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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: Back to Basics at the Bob … with Operation 36

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Bob O'Connor Golf Course director of golf Eric Kulinna talks with Operation 36 participants Saturday. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

PITTSBURGH — What do you think about when walking up to the green?

Maybe you’re going over how your approach shot came off, or perhaps you’re still analyzing that drive that set the wheels in motion on a particular hole.

If you’re locked in on scoring well, you’re probably taking a quick overview of the surface and the pin location, deciphering what degree of break and slope you’ll be facing for your chip or first putt.

But did you remember to bring your putter? And where’d you leave your ball marker?

Don’t laugh. While I’m guessing essentially everyone reading this doesn’t even think about pulling out the flatstick when preparing to putt, for a beginner, golf’s order of operations can be vexing … and there’s no helpful mnemonic to guide the way. (Who else can still recite Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally from sixth-grade math?)

I gained a renewed appreciation for the subtle dance of golf’s baseline basics over the weekend, when I observed one of the Operation 36 classes being taught at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course in Schenley Park.

After a couple of Saturdays spent learning the fundamentals of pitching, chipping and putting, this week marked the first experience on an actual course for the adult novices trying their hand at this crazy, captivating game.

And as I soon learned, activities like marking one’s ball and figuring out whose turn it is to play aren’t so simple when first starting.

Then there’s the intricacies of etiquette, plus statutes like the unplayable-lie rule, which also came into play for one of the foursomes making their way through the miniature nine-hole course set up by the Bob’s director of golf Eric Kulinna and assistant Aaron Lindauer.

Operation 36 boils down to this: The goal is to guide beginners as they translate their practice to the course, via gradually-increasing levels of difficulty. At every step of the way, the goal is to shoot 36 for nine holes.

If that sounds ambitious, stay with me. The first course set up for the current Saturday classes at the Bob consists of three cones set up 25 yards from the flag on the first, second and third holes; those cones serve as teeing areas. Once players shoot 36 from that range, they can progress to 50-, 100- and 150-yard holes.

The program is designed for both juniors and adults, but I find the latter group to be more interesting in the moment. Although much emphasis is placed on kids in the realm of recreational sports, getting into the game can be just as valuable for us grown-ups — regardless of what the game is.

I’m biased like most of you, but as far as return on investment, learning golf is right up there as far as how long a person will be able to put those skills to use. You’ve heard the cliché about this being ‘a sport for a lifetime,’ but it’s true.

A quick survey of the folks involved in this particular Operation 36 class revealed college students, middle-aged mothers and fathers, and at least one senior adding to her athletic repertoire. As someone who has felt the positive impact of participating in sports — especially golf — throughout his life, it’s energizing to see people who didn’t grow up around the game give it a shot.

For as eye-opening as I’m sure playing their first nine holes was, I felt generally refreshed by the learning environment. After spending a couple days grinding over and scrutinizing my swing mechanics via video, I realized how many simple joys of golf I was taking for granted.

Like, for example, the feeling of sliding a wedge under the ball to pop it in the air, or the anticipation of lining up a putt, regardless of whether it’s for birdie on a No. 1-handicap hole … or for a seven on a 25-yard setup. (Max number of strokes allowed was eight, by the way.)

Playing with an audience was new for this Operation 36 crew. MATT GAJTKA/PGN

The coolest part of the experience, though, was putting myself in their Footjoys and remembering what it was like to first step foot on a green. It’s been too long for me to recall much detail from my maiden voyage — I think I was under 10 — but memories of junior golf camps and nervy first tee shots at high-school tryouts flooded back.

The wonder of discovery is a heck of a thing, something I haven’t seen firsthand in golf since the late ’90s at Mountaineer Woodview. Not only was it healthy to take a step back and realize how far us regular players have come in our golf journeys, it also made me think about what I’m doing to pass along my love the sport.

Obviously, Pittsburgh Golf Now’s mission aligns with the tenets of Growing the Game™, but if you’re here, you’re almost certainly a golf nut already. I’m just applying some fertilizer to your golf garden.

But what about planting the seeds in the first place? That’s a major part of the job for folks like Kulinna and Co. at the Bob, a patience-infused process I was fortunate to be privy to.

Especially for us adults whose brains and bodies aren’t as malleable as they used to be, it’s difficult to pick up a new movement pattern or a new thought process, let alone the combination of both that golf demands.

As those of us who play the game can attest, there’s enough to occupy your mind on any given shot when you’ve been immersed in golf for decades. When you’re starting out? Just remembering to not step in your fellow-competitor’s line of play is a tall task. You might as well bring a to-do list to the first tee.

And seriously, don’t forget your putter. You’ll be needing that.

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• WPIAL high school competition heats up this week with the 2A Individual Finals on Thursday at Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley.

We are hopeful to cover as much of the prep action as possible in the coming days! Photographer Mike Darnay is excited about the prospect, as am I.

• There are a couple of fun events on the docket this week in the realm of the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association, starting with today’s U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Qualifying at Willowbrook Country Club in Apollo.

Two-time reigning West Penn Amateur winner Connor Schmidt highlights the field of hopefuls, playing alongside fellow Drexel University fifth-year senior Alex Butler. Another high-powered team consists of this year’s Pennsylvania Open champ Jimmy Ellis and local sharpshooter Chuck Nettles.

One two-man team will advance to the USGA’s 2021 Four-Ball Championship, which will be held next May at Chambers Bay in Washington state.

Also, this Friday is the 71st Brothers Tournaments at Shannopin Country Club in Ben Avon Heights.

• The Tri-State PGA heads north at the start of the week with the Butler County Pro-Am Fall Golf Classic.

Four-player teams — one pro with three amateurs — will compete in a better-ball today at Butler Country Club, then do it again Tuesday at Cranberry Highlands Golf Course.

• Remember, you can advertise your business on Pittsburgh Golf Now! Join the likes of Sunset Golf and Butler’s Golf Course as Eagle Sponsors on our directory pages. Email me: matt.gajtka@gmail.com.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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