Monday, August 25, 2008

Be Like Mike

I scored my first-ever birdie last week. Because Mars and I had joked about sending postcards from every hole on the golf course to our daughter-in-law and son, we decided that I should call them to share the good news. They being in New Mexico and us being in Pennsylvania, and it being 5:30 EDT we knew they would be at work. So I shared my excitement with their answering machine.

A few days later Bram emailed me. "OK, still don't know what your message was about the other day. But I'm guessing it wasn't this impressive:" Included in his note was a link to a website with an advertisement showing Tiger Woods walking on water to hit a golf shot.

Actually to me, at the moment it happened and for some time thereafter, it was "this impressive".

Mars and I were in Pennsylvania because we were attending a Golfing Elderhostel at Penn State University. This is the third year in a row that we've come here. It's a four-day program taught by the PSU Women's Golf Coach Denise St Pierre and members of her staff and golf team. The class features lessons every morning and unlimited golf each afternoon. On the course the coaching staff shadows the students offering suggestions, answering questions, and providing encouragement.

PSU has two eighteen-hole golf courses as well as a major in Golf Management. The college also has a School of Hospitality Management that runs the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center where we lived and dined during our stay. The hotel and restaurants are four star plus, as is the golf club and course.

The instruction is probably five stars.

The first year we came to PSU I had no real expectations or goals. I just hoped that I had bought enough golf balls to survive what I anticipated could be four days spent in the high grass, woods. and waters of what the locals like to call "Happy Valley" PA. I did -- barely. But the good news was that the lost ball graph sloped downwards as the week progressed and as my mind and body absorbed the lessons of Coach Denise and her adjutants.

So much so that when we returned last August my aspirations were to learn how to hit a straight drive from the tee and to shoot par on one hole somewhere during the four days. I achieved both -- my tee shots came down in the right places more frequently as the class wore on. And on the fourth day, on the seventeenth and next-to-last hole of the week, I made a par three.

I was thrilled.

You wouldn't think being average could be that exciting -- but that's not really what "par" is. According to my online dictionary par is "the number of strokes a first-class player should normally require for a particular hole or course." So, by shooting par I was, for one brief moment in time, a "first-class player". Right?

This year my objectives were to improve the chipping and putting parts of my golf game, and to shoot par on something other than a hole on which par was three strokes.

We had watched enough Olympics during the week before class for me to learn what I needed in order to achieve my goals -- good coaching, constant practice, and lots of food. The training and eating, regimen of Michael Phelps, who was consuming something like a gazillion calories a day in his quest for eight gold medals, particularly impressed me. And his longest distance was only four hundred meters. In real, American distances that is a mere 1,312 feet or 437 yards -- barely the length of just one of the individual holes Mars and I would be playing at PSU. And he's floating. Obviously Phelps' meager caloric intake would be insufficient for REAL athletes like us who could be confronting up to eighteen times that distance daily for four consecutive days -- as well as training each and every morning.

Fortunately the Hospitality Management majors were up to the task -- providing us with more than ample breakfasts and dinners, as well as hearty box lunches and snacks throughout our arduous stay. In the interests of bettering my golf games and positioning myself to take full advantage of our instruction I devoured pretty much everything in sight.

The coaching was of equal quality. Coach Denise simplified the often-arcane techniques of this ancient sport down to being able to execute a balanced, rhythmic, swing beginning in the hips and ending in the "release" pose -- just like on a golf trophy. The club just happens to encounter a small white ball as it travels on its arc.

I knew that from the get-go I had to apply myself seriously if I were to have any chances at all to accomplish my goals. So, in addition to an above average size serving of fresh fruits I also had pancakes or French Toast and a couple of those fat breakfast sausages that we have only come across in Pennsylvania. And I paid extra close attention to the day's lessons.

My primary learning style is tactile/kinesthetic as opposed to auditory (what Mars is) or visual. I need to feel what I am learning rather than hear it described or watch it performed. We had studied putting and chipping in the morning and my execution thereof was pretty good during our afternoon of playing. I could tell that because of the results. But more importantly I was feeling the swing motions that I needed to make instead of thinking about what I should be doing.

After lunch we had about an hour introduction to "full swing" -- i.e. long shots -- including some drills to help us realize what they should feel like. Probably not coincidentally the longer shots were going well for me that afternoon. Then came the birdie on a one hundred sixty-nine yard long par three. The slope of the land was uphill undoubtedly adding enough distance to make it at least equal to Michael Phelps' longest effort.

I subtly hopped into the air after I sank my ten-foot putt. Dave, who along with his wife Karen, played with us that day said, "That's a birdie." "Yes, thank you." I replied. Mars gave me a terrorist tap -- her ungloved knuckles to my gloved ones. In golf even once in a lifetime moments are celebrated understatedly. My emotions however were reenacting the opening ceremony of the Olympics inside of me. If par is "the number of strokes a first-class player should normally require for a particular hole or course." then a birdie is.....?

The best part was that I knew it wasn't a fluke. My swing on my tee shot felt smooth, balanced and fluid. Likewise my stroke on the putt. In other words I feel like I can do this again.

Which is probably exactly what Tiger experienced when he scored his first birdie -- back in the day when his perambulating was limited to solid ground.

With all the pancakes and sausages he must eat you'd think he would just sink like a rock. I guess that it just goes to show how much athleticism is really involved in this old person's game.

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