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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Too much of a good thing

Pete O’Brien Special to The Spokesman-Review

This entire episode happened because I donated some used household items to charity. The sequence of events precipitated by that simple act continues today, like a series of cars sliding into one another at the bottom of the Freya Street hill during an ice storm.

Because the charity items were being stored in my garage, I parked my car on the street that night. I have learned the hard way not to lock your car if you leave it on the street at night, because the criminals will break your window to get the 73 cents from your ash tray. There was nothing of value in my car, except my motley assortment of golf clubs in a 1983-vintage golf bag. It never dawned on me that your average car prowler would be interested in taking up a sport that requires plaid shorts and involves “etiquette”.

The next day my clubs were gone. They probably ended up thrown in the bushes someplace after the thief took the loose change and the year-old granola bars from the bag. My insurance company was very generous, and so I consulted an extremely accommodating local pro who spent 2 hours trying out different clubs with me on the driving range, and then made me a full set of “custom” clubs. I will not identify that pro, because I am afraid that it would ruin his business if people knew that he was involved in any way with my golf game.

The new clubs were great. The driver had a head the size of a canned ham, and I was regularly sending out 250-yard drives that split the fairway with an elegant right-to-left draw. From 150 yards in, I was deadly, sending high, soaring iron shots that bounced softly and settled on the green. I should have been very satisfied …

What happened next will make experienced golfers cringe the way moviegoers do when the teenage girl decides to investigate the eerie noise coming from the cellar. I decided that with these new clubs it would be an excellent time to improve my golf swing. And like that teenage girl, I made matters worse by deciding to head into the cellar alone.

Many recreational golfers (including me) have a flaw in their swing called “coming over the top”. If you are not a golfer, you may not know what this means, and I can assure you that you don’t want to know. If I was a celebrity like Rush Limbaugh or Ray Romano or Donald Trump, I could have gone on the “Haney Project” television show, where Hank Haney – who used to be Tiger Woods’ coach – tries to help the celebrities improve their golf game. I didn’t have access to Hank Haney, but I had the next best thing: YouTube.

A simple search on YouTube yielded a herd of instructional videos with titles like “Stop Coming Over the Top Forever.” I didn’t really need “Forever”, as I assumed (or at least hoped) that there is no golf in the afterlife (although making a guy play golf 24-7 with Rush Limbaugh might be a good punishment in Purgatory). These videos are full of phrases like “hitting-throwing- striking position”, “right shoulder back, down, and under”, “centrifugal force”, and “maintain the relative position of the hands in relation to the body.” I watched several of them and they all made sense. Unfortunately, they did not agree with each other. One said to begin the down swing by pivoting the hips. Another said do not pivot, but “bump” the hips laterally. A third said do not try to maneuver your hips in any way because you are not athletic enough.

I took notes, watched a video of Natalie Gulbis’ swing for inspiration, and headed for the range. I picked two changes that I thought I could make. I practiced the changes for a few minutes, and then started hitting balls. The immediate result was the Voldemort of golf shots, the-shot-who’s-name- must-not-be-spoken: The “shank.” Ball after ball flared away like a right-handed batter fouling fastballs into the first-base dugout. The only thing worse for a golfer than having a case of the shanks would be actually pooping ones pants on the golf course, and it is possible that the former could actually cause the latter. I was mildly discouraged.

I tried it again a few days later. This time, I was successful in altering the path of my swing so that the club now approached the ball from the inside just like the videos instructed. The only problem was that as my club approached the ball on the “proper swing plane,” it dug into the ground about six inches behind the ball. The technical term for this in golf is “hitting the big green ball before the little white ball.” This results in a problem known as “standing too close to the ball after you have hit it.” In two short sessions I had almost completely lost the ability to hit a golf ball.

After a few more practice sessions, I was ready to venture back out on the course. My lovely sister and her husband, The World’s Nicest Attorney, invited me to the Spokane Country Club, a challenging course with lots of trees, sand and water. Somehow I parred the first two holes and birdied the third. The less said about the rest of the round the better, but here is an example: On one hole my drive went over the trees on the left side of the fairway, across the next fairway, and into the trees on the far side of that fairway. Even at the Spokane Country Club, you do not want to hit your ball into the next fairway, because in Spokane, the golfers in the next fairway might be members of the Tea Party, the Teacher’s Union, or even that one guy from LC High School who is a member of both.

More practice, and off to Downriver with my good friend Tom. I love playing golf with Tom, because unlike me, he has a nice, smooth, controlled swing that helps calm me down. Also, unlike me, he doesn’t talk too much. The highlight of my round was a par 5 I started with a drive that flew far to the right into a no man’s land completely out of sight from the fairway behind a wall of bushes and 100-foot pines. After a scouting expedition to find the ball and determine the general direction of the fairway I was supposed to be playing, I determined that my only chance was to hit a shot that started out to the right of my target and then hooked back to the left. If I was really lucky, the ball might get back into the trees next to my fairway. I whacked a shot that did exactly what I wanted and the ball disappeared over the bushes and into the trees. After searching throughout the trees for my ball with no luck, I gave up.

I hiked cross country towards the green (without the aid of a GPS system I might add) finally emerging from the forest to find that somehow, miraculously, my ball had rolled all the way back on to the fairway about 20 yards in front of the green. I calmly pitched on and rolled in the putt for a routine birdie. The rest of the round was uneventful, and I finished quite happily with an 83. Maybe my YouTube “lessons” were paying off.

My next round with Tom was at Esmeralda, where I once broke 80 after my uncle, the Reverend Monsignor Charles Francis Muth, blessed my clubs in the parking lot before we teed off. Things started off well, and when we came to my nemesis hole, a long, straight par 5 with out of bounds all along the left side, I was feeling pretty confident. (Cue the music with the dark, minor chords). I smoothly sent a beautiful drive down the left side of the fairway, putting me in position to reach the green in two. I proceeded to whack a low, vicious hook out of bounds into a Hillyardite’s back yard, right between an old refrigerator and a defunct satellite dish. I questioned the parentage of that ball, dropped another and, with a motion akin to a cave man attacking a rattlesnake, hit it even farther left. I guess I must not have “maintained the relative position of the hands in relation to the body.”

After that, my 3-wood somehow flew gracefully like a helicopter into the nearest Oak tree and disappeared. I even climbed up into the tree, but the 3-wood, despite its bright-red shaft, was nowhere to be seen. Tom, being the gentleman he is, never laughed once.

At this point I was somewhat frustrated with the game of golf. Despite my diligent studying of YouTube videos, I was not getting better, and possibly was getting worse. What should I do next? More YouTube? More time on the range practicing my messed up swing? Lessons? And then the wise words of my uncle came back to me (not the Monsignor, this uncle sold insurance in Wenatchee). One time in about 1985, we were playing, and I was really struggling. My uncle said, “Pete, you’re trying too hard. I think what you should do is lay off golf for about two weeks, and then quit.” I probably should have taken his advice those many years ago. Of course, they didn’t have access to YouTube instructional videos back in the 80’s.

Former Altar Boy Pete O’Brien is a lifetime Spokane resident, a high school chemistry teacher, and lists his golf handicap as “emotional instability.”