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The Next Great Olympians

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By Jamie Katz
GolfWRX Contributor

We piled out of the car, grabbed the bags and hit the course. I had five lads with me, all between 16 and 20 years old. We didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of our strenuous training for golf’s newest, biggest prize: an Olympic medal. In 2016, golf comes to the Olympics in Brazil and with persistence, effort and a bit of luck, my boys will be there, representing what we hope will be a newly-great golfing nation: Ethiopia.

Okay, so what if the course we were going to was on an indoor simulator? And so what if the Ethiopian guys I had with me knew only one thing about golf: that Tiger Woods played? And so what if I’d never taught anyone, other than my daughter, a damn thing about golf? The quest was on.

A bit of background. My family is, in itself, a rainbow coalition. We adopted my daughter from China. I have one surfer-dude, California nephew; a niece born in the great state of Massachusetts; and three nieces and two nephews born in Ethiopia adopted by my sister, a single mom.

The boys, Amanual and Dawitt, are natural athletes and good runners. Skinny and strong, they played lots of soccer as kids, mostly because there weren’t a lot of other sports for them. In the US, they picked up basketball, football, dreams of making money and girls along the way. We live in the Boston area, so they’ve become Boston sports fan, with a particular passion for the Celtics.

Ethopian 2

I live in the same town with Amanual and Dawitt. I’m 60 years old. Where they are lean and fast, well, I’m neither. Not even close. I can beat them in swimming, skating, tennis and other sports they didn’t play in Ethiopia, but they’re catching me in everything else.

We live within a half-mile of a driving range that also has a pitch and putt course. In the vain hope that my daughter might like golf, I took her to the driving range a number of times when she was younger and had her take a few lessons from a good pro there — that’s a story for another day. I brought Dawitt along for a couple of the lessons. The pro loved his smile and his enthusiasm for trying to hit golf balls, though Dawitt didn’t have much early success at it. He and my daughter, who is about four years younger, trash-talked each other as they wailed away, balls going in many directions, while they tried to follow the pro’s instructions.

I played with the two of them once on the pitch and putt. Dawitt loved the fact that I only beat him by six shots. Of course, I didn’t explain to him that on most holes, we kept my score from the first shot but didn’t start keeping his score until he’d taken two or three shots off the tee and had one that was playable. The highlight for all of us was when my daughter hit a beautiful 9 iron about 90 yards. Trouble was, the hole was only 30 yards long and beyond it was a fence, then a road. She missed a car driving past by about two yards.

Back to my Olympians. When late November hits Boston, it’s time to take the clubs to indoor simulators. So one weekend afternoon a few years ago, I told Dawitt and Ahmanual to grab a couple of their friends so we could play golf indoors. At first, they didn’t understand what I was talking about. But since so much of the lives of teenagers is spent online or on video games, a golf game on a simulator is just as real to them as a real golf game. But they were still thrilled to play — if they could play Tiger Woods on Xbox, they figured they could play with real golf clubs.

The owner of the golf facility gave me a quizzical look as we approached the simulator. I’d been there a number of times, but always on my own to use the practice bays or occasionally to use the simulator to work with specific clubs.

“Who you got with you?” the owner asked me.

I was stymied for a moment, but then it hit me.

“The Ethiopian Olympic team.  Training starts today,” I said.

He laughed, but in that moment, I realized I’d found my destiny.

In that first session, only two of the guys had had golf lessons. The other three had never used a club before. That did not stop them, of course, from assuming that since they were all good athletes — all of them some were some combination of runners, basketball, football or soccer players — they would easily master golf. And, of course, they would beat me.

Ethopian 3

The simulator, thankfully, was like hitting into a cave. It had heavy vinyl curtains all around and on top, except for the front. Nobody could see in and no balls could get out. But, of course, other golfers could hear the sounds of balls hitting everywhere but the screen, along with a heavy dose of trash-talking that came in English and Umparik, the Ethiopian national language.

I gave the kids quick lessons in the grip, the stance and the swing, and had them take practice swings with balls off the tee to start. Very few of their shots went straight or far, but they kept bashing away. I did my best to instruct, but they were too busy dissing each other to pay much attention.

Then we started on the course. I picked the easiest course, with wide open fairways, and I put them on the shortest tees. I let them play the first couple of holes themselves. Nobody hit the ball more than about 70 yards towards the hole, a 300-yard par four, though one hit a long out-of-bounds slice. They all took between six and nine shots to get on the green. They gave the most verbal abuse to the youngest player, who hit the shortest, but straightest shots. When he managed to sink about a 30-foot putt, against all odds, the trash-talking actually stopped for a moment.

At No. 3 hole, I let them all hit first. Somebody had a drive close to 100 yards, but again balls were splayed all over the place and multiple mulligans were taken. Then I stepped up to the tee. I played from the back tee and hit a good drive for me, about 250 yards down the middle. For the second time, silence, but then, “Oh, my God, that’s like Tiger Woods,” “Look how far that is,” and a bunch of Umparic comments that were probably along the lines of “How did an fat, old guy do that?”

We finished the day a slight bit more polished than when we started. But only a slight bit. We’ve gone back a number of times since and will be back there this winter. I figure we’ll ramp up the training this year. More balls go straighter now. Guys are now getting out there close to 150 yards. The guy who owns the indoor range welcomes us with a smile on his face, knowing he’ll have a bunch of happy, enthusiastic golfers, even if their shots don’t quite yet merit the enthusiasm.

Despite the grueling training I put them through, the young men all have fun. I figure that after this winter’s intense training, I’ll get them on golf courses next summer at least a few times. We have to step it up — I have three years to whip them into shape.

You’re skeptical, I know, I can read it in your eyes. But hey, I believe in these guys. And as for their places on the Ethiopian Olympic team, I figure we’re in pretty good shape. Last time I looked, Ethiopia had one nine-hole golf course and a six-hole course at the British Embassy. How good can their competition be? And after all, we’re getting better and playing a harder course — Pebble Beach on a simulator. What could be tougher training?

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GolfWRX is the world's largest and best online golf community. Expert editorial reviews, breaking golf tour and industry news, what to play, how to play and where to play. GolfWRX surrounds consumers throughout the buying, learning and enrichment process from original photographic and video content, to peer to peer advice and camaraderie, to technical how-tos, and more. As the largest online golf community we continue to protect the purity of our members opinions and the platform to voice them. We want to protect the interests of golfers by providing an unbiased platform to feel proud to contribute to for years to come. You can follow GolfWRX on Twitter @GolfWRX and on Facebook.

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1 Comment

  1. Charles Brown

    Jan 23, 2013 at 10:37 am

    First class teacher means first class student-there is no other logical way.

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Opinion & Analysis

15 hot takes from Greg Norman on our 19th Hole podcast

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Our Michael Williams spoke with the Great White Shark himself, Greg Norman, for GolfWRX’s 19th Hole podcast. Not surprisingly, the two-time major champion had no shortage of hot takes.

While you’ll want to check out the full ‘cast, here are 15 takes of varying degrees of hotness, from Norman’s feelings about bifurcation to whether he’d pose for ESPN’s Body Issue.

1) He wants bifurcation immediately, rolling back technology for the pros, rolling it forward for amateurs

“I would instigate a bifurcation of the rules. I would roll back the golf ball regulations to pre-1996. I would roll back the technology that’s in the golf equipment for the professionals. And I would open up the technology and give it to the masses because the pros who developed the maximum club head speed of 118, 120 are the ones who maximize what technology is in that piece of equipment. So the person who’s under 100 miles an hour does not hit the ball an extra 30, 35 yards at all. They may pick up a few yards but they don’t get the full benefit of that technology…I would definitely do that because I think we’ve gotta make the game more fun for the masses. “

2) He has no relationship with Tiger Woods and doesn’t plan to watch him play golf

“And this might sound kind of strange. What I’ll say is … I really, in all honesty, I really don’t care what Tiger does with golf. I think Tiger is, golf probably needs him to some degree but golf doesn’t need him, if you know what I mean, because there’s so many other incredibly talented great young players out there, probably a dozen of them, maybe even more, that are equal, if not way better than Tiger, and they can carry the baton of being the number one player in the world. So, I get a little bit perplexed about and disappointed about how some of these guys get pushed into the background by the attention Tiger gets. I hope he does well. If he doesn’t do well, it doesn’t bother me. If he does do well, it doesn’t bother me.”

3) He plays almost no golf these days

“I really don’t play a lot of golf. I played with my son in the father-son at the end of last year, had a blast with him. Played a little bit of golf preparing for that. But since then I have not touched a golf club.”

4) He doesn’t enjoy going to the range anymore

“To be honest with you I’m sick and tired of being on the driving range hitting thousands and thousands of golf balls. That bores me to death now. My body doesn’t like it to tell you the truth. Since I’ve stopped playing golf I wake up without any aches and pains and I can go to the gym on a regular basis without aches and pains. So my lifestyle is totally different now. My expectations, equally, is totally different.”

5) It took him a long time to get used to recreational golf

“But I’ve been in this mode now for quite a few years now so the first couple of years, yes. My body was not giving me what my brain was expecting. So you do have to make those mental adjustments. Look, there’s no difference than when you hit 40, you’re a good player or not a good player. Things start to perform differently. Your proprioception is different. Your body is different. I don’t care how good you are and how great physical shape you are. Your body after just pure wear and tear, it eventually does tend to break down a little bit. And when you’re under the heat of the battle and under the gun, when you have to execute the most precise shot, your body sometimes doesn’t deliver what you want.”

6) He’s a big Tom Brady fan

“I’m a big fan, big admirer of his. He gets out of it what he puts into it obviously…But he’s also a role model and a stimulator for his teammates. No question, when you go to play Brady and the Patriots, you’d better bring your A game because he’s already got his A game ready to go.”

7) He believes we’ll see 50-plus-year-old winners on Tour

“I said this categorically when Tom Watson nearly won at Turnberry in his 50s, when I nearly won at Royal Birkdale in my 50s….if you keep yourself physically in good shape, flexibility in good shape, as well as your swing playing, and your swing. Yeah, maybe the yips come in maybe they don’t, that depends on the individual, right? But at the end of the day, my simple answer is yes. I do believe that’s going to happen.”

8) The Shark logo has been vital to his post-golf success

“But I realized very early on in life too that every athlete, male or female, no matter what sports you play you’re a finite entity. You have a finite period of time to maximize your best performance for X number of years. And with golf, if you look at it historically, it’s almost like a 15 year cycle. I had my 15 year run. Every other player has really has had a 15 year run, plus or minus a few years.”

“So you know you have that definitive piece of time you got to work with and then what you do after that is understanding what you did in that time period. And then how do you take that and parlay it? I was lucky because I had a very recognizable logo. It wasn’t initials. It wasn’t anything like that. It was just a Great Shark logo. And that developed a lot of traction. So I learned marketing and branding very, very quickly and how advantageous it could be as you look into the future about building your businesses.”

9) He’s tried to turn on-course disappointments into positives

“We all … well I shouldn’t say we all. I should say the top players, the top sports men and women work to win. Right? And when we do win that’s what we expected ourselves to do because we push ourselves to that limit. But you look at all the great golfers of the past and especially Jack Nicklaus, it’s how you react to a loss is more important than how you react to a victory. And so, I learned that very, very early on. And I can’t control other people’s destiny. I can’t control what other people do on the golf course. So I can only do what I do. When I screw up, I use that as a very strong study point in understanding my weakness to make sure that I make a weakness a strength.”

10) Jordan Spieth is best suited to be the top player in the world

“I think that Jordan is probably the most balanced, with best equilibrium in the game. He’s probably, from what I’m seeing, completely in touch with the responsibilities of what the game of golf and the success in the game of golf is.”

11) His golf design is built on two pillars

“Two things: Begin with the end in mind and the least disturbance approach. I think we, the industry of golf course design industry, really did the game of golf a major disservice in the 80s and 90s when everybody was leveraged to the hilt, thought they had unlimited capital, and thought they could just go build these big golf courses with big amounts of money invested in with magnificent giant club houses which weren’t necessary. So, we were actually doing a total disservice to the industry because it was not sustainable.”

12) He’s still not happy about having essentially invented the WGC events and not getting credit

“I’ll always be a little bit salty about that because there’s a saying that I keep telling everybody, “slay the dreamer.” I came up with a pretty interesting concept where the players would be the part owners of their own tour or their own destiny and rewarded the riches if they performed on the highest level. And quite honestly, Michael, actually a friend of mine sent me an article, it was a column written, “Shark and Fox Plan to Take a Bite out of the PGA”. And this is written in 11/17/94 and I literally just got it last night. And I’m reading through this article and I’m going, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I was ahead of my time!” I really was ahead of my time.

So, it was very, very kind of like a reflective moment for me. I read it again this morning with a cup of coffee and I did sit back and, I’ll be brutally honest with you and your listeners, and did sit back and I did get a little bit angry because of the way I was portrayed, the way I was positioned.”

13) He was muzzled by the producer at Fox

“I’m not going to dig deep into this, I think there was just a disconnect between the producer and myself. I got on really well with the director and everybody else behind the scenes, some of my thought processes about what I wanted to talk about situations during the day, and it just didn’t pan out. And things that I wanted to say, somebody would be yelling in my ear, “Don’t say it, don’t say it!” So it became a very much a controlled environment where I really didn’t feel that comfortable.”

14) Preparation wasn’t the problem during his U.S. Open broadcast

“I was totally prepared so wherever this misleading information comes saying I wasn’t prepared, I still have copious notes and folders about my preparation with the golf course, with the players, with the set-up, with conditioning. I was totally prepared. So that’s an assumption that’s out there that is not true. So there’s a situation where you can please some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.

15) He would do ESPN’s Body Issue

“Of course I’d do it. I think I like being fit. I think on my Instagram account I probably slipped a few images out there that created a bit of a stir…And I enjoy having myself feel good. And that’s not an egotistical thing, it’s just none of my, most of my life I’ve been very healthy fit guy and if somebody like ESPN wants to recognize that, yeah of course I would consider doing it.”

Don’t forget to listen to the full podcast here!

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Podcasts

TG2: “If you could only play one brand, what would it be?” (Part 2)

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“If you could only play one brand, what would it be?” Brian Knudson and Andrew Tursky debate their choices in part 2 of this podcast (click here in case you missed Part 1). Also, TG2 welcomes special guest and GolfWRX Forum Member Ed Settle to the show to discuss what clubs he has in the bag.

Listen to our podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Greg Norman on why he won’t watch Tiger Woods this week at the Genesis Open

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Greg Norman, Hall of Fame golfer and entrepreneur, tells us why he won’t watch the Genesis Open this week even if Tiger is in contention. He also discusses his ventures and adventures on and off the course, and shares the thing about the PGA Tour that still makes him angry.

Listen to the podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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