Andrew & Benji take on The Dakotas Tour

How can it be over six years since I wrote this; impossible! Still, reading it again reminds me of writing it and makes me want to drop AVL to see how he’s doing.

Cheers.

PC

 

In 1996 Tiger Woods said, “Hello world,” and things haven’t been the same since. Before Woods ever put a tee into the ground as a professional he’d been made a multimillionaire by Nike and Titleist. For the first time, far more of a player’s income was going to come from sponsorships than tournament winnings. A new world order had arrived and golf almost instantly expanded into a truly global game.

Since then, we’ve said hello to a bunch of mini-Tigers like Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa. What each of these players have in common (along with a lot of game) is a massive corporate support mechanism. Each is as much a brand as a player. Fowler actively cultivates his image and look on his website by asking, “Love my look?” His Cowboy-orange and flat-billed cap are tools helping to set himself apart from the rest of the khaki-clad PGA Tour crowd. And, while it would be easy (if a tad cynical) to say most great players have yet to set themselves apart by winning,

I don’t want to create the impression I don’t like this crop of young, corporately well-connected, players because for the most part I do. It’s just that I also enjoy following the kind of player who lacks such deep-pocketed support. It’s important to understand how many players come to professional golf in anonymity and with significant hardship.

It’s well known Ben Hogan failed on the PGA tour at least once before finally breaking through. Before succeeding, he was down to his last bit of cash, $86 from a war chest of $1400. He had promised his wife Valerie (who was driving with him from event to event) that if he didn’t earn a check in the next tournament they would take what little money they had left and make their way home to Fort Worth, Texas. The morning before the tournament, the Hogans awoke to find their Buick stripped of its rear tires and wheels, its rear axle propped up on rocks.

Hogan got a ride to the tournament and ended up winning $385. Hogan described that check as the biggest one he had ever seen and he was quite sure it was the biggest he would ever see in his entire life. It’s impossible to imagine that Hogan sponsored by Nike, given millions of dollars before he had ever put a tee into the ground in a professional event. Hogan is a reminder that for every Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler there are thousands of aspiring players who come up another way; a much harder way.

Jim Von Lossow came to professional golf in a way much closer to that of Hogan than of Fowler or Woods. Jim’s an old friend of mine and some years back he told me of his time on the PGA Tour. He was only 20 when he left Seattle for California and his parents had no love for the idea of playing professional golf. Jim’s quest to play on tour was one he faced largely on his own. He ended up on tour for a few years and even played alongside some storied players like Tom Kite and Jack Fleck. Though Jim didn’t make many headlines while on tour, his journey led him to become a PGA instructor, the first putter manufacturer to mill heads from 303 stainless steel and now one of the most respected club fitters in the country.

It’s no surprise that Jim and his wife, Susan, have two children who grew up excelling at golf; their daughter, Hannah, and son, Andrew. When it came to Andrew, Jim hadn’t realized how good he’d gotten until Andrew and his friend, Eric Benjamin, shot back to back rounds in the low 60s. This got Jim thinking and he and Susan decided to stake Andrew and Benji enough cash to cover a summer playing The Dakotas Tour. “When I was coming up, I didn’t have the support of my parents when it came to golf,” Jim told me. “So, it was important to me that my wife and I give Andrew and Benji whatever help we could.”

Toward the end of July, Andrew and Benji loaded Andrew’s 1997 Toyota Camry and headed east toward Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman would serve as the duo’s home base for their summer on The Dakotas Tour since Benji knew some folks there. Andrew & Benji missed the first eight events of the 2010 Dakotas Tour season. These tournaments were played in cities with names like Okoboji, Iowa. Obscurity is common in professional golf. A serious golf fan might be able to name 50 PGA Tour players but there are 125 exempt spots. Add the players on the Nationwide Tour, the Canadian Tour and all the myriad other mini tours and we’re talking about serious obscurity. Galleries consist of friends and family, but more likely no one at all. Testing one’s game on a tour like the Dakotas was a strong reminder that golf can be a very solitary game, especially for aspiring professionals like Andrew & Benji.

Still, this is a duo that’s pretty comfortable with obscurity. They’ve even created their own organization to promote it; The Northwest Obscure Golf Association. Andrew & Benji came up with the name when they were forced to admit that to play as much as they needed to play to sharpen their games they’d have to play on some of the area’s scruffier courses. So, for two months of summer in 2010, Andrew & Benji tested their games against other aspiring professionals. They played some golf, they drove a lot of miles and had a lot of fun. At the end of the summer, they both agreed it had been the best one ever.

Obscure

After arriving in Bozeman, Andrew & Benji drove about 700 miles for a one day Pro-Am at Wild Oak GC in Mitchell, South Dakota. For the next few weeks, Andrew & Benji teed it up twice in Yankton, South Dakota at Fox run and then at the open qualifier at Hillcrest Country Club.

Which open? The Bobcat State Open at Fargo Country Club, of course. Notably, the state animal of South Dakota is the coyote, so go figure. Jim Von Lossow had told me what good players his son Andrew and daughter had become, but it was Andrew’s humble blogging that drove home just what fine players he and Benji are and at the same time what a difficult undertaking they were attempting.

Andrew’s first blog entry:

Benji and I played a practice round at Fargo Country Club. It was a nice day, around 80 degrees with a slight breeze. The forecast for tomorrow is calling for wind and sun. I tee off at 8:20am while Benji tees off at 1:20pm. 

The greens are very firm and fast. The key to approach shots is staying below the hole and taking one club less for the ball to run up to the pin. This is a very Northwest-style golf course so Benji and I feel comfortable playing here.

Here are a couple pics from today at the Fargo Country Club…

AVL
Eric Benjamin

To the casual reader, I’m sure these photos simply look like two really good players teeing off. But, when I look at them I’m trying to imagine if Andrew & Benji felt differently when they put the tee in the ground. They were doing what they had done thousands of times before, but they were doing it for a very different reason. Their ability, their pure joy in playing the game and their newfound drive to play golf for a living, had taken Andrew & Benji to this very unusual place.

I once watched Nick Price in one of his first tournaments on the Champion’s Tour. I had sought him out before he teed off to tell him how much I enjoyed his book, The Swing, which had come out a few years earlier. Nick Price was as kind and gracious a man as his reputation would suggest. There were a few people who watched him tee off, but by the 3rd hole his gallery had all but vanished. It was a perfect, glorious day in Southern California and one of the best players in the game was playing a competitive round of golf in almost total solitude.

That was an odd event. It was the first day of a tournament that had been moved from one course to another and attendance would be light until the weekend. But, that day reminded me what a lonely and isolating game professional golf can be. As I walked with Price I marveled at his rapid-fire swing and the dead-solid sound the ball made when he struck it with an iron, and I felt a little sorry for him. I know…Price wasn’t really alone, and was certainly not lonely. Still, live professional golf very often doesn’t always bear as much similarity to the game we see on television as we might expect.

Andrew & Benji were taking their first steps toward becoming a colleague of Nick Price but I’m sure they didn’t see it that way. They were and are good friends who wanted most of all to have their best summer ever. While they were at it, they would measure their games against each other and against the games of the other players with the same mission.

They both knew it wouldn’t be easy:

Day 31-33

Day 1 of the Bobcat North Dakota State Open:

Benji and I both shot 75. I played in the morning and made the turn at 3 over and shot even on the back. 

For Benji’s round in the afternoon the wind picked up and baked out the greens. He hit a flagstick from 190 yards and the ball then went into the water in the greenside hazard. In the last 3 tournaments, Benji has at least hit one flag per tourney. His round also lasted 6.5 hours. 

Day 2:

Benji shot 70. He played solid but just had one bad hole. He was punching out from the trees when his ball caught the trunk of a tree sending it into the hazard. Benji missed the cut by 2.

For myself, I shot 81. Made the turn at 3 over again and knew I had to make some moves if I wanted any chance of making the cut. Instead the round went the other way.

We are leaving North Dakota today and heading to Milbank, South Dakota. We will drive three hours and play a practice round at Pine Hills Golf Club for a one-day Pro Am tomorrow, August 30th.

We are looking forward to playing a new course and teeing it up in another tournament.

For 7,000 miles, Andrew & Benji chased the little white ball across the Dakotas and into Montana, going all the way east to Iowa for the Tour Championship. They were like the golf equivalents of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, hopping from town to town, staying at KOA campgrounds. Playing golf was the reason for their trip but I will bet it was the trip itself they’ll remember most keenly. As another Cervantes once wrote, “The Journey is better than the inn.” In an era when people are brought together over vast distance by technology, it’s even more important to venture into the expanse from time to time. I’m sure Andrew & Benji would agree.

Koa AVL
Koa Benji

I wondered a lot about Andrew & Benji and their dream of playing golf for a living. In fact, when I started working on this story, I wasn’t even sure they really wanted to play the game for a living. So, I talked to Andrew about it.

Today, Andrew Von Lossow’s day job is studying Design at Eastern Washington University where he’s on schedule to graduate in 2013. He told me about the reaction of his fellow students when he tells that in his spare time he’s a professional golfer. Not surprisingly, they don’t quite know what that means. When most people think of the word professional, they think of doctors and lawyers, not golfers.

When asked to describe his game, Andrew said, “My strength is ball striking. I can hit high long irons and from there I have good confidence in my other irons. My chipping and pitching are works in progress. Same with my putting; I am a streaky putter I can really get it going when I am on. When I’m not, it is a lot of two putts and the occasional and dreaded 3 putt.” He’s clearly a guy who believes in his game and has done a lot to develop it from working with a number of teaching pros to enhancing his overall fitness by following a rigorous fitness regimen developed by the Titleist Performance Institute.

As ever, golf is a game of making three shots into two shots any way you can. The different mind set of the truly fine player is revealed when he says, “Once I make one birdie, I feel I can string them together. The more birdies I make, the more unaware of my score I get because I get caught up on the next shot to make the lowest score possible.” Poor players don’t think that way. A couple good holes is more likely to make them protective than confident. Andrew clearly has the confidence to go low when the opportunity comes his way, as he did by finishing 5th and winning $800 in the Gallatin Valley Open.

He wrote about the event and the end of his first pro tour:

Back Home

What a journey it was out in the Dakotas. Benji and I both agree that this was the best summer we have ever had. Benji had some great finishes in tournaments while I was enrolled in the school of hard knocks in the tour life. What I learned was very important for becoming a better player. Golf is not easy as we all know. 

The last tournament, The Gallatin Valley Open, I came in 5th shooting 72-68. The first day I shot 4-over 40 on the front nine and I took some experience from my previous tournaments and shot 4-under 32 on the back nine. The next day I shot a bogey free 68 to make a move up the leader board to cash my first professional check.

I’ll bet Andrew’s closing 68 felt so easy. At the same time, I’m sure that front nine 40 must have had him doubting that he was cut out to play professional golf. The ability to turn off those doubts and salvage par says a lot about his resiliency. Still, it must be extraordinarily difficult for an aspiring professional to measure his game, until the heat of professional competition gets turned up. Then it becomes easy, if potentially confidence crushing. There are so many good players today. As sure as I am that the best players of eras gone by like Nicklaus, Hogan and Ballesteros would still be amazingly successful players today, I’m equally certain the depth of quality players is greater today than it’s ever been.

No one needs to tell Jim Von Lossow about the difficult challenge that lay ahead for his son. There is surely no way to tell whether Andrew will be able to make a living playing golf. But, that’s not really the point. In golf and in life, outcomes are never assured. All we can do is make our best swing, go find the ball, and do it all again.

Today, Andrew & Benji are continuing to hone their games in preparation for their next trek on tour. They’re sure to have plenty of birdies and their fair share of bogies when they do.

Their best summers ever are just ahead.

Andrew & Benji take on The Dakotas Tour

Rejecting the Global Golf Uniform in favor of Style & Comfort

Here’s a boredom-driven multipart question. Yes, in fact, multipart questions are the only kinds of questions I ask.

  • What’s your preferred golf uniform? Do you always or usually wear purpose-made golf shirts, slacks and shorts?
  • Do you change the style of what you wear to where you play? In other words, do you wear better looking clothes when you play better (read: more expensive) courses or do you pretty much wear the same kind of threads no matter where you play?
  • Has you golf attire changed over the last few years?

I ask the last question because I’m starting to make a big change. I’m rejecting what I see as the Global Golf Uniform. Pretty much every male tour player the world over wears it. You know the look. I don’t have to detail it here. I don’t know why but it’s especially loathsome when I see this getup worn by skinny 10 year olds and fat guys over 50. The mere sight makes me want to take up bowling.

415976-rory-mcilroy-lean-700
Rors looking fit & dapper in his Nike GGU

One last question: Has your choice in headwear changed? Me? I’m getting ready to dump the ubiquitous baseball style hat (who ever found that style of hat functionally suited to golf anyway?) in favor of something befitting the dignity of my rapidly advancing years.

Yes, I’m thinking bucket hat.

A few years back I wore this uniform: Shorts year round and irrespective of the weather. Hey, I live in Los Angeles; it’s easy. The shorts are Patagonia and I have pairs in medium tan and medium gray. They’re just standard cotton shorts not golf shorts. Last year I started wearing dark gray Kuhl shorts because of the slimmer fit and the very clever phone pocket it has.

I used to prefer Travis Mathews and Adidas golf shirts and an occasional Nike (they always seem to have good, simple back shirts).

I have come to hate fully 90% of the paper-thin synthetic crap that pretty much every golf shirt company is peddling these days. Not only do they look like crap on nearly everyone they also have a hyper-synthetic feel to their coal-based or polymer-based fabrics.

No, I’m not pining for the days where every tour player wore pleated Docker-styled slacks and wildly oversized cotton polo shirts (usually made by Ashworth back in the day).

trump-fat-pig-golf
Our 45th president out on the links in high rise, pleated slacks. Thumbs up to you, Donald!
woods garcia
Woods & Garcia back when cotton was king and the polos were huge.

This is where I’m really bucking the system. Where doable, I’m ditching the golf shirt. I have a great collection of non-collard casual shirts that I’ve come to prefer over the scads of black, blue and red golf shirts I’ve worn when out hacking in the past. The change has brought a palpable relief to my psyche and sense of style. I’ve hated the me-too formulary of the golf uniform for long enough.

If a course requires a collared shirt, and I really want to play there, I’ve got it covered. But, the fact is that I may end up asking myself if I really want to play a course that requires me to wear something I don’t like wearing.

Yup, I’m swimming upstream on this one while I’m still walking the golf course and carrying my sticks on my back. Life’s too short to wear polos and a baseball hat every time I play golf.

It’s gonna take some guts to actually put that bucket hat on…I admit it.

Rejecting the Global Golf Uniform in favor of Style & Comfort

Tiger Woods, Barbara Boxer, the Rules of Golf and the Electoral College

Bear with me for a minute.

Let’s say it’s 2000 and Tiger Woods is charging toward the 72nd hole of the Masters. Were he to win, it would give Woods all four major professional majors in 2000. We’re not talking about some feeble Tiger Slam. No, I’m talking about all four majors in the same calendar year.

Wow. What happened?

On the 72nd, hole, the legendary par-4 finishing hole at Augusta National Tiger Woods smashed a perfect drive, just right of the fairway bunkers. But, as it bounced to a stop it skipped into a fairway divot. The announcers and Woods moaned in near-poetic unison.

Pure injustice…

tiger-woods-ball-in-divot

Woods glowered at the ball and the divot. He cursed the golf gods. He cursed the player who created that horrid divot. He cursed his bad luck. But, more than anything he cursed the rule of golf that prevented him from taking relief from a tiny bit of missing turf in the middle of the fairway. Clearly, this was an area of the golf course that was damaged and according to the rules, ground under repair. But it wasn’t…So Woods played the ball as it sat; made bogey and missed winning the 2000 Masters by a single stroke.

Then. again in my alternate time, just a few months ago at the 2016 PGA Championship, Woods stood over a putt that would have won him  his 15th major championship. Halfway to the hole was a nasty spike mark, dead in Woods’ line. Again, he stared at the mark and cursed the universe and the USGA rule that prohibits the repair  of such marks. He settled over his putt and made the perfect stroke.

The ball rolled end over end, destined for the hole, right until the moment that it hit that single unrepairable spike mark.

Tiger Woods was denied another major and the legions of golf fans felt denied. Through no fault of his own, the arbitrary, senseless rules of golf had seemingly conspired to the deny the best player of our era a deserved win.

Also in this fantasy world, imagine this:

Tiger Woods saw fit to use his immense wealth and fame to coerce the USGA and the R&A to correct the silly, foolish rules that upset his path to history. The golf world would have turned against him instantly. This would not be the actions of another athlete who cheated on his wife and children. No, these would be the actions of a man who found himself at odds with the very same rules he had played under his entire professional and amateur career. His motives would be clear to everyone and so his legend would be destroyed. The same fans who could forgive his foolish and inexplicable banging of strippers and Perkins’ waitresses could never accept his effort to change the rules for the sake of his own record. Woods’ fans could accept any weakness but a surrender to the same rules that everyone plays by.

This is exactly the mistake Barbara Boxer has made in the aftermath of the hotly contested 2016 presidential election. She has seen her party and platform stung by the effect of the electoral college for the second time in less than a generation and she’s not going to stand still for it. But, the problem is that her motivation is too clearly in the interest of her party rather than her country. I think there’s a simple test to prove my belief. Boxer has been a US senator since 1992. In that time, there have been seven presidential elections but the only other time she has devoted any energy to the electoral college was in 2005 when she challenged Ohio’s electors in a futile effort to delay the re-election of George W. Bush, who had just won the popular vote over John Kerry by more than 3 million votes.

Me? I’m on the fence about the electoral college. However, I do firmly believe that Rule 16-1c (the rule that prohibits repairing a spike mark on the green) is fundamentally unfair.

At the same time, I think the rule that disallows taking relief from a fairway divot should stand. The text of Rule 13 is simple.

Play the ball as it lies.

I wonder if Barbara Boxer plays golf?

 

Tiger Woods, Barbara Boxer, the Rules of Golf and the Electoral College

Tiger Woods “Performance Reasons” at the Safeway Open in Napa, CA

Tiger Woods has cited “performance reasons” in withdrawing from this week’s Safeway Open in Napa, CA.

His back is fine but his game still suffers and Woods won’t return until it’s ready to go.

The now 40 year old Tiger Woods is missing a piece of the equation. His game will never be ready (by his old standards) again. He’ll never again be the player who won the 1997 Masters or the one who blitzed the PGA Tour in 2001 or even the one who won his last major in 2008.

Woods keeps looking in the mirror expecting to see those younger versions of himself and instead keeps seeing that 40 year old guy with a twice-surgically repaired back.

Ouch.

He also sees the rest of the Safeway field, where the highest ranked player is world number 12 Paul Casey, yet he still doesn’t like his chances.

Ouch times two.

This all goes back to my fundamental belief about the deepest fear in Tiger Woods’ heart; the fear of being just another really good tour player. He doesn’t want to go toe to toe with Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.

He wants the young players of today to lay down for him like the now 50+ year old, 1990s under-achieving-used-to-beens did through the early and mid 2000s. But, today’s 20 and 30-somethings aren’t going to do it for him, so Woods will stay home and his 40 year old game can remain in hiding.

So much for moving the needle.

 

 

Tiger Woods “Performance Reasons” at the Safeway Open in Napa, CA

Golf’s technogurus & losing the elegance of self discovery

When Jon Fitzgerald reached the age of 40 he embarked on an all-too common quest; to make his golf game as good as possible. His film, The Back Nine, chronicles his project. The story starts with a brief personal history of Fitzgerald, his life with his father and stepfather, and a look back at his youthful athleticism.

Like most of us, Fitzgerald has to keep a lot of plates spinning in his life. He has a wife, a job and, at the start of the film, one child. I was interested to see what Fitzgerlad’s effort at the age of 40 would look like compared to mine at nearly 50.

It was quite impressive if at the same time more than a little dismaying.

Fitzgerald started out, as do so many golfers (myself included) by seeking the help of a professional. Now, seeing a golf teacher is far from odd, but what Fitzgerald did went far beyond working with a pro. Rather than just a golf teacher, Fitzgerald started out with a visit to a Yoga/Golf guru in Arizona. She then referred him to a strength coach, who referred him to a swing coach, who referred him to a guy who uses a battery of imaging devices, including a vest with embedded sensors, that would allow Fitzgerald to have his progress monitored via the internet.

There is a part of me who envies the resources Fitzgerald employed, but there’s a bigger part of me who finds it all rather sad. Every player thinks he should be better. They think they should hit it further, straighter, and they should make more putts than they do. There’s something about the attempted blending of golf and technology that suggests to average players that they really can be better if they have all of the information they need. Of course, this is nothing new. Ben Hogan started a good deal of the madness with his now ubiquitous references to pronation and supination in his classic, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.

I can’t prove it but my guess is that Hogan, with his undeniably modest education, didn’t know what either word meant until his co-writer, Herbert Warren Wind, told Hogan what they meant. I also can’t prove that Hogan’s use of those two words caused far more confusion than they did understanding over the last few decades. But, they surely have caused a lot of confusion.

Wrapped up in nearly every technological breakthrough in golf instruction is a basic fallacy; that knowing will always make you better. Knowing begs the question of knowing what? In Fitzgerald’s case (and mine, too) the most profound if sobering knowledge is that we’ll never be all that good. We lack the basic ability to be very much better than we are. Fitzgerald’s swing at the end of the films looks pretty much like his swing at the start. He has rather a notchy backswing and can’t quite clear his hips coming through impact. I have the same problems and lots of others.

Do I seem pessimistic? Or, do I seem envious?

No matter what I am I will admit some players get better, I’ll even allow they get better because of solid instruction. But it seems to me there’s a difference between one on one instruction and the technological phalanx Fitzgerald subjected himself to. Players who get better in golf usually do it through a series of hard-won self discoveries. The purveyors of technogolf would have us believe that they know what we might never discover on our own. Fitzgerald discovers he needs orthotics since his left foot pronates (there’s that word again).

Really?

I’m glad some great players with somewhat unusual swings didn’t live in an era when the technogurus could have screwed them up. Honestly, what would these guys have done with Lee Trevino’s self-discovered practice of aiming left while swinging right? If he were young enough, he would have probably listened to them, adjusted his stance so that it looked and measured parallel to his intended line of flight. They would have also shown him that his head dropped 6″ from address to impact and they would have fixed that, too.

And, Lee Trevino would have vanished into golf’s abyss, never to be seen again.

For already accomplished players technogurus may not do too much harm, then again maybe they do. At age 35, Tiger Woods is rebuilding his swing for the third time. I am certain that each time a technoguro convinced him, arguably the best player ever to play golf, that technology proved that his swing needed a substantive change.

Of course, no swing stays the same, and even golf’s old timers sought help in formal and some not so formal ways. But, it’s my contention that one of the reasons contemporary players can fall so fast and so far is from their growing reliance on the certitude technogurus offer. Think of the declines of Chris Riley, Ty Tryon and David Gossett to name only three. Did their games really decline or were they let down by the relentless analysis of technogurus?

At UCLA’s Royce Hall there is a quote from Plato that goes something like this: Education is learning to use the tools which the race has found to be indispensable. The tools championed by the technogurus are genuinely impressive but whether they are indispensable, or even truly helpful, to players is far from certain.

I’m busy writing an golf book for women. In it, I use this phrase: You will also never master this game. You will, however, go from discovery to discovery for the rest of your life.

Golf is a solitary game of self discovery. The congregation of golf’s technogurus may honestly believe in what they do. But, that’s not really what matters here. What matters is that the elegance of self discovery remains at the heart of golf.

Golf’s technogurus & losing the elegance of self discovery