Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
I recently passed a bittersweet milestone as a golf instructor. I’ve had several golfers improve to the point that they could beat me on the course, at least on a given day, but I have to admit that one of my golfers has become too tough to handle.
Timmy Driver always had a lot of potential. He is athletic. Even as a young golfer, he had that tall, lanky body that is such an advantage in this game. Genetics were on his side – his father, Garry, was (and is) one of the best players at Lakeview Golf Course.
All signs pointed to a bright future in golf, but as he grew and honed his skills, Timmy was missing one piece of the puzzle. It was only after Timmy learned to believe in himself that he really began to emerge as a competitor, and with his newfound confidence he has become an exceptional player.
I started working with Timmy in 1999, when he was 12 years old. I still have some of the old videos we shot during lessons, and it’s fun to look back at the scrawny kid with that unwieldy swing. He’d wrap the club around, spinout, collapse in the arms and wrists, and throw in a little reverse-spine tilt for good measure. Imagine the Scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz” swinging a golf club. Well, maybe Timmy wasn’t that bad, but we definitely worked hard to take the extra moving parts out of his swing.
Every year he got better. By the time he went to Spotswood High School in 2001, Timmy was becoming a solid junior golfer, with an average score of 77 in his first season. His putting was a little suspect, but his raw talent and his improving swing kept him moving forward. He shaved two more shots off his average in his sophomore season.
As Timmy became more competitive, he also expected more from himself. This is obviously a good trait for an athlete, but Timmy was getting to the point that he didn’t care if a ball went directly to the target; if the contact wasn’t perfectly solid, it wasn’t good enough. He started to expect machine-like results.
Looking back, my biggest failure as Timmy’s golf pro was that the more he complained about his ball striking, the deeper I’d look into his swing. Instead of helping him reorganize his priorities – or helping him to understand that golf is about minimizing errors, not achieving perfection; instead of helping him trust his swing, I fell into the trap of pursuing perfect mechanics.
Eventually our lessons had negative motivation – meaning that Timmy only scheduled a lesson when something was wrong, and when you expect flawless results, something is always wrong. The pervading feeling of our sessions was that we had to get the train back on the tracks.
We should have been working on a different mental approach, with positive motivation. What Timmy needed was more confidence and a better putting stroke, but we kept on tweaking the mechanics of his swing.
Nonetheless, Timmy kept getting better. By his junior year, his scoring average was down to 73. And that was the year that things started to change.
In 2003 Timmy played in an American Junior Golf Association event at The Homestead. Against some of the best junior golfers in the nation, he posted a first round score of 81. Timmy’s frustration and negative attitude were so obvious after the round that his father gave him one of the books by Bob Rotella, the widely read sports psychologist. After reading some of the book, Timmy went back out armed with a more positive approach and finished the tournament with rounds of 72 and 70.
For the first time, Timmy began to believe that he could play with the big boys. His last two scores at The Homestead were better than Chad Foltz, the regional standout who played for rival R.E. Lee High School.
During this time he also had some meetings with Rob McNamara, one of the best players and coaches in Virginia. In his visits to Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Timmy learned to trust his swing, McNamara made him feel like a king, comparing his swing favorably to the big-name players in the state, like Foltz.
The change was noticeable. Back at Lakeview, Timmy and I were able to get through practice sessions without ridiculous expectations of perfection. He was learning to play golf, learning to score even if the swing and ball striking were off center.
So we arrived at 2004, Timmy’s senior year of high school. He set the tone early in the year when he played a casual round at Lakeview and shot 66, his lowest score to date. After that, Timmy said it felt like “any other day” when his scores started dipping well below par. He had crossed another hurdle by learning not to fear success.
Now he had momentum for the tournament season. He shot 73-69 (finishing birdie-eagle) to win the Spotswood Invitational. He qualified for the State Amateur. Finished third at the Jimmy McFarlene Junior Tournament. Earned an 11th seed (out of 64) in the match-play portion of the Bobby Bowers Invitational, and made it to the final eight.
Around that time I got to play a round with Timmy and a couple of college players. I approached the match with an “I’ll show these boys that the pro can still handle them” attitude. I concentrated, grinded, hit fairways and greens – and edged the college players on the front nine; I was two under par, feeling great, even strutting a little, but there was one problem. Timmy was four under. Then he birdied the 10th and 11th holes. Six under. I was playing some of my best golf, and was going backwards. That’s when I realized Timmy had gone to a different level. I haven’t played with him since – unless he was my partner.
Later in the summer he played in an AJGA tournament on Long Island; he stared down rain, wind, a brutal course, and one of the strongest fields in junior golf. Scores of 75-72-72 gave him a tie for third place, and full exemption for future AJGA tournaments. That is the kind of performance that makes the eyebrows of college coaches go up.
When asked what changed to make him such a strong competitor, Timmy said he learned “not to fear a low number or a name.” As his confidence grew, he was able to deal with tournament nerves without being fearful. He also credits better putting. (We recently settled on the left-hand-low putting style after trying a bunch of putters and techniques to keep his jumpy right arm under control).
In his final high-school season, Timmy turned in scores of 66,69,67,77 and 77 for the lowest regular season scoring average in the Valley District. His career at Spotswood will end soon, but there is no telling where he might go from there. College golf looms, perhaps at James Madison, Longwood or Radford.
And maybe the road stretches beyond there. A confident Timmy Driver who continues to compete and believe in himself, who sharpens his wedge play, makes his putting more consistent – such a player might have scratched only the surface of his potential.
As a teaching professional, I have watched Timmy become a very talented player (as well as a friendly, popular, hard-working young student and team leader) with pride, and with the certainty that I learned as much from him as he did from me. He has shown me what can happen when confidence and positive reinforcement are blended with physical skills. In a sense, he has helped me become a coach, not just an instructor. And I am thankful.
The Valley District
Congratulations to Harrisonburg High School. They took a seven-stroke lead into the final regular-season tournament last week, and widened the gap to 27 strokes. The same four players who led the team all season came up big again: Aaron German (69), Jim Stevens (72), Elliot Wilson (79), and Stewart Surratt (79).
Coach Mike Ruckman said that “the kids showed up and played well.” He was pleased with the team score of 299, especially from the back tees at Heritage Oaks on a windy day.
Spotswood was chasing HHS, but stumbled in the final tournament, posting a team score of 319.
Turner Ashby finished the regular season in good form, winning a tournament at Waynesboro and finishing second at Heritage Oaks. Coach Tim Clary said his team has continued to improve since the beginning of the season. They have been led by senior Lance Rees, with most of the other scores coming from Curt Newsome, Luke Nash, Neil Odell and Chris Elyard.
The district tournament in late September should provide some good drama. Harrisonburg already earned a berth in the regional tournament, which leaves Spotswood, Turner Ashby and fourth-place R.E. Lee scrapping for the second spot. Those teams have to win the district tournament (or come in second if HHS wins) to advance.
Spotswood coach Linda Failes says her team traditionally plays better in the tournament than in the regular season. Clary, on the other hand, points out that his team already won at Waynesboro Country Club, where the district tournament will be played. Sounds like another good showdown.