Playing Valhalla: A Good Walk with Tom Kite

I teed off the first tee at Valhalla Monday afternoon around 1:00 p.m. for my first practice round of the 2011 Senior PGA Championship. My trip to Louisville, Kentucky was far from ordinary. After experiencing a hydraulic failure on take-off Sunday morning at the RDU airport, I returned to land my 1986 Piper Malibu and delivered it to the maintenance shop for inspection.

Though I could have continued the flight with the gear down, I knew I would be having a lot of upcoming flights and I have a greater comfort level having my mechanics I know work on my plane. When I stepped out of the plane, I was greeted to a pool of hydraulic fluid underneath the left main gear. There’s the problem I blurted to my caddy Cliff who was flying with me.

After several hours of having my mechanics and Judy (the office manager who is the only one who can research the computer for inventory of parts) called in on a Sunday to help me out, we realized that they had some of the “O-Rings” needed to fix it, but probably not all. So I would be better to fly the plane to Louisville with the gear down and have them fix it there during the week.

Cliff and I took off again, knowing that weather was fast approaching Louisville and our narrow window of opportunity would be closing fast. “You’ve got maybe four hours until it hits”, the FAA weather briefer had told me. With the gear down, it’s a three-hour flight. With 130 miles to go to Louisville, I realized that getting to Louisville was going to require to big a detour around the storms and cause us to be low on fuel. We would be better off landing the plane and waiting it out. After a few punches on the GPS, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky was the obvious airport to land. It turned out to be a good move. Cliff and I refueled the plane (Cliff used to have a job long ago refueling airplanes, so he’s pretty handy at it). We then headed to Cracker Barrel for dinner in the airport Courtesy Car. After dinner, the weather had passed and we had an uneventful 45-minute flight to Louisville.

So, I missed my opportunity to see the golf course on Sunday, but it was so wet, I don’t think I missed too much. Cliff then needed time on Monday morning to survey the greens, using the Aim Point technique that he and I have employed all year. It takes him about 6 hours to do the whole course. “Do what you can, and I’ll see you around noon,” I told Cliff. So we teed off by ourselves, which is what I usually do when seeing a course for the first time. I had seen my buddy David Peoples on the range and congratulated him and Kim on getting married last week. “I’m going to play, do you want to join me”, David asked. But I had just gotten to the range and wasn’t quite ready. I thought that maybe I could catch up to him if no one teed off between us, but that wouldn’t be the case.

I had told Cliff of my recent visit with Ken Venturi. My wife, Marianna, and I had gone to Palm Springs last week for Ken’s 80th birthday party. Ken was kind enough to open his schedule to watch me hit a few balls. He was full of some great points, as always, and I had told Cliff that I was driving the ball better since my lesson with Ken. On the range, I hit a few “Ummms”, a term that Sam Randolph and I coined years ago on the range during a PGA Tour event that signifies a perfectly struck shot.

After an “Ummm” drive and 7 iron approach at the first, I was doing my usual surveying of shots around the first green when I noticed a player behind me waiting. I waived him up. With machine-like precision, he stuck it close to the pin. That’s when I noticed it was Tom Kite. I headed to the second tee and told Tom to hit up whenever he wants, not knowing whether he would prefer to join me or play alone. By the time I hit my second shot into the second green, Tom had joined me. “Beautiful shot, Bobby”, Tom shouted as I hit another “Ummm” with a 3 wood off the wet Valhalla fairway. “What did you have to the pin, 240 or so”, Tom said. “Yes, actually 241.” “Pretty good hit into that wind.”

I’ve always had a great respect and appreciation for Tom Kite. Not just because of what he’s accomplished as a golfer, but for the way he goes about his game. He’s a real student and has always been very open and willing to share with others. I found him to be even more so on our trip together around the Nicklaus-designed Valhalla golf club on this soggy Monday afternoon.

“We could use some of this rain in Austin”, Tom started the discussion. “Been that dry down there has it? Do you know how much they’ve had here?” “About an inch and a half in the last week, plus another ¾” yesterday”, Tom continued. “Why is it that the ball rarely seems to roll on Nicklaus courses”, I asked Tom. “I don’t know, but it sure seems that way. He builds tough courses. The only one who builds tougher courses is Greg Norman.” “Yes, you’re probably right, I acknowledged, thinking about the vast Nicklaus courses I have played and the few of Normans.” “Shoal creek was great wasn’t it Bobby? Yes, I think that one’s of Jack’s best courses, I exclaimed, but two things I didn’t like about it Tom”. He took out a pencil. “Let me write down what you’re going to say.” “Ok, Tom! I didn’t like the 4th green for one.” “Bobby, look what I wrote.” Tom had written, “4th green” on his yardage book. “What’s the other?” “I didn’t like the hazards left of #6 green and left of #17 green being marked yellow. That makes for too severe a penalty for going for the green in two and missing it slightly left.” “I can see that on #6”, Tom answered, “but on 17 you’d have to change it when the creek makes the turn in front of the green.” “I think both hazards should be marked “red”, then there would be no issues. In fact, I believe that we have too many hazards marked yellow that should be marked red.” “Maybe so”, Tom pondered.

When we arrived at the par 4, 4th hole, I pulled out the driver. “Don’t want to hit that here”, Tom said as he had 3 wood in his hand. Tom knew I was playing Valhalla for only my second time. I had played years ago on Media day for the 1996 PGA. “Well, I figure with today’s wind I can carry the bunker left, but can’t reach the bunker on the right.” I hit a good drive, but we couldn’t tell where it landed. When I got up to my ball, there it was, in the bunker. “Guess you were right Tom”, I said. “Thought you were perfect Bobby, can’t believe that drive didn’t carry the bunker.” Then Tom continued. “I’ve done what you were trying to do and I haven’t liked the angle from there, seems I never hit my second shot close to the hole from that angle.” After looking at the way the green is shaped, I agreed. “I think I’ll lay up here too Tom. Makes sense to me.” Yes, it’s usually a wedge or a 9 iron at most even after the lay-up. One thing for sure, Jack makes you think about it”, Tom continued.

Walking down the 5th I asked Tom, “When you need some help with your swing, who do you turn to now?” Tom was taught by the legendary golf teacher, Harvey Pennick. “I work with Chuck Cook in Austin”, he told me. “What I like about Chuck is that he doesn’t mess with our swing styles. It’s pretty amazing when you think that in a four-year span, 3 of Chuck’s students won US Opens: Corey Pavin, Payne Stewart and me. You can’t have three more different types of swings than those.” “Who else is Chuck working with these days”, I asked? “Jason Duffner”, Tom answered. “He’s playing really well, isn’t he?” “He’s having a great year so far”, Tom responded.

“What made Harvey Pennick such a good teacher”, I asked Tom? “He was simple, to the point, wasn’t a position teacher like so many today. That’s the problem with how golf is taught today. They teach you how to put the club in all these positions, but then you don’t know how to play. Harvey would let you develop your own style, then teach you how to play golf.” “So he focused on ball flight and impact and how to make adjustments”, I asked? “Yes, that’s it. For example, he really worked on club face. Flightscope reveals now that club face is about 85% the direction of the flight of the ball. So he would work on tweaking your grip to fit your swing. Today’s teachers all teach a certain grip. When was the last time you saw a young player on tour with a weak grip?” “Corey Pavin and Rod Pampling”, I quickly responded. “Yes, and none since”, Tom bellowed as if the trend is going to continue. “They all have these strong grips and hit the ball a mile.”

That led to a discussion about technology. “You know Tom, having been away from tournament golf for 16 years or so, I was amazed at the difference technology has made in the game, especially the golf ball. That to me is the biggest difference.” “Yes, I’d agree, Bobby.” “The ball goes so much farther and it doesn’t curve as much. All these young players coming out don’t shape the ball anymore, except for Tiger and Phil”, I continued. “How about Bubba Watson? The more I watch and hear about him, the more I like the way he plays. He’s always working the ball, hitting shots. That’s golf”, Tom remarked with passion. “How about pairing Bubba with Jim Furyk as partners in the next Ryder Cup”, I shared? “Yes, how about those two styles. Furyk amazes me, nobody gets the club more stuck in his downswing”, Tom made the gesture with his arms. “But then he rotates his body by clearing his left hip so well to square up the clubface”, I followed. “Yes, that’s right. He makes it work for him. I’ve always tried to get my right arm more in front on the downswing. Just goes to show how many different ways there are to get the job done.”

Then the discussion turned back to design. “Tom, what’s your favorite course you’ve designed.” “That’s pretty easy Bobby, Liberty National Golf Club where they play the Barclays. I’ve recently finished doing some alterations to the greens. When we first designed the course, we were told by the PGA Tour to create hole positions 3 steps from the edge of the green or slopes. Now they’ve changed that to 4 steps since the players were shooting more away from the flags and making fewer birdies. So, we’ve had to make many design changes to accommodate.”

“Tom, I feel that one of the reasons that players don’t work the ball much today is because of the course designs. I’ve only designed a couple of courses, but it seems to me that the way that most architects design a course today is to lay out the routing with the tees, turning points and greens and immediately clear everything 60 feet to each side of the center line.” “Yes, Bobby, that’s exactly right and they get rid of all these great trees. They should visit the course and mark trees to save first. That can make so much difference.” “Then we could have more of the old style courses, like Hilton Head, Riviera, Pebble Beach that require one to shape the ball”, I responded. “Don’t forget about Colonial Bobby, you really need to shape the ball around those trees. That’s what we need to get back to in this game. Today’s courses are too long; it’s all about distance. Then we have this graduated rough, like in the US Open, where you can hit the ball on the green if you’re using a short iron. We need a stiffer penalty for missing the fairway, like deeper rough and more trees. Now you see guys winning on the PGA Tour and hitting 40% of the fairways. That’s ridiculous!!!”

“Tom, I recently heard that the PGA conducted a great study and discovered that there are three main reasons driving people out of the game. One is that they aren’t improving and they get too frustrated and quit.” “And the other two must be it takes too much time and costs too much money.” “Yes, Tom, that’s right. One of my passions is to see that instruction improves. That’s why I’m doing what I am through the Impact Zone. I know we can do a better job teaching golfers to get better and quicker.” I felt comfortable talking to Tom about my Impact Zone since he had recently requested a copy of my book and read it. “And Bobby, we need to make the courses more enjoyable to play. People like the challenge of the game. Harvey used to say, ‘A man learns Tiddlywinks and quits because he’s already mastered it. A man continues to play golf because it’s so hard.’”

There was much more good banter. I had a great time playing with Tom. I feel so blessed to be able to have the opportunities I have to play on the Champion’s Tour and to enjoy so many great rounds of golf with so many of the greatest players in the game. This past Monday was no exception.

As we parted off the 18th green, I was heading to the clubhouse when Darryl Kestner, the head professional from Deepdale on Long Island stopped me. Darryl, who is a fine player, will be competing this week as well. “Just wanted to tell you that I ordered your Impact Zone/Sybervision DVD System and it’s wonderful, really well done and full of great insight. I loved the video of your swing. Do you have time for one quick question? On the downswing, I have trouble with……..”

Just another great day on the Champion’s Tour!

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