One bright, breezy Saturday this past December, I finally did something on the golf course that I had been telling myself that I should do for a long time: I played an entire round from the forward (red) tees at Kearney Hill Golf Links.
What was supposed to be an exercise in changing perspectives turned out to be more fun than I could have expected. The game I came up with, the “catch” if you will, was that instead of trying to bomb the ball as close to the greens and make a bunch of low scores from the red tees, I was going to work on real shot making.
It was a golf round to step out of my comfort zone. I would not hit a single stock, full-swing shot the entire round.
I worked on hitting low-trajectory punch shots, moving the ball laterally while trying to keep it under the wind. Kearney Hill is at it’s best when it approaches firm and fast, but the course was too soggy to truly play only punches, runners, and only use the ground game, even at only 5,367 yards.
So, I worked on hitting fades and cuts with longer clubs, something I have been entirely incapable of doing on command recently.
I wanted to exclusively use the ground game around the greens, to force creative and critical thinking during my round. No flop shots. No high, soft pitches.
I wanted to work on getting and keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible around the greens. Use different clubs. Use different shots. Experiment.
Part of my inspiration for this departure from normal stroke play was a conversation I had while I walked 18 holes with the PGA professional from my home club a few weeks earlier. I asked him if he thought it made sense for a player of my skill level, who has limited time to practice, to work on and play short game shots with a wide diversity of clubs.
Shouldn’t I try to become especially proficient with one or two dedicated clubs and shots, given my relative lack of short game practice opportunities?
He convinced me that there is more fun to be had, more creativity exercised, and eventually better opportunities to score using a wider variety of clubs, and I’m now very grateful for his perspective.
During most normal or competitive rounds, I like to use a pitching wedge around the greens, to get the ball rolling quickly rather than carrying a pitch or chip all the way to the whole with a lob or sand wedge.
During this round, I chipped with 3-hybrid, 4-iron, 6-iron, 7-iron, 9-iron, and pitching wedge. The results of the shots were mostly better than I expected, though the putting with a hybrid or 5-wood is going to take a lot more work.
I found myself completely engaged in the moment of each shot, trying to figure out a new golf course on a course that I’ve played at least 50 times. It was exciting to try to hit shots I’d never tried, from places I’ve never hit from.
I hit a splayed open pitching wedge from a green side bunker to an elevated green and cackled with satisfaction after I pulled it off.
I hit a hooded 9-iron into the bank of an elevated green from a terrible lie and short-sided angle, watched the ball trickle up thru the collar and get close to the pin, smiling with dumbfounded amazement that it worked out so well.
I was able to reach the green in regulation using the new array of creative shot shapes, just not terribly close to the hole. Thus, one of the unwanted revelations from the round is that I desperately need more putting practice. Three-Putt Hell is real, and it’s terrible.
Kearney Hill is the perfect course to try something like this. It’s generally wide open and windswept. The Pete & PB Dye design is thoughtfully constructed, containing just as interesting strategic decisions from the front tees as the other tee boxes.
It shows that the front tees were not an afterthought. Also, the red tees are every bit as well maintained as the other tee boxes, not something universally true in the public golf sphere (sadly).
It is difficult to express just how much of my perception of many holes changed from the new tees, hitting from distances and angles that I had never experienced. The front tees are never as elevated as the back tees, something I’d never bothered to think about, so there really is a totally different eye level when playing forward. On several holes, I found myself actually hitting up at the fairway, something I’d never realized from the blue or white tees, previously.
In true Dye style, there is typically an opening from the fairway or approach to the greens from which the ball may be run onto the putting surface. It isn’t typically available from the middle of the fairway, meaning running the ball onto the green is not the natural way to play the course, and it’s very easy to get out of position if trying to execute that specific strategy.
Thus, hitting less than full shots and trying to keep the ball on or around the ground forced me to think through the holes from the pin backwards to the tee much more so than during a normal round.
Another item I had not bothered to think about before was that playing the forward tees did not make the course much less of a walk. It just required different paths to different locations. While Kearney Hill is a wonderfully efficient green-to-tee walk for the championship and blue tees, the walk from green to the forward tee was just plain long.
My only regret from the round is that I procrastinated and waited so long to commit to this exercise, to playing an entire round from the front tees. Pondering why I had never done this before lead to some interesting, if not uncomfortable, realizations.
Was is a misplaced sense of macho sexism? Golf is golf, it always comes down to execution, regardless of how long the shot is, right?
I play daily fee courses, so was I worried that I wouldn’t “get my money’s worth” if I played less than a “full” golf course? (Harvey Penick has some brilliant commentary on “seeing the entire course” in his Little Red Book).
Would I have been more willing to experiment like this if I belonged to a private club, where the out-of-pocket cost of an individual round mattered to me less?
Had I become the caricature, the stereotypical American obsessed with posting his score for the purposes of my handicap index that I only considered doing this in December during the inactive GHIN posting season?
Regardless of the reasons for waiting so long, I do know that I will be doing the same exercise again soon. It was fun. It highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of my game in new ways. And it was very much still golf.