When going into a big transition, it's helpful to remember this headline from the satirical newspaper, The Onion: "Plan to straighten out entire life during weeklong vacation yields mixed results."
I took a previously planned trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., last week and played 61 holes, because it violates the Rules of Golf to travel to a place like Myrtle and not play at least three rounds. I shot 77-81-81.
If this is progress, it's well disguised.
A six handicap with my own trainer, coach and a new set of Callaways, I've begun a journey to lower my index to zero, or at least closer to scratch than I am now. My scores represent a giant leap forward (an eagle 3) and backward (matching 7s the next day), so after a week I seem to have moved exactly nowhere. Or my handicap has. If anything it's getting higher.
At least I didn't get eaten by a gator, the logo/mascot of the watery Dunes Golf & Beach Club, the terrific, 1948 RTJ track I played twice.
This is worth taking on. I have to tell myself that. I have gray whiskers but I'm only 38. If all goes well, I might play golf for another 30-50 years. It's worth breaking down my game to give myself the best possible chance at a more birdie- and par-filled half century.
I'm playing with a stronger left-hand grip, as instructed by GOLF Magazine Top-100 teacher Kip Puterbaugh two weeks ago. I'm playing with new sticks, including an Odyssey Marxmanputter that I don't quite have the hang of yet.
I feel like I'm going to hit every iron shot 25 yards left of target, but the ball's going more like 40 yards left, giving me plenty of practice with my new sand wedge, my new favorite club. I'd had my old wedge for 23 years; the grooves on this new one feel like the teeth of a great white.
The new clubs feel alternately terrific and foreign. I totally mis-hit two approach shots during my first 81, at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, a pretty Mike Strantz track, which saps me of confidence and replaces it with self-hatred. To paraphrase the great Jerry Lee Lewis, golf shakes my nerves and rattles my brain like nothing else.
When it all goes wrong I've often wished I could be more like Gary Mahar, a scrawny, ghost-white Irish kid I knew when I was 10 or 11. In Cub Scouts we made cars out of small blocks of wood, but we skipped a step, the ball bearings, I think. On race night my car was zooming along when it suddenly just stopped, as if it had hit a rubber cement spill, short of the finish.
I was gutted and had to step outside for some air. Five minutes later Gary came bursting out the doors, howling with laughter. His car had stalled as well. Apparently ball bearings were important. Two losses, two responses.
Round two in Myrtle, at Caledonia, was a total mess. I'd been hanging in there at three over for the first 13 holes, but then enjoyed three three-putts and a pair of 7s while going eight over on my final five.
Here is a sample of the inner dialogue rattling around in my brain like an HX Tour in a Cuisinart:
First two holes (bogey, double-bogey)
It's too hot. I don't think playing today was a good idea. I don't feel right. I should've had the egg-white omelette for breakfast like yesterday.
Next 11 holes (even par)
This is good. I don't have my best stuff and I'm holding it together. Maybe this is how I get good, learning how to optimize the bad days.
Next five holes (eight over)
Evil Cameron (EC): I suck. I've laid the sod over an 8- and a 6-iron; show me a good player who does that. What a pathetic failure. And I don't even realize how good I have it. I'm blowing a golden opportunity.
Voice of Reason (VR): Calm down. Jesus. It's one round and it's 1,000 degrees out here and you've got a new grip and a new stance and new clubs. What'd you expect? A miracle? You've seen Tour pros hit it this bad.
EC: Regroup! Pull up on the rudder! Don't auger in!!! Focus!
VR: Regroup! Pull up on the rudder! Don't auger in!!! Focus! But if you can't I completely understand because you're fundamentally a good person.
VR: Am not!
So I might need a mental coach. I shall soon be calling one.
I've read that Tiger burns off bad rounds by jogging, so I went for a run on the beach, the hard and flat sand encouraging me to go for miles. Then I had to turn around.
Figuring the only way to learn how to score is to play, I decided last week not to decamp on a driving range but to play my way into this new grip and stance. I'm standing with a flatter back and more on the balls of my feet, and it feels like I'm much farther away from the ball. But I may need to change course and hit the range, because attaching my ego to these scores, these foul balls, may send my game into an Ian Baker-Finch death spiral.
I must remember the positives, that on my first day in Myrtle, playing seven holes at twilight, it took just three holes to make my first birdie. I must cling to my eagle on the par-5 8th hole at the Dunes the next day, my first full round, when I drilled a driver and a 3-wood to eight feet behind the pin and hit the putt dead-center. I must remember matching shot-for-shot a former Division I college player, who said I had a nice swing.
In my second full round (the most calamitous one) I was actually asked if I played in college. I made even my own jaw drop at a 5-iron out of a fairway bunker through a grove of trees and onto the green.
Many readers have blogged in support of my quest.
Chris: "I think this can be done."
Jay: "I am a 5 handicap. I think 0 is totally attainable. It's not flawless golf. You just have to be consistent enough to have 10 or 12 birdie putts and make two or three of them."
Dave: "I am a 38 year old 5 handicap that would love to be in your shoes. I know you can do it. I have chopped five strokes off my handicap in less than a year. I've taken plenty of lessons, have the best custom-fit equipment, and the only two things I've found that truly help are tempo and confidence."
I must not let everyone down. But one posting keeps coming back to me, from a guy named Rob Hums, because I've heard the same thing said of weight-loss and know it's going to prove true of going from six to scratch, too: "Those are gonna be the hard ones to get off."