Winston Churchill is credited for saying, “Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an ever smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.” Is it fair to say that the last piece of that quote applies to life as well?
I recently spent a few days in the Rocky Mountains. Colorado Springs, Colorado, to be precise. A business trip landed me in a government hotel that looked more like an abandoned asylum than it did a hotel. If it had been on my dime, I wouldn’t have even walked into the sad excuse for a lobby. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even tapped the brakes as I drove by in my rental car. This place was ill-equipped to be a hotel.
Using my years old keycard, with which I’d gotten the warning, “Don’t put it in the same pocket as your phone or it will deactivate it and I’m only allowed to give you two extra ones,” I entered my room with minimal hope that the renovation just hadn’t made it to the outside of the building. My hopes were dashed when I saw floral border, a window A/C unit and a Sharp tube television resting on a piece of furniture that resembled something I’d once placed on the sidewalk after moving out of a college apartment. But the mountains have a way of forcing the give-a-damn out of you.
The first couple of work days ended a bit early and around 3:30 p.m., so on Wednesday I found myself suddenly with about four hours of daylight to fill. What better to do than play golf, right?
I found the local course and walked into the clubhouse, which, much to my surprise, was infinitely nicer than my sorry excuse for lodging. I asked what rental clubs they had expecting to hear only one option: Callaway Strata 12-piece men’s set. Also to my surprise, they offered premium rentals that included a Titleist set of either AP1 or AP2 irons, all 2017 Titleist woods and hybrids and a Cleveland milled putter. They also offered the new Mizuno JPX-900 irons in both cast and forged models (with Project X 5.5 shafts) and the new Mizuno JPX hybrid and woods. “I’ll have the Mizunos, please.” Those weapons are not ill-designed for the task.
Earlier that day I’d been driving back from eating lunch and the Rockies were on the right side of the road. As the radio shuffled through the playlist on my phone, an old Vince Gill song came through the speakers, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” When that song came on the radio I found myself about halfway through singing along with Vince. And before it was over, I had to wipe my eyes. (If by some stretch of the imagination you’ve never heard this song, you must watch this video of him doing it in tribute to George Jones, you can skip to 7:20 in the video.)
What you must know about me, though, is that I’m a broken man. In 2013 my wife and I brought a little girl into this world. She was about seven pounds with dark hair and beautiful eyes. In 2014, while I was deployed to Afghanistan, she got really sick. So sick that I had to leave Afghanistan to be by her side. After many weeks in the hospital, she didn’t make it. A terrible combination of influenza and a respiratory virus was more than her nine-month-old body could handle. It was, and continues to be, devastating. But there are two ways you spiral after a family tragedy of that magnitude: up or down. There’s little room to stay in between.
Over the next three years I would write a lot and play golf, often doing one or both of those things at the expense of spending time with my family. As Churchill said, we are often using weapons in life that are ill-designed to deal with such an event as the loss of a child. In that video Vince Gill says, “Brother George [Jones] taught us all how sing with a broken heart.” If we can learn how to play golf with a crooked stick, then we can learn how to go through life with the broken hearts we pile up along our path. It’s just that sometimes we need reminding.
As I pulled the cart strap around the bag and clamped it down, I looked up at the mountains that embrace the property and thought about the Vince Gill song. I also thought about my daughter. It’s hard to convey the existential things that happen on a golf course when you play by yourself. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does you can’t help but share it with someone. When I rented the Mizunos in the clubhouse, all I was trying to do was take an opportunity to play golf and try out some clubs that were creating buzz in the golf world. What ended up happening was some unexpected healing.
My opening tee shot went a little right (I blamed it on the new driver). I hopped in and steered the cart to the opposite side of the hole, veering off the cart path to find my ball in some slight rough. I promptly hit a wedge just short of the green (my altitude calculations for yardage weren’t very precise), jumped back in the cart and drove to the green. Pumping the parking brake on the cart, I got out and saw the marshall approaching the green. He said, “It’s cart-path only on the course today,” and I apologized. At first, I was annoyed because neither the pro nor the marshall had given me this information and, had I known that I wouldn’t have paid for a cart.
With bygones being bygones, I went about my round. It turns out, the cart-path only status gave me more time to walk and take in the scenery, so there’s the first uptick in the spiral. Since I was alone, I started playing music through my iPhone and kept on rolling. As I tell you the next part of this story it will be hard for you not to think I made it up, but I promise, it happened just as you read it.
I played the first 11 holes just letting one of my playlists cycle through some ballads (I’m a ballad kind of guy) and I pulled up to the par-4 12th hole. When I stepped out of the cart I grabbed my phone out of my pocket to take a picture and that damn Vince Gill song came on again. While the intro was playing, I took this picture.
I had to reset over the golf ball three times because I couldn’t keep my composure. Finally, on the fourth attempt, I striped a drive right over that fairway bunker you see, almost directly in line with the top of that mountain. When I got to my ball the song was about halfway through and Vince Gill was in the middle of a silky guitar solo. I played the shot to the front of the green and it bounced up to about 25 feet. To that point, I hadn’t made a birdie in the round and didn’t expect this one to fall either. (I wasn’t worried about the score all that much with rented clubs at 8,000 feet above sea level.) The universe had other plans.
I parked the cart and walked to the green with my Cleveland milled putter in hand, pulled the flag and lined up my putt. I set up over the ball and took my practice strokes looking at the hole (as I always do). As I placed the putter behind the ball I could still hear the song playing in my pocket. I made the stroke and the ball took off. It broke about six inches around the halfway mark (not what I read) and fell into the hole. It would be the only birdie I’d make all day.
As I replaced the flag and walked off the green the music stopped. I’d reached the end of my playlist.
I finished the round in quiet solitude, admiring the mountains and the lesson they’d taught me. Sometimes, in order to move forward in life, ill-designed tools are the only thing you need. And sometimes, they aren’t so ill-designed. Maybe golf is a game where we play with weapons better suited for chopping down baby trees or tilling a garden, but if it were easy it wouldn’t be something you did for a lifetime.
I’ve been playing golf for over half my life to some degree, and it’s never meant more to me than it did that day. Not because of any specific shot, but because of the power residing in the desire to improve at something. I walked into the clubhouse expecting to get some rentals and play a round of golf, then grab some dinner and spend the rest of the night in the room. I did those things, but somewhere in the middle of the round I realized that I’d been trying to avoid dealing with something terrible that happened to my family, something I couldn’t control and can’t change.
That’s why we love golf, right? Because we think that we can control the outcome with enough grinding and mindless practice. As we all soon learn, though, mindless practice will get you nowhere in this game… and that’s the same in life. I don’t want to build up the moment on 12th hole as something that will will forever change my life; it’s too early to tell, but it did change my day and my week.
Churchill was right, we’re trying to hit a “very small ball.” The last time I checked, though, the hole was bigger than the ball.
An open letter to golf
I know it has been some time since we last spoke, but I need you to know I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you again.
It was just a few months ago I walked crowded isles, stood shoulder to shoulder, and talked endlessly with likeminded individuals about you and your promising future in 2020 at the PGA Show. At that time, the biggest concern in my life was whether I had packed the perfect dress-to-casual pant ratio and enough polos to get through the mayhem of six days in Orlando. Oh, how the times have changed.
On a professional level, what started with the LPGA Tour a few weeks prior progressed quickly at The Players Championship, when you ground to a complete halt within days. As much as it was a tough decision, it was the right decision, and I admire the judgment made by your leaders. Soon after, outside of the professional ranks followed suit and courses everywhere began shutting doors and asked golfers to keep away.
This is the right decision. For now and for the foreseeable future, as much as I don’t like it, I understand how important it is we let experienced health medical professionals make choices and craft policies for the wellbeing of people everywhere. Although, judging by the indoor short game trickery I have witnessed over the last 10 days, handicaps could be dropping when you finally return.
As a game, you are over 200 years old. You have survived pandemics, wars, depression, drought, and everything else that has been thrown at you. Much like the human spirit, you will continue on thanks to the stories and experiences others passed down and enjoyed.
I know you will survive because I also plan on surviving. As long as there are people willing to tend to your grounds and maintain your existence, I will also exist ready to take on your challenge.
When you are able to return in full, I will be here.
Ryan Barath (on behalf of golfers everywhere)
The Wedge Guy: Improving your short iron and wedge impact
One of my most appreciated aspects of this nearly 40 years in the golf equipment industry is the practically endless stream of “ah ha” moments that I have experienced. One that I want to share with you today will–I hope–give you a similar “ah ha moment” and help you improve your ball striking with your high lofted short irons and wedges.
As I was growing up, we always heard the phrase, “thin to win” anytime we hit an iron shot a little on the skinny side (not a complete skull, mind you). When you caught that short iron or wedge shot a bit thin, it seemed you always got added distance, a lower trajectory and plenty of spin. It was in a testing session back in the early 2000s when this observation met with some prior learning, hence the “ah ha moment” for me.
I was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, testing some wedge prototypes with a fitter there who was one of the first to have a TrackMan to measure shot data. I had hit about two dozen full pitching wedges for him to get a base of data for me to work from. The average distance was 114 yards, with my typical higher ball flight than I like, generating an average of about 7,000 rpms of spin. What I noticed, however, was those few shots that I hit thin were launching noticeably lower, flying further and had considerably more spin. Hmmm.
So, I then started to intentionally try to pick the ball off the turf, my swing thought being to actually try to almost “blade” the shot. As I began to somewhat “perfect” this, I saw trajectories come down to where I’d really like them, distance increased to 118-120 and spin rates actually increased to about 8,000 rpms! I was taking no divot, or just brushing the grass after impact, but producing outstanding spin. On my very best couple of swings, distance with my pitching wedge was 120-122 with almost 10,000 rpms of spin! And a great trajectory.
So, I began to put two and two together, drawing on the lessons about gear effect that I had learned back in the 1980s when working with Joe Powell in the marketing of his awesome persimmon drivers. You all know that gear effect is what makes a heel hit curve/fade back toward the centerline, and a heel hit curves/draws back as well. The “ah ha” moment was realizing that this gear effect also worked vertically, so shots hit that low on the face “had no choice” but to fly lower, and take on more spin.
I had always noticed that tour players’ and better amateurs’ face wear pattern was much lower on the face than that of recreational golfers I had observed, so this helped explain the quality of ball flight and spin these elite players get with their wedges and short irons.
I share this with you because I know we all often misinterpret the snippets of advice we get from friends and other instructional content that is out there. To me, one of the most damaging is “hit down on the ball”. That is a relative truth, of course, but in my observation it has too many golfers attacking the ball with their short irons and wedges with a very steep angle of attack and gouging huge divots. The facts are that if the club is moving only slightly downward at impact, you will get the spin you want, and if the clubhead is moving on a rather shallow path, you will get a more direct blow to the back of the ball, better trajectory, more distance and improved spin. Besides, shallow divots are easier on the hands and joints.
If this is interesting to you, I suggest you go to the range and actually try to blade some wedge shots until you somewhat groove this shallower path through impact and a lower impact point on your clubface. As you learn to do this, you will be able to zero in on the proper impact that produces a very shallow divot, and a great looking shot.
[TIP: If you will focus on the front edge of the ball – the side closest to the target – it will help you achieve this kind of impact.]
It will take some time, but I believe this little “experiment” will give the same kind of “ah ha moment” it gave me.
On Spec: Interview with Trevor Immelman, 2008 Masters champion
In this episode, host Ryan speaks with Trevor Immelman about his career, what it was like growing up around the game as a competitive amateur in South Africa, and what it’s like being a Masters champion.
Topics also include his experiences working with the design team at Nike Golf as well as his current “What’s in the Bag” which includes equipment from Titleist and the process he went through to get it dialed in.
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