Lately I’ve been doing a lot of chess puzzles before bed. I was really into them a year or two ago, and watching the Queen’s Gambit re-energized me to add them back into my day. One thing that chess puzzles teach you is to assess the board you’re playing and think a few moves ahead to spot any danger and opportunity.
Today I went out for a twilight nine (more info on the past few days of golf coming), and on the sixth tee box, I started thinking about those puzzles. The past few holes had been a mixed bag. I parred the first, thanks to a great drive and a good chip. I doubled the par-three second after hitting a ball in the water. My drive on the third, which I thought I hit well, came up well short, although I still managed a bogey. The fourth hole, a challenging par 5, I made an eight, courtesy of a bad drive, and several more bad shots. The fifth, I hit a good drive, only to choose the wrong wedge (out of fear of being short) and thin it over the green into the water (I made double). There were definitely a few muttered expletives on 4 and 5.
So on that sixth tee, a par three over water, I thought about those chess puzzles, and the fact that I’d been playing very brain-dead golf. I hadn’t been planning, and that had left me in some dubious spots. I chose a club carefully, and a line carefully to maximize my chances of an easy chip or putt, and steer even my misses away from the surrounding water. My nine iron was 10 yards short of the green, but it was safely on grass.
For my chip, I decided on a low runner with my 48-degree gap wedge. It’s low enough that, short of the green, it would dribble on, but high enough that it wouldn’t run through the narrow putting surface, and down the hill into the rough. I picked a line and landing spot that would, if I hit it too soft, still leave a putt, and if I hit it too hard, not run too far past the flag. I hit it a little left of my target, but I still had a 12-15 foot putt. Strategic pacing on that left me with a tap-in 4 (That’s good for me, to those of you that are good at the game of golf).
I applied this workman-like routine to the tee shot on the next hole, carefully selecting my line and setting my clubface to avoid the hazards on either side of the par 4, and piped one to an ideal spot. On the approach shot, I did the same. I took enough club to reach, but not enough to risk a wayward shot into the bushes or the back water. My shot wasn’t great, but I had a chip with a decent line at the flag. A strategically placed chip (avoiding the runoffs) left me a leisurely two-putt for five.
On the 8th tee, I applied the same formula. Again, I hit a soaring tee ball to a great spot. My pitching wedge approach came up short, but the good choice of line left me a fairly easy pitch shot, with little trouble to worry about. On that shot, I made a mistake. I used the distance to the center of the long oval green, not realizing that the flag was in the back. I hit a nice gap punch on to the green, but well short of the back pin. I hit two pretty decent putts, but from that distance I couldn’t get them into the hole and walked away with six.
The strategy worked perfectly again on the tee box of the par 5 ninth (over a large and intimidating pond). I hit a mediocre 2nd shot (it only travelled 90 yards), but because I chose the right club and line, I still had a decent chance at par. My approach shot, a 3-wood, was well struck, but wound up in the left rough (a side effect of my deciding to aim a little left, because there are some ghaslty bushes on the right). I hit a workman like flop with my 60-degree wedge over the bunker, leaving a 20-foot par putt. My goal was to leave a tap-in on the difficult down-hiller. I left it about two feet away. I had the speed, but my line was a little too right.
I was +9 for the first 5 holes (with a par on 1). I was +5 on the last 4, even with some mistakes. This workman-like way of playing led to much better scoring, but it was also much more fun and low stress.
Anyone reading this is probably thinking “Wow. Is he really surprised that thinking through golf shots helps him play better?” It’s a fair question, and academically I’ve always know it to be true that I should think through a hole (and avoid my “big miss” – shout out to Hank Haney), but it took that thinned wedge on 5 for me to realize how little thinking I was really doing in an average round.
I don’t really know how to wrap this up with a nice bow, so I’ll just say that I’m determined to stick with this, and that I think that strategic decisionmaking on the golf course could go a long way toward making me a better player (and I’m sure it can make you better too).
Play Chess, not Black Jack.