After the Putter Cover

December 4, 2008

April 1997

After an eventful, but unproductive Thursday round, my player, Chris Perry,  stood 4 or 5 shots outside the cut number needed to qualify for weekend play, or the money rounds as we called them, at Forest Oaks CC in Greensboro, NC.  He suffered through a dismal 76 that day and managed to chew me out for pulling the putter cover off his putter before he thought I should.  It had been a weird day.

But, Friday was a new day and I longed for a little normalcy.  Fat chance.

We teed off number 10 early in the morning.  It was a little cool, almost foggy, and very still.  We knew it would take an exceptional round simply to make it to the weekend, but were thankful to have the opportunity.

The tenth hole at Forest Oaks CC is a straight, medium length par four, which plays longer than the yardage implies since it is uphill.  Out of bounds markers were in play to the right for the unfortunate swingers, but otherwise the hole was manageable.  Chris blazed a drive to the right center of the fairway leaving him with 132 yards to a front left pin tucked four steps over a deep bunker.  Only the top half of the flagstick was visible from our spot back down the fairway.

The cool air and elevation would make the shot play longer, but we agreed it still fit the profile of a good, solid nine-iron.  That was the club he chose.

Chris was a master at course management and always tried to put his golf ball into controllable situations.  I didn’t always agree with his final decisions, but I always knew why he did what he did in any circumstance.  So, this morning I expected him to favor the center, or fat side of the green, to leave a reasonable putt at our first birdie of the day.  We needed a bunch of them, but you can only make them one at a time, one shot at a time.  Mistakes could not be on the slate today.

When it became his turn to play, he stepped behind the ball on line with the pin and began his normal preshot routine.  All good players have a reliable, repeatable routine before a shot that will relax their mind and allow them to visualize the shot they want to execute.  It frees them up to be successful under pressure.  Chris’ routine was well known to me by now, so much so that I didn’t really have to watch him to know exactly what was going on at any moment.

I guess that’s what made me look up abruptly as Chris began walking into his stance at the ball.  For him,  this was always the point of no return; The ball would be in the air momentarily.  But this time, he stopped before he got to the ball.  Uh oh.  I was thinking he didn’t like the club, or he couldn’t commit to a line.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t good to see him back off.

“What’s up?”, I inquired.

Chris looked at me with a little glimmer in his eye, pulled his yardage book from his back pocket and cooed, “Hey Carly, (he said Carly, not Carl which meant everything was okay) does it say anywhere in this yardage book that you can’t hole it out from the fairway?”

Instantly, I realized he didn’t have any problems with the club or the shot at hand.  In fact, he was getting cocky.

“Nope. No it doesn’t, CP.”,  I shot back and grinned.

He slyly smiled back and said my favorite line of his when he had a good feeling.

“Watch this, Carly.”

Chris stepped back into his routine, addressed the ball and whoosh!  Off it went.

The ball started on line with the pin and stayed there.  It flew over the bunker and down the flagstick, out of our sight, since we couldn’t see the elevated green surface or the cup.

Click.

I heard that slight faint sound of a ball coming into contact with the plastic pin that marked the postion of the hole.   Then the small crowd around the green went nuts!

It had flown into the cup for an eagle 2!

Chris smirked and simply handed the nine-iron back to me.  He had called his shot and then incredibly pulled it off.  I was so amazed that I was standing there trying to hand him his putter.  He reminded me that he wouldn’t need it on this hole.

“Oh yeah,” I offered meekly.

I swear I could hear the PGA TOUR commercial tag line, “These Guys Are Good,” going round my head.

That was the first hole of the day.

It was an unlikely and encouraging start, but we knew there was more good work to be done to make this week’s cut.  Chris then birdied both par fives (#13 and #15), our fourth and sixth holes of the day and stood on the sixteenth tee four under par.

The sixteenth is one of the more challenging holes on the course.  A longish par four with a little dogleg right, you had to hit your tee ball blind to the top of a hill which would leave a mid to long iron to a well bunkered and usually firm green.  If you hit it in the rough off the tee, it was very difficult to find your way to the green in regulation.

Chris did just that, missing the fairway to the right.  He had an open shot to the green, but surely could not control the spin of the ball well enough to attack the pin situated in the center back.  His best bet was to land the ball just over the front bunkers and hope it stopped somewhere on the back of the green.  The shot had been thought out, now it was time to execute.

He chose a six iron, which should be just enough to get the job done.  As he hit it, I could tell by the sound the ball hadn’t been struck as cleanly as it needed to be.

“Get up, ball.”  I murmured.

The ball floated in the air lazily, then dropped like a rock from the sky and buried itself into the lip of one of the front bunkers.

“Great.” Chris said sarcastically.

CP had an all-around gift to play the game, but mentally he struggled with the consequences of a poor bunker shot.  As positive as he could be about iron shots, he was the complete opposite in the sand.  I would watch him practice bunker shots on a daily basis and he always showed me something special.  I never saw any real reason that he should be so apprehensive about this part of his game.  Yet, the doubts remained and it showed when he would speed up his normally rock solid preshot routine.

I felt the slippery scoring slope we were on was beginning to tilt even further away from our goal to make the cut.

CP, to his credit, handled the shot better than usual and found himself with a very reasonable chance to make par when the ball nestled to within four feet of the cup.  I felt better already.  He very rarely missed a putt inside ten feet, let alone one from four.  I marked a par four on my pin sheet for the hole.

Within a few moments, however, I was checking my pockets like Columbo for an eraser.

When Chris hit the putt, the grain of the green immediately snagged the ball and veered it left of its intended target line.  The ball reached the cup, hit the left side of the hole and spun out on the right side about a foot away.

“Nuts!” and “Oh well.” were the two things I heard out of his mouth.

Being the precise and steady player he was, Chris never let anything get to him.  It appeared he had already made peace with this bit of adversity.  So when he uncharacteristically attempted to backhand the ball for his bogey, I was a little surprised.  Yet, it was only a foot away, so it would be okay.

Not.

When CP leaned in to backhand it, the ball once again came off rolling on the wrong line, caught the edge of the hole and did a 360!  It spun so far around the hole that it came back at him and grazed his golf shoe.  He then tapped it in and walked off the green.

Now, everything happened so fast, I wasn’t sure I had seen what I thought I had seen.  By my calculations, if the ball had hit his shoe, he would be assessed a two-stroke penalty in addition to his score for that hole.

So, I started to count… Tee ball, one.  Six-iron from the right rough, two.  Bunker shot, three.  First putt, four.  Backhand, five, hit shoe and add two, seven.  Tap it in for EIGHT?!  Oh no!  I can’t believe what I just saw!

Everyone else finished the hole in silence.  As I was walking up to the seventeenth tee, Chris came over and whispered, “Uh, is what happened back there what I think happened?”

“If you mean you think you hit yourself in the foot and made eight, yes, that’s what happened.”  I replied, a little stung.

He didn’t say anything else or whine or complain.  He simply went to the next tee and played golf.  I loved that about the guy.  You never knew by watching his expressions if he was up or down on the course.   The following year during the US Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco he made the 28th hole-in-one in US Open history on the 13th hole in the second round.  I couldn’t tell by his face whether he thought he had done something cool, or he had just found a wad of gum on his shoe that needed to be removed.  That’s just how he was.

Well, we didn’t make the cut at Greensboro that week, but the things I saw and were a party to made me look back on that whole experience with a smile.  To this day I have never heard of someone having as spicy a nine holes with a called hole out from the fairway for eagle, birdieing both par fives and a self-inflicted quadruple bogey on a hit shoe lip out.  Did I mention he made a 40-footer on the eighteenth hole for birdie?!

He shot one under.

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The Putter Cover

December 4, 2008

April 1997

One of the things that always amazed me about professional golfers is how precise their feel and vision is when executing a shot.  A lot of that ability comes from the tremendous amount of practice they dedicate themselves to, but clearly an “it” factor exists in the special ones.  I always felt my boss, Chris Perry, had a special gift.

This feeling was once again proven correct in my mind during the PGA TOUR event in late April 1997 at Forest Oaks CC in Greensboro, NC.  You might think this is going to be a story about a successful week of work, or a thrilling finish late on Sunday, but Chris didn’t even make the cut.

So why was this week such a telling testament to my player’s abilities?  Let me tell you…

We started Thursday’s opening round in the afternoon wave.  If you are not familiar with tournament golf, the field of 144 players are separated into two groups of 72 and sent off the first and tenth tees in threesomes, each group having a morning time one day and an afternoon time on the other.  This is done as a way of making sure every player receives the same opportunity to succeed under similar conditions.  After the second round, the field is reduced to the top 70 scores and ties.  This is called the cut.  These players earn the right to play for two more days and earn a check, while the others earn nothing, pack up and move on to the next stop.

So, we teed off the first hole that Thursday afternoon in windy and difficult conditions (it had been relatively calm in the morning leading to some low scores), started with a bogey and eventually posted a disappointing 4-over 76.  Not the way to start a tournament or gain confidence.

Chris was pretty fiesty most of the day and it showed on the seventh hole.

Lucky number seven at Forest Oaks is a short dogleg left par four that requires a precise, but not long tee ball, fit between a small lake running up the left side and a shallow bunker and trees guarding wayward shots to the right.  Some players would try to overpower the hole by hitting a driver, but the smart play was an iron or fairway wood to the fattest part of the fairway underneath the right bunker.  You would be left with no more than an eight or nine-iron shot to the small sloped green.

That is just what Chris did that day.  He smoothed a beautiful three-iron to the middle of the fairway and was left with 142 to the hole, a perfect nine-iron number.

One of our playing partners didn’t fare as well.  He blocked his tee ball into the right bunker and faced a difficult shot to the green.  On the PGA TOUR, when a player gets into trouble in a bunker, a caddie from another player will rake the sand for them if his player is in good shape.  This helps speed up play.

I was preparing to do just that by removing the cover from CP’s putter, so I could hand it to him quickly and attend to the bunker raking.  Chris heard me peel the velcro fastener apart and I saw his ears perk up.

“What are you doing?”  He asked.

“I’m pulling your putter cover off so I can help them with the bunker after you hit.”  I replied.

He paused for a few seconds, and I thought my explanation was satisfactory.  He wasn’t done though.

“How do you know I’m going to need my putter?  I’ve got a perfect number to the hole.  I’m not going to need it.”  He appeared to be getting a little edgy at this point.  Uh oh.  Say something soothing, I thought.

“Sounds good to me.” was all I could muster.

“No really. Put the cover back on my putter right now.  I thought you believed in my game.”

Great.  Now I was really scrambling to understand why he was geting so worked up about the stupid putter cover.  I’ve done this a hundred times before and he never said a thing.  I wasn’t sure what in the world to say to head off this train.  So, believing less is sometimes more, I simply said, “Okay.” and resheathed the putter and put it back in the bag.

After an indignant glare or two at me just to make sure I really knew how he felt, he seemed satisfied and returned to the shot at hand.

“142 yards, right?”  He asked.

“Yup.”

“Watch this.”  Chris put his sweet swing on display and sent the ball on its way.

It never left the flag.

The ball landed a foot from the hole, popped in the air and stopped dead one inch from the cup for a tap-in.

He shot me a look and said,

“Don’t ever take the putter cover off my putter again until you are sure I’ll need it.”

And with that, he strolled to the green with his nine-iron in hand to make his birdie.

Never again did I early-pull the putter cover.