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Just Get It in the Box

How a second-serve mentality changed my game

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Don’t believe everything you hear: There’s power in throttling down. (Photo by Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Don’t believe everything you hear: There’s power in throttling down. (Photo by Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The summer of 2020 felt like golf’s version of baseball’s summer of 1998. Bryson DeChambeau did his best Mark McGwire impersonation and the long ball became the rage. His U.S. Open win confirmed, at least for now, that distance is king and accuracy is overrated.

Yeah, well, screw Bryson. 

I spent most of the summer quarantined in the hills of northern New Jersey with my girlfriend’s parents and ended up playing a lot of tennis with her dad. Pete has no interest in golf, but he was always up for a morning tennis match. I played junior tennis growing up and had forgotten how much I loved it. Suddenly, I didn’t know what felt better: a cross-court winner or the best drive of the day. But the true revelation of my return to tennis has been its impact on my golf game. I now have a new mentality off the tee: Just hit the second serve. 

Early in the summer, Pete would regularly whip me. It was ugly—lots of 6–1s and 6–0s. It dawned on me that when I got beaten that badly, it was often because I’d get an early ace or two and chase that elusive, low-percentage power serve throughout the match. It was a killer cycle: I’d fault on the first serve, then he would beat up my second one, breaking both my serve and my will. 

One morning in early August, I finally adjusted. Instead of attempting that monster first serve, I hit a more powerful version of my reliable second serve—a kick serve with plenty of spin to keep him on his toes, deep on the baseline, while I got to the net ASAP. It worked: The matches became more competitive, with longer rallies and more rhythm. 

So I took the same philosophy to the tee box. Distance is a strength of my game, and often my biggest liability. I also had a killer cycle for golf: After a successful long drive early in a round, I would commence hitting what I dubbed “The Tyler Durden Ball,” an ode to Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club when he tells Edward Norton, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” The Durden Ball is fun as hell, but through years of trial and (so much) error, I’ve learned it’s also inconsistent and unsustainable. Not so with my new second-serve technique, which has led to more fairways and more-manageable misses.

It only took 31 years, but I’ve finally realized I don’t need to win a long-drive contest on every tee. What a revelation! I’m not as worn out at the end of a round, the frustration of searching for wayward drives has dissipated and I’m scoring better.

While it’s amusing that I’m dialing it back when DeChambeau and his big data (and menu) have shown that distance is the key to unlocking success on Tour, it’s not a surprise. It’s another example of how different the pro game is from ours. Let the pros do their best McGwire and Sosa impressions; I’m finding golf is more fun from the fairway even if the ball is farther from the hole.

Coaches, colleagues and friends have been telling me my whole life to slow it down and not swing so hard, and it never stuck. Looks like all I needed was a few ass-kickings on the tennis court. Thanks, Pete. 

When he’s not procuring goods for the No Laying Up Pro Shop, Neil Schuster is continuing his quest to break par and obtain the “Strapped” Mega Bonus.