The Shape I’m In

Hook. Slice. Draw. Fade. Success is all about the little adjustments.

Tuesday men’s league at my little club. The sun is setting at an August pace, hot and distant, and I’m up 2 with three holes to go. I’m matched against a little guy with a hinky swing and a nice touch around the greens, a guy named Mike who owns a restaurant called Marvin’s and who delivers mail in the mornings along a rural route as piecework. Last time we played I missed a four-foot putt to halve the match. That was four weeks ago, but I still want a piece of him.

We’re teeing up on the seventh hole, an uphill par-5 dogleg left with two serious changes of elevation and a slope running sidehill from right to left. To have any kind of chance at par, you have to move the ball from right to left. Everything sets up for the hook, the shot that Mike carries in his bag like a balisong knife for use in moments just like this. As he tees it up, I can see that he thinks the door is open, that he can take me. “I used to fade like you,” he says. “More of a slice, really. But I learned to shape it. There’s a world of good in that. I love going left around that corner.”

I grunt. Little bastard! Gaming me when I’m up 2 and three. Still, looking down the chute, I can see that he’s right. I need a draw here, a pronounced pull from right to left, to slam the door shut on his foot. I need to be able to shape my shot, if only for moments like this, when someone is insinuating that I slice the ball, questioning my mechanics, my self-control. So without a nod to Mike’s continuing chatter, I make my adjustments, the tiny moves that golfers learn–a quarter inch here, a visible knuckle there–to shape my shot.

I CAN’T TELL YOU how an air conditioner works. And though I understand water displacement, hell if I can say why a steel boat doesn’t sink like a block of cement. Flight is a larger mystery still, but I’ll climb aboard a Whisperliner as a basic article of faith, without a worry in my head. My home is full of perfectly reliable little mysteries–fabric softeners, smoke detectors, Krazy Glue–things I buy over and over again without ever studying them, let alone understanding how they work. You could say I don’t understand much about the world around me, but I’m here to tell you: These things work.

Conversely, I do understand the golf swing. I can recognize a smooth swing from three hundred yards. I know all about the closed face, the movement from inside to out, the cocking of the wrists. I am totally down with the release. I know about gripping the club like a tiny bird, about the big turn, swing planes, and head speed. Like any golfer, I read, and then read some more: how to fix my flaws, slow my takeaway, and lead with my hips.

Still, in golf, knowledge is not necessarily power. I know of fifty-three corrections I can make on my swing each time I stand over the ball. Fifty-three. I just counted. Grip. Hands. Wrists. Shoulder tilt. Hips. Knee flex. Chin. The list goes on.

Most times, it’s the same story. I hit a high fade, the most pedestrian tee shot of them all. It’s a whittled-down slice, really, moving gently from left to right, smothering to a spinning stop on the right side of nearly any fairway.

The fade is not a particularly ugly shot. Jack Nicklaus hit a fade all his life, and he did okay. The Tour has a number of left-to-right hitters who make pretty good scratch, including the coolly spectacled David Duval. On an average course, six or seven holes will set up specifically for the fade. Like most golfers, I play the shape of my shot off the tee, lining myself up slightly left, banking on the action of my shot to take me to the center of the fairway. I live with my fade.

But the truth of the matter is that the draw–moving from right to left, with top-spin adding distance to the roll–is the preferred flight path. Look at the nomenclature. The word draw indicates a pulling of a string, a wholly conceived and executed act. In its more exaggerated form, the draw becomes the hook–a word that suggests a weapon or, at the very least, a punch–again, a fully conceived act. The hook is long, dangerous, macho. By comparison, the fade connotes a gradual leaking of power, a sense of diminishing return, an eventual disappearance. The slice, the most extreme version of the fade, is the ugliest event in golf. The word itself–slice–is weak and passive, bringing to mind breads and pies and kitchen knives. The term “a mean slice” sounds accidental, dangerous, and hurtful, like a deep wound from a jagged piece of metal. Hard, low, and short, the slice spins like a poorly tossed boomerang, too weak to get all the way there, too shyly hit to come home. It settles halfway there and halfway back, in the repellent middle ground of the rough or the hazard.

MY REGULAR GROUP is mostly guys who play the draw. They are a real menagerie. My cousin Marty hits the way antelopes run: smooth, fast, rhythmic. His steep, deeply tempoed swing leaves a wisp of a divot, barely marking his passage. He imports baby clothes and he’s got a draw.

My friend Wayne, who took up the game just three years ago, swings limber, almost floppily, like an ostrich. He bends his arms so much, you could open a jelly jar in the crook of his elbow. Still, he hits it hard, makes corrections at impact. He teaches British literature and he’s got a draw.

I play with a guy named Jaws who swipes so viciously at the ball that he could be mistaken for a rabid bobcat. Yet when he hits it solid, his ball rises and, at the very top of its trajectory, turns over, to the left. Always left! The guy coaches soccer and he’s got a draw.

Then there is Jere, whose mechanics are so strong, whose understanding of the game is so rich, that he can look at any shot and think, How do I shape this? For him, the game is one of possibilities, not repetitions. He makes adjustments, strengthening his grip for a draw, opening his stance for a fade. He’s AC/DC. He goes both ways. He thumps us all.

GOLF IS A GAME of shapes. You stand at the first tee of a new course, and the first hole presents itself to you, tree lines bend away, fairways slope outward, spaces narrow then open in anticipation of flight paths, greens sit in geometric certainty in the distance. When you examine the card, the course is there in tiny drawings, shapes inside of shapes, shades inside of shades. You learn to regard the shape of your shot as just another certainty, as a way of fitting yourself into the place.

Standing at the seventh hole, with Mike reminding me of the ghost of my slice, I make the moves I must in order to have any chance of turning the ball over, of hitting a draw. I strengthen my grip, rotating my right hand counterclockwise. I close my stance a bit. I remind myself to keep my hips quiet. I think of myself as a clockface, my hands falling from 12 to 6, and I want to make contact just past 6. I urge myself through a practice swing, thinking only of the release, the moment of impact, when, if all goes well, I get to the ball with my club face slightly closed and my hands slightly behind the ball.

Before I hit, I turn to Mike, who is gazing at the fairway ahead of us. He’s banking on my rightward drift. It’s his only chance: that I will throw a ball out to the right and panic over my second shot. Poor bastard.

I’m feeling good. When I hit it, I know that I’ve gotten through it, and when I look up, I expect to see the ball tugging leftward. As usual, it doesn’t go that way. Interestingly, it doesn’t curl in either direction. The ball falls gently on the center cut. Mike’s shoulders sag as we approach our second shots. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “Straight works well, too.” On the green next to us, a howl comes up as someone nails a long putt. He’s right. That’s when the game’s simplest truth reveals itself. In the game of curves and textures, straight is surely the best shape of them all.

With this issue, we begin monthly reviews of golf courses, written by Tom Doak. Doak is the principal architect of Renaissance Golf Design in Traverse City, Michigan, and is the author of intemperate coffee-table book about golf you’ll ever find.” At the end of each review, you’ll find a numerical rating. The Doak Scale ranges from 0 to 10, with any course rated a 3 or above being worth playing, 6 or above worth a significant effort to get there, and 10 worth mortgaging your house to play. Doak has designed ten courses, including the just-opened Apache Stronghold in Arizona.

TACONIC GOLF CLUB, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, 1927.

About ten readers of the Confidential Guide wrote to recommend that I visit Taconic–the most letters of support for any course I’d omitted. It’s a classic, woodsy parkland course at the home of Williams College, in the heart of the Berkshires. It must be absolutely stunning in the fall, when the trees turn–at some points on the course, the wooded backdrops seem to go on for 15 or 20 miles. Unlike Donald Ross or C. B. Macdonald, Stiles and Van Kleek were both landscape architects with little golfing background, but they were graceful practitioners from the classic school of design, and their practice in the ’20s extended from New England to Florida. Their par-4 holes are particularly good here, with topography in nearly all the fairways adding subtle strategy and making it that much harder to hit the small greens. The best hole is probably the 13th, where a faded drive will bound away into the right rough and leave a tough angle over bunkers to a long, narrow green. Not only is it the best golf in Billsville, it’s worth the drive from Albany or Hartford, but it’s so popular with the members and students that they may not be able to squeeze you out.

Rating: 6.

EAST LAKE GOLF CLUB, Atlanta. Rees Jones, 1995, overlaid on a Tom Bendelow design from 1908 that had been modified by Donald Ross and ruined by George Cobb.

This was not, as has been reported, a restoration of a Donald Ross design; understanding that the original course was not entirely Ross’s work, Jones gave himself creative license in its redesign. However, as a calssically styled modern course, East Lake is a smashing success, with titled greens that carry more short-game interest than anything else Jones has done. The mission of club patron Tom Cousins was to resurrect the golfing home of Bobby Jones from the urban decay that had caused the old East Lake Club to fall apart after the Atlanta Athletic Club moved out to the northern suburbs. The transformation is surreal. The revitalized clubhouse is a bit over-the-top–the kind of place, as a friend of mine put it, where you’re not supposed to tie your own shoes. As for the course, the only problem I found with it was that it was too immaculately constructed and maintained to feel old and traditional. But the shot values of a classic course are all there–particularly on holes such as the par-5 ninth, where the green contours dictate play on the approach–and it’s been lengthened enough to challenge the big boys. To get on, though, you’ll need to make nice with a member or call in a favor from a friend.

Rating: 7.

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