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The Battle of Getting There

As lessons commence and the opening handicap is made official, the coaching goes beyond physical

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Photo: Geoff Cunningham

Editor’s Note: This is the part two (read part one here) of a year-long series tracking our editor as he attempts to reach a 10-handicap. As of this writing, the TGJ office has him at 50-1 and trending.  —Casey Bannon

I got an F in my high school Leadership class. And up until a few weeks ago, I firmly believed it was not my fault. Allow me to explain: Mrs. Bess, a new, young teacher, headed Palm Desert High’s elected student officials and a group of selected “ambassadors” (of which I was one—anything to juice up the college application). She  tasked us with a book report on Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

I thought it was bullshit.

Every page felt like some uppity con artist turning common sense truisms like taking responsibility for yourself into aggressively capitalized buzzwords like Circle of Concern and Emotional Bank Account. And that’s what I wrote in my report. Well, Mrs. Bess did not appreciate her personal bible getting trashed for five single-spaced pages. She drew a comically giant red “F” on the opening page and—no joke—drove it to my house and angrily handed it to my mother.

That was a mistake. My mother, one of the most respected teachers in the school district, wasn’t having that. In her view, Mrs. Bess asked for a book report and she got one. Nowhere in the assignment did it say it had to be positive. Our school’s principal—a longtime friend of my mother’s—agreed. And so Mrs. Bess was forced to back down, and I was allowed to do another book report on a mutually agreed upon subject (Magic Johnson, of course); my grade was changed to a C.

This incident—still warmly referred to at Hill family gatherings as “Travis’ Leadership Fail”—came to mind recently as I examined my new grip on the driving range. It was my first solo trip to the driving range. Ever. As I worked to better position my right index and thumb, I marveled at how fast things had changed. Previous to my mission to reach a 10-handicap, I laughed at the poor saps who practiced. Who would do that? Kids to raise, work to do, friends to see, cocktails to pour, yard work to finish—I would rather do just about anything else. Now here I was, having fully rearranged my schedule to make time for the range, grinding over finger placement. 

Suddenly everything was on the table. I began reconsidering so many of my previous assumptions. Maybe I was the poor sap all along. Maybe Mrs. Bess was simply trying to help a mouthy little asshole learn something about leadership.

And practice time wasn’t the only thing that had my brain on tilt. My new coach did something insane: He said nice things about me. Yes, I needed work. I showed up to our first session with a grip better suited to opening a stubborn pickle jar. But he said I had some good raw material.

Mike Miles is the general manager at The Yards, a fantastic new 12-hole course down the street from my house in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He’s a former touring pro from California who has seen it all. He’s played with World Golf Hall of Famers, qualified for U.S. Opens, and, fortunately for me, is a good friend who agreed to take on this kamikaze project. 

It was a crisp Florida February morning for our first session, where a pullover gives way to a polo after the first few swings. Mike rolled up to the range in a golf cart, watched me take four or five swings, then told me to get in. We drove to the ninth tee, where I would be playing the full hole with two balls. No. 9 is the worst kind of hole for a hack like me: dead straight. Driving range on the right, trees and houses on the left. Terrifying.

As I pegged it, Mike silently hovered, Mr. Miyagi-like, taking in every movement. I aimed a little left, to the outer leaves of the big oak tree about 180 yards down the left side, then, somehow, unleashed a perfect drive. For me. The ball curled over that oak and sliced back into the center of the fairway. Plan: Executed. The kind of drive everyone in every foursome I’ve ever been would say, “Great drive.”

“Man, I’ll take that,” I smiled.

“Not when I’m done with you, you won’t.”

Thus began the breakdown. I expected the physical one, but the mental one blindsided me.

“You’re gonna be a 10, that’s not an issue,” Mike said with stunning confidence. “I think you can be a 5, at least. We’ll get there.”

 I was shook. For as long as I can remember, my self-defense mechanism has been to joke about how bad I sucked. I did it for the entire first installment of this series! The lower the expectations the better, right? Not anymore. Mike kept calling out the positive things. Solid club-head speed. Good alignment. Great putting stroke.

Everything changed in an instant. In the past, I would chalk a good round up as more of a fluke than something to build on. “No idea how that happened!” I’d chirp during post-round drinks. “How did you lose money to me?” In just a few minutes of coaching, Mike blew all of that up. He forced me to consider the benefits of a—gulp—positive attitude on the course.

We returned to the range and he began a more standard lesson, working on grip, hand placement, takeaway and follow-through. I felt like we were moving quickly, and my new sensei quickly reassured me: “You can handle all of this,” Mike said, just as easily as I would have told him the sky was blue. “You’re ready.”

A series of spectacularly wild flares way right didn’t faze him. That was exactly where I was supposed to miss at this stage. Just pull my hands through the swing. We’ll get there. By the end of our session, a few gorgeous 7-irons, like fresh blades of grass, began peeking through. Mike smiled, closed the session, and told me to keep working on that takeaway.

The following week, he picked up right where we left off. He complimented me on not reverting to my old pickle-jar grip. Then, he got real: “You get your handicap yet?”

I had. It was official: 15.9.

“Sounds about right,” he said. “Alright, let’s go. We’ll get there for sure.”

The first three 7-irons flared way right. But I believed him.