GUEST COMMENTARY
Ladies tees 
Why itís manly to play from the ladies tees
Thursday, July 2, 2009
By Alan Shipnuck

By Jeff Silverman

 

           Let me step forward – quite literally -- and admit this from the get-go: I like to play from the ladies’ tees.

I offer this confession freely and proudly. I’m neither traitor to my sex nor denier of my gender, just another golfer looking for an edge, and to what lengths – for isn’t length always the issue? – won’t we golfers go to discover one?  I found mine by learning to give an inch and enter the foreign country I’d always considered no man’s land.

Believe me, it wasn’t easy. At first, my tactical advance felt like shameful retreat, not gaining ground. But reducing the length of the golf course has so changed my enjoyment of the game that I come before you with the passionate conviction of a true believer anxious to pass on nothing, well, short of revelation.

So, please, join me. It gets lonely for a guy up there.

OK, before I get too far ahead of myself, let me step back and state the obvious: For male golfers other than the most skilled, the markers we pick to play from tend to have less to do with the reality of our games than with the ideal games we imagine we possess. Sure, the tips are beyond most of us, but we opt to play from them anyway. Co-conspirators in so many acts of flagrant golficide, they massage our egos nonetheless, abetting the fragility of our golfing hopes, even as they reveal how misguided our measurement of our golfing selves may be. In our minds, then, moving up becomes a sad concession to core-rattling masculine truths: advancing age, decreasing skill, diminishing power. And who wants to be conceding that?

Jane Blalock, 27 times a winner on the LPGA Tour, once told me how, at Pro-Ams, she’d marvel when her male partners instinctively trekked to distant outposts while she teed off more sensibly from the middle whites. "If we switched, I’d still be 20 yards beyond most of them," she shrugged. "It’s a shame men make a difficult game more difficult for themselves."

But what if we reframe that observation? What if it’s not about hard or easy? What if it’s about shaking things up every now and then to make the golf course a little different and the good walks we take on them more interesting?

That said, I’d better admit this, too: My revelation didn’t come pain free. Indeed, pain – gnawing, nagging, and crippling – forced my great leap forward in the first place. When my hips began dissolving to talc 10 years ago, my game disintegrated so quickly I was ready to consign my clubs to eternal storage.

A sports psychologist I met at a dinner party reversed my dive. His prescription, in retrospect, seems simple. Until I could seriously play again, I’d have to change my expectations. Check your ego at the bag drop, he counseled, play a shorter golf course, forget about score and just enjoy the experience.

"But what about my handicap?" I countered.

"Either you accept the one you hadn’t bargained for..."

He didn’t need to finish. Protected by a medical excuse, I figured I could accept this apostasy to my Y chromosome. I’d still be playing golf – albeit an abridged edition – right? So what if my friends teased me; they wouldn’t begrudge me, and anyone else I might tee it up with would, doubtless, applaud my grit to soldier on. At least that’s what I tried to convince myself as I entered into this interregnum in my golfing life, consigned – until a pair of titanium mulligans arrived two years later -- to surveying the landscape from (pick one) the ladies, the women’s, the forwards, the reds. Red. How appropriate. To match the color of my face the morning I first left my golfing buds behind me.

Funny, but they didn’t care what tees I played from. Why, then, should I? It took me a few rounds, but I lost my self-consciousness. Then something amazing happened: My game actually improved. My chopped-down swing didn’t land me in the wild levels of hell I knew all too intimately; it just put the ball in play. Shorter distances in meant greens were approachable without howitzers. And I practiced my chipping and putting. A lot.

But there was something else: a new viewpoint, as if I’d stepped through the looking glass. Scanning the horizon from the forward tees, I seemed to be gazing at an entirely other golf course.

And I was.

Everything had shifted. Bunkers, ponds, and hillocks, certainly, but nothing as dramatic as the perspective from within. I no longer felt defeated before I’d even started. For the time being, that would be enough.

 

But that was then. Thanks to the miracles of replacement surgery, I’ve returned to my rightful place with the guys astern, but I haven’t turned my back to the fronts and the alternative they offer to the grind. I still don’t like to feel defeated. So, three, maybe four times a season, I happily seek haven ahead. What began as an act of desperation originally designed to keep me in the game has actually evolved into a nifty drill designed to sharpen it.

It turns out, some pretty good instructors see the occasional round from the reds as just that. "It’s a different challenge," says master teacher Jim Flick, "and any time you can bring in a different challenge you’re giving yourself a chance to improve." Flick believes that playing from unfamiliar yardages hones distance judgment, while approaching from shorter yardages asks golfers to think more precisely about the shot they want to play and the quality of the result. Then there’s the course itself. "It will feel and look different," he says. "That can only help awareness of course management." All of which we can take with us when we drop back to longer precincts.

Pia Nilsson, Annika Sorenstam’s longtime coach, now teaching at Legacy Golf Resort in Phoenix, agrees with each of Flick’s points, and adds one: The forward tees provide a reality check. "Do you score better or not from them? If you don’t, what does that tell you?"

Interestingly, most average golfers don’t, since most of us put far more emphasis on our full swings than in the stroke-saving potential of our short games. Brad Faxon – no average golfer -- remembers his college coach sending the team off from the forward tees precisely to test their short games and, if the experiment went well, foster a sense of going low. "It’s good for your mindset to make a few birdies," he says. Conversely, he cautions, "it would backfire if we didn’t."

Which is why I never keep score when I play up. I don’t need numbers to tell me how I’m hitting the ball, and for me, this isn’t about scoring; it’s about insight and awareness. I want to feel what it’s like to play shots that aren’t normally in my arsenal from spots on the layout I’m not used to visiting to help me understand my game a little better and appreciate the golf course a little more.

Hence, I never take my show on the road. When I truncate my home track I have to turn off my autopilot and consider every hole from a new angle. (A course I didn’t know as well would just be another 18, not a familiar 18 reconsidered.) With an average reduction of more than 80 yards from the middle tees I generally play from, each hole presents new options and opportunities beyond the reach of my usual game. Hazards normally safely in the distance suddenly taunt me to tempt them. Like Tiger – and this may be the only circumstance in which we’re not legally stopped from appearing in the same thought – I sometimes find it prudent to lay low and leave my driver in the bag. I know I can still get home in two.

And even without my driver, I’m still beyond customary landing areas. Of course, I have played shots from these positions before – third shots after flubbing one of the first two; so, my attitude is different. Instead of feeling hang-dog for my ineptness, I’m positively focused on how best to attack. With a wedge or short iron. Like – dare I whisper it? – Tiger. It can, as Faxon says, do wonders for the mindset, though there’s a flip side, too; when I reach the green and discover I’m a far-flung 30 feet from the pin – a result that would elate with my 3-hybrid from 190 – the disappointment is my reminder – thank you, Pia, you’re absolutely on target – of what I need to practice.

It’s such a kick now and then to be reminded that golf isn’t just a game of power that I’m surprised more men don’t try this. Actually, I’m not. Nor does it surprise my friend Eric Stake, who sometimes accompanies me on my abbreviated journeys. A superb golfer, he’s a psychiatrist by trade, so he understands both the intricacies of the psyche and the dark night of the golfer’s soul. "When we leave a putt short," he asks, "what do we say? ‘Hit it, Alice.’ It’s a way of berating ourselves for being unmanly. Project that to asking a man to give up, even for a day, what he thinks is his rightful place to play from the forward tees. Before he’s swung a club, he’s Alice in his mind already."

I’ll gladly support anything – renaming tees, recoloring tees, adding additional tees -- that alleviates that stigma for others. Call me Alice, if you want to, but I’m one golfing Alice who looks forward to his visits to wonderland.

 

Jeff Silverman edited the award-winning book "Bernard Darwin on Golf."  He writes regularly on the game for such publications as Sports Illustrated and Travel & Leisure Golf.   He lives in Chadds Ford, Pa,


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