It was such a serious problem that it started keeping me up at night.
It was interfering with my work.
It was intruding on my marriage.
I actually brought it up to my shrink.
Erectile dysfunction?Hardly. Poker problem?Not with two kids in private school. No, this was something far more frightening: My sand game had suddenly vanished. I couldn’t hit a bunker shot to save my life. I was a six handicap playing like a twenty from the beach.
Sand is the unspoken threshold between decent players and the top tier. Think about it: How many single-digit golfers do you know who aren’t solid in the sand?For a six, my bunker play was adequate enough, but in the back of my mind I always knew it was the least dependable part of my game. I could get up and down a fair amount of the time, but, as I would soon come to realize, I did not have a specific enough approach to bunker shots and, worse, had no real understanding of the required mechanics.
The slump first surfaced last June during a match with my friend Avery Scheiner, a ten handicap with whom I’ve had a competitive relationship since we were both fourth-graders at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. It began with backgammon, progressed to tennis and then, when we were in our mid-thirties, moved to small ball. Our matches are legendary (to us, anyway), and I always look forward to them.
This time we were at the venerable Old Oaks Country Club, Scheiner’s home course, in Purchase, New York, and cruising along even-up when I dumped a seven-iron into a greenside bunker on the eleventh. Nice lie, easy shot. But with my sixty-degree wedge wide open (or so I thought), I left a couple in the bunker. Lost the hole and eventually the match.
When I got back to L.A., I began to give away more strokes in the sand. Anyone who has had the yips or the shanks knows what happened next. The misses got into my head, and my confidence eroded rapidly. I started to fear bunkers so much that I played to avoid them. When I did get in one, anything could happen. For me, most of the misses were the same. Instead of hitting an explosion shot and blasting the ball with the sand, I was hitting the ball itself and driving it low and away and often to the right.
The pattern was scarily repetitive: I’d have a good round going, then I’d miss a couple in the bunker and the wheels would come off. On one brutal day at my home course, I opened up birdie-par-par and then doubled the fourth when I got stuck in the sand. What promised to be a round in the seventies devolved into a mid-eighties misfire.
The problem was feeding upon itself. I’m normally laid-back, but the sand was turning me into a head case. At first exasperated and then frightened, I eventually got angry. I was short-tempered with my wife and impatient with my kids, and some nights I just lay in bed verbally berating myself. In short, I felt like a loser and the fun of the game was in peril. Picking up tennis again suddenly seemed like a viable solution: Backhand, forehand, serve, volley—not one of them involves a speck of sand.
My first instinct was to grind it out at the range, hitting buckets of balls in the practice bunker. Bad idea. All that did was show me I was consistently inconsistent: For every good shot, I’d hit two or three poor ones.
Next came the marvelous subculture of golf instruction. I photocopied the chapter on sand play in Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible and started carrying it around in my briefcase. I studied Tiger’s theories in How I Play Golf and searched the Internet to see how other slumpers recovered.
No luck. Still mired, I dwelled on my woes day and night. When my wife and I took a walk on the beach, I failed to notice the beautiful sunset. I was too busy wondering how to hit out of the type of sand I was walking on.
Then came the old standby: I started blaming the equipment. I changed the bounce of my wedges. I substituted my fifty-eight-degree wedge with a sixty. I even carried two sixties at one point, one with a big, thick topline that for a minute seemed to be the answer. But it was useless from the fairway, and I got tired of having to tell the caddie which sixty I wanted. In the end, the result was the same. I just could not count on a reliable outcome.