August 8, 2007

Making the tough choices

Ben Hogan, before teeing off at Riviera Country Club, was asked why he wasn't carrying a 4-iron. "Because there are no 4-iron shots on this course," he said.

Or maybe he didn't say that; with sports anecdotes you can never be sure. Apocryphal or not, though, the point was a good one. No two courses are exactly alike, so each one makes unique demands on golfers and their equipment. When Hogan benched his 4-iron, he made room in his bag for a club that he believed would be more useful. Based on my experience at Riviera, I would guess that the replacement was a sledgehammer, to be used for extracting wayward drives from the dense Kikuyu grass.

This past year, I've been tinkering with club selection, tailoring it to my surroundings, rather than carrying the same old 14 clubs. My home course is short and tight and rewards finesse more than power. There, I carry a putter, three wedges, three irons (9, 8, 7), four old-man hybrids (to replace the hard-to-hit irons), a 4-wood (16.5 degrees and two drivers (16 and 10.5 degrees).

The 4-wood and the 16-degree driver probably seem redundant, but they're not. My 4-wood has a small, shallow head, which makes the club easy to hit off the ground but gives me the heebie-jeebies when my ball is sitting on a tee, especially in the heat of competition. My course has half a dozen short, narrow par 4s on which I now tee off with my 16-degree driver, which goes about the same distance as the 4-wood, but has a head the size of a battleship. When I play longer courses, I leave my second driver in the car and fill its slot with a substitute from my vast inventory of abandoned but unamortized clubs.

I should just leave my 4-wood in the car when I play at home, because I use it only for my second shot on our 15th hole, a par 5, and then only if I've hit a poor tee shot. I could also probably do without my 19-degree hybrid, which (if I hit it well) goes about the same distance as my 4-wood, or (if I hit it poorly) goes about the same distance as my 9-iron. Dumping those two clubs would enable me to do something I've been tempted to do but have never had the nerve to try: carry more than one putter. Recently, I've been thinking that the ideal selection would be a long putter for short putts, a belly putter for medium putts and a regular putter for long putts. It sounds crazy, but almost any round of golf includes more putts than any other kind of shot. So why not?