For as far back as I can remember, I've hit the ball like a 10-handicapper. I've been better and I've been worse, but that's about who I am. My only distinguishing characteristic is that I hit it low. Our late columnist Charley Price once told me, "If you hit it any lower, you'd be playing underground." Good gosh, I want to be better.
My handicap has bounced around in high single digits, but there was one sublime season in the mid-1980s—pre-marriage, pre-kids, pre-Internet—when I played the best golf of my life.
The sweet spot wasn't just serendipitous. It was the result of a carefully executed plan consisting of two unbroken rituals.
First, I hit practice balls every day after work, but never a shot more than 100 yards. My daily regimen was restricted to the short game; the only full shots were with 52- and 56-degree Callaway Hickory Stick wedges. Like every golfer in those days, I had a cylindrical, red-canvas shag bag emitting a distinctive click-plop when I hovered over and pressed down on a ball, sending it up the protruding shaft into the bag.
Pros had leather satchels much more stylish than amateurs' click-plop contraptions. Angelo Argea, Jack Nicklaus' caddie, had a green one signifying his man's MacGregor contract. Caddies would stand in the practice field at tournaments and shag balls hit by their pros, progressing from wedge to driver. (Imagine today a practice line of golfers hitting balls into a field of caddies, and you couldn't count the lawsuits quick enough.) At the end of Jack's practice sessions, he'd be hitting these 1-irons like mortar shells, then he'd pause and wave Angie back another 30 yards, no, a little farther back, Angie, 40 yards. Jack would take out his persimmon driver and fly it two stories over Argea's Brillo-Pad head. The crowd went wild.
The other pro I liked to watch was Tom Kite, who might not have had a 1-iron but was the first to carry three wedges. His longtime caddie, Mike Carrick, had a red-and-white leather satchel (Wilson Sporting Goods' colors), and he'd pace off from Kite's practice spot and shout back the yardage each wedge carried: "62 . . . 64 . . . 61 . . . 62." It was the feedback Kite needed to connect subliminally each wedge's feel with distance, and boy, did it make an impression on me. That was the inspiration for my relentless wedge practice, two hours, every day, beside the humongous practice green at Winged Foot in New York.
The second ritual of my sublime season was a playing tactic on the course: I never went for the green when I had more than a 4-iron distance. I'd lay it up and then try to hit one of those calibrated Kite wedges. This applied to Winged Foot's four par 5s that were reachable for me as well as a lot of long par 4s.
Keep in mind: The hybrid had not yet been invented, so anything more than, say, 190 yards would require a high-risk long iron or fairway wood that brought Tillinghast's treacherous bunkers and three-putt greens into play. My handicap started the season at about a 5 and ended at a 1—as in one, oh-en-ee—a stroke from scratch. It was the only time before or since that it ever got nearly so low. I shot a 72 at Augusta National from the members' tees, birdieing all four of the par 5s without going for any of them in two.
Looking back, I realize how statistically naive I was back then. My grand experiment was based on a hunch, no real numbers. And maybe that's why it disappeared into the mist of passing seasons, when I never again had such a grasp on scoring. It came and went, and generally I've retained a pretty good wedge game since, but the 72s became 77s and then 82s and scarily higher now.
This month's Big Data Issue reminded me of that one magical season with the possibilities that are now unlocked by understanding the real facts of scoring better. The lead piece by Senior Editor Mike Stachura shows how new technology allows us to track results and refine our tactical decisions on the course. Based on a new study analyzing the swings of 30,000 golfers by GolfTEC, an instruction franchise business with 200 worldwide locations, Nick Clearwater identifies six moves that differentiate high-handicappers from the pros. And Senior Writer Guy Yocom examines how three data disruptors on the PGA Tour have learned to "weaponize" the game's numbers. The Cloud now offers us these same opportunities for improvement. Where did I put my shag bag?