Tag Archives: Ben Hogan

You Always Hurt the One You Love

I recently had a chat with an old golfing buddy of mine, a retired three-star general who has seen service in Vietnam and later was on NATO’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (his nickname, not surprisingly, is “The General” – sometimes it’s just best to go with the obvious). The General is a very good golfer; his handicap is typically in the single digits and though well into his 60’s, still has plenty of length off the tee. We were commiserating over my recent putting escapade; he commented, “Some game we love, isn’t it? Glad I made a living doing something else.”

I made a joking response – “Yeah – combat had to be easier.”

He responded, “More predictable.”

While to the undying gratitude of a nation, I’ve never seen combat duty (or wore a military uniform), but I have to think he’s right. How else can one explain the great drive that precedes the chunked approach shot; the nifty birdie followed by a double bogey (fondly referred to by golfers as PBFU – “Post Birdie F*ck Up”); the solid front 9 backed up by a horrendous backside; the 75 on Saturday that becomes a 90 on Sunday? Hell, even at his most dominant, Tiger Woods won slightly more than 20% of the tournaments he entered, which in any other sporting endeavor would have him seeking other employment.

Yes, General, this is indeed some game we love. I think about the 1999 Open Championship, when after playing 71 holes in brilliant fashion at Carnoustie (an already difficult track rendered nearly unplayable thanks to a sadistic course superintendent who had narrowed some fairways to a ridiculous 12 yards in width), Jean Van de Velde came to the final hole needing only a double bogey 6 to capture the Claret Jug. Instead, he butchered the hole so badly that he actually waded into the Barry Burn (a narrow creek that is brilliantly leveraged throughout the course to wreak havoc) to contemplate hitting a shot, at which point Curtis Strange, commentating for ABC, proclaimed, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course.” Ultimately, Van de Velde took his drop from the creek, pitched on, and made an 8 foot putt for a triple bogey 7 to put him in a three-way playoff, ultimately losing to Paul Lawrie. If I were Van de Velde, I certainly would have been considering a change of occupation at that point.

I had my own adventure at Carnoustie a few years back. It’s certainly not my favorite place in Scotland. The town, which is not particularly charming, is hard to reach, and the course itself is  perhaps the least scenic of all of the noteworthy Scottish links. Noted course designer Tom Doak describes it thusly: “It’s not that Carnoustie is unfair; it is just depressingly efficient at exposing the flaws in one’s game.”

To be fair, several of my golf acquaintances have told me they love the course, usually because either they shot an exceptional score when they played it, or because they bested Van de Velde’s final hole 7 on the 18th. I can proudly raise my hand to the latter, having lipped out a 6-footer for par to cap off an infuriating round of golf.

I made 8 pars during my round at Carnoustie, which under normal circumstances would have had me tracking towards a score in the mid-80’s, which on a course of that caliber would have been a quite satisfying score. That was not to be the case for yours truly.

After a start of three bogeys and two pars, our group came to the par 5 6th hole. There are three fairway pot bunkers strategically placed in the fairway. The golfer can either play to the right of the bunkers, which lengthens the hole considerably, or shoot through a narrow gap between the bunkers and the out of bounds markers that constitute the left boundary of the fairway. In 1953, Ben Hogan took the latter path successfully in all four rounds en route to his only Open Championship win; this hole was henceforth referred to as “Hogan’s Alley.”

Naturally, we all wanted to take the aggressive route through Hogan’s Alley. It was my misfortune to find one of the fairway bunkers, and was forced to play out sideways. I extricated myself successfully – but to my horror, the ball rolled merrily through the “alley” and out of bounds – which meant replaying the shot, with penalty, from the same bunker. I again got the ball out; this time keeping it in play – but now lying 4 with a good 250 yards remaining to the green. Three shots later, I arrived there, but I somehow managed to putt off the green and into a bunker.  Another three shots later, I was in the hole, carding a rather impressive 11 shots for the hole.

Amazingly, this was not the most embarrassing moment of the round for me.

Earlier in the day, a few of us were walking through St Andrews. I spotted a really cool pair of plaid pants in a shop there (my friend Ben had previously bought a pair during the trip, and I felt the need to do some styling of my own) and decided they would be the perfect sartorial statement for Carnoustie.

So . . . returning now to our hero’s travails . . . after the disaster at Hogan’s Alley, I recovered nicely with a par on the 7th (a combination of a helping wind, a sweeping right to left hook, and a severe case of red-ass produced my longest drive of the day, and indeed the entire trip) and a respectable bogey on the difficult 8th hole.

Unfortunately, the 9th was not so kind to me, and I wound up making double-bogey. While reaching into the hole to retrieve my ball after holing out, I heard a tearing sound. My new pants neatly split along the inseam of my right leg, encompassing the entire length of my thigh. This, of course, was the source of much merriment among my friends, although I was not particularly amused.

Fuming, I hacked my way to make a 9 on the next hole, and declared my disgust for Carnoustie, the game of golf, and mankind in general.

And then proceeded to par 4 of the next 6 holes. Yes, General, this is some game we love.

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Head Games

 

As Jack Nicklaus entered the final years of his playing career, he joked that he had become a “ceremonial golfer.” These days, he has fully realized that particular title, having become part of the triumvirate that fires off the opening shots at Augusta each year. The Golden Bear remained remarkably competitive well into his 50’s, particularly at the Masters, where he found himself on the first page of the leaderboard on Sunday several times. But despite the relative longevity of career that golf affords, physical and mental wear and tear eventually catch up with even the best players – particularly the latter.

 

At the height of their powers, Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones (all of whom were the best of their respective eras) were incredibly focused at their craft, and were so mentally tough that oftentimes they could pull off a tournament win without having their best game. One of Jones’s most memorable quotes cites the most important 6 inches in the game of golf is the space between a golfer’s ears. It’s also instructive to know that Jones retired from competitive golf at the age of 28, explaining that “(championship golf) is something like a cage. First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.”

 

Hogan, of course, was ultimately done in by a combination of the aftereffects of a horrific automobile accident and a stupefying case of the putting yips. Woods’s is a story yet unfinished, but it’s pretty clear that since 2009, he’s fought an inward battle along with dealing with the physical ailments that have plagued him.

 

For most of us who play the game recreationally, if the word “tournament” is thrown into the mix, even on a course on which we regularly play, a nervousness [sometimes even a panic] sets in. Instead of the usual light-hearted banter and needling one generally hears on the practice range, there’s a grim silence punctuated only by shots of varying degree of quality and the occasional oath either muttered or bellowed. And this is just on the practice tee.

 

And then the round begins, and we are paired with guys with whom we are at least acquainted and oftentimes are good friends, but this is a tournament, dammit, we need to bear down! More often than not, this scenario results in shots that can only be defined as stupefying, turning otherwise decent, clear-thinking men or women into emotional mush.

 

I have to say that more often than not, I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve managed some decent tournament performances, and even have won a few, although I tend to think the reason for that was because the formats under which they were played were so convoluted that it was hard to know how I stood during the course of the completion, so I didn’t let that part of it enter my mind. Whereas in a straight-up stroke play competition, I was usually pretty much toast going into things.

 

The Golf Nerd Goddess has played in a number of two and four person team events, and has generally fared well. Recently, however, she decided (or was coerced, in her words) into our Women’s Golf Association’s Match Play event. The matches were seeded, with lower handicappers taking on higher handicappers in the first round. The GNG is in the latter group, so she wound up drawing the reigning Woman’s Club Champion in her first match, and was understandably concerned with this particular match-up.

I tried the usual pep talk – hey, you’re getting a lot of strokes; she’s going to be as nervous as you; it will be a good experience. Her circle of golf friends all told her “just go out and have fun” while also providing her with all sorts of advice on how to beat her opponent (which they all wanted her to do, as it would greatly improve their chances in the tournament). All of which did nothing to make her any less apprehensive. To make matters worse, her match was delayed a week due to heavy rains that came through the area.

We had gone out on the course a few times to prepare for the match, particularly from a mental aspect (those who know me would scoff at the thought of me playing the role of Sports Psychologist, and I would not blame them). Our main focus was to play one shot at a time and repeat the same routine each time. We seemed to be making some progress.

Match day arrived, and GNG was nervous (she had awakened me at about 2:30 AM that morning to tell me she couldn’t sleep and had mentally played all 18 holes. I had to laugh, as I’ve gone through that same ordeal). We went over to the club to warm up, and then met up with the WCC and her husband. At this point I should mention that all of us are friendly; we’ve play rounds and dined together previously. But this was a “tournament round.”

And it showed. Both ladies were nervous; I could tell that the GNG was playing much too quickly, but because of the “no advice” rule, I couldn’t really say anything to her about it. But she hit just enough really good shots (while the WCC hit just enough poor ones) so that they were even after nine holes.

Unfortunately, things unraveled for the GNG at the start of the back nine. Some bad shots, a (under any other circumstances) hilarious putting display by both players on 10, and a ball in the water on 12 suddenly put her three down. I felt horribly for her, figuring that she was broken.

I was wrong – a 50-foot putt on 13 halved that hole, and then another lengthy putt dropped for her on 14 to bring her back to two down with four holes to go. But a golden opportunity to close to within 1 went for naught, and the WCC closed her out on 16.

The ladies hugged and I kissed the GNG, who wore an expression somewhere between disappointment and relief. “You made her sweat,” I told her.

We had lunch, ran a few errands, and then settled in for the evening. We talked about the match over several glasses of wine; I stressed how proud I was of her for not quitting and that the experience would help her in the future. She had seemed to accept the outcome all right, and we decided to turn in early.

I turned on the TV; we climbed into bed – and suddenly she blurted out – “I could have won that match! She was nervous; she did not play her best! I SHOULD have won!”

I tried again to explain that this was a building block, that she’d be better prepared next time .

“I don’t care! I lost. I feel terrible. How can anybody think this is fun?”

For that, I had no answer. I’m sure Jack, Tiger, Ben and Bobby would be at a loss, as well.