For a couple days during the recent U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Winged Foot, I served as a volunteer scorekeeper. I saw some very good teams, including the eventual winners, Ben Baxter and Andrew Buchanan, close-up—and absorbed a few lessons.
1. We play a much harder game than they do
Given the astounding distances these guys hit the ball—I saw one quarterfinalist drive the 305-yard par-4 10th hole with a 3-wood—I don’t think you can make a course long enough that they’d have to hit approach shots as far, relatively, as we do. It’s common for weekenders I know to who cannot hit the ball 250 yards to play the back tees. They’re hitting hybrids and mid-irons all day long. On the Winged Foot East course there were no par 5s that weren’t reachable by the longest of the long and at least 4 par 4s that were drivable or nearly drivable. The Four-Ball participants often had wedges in their hands and hit mostly mid-to short irons. (Exceptions: par 5s that had been converted to par 4s). I’ve heard good players say they’d give up golf if they played like most of us. That’s partly because we torture ourselves.
2. At this level, there are no bad grips
Swings varied a lot, but grips did not. These players can’t afford to compensate for poor fundamentals and it shows in the way they hold the club. I saw a couple of grips that looked a bit weak—players guarding against the hook—but no Harleys. Quarterfinalists all had faultless set-ups, beginning with their grips and posture, and if there was a Big Lesson to be taken from the tournament it was: fix your grip.
3. Those long drives make putting even more frustrating
“You’re only as good as you last putt,” said Doug Sanders, for good reason. The first hour you spend watching these elite amateurs you’re agape at their drives. From then on it’s all about putting, where they can look just as feeble as we do—or uncannily expert. The ability to drive near or over (in one case that I witnessed) a par 4 and then not make birdie tends to magnify pressure. To get a taste of this, play your course’s red tees one day. How many birdies did you make? Putting makes you look like a genius or a doofus. One semifinal team scored two over par and looked completely ordinary for 8 holes, even more so because of their length of the tee. They were tied after 8. They went on to win on the 14th, making birdie putts of approximately 3, 6, 10, 15, 20 and 18 feet in succession (that’s 6 straight birdies), to close out a team that had made one birdie in that stretch and hit the only par 5 the teams played in two. I also watched a team that lost to Baxter-Buchanan miss an almost identical set of putts during a similar stretch, adding two three-putts to the mix. With each putt not holed the next got more mystifying. Just like it does for the rest of us.
4. Studying putts forever doesn’t help
The best partners don’t offer advice on putting until asked. Conferences can take forever and often don’t yield any more fruitful results than first impressions, something sport psychologist Bob Rotella talks about. Indeed, most conferences focused on the line of a putt and it was not uncommon for a player then to leave it woefully short. “You fell in love with the line,” said one of the Winged Foot caddies to his player when that happened. Getting the speed right is the beginning of all good putting. A local caddie helps, too.
5. Good partners are civil, forgiving
At this level, partners don’t apologize. They congratulate. They cheer. They advise (when asked). And they celebrate (politely). There is virtually no pouting—no matter how frustrating things get—no criticism and not a whole lot of emotion. There was a compassion, even a gentleness, in the best teams. It was understood that both members of the team were trying as hard as they could. Ben Baxter duck-hooked a drive perhaps 180 yards on the par-5, 585-yard, 12th hole. There was no visible reaction from either member of the team. He made par. All of this contrasted somewhat with mine and my brother’s demeanors during our recent partnering in a member-guest. After watching Tom stab and miss the third or fourth consecutive 3-footer, I said, “Keep your effing head down,” using the original Anglo-Saxon word. He replied in kind. Though he went from wanting to slit his own wrists to wanting to slit mine—an improvement—the Four-Ball decorum suggested that I might have kept my mouth shut.
6. Pre-shot routines are sacrosanct
Among the amateurs I play with, pre-shot rituals vary wildly from shot to shot, depending on pressure, score, confidence, mood, alcohol. With these players, it rarely did. Though they took a bit more time to size up green-side shots, their routines didn’t vary. Ben Baxter, for example, has a very distinctive one: He stands behind the ball facing down the target, extending the club straight out at the target, obviously attempting to “see” the flight of the shot. It was a routine, I suspect, that had been with him for a long time, one that you might see a poorer player employ. But his never varied. And it worked.
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