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What I Learned on My Golf Trip

Sometimes it takes a guy 35 years to realize that the biggest problem with his golf game is his brain.

by Donovan Wheeler

Jim VanBuskirk, my high school golf coach, was a thin, diminutive man with a high-pitched voice.  He shielded his eyes behind a thick pair of classic horn-rimmed glasses, and he covered his jet black locks with one of those quintessentially 80’s mesh-framed baseball caps.  He always wore a pair of copper-ringed bracelets, swearing by their properties which allowed him to play both well and pain-free.  Every time he walked onto the tee, he addressed the ball with his feet together, and then stepped off his foot placement.  Deliberate motions usually in the form a small step forward toward the target followed by a slightly larger step back.  Once perfectly set up, Coach VanBuskirk executed a slow takeaway leading to slightly more accelerated downswing.  He turned fluidly on this finish, and the consistent flight of his ball complemented this wooden crack echoing off the face of his persimmon driver.

I always admired the man, but I never really modeled my style of play after him.  Instead, I gravitated to the older players on the team, including my uncle John (only two years older than me, he was always more of a brother).  They were big swingers, setting up with wider stances, taking the club back ferociously, and coming back through as their bodies powerfully uncoiled.  They were graceful.  They were athletic.  They were confident.  They were gifted with fine motor control.

I was none of these things.  That didn’t stop me from trying to be them…or trying to be John Daly in the early 90’s…or trying to be Tiger Woods a decade ago…or trying to be all the long-knockers on my home course in Greencastle, Indiana.

Photo by John Hecko
Photo by John Hecko

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On my respective home courses—the 9-hole track I grew up on and the current course I play today—I have been “dumb-lucky” just enough to perpetuate this nonsense.  Every time I would almost have a rational conversation with myself about the futility of stepping off wide and swinging hard enough to rupture my abdomen, I’d knock one solid and watch it carry deep down the middle of the fairway.  The emphasis here is on the word “one.”  Logically I ignored the twenty or thirty some-odd other wide fades into downtown Indy.  And I never considered that the heavy snap-hooks heading to Terre Haute may have meant that maybe I was trying to play beyond my limits.  I just kept bombing away.  I kept getting frustrated.  I kept taking time away from the game to cope with my frustration.  I kept thinking like a mentally stunted jackass.

So when my buddies asked me to join them on a long weekend golf trip in Michigan, I was flattered, I was excited, and I was also wary.  As frustrating as my erratic play had been at home, on road courses my experiences bordered on agonizing.

At our first stop, Norte Dame’s Warren Golf Course, we strode up to the back set of tees, and I did my level best to keep pace with the two big-hitters in our foursome.  John, a stellar athlete with a muscular frame, easily zipped his ball deep off the tee.  But it was Brian who established the baseline for the rest of us.  A former college defensive back, Brian’s mystique at our home course has long been one of those legends we all accept as a fact.  If Elon Musk really wants to get one of his spaceships into orbit, he simply needs to pay Brian to smack it in the ass-end with a 3-wood.  It won’t stop until it reaches Mars.  While I was able to keep the ball somewhat in play, I found myself often needing four, five, six, eleven-foot putts to save a par…sometimes to save a bogey…sometimes more than that.  That was the usual story: hit the ball from the back tees into trouble, waste more shots getting out of trouble, stare down a long putt for a double-bogey, walk off the green feeling miserable.  When I climbed into the van for the next leg of the trip, I was thankful that I stayed south of 100, which is a less embarrassing way to say I shot a 92.

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For the rest of the weekend, my scores largely didn’t improve.  Putting played a huge role.  I used to tell myself that adjusting from the super-fast greens at our home course to the slower ones everywhere else was often difficult…I’m no longer sure that’s the case.  Designed for high traffic, the shaggy greens surrounding us proved very difficult to master.  Facing one “camel ride” after another, I frequently left each of those very long putts one or two towns short of the cup, and under the added pressure to sink the follow-up putt I usually clamped down on my putter grip and missed inside.

Somehow though, despite evidence to the contrary on the scorecard, my game improved as the weekend progressed.  The turning point happened on the third day when, staring down a long, narrow course cut out of an old-growth forest, I opted to bag the driver, step off my stance, slow down my tempo, and make more rhythmic swings at a more even tempo.  In other words, I tried to play more like Coach VanBuskirk.  I stood over the ball with confidence, and I put most of my shots down the middle.

On the way home, I tried to make sense of the groove I had found.  At first I thought maybe the problem was the driver.  Maybe we’ve all been suckered by the marketing ploys of Ping, Callaway, Taylor-Made, and so forth.  When I played my most consistent golf in high school, I was whacking away with an old stiff-shaft 3-wood.  But I was wrong.  Drivers, I learned, have been in use for a long time, and in those old days if anyone dropped down a club from the big stick they actually used 2-woods.

No, the problem was mental, and it revealed itself when I replayed my typical annual routine in my head.  I always started the year well, with a balanced stance and an even tempo.  As I shook the winter crust off my game, my stance widened, and the ball started moving…too far forward past the front toe on most cases.  My swing speed picked up.  I started to slide instead of turn.  My head started moving laterally at first, then more like a clock pendulum.  And what did the scores show?  In April, I broke 80 often.  By May: above 80.  By June: mid-80’s.  By July I was summering poolside, beers-in-hand.

Coach VanBuskirk letting me have what I probably deserved in 1985.
Coach VanBuskirk letting me have what I probably deserved in 1985.

I couldn’t help but kick myself.  All those summers wasted chasing a style of play I had no business emulating. When the game which had served me well as a teenager was the one I was meant to play my entire life.  More importantly, the other lesson I learned is that the answers to a good golf game don’t lie in the next driver or a $200 putter.  The game has always been more a game of fundamentals: Grip, Aim, Stance, and Posture. If I whittled a high-quality plank of 2×4 into a 7-iron and used excellent fundamentals, I’d still play better than I would holding the most expensive equipment swinging out of my shoes.

With my lesson learned, I hit the first tee a couple mornings after we returned from the trip.  I hit two out of three fairways, six out of ten greens, rolled in 29 putts, and jotted down a 73: some of the best golf I’ve played in almost thirteen years.  Whether I have finally hit a true turning-point remains to be seen.  If I can keep my wits clear…if I can respond to a bad shot with fundamentals in lieu of an exaggerated over-correction…if I can remember that the goal is to bat about .700 and not 1.000…then maybe some of those basic lessons Jim VanBuskirk preached to me 35 years ago will have finally seeped through the very thick skull which for too long has housed a very dumb golfing brain.

About Donovan Wheeler

Donovan Wheeler has been playing golf since age 11. Except for the six or seven times he’s given up the game, or the hundreds of thousands of times he’s posted a horrible, awful, rotten score…he’s been okay at it.

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