How college golfers like me are staying motivated in strange, challenging times
For the first time in hours, I shut my laptop and rest my screen-fried eyes from all the eBooks, Zoom rectangles and Google Docs to which they are constantly glued these days. These moments of relief have been all too fleeting throughout my virtual senior fall semester at Pomona College, in Southern California.
I walk down the stairs of the off-campus house my friends and I rented for the school year and head to the patio, where I have a 10-foot artificial putting mat rolled out. I connect my Blast sensor to my six-year-old battle scarred but faithful Scotty Cameron putter, and for the next 40 minutes, my scrambled brain somehow re-focuses on maintaining a consistent stroke tempo.
Ball after ball, stroke after stroke, the short practice becomes meditative, as I listen to a repetitive robotic voice announcing my putting data from an app on my iPhone.
“2.0:1” it tonelessly proclaims. Finally, I have hit the golden ratio of backstroke to forward stroke. I slowly start to get into a steady routine, a familiar rhythm: my putting mojo has mercifully appeared.
As the captain of a Division III golf team during such a strange semester, converting this mojo into one that I maintain throughout my daily life has been nearly impossible. Like thousands of other college athletes around the country, a much-anticipated season was stripped away from me when campus was shut down in March due to Covid-19.
It had been only about two months since I had returned to the comfort of Pomona’s campus, at the base of the foothills 30 miles east of Los Angeles, after having spent the fall semester in Edinburgh, Scotland. (The extensive golf education I received over there will have to wait for another article.) In a matter of days, my perfectly organized athletic and academic schedule — which I had just started to get the hang of again — was decimated.
During the height of quarantine, I found peace and stability in playing with friends and family the easily social-distanced sport I have enjoyed since I was young. But until late this summer, I had no idea my entire remaining career as a collegiate competitor could be in extreme jeopardy.
This semester, Pomona is completely online. No residential life, no in-person classes, no athletics, no parties. I am currently living in a house less than two minutes away from campus, but I am not even allowed to step foot onto the premises. It’s safe to say this is not the senior year I had always dreamed about.
Despite the obstacles, the women’s and men’s golf teams of Pomona-Pitzer (our athletic teams combine forces with a neighboring college) are making a valiant effort to stay connected and in-shape for the increasingly dim prospect of a competitive season in the spring. It’s not traditional college golf, but it’s something.
It’s safe to say this is not the senior year I had always dreamed about.
At the beginning of the semester, our coach John Wurzer, the men’s captains, and my co-captain Abby Euyang and I put our heads together to craft a remote version of our typical on-campus practice schedule. All practices are technically optional “Captain’s Practices,” but the participation from the teams has been encouraging.
First and foremost, we have our requisite weekly team meetings over Zoom: whether it is discussing our golf highlights of the week or continuing to get to know our new recruits, these sessions are integral for maintaining team camaraderie.
“We have 10 new men’s players and five new women’s players,” Wurzer says, “so building connections with these new faces has been challenging but important.”
In addition to our remote sessions, we encourage all players to complete two workouts a week, attend meetings with our mental coach, upload 50 putts using the Blast sensor and play at least 18 holes a week to enter in the GolfMetrics strokes-gained data app.
Wurzer says these game-tracking tools have allowed for “continued conversations between players and coaches about player improvement strategies, shown strengths and weaknesses in their games, and allowed for instant feedback while practicing remotely.”
Implementing innovative golf technology into our remote practice regimen has been essential for our team this semester. Without these tools, inspiring both our returning players and new recruits to remain committed to the team’s collective goals would be even more difficult than it already is.
“We are struggling with motivation,” Euyang says. “How do you make yourself go play 18 holes in the rain, by yourself? How do you stay competitive when most tournaments have been cancelled?”
So far, the answer to these questions is utilizing technology to stay connected with one another, competitively and socially. For me, implementing the structure and spirit of collegiate golf into my abnormal senior year schedule has been a saving grace.
As the endlessly repetitive days and weeks of virtual classes steamroll through the remaining weeks of 2020, my range sessions, putting practices, and Friday-afternoon tee times have provided the perfect escape. The confining and numbing effect of remote schooling can be overwhelming. The vastness and beauty of the golf course is the perfect antidote.
Implementing innovative golf technology into our remote practice regimen has been essential for our team this semester.
The eight-hour van rides, 6 a.m. practice sessions and weekly team dinners — which are all inherent parts of being on a college golf team — used to shape my everyday life as a Pomona student. Naturally, it is difficult to look around the country and see other golf teams enjoying the competition and camaraderie that I now crave, our divergent experiences the result of how states and even counties are making different rules in response to the virus.
Amherst College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts, is housing a portion of their students on campus, allowing for some semblance of a college-golf experience. According to the women’s team captains, Lily Worden and Isabelle Ouyang, the team has been able to practice up to five days a week together.
“Two days a week are short-game and Trackman centered, while the other two days are focused more on course play,” Ouyang says. “Sometimes we play on-course games like match play or alternate-shot. We’re trying to make practice as fun as possible this semester.”
Worden and Ouyang have implemented creative tactics to sustain their team’s camaraderie: Just recently, they started a collaborative playlist on Spotify.
“So far, it’s a diverse mix of all our favorite artists and songs,” Worden said. “Keeping in touch with everyone is our biggest priority since it’s challenging with everyone’s schedules.”
Other college golfers are trying to bond with their teams from thousands of miles away.
Jake Beber-Frankel, a freshman on the Stanford University men’s team, is at home in Miami while the majority of his team practices together in Palo Alto. Beber-Frankel decided that staying home would be the best way for him to acclimate to Stanford’s rigorous academics, while also having the freedom to design his own practice schedule. The Pac-12 golf powerhouse has its own state-of-the-art practice facility, but Covid protocols are strict.
As a first-year itching to begin his highly anticipated collegiate golf career, but isolated from his cohort of new teammates, Beber-Frankel is in a unique position.
“It still feels like I’m a high school recruit waiting for the moment to finally arrive where I can join in on the fun,” he said.
Although the Florida native is playing in individual events to stay competitive, he is yearning for the moment when the college golf career he had always envisioned can officially commence.
“To be honest, I don’t quite feel like I’m part of the team yet,” Beber-Frankel said. “I know that when I step foot on campus, that feeling will immediately go away, but the truth is I haven’t even been on campus as a member of the team. When I see my name in the team locker room, that’s when the feeling will set in.”
The freshman and transfer students on our Pomona-Pitzer men’s and women’s teams are likely facing a comparable feeling of longing but our consistent meetings and virtual practice schedule seem to be giving my teammates a sense of purpose and belonging.
“I would say that it’s been hard to feel much community with online school but the golf team has done a great job of meeting every week and checking in about how school, golf, and everything is going,” says Claire Whisenant, a Pomona freshman from Salt Lake City. “I feel very welcomed to the team and I am getting to know everyone, even if it is just over Zoom.”
Over the past few months, the golf community has been able to sit back and watch the PGA and LPGA tours restarting their professional seasons. Lacking similar financial resources, college golf teams are left to do the best job they can. When I tell my friends and family members that I am leading a golf team entirely over the Internet, I know that must sound utterly insane. But through all of the brain fog, repetitiveness and isolation we college students have had to endure this semester, “Zoom Golf” has proved the immense healing and community-building powers of the game.
Every golfer appreciates the unpredictability of the game; we call it “the rub of the green.” Now, the whole world has had to learn this concept.
Outside forces can derail our lives at any moment, but we must keep our spirits up and carry on the best that we can. That skinny strip of synthetic green on my back patio and those weekly calls with my teammates make each new day more hopeful than the last.