Keeping a team on course

Published 9:20 pm Tuesday, August 9, 2011

It’s easy to joke about golf coaches. What do they really do riding around in a cart for five hours?

Practices don’t include running wind sprints, lifting weights or playbooks with thousands of plays.

Golf coaches themselves are usually laid back about their role. Plus, golf as a team sport is an odd concept, anyway.

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With the new high school golf season getting underway this week, Suffolk’s three varsity teams include golfers who’ve made multiple postseason tournaments and been top players for their teams for the last few years.

A fortunate golf coach gets to focus on, at first glance anyway, the hardest part of the sport — playing the sport better.

Working mostly on golf, just the swing, the fundamentals, how to read putts, how to navigate around the course wisely — are all things that can cause frustration for the casual, non-tournament golfer. For the coach of a team made up of teenagers, being able to work on saving strokes out of sand traps is a “gimme” compared to what most coaches have to focus on during the first few matches of a new season.

While a few squads are lucky to have a lineup of experienced, accomplished golfers, many more have a couple players or more who are new to the sport, or at least new to playing golf in an actual, competitive match.

A total rookie to the sport and a rookie to playing the sport officially are nearly the same. A competitive round of golf, with full rules and no leeway, is a world away from going out on the course and knocking the ball around with little regard for mulligans, what all those red, yellow and white stakes mean, “oh, I’ll just drop and play it from here,” or who signs “scorer” and who signs “attest,” assuming a real scorecard has been kept.

Coaches answer, in effect, “What do I do now?” many times a match. With three groups spread out over three or four holes, often the coach helps in a situation after not having seen the preceding shot.

Honor prevails far more than not. A teammate often tells his partner what has to happen, even as it costs the team a shot or two. Often an opponent helps in a way that saves his rival a lost ball or a penalty from being unnecessarily called.

By navigating water hazards, cart paths, unplayable lies and getting the scorecard right at the end of the round, coaches keep disqualifications, which 99 times out of 100 would be a kid being disqualified by accident or innocent error rather than trying to cheat or gain an advantage, to nearly none.

So at the end of the 18 holes, if all 12 golfers have the legal score and learned something about golf skills and rules, which are equally challenging, that always goes down as a coaching victory.