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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My Comeback Season In Review

Wired for a swing check at Clay Fitness Center

My 2014 golf season is over and I am happy to say it was successful.  Did I win any tournaments or important matches?  No, but I did accomplish the goal I set for myself in the spring, which had major significance for me in many ways.  The goal was simple: get my handicap to the level it was at the close of the 2013 season.

That doesn't sound very ambitious, does it?  Here's the story, though.  At this time last year, I was coming off stent surgery and getting ready to go into Westchester Medical Center for bypass surgery, which occurred over the Christmas holiday. In February, I had a melanoma excised from my ear.  In March, pneumonia struck.  By April 1, I basically couldn't hit a ball out of my own shadow.

My 2013 year had ended with a 10.3 index, not my lowest ever, but pretty much around the number I've played at for several years.   I started playing as soon as the courses opened, knowing that things weren't going to be pretty.  By June, my index had climbed to 14.8. I knew it was going to take some major work to reach my goal.

The first step was getting back into physical shape.  I'd already started that process, actually exercising (under doctor's supervision) within two weeks of the heart surgery.  I started by climbing up and down the stairs in my home, then graduated to trudging a circuit around my long, hilly, driveway in the January cold.  By the end of the month, less than a month after surgery, I was walking a brisk mile outside every day. I got the go-ahead to graduate to the gym and light weights shortly thereafter.  I started slow in deference to the 14-inch incision running down my sternum.  In February, I started cardio rehab in addition to my gym work.  My goal at that point was simply to build my stamina so I'd be able to complete 18 holes when the season started.

The melanoma procedure and pneumonia set me back, but I teed it up in early April. Couldn't break 90. In fact, 95 was tough, but at least I kept it under 100. The first week of May, I put my stamina to the test with a five-round, five-day trip to Atlantic City with a bunch of golf writers.  Again, the scores weren't as important as completing the task, which I did.

The next step was to adjust my expectations.  I sure wasn't driving the ball much over 200 yards, so I pretty much stopped playing from tees over 6400 yards.  I also stopped trying to hit long par fours in regulation, often laying up to wedge distance and settling for an easy bogey.  The math is pretty compelling if you can follow this discipline.  On a standard par 72 course, if you can par the threes and fives (yes, that's a tall order itself), and bogey the ten par fours, you'll shoot an 82.  From a practical standpoint, there's going to be a bogey or two on the par threes and fives, but there also will be some pars (and maybe an odd birdie) on the shorter par fours, so things should even out.

Keeping the ball in the fairway became much more important, so I worked on my hybrids and mid-irons to make up for shorter drives.  That took awhile, but it came around when I realized I was over-swinging to get more distance from those clubs and was still subconsciously trying to reach every green in regulation.  My new rule of thumb for reaching a green became 175 yards, which was a solid five iron for me.  If the green was further than that (or was heavily bunkered), I would lay up.

What that plan requires, though, is a solid short game.  I dedicated myself to spending at least one practice session each week on the short game facility at Brynwood working on short pitches and chips from various distances and lies, including the sand. The confidence that gave me really paid off as the season progressed.

Along the way, I developed some putting problems, so I went to work on that with a couple of Aim Point seminars with John Hobbins.  That really, really made a difference.  I not only basically eliminated three-putts from my scorecard, but substantially increased the number of mid-range (10-12 ft.) putts I sank.  I still missed too many three-footers, though, so I spent several hours on the practice green trying different putters until I found one that felt solid. The winner, by the way, was a 20-year veteran of my putter collection, a Tad Moore signature model from Maxfli.

The final step in putting my game back together was a session on the lesson tee with Craig Thomas, head pro at Metropolis and all-around good guy.  He pointed out a basic problem that had developed with my driving and gave me a couple of drills to correct it.  Voila!  Twenty-five more yards down the middle off the tee.  Still not as long as last year, but I'm not any younger, either.  All things considered, I was a happy guy.

So what happened after all this sturm und drang? By the August 15 revision, my index was back to 10.3.  After posting 85 rounds, I ended the season with a 9.9 and was quite satisfied with it.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf

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