Unscrambling the Scramble

by Roberta A. Isleib, Ph.D.

It was a summer twilight evening, the golf course jammed with laughing couples participating in a four person, ten hole scramble. No pressure, no big money, no one's reputation on the line. Spectacular drives or impossible putts were all for the good of the team. Best of all, when it came to poor swings or penalty shots, the old maxim "you made your bed, now lie in it" simply did not apply.

There was only one hitch. The team was required to use each member's tee shot once during the ten holes. And as we approached our tenth and final hole, one of the men in our foursome had not produced a single useable drive. A lonely figure on the last tee, he swung. His wormburner skidded twenty yards down the fairway until it came to rest under a bench beside the ladies' tee box. In grim silence, we walked to the bench, chipped the ball out from under, and eventually carded the only double bogey in the field.

Since that evening, I've heard many stories of players who became unhinged by the special pressures of the scramble format. So I offer you five tips to help preserve the intended fun of the format and combat "scramble psychosis".

Tip #1. Adopt an attitude of realistic optimism about your role on the team and your possible contributions. Obviously, these will vary according to your experience, your handicap, and sometimes, your sex.

As a low handicapper, you are not expected to carry the team alone. You should provide encouragement and guidance to your teammates. As the A player, you are often designated captain, and should help make decisions that work for the team. Ask your teammates about their expertise and comfort level with certain kinds of shots, and choose hitting positions and shot placement accordingly. "It may seem logical for you to hit last," says Dr. Richard Coop, author of Mind Over Golf. "But if you feel more confident hitting first, without the distraction of watching the others, go with your gut feeling."

Middle of the pack golfers are the support staff in a scramble. By playing your usual game, you will have the chance to provide the team with many choices and help take the pressure off the better players. When your two long hitters have sent duck hooks screaming out of bounds, they will be delighted with your modest, but trouble-free drive. Or, this same modest drive can allow the A player to hit a risky shot she wouldn't otherwise attempt.

If you are the high handicapper on the team, relax. Less is expected of you. You will contribute by occasionally chipping up close to the pin or with your putting. Most pros contend that scrambles are won by steady putting-this is an area where you can really help. "Keep your concentration during putting," says Mickey Hawkes, head pro in Madison, CT. "That's where you can make a difference to the team." As the lead-off putter, be sure your ball reaches the neighborhood of the hole. Sometimes you will sink the putt. Most times you'll provide valuable information by showing the line to more experienced players.

A woman on an otherwise all-male team faces special pressures in a scramble. Unless you are an unusually big hitter, you will not make your major contribution off the tee. That said, a decent drive from some ladies' tee boxes can provide a significant yardage advantage over the men's tees. As you stand on the tee, visualize the ordinary drives you've hit here in the past-no heroics needed.

Tip #2. Maintain your concentration and rhythm. The scramble brings with it a series of distractions that are highly disruptive to your usual game. You may find yourself hitting from a completely unfamiliar knoll on the fairway, listening to a lively discussion about the pros and cons of choosing one approach shot over another, or competing to keep up with a teammate's monstrous drives. You have the best shot at success with your normal swing. To maintain rhythm and concentration, stick to your own pre-shot routines. Says Coop: "This is a great time to get into your routine-presuming you've created one before the match. It returns you to an island of concentration, so you can focus on the process of your normal swing, rather than on anticipating the outcome."

Tip #3. Play your strengths by relying on your own experience about your abilities. If a well-hit eight iron over the pond has never been in your repertoire, it's unlikely to appear today. Better to offer to hit the safe lay-up and allow a teammate to concentrate on the big shot. If the big shot falls short into the pond, you and your lay-up could save the day.

Tip #4. Use obligatory tee shots early in the round, in order to avoid the pressure of having to produce a good shot in the last few holes. If one player is clearly struggling, use an average or even mediocre drive, rather than waiting for her to produce something spectacular. Says Wendy Hudler, teaching pro at the Boulders resort: "We have one hole with nothing but green grass in front of the tee box. If all else fails, we have the player hit her drive there-with a pitching wedge, if she needs to!"

Tip #5. Avoid scramble psychosis with a positive mind-set. If your game has abandoned you, remind yourself that ups and downs are part of the game of golf. Try to concentrate on the positive: the weather, the company, your sportsmanship, the fact that even a bad day of golf is better than working. Remember that the great fun of scrambles is in the camaraderie and team spirit. Golfers who seldom make birdies and never make eagles can experience this thrill with their team. Better players can get a sense of satisfaction from the good shots they produce, as well as the support and leadership they provide to less experienced teammates.

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