My face was flushed and tingling with that pins-and-needles sensation you get when your foot falls asleep, and my stomach was queasy. Not quite to the point where I needed to pull over to be sick, but enough where I’d have been much better off if I was lying in bed instead of driving my car.
Yes, I was nervous about my first golf lesson, but that was only part of the problem. I’m pretty sure that I was also overdosing on the fruit punch-flavored pre-workout drink that I was convinced would help me crush a stupid little white ball so far and so straight that my new coach John Simmons might actually start asking me for tips.
That’s the first thing to know about golf training: Consuming a heart attack-inducing amount of caffeine isn’t going to help you align your feet and aim at your target properly or reduce that sidespin that makes your ball fly to the right like an out-of-control boomerang.
The second thing to know is that if you’re like me and you just want to get a point in your life where you are no longer taking three practice swings and six deep breaths each time before you weakly slap the ball 30 yards, you might want to consider hiring a coach.
Believe me, quitting is cheaper and easier. I’m convinced that golf helped me take my mind off every other problem in the world for at least a few hours a couple of times a week (if anti-vaxxers annoy you, try putting), but I’ve still considered throwing in the towel about 56 times during the pandemic.
But then I’ll hit a few decent shots at Mulligan’s Island in Cranston or make par on the relatively easy first hole at Triggs Memorial Golf Course in Providence, and my addiction to the game grows. Besides, I’m not tough enough to become a pool shark, and I hate jogging.
So I hired Simmons, a well-known PGA golf professional in Rhode Island, and set a straightforward goal: I wanted to go from shooting over 100 (which means that it takes at least 100 shots to finish an 18-hole round) to regularly shooting below 90, and I planned to write about my progress (or lack thereof).
After writing the initial column on my quest, I realized that I was hardly alone. Thousands of people read about my struggles, and dozens of readers shared their own stories of success or failure on the course. Scott Knowland, a reporter in New Hampshire, wished me luck, but said he’s been trying to break 90 for more than 50 years. Others, like John McLacken of East Providence, told me about their near misses. John still agonizes over choking on the 18th hole and failing to break 90 at Yale’s course in New Haven.
Keep going, most readers told me. It’ll be worth it. Except for the notes about golf being a waste of time. A few sent me the quote often attributed to Mark Twain that “golf is a good walk spoiled.” Well, “Huckleberry Finn” is overrated, anyway.
So how did it go?
Let’s start with leveling expectations.
I’m still nowhere close to quitting the Globe to become a professional golfer. Jumping from 100 to 90 on your scorecard is equivalent to going from watching a Little League baseball game to watching a junior varsity game. In other words, what I do now looks a little more like real golf, but it’s still pretty pathetic.
By comparison, a few days after I shot a 90 at Fenner Hill in Hope Valley, Bryson Dechambeau, one of the top players on the PGA Tour, shot a 60 at the BMW Championship in Maryland. He wound up losing that tournament in a sudden death playoff, so I guess we both kind of know what heartbreak feels like.
Simmons’ only promise to me was that he would make my bad shots less bad. I’ve read about coaches who want to change your grip or conduct video analysis of each split-second of your swing, but he took a more simplistic approach.
“There are lots of things you do wrong, but if we try to change them, you’re not going to have as much fun when you play this weekend,” he told me after our first lesson.
We focused on my slice, which is golf lingo for me — a right-hander — driving the ball far to the right no matter where I was aiming. Like a lot of amateur players, Simmons said, my self-correction was to aim further to the left and hopefully have landed my ball in the middle of the fairway. When that worked, it looked like I knew what I was doing. When it didn’t, I’d be lucky if the ball wasn’t lost in somebody’s backyard.
First, Simmons got me comfortable with actually aiming straight toward a target, which felt as though I was actually pointing my shoulders to the right at first. We also moved the ball forward in my stance, in line with my front foot, when I was hitting with my driver, which he said would force my arms to be extended when I made contact.
Those changes alone had me hitting the ball straighter, more consistently. My bad shots still go off to the right, but most of them are now playable. Your perspective really changes when you are no longer riddled with anxiety about hitting the ball with your driver.
In future lessons, we worked on getting my chin over the ball and rotating my hips better, but the alignment changes have made the biggest difference. Simmons told me the best way to make sure I’m aiming at the right target is to pick out a spot a few feet in front of me, maybe a dead patch of grass or someone’s cigarette butt, and use it as a target.
My friends have noticed the difference.
Alun Jones, a frequent golf buddy whose British accent makes him sound like he really knows what he’s talking about no matter the topic, keeps complimenting my form. It’s delightful. My best childhood pal, Doug Civitelli, told me that he wishes he could be more like me, and he was only half-kidding.
And the results don’t lie.
In the three rounds following my first lesson, I scored a 94, a 91, and a 90, all at different courses. After the second lesson, I hit my goal, scoring 89 at Fenner Hill. I’ve repeated that score once and shot 88 at Connecticut National, which is just over the Rhode Island line. Of course, I’ve still had a few 90-plus rounds mixed in, so I’m not yet fully over the hump.
I’m now walking around with the same irrational confidence I had when I was 12 years old and thought I could master Allen Iverson’s crossover on the basketball court. When I told Simmons that I was ready to set new golf goals for next year, he offered a humbling take.
“Let’s try practicing your short game first,” he suggested.
To be continued, I suppose.