Category Archives: Golf

The futility of following the little white ball around. But fun.

Hitting The Long Clubs

This is a golf story that’s also not a golf story.

I was lucky enough to be able to play golf very frequently this summer. Like at least three days a week on the practice range, and about once a week on a county course with my father. It was the best form of work detox I could find: outside (usually in the rain or the wind or the brutal sun, but still, outside), thinking about nothing more than hitting a small white ball through three miles, two hundred feet at a stroke. I enjoyed a lot of humor, a few moments of triumph, and a lot of self-reflection. The best non-job advice I got came from the same guy who gave me outstanding technology job advice – Scott McNealy. When I first bemoaned hitting my weight for a full 18 holes, Scott simply said “Golf is a hard game.” That’s from a guy who could get his tour card tomorrow.

Sometime around August, though, I had a revelation. It was simple yet completely changed my approach to the game. The fact: I cannot hit a driver. Can’t do it. It’s a combination of having poor shoulder and wrist mechanics, a death grip on the club, and muscle memory that is more like a 70s rocker’s memory. Once I decided to stop using that long club to put balls into the water, the woods, the parking lot, and the ladies’ tees (indeed), I used a hybrid club off of the tee. Practiced with it every day. Got to the point where I could hit it off of the fairway, off a tee, even out of the shorter rough. Rather than driving the ball 250 yards, I can pick up just shy of 200 yards with a hybrid off the tee and about 180 from the turf. On a long par 5, I’m on the green in three long shots rather than a long drive, a fairway wood and a short iron. On a par 4, I struggle a bit more, often using a third shot from the fairway to get close to the pin. Shorter par 3 holes are a moot point; everyone is using an iron from the tee anyway.

Giving up that kind of distance on the approach meant I needed to improve my short game. I practiced putting the ball where I wanted to, within a few feet, from five to fifty yards out. The guys at the practice range dreaded the days I was there because they had to do an extra sweep in front of the booths, picking up an entire bucket I’d aim at various mud holes and small hills. I practiced putting on various breaks and speeds of greens. If I was going to drop a few strokes on the long side, they needed to come off of the short side. Practice paid off as twice I holed out using a pitching wedge (once celebrating so much that I left said wedge on the course, where the very forgiving grounds crew picked it up for me).

Why is this so relevant on a cold winter February morning, when the snow is deeper than a driver shaft?

Because I miss playing golf. Once I decided to use the proper tools, and play the clubs that matched my style, I began to enjoy the game. It’s a hard game, but that’s because physics plays as much on the course as it does on the ice. The little competitions on each stroke, around each hole, over the course of a morning spent dodging traffic on a one-lane Atlantic County road (not our fault it bordered two holes), made each long walk fun, not spoiled, with apologies to John Feinstein.

I am, in the depths of roundball season, reminded of the powerful words of former Princeton coach and court namesake Pete Carril: Practice what you do well, and pass the ball to someone who does the other thing better.

You better believe this has changed the way I think about software engineering, building technical teams, and contributing to various open source projects. Too many people want to hit the long clubs; the beauty of the game is controlled by the short irons. Harvey Pennick wrote that you should learn the game from the cup out; I’m picking targets and working backwards to build technical bridges and paths to them. And I’ll gladly take an occasional member’s bounce off the cart path.

Teaching Kids To Play

There’s a disturbing trend of parents pushing their kids into sports thinking far too long term. Elementary schoolers toting half-sized golf bags around the driving range are the next Tiger Woods. Pop Warner football players are Heisman material as soon as the other 8-year olds have trouble catching them on long runs. Little Leaguers who can hit the ball out of the infield are given $200 bats and $3,000 in batting lessons in preparation for that call from Brian Cashman of the Yankees. The problem with all of these postures is that they teach kids that sports are a business rather than a pleasure.

Teaching kids to play means infusing them with a love of the game, whatever game it may be. Don’t think too far out; enjoy every season, every game, every at bat or shift or putt that successfully clears the windmill on the 8th hole. Youth sports should be a preface to adult sports, and adult sports are primarily about life skills and lifetime enjoyment. Very, very few youth players are going to play or participate in professional sports, but kids who learn to love a sport will become fans, play in adult leagues, or teach their own kids the love of the game and create familial traditions that are far more valuable than any dreams of a professional contract.

Put another way: my love of the NJ Devils and meanderings at late night Friday skates has helped me land or influence business through taking customers to games and “talking shop” with my peers. My love of hockey has become a family sport as well, as was gloriously demonstrated this weekend: Bubba and I skated together for the first time, on the same team, not playing shinny but playing with the “big boys.” On the way home, he remarked that we almost had a Stern-to-Stern scoring play, as he fed me the puck at the half boards. There’s no way to put monetary value on that kind of fun. When we pick our sports heroes, I look for that same balance of loving the game and the family around the game. I became an even bigger Mike Cammalleri fan after a post-game hallway scene at the Rock last season – Cammalleri had picked up two assists in a game the Flames lost, and had a gaggle of fans waiting for autographs, pictures and handshakes. His first action, though, was to hug his father and greet one of his father’s friends. Nothing was said about the game, because father-son relationships trump all other commentary. His dad clearly taught him how to play the right way.

So what’s a parent to do?

  • Teach kids to respect the game and its players. You don’t swing on a 3-0 count. You pass the ball or puck to the open guy. One of my favorite Friday night hockey moments was a game in which the center consistently passed me the puck. He didn’t do it because I was that good; he did it because he was that good, and insisted on moving the puck around. I converted on maybe two shots of the half-dozen chances he gave me, but it was worth it to him to watch me pepper the goalie (his brother!) with shots. This is but one reason I refuse to watch the NBA: it’s devolved into three guys mostly standing around, a horrendous derivative of the Princeton offense that relies on motion, intelligence and passing.

  • Practice is supposed to be fun. There’s nothing worse for kids than standing in lines to do drills. If you can’t keep everybody running, involved and interested, then you’re running a bad practice. And if you don’t have the manpower to keep four or six stations filled with coaches, see the next point. My favorite golf practice is a game the Bubba has taught me called “two over/two under.” We pick a spot on the putting green and attempt to 2-putt a designated hole. We keep going until one of us is 2 strokes over or under “par;” and we’ll play two out of three. It’s fun, and I’m 3-putting fewer holes.

  • Invest more time than money. Instead of $3,000 in batting lessons, take your kids to a professional baseball game. Buy a bucket of baseballs and spend an hour doing soft toss as soon as the school ball field dries out from the winter. Volunteer to coach, manage, organize a gathering for players, parents and siblings, or help the league or on game day. I’m continually blown away by the number of people who will scream at hockey referees but yet never consider getting their own ref certificate. The defining moment of my last season in youth hockey management came in a game when our opponent had three players in the penalty box, and one of the parents began wailing for her kid to get on the ice when the first penalty expired (for the less hockey conscious, with three players in the box, the third penalty “stacks” and begins when the first expires. However, since the team is still down two men, the first player cannot leave the penalty box until there’s a stop in play, otherwise the penalized team would have too many men on the ice). There’s no reasoning with people who cannot take the time to understand the rules of their kids’ games, and worse yet abuse the officials with their own misunderstanding.

    Your kids and their teammates will usually appreciate understanding over screaming, time over money, and in the musical phrasing of Dire Straits, love over gold in all interpretations.

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  • Back to Basics

    After a few years of complete and utter futility on the golf course, I decided it was time to take a few lessons and figure out what was wrong. The symptoms are strange and possibly inconsistent – I’m hitting my driver 150 yards long but 75 yards right, I can’t hit a 5-iron further than a 7-iron, I consistently top the ball or bounce the clubhead a few ball widths behind the ball, and I’m a terror to groups ahead of me.

    One lesson with a local pro did wonders. I’m hitting the ball more consistently, and my drives have straightened out. Each stroke with a club is more consistent in terms of distance and direction, and my 5-iron clears the first set of flags (no, not the ones on the mini golf course). I have hours of work still to do, but there are hopeful symptoms that my game is improving. Most notably, I’m sore in new places (shoulders, obliques that I forgot I had, and hip flexors). Perhaps it’s using muscles that hadn’t played a shot for me in years, perhaps it’s just erase bad muscle memory in an effort to re-learn grip, swing and follow-through.

    In any event, it’s actually fun to be coached and demonstrate mastery of an old skill made new. Next up: working on my skating.

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    Stan Mikita Hates My Golf Game

    I had the pleasure of playing in the NHL Charity Golf Event in July 2003, in a foursome with (at that time) Stanley Cup Champion and New Jersey Devil Scott Gomez. That shot is from the Medina Country Club, after we had once again dug divots in the fairway deep enough to hide a golf cart and deposited an entire sleeve of balls in the water trap. Our foursome finished dead last in a best-ball scramble event where there are more gimmes and shaved strokes than in a mini golf birthday party.

    Immediately after this picture was taken, the bellowing started from the group behind us: “Gomez, your group is horrible. I don’t care about your Calder. Stop excavating my course.” Source of the taunting: Hall of Famer, Chicago native and Blackhawk legend Stan Mikita. He was as viciously funny as he was good-natured about it. But make no mistake about it – Stan Mikita hates my golf game. Most of the digging was done by yours truly wielding a 7-iron. Somewhere there’s a picture of our cart for the day, with some very high-end cart bags riding shot gun with my travel tube of clubs containing a 7, 9, pitching wedge and putter. At least I could hit what I toted. And my game got the attention of a hockey great.

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    Organic vs Inorganic Growth

    The Hockey News has a great video interview with Mike Cammalleri, newest Canadien and likely linemate of Gionta and Gomez. He addresses his performance in Calgary as a function of having Iginla on his line, what life will be like on the under-six-foot line, and how the Canadiens will find their identity. The Habs are a different team this year, growing inorganically: Gainey went shopping and brought home a mole of free agents.

    Closer to home, the Devils haven’t done much on the buying front. They’re going to (have to) grow organically, based on player development and draft picks. Tom Guilitti rates the Devils prospects at this summer’s rookie camp, and I get the feeling that it might take a season or two for this strategy to pay off. Signing Zajac to a 4-year deal was a strong step; rather than having to negotiate again in a season or two (arbitration decisions cover at most two years), he’s locked up in the middle for the near term. But I still have questions about who will be skating with Elias, and who’s minding the blueline.

    But I’ll also go out on a limb: I don’t think the Devils have signed any spectacular free agents this decade. They’ve made some outstanding trades: Lagenbrunner, Friesen, and Mogilny (back in 2000; he was instrumental in winning the Cup that year). Have trades become passe due to the salary cap, since GMs are forced to discount the skills they’ll receive by current and future costs of keeping those players? If so, the smarter move is to remain well under the cap at the beginning of the season, and pick up single piece parts along the way as the value equation changes. Again, I think of the Mogilny trade in 2000.

    I’ll go even further: it’s hard to find evidence of big free agent signings radically changing a team’s trajectory over the course of an entire season. One or two players may add a critical leadership or skill element – Sergei Gonchar in Pittsburgh or Cammalleri in Calgary last season. But look at Gomez in New York, or even Briere in Philadelphia – success on those teams was driven more by goaltending and young prospects than by marquee players picked up on the open market. Any free agent signing has to first pass the financial sniff test, but more important is the smell of the resulting team chemistry. Ask your neighborhood beaker-head: bad inorganic chemistry really stinks (think rotten eggs).

    Nerd Defined

    You know you’re a nerd when:

    You use epsilon in a sentence (and not in the Paul Erdos “kids are epsilons” malaproprism).

    Your golf game is much more runge-kutta than gutta-percha, not that it makes any difference.

    Your kids don’t have tantrums, they go non-linear.

    You have more than one t-shirt with an equation on it, or a greek letter used in mathematics as opposed to a fraternity or sorority.

    You have more than one t-shirt proclaiming nerd domain. As if it required advertisement.

    By the way, I score 5 out of 5 on this one.

    Head Inversion for Duffers

    Welcome to the newest arena for rants and raves: golf. It’s only appropriate in that it was one of my typically horrendous golf adventures that led to the “snowman” nickname (after carding a series of 8s and picking up my ball, often before even hitting the green). But I like the game; it’s challenging; it doesn’t require inordinate strength or dexterity; and it involves equipment (which requires shopping, comparisons and bragging rights) and swag (balls, towels and headcovers).

    I love, just love, anything that involves a play on the socially accepted norm. It’s why R.Stevens’ Diesel Sweeties cracks me up on a daily basis and why I’ll wear his pixelated t-shirts to theme-appropriate events. So it was truly a nerd speed-shopping 4-point game when I stumbled upon this tiger’s butt at the local Dick’s Sporting Goods: it’s golf; it’s swag; it’s funny; it’s tiger-themed.

    The tiger’s tail is delivered by Butt Head Covers, a family-run business started by (who else) golfers that has a social conscience. Their range of head-inverted golf club head coverings is astounding, and they donate a slice of the top line form their web sales (ooh! nerd angle!) to charity. Lots to like, and even more to laugh about.

    And they even make a inverted snowman head cover, complete with the requisite reference to my favorite number and typical per-hole score (these guys get it).

    Update as of site editing, April 2008: Not sure that these guys still exist, as email to their website goes unanswered and I haven’t seen their covers in the local sporting goods store for a year.

    Living New Jersey Jokes

    Know me and know that I bristle at Jersey jokes. It’s not just that I went to the same high school system as Bruce Springsteen, or that I spent endless summers “down the shore” or even that I witnessed the pseudo-rebirth of Atlantic City. I’m a Jersey guy and proud of it.

    Sometimes, though, we bring the Jersey jokes on ourselves in ways that Joe Piscopo couldn’t have even dreamed. Yesterday my father, son and I played the local par-3 golf course as a way to officially kick off the unofficial Jersey summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day). The course sits next to a state highway, nestled between an industrial complex, a county airport, and a big box electronics store. Very Jersey. The scorecard gives all of the ground rules of the course, including what to do if you hit the chain link fence separating course from parking lot and airport.

    The last local rule is “No high heels.”

    I can’t add more humor to that; it’s the stuff Jersey jokes are made of, along with shopping malls, big hair, and people in their 40s who still wish it was the summer of 1983 when WAPP was commercial free and catapulting Jon Bon Jovi into stardom. I may miss WAPP (103.5 FM, now WKTU), but at least I was wearing sneakers on the par-3 yesterday.