Focus: Golf’s Ultimate Lesson

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Or perhaps Patience might be the key lesson the game of golf teaches. Whichever, I’m focusing, as it were, on keeping your Focus.

As I’ve written before, and as others have written much more eloquently and authoritatively, golf is a difficult game to master. At best, most of us can only hope to play it well enough to gain more enjoyment than frustration. I have reached that plateau but maybe only because I have more patience than most. My game is still not very good.

One thing I’ve taken from playing tennis and applied to golf is a desire to learn how to play the sport properly, even if I don’t achieve great results (I was a B player at best on the tennis court). While there are obviously many variations to any particular aspect of golf (or tennis), fundamentals and basic good practices are still key elements to building a foundation to your game. Proper grip and setup, for example. If you don’t have those right, you’re unlikely to strike the ball well and even less likely to have it go where you’re aiming. Getting the ball to go where you aim it is 90% of the game. The other 10% is knowing where to aim – particularly with tennis – but that’s a different subject.

The two sports diverge when applying specifics. So I’ll leave tennis behind and focus on golf.

Recently, I played a round at one of my favorite courses in Bend. I did OK, for me, and managed to maintain my rather remarkable consistency at that course: in the six rounds I’ve played, my scores have all been within three shots of each other. I’m not sure why but that consistency plays out at other courses as well, albeit not quite so much. I’m a consistent golfer.

I played the round with a fine gentleman, older than me and apparently well off in his retirement based on what he said he did for a living. He played the game about as well as I and more importantly, played it with the same level of intensity and focus (there’s that word). Casual on the tee and while we waited, he concentrated on his shots when it was his turn. We exchanged remarks on how the greens were rolling and other aspects of the course as we played. Critically, he offered no swing advice or distracted me when it was my turn to play. In other words, a great playing partner. It is during these rounds where I have no unwanted distractions and a comfortable setting that I can focus on my shots. More so if I’m playing solo.

Specifically, I can focus on what I have learned about how to hit a particular shot and focus on the ‘swing thoughts’ that work for me. Swing thoughts are what you think about as you are executing a shot. It is important that they be few and simple – you usually won’t make a good swing if you burden your mind with half a dozen imperatives while you swing, even if all those things are important to do. One or two things only is best. Unlike a lot of physical activity, golf is not natural, so I have to remind my body and mind how to perform each time. So, focus. I need to focus on each shot.

One might think focusing on every shot is easy, no big deal. After all, golf is a game played in short spurts – most of the time you are either moving from one place to another or waiting. Sure, those times you might be thinking of your game or even the next shot but not in a way that requires focus. So why is it hard? The short answer – and probably the longer one – is I don’t know, but it is. I have yet to play a round where I focused on every shot. Inevitably, there are a few where because of whatever circumstances are present in the moment, I’ve simply gone up to the ball, gone through my usual mechanical routine and swung. Note that going through my routine is quite different from focusing. To focus, I need to concentrate on my swing thoughts.

Aside from the very relevant tennis analogy, I can’t think of a whole lot of non-emergency situations I’ve been in where focusing is so critical. Working in energized panels on the submarine and power plants is one but generally those weren’t on/off situations like a golf round. If I was elbows deep with 240 or 440 VAC around me, you bet I was focused the whole time. But it wasn’t focus on/focus off 90-100 times in the space of four hours as with a round of golf.

Driving here in Central Oregon might come close. We have a lot of critters that apparently think traffic laws don’t apply to them. Big critters like deer and elk. Driving often demands that you be prepared for a bull elk to be in your face in those stretches of road where they might pop out without warning. That’s hard to do on a longer drive. Your mind inevitably strays to other things. You lose focus.

I like to think that playing the game of golf improves my ability to focus but I’m not so sure about that, either. It might, or it might just teach my mind that focus is something required on the course (and for elk avoidance). Why do it off the course?

Anyway, that’s the meat of this blog entry. Golf – a game of focus that may or may not have lessons to apply to life in general. For those who don’t play golf or don’t particularly care how I play the game or who have lost focus while reading this, you’re excused. Thanks for reading. For those who are so bored that one might question your enthusiasm for life, the remainder of this entry comprises specifics on how I play golf, club-by-club, and what I focus on for each.

So, here’s what works for me:

Driver: The most powerful club in the bag, it is the one that can get you into the most trouble. Unless you are a tour pro, the driver is used only on the tee and even pros rarely use it off the tee (hitting the driver from the fairway is called ‘driver off the deck’). With the driver, the goal is to get the ball a good distance down the fairway. For me, accuracy is not paramount as long as I hit the fairway, so I usually aim for the middle. Missing the fairway by a little is often still OK, but a shot that veers too far off course will find landing spots that can add multiple shots to your score. Hitting out-of-bounds, for example, automatically is a two shot disaster (you have to hit the ball again from the original spot and there’s a one shot penalty). Hitting a water hazard or losing the ball in the weeds similarly add shots. So, my imperative is to hit the fairway. It doesn’t matter all that much how far I hit it. If I strike the ball well, the distance will take care of itself anyway.

Swing thoughts: For the driver, I will think of two things. One, I must shift forward on the downswing, putting more weight on my left leg. Two, I focus on swinging through the ball along the target line. If I have done my setup right, those two things will almost always result in a ball flight well into the air and close to my target line. If I lose focus and fail to do those two things, bad things can happen. Failing to move forward, I may not strike the ball with the proper upswing (the driver is the only club where you hit the ball as the club-head is going up, albeit slightly) and I may even hit the ground before the ball. If I don’t swing through the target line, the difference between club face angle at impact and the swing path will result in a slice or hook, depending on which errant path I take. Either fault may result in the ball ending up in a place I really don’t want to be. So far, I’m pretty good with the driver but only because I don’t swing very hard. I lose a lot of distance but gain accuracy.

Fairway wood: Also known as a fairway metal because golf clubs aren’t made of wood anymore. I see no reason to rename the club. For me, a fairway wood means a 3-wood but they come in different numbers (e.g. 5-wood, 7-wood) and many golfers carry more than one. A fairway wood is sort of a smaller driver – similar shape, just shorter club shaft and smaller head. On shorter holes or where the fairway doesn’t have enough room to accommodate the distance a driver will provide, golfers will use a fairway wood off the tee. Pretty much all the swing aspects applicable to the driver will apply with slight modification, such as a lower tee height.

Hitting a fairway wood when the ball is lying in the fairway is a whole ‘nother animal. If you try hitting a fairway shot using a driver swing, you will fail spectacularly every time. The reason is an obvious one: on the tee the ball is sitting up a couple of inches above the ground, allowing (mandating, if you do it properly) that slight upward path at impact. On the fairway, the ball will be sitting on grass and maybe slightly sunk into the grass. There’s no hitting up on the ball. The proper swing is one that ‘sweeps’ the grass with the club-head, achieving the low point of its arc pretty much right at impact, or maybe slightly after the ball. And that is why fairway wood shots are so hard to master. If the bottom of the arc is a little early, you’ll ground the club before impact, resulting in short, unpredictable ball flight, if not a complete duff. If the arc is too late, that’s better but won’t give you the control and distance you need from the shot.

Swing thoughts: I admit I’m not real great with this shot so I try to keep it simple by using the same thoughts as with the driver: shift weight forward and maintain proper swing path. The difference between a fairway shot and a tee shot is where the ball is in my setup (more forward on the tee). My fairway mishits usually involve hitting the ground first because I lost focus and didn’t shift weight forward.

Hybrid: A hybrid is a club that typically replaces one of the long irons in a golfer’s bag. It has a larger head designed to hit through grass without the club-head getting caught up too much. Most pros don’t carry one because they are so good with their irons, even out of the rough. I will use my 4-hybrid or 5-hybrid to get out of the rough or when a ball is sitting down in the grass too much for me to be comfortable with the 3-wood (see above). Beyond that, the hybrids replace the 4 and 5-irons in my bag, with distance somewhere between the 6-iron and the 3-wood.

Off the fairway, I will hit a hybrid the same as I would the 3-wood. If I’m using a hybrid to get out of a bad lie, I adjust my swing and try to ‘punch out’. That is, a short swing that results in a low shot that doesn’t travel as far as with a full swing. For that, I set the ball back well in my stance and swing down on it, allowing the club-head to travel though less grass before impact. Swinging down also delofts the club, resulting in a lower trajectory and avoiding any tree branches that might be in the way. Results vary wildly but that’s why they call it a ‘bad lie’.

Swing thoughts: If using the club as I would the 3-wood, see above. If using it to hit out of  bad lie, my thought is just one: solid impact on the ball. That’s it. I’m just concentrating on getting clean contact, hoping for a better lie on the next shot and hopefully a lot closer to the green.

Irons, Full Swing: Most people categorize their irons based on distance: long, mid and short, with lower numbered clubs (2, 3, 4, 5, say) being long and the wedges (pitching, gap, sand, lob) being short and the rest in the middle (mid). Me, I tend to categorize them into two bins: those I can comfortably hit off the fairway with a full swing and those I can’t. I don’t even carry a 2, 3 or 4 iron and I’ve recently given up on my 5 in favor of a hybrid. I just can’t hit long irons so I don’t even try anymore.

That said, there are two situations where you’d want to hit a full-swing iron. First, on the fairway where your target – the green or a spot further up the fairway – lies a good distance away.  Note that my target is not always the green even if it’s nominally in range of my irons. Because of my poor iron play, I usually prefer to lay up close to the green and then try to hit a half-swing wedge close to the hole. The second situation is on the tee at a par 3 hole. There, I will hit a 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 off a tee set just above grass height. I have yet to encounter a hole short enough that I can reach it with a 9 iron off the tee.

A full-swing iron shot is a complicated matter, particularly off the grass. Unlike a fairway wood where you’re trying to ‘sweep’ the ball off the grass, with an iron you’re trying to hit down on it a bit with the low point of the swing coming just after the ball. That’s why better players take a divot with a iron. The club is literally plowing a trench behind where the ball was. You do this because it is imperative that you hit the ball first, not the ground, and the club-face design for irons really doesn’t allow it to travel along grass easily without the face being jerked off target, as a fairway wood or hybrid can do.  So, with the ball somewhere in the middle of your stance at setup – further back the shorter the iron – as you downswing, you must move your hips forward, allowing the bottom of the swing arc to be behind the ball. There’s a lot more going on as well: hip rotation, weight shift to the front leg, wrists ahead of the club-face, etc. If you get any of it wrong, if you lose your focus, you will not strike the ball solidly and may even hit the ground in front of the ball. Results are usually very poor if you do.

If I’m hitting off the tee, the swing is the same, I’m just not trying to take a divot (I rarely take divots anyway – my swing force is too low). I’m still trying to bottom out the swing arc behind the ball but not into the grass. Off the tee is a lot easier to do than a fairway iron shot. That’s why Jack Nicklaus says to always tee up a ball on the tee box*. Never hit a ball off the ground when on the tee, no matter what club you use. I have a friend who insists on hitting his par 3 irons shots off the ground. I don’t understand that – why penalize yourself? The game is already hard.

* As I write this, I realize that the ‘tee’ terminology is confusing if you don’t know the golf context. The term ‘tee’ can mean either the tee peg you use to prop a ball up, or it can mean the tee box, which is the area where you hit your first shot on each hole. ‘On the tee’ means you’re in the tee box hitting your first shot, whether you use a tee peg or not.

Swing thoughts: With all that, it’s easy to get too complicated as you swing an iron on the fairway. For me, I think of two things: weight shift forward and a sensation that I’m driving the club down from the handle as I start my downswing. If I do those two things correctly, I will probably strike the ball solidly and hopefully in the right direction. I tend to hit otherwise solid iron shots to the left, so maybe I need to add a third thought, club path through to the target. Or not. If I concentrate on that, I might botch the other two.

With tee shots, my swing thoughts are weight shift forward and club path towards the target. I’m not thinking about driving down into the ball when on the tee.

Irons, Half-Swing: Unless you hit the green from long distance, you will eventually have placed your ball relatively close to the green. From there, you generally can’t take a full swing no matter what club you use. You have to use an abbreviated swing to avoid overshooting the green. These are called pitch and chip shots. Pitch shots being used a bit further from the green and chips from right up near the green.

I’m pretty good with these shots, even granting that they are generally easier for anyone. Because I don’t hit the ball very far, I usually can’t reach the green from the fairway on my second shot (or third on a par 5). So I’ve taken to not even trying. I will lay up short of the green and try to hit a wedge close enough to make par with one putt. Most of my par scores on a hole are achieved this way and I’ve spent many hours practicing chip and pitch shots.

By now it has to be apparent that virtually all non-tee golf shots are dependent on the lie – how the ball is sitting in the grass. Pitch and chip shots are even more dependent on the lie because you are not swinging with much force. Back in the fairway, even if the ball is sitting a bit lower than you’d like, the speed of the club-head at impact can neutralize bad lies to some degree. You can drive the club through the grass and still make good contact with the ball. Not so with the more delicate short shots. A ball sitting up nicely in grass will dictate a different shot selection than will one sitting down. This is true even if you are in the fairway, which is supposed to have evenly cut grass everywhere but in reality still offers varied lies.

Pitch shots are a bit easier to describe. With a good lie, I hit a pitch shot essentially the same way as I would a mid iron but with less force, less weight transfer, less arm swing, less hip rotation. If the ball is sitting down, I will use a more lofted wedge and play the ball back a bit in my stance.

Chip shots are where the technique starts to differ, although it’s really a continuum as you get closer to the green (the further away you are the more it looks like a standard iron/pitch shot). There are two basic chip shots: one is a high shot designed to have little roll after the ball hits the green and one is lower where you want the ball to roll to the hole. The technique is quite similar, the difference being where you put the ball in your stance and what club you select. Which shot you choose mostly depends on the green in front of you. If it slopes away from you, it will be difficult to judge how much the ball will roll so you’ll want to hit the ball higher and have it drop close to the hole and not roll away. If the slope is towards you, a low, rolling shot may be best because that is more like a putt and putting always beats chipping. Or so they say. You also need to pay attention to left and right slope to determine where your target line should be. Very often, you will not hit directly towards the hole.

For a high shot, I’ll use my lob wedge or sand iron, depending on how far I want the ball to travel. Feet no more than two club-faces apart, a moderate amount of wrist action on the backswing and follow through, ball well forward of center. Most of the power is derived from the shoulders, not the hips. I will take multiple practice swings in an area where the grass is similar to my lie. It does no good to practice swings in grass higher or lower than your ball lies. You need to get a feel for how the club-face and grass are going to interact, which will dictate how hard you swing.

For a low shot, I’ll use something with less loft, maybe a 7, 8 or 9. The setup and swing are similar but the ball will be back in the stance and I won’t hit it as hard. I’m not really good at judging low running shots yet, so I tend to go for the high shot.

Some golf instructors advocate using only one club for chip shots, saying you should vary the swing tempo and ball position to get the right distance and roll. Others say you should take advantage of your bag and use whatever club will carry the right distance using the same swing. Me, I really like my Cleveland 58 degree wedge, so I use it 90% of the time for chip shots, adjusting for roll by where I put the ball in my stance. It works for me. There’s also the Matt Kuchar shot – use a fairway wood or hybrid to generate roll when you have a lot of green to cross. That takes a lot of practice. Those clubs can easily send the ball flying right through the green.

Swing thoughts: With chips and pitches, I concentrate on one thing: brush the club under the ball. In other words, don’t stub the club in the ground and don’t blade it. As I said, I will take several practice strokes. It’s then that I make sure my swing is proper in terms of hips, weight, wrist, etc. Because the shot is low force, it’s a lot easier to repeat once you’ve taken the practice swings.

Putting: If you had to divide the game of golf into two categories, it would be putting and every other shot. All non-putting strokes involve lofted clubs, body rotation, large swings, ball flight and various techniques to deal with the ground (or tee). With the putter, you’re just trying to get the ball rolling across an even surface, albeit one with considerable slopes and undulations. Your grip is different, for some golfers wildly so. The putter is much shorter than the other clubs, so you need to adjust your stance to be over the ball.

Putting also involves a skill not required for most other shots: reading the green (with chips and pitches, you need to read the green as well but it’s not as important). By reading the green, I mean getting down low and looking at the ground (grass) between the ball and the hole and imagining how the ball with Break (curve) as it travels to the hole. It may break left, right, or left then right. You also need to look at the path from a side view to determine whether its uphill, downhill or both. From all that, you must judge two things: what line (direction) to start the ball off on, and how hard to hit it. The two interact: if you hit the ball harder it won’t break as much as if you hit if softly. There is no one correct combination that will get the ball to the hole. You may try for a harder shot with less break but risk hitting it well past the hole if you miss. You may hit it softly, trying to just get it to the hole but risk misjudging the break or coming up short. Even the type of grass and its condition will influence the read.

While there are techniques you can use to read the green, to be good at it requires skill and practice.  But one technique I’ve found to be invaluable and a lot of pros do it: place a line on the ball’s circumference with a black marker. This does two things. First, after you’ve done your green-reading, by placing the ball on the green with the line aimed along your intended starting path, it eliminates having to judge what that path is after you stand over the ball preparing to putt. The line tells you all you need to know. Except for getting a feel in your mind as to how hard to hit it (based also on your green-reading), you really don’t even need to look at the hole as you putt. Second, the provides visual feedback to help you align the putter face perpendicular to the path. It does no good to correctly read the green if you then hit the ball off-line. Both of these things are remarkably hard to do without the line on the ball. As you look down on the ball, it is difficult to visualize the intended path because it lies in your peripheral vision from that vantage point. And it’s harder to ensure your putter is aligned with that path.

Swings thoughts: So, after reading the green, lining up the ball, getting my putter aligned with the intended path, what’s left? Striking the ball, of course. Even after addressing the ball with the putter and ensuring it’s lined up, you might still hit it off-line during the actual stroke. Minimizing that involves good putting technique and just as with all the other golf shots, you can have too many things in your head. For me, I do two things. During my practice swings, I look at the hole and imagine hard I have to hit the ball to get to the hole. As I swing, I focus on a good pendulum action with my shoulders, keeping the rest of my body still. I’m getting to the point where putting is a strength of my game. My usual miss is short, so I’m working on that.

 

Focus. To play the game of golf at any level of proficiency, you have to focus. I don’t know anyone who can play golf well who doesn’t at least pause briefly to focus on their shots prior to swinging. Beyond scoring better, it feels great to focus on doing something right, and then having it actually happen as intended.

During a round not long ago, I had a good lie in the fairway and according to the golf GPS app that I use to judge distances, I needed to hit a 7-iron. The app is programmed with my usual distances for each club – it’s very handy.  Because I don’t hit my irons very well, my typical 7-iron shot doesn’t travel very far. In this case, I was looking to hit a shot to the front of the green and the app said my 7-iron was the right distance. Well, I hit the best 7-iron of my life. Everything worked. I made good contact, the ball flew up high and straight at the green. I think I even took a divot. Woo hoo!

And the ball landed a good ten yards over the back of the green, way beyond what I had intended. Ordinarily, that would be cause for disappointment. I just missed the green horribly and probably was looking at a double or triple bogey. But I was kind of elated. I had just hit a 7-iron well! That almost never happens. So, even though my shot didn’t produce the expected result, it felt good to focus on a proper swing and pull it off.

I still remember the feel of that shot.

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The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

A line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, oft represented as antagonistic towards lawyers. In fact – or in opinion, if you will – William Shakespeare probably meant it as a compliment to the legal profession in that they held society together through the rule of law. A bulwark against anarchy. You’ll find that a common if not popular interpretation and it’s one that was presented to us neophyte law students pretty much on the first day of orientation. Law professors love Shakespeare.

But as I said, it’s not the popular interpretation. Most non-lawyers think it suggests that lawyers are a bane of society rather than a bulwark, and should be eliminated. Personal injury lawyers are ambulance chasers and the reason we have stupid labels on virtually every product made warning us against incredibly obvious dangers is because of lawyers. Why, wasn’t it lawyers who successfully sued McDonald’s because their coffee was hot? And the US Congress is chock full of lawyers and look how well that works. We should ban lawyers from Congress!

Well, no, we shouldn’t and that brings me to my point. Rather than ban lawyers, we should require law degrees of all our Congressional Representatives and Senators. Seriously.

Why? Because Shakespeare (if you subscribe to that interpretation) was right. We as a society are held together because of our respect for and adherence to the Rule of Law. Intentional caps. Without the rule of law, we’re just a bunch of savages trying to survive as best we can, taking what we need from whomever we can. A little harsh?  You wouldn’t be like that? No, me neither. But what you and I would do is band together with like-minded folks and establish a society where the rights and liberties of all are respected. In other words, establish the rule of law.

I think – I hope – that’s a concept that most of us can agree with. The rule of law is a good thing. But that’s leaves us with two questions: one, what laws should we have and two, why do we need lawyers? Can’t reasonable people just agree on common sense laws that everyone can understand?

I’ll leave the first question alone – not because it isn’t as important (it is in fact much more important) but because the second one is the least understood, I think.

Let me make this statement: Law is hard. While it certainly isn’t beyond the grasp of most intelligent people, it is not a subject amenable to casual scrutiny by the even most intelligent among us. The concepts are often arcane, deriving from centuries of formulation and refinement. I reckon most people can’t so much as describe what is meant by the term Common Law much less apply it to the specific legal issues where it’s relevant. I know I couldn’t before going to law school. Yet it underpins our legal system, stemming from our country’s English heritage. And that’s just common law. Statutory law, while often easier to grasp, presents its own set of difficulties. Laws are written in a language that often defies common interpretation.

One such misinterpretation is the term ‘assault’. Ever wonder why a criminal charge is often termed ‘assault and battery’? Isn’t that redundant? No, because assault in legal terms doesn’t mean what it does in common English. It doesn’t mean to ‘attack’ someone physically. In legal terms, it means to create an apprehension and fear of bodily harm, coupled with the apparent ability to carry out the threat immediately. Assault is the (credible) threat; battery is carrying through with the threat. The two terms are necessary because each act constitutes a crime and one doesn’t depend on the other. You can commit a battery without assault, and vice versa. Laws are written just so and, as I said, often use uncommon language. Otherwise, ambiguities may arise making it difficult to determine what crime someone may have committed or whether they committed one at all. Legal terms are far more specific and defined than those we use in everyday language, and I argue they should be. Think about, say, banking law and imagine the complexities of terminology and concepts that go well beyond the average person’s understanding. Use of proper legal terminology and phraseology help define and constrain interpretations to what was intended. Laws shouldn’t be subject to challenge because – to use a popular internet meme – “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

Constitutional law presents a whole different array of difficulties to casual interpretation. Not only does one have to parse what the words mean, one has to determine what they meant two hundred years ago. One might have hoped the framers of our most important legal document would have written the thing in plainer language, maybe even provided some definition of terminology. It’s hard enough to apply an 18th or 19th century standard to 21st century reality when things the framers could not have imagined are part of our world today (say, the internet or well-funded political action committees) but it’s often difficult to determine what they meant when they wrote it. Equally important, does it matter what the framers were thinking? Maybe we should just go with what the words meant when they were written without regard to intent? Just this week, a controversy erupted over the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship clause with some interpreting it to only apply to the recently freed slaves. That interpretation has been repeatedly tossed into the historical dust bin but here we are again. And what exactly were the framers thinking with the phrase “A well regulated Militia …”  anyway? We don’t have the sort of militias today that were in existence when the Bill of Rights was adopted. Does the 1st Amendment’s right to free speech really apply to corporate campaign contributions? Are corporations people?

These are questions the justices of the US Supreme Court grapple with in deciding cases based on constitutional law. Some prefer what is called the doctrine of ‘original intent’ and say the document doesn’t apply to issues not part of the 18th/19th century world unless they can be enveloped within the words as written back then, while some prefer to apply the constitution in the light of modern reality. There are valid arguments on both sides. But either way, the justices must interpret two documents to decide constitutionality: the constitution itself and the particular law in question. The justices, therefore, must be well-versed in the law and its terminology, roots and concepts. That’s the reason I think candidates for the Supreme Court should be required to have considerable legal and appellate judicial experience. Most do and have, but not all.

OK, but that’s the Supreme Court. What about Congress? Let me frame my answer by asking this: do you really want the Supreme Court working hard to figure out what exactly Congress meant when it drafted a law? Or would it be better if the law was well-crafted, legally speaking, in the first place? Even if it was, that doesn’t mean the law is constitutional but it would be far easier to determine constitutionality if it was written by legislators with legal training. Moreover, we need laws written by people who have at least a decent understanding of the constitution, using whichever doctrine they choose to interpret it. We need laws written in such a way that they conform to the language of our legal system and stand a better chance of not being challenged and possibly struck down by the Supreme Court. Lawyers, or at least those who have law degrees, are who we need to write laws. The idea of ‘citizen legislators’ might sound appealing, but on the national level, it often just results in having people who don’t know what they’re doing running the country. The Rule of Law only works if the laws are coherent.

One might argue that my point is invalid because Congress is already, as I implied above, ‘chock full of lawyers.’ That’s true, but it would be worse if fewer had legal training. Then not only would they pass laws that ignore or distort political, social, scientific and international realities (and they do that so often these days) but the language of the bills would more often not even carry out their intent, making a complete hash of things that the Supreme Court has to untangle.

Before anyone gets their hackles up and starts firing off inflammatory screeds in the comment section, keep in mind two other things. First, in order to get an ABA-approved law degree in this country, you must first have a bachelors degree in something. Doesn’t matter what. So all law school graduates (OK, there may be some exceptions) are also educated in some other field. That in itself considerably broadens the experience pool to virtually every academic field. Each congressional committee could comprise legislators that not only have legal acumen but relevant training in the subject matter. The Science and Technology Committees would be composed of people with science degrees who can better understand the technical issues and who have the legal training to draft coherent bills to implement the desired policy changes without stomping on people’s civil rights. So too with Banking Committees, Education Committees, Arts Committees, and so on.

Second, I’m only advocating that Congress comprise those who have law degrees, not necessarily have practiced law. I have never practiced law, for example, but I have a law degree. So I’m reasonably fluent in law and can interpret laws, the constitution and court decisions, certainly much better than I could before getting the degree (said fluency is diminishing over time, of course). Before I got the law degree, I was like you. I thought Shakespeare hated lawyers.

Not that I’m running for Congress.

It’s A Long Way Down

My last post (Forest of Death) reminded me of another memory on the submarine. But before I get to that, I’m reminded of another related concept which I only fully realized when the Russian submarine Kursk was disabled and stranded on the sea bottom, eventually with the loss of all hands. As probably with most submariners, that event struck a chord in my psyche. There but for the grace of god go I, as they say.

When it went down, the Kursk was in fairly shallow water, about 350 feet. The boat’s maximum operational depth limit is much deeper. But even that shallow, there was too much water above the boat to allow the men to escape on their own.

350 feet of water is pretty deep from the perspective of normal human experience. Scuba divers usually don’t venture past 100 feet or so and rarely will dive below 150 feet. To go further requires training and other things, such as decompression stops on the way up. To dive as far down as the Kursk sank is totally out of the question. So, 350 feet is deep.

At some point, I imagined the physical situation with the Kursk, a 500 foot sub lying 350 feet down and it became incongruous. If the boat were stood up on end, a good portion would be sticking out of the water. The men inside could walk further end to end than they were below the surface of the sea. From that perspective, to lose a submarine in merely 350 feet of water seemed ridiculous. But it happened.

My experience in submarines was in the Pacific Ocean, whose waters are considerably deeper than 350 feet over the vast majority of its extent. Much deeper, in fact, than the depth limits of a nuclear submarine, be it the USS Sam Houston, the Kursk or any modern sub. More than that, though, given we operated out of a navy base in Guam and headed more or less into the open ocean, I’m pretty sure the boat transited waters above the deepest ocean depths: the Marianas Trench. Challenger Deep, the low point in the trench and thus the world, is more than 35,000 feet below the surface. That’s one hundred times the depth where the Kursk sank.

I was a scuba diver before joining the navy and I recall being a bit freaked out when I dove into water more than a hundred feet deep. At that depth, you can’t see the bottom so you have the sensation of being at a scary height above ground. It obviously wasn’t too scary because I loved diving deep – so many interesting things to see down there.

On a submarine, you have no such sensation of scary depths. Unless you know to look for telltale clues (loss of wave action on the boat, pressure gauges on seawater intakes, temperature gauges on the same water, the hull creaking from being compressed by the weight of water and of course, the depth gauges located in the control room and maneuvering), you really have no sensation of depth at all. You’re in an enclosed, rigid steel tube.

But you know. If you cast your imagination and visualize yourself just outside the submarine and look down, you will be staring into utter blackness whose depths you cannot discern but which you know is over six miles down. You find yourself suspended six miles above ground, a ground you cannot see.

Now, that’s scary. It sort of unnerved me, at least until I got over it. You learn to get over a lot of stuff on a submarine.

Walking Through the Forest of Death

Someone recently posted a question on a submarine-related Facebook group asking that if you could name one memory or feeling from your submarine days, what would it be?

I could mention two, although the following would be my answer if restricted to one.

When I was on the submarine, going ‘to work’ for me meant walking from crew’s berthing or the crew’s mess (depending on whether I had a meal before work) back aft to the engineering spaces, either maneuvering (located in the engine room) or Auxiliary Machinery Room Two Upper Level (AMR2UL, where most of the reactor control equipment lived). It’s not a long walk – the entire boat was only a tad over 400 feet long.

Along the way, I negotiated familiar obstacles and passageways. Particularly when I was new on the boat, getting through the several bulkhead doors was always a risky endeavor if I weren’t careful – catching one of the hard steel protrusions (I forget the technical term for them) on your shoulder could render you semi-paralyzed with pain for a few minutes or longer. Experience and practice reduced the hazard considerably. AMR1 was fairly packed with all manner of mechanical and electrical stuff but it wasn’t a big space so I got through it quickly. Between AMR1 and AMR2 was the reactor compartment, a space you couldn’t enter routinely because, well, you’d die. So there was a passageway called the tunnel used to get to AMR2. Sometimes I would stop and check the steam generator sightglass levels by peering through the heavily-leaded glass portholes located on each side of the tunnel. Or not.

But one compartment I walked through was unlike any other in a key regard: it contained sixteen ballistic missiles, the submarine’s raison d’etre. We were out in this big ocean, hiding from the Soviets, because we carried these missiles and were quite prepared to launch them. While I was on the Sam Houston, I believe the missiles were Poseidon C3’s, a multiple-warhead, long range weapon each with a total warhead payload somewhere short of 500 kilotons. To use the usual comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons and the Nagasaki bomb was 21. I’ve seen it written many times that a US ballistic missile submarine – and there were 41 of them during my time – carried more firepower than all that was expended in WWII. That doesn’t include our torpedoes but they were trivial compared to the missiles.

To accommodate these sixteen weapons, the missile compartment was huge, the largest in the submarine. It had three levels with the missile tubes, each containing one missile, extending from top to bottom of the boat. The tubes were about twelve feet in diameter and were arranged in two rows of eight, forward to aft. We called the arrangement ‘the forest’ because it invoked the idea of well-arranged, large trees. Their bulk took up most of the compartment, so to traverse the space on my way aft, I had to sort of shimmy past the missile tubes as I walked along the outer passageway.

So that’s my answer to the forum question: walking past a forest of death on my way to work. Thinking back, I cannot imagine how I processed it all. Not only was I living on a vessel with this awesome firepower – firepower I had to literally walk past every day – but I, along with the rest of the crew, were prepared to use it. It was what we were selected and trained for. Never mind that if the unthinkable had occurred and we received a launch order, two things were virtually certain. One, our country was under nuclear attack and probably many people have and will shortly die. And two, we ourselves would probably not survive. You see, launching sixteen missiles takes a while – the submarine could’t just shoot them off rapid-fire. I don’t know how long it would have taken but a guess of at least 30 minutes seems right. During that time, particularly after the first very noisy outer missile doors have been opened, a nearby Soviet submarine would probably have detected us and launched nuclear-tipped anti-submarine missiles against us. Or at least that’s what I understood and what most of my fellow nukes thought. Just as the folks in the forward part of the boat weren’t privy to the details of how the reactor operated, we nukes really didn’t know a whole lot about their stuff, including missile operations and exactly how close a Soviet sub might be.

So, what’s your daily commute to work like?

 

Golf Courses: How Not To Be a Good Neighbor

Golf has become my post-retirement passion. I’ve written about it here. Now that I’m a registered Bendite (Bend, Oregon that is), I’ve been hitting up some of Central Oregon’s courses. Five so far: Juniper up the road in Redmond, Widgi Creek in Bend on the road to Mt Bachelor (the nearest volcano), Meadow Lakes – a muni in Prineville, Crooked River Ranch near Terrebonne and the one I’ve adopted as my ‘home’ course, River’s Edge in bend.

River’s Edge – so named because it nestles up to the Deschutes River – features some fairly spectacular scenery owing to its location on the side of Awbrey Butte. While the scenery off the butte is far better on the west side where you can see a string on Cascades volcanoes – Mt Bachelor, Broken Top, the Three Sisters and Mt Jefferson – the east side where the golf course is located offers expansive views of Central Oregon. It’s quite impressive, I think.

My house is at the base of Awbrey Butte, so River’s Edge is almost walking distance, were it not for the up and down elevation change created by the butte. Five minutes in a car, tops, gets me from my garage to the golf course parking lot. So, it’s natural that I want River’s Edge to be my home course. You don’t really need a ‘home course’ – you can just just play wherever you want, whenever you want. But golf courses almost always offer membership discounts and I bought one at River’s Edge.

One of the problems with my choice is that River’s Edge is extraordinarily difficult for average, short hitters like myself. With many shots, if you’re a bit off, you’re in big trouble. I’m not accurate enough to be comfortable hitting those shots.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how golf courses co-exist with their community and River’s Edge has a huge, glaring problem in that regard. Bend is an outdoor paradise, with the city, county and state offering lots of parks, trails and other recreational outlets. I love it. One of the more popular is the Deschutes River Trail, a developed path that runs a long way along the Deschutes River. The scenery is great, it’s accessible along its route at many places, and it of course runs along the river.

It also runs through River’s Edge Golf Course. The interaction between the two is short but significant. Really, it’s just one hole. You can see it on Google Maps:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/River’s+Edge+Golf+Course/@44.0809676,-121.3123452,295m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x54b8c8b80ae5f25b:0x7ed515357dee6a06!8m2!3d44.0767498!4d-121.3166817?hl=en

(I apologize for the lengthy link – I suppose I could use tinyurl but I’m not space limited here, so why bother)

If you look at the bottom center of that view, a little to the left, you will see a set of tee boxes for the 3rd hole of the course, located to the right of NW Fairway Heights Dr (tee boxes are small, grassy areas where golfers start a hole, where they hit their first shot of the hole). They are to the left of the Deschutes River Trail, which is labeled on Google Maps. Looking NNE, you will see the fairway for the 3rd hole. It is on the other side of the trail, meaning golfers must hit across the trail from the tee box to the fairway. Not only that, note that because the 3rd green is located a fair distance up at the end of the fairway (the 3rd is a par 4), the proper line for the tee shot is not that far off the line of the trail. It doesn’t take much of a mishit to send a golf ball straight up the trail, where people are walking.

I’ve played this hole from the tee box three times now and it has scared the shit out of me each time. There are no warning signs for the golfer, nothing to say ‘beware of people on the path in front of you’. There are warning signs for the trail users but they are inadequate. Imagine you are out with the kids, the family, the dog, walking the Deschutes River Trail. You see a sign saying to watch out for golf balls. Really? What are you, a trail user, going to do to minimize the danger? Run as fast as you can through the area? That actually would be a good idea but how many people will? And if the golfer hits an errant shot that heads down the trail? What is he or she going to do? The traditional warning is to yell FORE!, but that really only is effective for people on a golf course who are, or should be, cognizant of what it means. For non-golfers who aren’t really expecting it (despite the signs), I think a common inclination would be to turn your head towards the sound of the person yelling FORE! and thus get hit directly in the face by a high speed golf ball.

It’s not safe. The last round I played using that tee box, I waited for a woman, two kids and a dog to make their way far enough up the trail to be what I thought was safe. They weren’t. Probably because of my anxiety, I blasted a shot that hooked and headed straight for them, or where I feared they would be (they were out of sight). Horrified, I still thought to refrain from calling out a warning, hoping no one would get hit, but not wanting to risk a face shot. Fortunately, no one was hit, but I found my ball on the left side of the trail, meaning it traveled along and across the trail and really could have hurt someone.

It’s not safe. With warm weather, more and more people flock to the Deschutes River Trail. Golfers will not be able to wait for the trail to clear.

The solution is to redesign the hole. Make it a par three by putting the tee box on the other side of the trail, maybe halfway up the fairway. That won’t eliminate the danger, but a mid-iron shot that isn’t aimed across the trail is far less dangerous to bystanders than a ball coming off the face of a full-force driver, as it is now.

For myself, I now play the hole by dropping my ball on the fairway (on the other side of the trail) at a distance I figure would be right for my average tee shot.

Anyone Here Know How to Drive This Thing?

As we stumble further along our post-Cold War path, the United States of America, defender of democracy, conqueror of the Third Reich, bane of Tojo, ruler of the high seas, the Greatest Military Power Ever Seen On Earth, seems to need people who can drive warships. And by drive, I mean so as to not hit things you shouldn’t be hitting. I wonder if the US Navy has taken out an ad on USAJOBS: Wanted, anyone who can steer a ship without killing people. Enquire within.

Hyperbole. Sarcasm. I’m kidding.

Sort of.

Maybe – no, assuredly – it’s a symptom of the mass information age. We hear about two Arleigh Burke class navy destroyers – greyhounds of the sea – getting run over by big lumbering cargo ships and we lose our minds. The US Navy is currently operating a 270-ship fleet. Back when we fielded Reagan’s 600-ship navy, before Facebook and Twitter, warships were probably slamming into each other and everyone else daily, right? We just didn’t hear about it.

Well, no.

Sure, there were incidents. Big ones. Kennedy/Belknap comes to mind, as does Greeneville/Ehime Maru. HMAS Melbourne did a number on a couple of ships including a US Navy destroyer. There were others. But the latest incidents involving cargo ships ramming and seriously damaging the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain in the crowded seaways near Tokyo and Singapore have sounded the alarm – the collision alarm if you will. Both incidents resulted in loss of life – the Fitzgerald almost sunk and would have were it not for the heroic efforts of its crew.

How well can the US Navy operate its ships and why are we even having this conversation? The US 7th Fleet, of which both the Fitzgerald and the McCain are part, seems to be the poster child for bad driving. There was also a recent incident in the 7th where the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground. Less serious, but still troubling. One has to wonder if the entire fleet is at risk.

So, what happened? Let’s take the McCain incident first as it’s, I believe, more indicative of the underlying problem.

Short answer: key watchstanders on the bridge of the McCain didn’t know how to operate the equipment they were manning, resulting in a loss of steering control.

Longer answer: the bridge of a warship – any warship – is where a group of on-duty sailors and officers control the movement and other functions of the ship. Their duties are defined as watchstations and each watchstander has certain specific responsibilities. The Officer of the Deck is the on-duty person in charge of the bridge (the whole ship, actually, but he or she is on the bridge). The captain of the ship may at any time issue orders to the OOD or even ‘assume the deck’, meaning take personal control of the ship.

To perform duties on the bridge (or at any number of watchstations on the ship, but this is about the bridge), a person must either be ‘qualified’ to stand that specific watchstation or be under the direct, close tutelage of a person qualified for that specific watchstation. In other words, be a trainee.

To be qualified means that person has demonstrated an acceptable knowledge of how to operate the equipment associated with the watchstation and is very familiar with normal operating and emergency procedures, which define how to operate the equipment during particular evolutions, including emergencies or even combat conditions.

The incident with the McCain can be traced to mishandling of two watchstations, or more if you include the OOD and even the captain. The captain was on the bridge (but had not assumed the deck) and noticed the helmsman struggling to control both the throttles and steering of the ship, which are normal functions of that watchstation. The helmsman is ‘driving’ the ship, just as you do when you drive a car: your basic actions are to steer and accelerate/brake. Unlike you driving your car, a navy helmsman does not make any decisions on which way to steer or how fast to go – the OOD does that. So, when the captain noticed the helmsman’s problems, he ordered the OOD to ‘split the watch’, which means transfer one of the two functions (throttles, in this case) from the helmsman to a nearby station called the lee helmsman. For clarity, understand that key US Navy warship functions such as steering, throttles and others can be accomplished at several places, including off the bridge (steering can be done back in the engine room by taking manual control of the hydraulic actuators that move the rudders, for example). A warship like the McCain has redundant helm consoles right on the bridge.

Here’s where the incident starts to go bad. The helmsman was poorly trained and did not actually know how to transfer throttle control to the lee helmsman. As it turns out, basically no one on the bridge that mattered knew how to do it properly, including the OOD. The helmsman actually unknowingly transferred BOTH steering and throttles to lee helm. Shortly, thereafter, the helmsman, who thought he still had control of the rudders, announced that he had ‘lost steering control’.

Chaos ensued. In their attempts to regain steering, the OOD and other watchstanders tried transferring helm controls between stations five times and ended up not only not regaining steering control but also splitting the throttle control between stations (the McCain has two propellers that can be controlled independently). So the watchstander who thought he had control of both propellers actually had control of only one. Here, it is key to note that you can actually steer the ship by varying the speed differential between the propellers. If you increase the speed on the starboard prop while backing off the port prop, the ship will turn to port.

And that’s what happened. Mismanagement of the steering control as well as the propellers caused the McCain to veer into the path of the cargo ship they had just passed and ten sailors died.

The navy’s report on the incidents finds specific fault with the McCain’s training regimen. I already mentioned how no one knew how to transfer helm control properly, but there also were two people on the bridge who were not even officially qualified to stand watch. Moreover, three sailors on the bridge were temporary transfers from another ship, sent to the McCain to gain training, ironically, while their ship was being repaired after running aground (the third recent US warship incident). Although qualified on the other ship, two of them had not qualified on the McCain’s watchstations and the control systems between the ships are different.

To say this is unacceptable is not only obvious but way too kind. My touchstone is personal experience on a nuclear submarine during the Cold War. The concept of watchstanders – many watchstanders! – not knowing how to do basic watch functions is unbelievable. It did not happen on the submarine. Once qualified, we knew our equipment and knew the procedures. Sure, mistakes were made but nothing of this magnitude. Not even close.

The navy report on the collisions is scathing. The McCain’s captain and executive officer have already been fired as have people up in the chain of command, including the vice-admiral in charge of the 7th Fleet (in the military, that means they have been reassigned to posts where they’re less likely to kill people). I’m not privy to all the details, of course, and tend not to prejudge, which is why I waited for this report while some other people were blaming Russian hacking.

And the Fitzgerald incident? The report provides some details of what happened there as well. Such as the radar operators didn’t know how to work the damned radar! But the principal cause of the incident seems to be a failure by the OOD to do his job properly. Most egregiously, he failed to notify the captain when the ship came within close range of other ship traffic, as is required by the captain’s standing orders. Standing orders are sort of permanent rules of conduct and procedure imposed by the captain. It is common for captains to require their OODs to notify them when the ship comes within a certain distance of other ships.

If we distill the incidents to root cause, underlying all the shiphandling failures is a lack of training, a lack of competence. Too many people charged with operating navy ships simply aren’t trained well enough to do their jobs without  unduly endangering their ships, their shipmates, and other ships that cross their paths. It takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication to competently operate a US Navy warship. It’s not really something that you can learn easily.

I’ve never driven a ship and probably would be a hazard of the first order if I had to do it in a crowded seaway. But I have operated a submarine nuclear reactor and stood other watches in a submarine engine room, duties which required a similar military standard of competence to ensure I could perform my part of the ship’s mission while not being a danger to my shipmates and the ship itself. Before I could become qualified, I had to demonstrate an extraordinary amount of knowledge and competence to my superiors, including the captain, who was ultimately responsible for my performance. It wasn’t easy and I can say that I really could not have done it without extensive, focused training.

Training. You just can’t get around it. No matter how brilliant or innately suited a person is for a role in operating a navy warship, that person will be a danger to everyone around them if they’re not trained to a high standard. So why the catastrophic training failures on the McCain, in particular? It’s not like the navy didn’t know there was a training deficiency well before these incidents.

How did they know? They knew because this latest hasn’t been the first report of fleet readiness. Less than a decade ago, Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle (retired) was asked by the Chief of Naval Operations (the navy’s representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to conduct a comprehensive review of surface fleet readiness in 2009. Adm. Balisle is a former destroyer, cruiser and carrier strike force commander and is considered well qualified in areas of force readiness. In his report (issued in 2010), he identified several weaknesses, some quite serious, that seemed to require remediation and also seem to address issues that were in play with the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents. In other words, these collisions were forecast. Among the most serious were training failures, particularly those involving training of surface warfare division officers. These are the folks who qualify as OODs.  You can read the report here:

https://www.scribd.com/document/43245136/Balisle-Report-on-FRP-of-Surface-Force-Readiness

In 2003, the school that prepared officers for surface fleet sea duty was closed and a new program implemented that relied on self-study and shipboard training. The young officers reported to their first ship with a packet of CDs and were expected to learn their trade that way, along with ‘on-the-job’ training from experienced officers. The trouble is, as Adm. Balisle uncovered, it didn’t work. Not only were the junior officers over-worked with regular duties (a common theme in the navy and a contributor to the collisions, according to the recent report) to the point where they had little time for those CDs, but the already qualified officers similarly had little time to devote to training. The navy’s plan to pass on basic ship-handling training to the fleet commands was a failure, as evidenced by the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents, in particular. And probably the Antietam grounding as well.

The US military, like most large government agencies, is very bureaucratic with a lot of institutional and historical inertia, so it’s hard to change course. It’s hard for the navy to not only take a good look at how they do business (which they have done at least twice recently) but to implement meaningful changes based on that introspection. Change has been done before – the shift during WWII from the primacy of battleships to aircraft carriers being a solid example. The acceptance of nuclear power for submarines another. But perhaps the best example that I have good experience with is the implementation of the Sub Safe program following the loss of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher. After that incident, the navy became acutely aware that standards for quality control, procedural compliance and other aspects relating to safe operation of naval nuclear reactors was sorely lacking. Through the guidance of Admiral Hyman Rickover (more like arm-twisting), the navy quickly transformed its nuclear program into what it became in the 1970’s and still is today: an example how to do difficult things right and still perform the mission. In part, they did that by implementing rigorous training requirements.

Maybe the surface fleet needs their own Adm. Rickover.

 

Obligatory Traffic Rant

Everybody does it. Everybody who drives, that is. Rant about the drivers where they live. It’s obligatory, part of being American.

“The drivers in my city suck! Worst I have ever seen!”

Well, no. Atlanta drivers are not the worst ever. If asked to pick a place with the crappiest drivers, I’d demur. I’ve lived in a lot of places and driven a car in many more. LA, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, DC, Baltimore. Roads, congestion and basic human crappyness pretty much guarantee that every major city will evoke cries of “worst ever!” from locals, many of whom are the ones causing the problems. No one thinks they are a bad driver. Almost no one.

Me, I’m not the best driver. I occasionally make mistakes, thankfully rarely resulting in metal-to-metal contact. What I am, however, is observant and conscientious. When I drive, I drive. My attention is focused on the task at hand, which necessarily includes observing the behavior of my fellow drivers. So along with piloting my own car I find myself judging all the drivers around me. No, I’m not a road rager. I judge silently, although maybe with the occasional flipping of the bird.

And I at least try to be considerate of others on the road, which I think might separate me from the masses. Most people it seems don’t think about others while driving. I do. I let people in; I park between the lines; I hardly ever use high beams in the city and always dim when cars approach. You know, considerate stuff.

So this is my rant. Why aren’t people more considerate? It’s as if when they encase themselves in a mobile, metal ‘safe house’, that gives them license to let their inner asshole take control. Why? People aren’t that rude in person, generally. It’s not just blatant assholes that I’m ranting about. More benign expressions of a lack of consideration are much more frequent. Parking might be the best example of this. The people who don’t take care to park between the lines, making it difficult for others to squeeze into a space or maybe even taking two spaces (although that might be deliberate assholiness).

The parking lot itself is a cesspool of assholes. How many times have you had to back out of a space but couldn’t see past the adjacent cars? A lot, right? So you back out slowly to give unseen approaching cars a chance to see you. Do people pause and let you back out? No. They lay on their horn and glare at you angrily for attempting to pre-empt their parking lot priority. Assholes.

Anyway, I don’t need to elaborate. Everyone has experienced the phenomenon. I have no answer for the question, either. I’m sure there’s some psychological explanation for why people’s asshole quotient rises once behind the wheel. I just wish it weren’t so.