round at 4-under par. I played a pretty good round and finished at 6-over par, a few strokes better than my handicap. So obviously I was pleased with the way I played, but I couldn’t get over how a guy that hit the ball shorter than me, who really didn’t have a textbook golf swing and didn’t seem to have the amount of great shots that one would think a player would have shooting that type of score, beat me by a whopping 10 strokes.
On the way home I started thinking about that round, and about Dean’s round in particular. I tried to think of exactly what it was that he did that enabled him to shoot such a great score, and nothing really stood out in my mind. But it wasn’t what he did, but rather what he didn’t do. Dean never hit his tee shots way offline. When he missed the green, he missed the green by only a couple of yards and he never missed on the short side. He was a very tidy chipper and an outstanding putter… he obviously had a great short game. He made 14 pars, and birdied the four par5′s. It was the most unimpressive 4-under round of 68 as I’d ever seen. We’re talking the epitome of boring golf.
That’s when the light went off in my head. It’s not just a game of “how far.” It’s also a game of “where.” And this all comes back to managing your game, which requires you to manage your bad shots. Dean did this in magnificent fashion, and like I said – it was the first “real” lesson I ever received about the value of managing your game and the course. And this pretty much ties into the second thing that helped my game – playing with players who were at a level in the game that I truly felt that I could attain myself. That round with Dean motivated me to get out of my comfort zone and spawned a desire to play with better players. And I did. And when I did find myself playing with better players, I watched how they hit the ball. I watched how they plotted their way around the course and had a strategy that governed how they played each shot on each hole. Playing with betters players, you quickly figure out that there’s much more to shooting a good score than just hitting the ball to within a reasonable proximity to a target. Playing with better players motivated me to practice more, and to become a better manager of my game and the course.
Tom: You bring up a great point about getting out of your comfort zone. The only problem is that it’s not easy to do that.
Me: You’re absolutely correct. It’s the primary reason why we come back to earth after getting off to a great start in a round of golf. How many of us have started out with birdies on the first couple of holes, playing well and not thinking much about anything, and with what seems like a flip of the switch – we get into prevent mode. We tighten up, we start trying to steer the ball with our swings, and all because deep down – we believe that we’re playing over our heads. We think to ourselves, “okay, this is too good to be true… when is the trainwreck going to come?”
And comfort zone is also the reason why “peer packs” tend to be the common theme in golf. A lot of higher handicappers get intimidated when they play with better players, because they’re accustomed to playing with players who shoot similar scores and have similar abilities. In their minds they go from being average with their normal group to being the weak player with the group of stronger players. But here’s the interesting part in all of this: players who genuinely feel the need to improve can’t be afraid to get out of their comfort zone. Why? Because the ground in the comfort zone isn’t fertile for real growth. Take a player who is taking lessons for the first time. Over the years they’ve engrained a golf swing with a few bad mechanics, and although it’s not giving them the results they want, it’s what they’re accustomed to. So the player takes those lessons and believes that just showing up for the lessons will, in the end, make them better players because they feel they’re now better equipped with more knowledge. But as we all know – if you grip the club the same way you’ve always gripped it, if you take the same setup position you’ve always setup to the ball, and you employ the same swing technique that you’ve always employed – nothing changes, the results stay the same. Why does this happen? Because the player doesn’t feel comfortable practicing and applying what he’s being taught by the instructor.
You have to learn how to adjust to the different environment, be it with starting out with a few birdies in a round, or taking lessons, or playing with better players. It’s not that much different than spending a majority of your time playing the same layout each week, and then traveling to a different layout that you’ve never played before… there’s no familiarity, everything seems foreign, and all you’re left with is trusting your abilities. That’s where real growth and development come – learning how to make both the mental and physical adjustments.
Tom: So what do you consider the strength of your game?
Me: That’s a good question and I don’t think it can be answered with just one word or one statement. I think it’s a tandem of things playing their respective roles.
I play with a lot of players each season, players of varying skill levels… and some of those players have really good golf swings, golf swings that are technically much more textbook than my own. Yet a lot of times I’m shooting scores 8-10 strokes lower than some of those players, despite having a more unorthodox technique. My golf swing isn’t winning any awards in the beauty pageant, for sure. But you know – I own my golf swing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have rounds when I’m spraying the ball offline, but overall I’m a pretty consistent player. I don’t obsess over mechanics, I don’t try to hit shots that require more skill than I have at my disposal, and I don’t get down on myself when things don’t go the way I want them to. I learned a long time ago that by adhering to those three principles above – I’m much more likely to turn a potentially rough day into a respectable one. And the last principle, but certainly not the least of them – I accept that I’m never going to be perfect. If the great Ben Hogan accepted his premise that even while playing his best, he only hit 2-3 shots per round that he deemed perfect, then why on earth would someone like me expect more than that from my own efforts? I’ve learned that lowering expectations is most always better than raising the bar higher.
Tom: What do you think are the primary reasons why the average player doesn’t improve?
Me: I’ve made an interesting observation in all the years I’ve been playing that I’ll share with you. The players who don’t devote the needed time to practice are most always the ones who are obsessing with mechanics when they play. Those who are devoting sufficient time to practice, on the other hand, aren’t worried about mechanics when they play. So in short – the primary reason why the average player doesn’t improve, in my opinion, is because they simply don’t practice. You can work on your setup and rehearse your swing in the backyard all you want, but the flight of the golf ball is ultimately the judge and jury of the quality of your golf swing. You can have all the positive visual imagery you want… and that certainly helps, but it won’t help you find lost golf balls.
Tom: What is the most embarrassing moment you’ve ever had playing golf?
Me: You had to go there, didn’t you.
Tom: Just doing my job…
Me: Last year in the club championship, when I squandered a 5-shot lead.
Tom: Details, man… details.
Me: Well, everyone has a tournament horror story. Some are certainly more horrible than others, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone to top mine.
Tom: I’m listening.
Me: Okay, so I didn’t play all that great the day before, but scrambled well and posted 3-over 75. It was very windy that day, and the pin locations were cut in some really tough spots on the greens. And anyone who has played Olde Homestead knows two things: at 6800 yards it is an extremely challenging layout, and it’s always windy there and usually you’re playing dead into the prevailing winds on the hardest holes. So I’m pretty satisfied with the way I played, but honestly I felt that I was a few shots behind the leader.
Tom: But you were wrong.
Me: Yes, I was. Severely wrong. I was shocked to learn that it was the lowest score posted that day, and the next best score was 80.
Tom: I’ve got a feeling that this gets really ugly from here on out, then.
Me: You would be correct. Now I’ve played in a lot of tournaments over the past 7 years or so, but I’d never actually slept on a lead in a club championship. I thought that I was in a really comfortable spot, but at the same time I never really got overly confident. My plan was to keep doing the same things, just like the pros on TV say in the interviews when they’re leading after three rounds and asked about what they have to do to win the next day. So I go to bed at a normal time, and I get up early enough to enjoy breakfast and get in a nice warmup session prior to my starting time.
Tom: And, of course, you had the last starting time, just like the 54-hole leader at a Tour event.
Me: Right. No different, except this tournament isn’t being broadcasted live to millions of viewers across the globe, I’m not hoping to win a million dollars, and desperately trying to somehow punch a ticket into the field at the Masters next year. But it’s still pressure. Like the great Bobby Jones once said, “There is golf, and then there is tournament golf…”
Anyway, I had a good warmup session, felt good heading into the last day. I remember thinking to myself standing on the first tee, “Wow, I don’t feel nervous at all. This is weird, this could be good.” And then I proceeded to pull my first tee shot on this opening hole par5 into the right rough, which is better than pushing it into the hazard down the left. Okay, I’m safe. Not the greatest swing to start the day but I’m lying one and oh, by the way, I’ve got a 5-shot lead. Then I finally find my ball, completely buried in the rough, with the ball well below my feet, we’re talking nasty. I was actually fortunate to even find it. So I took my medicine, pulled out the wedge and simply tried to advance the ball back into the fairway. Well, between the ball being well below my feet and the 4 inches of thick grass that was covering it – the heel of the club resisted the rough and the club turned over. I advanced the ball all of 40 yards, still in the deep rough, and now I’ve got a huge oak tree about 100 yards ahead of me that I either have to play under, around, or over. With the ball sitting down like it was in the thick grass, I figured the best play was playing under the overhanging limbs, get it to within 100 yards, get my 4th shot on the green and then walk off with a worst-case bogey.
Or at least that was the plan. So I played a 9iron back in my stance and was simply trying to hit a low punch shot under the overhanging limbs of the huge tree dead ahead of me. Given the nature of the horrid lie, that shouldn’t have been a problem. Except I ended up getting more club on the ball than I was expecting, shooting it up in the air and clipping the overhanging limb. Now the ball is 180 yards away, so-so lie but still in the primary rough, and the hazard fronting the green requires a forced carry of 165. I bore down on a 7iron to the middle of the green, then watched the ball take the slope on the green and trundle away to leave me some 45 feet to save par. I then ram my par putt some 5 feet past the hole, then naturally leave the bogey putt some 4 inches short. I tap in for a miserable opening double bogey, and then things just deteriorated from that point.
Tom: Well, that’s enough of the play-by-play. What was the damage at the end of the day?
Me: I shot 89. And that was with a back nine of level par. Do the math.
Tom: You shot 53 on the front???
Me: Yes, that’s correct math. Par is 72. I was 16 shots lower on the opening 9 just the day before. (laughing)
Tom: Well, at least you can laugh about it after the fact. So what did you learn from the ordeal?
Me: It’s hard to say. I learned to hate losing like that, for sure. My very next round after that – I shot 2-under 70. And I remember being torn emotionally… on one hand – I’d quickly put the tragedy behind me, but at the same time – it really dawned on me that maybe I took that final round for granted, even though at that time I didn’t feel that I had. But if I had to close that chapter with one small nugget of enlightenment, it would be this: the past doesn’t equal the future. How you played yesterday isn’t an indicator of how you will play today. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like when I played that next round out after the tournament. I could’ve easily allowed that to send my game into a deep funk. But sometimes it’s a bad thing as well, like that final round after shooting a respectable score the day before. Hey, it is what it is.
Tom: Okay, I see you looking at your watch, which indicates to me that it’s time to wrap this up. One last question, which I think is entirely appropriate given all that we’ve talked about. What value does the game hold in your life? I mean, listening to your responses to some of the questions – I’m getting mixed signals… some of your answers reveal a fairly serious competitor, but then you totally switch gears and maintain that it’s just a game. So which is it?
Me: I think it’s a bit of both, actually. When you love doing something, and you learn how to do it reasonably well, what began as more of a hobby eventually becomes a passion. So although I generally maintain a fair amount of confidence and competitiveness playing the game, which have come from years and years of learning how to play reasonably well, I also learned the value of keeping things in perspective. And being able to keep things in perspective allows one to look back on those bad days, like that final round in the club championship last season, and shrug it off as some sort of lesson learned.
Golf teaches us life lessons… the value of hard work and commitment, the importance of staying patient and persevering, the importance of abiding by the rules… and it teaches us to appreciate the occasional successes, but also teaches us that humility isn’t a bad thing either. I would never judge someone based on how they play the game, and I would hope that others would extend the same courtesy to me in return. It is just a game after all. But it’s a great game, for all those reasons and many more.
Tom: Well, I must say that aside from spending 2 hours of my only day off this week to do this interview, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation this afternoon. Hopefully your readers enjoy it the same, my friend.
Me: Tom, thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure talking with you. Hopefully we can get in a few rounds together later on this season.
I’d like to thank my good friend, Tom Scheffert, for helping me out with this interview. Tom is a great guy who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for several years, having met him many moons ago during a round of golf. I’ve been blessed to have met some great people playing the game, and Tom is certainly on that list.