I’m no golf pro. I don’t even play one on TV. But I do watch PGA Tour stars on that 55-incher sitting in my living room, and what they do every week still amazes me after nearly five decades of paying attention. The shots they pull off. The pars they save. The powers of concentration that push them to victory, or close. Then again, with golf on TV we’re seeing the best of the best that given week, since all those producers stick with the leaders. We rarely witness the struggle in the bottom half of the field — golf still miles beyond what most of us will ever produce, but a struggle all the same. Even the top one percent of the top one percent have their ups and downs. Or lack of them, if you know what I mean.
But watch a tournament in person and you’ll see it all, the good and the bad, the runs of glory and the bogey-pocked trainwrecks. You walk and watch and learn, and appreciate that they’re human.
I’ve had the good fortune of seeing four U.S. Opens, one Ryder Cup and many PGA Tour events in person. But the one I follow most closely is right here in my home town of Reno, Nevada. The Barracuda Championship (formerly known as the Reno-Tahoe Open) became a PGA Tour stop in 1999, scheduled opposite the World Golf Champion-ships event at Firestone so the guys not in the top 75 would have a shot at a paycheck. It’s what the Tour calls an “encumbered” event, attracting vets biding their time before they age into the Senior Champions Tour; young studs fighting their way to the higher echelons and hoping not to slide back to the Web.com Tour; and a few dudes earning a sponsor’s exemptions or playing their way in via qualifier. Not that we’re talking slouches here; many major winners have teed it up at Montrêux Golf & Country Club over the years, and 2017 was no exception, with Davis Love III, Padraig Harrington, Angel Cabrera, Geoff Ogilvy and Retief Goosen in the fray. A young Sergio Garcia played Reno one year. A teen Jason Day. Just-out-of-their primes Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara.
To a man (and one woman; Michelle Wie joined the guys on a special invitation in 2008), every player showed up in Reno to win. Every player took it seriously. Every player proved them-selves a helluva lot better than … well, many of us.
And, in the process, every one of them was a teacher of sorts. Up close you get a better sense of just how damned hard and solidly they strike the ball, and how smoothly they roll puts and softly and deftly they hit chips and pitches and bunker shots. You can hear it and see it, knowing that it took not only a measure of natural talent to get them there, but countless hours of hard work on the range and in the gym and sometimes mind-numbing drills for body and mind. They are all in, all the time. They must be or they’re doing something else for a living in short order.
The rest of us don’t have the time, talent or dedication to get anywhere close to the several hundred men and women who play golf full time for money, nor do we want to. But it would be cool to at least feel like a real golfer out there, and based on my own hacker’s-eye-view of the legion of Tour players I’ve watched in Reno over the years, I’ve come up with 10 ways that we can make that happen — how we can be like Davis, or Padraig, or even Chris Stroud, the journeyman who hoisted the Barracuda trophy this year after 289 tries.
There’s a bit of zen calm in every great player, and you can tell that they constantly, consciously take deep breaths to stay focused, stay on an even keel and keep the nerves at bay.
2. Be Creative, Not Stupid
Pros hit the ball sideways, too, sometimes into the same dicey lies we face every round. The difference is they take stock of what’s before them, choose the route that will cause the least dam-age to the scorecard, and commit. This year I watched Brad Fritsch hit his second shot off a concrete cart path rather than take a free drop and risk a worse lie, knowing it was a par 5 and he had a shot to play with.
3. Have A Comfortable Pre-Shot Routine And Stick To It
Every shot, every time. No excuses, no short cuts, no rushing.
4. Pay attention…
… to EVERYTHING after you’ve hit the shot —where the ball ends up, how it went through the air (or, for us, along the ground), how it bounced or rolled. Then you’ll have a big portion of the intel you need to hit the next one.
We don’t have the detailed shot books that these players and their caddies carry around, but a lot of times we do have yardage books, pin sheets, GPS devices and other information we sometimes ignore or consider fleetingly. Time to take an extra moment or two and process this info before we …
6. Settle In, Relax And Go!
Your mind will figure in the stuff you learned in No. 5, below the surface. Your job is to forget it and let the sub-conscious do its thing. The pros have great feel because they trust it.
7. Really, Really Practice Your Short Game
A lot. Then some more. It’s worth millions of dollars to a Tour player. They know it’s 75 percent of strokes made, including putting. It’s pure gold to us, too.
8. Squelch The Negative Self-Talk.
This is my worst failing as a golfer. Sometimes I’ll slip and berate myself like a character from a Quentin Tarantino flick, and let the useless anger derail my game for several shots if not a few holes. If I catch a pro chewing himself out, I also notice that it lasts but a second or two, then he lets it go. Give yourself a break.
9. Look Like You Belong
Untucked (collared) shirts are OK these days for casual rounds, but if you also opt for that nicer pair of pants or shorts, keep the shoes and clubs clean and generally veer toward the pressed pro look, you’ll walk a little taller, swing a little better and score a little lower. It’s all about confidence, so why not look confident and somewhat put together?
10. Never Give Up
The Barracuda is the only Tour event that uses a modified Stableford scoring system, which makes for risk-reward excitement. And, yes, some blowups. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched players rinse their second shot in the greenside pond on Montrêux’s 618-yard, downhill par 5 18th, then find a way to save par. Nobody tires of hearing the words, “nice recovery.” The pros recognize that their next shot is always an opportunity, not a punishment or judgment —whether they’re in contention or blowing the cut. As Bruce Springsteen once sang, “No retreat, no surrender!”