This is the first thing you should know when training golf: consuming a heart attack-inducing amount of caffeine will not help you align your feet and aim at your target, or reduce the sidespin that makes your ball fly like an out to the right lets – control boomerang.
The second thing to know is that if you are like me and just want to get to one point in your life where you no longer do three practice swings and six deep breaths each time before hitting the ball 30 yards beat weak, you might want to hire a coach.
Believe me, quitting is cheaper and easier. I believe golf has helped me take my mind off every other problem in the world for at least a couple of hours a few times a week (if anti-vaxxers bug you, try putting), but I’ve still got over it thought about taking the towel about 56 times during the pandemic.
But then I’ll take a couple of decent shots on Mulligan’s Island in Cranston or hit the relatively easy first hole at Triggs Memorial Golf Course in Providence Par, and my gambling addiction will grow. Plus, 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 myself a clear goal: I wanted to get out of shooting over 100 (which means it takes at least 100 strokes to complete an 18-hole round) shooting under 90 regularly, and I intended to write about my progress (or lack thereof).
After writing the first column on my search, I realized that I was rarely alone. Thousands of people read about my struggles and dozens of readers shared their own success or failure stories on the course. Scott Knowland, a reporter in New Hampshire, wished me luck but said he had been trying to crack 90 for more than 50 years. Others, like John McLacken of East Providence, told me about their near misses. John still torments himself choking on the 18th hole and failing to crack the 90 on the Yale golf course in New Haven.
Keep it up, most readers have told me. It will be worth it. Apart from the comments that golf is a waste of time. Some sent me the often attributed quote from Mark Twain that “Golf is a spoiled stroll.” Well, “Huckleberry Finn” is overrated anyway.
So how did it go?
Let’s start by leveling expectations.
I’m still nowhere near leaving the Globe to become a pro. Jumping from 100 to 90 on your scorecard is the equivalent of watching a Little League baseball game at a junior college game. In other words, what I’m doing now looks a bit more like real golf, but it’s still pretty pathetic.
For comparison: Bryson Dechambeau, one of the most famous players on the PGA Tour, shot a 60s at the BMW Championship in Maryland a few days after I shot a 90 in Fenner Hill in Hope Valley. He lost that tournament in a sudden death playoff so I think we both know what heartbreak feels like.
Simmons’ only promise to me was that he would make my bad shots less bad. I’ve read of coaches who want to change your grip or do video analysis of every split second of your swing, but he took a simpler approach.
“There are a lot of things that can be done wrong, but if we try to change them you won’t have as much fun this weekend playing,” he told me after our first lesson.
We focused on my slice, which is golfing language to me as a right-hander and drove the ball far to the right no matter where I aimed. Like many amateur players, Simmons said, my self-correcting was to keep aiming to the left and hopefully landing my ball in the center of the fairway. When that worked, it looked like I knew what I was doing. If it didn’t, I’d be lucky if the ball wasn’t lost in someone’s back yard.
At first, Simmons made it easy for me to aim directly at a target, which at first felt like I was pointing my shoulders to the right. We were also moving the ball forward in my stance, in line with my forefoot, when I hit my driver, which he said would extend my arms if I made contact.
These changes alone have made me hit the ball straighter and more consistently. My bad strokes still go right, but most of them are now playable. Your perspective really changes when you’re no longer afraid of hitting the ball with your driver.
In future lessons, we’ve worked on bringing my chin over the ball and rotating my hips better, but the alignment changes made the biggest difference. Simmons told me the best way to make sure I was aiming the right target is to pick a spot a few feet in front of me, maybe dead grass or a cigarette butt, and use it as a target.
My friends noticed the difference.
Alun Jones, a frequent golfer whose British accent makes him sound like he really knows what he’s talking about, whatever the subject, keeps complimenting me. It is wonderful. My best childhood buddy, Doug Civitelli, told me he wished he could be more like me and that was only half a joke.
And the results don’t lie.
In the three rounds after my first lesson, I got a 94, a 91, and a 90 on various courses. After the second lesson, I hit my target and got an 89 on Fenner Hill. I repeated this score once and shot 88 in Connecticut National, which is just above the Rhode Island Line. Of course I mixed in a few more laps over 90, so I’m not quite over my head yet.
I now walk around with the same irrational confidence I had when I was 12, thinking I could master Allen Iverson’s crossover on the basketball court. When I told Simmons I was ready to set new golf goals for the next year, he made a humble assessment.
“Let’s try your short game first,” he suggested.
To be continued, I suppose.
Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.