Lessons Learned

By Michael FechterMay 2, 2008, 4:00 pm
Editor's note: Michael Fechter, orphan worker and humorist, has the best job in golf: he's paid to be the Ambassador of Fun for golf courses across America. His 'job' is to make the courses he represents across America more interesting, unique and fun. Enjoy his humorous series on getting back into the game as he struggles to get his game into the shape it was nearly 30 years ago when he won his only personal junior 'major,' the Al Esposito, on America's easiest muni with rounds of 71-71-75.
I cant truly claim to be a self-taught golfer, but not counting tips during countless rounds with my father, Ive had three professional golf lessons.
When I was 16, and trying to be a Junior champion, Ronnie Smoak at Sedgewood Country Club told me that I would never be a 'quality' player with my very strong grip.
I worked to change that grip. Within a year I was regularly contending at Junior tournaments, culminating with my stunning (to those whove ever seen me hit off a tee) win in which I shot 71-71-75 at the 1980 Al Esposito Junior Invitational held at the Municipal Golf Course in Charleston, S.C. By heeding Ronnies words, I have hardly ever hit a hook since 1979. I can also barely hit a driver over 215.
My college golf career was, at best, inconsistent. In an attempt to stretch that 215 to, say, 270 (the average drive of my teammates) I went to see renowned teacher, Terry Florence, the pro at Wild Dunes, the first world-class golf course in Charleston.
Terry had me warm up on the range, came out 20 minutes later and watched me hit three nearly perfect 5-irons, each about 169 yards with a slight fade. I was giving this man a strong foundation with which to build Supergolfer.
Between drags on his cigarette, Terry said 'I hear they are paying you to tell jokes. Keep doing that. Because nobody's ever gonna pay you to hit a golf ball.' That was it. Lesson over. World-class advice.
I suppose Terry had something more important to do, like check the water levels in golf cart batteries or tell weekend hacks to keep their heads down when hitting the ball.
I cant blame Terry for my losing interest in the game. But, within a year of receiving his sage advice, my focus switched from the course to the nightclub stage, a move that would soon have me performing with Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Maher and many more of the countrys top touring comedians.
Then, last year, I decided to get back in the game to recapture my youth to become a golfer again.
I figured that I should get a coach to speed along my golf retransformation. This was a big step. Not only was I admitting to myself that, perhaps my game had slipped from my days of winning the Al, but other than Dad, I'd never had a teacher who stuck with me for more than 10 minutes.
I have read that you should always pick a teacher whose golfing philosophy has meaning for you. You should, at least, shop for a coach the way you do a home, car or stereo. You should take your time and really see what is out there so that you don't make a mistake.
I did none of that. I went to the muni and had some guy who worked there watch me hit a bucket of balls.
OK, 'PGA Teaching Professional', Brian Ferguson is more than some guy. We have a long history going back to when we played in the same Junior golf tournaments. Although, in the days when I shot 71-71-75 to win the Al, Brian was shooting in the high 70s and low 80s.
However, in the interceding 28 years, Brian has spent nearly every day of his life teaching and studying the game.
Brian understands the golf swing the way I understand rejection from women. As Ben Hogan once said 'The answers are in the dirt.' And Brian had spent more time in the dirt than any friend I know, so I naturally went to him last year looking for swing theory and tips. That, and he promised to give me free advice between paying customers.
Brian loves what he calls my 'false finish,' continually derides my astonishing lack of strength, scoffs at my posture at address, but, at the same time, he really does TRY to be helpful.
Brian told me that if I was ever to hit the ball, truly smack it down the fairway, I 'have to widen my stance.' As Brian said, 'That narrow stance may be OK for shooting free throws or putting. But it doesn't give you a powerful enough base to pound a golf ball.'
So, for a week I worked on that ONE thought. I ingrained it for the longer clubs, lost 15 yards off the tee and promptly quit playing. I couldnt grasp that in order for my game to improve, it might temporarily suffer. Besides, to me, Brians words were those of a friend, and of a kid I used to beat by a dozen strokes. They werent the words of a teacher.
Rather than golf, I decided to concentrate on my struggling Orphan work, struggling bank account and struggling divorce. You may wonder how one can struggle with a 'divorce.' Trust me: divorces come in two varieties 'good' and bad.' Mine was going from good to 'horrific' and it has pretty much stayed there.
But, this is a new year and I again arranged for range time with Brian. I got to the course about an hour early to hit chips and putt. I went through my bag hitting two or three shots with every club -- hitting the ball pure dead into a stiff chilly breeze. I could not have been more proud of myself.
I fanned the club open, just as the ghost of Ben Hogan told me to do and smacked it pure. I wasnt even sure I needed a lesson at this point; obviously the power of my thoughts had transformed me into a skilled golfer...without hardly any practice.
I could not wait to impress Brian with my wider stance and solid striking. I hit half a dozen balls for him (and me) to admire. I beamed with self-confidence, positive that Brian would see all the improvements since my brief lesson a year earlier.
Without even so much as a hello, Brian said, 'You're reaching way too far out for the ball.' Seriously, was he even watching me hit? I have been working at night, at home, in my living room, on bringing the ball closer to me at address.
Brian went on, 'Your posture at address isn't good. Your knees are too bent and it shortens the arch of your swing. Stand up straighter to the ball. You're taking the club way too inside. It really shortens the arc of your swing.'
I was, in a word, devastated.
Then Brian added the final burning arrow 'And that false finish won't go away.'
Damn, I thought I was really accelerating through the ball.
We spent much of the next hour, working on my posture, which only got worse and worse. We worked on taking the club more 'outside.' This did not go well, either, as I hit weak cut after cut, often almost shanking the ball.
I felt stiff and miserable over the ball.
I wasn't learning a thing except that I hate golf, and I wasnt too fond of my teacher, either. I went from feeling great and enjoying golf to being miserable, all in the space of 30 minutes.
Brian had me hit half sand wedges with a 6-foot long stick under my grip in an attempt to teach me to rotate my core. It made no sense to me and my swing of nearly 40 years. It did, however, make me look like a fool to others on the course.
I am a man that needs VERY simple tips and thoughts. So, I was trying to simplify as Brian talked about 'core rotation' and unwinding of the hips' and a dozen other golf theory terms my father never spoke when teaching me the game. Dear Lord, if I really went to a course with my head full of those thoughts, I would never get a ball airborne.
Honestly, after about 15 minutes, I gave up on the lesson and just watched Brian hit my 7-degree Taylor Made Bubble driver with an X-stiff shaft. It is so completely the wrong club for me that I gave it to Brian as partial payment for a lesson that had depressed me like watching 'Saving Private Ryan.'
I told Brian 'I can't hit another ball. I just need to go home and think.'
After a few hours, I went back to the muni and played three holes on the course, hitting a dozen balls on each hole. It was simply awful.
At the end, I just worked on hitting 100-yard wedges to a green so that I could get some confidence back. I hit half a dozen properly and walked into the dark, dark night.
I know that even Tigers swing gets worse when hes first working with a new coach, and Ive seen Brian work wonders with some of the other golfers at the club, so I am clearly the problem, not him. But, 71-71-75 feels like an impossibility at the moment. Besides, I just want to get back to being happy on the course like I did before my lesson.
Tom Werner contributed to this column.
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    After Further Review: Haas crash strikes a chord

    By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 19, 2018, 2:39 am

    Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

    On the horrifying car crash involving Bill Haas ...

    I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Bill Haas. He was the passenger in a car crash that killed a member of his host family. That man, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was a successful businessman in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a new friend.

    Haas escaped without any major injuries, but he withdrew from the Genesis Open to return home to Greenville, S.C. When he’ll return to the Tour is anyone’s guess. It could be a while, as he grapples with the many emotions after surviving that horrifying crash – seriously, check out the photos – while the man next to him did not.

    The entire Haas clan is some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Wish them the best in their recovery. – Ryan Lavner

    On TIger Woods' missed cut at the Genesis Open ...

    After missing the cut at the Genesis Open by more than a few car lengths, Tiger Woods appeared to take his early exit in stride. Perhaps that in and of itself is a form of progress.

    Years ago, a second-round 76 with a tattered back-nine scorecard would have elicited a wide range of emotions. But none of them would have been particularly tempered, or optimistic, looking ahead to his next start. At age 42, though, Woods has finally ceded that a win-or-bust mentality is no longer helpful or productive.

    The road back from his latest surgery will be a winding one, mixed with both ups and downs. His return at Torrey Pines qualified as the former, while his trunk slam at Riviera certainly served as the latter. There will surely be more of both in the coming weeks and months, and Woods’ ability to stomach the rough patches could prove pivotal for his long-term prognosis. - Will Gray

    On the debate over increased driving distance on the PGA Tour ...

    The drumbeat is only going to get louder as the game’s best get longer. On Sunday, Bubba Watson pounded his way to his 10th PGA Tour title at the Genesis Open and the average driving distance continues to climb.

    Lost in the debate over driving distances and potential fixes, none of which seem to be simple, is a beacon of sanity, Riviera Country Club’s par-4 10th hole. The 10th played just over 300 yards for the week and yet yielded almost as many bogeys (86) as birdies (87) with a 4.053 stroke average.

    That ranks the 10th as the 94th toughest par 4 on Tour this season, ahead of behemoths like the 480-yard first at Waialae and 549-yard 17th at Kapalua. Maybe the game doesn’t need new rules that limit how far the golf ball goes, maybe it just needs better-designed golf holes. - Rex Hoggard

    On the depth of LPGA talent coming out of South Korea ...

    The South Korean pipeline to the LPGA shows no signs of drying up any time soon. Jin Young Ko, 22, won her LPGA debut as a tour member Sunday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and Hyejin Choi, 18, nearly won the right to claim LPGA membership there. The former world No. 1 amateur who just turned pro finished second playing on a sponsor exemption. Sung Hyun Park, who shared Rolex Player of the Year honors with So Yeon Ryu last year, is set to make her 2018 debut this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And Inbee Park is set to make her return to the LPGA in two weeks at the HSBC Women’s World Championship after missing most of last year due to injury. The LPGA continues to go through South Korea no matter where this tour goes. - Randall Mell

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    Nature calls: Hole-out rescues Bubba's bladder

    By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 2:20 am

    LOS ANGELES – Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Bubba Watson had just teed off on the 14th hole at Riviera Country Club and was searching for a bathroom.

    “I asked Cameron [Smith], ‘where's the bathroom?’ He said, ‘On the next tee there's one. Give yourself a couple more shots, then you can go to the bathroom,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘So now I'm just going to hole it and go to the bathroom.’”

    By the time Watson got to his shot, which had found the bunker left of the green, his caddie Ted Scott had a similar comment.

    Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

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    “When he went down to hit it I said, ‘You know you haven’t holed one in a long time,’” Scott said.

    Watson’s shot landed just short of the hole, bounced once and crashed into the flagstick before dropping into the hole for an unlikely birdie and a two-stroke lead that he would not relinquish on his way to his third victory at the Genesis Open and his 10th PGA Tour title.

    “I looked at Teddy [Scott] and said, ‘You called it.’ Then Cameron [who was paired with Watson] came over and said I called it. I’d forgotten he and I had talked about it,” Watson said.

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    Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

    By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

    LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

    It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

    Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

    He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

    “I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

    What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

    In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

    For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

    From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.

    Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

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    “His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

    There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

    “It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

    A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

    That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

    Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

    “[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

    It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

    Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

    “He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

    It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

    That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

    “I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

    Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

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    Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

    By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

    LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

    Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

    Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.

    Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

    Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

    “I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

    Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

    Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

    “For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”