PRESTWICK, Scotland — A few days ago, I took a fairway bunker lesson from John Novosel, the eccentric genius behind the best-selling book, Tour Tempo.
“I need help with this shot,” I told John and his son, John Jr. “The driving ranges I frequent don’t have practice bunkers. Most of them don’t even have paved parking.”
“I can help you,” John said with his characteristic (and usually unfounded) optimism. “Step into my office.”
Actually, we only had to walk a few yards off the first tee at Hallbrook Country Club. I hadn’t noticed on previous visits, but there is a sand bunker off to the side, overlooking Hallbrook’s world-class practice range.
John scooped up a few range balls from the putting clock and tossed them in the sand. “It’s an arm swing,” he said. “Just keep your lower body as quiet as possible.”
I do what I’m told. Taking a 7-iron and aiming for a green down in the valley, I made a pass at the ball that was silent as a sepulcher from the waist down. My club threw up a lot of sand and the ball flew no more than 40 yards. “There’s still too much movement in your legs,” John said. “Try it again, pretending that your feet are set in concrete.”
“My feet are set in concrete.” Taking a deep breath I swung again, trying to keep my belt buckle aimed at the sand for a second or two after impact. The sensation was not unpleasant, but I think I loosened the staples from an umbilical hernia operation I had five years ago. The ball again flew no more than 40 yards.
At this point, John Jr. stepped in. Junior, whose powerful left-handed swing graces the cover of Tour Tempo, is a little less doctrinaire than his dad, and he noticed that I had overcooked the recommendation to hush up my legs. “It’s definitely an arm swing,” he said from the bank above the bunker. He took a practice swing that ended with his body turned toward the target. “But you still have to turn into the follow through.”
“Ah!” I said. Working my feet into the sand for a third try, I took the club back with my arms and then let my normal body rotation take over as I hit down and through the ball. This time there was crisp contact and the ball shot downrange with a slight draw, carrying all the way to my target flag.
“Got it,” I said.
Fast forward to this evening, when three golf writer pals and I squeezed in 15 holes at marvelous Prestwick Golf Club, site of countless Open Championships won by whiskered Scotsmen. Prestwick is famous for its fairway pot bunkers, many of which are camouflaged with sod carpets when you are on the tee, opening up only when your ball seems to be bounding down the middle of the fairway after a perfectly struck drive. The first time I had to play out of one of these monsters, a lot of sand flew out and the ball plunked into the bunker face, rebounding to my feet. The second, third and fourth times I faced this shot, the results were similar — the ball either rebounded to my feet or skipped off the bank into the fairway. “At least you’re out,” yelled Mike Kern of the Philadelphia Daily News, the top of his head barely visible over the rim of a bunker across the fairway.
The problem was the Prestwick sand, which is softer and heavier than the more compactable, granular stuff found on most American courses. When I hit down on the ball, my clubhead simply mushed it further down into the sand rather than popping it up and out.
The solution to this conundrum came at the 15th hole, where both I and Joe Juliano of the Philadelphia Inquirer drove into a huge bunker at the bottom of an even larger crater, both of which must surely be visible from outer space, although neither can be seen from the tee. Joe escaped this graveyard with a stroke that sounded like the slap of a hand on a horse’s hindquarters. “It wasn’t exactly an explosion shot,” he said when I pestered him for his secret. “I just hit a little behind the ball.”
I worked my feet into the sand and swung the leading edge of my L-wedge into the bottom of the ball, right where it met the sand. The ball responded with a muted click and soared out of the crater, carrying maybe 70 yards.
“Too bad it’s getting dark,” I wheezed as I clambered out of a Prestwick bunker for the last time. “I’m finally getting the hang of it.”