I cut my teeth in golf on a small nine-hole course in my hometown of Oaklandon, Indiana. The course had only a couple of sand traps, and they were filled with hard, midwestern dirt. To get out of the traps, you had to either chip the ball softly or roll it out with a putter. Neither was a great alternative, so we avoided those two traps like the plague.
As a result, when I went on to play golf in college I had almost no experience playing out of sand traps. It was obvious to me and everyone else that this created a serious deficiency in my game, so I began practicing sand shots at every opportunity, but I never quite learned to be comfortable hitting out of the sand. I knew that if I ever had hopes of playing on tour, I would need to overcome this problem.
After a brief stint in the military, I went to southern Florida to take on the grueling, six-round, PGA qualifying school. As I looked out over the first course, I couldn’t believe all the sand. In places it seemed as if I were looking out over a desert. The course was beautifully landscaped and lined with trees down every fairway, and I couldn’t wait to play it. But every hole abounded with huge, gapping bunkers. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so intimidated by a course.
In spite of my best efforts to steer clear of the sand, early in the round I found myself in a large, deep bunker around the green. As I stood surveying the shot, I considered my options. At first I was just trying to figure out the best approach to blasting it out of the sand and getting it to stick on the green. The walls were high and looming, and I knew I’d need to make solid contact. But then I noticed a low place in the lip ahead of me. The sand was pretty firm, and I thought if I could just get good contact and aim well, I could putt it right over that lip and onto the green. I decided to give it a try. My gamble paid off. I hit a perfect putt that rolled the ball up over the lip, through the rough, and onto the green, ending up about four feet from the pin.
“Hit the shot you know you can hit, not the one you think you should.”
My playing partner couldn’t believe his eyes. In the clubhouse later that day, he couldn’t stop telling people about my up and down from the sand with a putter.
I always knew that someday I would need to learn how to play a proper sand shot. In fact, I wanted to be really good at it, and I was willing to put in the hours of practice it would take to do so. But until that time, I had to make do with the skills I had.
Growing up playing on a poorly designed course didn’t allow me to learn all I needed to know about tour-level golf, but what I lacked in ability I made up for in ingenuity. I learned to be creative on the course and to work through trying situations the best I could. Instead of worrying about the skills I didn’t have, I depended on the ones I did have. In the end it proved to only add to my strength as a player.
After gaining my card three years later, one of the first tournaments I played was at Pebble Beach. While there, I ran across my old friend and former employer, Gary Player. Gary was the best sand player I’d ever seen, and I longed to have his skills out of the traps. I looked in his bag to see what kind of sand wedge he was using and noticed he had an old 1953 Wilson Staff club, so I went out and found one just like it. In fact, I found two and acquired them both. (It wasn’t long afterward that I got a tap on my shoulder from Tom Watson, asking if he could have one of them. He’d been looking in Gary’s bag as well and had been trying to locate the same wedge. I often wonder if that was the wedge he used to chip in at Pebble Beach to win the U.S. Open!)
Over the months and years to come, I worked tirelessly to learn how to hit all kinds of shots out of the sand. I was committed to being the best sand player I could possibly be. In time my skills began to improve, and I was making a lot of progress. Often Gary and I would hook up before a tournament and play practice rounds. We’d spend hours dropping and burying balls in the traps and hitting them out, each time trying to enhance our skills a bit more.
“No bunker shot has ever scared me, and none ever will. The key to this bravado is practice.”
Today I am not only a good sand player, but it is one of the strengths of my game. Throughout my career I’ve made many a good save because of my skills and ingenuity in and around the bunkers. What started out as a serious deficiency in my game eventually became one of my greatest assets as a player.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. Some golfers have an amazing long game and can putt it in from anywhere on the green, but their short irons always give them problems. In spite of this weakness, they are able to keep up with other players because they’ve learned to capitalize on the skills they do have and to work around the ones they don’t.
I’ve always been good around the greens, and I’ve saved many a hole by chipping it close from very difficult lies and positions. Through hard work and practice, I was able to turn my greatest weakness into one of my strengths. In fact, later in my career I often found myself looking forward to difficult lies in the sand, because it gave me an opportunity to utilize the skills I had developed.
I learned that a great short game improves all of your shots. When you know you can get up and down from around the green, you have the confidence to attempt shots with your woods and long irons that you might not otherwise try.
In golf there is no one way to play. The goal is to get the ball into the cup in as few strokes as possible, and whatever works toward that end is a valid strategy—even if it means taking a Texas wedge out of the sand.
A Creative Shot
There’s a great story told about Ben Hogan playing in a tournament at Pebble Beach. The infamous seventh hole on that course is a short par-3 playing toward the ocean. It’s a tiny green about a hundred yards downhill, with a bunker along the front edge. The wind at Pebble Beach often blew so hard off the ocean it was hard to stand up on the tee box. Players had been known to take a 2-iron off the tee and hit into the wind, just to get it to the green.
As Hogan stood on that tee box assessing the shot, the wind was blowing so hard no one could imagine how he was going to pull off his shot. He surprised the gallery by taking out his putter and aiming for the trap in front of the green. He putted the ball all the way down the fairway and into the bunker for a safe second shot toward the pin.
It was vintage Hogan creativity.
There are times in my walk with Christ when I think I understand what Hogan must have felt like standing on that tee box with a gale force wind in his face. Often I’ll be going through my day as planned, moving from one task to the next, when suddenly I find myself faced with a situation that seems insurmountable. I have no idea what to do next and am left wondering how I’m going to get past this obstacle that the enemy has put in my way.
When these situations arise, the key is to keep a cool head and not panic. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box. When faced with adversity, Hogan knew that he could call on the many skills he had honed through the years, even if that meant pulling a shot out of his bag that he’d never tried before. As a believer, I need to be willing to look at my faith in that same manner.
In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (italics mine).
Our time with God—in prayer and in the Word—should equip us for any task or obstacle the enemy may put in front of us. It’s our job to stay calm and look to God, instead of our own strength, when troubling times come our way.
Sometimes our greatest triumph comes in the midst of our most overwhelming hardship.