As we have previously discussed, it is important for the Golf Course Superintendent to play golf or maybe just be seen playing golf. (But not bad golf.) Members want to be assured that their GCS belongs to the same cult and knows the course in the same way they do—not just the way a Turf Scientist interacts with the course.
But there are problems with playing your course. Like when the Green Chairman four-jacks #18 green and starts ranting: “Every time I see our superintendent, he’s playing golf! Does he ever work?” (He saw the GCS once, Christmas Day ten years ago.) Or if you don’t play, you hear this: “I don’t think our super even knows how to play. Never seen him with a club in his hand. Probably thinks grain is something you put in punch!”
It’s important to present an image of yourself as one who has a deep understanding of the game. The elite players in a club command great respect from the commoners, so it makes sense to be a solid player. Our family of golf course superintendents were all great players, and it proved to be a career advantage. Except for me . . . I had to resort to treachery and aggressive disinformation campaigns to remain employed. To get better at golf without suffering the negative aspects associated with too much exposure to the membership, I suggest Stealth Golf Practice, or SGP.
HOW TO SGP
Avoid the driving range during lunch, weekends or daylight unless you enjoy member encounters like, “Why are you hitting balls when you should be doing your job? There’s a dead spot on #4 green the size of a quarter!” Or the member who wants to share his vast swing knowledge with you: “If you get that elbow higher, your feels will be better and your glutes will be activated.”
*I could rarely stop myself from blurting out stuff like, “I already activated my glutes this morning.”
My favorite SGP method involved slipping out early in the morning, with one club and a small turf mat. (No divot evidence) I didn’t take my bag to avoid the appearance of playing. I always noticed more out there with a club in my hand—rather than just standing there in scientist mode. For instance, I might not have realized a tree needed trimming until it knocked down my near perfect approach shot.
Driver practice from a tee is essential. Practice on a real hole is always superior to the driving range, where that imaginary fairway in your head just doesn’t have the same pressure as a real fairway. I picked half the fairway as my target—for second shot setup—just like low handicappers and obsessive gamblers do. This kind of practice helps you gain valuable insight into the twisted mind of the gambling golfer, often the most likely to complain. Hitting from the tee also helped me study how the course played versus the maintenance strategy. For instance, if I hit three good drives down the middle on a gently sloping fairway and then found all three had collected in the edge of the rough, well, that’s a serious player complaint waiting to happen.
The ground movement of the ball will reveal where to establish the fairway outlines, rather than picking lines based on where it looks good. This is crucial to that mysterious playability factor that can keep one employed. Ball bounces change with the seasons. A lean, firm dry fairway has odd bounces, rolls and weird kicks, while a sloppy wet, thick green swamp fairway just has craters and distance envy. (See Kasey Firmness method for non-SGP testing.)
*Note: During SGP, if you stay out on the course too long after sunrise, golfers will show up and realize you are practicing. They will probably offer turf advice, swing theory, or worse . . . they’ll want to talk.
THE MEMBER WHO WANTS TO TALK DURING SGP
One of the drawbacks of SGP during the early morning recon is getting snagged into a conversation with a member. To avoid knocking your whole day off schedule, you must have a prepared Immediate Action Drill. (IAD) We had a retired spook who liked to play very early and it didn’t matter whether I was checking greens or running water or . . . stealth practicing, he wanted to stop and endlessly discuss turf or swing mechanics or tell me about the beer cart girl slapping the green chairman so hard his teeth fell out.
To avoid long conversations and get back to work or more importantly, SGP, the trick is to determine what the member does not want to talk about and trigger that. Our retired spook hated talking geopolitics, so I asked things like: “Hey, why is China aggressively building a deep water navy? Why did Clinton wait 3 days before he launched those cruise missiles at bin Laden? Why didn’t we listen to Perot about NAFTA?”
At this point the member will usually break contact, but it’s important to chase after him with more questions. "Hey! Did you drop these little blue pills? Slow down!" (This will insure minimal contact in the future.)
BACK OF RANGE PRACTICE
The back of the range is a great place to work on those creative shots like low punches, high flops, draws, cuts, and stingers. You may not need these shots, but I did. I spent more time in the deep woods than Tarzan.
WORK THE RANGE PERIMETER
This is where the magic happens. Ever wonder how Lee Trevino became so deadly with the wedge, the most important shot in golf? Because of his time spent working on a driving range. As a kid, I was forced to work the outer perimeter of the range, knocking balls back into the zone where the rolling ballpicker could more easily get them. I did the same thing as a grown up GCS. (Okay, maybe grown up is the wrong phrase.) The range perimeter is perfect for practicing moving the ball around. This is a critical skill, because the modern ball doesn’t move much laterally—unless you take one of those goofy Bubba Watson swings that requires ridiculous amounts of action on the ball and a follow-through where you land with both feet facing the green.
Take a few balls and test the consistency of the sand in your sand penalty hazard area or whatever we call it now. To stealthily practice sand—and check the bunkers at the same time—do not test greenside bunkers after the mower comes through. I “tested” greenside bunkers frequently, because if one was getting thin, I wanted to find it before the players did. I SGP’d the long bunker shot a lot because those evil fairway pits were difficult for me and they are very difficult for your players. I have seen several Tommy Bolt outbursts from members on their way to a quad bogey—who immediately informed me it was my fault. Ever notice how much of an impact those fairway bunkers on 18 at Augusta have on Sunday afternoon?
I hated fairway bunkers dotted all over golf courses that would never host the US Open. Their very presence made me want to commit architectural blasphemicide. But I still SGP’d them. Why? Because SGP helps the GCS discover the personal side of stuff that happens to our golfers. We learn this while doing what golfers do—playing—not doing course recon from the truck at 15 mph.
When practicing putting—I mean checking the greens—just behind the mowers or rollers, I learned I didn’t need a Deathmeter. It was just a reference number, with no actual effect on the golfer in real life . . . those numbers are merely for bragging. The putter will tell you more than a measurement device. Few golfers understand that the best greens actually occur when smoothness and speed match the architecture of the greens. *Note: Never try to explain this to speed-freaks, as you will be shouted down, labeled a heretic and tortured—unless you are a better putter than the Inquisitors.
Greens with a lot of rolling movement— bumps, hollows, flats, ridges and registering an 8 on the Deathmeter—are much more fun than a flat green rolling a hardwood floor 15. Yet we still need to practice on speed-freak greens, because otherwise, the speed-cult will claim you only like slow greens because you are a horrible putter.
SGP PUTTING TIP
Stealth Putting Practice Tip #1: You have a hardwood floor at home, right?
True SGP means playing somebody else’s golf course or hitting balls at Henry’s Driving Range at night or thumping wedges in the back yard with plastic balls. Try SGP and after a while, you’ll be like us Wilsons, waking up in the middle of the night with a magic fix to our swing defects and running outside to test it.
Just don’t mix real balls in with the plastic balls, because of all the glass breaking and burglar alarms and dogs barking that results. What happens next is real Stealth Golf Practice.