Finding the Head By Losing Your Way

It was obvious the kid had, as the old loopers say, “lost the head” by this point. He’d been playing well to now, for a child who, as near as I could tell, wasn’t in high school yet. He was a big hitter, driving it over 220. But this time that wasn’t enough—he’d put it right in the huge bunker that sits across the 18th fairway at Chicago Highlands, where I’ve been working lately while waiting for Medinah’s main track to open. Now he was preparing to hit a 5-wood out of it, despite the fact that he had to know that a 5-wood had no chance of clearing the lip of the bunker. I found the rake and waited, figuring we might be a while.

Sportswriters and the athletes who swallow their repetitious phrases like to talk about golf, like other sports, as being about “one shot at a time,” or as Tiger Woods likes to say, “baby steps.” I don’t know much about other sports, but in golf it’s nonsense: every shot sets up the next, and if you aren’t thinking about your next shot you aren’t really playing. That’s what the old caddies mean when they talk about “losing the head”: what they mean is the golfer has become so obsessed with this shot that he’s lost sight of the overall goal.

According to the Wall Street Journal recently, the game itself may have lost its head in recent years; apparently my young charge is something of an anomaly. The story the paper ran was entitled “Golf’s Big Problem: No Kids Are Joining The Game.” This, the same month during which the young have dominated the world of men’s tournament golf: an 18 year-old Ryo Ishikawa shot 58 to win in Japan on the same day that 20 year-old Rory McIlroy shot 62 to win at Quail Hollow on the PGA Tour; this past week a 22 year-old Jason Day won the Byron Nelson while a 16 year-old Jordan Spieth not only made the cut, but finished tied for 16th. The Bible of the financial community, however, ties it together by way of blaming Tiger Woods: his rise inspired a great many juniors not only to hone their games, but also a lot of golf courses to get longer; “Tigerproofing” as Augusta National’s changes were called some years ago. “Want to make an eight-year-old cry?” asks the Journal. Just throw the child on the “testosterone-induced courses constructed over the past decade.” But the course I’ve been working at, Chicago Highlands, has it seems been developed precisely in order to answer these questions.

The club has a two-pronged strategy. The first is straightforward: free lessons any time. It’s an interesting development in terms of labor relations between golf pros and their clubs: standard practice is for pros to be paid by the lesson. Perhaps it’s in part a response to the increasing amount of graduates of professional golf management programs in the nation’s universities now that the split between club pros and touring pros has seeped down to the college level—which itself might be analogous to the situation whereby increasingly lower-level courses in the universities are taught by graduate students and “adjunct” faculty: i.e., people without tenure, i.e. cheaper. Strictly in terms of golf’s growth, however, it’s amazing no one has thought of this before: the sport has never really been taught at a mass level, which is why most if not everyone is so, so incredibly bad at it.

(As an aside, has there ever been a human activity in the history of the world in which people have been both so incredibly awful and yet passionate about it at once? Discuss.)

The second strategy pursued by the Highlands is one that’s been proposed many times, but that most courses have been reluctant to do: building multiple tee boxes. Most golf courses have two, or possibly three tee boxes; only recently have courses been built with more. More tee boxes means that golfers can arrange themselves according to their skill level better, with consequences for the speed of play for instance. (It should be faster.) On the other side is the fact that more tee boxes cost more in terms of mowing and watering and so on. But what’s never been really argued, so far as I know, is whether or not by appealing to more people, multiple tee boxes would draw more people into the game, and thus pay for itself—which is what the Journal implicitly argues. Chicago Highlands, which seems to agree with the thought, has six different tees.

Now, the decision of which tee to play is one that always runs up against the equation that longer equals better. Certainly longer does, on the whole, equal harder, but that’s not always the case; witness, for instance, two of the golf courses at my usual club, Medinah. Course No. 3, site of five major championships and numerous tour events, is at present more than 1200 yards longer than Course No. 2, but there are those who might argue that No. 2 is the better golf course.

Course No. 3 presents innumerable challenges, sure, but often they aren’t strategic decisions—they’re just examinations of whether the golfer can hit the required shot. Can you hit a two-hundred yard shot over water that stops on the green? for example. Course No. 2, however, presents lots of strategic decisions: the fifth hole asks for a decision to hit anything from a seven-iron to a driver off the tee, depending on how much the golfer wants to risk. The question of which one is a better golf course depends on whether one thinks that golf is more about physical ability or intelligent decisions.

Multiple tee boxes means that every player can find a length that allows them to forget about the mechanics of hitting the ball—that’s what the practice range is for—and immerse themselves in making decisions about what to do. Or in other words, begin playing golf, instead of hitting shots. In effect, more tees means more golf—even for the better player. Even the single-digit handicapper might find another world opening up by playing his usual course from one or two tees closer: suddenly, shots open up never available before, and thus different decisions.

The Highlands is, as I’ve mentioned before, already a golf course built around playing golf, rather than hitting shots. Multiple tee boxes just opens up that many more possibilities. A good player could have just as much, if not more, fun playing the course from the most forward tee box on every hole as he could from the back. Take the 7th hole for instance: from the black tees, it measures 623 yards, a monster. But from the red tees, it’s only 430. Yet, assuming it were thence considered a par four rather than a par five, it might not play very easily; at that distance a number of bunkers unreachable from the black tees—and almost incidental for a good player—are suddenly in play.

St. Andrews is the ultimate example of what we might call “course hacking” in this way: at the beginning of every season, the course is played backwards, or clockwise, as against the usual counter-clockwise hole rotation. That means that you play from the 1st tee to the 17th green, then from the 18th tee to the 16th green, and so on. According to one account, the “result is a lot of blind shots, vague yardage guesses, and people hitting into one another – head on.” Or in other words, fun.

That’s one thing that the kid in the 18th hole’s fairway bunker had forgotten about by then. He was screamingly mad, though completely quiet about it on the outside: a point in his favor I thought. Nevertheless, he went through with his crazed scheme with the 5-wood, which he did manage to get out of the bunker though it went only about 50 yards after catching the lip. He had become obsessed with hitting the shot, in other words, rather than playing the game. It’s a distinction that perhaps the golf world has lost sight of in recent years: 16-year olds building career plans around the PGA Tour might not be the best sign of the game’s health. Playing around with the tee boxes, however, might be a way to find the head again.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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