Oh You’re A Damn Fine Player…

I’ve been so busy ever since New Orleans, between the standard logistics of travel and working to keep this kinda updated.  The end is in sight though, I see a white light about 2 hours ahead of me now.  I’m hoping to be all caught up by the time I vacate this McDonald’s in Sayre, OK, as I’ve got just about a day left in the plains before I get out to the desert of the Southwest.  Other than Appalachia, the desert SW was the part of the country I was most intrigued to see.  It’s only a few days away.

In the last few days, then, I have played 5 rounds of golf, and have continued to learn that I am both a far better player than most, but am also far from being great.  I played all 5 rounds alone, which I am coming to prefer on the trip, as I can usually knock these rounds out, even at a leisurely pace, in about 2 and a half hours.  That gives me between 90 minutes and 3 hours extra to travel and to write each day, and those minutes are precious.

Not only has the solitude been beneficial from a pragmatic, travel centric perspective, the time alone on the course has really allowed me to learn a little bit more about me as a golfer, and to start trying some different things.  I fear though that I’ve been learning even more how I love fast play, and can not stand a dreadful pace.  Once I’m back on the coasts or the Great Lakes regions again, I have a feeling I’m going to be wanting to pull my hair out of my head.  Foursome after foursome of duffers fumbling and bumbling around the course, spending minutes of their day in preparation for yet another duffed shot, or reading a 30 foot putt from all angles… I haven’t run into any of that shit in the past week or so, and it’s been brilliant!  Nothing on the course to anger me, other than of course my own stupidity.  There has been plenty of that.

Prior to my round in Louisiana, I had been driving the ball fairly well on the trip.  Some spraying had occurred, particularly early in the trip, but for the most part, I put the ball in play, and at least an 1/8th of a mile out there towards the target.  It was not my worry from a golf perspective.

Enter my round at Chennault Park Golf Course in Monroe, Louisiana.  The most successful drive of the day was the one from Alex’s apartment in the morning to the clubhouse.  I paid my $26, picked a cart and drove on over to the first tee.  There were two groups of friends ahead of me, and I had a few minutes to stretch.  Boy did I need those few minutes.  I hadn’t played in over two days (imagine that!), and was all types of stiff with regards to my golfing muscles (so basically, all the muscles in my body).  Unable to shake off the cobwebs, I reverted to the old reverse McKernan.

The tale of the reverse McKernan is a long and sordid one, but I shall spare you the minutest details and concentrate on the bigger ones.  Sometime around the time I was 22, I traded that little slice that truly amateur players have for a draw/hook.  The draw, known as the “player’s miss,” is the preferred ball flight of the better player.  Of course, the best players can intentionally impart a draw or slice on the ball while having a relatively straight standard shot, and while I am able to fade it if I need to, I can’t get myself to hit it straight consistently.  I spin that ball and reap the rewards but also wallow in the detriments.  Anyhow, the draw is preferable as a drawn ball will bound and roll, stumbling and bumbling down the fairway long after a faded or sliced ball came to know the blades of grass surrounding it by name.  The obvious danger here, is in putting a little bit too much of a draw on that ball, and lassoing one over to the left.  Once the ball lands, if it is still in play, it won’t be for long.  My battles against the hook have seen periods of respectful diplomacy (a high soft draw, a very useable and skillful golf shot) interspersed with outright rebellion (inside-outed blocks to the right, which not only start that way, but also fade too!) and more standard gunfights (balls duck hooked badly to the left).

Anyhow, during a period of heightened sensitivities, my bud Paul and I were playing a round at Oak Run in Lockport, New York.  For those who’ve never been to Lockport, or to Western New York in general, just know that the city is a little more rural than you’d expect to find in the Northeast.  They love country music, have tractor pulls, and churches are everywhere.  It’s a nice place, but one in which I could never live.  There is a history of wild wealth there as well though, as the Erie Canal wended it’s way through Lockport before emptying into Lake Erie.  The city enjoyed it’s heyday well over 100 years ago, but the mansions still remain.

It has always been delightfully interesting to me to note that the two most played public courses in Lockport are right across the street from each other.  Willowbrook is a fine course.  27 holes of meticulously maintained golf cut out of thick forest.  They take their place seriously, as air cannons blast every few minutes to keep geese away from the course.  It costs something like $50 to play there.

Oak Run, where the reverse McKernan was born, is the working man’s course of Lockport.  18 paths of grassy patches interspered with small and fast greens, Oak Run requires only that you hit the ball the straight, and that, should you fail that, you have lungs of steel.  The holes are so close together that fore is screamed almost constantly from folks wearing jean shorts, tank tops or sometimes nothing at all.  I love the place.

So yes, Paul and I were playing at Oak Run, and the armies of the hook were knocking down the doors of Alex’s Handicap Town.  After we had completed 2 holes, we caught up to a foursome of old guys, who implored that we play through.  They were, however, keen on watching us tee off.  I’m so very glad they did.

I got up there and fired a shot across the bow at the armies of the hook, but did take some casualties: it was a low right to left ball, just on the border between draw and hook.  It was hammered though, and probably got out there about 275 or so.  Immediately after the ball had rocketed off the club face, one of the old guys yelled out to another “that boy’s got the reverse McKernan!”  He wasn’t yelling to yell, but was yelling simply to communicate, as these old dudes’ senses weren’t what they once were.  The same guy who needed the hearing aid also couldn’t see, as he responded “ahhhh… where’d that one go?  I didn’t see it.”  The other guy responded, humorously for us “oh it’s way the fuck down there.  Young kids.”  His pal agreed that it was simply age which differentiated myself from them, adding another great line to the conversation: “oh, to be young, dumb and full of cum again.”

“Reverse McKernan.”  That’s how my ball flight was described.  It is likely that one of their buddies, surname McKernan, plays a fierce slice.  He must be renowned for it.  The ball wasn’t 50 yards off my club before he knew it was a reverse McKernan.  My ball flight now had a name.  To this day, Paul and I will use reverse McKernan and standard McKernan to describe certain shots out there.  Now that you know the story behind the phrase, you know exactly what I meant above when I described my first shot at Chennault park thusly:

Unable to shake off the cobwebs, I reverted to the old reverse McKernan.

Somehow, over the course of the last two days in New Orleans, I had lost the ability to drive the ball.  I made my bogey on 1, stepped up to the tee on 2, and did the same thing.  Severe Reverse McKernan.  The rest of the second hole proceeded smoothly enough, though, as a wedge, chip and putt had my par secured for me.  I bumbled through the rest of the front 9, becoming more befuddled with each hole.  Other than a severely standard McKernan’d ball out to the right on 9, I was imparting massive hook on my shots.  But just with the driver.  Irons, wedges were fairly straight – straight enough to have me shoot a 41 on the front.  I continued with my off the tee idiocy on the back, and ended up shooting an 83.  At a more demanding course, that score easily would have been in the 400-500 range.  Chennault Park was a great place for beginners of every stripe.  The greens were flat and rolled slowly and truly, and the tree cover was light to moderate.  There weren’t many hazards, and several of those that were marked were dry.  The reason I said “beginners of all stripes” rather than beginners though, is that the course is loooong, and even beginners who’ve got the short game down have work to do to grind out a number at CPGC.  A municipal course offering a set of tees over 7000 yards is impressive, and being my first day back on the links after New Orleans, I settled for the more pedestrian blue tees, themselves measuring over 6700 yards.

CPGC was the perfect place for me to tee it up after a short hiatus.  My wildness off the tee wasn’t punished too severely, and even a round played like a dog ended up carding me an 83.  As I was leaving, I noticed that the First Tee of NE Louisiana was having a clinic for youngsters that day.  While I like what First Tee does, it’s status as a national organization likely leads it to be more bureaucratic than the smaller, local, county run junior golf program I grew up playing in.  The spirit of golf does not change from locale to locale, but many of the pragmatic concerns differ widely from place to place, and I hope and trust that First Tee branches aren’t too tied to the HQ to be able to adjust for that.  I would have stayed and chatted, but it was terribly hot and I had a long, long drive ahead of me.

It would be here where I would recount my harrowing tale of adventure in the Ozarks, but I already did that.  Check it out here.

I did find Southern Arkansas to be picturesque as well, and couldn’t pass up snapping a quick photo in front of this old grocery store, which was still serving the 159 residents of Fountain Hill, Arkansas.  Little towns like this one dotted the country side, and not even years of the sun beating down on the paint could erode that classic Coca-Cola logo from this building.  Your guess as to when it was put there is as good as mine.

Fountain Hill Grocery

Seeing as how I want to get a move on to the house of steak in Amarillo, I am going to do my best to be brief from here out in this entry, but if I should fail to do so, please know that I tried.  And I let you know I am trying.  I’m on your side!

The next day, I only played once rather than the two rounds I had originally planned on playing, meaning I would need to play two rounds the next day.  No worries.  I played at The Creeks Golf and RV Park, in Cave Springs, AR.  The course was a short one, measuring just 6006 yards from the furthest back, black tees.  I teed it up from there.  As I had done yesterday, I started my round with a massively hooked ball, which bounded dangerously close to the creek on the left of 1.  Much like the day before, however, The Creeks was not overly harsh on balls missing the fairway, and my irons and stellar chipping were able to guide me to a 78.  The highlight of the round, no doubt, was driving the green on this hole:

Panorama Driven

This is a panoramic view of the hole, with the green on your left and the tee on your right.  From the big boy’s tees, it measured just 282 yards, but was a 90* dogleg to the right, requiring both a massively crushed ball, and one that faded mightily.  I opened up that club face and blasted away.  It was my first non reverse McKernan of the day, and floated gently over and around the trees, being flown exactly 282 yards.  It was so delightfully struck with fade spin that I even brought it back 2 feet on the green.  Backspin with a driver.  I got up there and had a 30 foot eagle putt.  I parred the hole.

My rage boiling, I finished the round and moved to the clubhouse.  I got to talking to a few of the locals, who shared the interesting story of how the course was designed.  I asked when the course was built, and was told that it was built in 1988 or 1989, and has been public from the beginning.  Unsolicited, a man whom I later found out was the president of a Tuesday/Sunday league at The Creeks, hopped in to let me know that the course was designed with toothpicks.  Clearly unsure of what he was talking about, he elaborated that they used toothpicks to measure distances on napkins and correlated a toothpick to a telephone pole.  Eventually, I figured out that they went all Eratosthenes with their attack plan.  I asked who the designer was, as this wasn’t a trick of golf course design with which I was familiar.  That’s when it got noticeably cooler.  According to the man, there was no designer, per se.  The first owner of the course had dreamed of owning a course, so he took the time to draw the layout on a napkin when the land was up for sale.  He reworked it until he got it right, then purchased the land and built the course.  Marty, you hearing what I’m hearing?  Let’s do it!

Anyhow, for being a self designed and built course, they did okay.  2 natural creeks work their way through the course, and serve as the primary defense for a number of holes.  Doglegs mixed nicely with straight holes, and nearly every green was elevated.  If you couldn’t carry your ball to the green, you were chipping.  Good thing I brought my chipping gloves.  The greens rolled quickly and very true, and I lost count of the number of tap in pars I had following dainty chip shots.

Incidentally, this housing development was just across the street from the course:

Duffer's Ridge

Now that’s a place I could live!

Following my round, it was off to Joplin, MO for the night.

I arrived in Joplin, and quickly struck up a conversation with another Upstate New Yorker.  We talked about Route 66, and golf.  He commented on the sign in my car’s window, and answered his own question of “doesn’t golf make you more stressed out and anxious?” with a “you must be a pretty good player.”  I sheepishly answered that I’m okay, and currently carried a 9.5 handicap.  He put my skill level in a different perspective for me: “Oh, you’re a damn fine player, kid.  Damn fine.”  I’m going to save an expansion on this encounter, and on Joplin, Route 66, and my driving of the last few days, for later.  This entry must end, and I’m focusing on the golf.

I played at Schifferdecker, the lone public 18 hole course in Joplin.  It is owned by the city, and is nicely but not painstakingly maintained.  Sorer than I was teeing off in Louisiana a few days before, I stepped up on the first tee and R McK’d one to the left.  By now I was starting to go insane.  Three rounds in a row started with a dreadful hook, and if the last 2 were any indication of what was to follow in this round, I would need to be relying on my irons and short game to put up a number.  My boiler was about to blow after 1.  I followed my heinous tee shot with a duffed 5 iron that went 50 yards.  Then I hit a 7 iron off a tree.  A few chunked wedge shots, a chip and a missed 6 footer later, I was standing on the 2nd tee having already played an overwhelming 8 shots.

It was during Schifferdecker that I started in earnest messing around with my swing with the driver in an attempt to figure something out.  I was convinced my problem was somewhere with my swing plane, and I altered both the takeback and the downswing in an attempt to rectify my tee shots.  There were signs of brightness on some holes, but they quickly faded to darkness as the R McK was back the next hole, altered swing path and all.  I was truly befuddled.  Adding to the mystique of the problem were the 2 blocks I smashed out to the right during the round.  No matter what I altered, a straight tee shot (there were a few of them) felt like a mistake.  I was mentally discombobulated, and could not find a rhythm at any point in my round.  It was all that damn driver.  At one point, I held it up in the sky, closed one eye and investigated the shaft carefully with the other.  It had to be the club!  It wasn’t the club.  Unsure if I’d ever have a good round again, I tapped in for my pitiful 82, dejected and ready to quit the game.  82’s not a bad score.  I did some things okay.  But this place was a track.  It had the lowest course and slope ratings yet of any course on my trip, and I should have blindly got to the 70’s at this course.  An opportunity for that elusive even par round, I was very, very disappointed with my 82.

This poster in the clubhouse cheered me up though, and I was soon to be on my way:

Every Golfer Should...

Poetry can do beautiful things, and this one, as narrow as the audience is, did great things for me.  A perfect capturing of the beauty and spirit of golf, of what brings us back to the course.  I don’t lie about my handicap, though.

Before too long had passed, I was teeing it up at Hillcrest Golf Course in Coffeyville, Kansas, for my second round of the day.  I struck up a conversation with a man in the clubhouse after the round, and learned that the course had been, from it’s inception, a municipal one, owned by the city of Coffeyville.  Defying my expectations for Kansas, the course was built on a hilly section of town, and offered some great vistas of the town below.  The dude in the clubhouse remarked that “they took the only hill in Kansas and built a golf course on it.”  Good decision.  The original 9 holes were built in 1932, and were designed by the legendary artist of Midwestern golf, Perry Maxwell.  The latter 9 were built in 1998, designed by someone who was still alive but managed to retain a Maxwellian feel about the course.  It was tough to distinguish the design elements which were Maxwell’s on his 9 and those which were the work of the later designer on his or her 9.

Not only did I not expect to find hills, let alone a hilly course, in Kansas, I never expected to find such a delightful challenge of golf at a municipal course in Kansas.  With a course rating of 72.6 and a slope rating of 126 from the blue tees, which measured 6733 yards, Hillcrest was no easy task.  Large, undulating greens only relented on that day because they had not been cut in a few days, and were rolling slower than they could have.  The designers made great use of the elevation changes, as nearly every hole featured an up, or down, or both, before you got to the hole.  Rarer than a flat hole was a straight one, as there were many doglegs, both slight and egregious, at the course.

Indeed, it was the superb layout, full of trouble at every turn, yet also making splendid use of the surrounding landscape to provide some of the best views you’re sure to see in Kansas, that led me to an absolute knowledge that the course was built to be private and was later acquired by the city as the club had run into financial trouble.  The course was even complete with a wide variety of teeing options: blue for the players (6733 yds), white for the boys (6291 yds), yellow for the old men (5666 yds), and red for the ladies and juniors (5245 yds).  This course had been private.  I was sure of it.  Not only was the course a gem, this wrought iron gate lay between the current 3rd green and 4th hole, and reeked of exclusivity:

Old Hillcrest Entrance

In a place where Route 66 culture defines the roadways, a deserted road leading through an abandoned gate was a must take photo.  Incidentally, those two carts in the background comprised of my rescue crew.  I ran into my first dead cart of the trip, which simply stopped working after 3 holes.  No worry though, two staffers were out there in a minute to give me a new cart and take the dead one back for repairs.  This path also worked it’s way back to the old clubhouse, now just a foundation, and eerily remained as a reminder of the wealth that once called Hillcrest home.

Knowing that the place was private is what led me to ask the guy in the clubhouse about the course.  “This place used to be private, right?”  To my astonishment, it had been public, from the beginning.  It had been owned by the city, from the beginning.  What a treasure!  The people of Coffeyville have had the opportunity to play on this course for the last 80 years?  Amazing!  This place is a model for municipal golf – classically designed, great views, challenging yet accommodating.  The only concern I have is that the difficulty may scare some beginners away, but I have a sneaking feeling that the price, friendliness of the staff and views will keep them coming back.

Enough about the course, and on to the insanity of my round.  Having had 3 consecutive rounds start with a reverse McKernan, I aimed way out to the right and figured I’d roll with the punches.  Imagine my rage when the golf gods punished me with not only a hooked ball, but a pulled one as well.  I just couldn’t figure it out.  I’ve heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.  If that’s the case, I was clinically insane on that front 9.  Stubborn in my knowledge that the problem lie not with my swing, or the club, I just decided to be more methodical and make sure I swung super hard.  Hook after miserable hook rained off the tee, and it was a miracle of short game magic that I was able to end up with a 42 on the front.

The low point of the trip, golf wise, was on the 9th tee (this hole also represented the conclusion of the first half of my 49 rounds).  An uphill, short dogleg right par 4, I had ambitions of driving it.  After all, I had driven the green on a similar hole yesterday in Arkansas.  I surveyed the area, determined that I should give her a go, and let it rip.  I opened that clubface up so far that my confidence I’d even hit the ball was dwindling, and drew the club back with fury.  Using all of my fat, I ushered the clubhead towards the ball, and rocketed one right over the tree I was aiming at.  It was even fading a little bit!  I call upon my physicist friends to explain what happened next.  At it’s apex, the ball, which had been fading, started hooking sharply, and as it hung there in the sky, destined for the trees, I wanted to cry.  I could not shake this goddamn hook.  I hit a fade!  And it hooked!  What was happening to me!

Rather than fight the power, I simply owned the hook on the back 9.  Aiming between 30 and 45 degrees right of the fairway, I accepted my lack of skill off the tee, and took my second shot from wherever the ball came to rest, not giving much worry to the outcome.  It was a lost cause at this point anyway.  I ended up hitting 4 fairways on the back!  I shot a 39!  Insanity gave way to clarity!  Forget the hook.  Own it.  Know it.  Love it.  Be it.  Be the hook.  I was the hook, and my 81 at Hillcrest was very satisfying.  I was, however, in my own head.

The long term prospects were not good.  Just one more round, then we are caught up.  Off the record, what I’ve been trying to do with this entry is not merely to talk about my rounds, but to immerse you fully in the mental struggle of golf.  While great strength, precision and stamina are all necessary to be a good golfer, a steady and stable mind is the primary requirement.  What you can be doing so well for awhile can literally stop working for you overnight.  I was driving the ball at least okay during my rounds in the South.  Now I couldn’t hit a drive worth a fuck to save my life.  I had a mental challenge on my hand, and I just simply had to work through it.  Were I not on the trip, I promise you I would’ve taken a week or two off after that last round at Hillcrest.  Sure, I had scored well, largely as a result of owning my ballflight, but it was so disheartening to get up there and time and again hit these fugly drives.  I’ve taken the great golf hiatus several times before, and the way I had been striking it, I was due.

I am, however, on the great American golf adventure, and there is no time for hiati (my plural for hiatus).  After a pleasurable trip west on 66 yesterday, I had to get back to the links.  I had to hit some drives.  I had to prove I was a damn fine player.

I called up Prairie West Golf Club, confirmed I could get on, and began the trek to the course.  A showdown was coming.  The aforementioned armies of the hook had me encircled, and were going to move in for the kill.  This was my last stand.  It all began at the 401 yard par 4 first.  Refusing to give in by owning the hook, I aimed down the right side.  I swung with all my might, and hit the ball due north.  I was aiming east.  Now it wasn’t that bad, but by now my frustration had led to hyperbole, and I was busying labeling myself as the most pathetic, heinous golfer on the planet under my breath as I dejectedly got into my cart.  Forget a par on this hole.  Forget this round.

I oafed a 6 iron up the fairway, and was left with a 50 yard pitch shot over a bunker to a pin about midway through the green.  Some up and down I’d need to have a good day here.  Then something sort of snapped.

“Fuck it, man, what have you got to lose?  You’re driving the ball like shit, it’s windy as hell and these greens are super fast.  Forget scoring well – have fun and try crazy shit!”  I said to myself, as I pulled out my 56* Vokey.  I have the thing in there, but so lack the confidence in it that I rarely use it.  Entire rounds go by where I haven’t so much as considered using it or it’s distant relative the 60* Vokey.  I plopped that ball to 5 feet.  I rolled the putt dead center.  Par.  From the badlands.  Maybe the gods were on my side.  Maybe it was time for a band aid.

I got up on the second tee, and refused to own the hook, yet again.  Wind at my back, I picked an aggressive line over the trees which formed the dogleg on this 411 yard hold.  I opened up the clubface, and prepared to give that ball the bashing of it’s life.  20 seconds later, I knew it was going to be all right.  I mashed that little white fucker 305 yards right down the middle.  All it took was a slightly opened club face.

Mashed drive after mashed drive followed, and the rest of my game came to play today as well.  Crisp irons, delicate pitches and precise chips met up with skilled putting.  In the end, I put together one of my most cohesive, tightest and best rounds of my life, shooting a three over 74, from the player’s tees (6747 yards).  It was 104 degrees and the prevailing wind was 30 mph out of the south.  The conditions were brutal, but I battled through it.

The course was absolutely magnificent.  Well maintained, and featuring holes into the wind, downwind, and with sidewinds, the challenge was present on all holes.  The fairways were low cut, the rough was long yet not long enough to hinder finding balls, and the greens were marvelous.  They were cut low, rolled fast, and rolled as true as can be.  As pleased as I was with my drives, it was my putting and chipping which got me that 74.  I had only 25 putts.  That’s professional.

It was nothing but a damn fine player playing a damn fine round of golf.

74

Now am I mentally strong enough to deal with it and shoot low tomorrow?

That’s the crux of the problem.

I’m off now to Amarillo, TX for a big old steak.  Can’t wait.  Finally all caught up, at least golf wise, I will do my best to keep this within a day moving forward.  I only have yet to write briefly of my experiences on and around Route 66 the last few days, and I will be fully caught up.  If not killed by the food coma that certainly awaits, I’m hoping to get that to you this evening or early tomorrow morn.

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