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Hear It, Feel It, Believe It: A Better Bunker Method

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The following is an excerpt from Mike Dowd‘s upcoming novel, “Coming Home.” 

After picking the last of the balls on the driving range, Tyler cornered Mack as he hit a few shots from the old practice bunker to wind down at the end of the day. Mack was hitting one after another, alternating between the three flags on the practice green and tossing them up about as softly as if he was actually lobbing them each up there underhanded.

Tyler just stood there, mesmerized at first by the mindless ease with which Mack executed the shot. Bunker shots, Tyler silently lamented, were likely the biggest hole in his game, and so after Mack had holed his third ball in a couple of dozen, Tyler finally decided he had to ask him a question.

“What are you thinking about on that shot, Mack?” Tyler interrupted him suddenly.

Mack hit one more that just lipped out of the closest hole, paused a few seconds, and then looked up at his protégé in what Tyler could only interpret as a look of confusion.

“What am I thinking about?” he finally replied. “I don’t know, Tyler… I’d hate to think how I’d be hittin’ ‘em if I actually started thinking.”

Tyler gave Mack a slightly exasperated look and put his hands on his hips as he shook his head. “You know what I mean. Your technique. I guess I should have said what exactly are you doing there from a mechanics standpoint? How do you get it to just land so softly and roll out without checking?”

Mack seemed to be genuinely considering Tyler’s more elaborately articulated question, and after a moment began, more slowly this time, as if he was simplifying his response for the benefit of a slightly thick-headed young student who wasn’t getting his point.

“You can’t think about technique, Tyler… at least not while you’re playing,” Mack replied. “There’s no quicker path back to your father’s garage than to start thinking while you’re swinging, especially thinking about technique. That’s my job.”

“Mack,” Tyler insisted, “How am I supposed to learn to hit that shot without understanding the technique? I’ve got to do something different than what I’m doing now. I’m putting too much spin on my shots, and I can’t always tell when it’s going to check and when it’s going to release a little. How do I fix that?”

“Well, not by thinking, certainly,” Mack fired right back as if it was the most ridiculous line of inquiry he’d ever heard. “A good bunker shot can be heard, Tyler, and felt, but you can’t do either of those if you’re focused on your technique. You feel it inside of you before you even think about actually hitting it. Watch, and listen.”

With that Mack swung down at the sand and made a thump sound as his club went through the soft upper layer of sand and bounced on the firmer sand below.

“You hear that?” Mack asked. “That’s what a good bunker shot sounds like. If you can hear it, then you can feel it. If you can feel it, then you can make it, but you can’t make that sound until you hear it first. Your body takes care o’ the rest. You don’t have to actually tell it what to do.”

Tyler still looked puzzled, but, knowing Mack as he did, this was the kind of explanation he knew he should have expected. Coach Pohl would have gone into an eight-part dissertation on grip, stance, club path, release points, weight transfer, and so forth, and Tyler suddenly realized how much he’d come to adopt his college coach’s way of thinking in the past four years. Mack though? He just said you’ve got to hear it.

“Get in here,” Mack said suddenly, gesturing to the bunker and offering the wedge to Tyler. “Now close your eyes.”

“What?!” Tyler almost protested.

“Just do it, will ya’?” Mack insisted.

“Okay, okay,” Tyler replied, humoring his coach.

“Can you hear it?” Mack asked.

“Hear what?” Tyler answered. “All I hear is you.”

“Hear that sound, that thump.” It was Mack’s turn to be exasperated now. “It was only moments ago when I made it for you. Can’t you still hear it?”

“Oh, remember it you mean,” Tyler said. “Okay, I know what you mean now. I remember it.”

“No, you obviously don’t know what I mean,” Mack replied. “I wanted to know if you can hear it, in your mind, hear the actual sound. Not remember that I’d made it. There’s a big difference.”

Tyler suddenly did feel kind of dumb. He wasn’t picking up what Mack was getting at, at least not exactly how he wanted him to get it, and so he sat there with his eyes closed and gripped the club like he was going to hit a shot, waggled it a bit as if he was getting ready, and then opened his eyes again.

“Okay,” he said suddenly. “I think I can hear it now.”

“Don’t open your eyes,” Mack almost hissed. “Now make it, make that sound. Make that thump.”

Tyler swung down sharply and buried the head of the wedge into the sand where it almost stopped before exiting.

“That’s not a thump,” Mack said shaking his head. “That’s a thud. You can’t even get the ball out with that pitiful effort. Give me that!”

He took the wedge back from Tyler and said, “Now watch and listen.”

Mack made a handful of swings at the sand, each one resulting in a soft thump as the club bottomed out and then deposited a handful of sand out of the bunker. Tyler watched each time as the head of the club came up sharply, went down again, hit the sand, and came back up abruptly in a slightly abbreviated elliptical arc. Each time Tyler listened to the sound, embedding it as he studied how the club entered and exited the sand. Mack stopped suddenly and handed the club back to Tyler.

“Now you make that sound,” he said, “and as you do remember how it feels in your hands, your forearms, your chest, and most importantly in your head.”

“What?” Tyler asked, looking back up at Mack, confused at his last comment.

“Just do it,” Mack said. “Hear it, feel it, then do it, but don’t do it before you can hear it and feel it. Now close your eyes.”

Tyler did as he was told, closing his eyes and then settling his feet in as he tried to picture in his mind what Mack had been doing. At first, he just stood there waggling the club until he could see the image in his mind of Mack hitting the sand repeatedly, and then he could hear the soft thump as the club hit the sand. He started to swing but was interrupted by Mack’s voice.

“Can you feel it?” Mack said. “Don’t go until you can feel it.”

“Well, at first I could see the image in my mind of you hitting that shot over and over again,” Tyler said, opening his eyes and looking at Mack, “and then I could hear it. It sort of followed right in behind it.”

“Ah, the image is a good starting point, but you can’t just see it and hear it, you need to feel it,” Mack replied, pointing to his head. “Feel it in here, and then you can feel it here,” he continued, putting his hands together like he was gripping a club. “Now close your eyes again.”

“Okay,” Tyler said, not sure he was getting it, but finally bought in. He settled in again and began waggling the club until he could see Mack swinging and hear the subtle thump of the sand. He let it just loop in his mind, over and over again, until suddenly he could feel it like he was the one doing it, and then he swung.

Thump came the sound as the flange of his wedge hit the sand. It was his swing, but it was different, maybe not to the naked eye, but in the speed, the level of tension, and the release. He opened his eyes again, almost tentatively, and looked at Mack with a combination of curiosity and amazement.

“I felt it that time,” Tyler said in a voice that seemed to resonate within from somewhere in the past. It almost sounded like Jackie’s in its exuberance.

“Yes… good,” Mack replied patiently. “Now close your eyes and do it again, but make sure you can feel it before you pull the trigger.”

Tyler settled in again, waited until, like the last time, he could see it, hear it, and then finally feel it… Thump… Something was slightly different this time, though, and Tyler opened his eyes to notice Mack kneeling down next to him. He had quietly deposited a ball into the place where Tyler had swung. Tyler looked up in the direction of the green and the target flag he had been aiming toward just in time to see a ball slow to a gentle stop about four inches from the flag.

“How’d you do that?” Tyler said, almost in wonder now.

“I didn’t,” Mack replied. “You did. You just had to stop thinking. See it, hear it, and feel it. Once you feel it, you can believe it. Anything more is more than we need. Any questions?”

As Mack turned to walk up out of the bunker, Tyler just stood there shaking his head a moment, looking at the spot in the sand, and then back up at the green as if to confirm the ball he’d seen roll to stop was still there. “I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

“Well… yes and no,” Mack said cryptically as he turned back to look at him. “You pretty much know how to hit all the shots, Tyler. You’ve hit every one of them at one time or another. You’ve just got to learn how to empty your head of all those instructions so you can focus on finding the shot you need when you need it. It’s in there somewhere.”

“It’s hard to explain,” Tyler said, “but a lot of times I walk up and think I somehow just instinctively know what shot to hit without even thinking about it. I just kind of see it and feel it. It’s when I start to analyze things a bit more closely, factoring in all the things I know are important to consider like the wind, keeping away from the short side, where I want to putt from, and the best trajectory or shot shape for the situation, that I often start to second guess that feeling.”

“Ever heard the saying paralysis from analysis?” Mack asked. “It pretty much describes those moments.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Tyler replied, “but all that information is important. You have to consider everything and not just make a rash decision.”

“Sure, information is important, but you can’t get lost in it,” Mack countered. “Whether it’s golf, or just about anything else in life, Tyler, you need to learn to trust your gut. You’ve hit hundreds of thousands of shots in your life, Tyler. All those shots leave a mark. They leave an indelible little mark that gets filed away in your brain subconsciously, getting stacked one on top of the other. And after years of playing the game, those stacks and stacks of shots create an instinctive reaction to each situation. It’s like gravity. It pulls you in a certain direction so much that most of the time you almost know what club you should hit before you even know the yardage. Trust that, Tyler. Go with it, and know that first instinct comes from experience. There’s more wisdom in those gut reactions than just about anything else.”

“Thank you,” Tyler said after considering it a moment. “I think that’ll really help.”

“You’re welcome,” Mack replied. “Now rake that bunker for me and clean the balls off the green. I want to get things closed up before dark.”

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Mike Dowd is the author of the new novel COMING HOME and the Lessons from the Golf Guru: Wit, Wisdom, Mind-Tricks & Mysticism for Golf and Life series. He has been Head PGA Professional at Oakdale Golf & CC in Oakdale, California since 2001, and is serving his third term on the NCPGA Board of Directors and Chairs the Growth of the Game Committee. Mike has introduced thousands of people to the game and has coached players that have played golf collegiately at the University of Hawaii, San Francisco, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, University of the Pacific, C.S.U. Sacramento, C.S.U. Stanislaus, C.S.U. Chico, and Missouri Valley State, as men and women on the professional tours. Mike currently lives in Turlock, California with his wife and their two aspiring LPGA stars, where he serves on the Turlock Community Theatre Board, is the past Chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission and is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Turlock. In his spare time (what's that?) he enjoys playing golf with his girls, writing, music, fishing and following the foibles of the Sacramento Kings, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, and, of course, the PGA Tour. You can find Mike at mikedowdgolf.com.

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Podcasts

Mondays Off: Augusta National: start on the front or back nine? | Knudson’s Fujikura visit

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Would you rather start your round at Augusta National from the front or back nine? Mondays Off debates both after the most recent Masters had players starting from both. Steve gets some information on Fujikura shafts from Knudson’s visit last week and then Knudson confesses on how his first night of league play went!

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: How many wedges?

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From the feedback I get, many golfers are not entirely confident…or are completely confused…about how many wedges they should carry. Those of you who know my work and writing over the past 25 years or so also know that I am a proponent of carrying a carefully measured “set” of wedges that give you the shotmaking control you need in prime scoring range. But what I’ve learned over those many years is that the number of wedges that is “right”, and the lofts of those wedges can be very different from one golfer to another.

The reason I think getting this right is so important is that your scores are more heavily influenced by your play from wedge range into the green, and your shotmaking around the greens, than by any other factor. The right “set” of wedges in your bag can make all the difference in the world.

As I repeatedly preach, taking your guidance from the PGA Tour players might not help you achieve your goals. These guys spend hundreds of hours each year perfecting their wedge play, and you simply cannot do that. The good news is that you can add some science to your wedge set make-up that can help you have more shot choices when you are in scoring range or trying to save par from a missed green.

My basic premise on the subject is that the answer can be approached scientifically for each golfer, and it is a multi-step process

  1. Begin by knowing the loft of the 9-iron and “P-club” that came with your set of irons, as optimum gapping begins there. The industry challenge of producing longer-hitting irons has led most OEMs to strengthen lofts throughout the set. Along the way, it was apparently decided to widen the gaps between the short irons to 5 degrees from the traditional 4 that stood for decades. What this does is increase the distance differential between your 9-iron and “P-club” from what I would consider optimum. For golfers of slower swing speeds, that 5-degree gap might well deliver a 10-12 yard differential, but my bet is that most of you are getting a difference closer to 15 yards, or even more. That just will not let you get the distance control precision you want in prime scoring range.
  2. The second step is to be honest with your distances. I am a big proponent of getting on the golf course or range with a laser or GPS and really knowing how far you carry each of your short irons and wedges. Hit a number of shots from known yardages and see where they land (not including roll out). My bet is that you will find that your distances are different from what you thought they were, and that the differentials between clubs are not consistent.
  3. Figure out where to start. If your actual and real distance gap between your 9-iron and “P-club” is over 12-13 yards, maybe the place to start could be with a stronger P-club. You can either have your loft strengthened a bit or make the shaft 1/4 to 1/2” longer to add a few yards to that club.
  4. Figure out what lofts your wedges should have. From there, I suggest selecting lofts of your wedges to build a constant yardage difference of 10-12 yards between clubs. Depending on your strength profile, that may require wedges at four-degree intervals, or it might be five – each golfer is different. Those with very slow swing speeds might even find that six-degree gaps deliver that distance progression.
  5. Challenge the traditional 52-56-60 setup. Those lofts became the “standard” when set-match pitching wedges were 48 degrees of loft. That hasn’t been the case in over 25 years. Most of today’s P-clubs are 45 degrees, which leaves a very large distance differential between that club and a 52-degree gap wedge. Some enlightened golfers have evolved to carry a wedge set of 50-54-58, which is a step in the right direction. But you can get whatever loft precision you want, and you should do that. At SCOR, we made wedges in every loft from 41 to 61 degrees, and our wedge-fitting tool prescribed lofts of 49-53-57-61 to many golfers, based on that 45* “P-club” and their stated distance profile. Those who took that advice were generally very happy with that change. We fitted and sold many sets at 49-54-59 as well. Though no company offers wedges in every loft, you can bend even numbers to hit your numbers exactly. Just remember, bending stronger reduces the bounce and bending weaker increases the bounce.

What many of you will find with this exercise is that it suggests that you should be carrying more wedges. That’s probably true for the vast majority of recreational golfers. I have come to realize that more wedges and less long clubs will usually improve your scores. After all, long or short by 25-30 feet is great at long range, but not acceptable in prime scoring range.

If you have more clubs at the long end of your bag (longer than a 5- or 6-iron) than you do at the short end (9-iron and up) then you should consider an honest self-appraisal of how often you use each club between your driver and putter. My bet is that it will be an enlightening analysis.

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Courses

The Harding Park experience

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When you turn onto the road that leads to the clubhouse at TPC Harding Park, it doesn’t take long for your eyes to focus on the 18th hole. The road winds between the par-3 17th green on your right and the back tees of the 18th on your left, presenting a direct view down the beautifully doglegged left finishing fairway. And if you weren’t already excited about your upcoming round, this ought to do the trick.

TPC Harding Park is San Francisco’s top public track. It was opened in 1925 and was designed by Willie Watson, who also is responsible for the nearby Lake Course at Olympic Club. And Harding Park has already been pegged to host the 2020 PGA Championship, which will only be the second time a municipally owned golf course will host the PGA. And even though the event is over a year away, the facilities are already being prepared for the major.

The clubhouse itself is impressive for a municipal layout; two stories with an event space on the second floor, the layout runs parallel with the 18th fairway, allowing for great views of the back dining patio and balcony. They already have it decorated in anticipation or the PGA Championship with large wallpaper photos of the Wanamaker Trophy, which gives off a serious feeling of legitimacy in the clubhouse entryway. The Cypress Grill, which comes with a full bar, is finished with a full wall of glass overlooking both the final hole and Lake Merced. It was packed at lunch on a Friday when I played…and not just crowded with golfers. The food and view must be good enough to attract regular patrons.

The pro shop is a nice size and the members of the staff were incredibly welcoming and friendly. Most of the apparel was Nike, Adidas and Under Armour but there were a few smaller brands as well. FootJoy was also present and the course’s logo on shirts and hats alternated between the traditional Harding Park logo with the lone tree and the PGA Harding Park logo. There is, of course, already 2020 PGA Championship gear for sale as well.

The course offers carts and pushcarts for rent, but if you do decide to ride, the course is cart path only year round. Rates range from $49-$188 depending on the day and if you are a San Francisco or Bay Area resident.

As you can imagine, Harding Park gets a substantial amount of play, being a first-rate daily fee in a highly populated city. My buddy and I opted to walk as we both believe that’s the best way to experience a course for the first time.

The bad weather earlier this year had left the driving range in disrepair. It was closed during my visit but they are planning to turn that area into a pavilion space for the PGA Championship anyway. Harding Park also has a short course called The Fleming 9 which weaves in between the holes of the Harding 18. That Fleming 9 space will be used as the professionals’ range during the major event.

The course conditions were top quality, especially for a daily fee course with so much traffic. The only real complaint from my group was the presence of so many ball marks on the greens. This can be expected from a course with that number of daily golfers added to the wet conditions of a place like San Francisco. I would imagine that the greens would run much smoother as we get closer to the 2020 PGA. Still, this was nit-picking; the greens were not in bad shape at all.

   

The first thirteen holes at Harding Park are good but don’t rise to the level of “great.” A friendly starter helps maintain pace of play off number one, a slightly right bending par four. The second hole is much like the first, which was a theme of the first 13. Looking back on my round, it’s tough for me to differentiate between each of the first 13 holes. Every hole was really solid, but not exactly unique, with the exception of number 4 and number 10, both fun par 5’s with some character.

Harding Park plays at 6,845 yards from the blue tees, which were the back tees on the day I played. There is a championship tee box that plays at 7169 but they were not set up for us. I would imagine that they’d be willing to do so with a special request. I heard the course is even better from back there. I was told that they will be working to lengthen some of the holes in anticipation of the 2020 PGA.

Along those lines, we were also treated with a special view of what the course will look like for the major next year. The PGA had been out to the course the week prior to my visit and had staked out each fairway with little red flags denoting where they want the first cut of rough to reach. On most holes, these flags were five-to-10 paces inside of where the rough currently was being cut, which showed us exactly how tiny these fairways will be for the pros. It was amazing to see some of the narrow landing spots these guys will be aiming for in a year.

As you walk off the 13th green, the course turns one final time back towards the clubhouse. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, you are about to play five incredible holes in a row to close out your round. The teebox on 14 is snuggled up next to the lake but elevated enough to give you a tremendous view of the water below and Olympic Club Golf Course across the way. The hole in front of you is a 440-yard par 4 that steadily climbs uphill with a gently slanting fairway to the left, pushing landing drives towards the water. As I stood over my approach shot, I looked around and then wrote “best hole so far” down on my scorecard. That was true. Until the next hole.

The 15th and 16th holes both follow the same blueprint: fairway bunkers at the elbow of the dogleg, grabbing the longer drives and forcing a club selection decision off the tee. The lake is still running along the left side of each fairway, giving a completely different feel to these holes than you had on the course’s first 13. At only 330 yards, hole 16 plays much shorter than the previous two lake-side par 4s. But the green slopes enough to make you nervous on your putts and keeps the hole from being an easy birdie. Honestly, after these holes were behind me, I took a moment to look back down the fairway and appreciate how good these holes were.

Hole 17 is a 175-yard par 3 that was playing much longer with a solid wind in our faces. The green is positioned near the entrance into Harding Park and, as I previously mentioned, one of the first views of the course you get as you arrive. The green is slightly elevated and protected by two bunkers in front. It requires a long and accurate tee shot, which is difficult because the 18th hole looms large to the right of the green. And once you finish on 17, it’s just a short walk over to the 18th tee.

The final hole is Harding Park’s most special. A 440-yard par 4, the tee shot requires a carry over the lake to a dogleg left fairway. The longer hitters can take a more aggressive line over the trees to cut off a substantial amount of distance. And by longer hitters, I mean guys like Tiger Woods and John Daly.

The fairway is picturesque. 18 is one of those holes that you want to take your time on. It just has a different feeling. The green is slightly elevated, providing amazing views of the clubhouse and Lake Merced. It is the perfect finishing par 4, giving you everything you could possibly want in a golf hole: strategy, challenge, and beauty all wrapped into one. And then it leaves you feeling grateful for having decided to play Harding Park.

 

 

 

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19th Hole

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