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Seve Ballesteros wins the 1984 British Open (David Cannon)
Seve Ballesteros wins the 1984 British Open (David Cannon)

Rubenstein: Paint by feel, not by numbers Add to ...

New York – Given that I’ve been writing for nearly 40 years, maybe it shouldn’t surprise me when my mind turns to golf during occasions and in places that have nothing to do with it. But that’s what happened when I went to see Rudresh Mahanthappa and his quartet play Tuesday night at Jazz Standard. He’s one of my favourite saxophonists. His music got me thinking about the sort of golf I like to watch, and that you don’t see much of anymore.

Watching the quartet, I considered the way jazz musicians improvise and break new ground. Mahanthappa, with David Fiuczynski on electric guitar, Francois Moutin on acoustic bass, and Dan Weiss on drums, were playing cuts from their new album Gamak. Mahanthappa grew up in Boulder, Colorado. He was into new territory in that, according to critic Mark Turner of All That Jazz, he was developing a “unique blend of progressive jazz and Indian music.”

This is where golf came in, for me anyway. So here goes. Prepare for an “out there” analogy. While watching the band’s explorations in music, I thought about some players to whom conventional golf was and is foreign. They even prefer not to hit “stock” shots. They enjoy and thrive on hitting what the British call “part” shots. They’re creative, they’re imaginative, and they need to be that way to play their best. I’m sure any golfers with a PGA Tour card can play the same way, but they choose not to unless conditions such as high winds force them to.

The late Seve Ballesteros is at the top when it comes to players who choose to paint by feel and not by numbers. He took every opportunity to move the ball one way or the other. He was the ultimate “feel” player. I was lucky enough to see him win the 1984 Open Championship at the Old Course, and I never missed a chance to follow him when I could.

Here’s the degree to which Ballesteros was a golfer who absolutely had to play the shot he saw in his mind’s eye and felt in his hands. He had started struggling by the early to mid-1990s, and sought out David Leadbetter for some help. Leadbetter offered him sound advice, and, he told me, had Ballesteros hitting the ball with more control because he was becoming a more technically sound player.

But Leadbetter and Ballesteros eventually stopped working together. Ballesteros told Leadbetter that he just couldn’t play with thoughts of technique in his mind. He had to play by feel. He didn’t like playing another other way. If he wanted to hit a hooking, 140-yard six-iron, so be it. To try to hit a stock shot scraped up against his nature. He hated feeling mechanical, even if doing so might have prolonged his career at the top.

Mahanthappa and his quartet played on. Sounds that at first seemed to clash with one another generated unified themes. Moutin at his bass made quick moves, then slowed things down. The foursome up there on stage was performing physically. The players were swinging.

I was sitting very near the band and started to sense how the parts formed a whole. In my golfing mind’s eye I thought of Johnny Miller on the 17th hole in the last round of the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Miller hadn’t was all but retired from competitive golf but there he was as a two-time former champion. He was on the famous par-three 17th hole and in the lead the last round.

The shot called for a long iron, but Miller didn’t have one in his bag. No problem. He turned down the face of his four-iron, the longest iron in his bag, hooded the blade, and ripped a low burner into the green. He won the tournament by a shot. The shot exemplified Miller at his best. He had to move unconventionally to bring off the shot. He too liked to move the ball this way and that, depending on the situation.

Of modern players, Bubba Watson probably is the golfer whose nature most demands that he play an outside the lines game. He’s not one to watch his swing on film. He loves to curve the ball, really curve it. The twister of a wedge that he hooked 40 yards from the right trees on the 10th hole in the playoff for the 2011 Masters and onto the green became instantly famous. But he just might hit such a shot even off a tee or from the fairway.

Mark Calcavecchia offers a telling anecdote about Watson, from the first time they played in a tournament together. They were on a par-three, with the pin cut in the far right of the green at the back. Watson, a lefty, stood over the ball with an 8-iron, for a shot of about 180 yards. He aimed far to the left and hooded the blade, Ballesteros-like. He had set up with the ball pretty well off his back foot.

Calcavecchia told me that he could hardly believe what he was seeing. He figured he’d see such a convoluted setup at a driving range, not a PGA Tour event. Watson then hit a shot with so much left to right hook spin that its flight defined what used to be called a “shrimp” of a shot. The ball landed at the front left of the green and tore off towards the hole. That’s Bubba golf.

It’s inventive golf. At Jazz Standard, I was watching inventive, let it fly but maintain control jazz. Here’s what Mahanthappa told NPR last May when it comes to his influences and where he’s headed.

“I’m trying to express what it means to be Indian-American, so I’m not interested in doing anything that’s overtly Indian because I don’t feel overtly Indian. I feel Indian and American and neither and both, all at the same time, every second of every day. I feel like the music should reflect that, too. ... I think the interesting thing is embracing the confusion. If you own the confusion, then you’ve won.”

“Embracing the confusion.” There’s a message in that. Now, at the club, the quartet was nearing the end of its set.

“We’ll close with another piece from the album, called Aboghi,” Mahanthappa said. I heard “A bogey,” exactly as he pronounced it. I nearly jumped out of my seat.

I couldn’t discern any bogeys in the performance. The jazz critic Turner wrote that Aboghi, based on an Indian raga, is “mesmeric.” I’m no jazz critic, but I like to think I know my golf. And I like watching it best when players let themselves open to the game and hit different shots.

That’s when golf, the way I see it, becomes “mesmeric.”

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein

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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at lornerubenstein@me.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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