A Small Thing

At last night’s local Elks baseball game, I watched a pop foul fly into the stands behind home plate. There, two boys – one older, maybe 13 or 14, and the other much younger – scrambled after the ball. The older kid won the race, proudly holding up his prize. As the victor turned to rejoin his seatmates with a spring in his step, the younger boy walked slowly back towards his parents, head down, dejected. A baseball glove in his hand, empty.

I saw then that the older boy had also noticed his vanquished rival, the way he walked, the disappointment. Older boy, who had already sat and displayed the ball to his friends, got up and trotted down to where the younger kid sat – and gave him the ball.

Small town baseball, an American tradition. We have season tickets and go to most games. The play on the field is not always stellar but it’s real. Off the field, in the stands? Well, sometimes you’ll see things there, too. Small things, but no less real.

Finding Your Path

If I were asked to name my favorite car that I’ve owned over the years, I’d probably first default to the Z. A 1971 Datsun 240Z bought in Hawaii while in the navy and sold some seven years later. I virtually rebuilt the car, including an engine rebuild, a transmission overhaul and a new paint job that I sprayed myself in my garage (big mistake). Numerous performance upgrades too, as well as exterior improvements (front air dam, rear spoiler, rear window louvers). It was truly ‘my’ car and I shouldn’t have sold it when I did. At the time (1985), I was living in Charlotte, NC with plans to take a new job in Southern California and I had recently bought another car – a new Audi GT Coupe. Transporting two vehicles across the country seemed unreasonable so the Z had to go. A local radio talk show guy bought it – said he wanted it for his teenage daughter. Given the car’s performance characteristics, I told him that was a bad idea but he bought it anyway. I wonder how long the car survived.

But was the Z really my favorite car? True, I had a lot of history in the short time I owned it, and as mentioned, I spent a lot of time working on it. Moreover, an early model 240Z was simply a great car. But is seven years enough time for the Z to retain its top spot? Or is there another vehicle that really is my favorite?

In all, including those jointly owned with my wife, I’ve had fifteen cars and trucks.

  • 1967 Chevy Chevelle with a 283 V-8.
  • 1972 Chevy Vega GT Kammback
  • 1971 Datsun 240Z
  • 1985 Audi Coupe GT with a 5 cylinder engine
  • 1985 Nissan Sentra wagon
  • 1989 Toyota SR5 pickup
  • 1992 Audi 90
  • 1967 Dodge Coronet R/T with a 440 magnum engine, a beast
  • 1967 Chrysler 300 convertible with a 440 engine, a battleship-sized car
  • 1972 Datsun 510 2 door, a little hot rod
  • 1996 Honda Civic
  • 1998 Nissan Pathfinder 4WD
  • 2004 Acura TSX
  • 2008 Toyota Corolla
  • 2014 Subaru BRZ

Looking at the list, a few stand out. Besides the 240Z, the TSX was a great car; the R/T was my only foray into the ’60s muscle car scene; the 510 was a blast; the Toyota pickup was solid, as is the Corolla. With maybe the exception of the Audi 90 (big disappointment), all were great cars. My first – the Chevelle – took me and my buddies to a lot of ball games in San Francisco and Oakland while in the navy. I went to see Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson in that car! The Audi Coupe was my first new car and I don’t regret buying it even if it prompted me to sell the Z. The BRZ – which we call Blue – is my current ‘fun’ car. A joint design between Toyota and Subaru, the BRZ is a joy to drive, although it does get put into hibernation during winter here in Bend. Blue don’t do snow and ice.

Have I left one out? Sure have. The vehicle I’ve had the longest and which has taken us so many places we otherwise couldn’t go:

The Pathfinder

A new 1998 Nissan Pathfinder, 4WD with manual transmission and low range transfer case. At the time, Nancy was in Atlanta starting her new career while I finished up my job at the San Onofre nuclear plant, having also recently completed a degree in geology, which stoked my desire to explore the desert. Nancy liked the desert too and we wanted a vehicle that would take us off-road into the Mojave but would also travel the highways without too much pain. After all, we’d be traveling cross-country from Atlanta to get to our preferred stomping grounds. So dedicated off-road vehicles were out and because we had a limited budget, high-end vehicles like the Range Rover were not an option. In 1998 – as now, surprisingly – there were few choices if you wanted an affordable, reliable, capable 4WD vehicle that would also behave itself on asphalt. Pretty much just the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota’s 4Runner in 1998. Maybe also the Mitsubishi Montero and Isuzu Trooper. Jeep Wrangler’s were (are) more capable but suffer(ed) from reliability problems and are too small. Other American models, such as the Dodge Durango, I also considered unreliable.

Searching for the right one took some time, mainly because a manual transmission was a must and those were fairly scarce. Being in Orange County helped as there are a lot of car dealerships, so I eventually found the maroon beauty you see in the photo. Bought new, it now has over 230,000 miles on it and has traversed the country several times, including a round-the-nation run in its first year: California-Atlanta-New York-Montana-Utah-California. 230,000 is actually not that many miles for a now twenty three year old vehicle, which reflects its long history as our ‘road trip’ car. Over the years, it has sat in the driveway many times for months on end, waiting to be called into action.

I’ll point out right now that the 1998 version of the Pathfinder bears no resemblance to the bloated pigs Nissan is foisting off on the market today. I would not consider buying a new Pathfinder today. Back in 1998, the Pathfinder was very capable: pretty good ground clearance, an excellent transmission and relatively little extra weight (still heavy though). It was built to go off-road. Moreover, because Nissan makes quality vehicles – it is very, very reliable. Really, the only problem that left us on the side of the road was a failed distributor in the first year (warranty fix). The alternator went out after ten years but gave us enough warning to drive a hundred miles to a dealer. Other than that, routine stuff only.

On the negative side, the Pathfinder does have a few faults. First and foremost is abysmal gas mileage. On a good day with a tailwind, it’ll get 17 mpg, usually less. You can buy a Corvette that does better than that. Mind you, you’d think after two decades manufacturers would be able to improve on that. Nope – the likely replacement – a new Toyota 4Runner similarly equipped does little better. The Pathfinder doesn’t have a huge, powerful engine that might excuse its gas hog nature. In fact, it’s a relatively small 3.3 liter V6 with not a lot of horsepower. That would be the second fault – it struggles to get over mountains when loaded. And when I say struggles, I mean you’re sometimes driving in the slow lane with the 18 wheelers. Fair amount of torque but not horsepower. It’s adequate though. Finally, as is the case with all similar vehicles, the Pathfinder gets squirrely at speed when there’s wind. In fact, I really don’t like driving it over 65 mph even without wind. So high speed runs across Montana or Texas are out.

Over the years, Nancy and I have teamed up well off-roading in the Pathfinder. Both of us know how to handle the vehicle and on treacherous paths, we have a good system of one person getting out and guiding while the other drives. We’ve both taken the vehicle deep off-road alone as well and Nancy has spent some time camping with it (I don’t prefer camping due to a bad back). Although Death Valley NP is where we’ve most off-roaded, the Pathfinder has found itself on rocks and dirt in many states. Canada too, on a Sierra Club outing. It’s safe to say that the Pathfinder has shown us ‘the path’, the places where we like to go. Places where lesser vehicles can’t go. Places where other people aren’t around. I can’t even begin to catalog all the trips but here’s a few (OK, quite a few) photos of the Pathfinder in the wild:

Death Valley National Park

While Death Valley is the Pathfinder’s ‘home away from home’, it’s quite happy in other locales as well.

White Mountains, California

Various Places


The Pathfinder mainly served as our ticket to western adventures, often sitting idle in between road trips while we lived in Georgia. But it did get out a bit. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of our Southeastern adventures, which included some forays deep into ‘Deliverance’ territory. The North Georgia mountains aren’t the equal of what you find out west but there’s adventures to be had. I just didn’t take any photos which showed the Pathfinder. Nor do I have any of the most excellent trip we took to Maine and New Brunswick as part of a Sierra Club outing, although if you’re looking for puffin photos, I’ve got ’em!


With our move to Oregon, the Pathfinder gets a lot more work, even if Death Valley is a whole lot closer now. Central Oregon in particular is an outdoor paradise with the high Cascade Range virtually in our backyard and the high desert just outside town to the east. And we’ve yet to explore but a fraction within a day’s drive. The Pathfinder is truly at home here.


Over the years, we’ve not modified the Pathfinder in terms of mechanical or performance-related things. No suspension lifts, rock shields or engine improvements. The wheels are still OEM. We have done a few things to improve the carrying capacity and fuel range. Specifically, the SURCO roof rack has been the biggest addition. While adequate, the Pathfinder’s interior space is not huge – it’s not a big SUV. So a roof rack was essential. We originally tried to get away with a big roof-top storage bag but that wasn’t great. Later on, a specially sized gas container carrier was mounted, one I made myself. That added 7.5 gallons of fuel. As it was made out of wood, it didn’t last long but I knew that when I built it. The last trip to Death Valley involved just the three containers without the carrier – we just strapped them to the roof rack securely. Along with fuel and various big items like camp tables, the roof rack holds the second spare wheel we bought several years ago. Having the ability to suffer two flat tires without becoming stranded really adds to your confidence going out on some of the more remote, challenging roads.

We also bought a side canopy that attaches to the roof rack – great for Mojave desert trips. And after moving to Oregon, we bought a couple pair of kayak carriers, which require removing the roof rack. You can see all these additions and iterations in the various photos but here’s a few showing the roof rack install and the gas carrier.

Moving On

We’re now seriously considering retiring the old girl. Sure, the Pathfinder is still in good shape – lots of body dings but no real mechanical issues – but 230,000 miles is a lot a ‘roads less traveled’ given where we like to travel. Getting stranded deep in Death Valley National Park’s back country is not optimal, especially given our more limited capability of hiking out. We’ve also been considering a trailer and that 3.3 liter engine just won’t hack the load, I think. Mind you, it’s been three years since we sort of decided to get a newer vehicle and still there’s the Pathfinder parked out back. The pandemic has something to do with that.


I promised puffin pictures. The first one is an Icelandic puffin while the remaining two photos are from New Brunswick. Given how puffins operate, that Iceland puffin could well be from the same family as the Canadian ones.

Note: All images are mine but many have been greatly enhanced by @nancyfloydartist.

Project: Air Filtration Unit

Years ago, I built a portable air filter to help with allergens in the house. It isn’t much to look at but it moves a lot of air. Basically a 1 ft x 1 ft x 2 ft box, it has an ultra-quiet bathroom exhaust fan inside that draws air through a standard home air filter in the front and pumps it out through a 4 inch port on the side. From there I can attach a dust collection hose to pipe the air to the other side of the room to promote circulation. Other than the on-off switch, that’s it. And the unit has worked well – it’s still quiet and based on how quickly the filter dirties up, it’s effective. Pretty ugly though – because I made it out of scrap wood, it needed to be painted instead of a nice wood finish. Not sure I chose a good color.

I decided to build another one but this time, it would be more of a piece of furniture and better looking. More of a woodworking project. After considering our needs, we decided the air filter could be a sofa end table. The current table is too small and too low. I’ll cut the suspense and show the final result now.

Same basic setup: an ultra-quiet fan drawing air through a standard filter and piping out through a 4″ port. This time though, the filter would be wholly inside the cabinet, smaller (12″ x 12″), and would draw air in through a louvered door. After playing around with fan orientation, I settled on having the filter on top with the fan mounted horizontally. That setup would allow room above the fan/filter for two narrow drawers. Additionally, because it is meant to be an end table, along with an on-off switch, I installed an electrical outlet to accommodate a tabletop lamp.

I like to use the wood I have on hand for projects if I can and I had a sufficient quantity of white oak, so that’s what I chose. For the side panels, which are 1/4″ plywood, I bought some white oak veneer. I had not used veneer before so that was new.

Mistakes were made. The biggest being a failure to properly account for the four vertical posts when I did the top piece, which was made from the best, most attractive cut of wood. The top turned out to be too small so I had to use other pieces to make a bigger one. The first top piece ended up being cut down for use as the two drawer fronts. The next biggest mistake was a goof in installing the door. The louvers ‘point’ up instead of down. That’s not so bad – it may even be beneficial in terms of drawing air from the room rather than the floor. But it wasn’t what I had intended.

Here’s the new top. I failed to take a photo of the original.

And some miscellaneous build photos.

One final note. This summer, Oregon had horrendous wildfires, as did Washington and California. The air quality in my town reached and stayed at ‘extremely unhealthy’ levels for a long while. Because I use near HEPA filters in my units and the house’s FAU (forced air unit), they’re effective at capturing smoke particles. So along with the FAU and my first portable unit, I pressed this new one temporarily into service before the cabinet was complete.

Focus: Golf’s Ultimate Lesson


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 80-100 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 will 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 line 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: 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 how 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.


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 of 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:


(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.

Par For The Course – Therein Lies Madness

20161222_094934For those living on the precipice of madness, I cannot recommend the game of golf, for it will surely push you into the abyss. Only those firmly rooted in self awareness should make any serious attempts at mastering the sport.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying (paraphrasing) that ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ He probably didn’t say that but the notion is a good one. A corollary to that maxim might be ‘doing the same thing over and over again and getting different results may drive you insane.’

And that sums up golf pretty well. Swinging a three and half foot long club in an attempt to propel an inch and half diameter ball in such a way to cause it to move a significant distance through the air in a direction close to intended and in a repeatable fashion is maddening. Even after you have learned and somewhat mastered (a relative term, to be sure) the key elements of the golf swing, making that ball do what you want is a very dicey proposition. You may think you are recreating the swing that just deposited the ball on the green on the last hole, but no. This time it flies off on a wholly unintended path, leaving you utterly perplexed and exasperated.

I’m vain enough to think I can play golf reasonably well despite not engaging the sport in any significant manner for most of my adult life. It was just two years ago that I took up the game seriously. Prior to that, I called myself a tennis player, if anything. Tennis is a sport I got pretty good at, especially on an intellectual level. I know the game and have taught others to play with some success. Tennis, like other sports where the idea is to hit something and make that something go where you want it to (baseball is another), requires hand-eye coordination and an awareness of what your body is doing. You can’t reliably hit a topspin backhand unless you know what your racket hand, your feet, your torso and the ball are doing in time and space. Although the golf ball is not moving when you strike it, the speed of the clubhead at impact and the relatively small area of contact ‘sweetspot’ make hitting a driver every bit as challenging as that backhand, or hitting a curveball. It requires precision of movement, something gained only through experience and repetition. I was convinced that my tennis skills would translate well to golf. Not so much, as it turns out.

The main issue is that, unlike with a tennis racket, I have no good way of knowing what I am doing with a golf club during a swing, at least not well enough to self-diagnose problems. It is very hard to know how you are presenting the clubface to a golf ball at impact, what the swing path through the impact zone is and whether you have hit the sweet spot. The last part is probably the easiest – if you hit off center, you can feel it. But not as well as with a tennis racket. Video helps, as does engaging an instructor.

Last week, I played my ‘home’ course. Just a 9-hole, par 3 and 4 course, it’s actually quite challenging. Most of the holes are golfing death traps with only small target areas where you can hope to score well. Hitting the ball outside those areas often results in disaster. I’ve played the course many times, so I know where to hit the ball on each hole. Easier said than done. On one short par 3, a smooth lofted iron will put you on the green. Birdie or par is yours for the taking. Easy peasy, right? But if you hit it slightly left, long or right, well, you’ll be lucky to escape with double bogey. It’s an elevated green and the terrain around the green is horrible. After numerous adventures trying to get the ball on the green on my second shot – usually unsuccessfully – I’ve taken to not even trying for the green off the tee. Hitting short of the green and hoping for a good chip and putt for par is the way to go. Other holes are similarly treacherous.

My goal is to shoot less than bogey for the round. It’s a par 31 course so that means less than 40. On a recent Monday, I had a great round but managed just 40, which was still my best. I played well, for me anyway. Energized by that round, I played again on Wednesday, convinced I had a good shot at 39. Nope. Despite feeling good about my game, I played horribly. Couldn’t hit a thing and was constantly in the deep rough, which is brutal at this course. I actually ended up hurting my left arm from all the shots out of deep grass and quit after seven holes, a million over par. What a disappointment. Makes you think there’s no use trying to get better.

After staying away from the game so my arm could recover, I return to the home course a week later and shoot a cool 37. All through the round, I felt no different with my swing and actually was more than a bit worried about when disaster would return. Almost every shot I expected to shank into the trees. Nope. I even made a birdie on one hole, a rare thing for me.

It’s maddening, I tell you. It’s as if there’s no skill involved – it’s all luck, the mood of the gods, phase of the moon, whatever.

Tennis never did this to me.