Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Play It As It Lays

Golf is often touted as being an invaluable teacher of life's lessons. It is. Just the other day it taught me what a "French Drain" is -- and is not.

The previous afternoon, on the ninth hole of the Blue Course at the Penn State University Golf Course, I had driven my ball into the center of the uphill fairway. It came to rest in a long, perfectly mown, grass ditch.

Initially I was elated over the length and accuracy of my shot. It was almost exactly equidistant from the long-grass rough on each side, and had traveled about as far as my body is capable of propelling a golf sphere.

Then I saw what my "lie" was. "Lies" are either good or bad. A "good lie" would be one on the fairway with good grass under the ball. A "bad lie" would be one in the rough, for instance -- or at the bottom of a trench.

Influenced largely by anger at the disappointing disposition of the golf ball, but at least somewhat motivated by a sense that I was upholding the integrity of the game, I decided to "play it as it lays" -- (a) the most basic rule of golf, (b) a very good title for a novel, and (c) a really bad strategy for a golf swing if you do not know how to adapt to the lie.

I took out my three-wood, positioned myself as if I were hitting from the perfectly flat plastic mats at the driving range, swung, and topped the ball at about a thirty degree angle along the ground into the adjacent two inch high rough.

Without checking my newest ball situation I changed my club to a five-iron and tromped into the thick underbrush convinced that I would hit the ball from there to the same fairway spot that my previously failed shot had unsuccessfully targeted. Three swings and hundreds of blades of grass later I made it near to that location, albeit still in the long, fat, fescue.

Mars and I were at the PSU facility attending a golf school Elderhostel. The next morning I asked how I should have played the out-of-the-gulley shot that started it all.

"A French Drain", replied Steve, one of the assistant teachers.

Our son Bram feels that in taking up golf Mars and I have joined a mysterious cult. We prefer to think that we are independent operatives who mingle with the secret society just enough to allow us to enjoyably participate in our own variation of the ancient Scottish sport. We play by ourselves, without keeping score, on our favorite very-public golf course.

But still, you cannot be too careful. I know that one of the ways these secretive sects suck you in is by making you privy to their private internal language -- thereby encouraging you to feel like a chosen person with special insider knowledge rather than just someone who happens to speak in a bizarre, non-standard vocabulary.

Golf does have its own language. And I have consciously resisted learning that argot lest its hypnotic power seduce me into a place from which I could only emerge wearing lime green pants and an Izod shirt, while mumbling phrases like "Get in the hole!" and "You the man!"

Given the disrespect into which all things Gallic have fallen (e.g. "freedom fries") I thought Steve was giving me the golf lingo for the type of bad stroke that I had hit -- similar to a "duck hook" or a "fat shot".

While I was trying to quietly penetrate the meaning of this latest piece of arcane golf vernacular Denise, the head instructor said, "You could have taken relief from the French Drain, just like Mars' 'casual Water' ball yesterday". On the previous afternoon Mars had landed her ball in a deep puddle created by recent rain. Since this water did not belong there, she was allowed to move her ball to a spot where the H2O did not affect her shot.

"But, if you do decide to play it from the ditch you need a club with a higher loft."


"A French drain, drain tile, or land drain is a ditch covered with gravel or rock that redirects surface and ground water away from an area." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_drain)

"All French drains are immovable obstructions under Rule 24-2 and relief is allowed in both fairway and rough for interference with both lie and/or stance The ball may be dropped within one club-length of the nearest point of relief not nearer the hole without penalty." (www.rgconline.org/LocalRules.htm)

On the next day, at the same hole, I hit almost exactly the same drive, and this time ended up with the ball midway up the side of the French Drain, requiring my feet to stand on the bottom of the conduit in order to hit it.

I opted once again to play it as it lays -- but this time using a club with more loft, my 3-Iron Hybrid. I relaxed and struck the ball in a relatively straight line about one hundred twenty yards or so. As I was walking away Sarah (another instructor), who was on the course observing and coaching us, pulled up in her cart.

"How should I have played this?" I asked as I placed a second ball on the spot from which I had just hit.

"Choke up on the club and take a three quarters swing", she told me. I did, and the ball went higher, straighter, and further than my previous one.

"Damn, you're right!" I said.

"Always am." Sarah replied.

I never asked her for the name the of shot. Too much information could jeopardize my status as a stealth golfer.

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