One thing sports fans will notice if they watch the U.S. Senior Open, which begins Thursday at Sacramento’s Del Paso Country Club, is that the best golfers make the game look easier than it really is. Sure, the sand will snare an imprecise iron shot and the thick rough will swallow up wayward drives. But generally, the pro game looks like smooth sailing, replete with soaring shots, pars, birdies and polite golf claps.
The rest of us? It’s a different bucket of balls altogether. We’re perplexed, baffled, bewildered more than we’re elated or even content. Occasionally, we hit shots that resemble the pros, followed by a flub, a flop and a ball that splashes in the pond or rattles around in the trees.
The nearly $70-billion-a-year golf industry entices us to buy the latest technological advances in drivers that are supposed to optimize spin rates that lead to more distance. Easy-to-hit hybrid clubs have largely replaced pro-style long irons that few mortals could get airborne. Putters are bigger and more balanced than ever to lessen the damage caused by off-center hits. New swing theories and teaching techniques proliferate. Launch monitors such as the $20,000 TrackMan computer can spit out every kind of data imaginable – distance, direction, backspin, clubhead speed, launch angle – for every shot you hit.
And yet? Most of us are no closer to Rory and Rickie or Lexi and Lydia than decades ago. In fact, the average 18-hole score still hovers around 100, the same place it’s been for years, according to the National Golf Foundation. That’s likely because before, during and after our 18 holes of torment, we do things that prevent us from reaching our potential. Most of them belie something TrackMan can’t measure – common sense.
The answer to why this happens is both specific to golf and, perhaps, to a life that extends beyond the manicured fairways and greens where chronic frustration and muffled f-bombs abound. While golf may be among the most complex and challenging sports to play even reasonably well, the reasons golfers reach plateaus are much the same as why the runner’s 10K times never go down, the weightlifter’s bench press amount never goes up and the midlevel manager never advances to the corner office.
“It drives me crazy,” said Don Baucom, a longtime teaching pro who for years has worked with local star (and a U.S. Senior Open favorite) Kevin Sutherland. “People practice the wrong things. They don’t work on their weaknesses. People are stubborn. Sometimes they will go see a teaching pro and the pro will give them a lesson, and they’ll say, ‘I can’t do that,’ and they’ll never go back.”
Experts seem to agree that otherwise intelligent people do all kinds of wrong the moment they transition from the operating room, the law office or factory floor to the golf course. If they practice, they often hone bad habits by repeating the wrong swing sequence hundreds of times. Good golfers only work on ingraining good habits, pausing often to ensure that their next practice shot is performed properly.
Struggling amateur golfers rush to the course after work or between playing with the kids on weekends. They put on their golf shoes and maybe loosen up with some practice swings. Accomplished golfers arrive an hour early, take a bucket of balls to the driving range and, ever so deliberately, loosen up with short shots, midrange shots and then long drives. By the time they reach the first tee, their muscles are loose, their mind is at ease and they have a good idea of how their swing is performing that day.
When bad golfers play poorly, they may grumble to their friends at the bar and then repeat the same scenario the next time – often, it goes on like that for decades. When good golfers go astray even marginally, they enlist a teacher or coach so they understand where they went wrong and what it takes to play better.
On and on it goes, until you might think there are actually two kinds of amateur golfers – those who stagnate for years and those who study and practice and wind up playing to the best of their ability.
Much of this explains why Eric Pollard, one of the most respected golf instructors in the area, doesn’t take on just anybody as a student. The price of admission to his golf performance studio at Ancil Hoffman Golf Course – $3,000 for 20 one-hour lessons – tends to weed out those who aren’t absolutely committed. He likes to refer to golf as a journey.
“I interview people to take them on as clients,” Pollard said. “I’m looking for someone with the right attitude. It takes patience and perseverance. I don’t think there are any shortcuts.
“The key is, what is your motivation? If you shoot 95 now and you say you want to shoot 80, what are you willing to give up to do that? If you are not willing to practice as much as you need to, I just say, ‘It’s really nice to meet you and I hope you find the right person to help you.’ ”
Baucom, who charges $60 for a 45-minute lesson, has seen plenty of amateurs during his career who stagnate, playing bogey golf when they were 30 and doing much the same in their 50s. It’s much like the 4-hour marathon runner who fails to mix speed work with long runs to break through performance barriers.
“If they want to improve, they need to hit balls at least twice a week and play at least once a week,” Baucom said. “Then they have to work on their weaknesses. They have to take notes and study. And they need a teacher to keep them from practicing the wrong things.”
Mike Woods, the PGA director of golf at the Haggin Oaks golf complex, sees examples of both kinds of golfers – those who hit plateaus and those who make meaningful improvements – whenever he steps out of his office to the bustling 24-hour driving range. Woods no longer beats himself up about all those golfers who finish their swings with their weight on the wrong foot or who wallop ball after ball on the range without pausing to assess what just happened.
“I have to remind myself that golf is a recreational activity just as it is a competitive sport,” Woods said. “There are those who want to hit it better and hone their games. But that’s just a portion of golfers. There is a large portion of golfers who believe it is fun to come out and whack the golf ball around and spend time with friends in a parklike setting.
“I think if you asked them if they want to improve, they would all say, ‘Yeah, I would love to.’ But when it comes to the dedication and practice, all the hours you need to spend on the chipping green and putting green, they probably aren’t as interested in doing that.
“When I look at handicap indexes (that measure scores) over a long period of time, I used to think: ‘What does that say about me and people in the golf industry helping people improve. But really, I am in the business of helping people enjoy the game. And a lot of those people are having a lot of fun.”