I sometime wonder how many Tour players — to include the LPGA Tour, Champions Tour, European Tour — are truly committed to their success.
My purpose is not to cast aspersions on any one player, but there are any number of players who have achieved some success that slowly but surely find themselves incapable of playing at the levels they once did. And it doesn’t always seem to be age related. Perhaps boredom, I don’t know.
This came up for me because I remember what I was doing to achieve my dream of playing on the Champions Tour. I started out trying to Monday qualify my way onto the Tour by earning enough money to finish in the Top 30 players at the end of the year. And when that strategy failed, by trying to gain access by going to the annual Q-School.
For most of the nine years that I was engaged in this, we were playing for four spots in each Monday qualifier and eight cards and eight conditional cards at the Q-School.
That first year, I played in 22 Monday qualifiers. As I have said before, I never came close to qualifying in that first year or any of the subsequent years. But it was not for lack of trying to do everything I could see to do to bring the dream to reality. And playing in all of those Mondays, I always had a very short planning horizon; my attention was always on the goal. There was always a Qualifier next week or another three-city trip mere weeks away.
For that reason, I was always working from morning to dark to get better. In the early going, I would hit very few balls, I would just play every day and hit a limited number of balls to warm up. Playing on a course is where the rubber meets the road, so that’s what I was working on.
Once I moved to Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona, I had many more resources available to me. First of all, I eventually had six courses from which to play whenever I wanted, 364 days a year with Christmas off. I had four ranges to chose from and when the Tradition was still played here, the privilege of practicing with the baskets of Tour-quality Titleist range balls the Tour left behind each year. And each of those ranges had high quality short game practice areas to include course-quality putting greens.
When presented with these endless resources and “free” green fees covered by my monthly dues, I was like a kid in an unlocked candy store with a sign that said “All You Can Eat.” And so I took full advantage.
As I have said before, my bias was always to play rather than hit balls unless I was working on a swing change. I would arrive at the course around 9:30 and have a comprehensive practice until my 11:30 tee time. That practice would include long lag putts, six-foot putts, very high, very short lob shots over bunkers, longer pitch shots, bunker shots and chip shots.
Then, with the juices flowing, I’d go to work on my full swing beginning with my sand wedge to 100-yard targets. Then a short iron, a mid iron, a long iron, a fairway wood and the driver. Tuned up, I would throttle things back by hitting 60 degree wedges at targets inside of 60 yards without knowing the yardages; it was all by sight and feel.
And then I would go to the tee. If I was playing with others, I would treat the round as practice for playing in pro-ams. If I was playing by myself — which happened a lot at 11:30 in the dead of summer — I would hit all kinds of extra shots so that I didn’t run up the back of the groups playing in front of me. I rarely played through those groups because I was in no hurry to leave the golf course; I was only too happy to be able to hit two drives, two approach shots, extra bunker shots and putts.
The round finished, I would go to the range afterward and hit balls until 4:30 or 5:00. I was always working on flushing out “the” feel I was searching for in my swing. You can make all manner of good looking swings on the course, but it takes the solitude and repetition of the range to feel the nuance of the swing and then imprint that feel in your sensory awareness.
My day on the course done, I would go home, change into my running gear and head down to the fitness center. Because I was pretty flexible and had good range of motion, I almost always ran on the treadmills and almost always for six miles. I wasn’t working on speed, I was working on endurance. So I would run 9-minute miles six nights a week. Because my golf muscles were fairly well developed and exercised from playing and hitting balls every day, I rarely did any weight training (I would do more if I had it to do over again).
I would shower at the club, go home to my reward of one frosty beer per night and eat dinner around 7. After dinner, we’d watch television until around 10ish and then get ready for bed. This was six days a week.
Sunday was my day of rest from playing and running. I would hit most of a basket of balls Sunday morning and then be home in time for lunch and the start of the PGA Tour broadcast. It was very relaxing to watch the dream and loaf on the couch.
This was my schedule every day for the seven years I was trying to qualify playing out of Desert Mountain. As I once wrote somewhere, the only days I remember having off were when I was flying back home on Tuesdays having failed to qualify on Monday. Outbound, I always left on 6 AM flights so that I could find the qualifying course, hit some balls (if not play a practice round) and get a run in the street in before dark. Without the conveniences of home, I was eating dinner at 8ish, watching a little ESPN, calling my wife and then sleeping the sleep of the dead.
So why do I go into all of this detail? Because I am mystified why so many good players who are well known to most of us have fallen off the boil. By that I mean, what happened to them? What are they doing to get better and get back into regular contention? Some of it’s rehabbing from injuries or just restoring the body after a three or four week stretch, but I’m not talking about that.
I’m talking about willfully walking away from practice for weeks at a time…which ends inevitably in this phrase being uttered, “Yeah, I haven’t touched a club in (fill in the blanks) and I’m just trying to find my swing again…get a little feel.”
One of the things that drives my sense of this is the community of Twitter. Because I follow many of the Tour players, golf magazines and writers, every time I go to Twitter, I step into a timeline alive with the musings and comings and goings of the players. And what I notice is that some of them have way more time on their hands than I ever felt I had.
They are always jetting off somewhere, working with sponsors, working with charities for their fellow players, fishing, going to basketball games, baseball games, playing tennis, taking family time, going hunting, etc.
Maybe they are doing all the necessary work to get better and just not tweeting about it because they think of it as mundane compared to writing about doing different things in their lives.
And anyone could argue on the face of it that my iconoclastic ways didn’t produce the result I was after either. I did it that way because I seriously came to the game late in life and felt like I had a lot of catching up to do with my peers who had been playing competitively all their lives.
I only mention this because I hate to see talent wasted by the freedoms that early successes may have provided…and I don’t want to be cheated out of enjoying that talent for as long as it’s physically and emotionally capable of being produced.
And neither do I want to see a life lived in regret over what might have been.