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When Dan Bailey lines up between the hash marks in an NFL stadium, the Cowboys kicker sees the world's narrowest fairway.
Bailey, an individual state golf champion at Southwest Covenant High School in Yukon, Okla., says there is a direct parallel between placekicking and golfing. From the repetition of the swing path, to the isolation of the job, to the exhilarating makes and heartbreaking misses, the two endeavors bear a striking resemblance.
"Whenever you are talking about kicking with other people that kick," the 25-year-old Bailey says, "golf always comes up as an analogy. There are a ton of similarities."
Every golfer will tell you that while the club and the distance change, the swing remains the same. So it goes with an NFL kicker, whose leg swing remains essentially unchanged, regardless of whether it's a long boot or a chip shot.
"You want an extra point to be the same as a 50-yarder," Bailey says. "Now, other variables will change that: wind, temperature and different conditions. But for the most part, you want every kick to be the same kick. It's just like in golf, where you want every shot to be the same shot."
In both undertakings, a faulty short-term memory is essential to long-term success.
"With both kicks and golf shots," Bailey says, "if you hit a bad shot, you have to put it behind you and move on to the next one."
When Bailey shanks a kick (kicking and golf terminology is also interchangeable), he doesn't need to look at the tape. The flight of the ball will tell him exactly what went wrong. The same holds true in golf.
"Usually, I know right away if it's going in or not, and if it doesn't, I know what I did wrong," Bailey says.
And like golfers, kickers can become obsessed with video analysis.
"We spend a lot of time on film," Bailey says. "Even at practice, we will look at our kicks and see what little things we can improve. For the most part, we try to keep it consistent. It's kind of a fine-tuned thing where you know exactly what you did when you do something wrong. When you do something right, it's just a matter of trying to replicate that every time."
For both PGA golfers and NFL kickers, true success is measured on Sunday afternoons. It's one thing to successfully pound out practice shot after practice shot, and quite another to do it with a tournament or game on the line. Both, however, know slices and hooks are an inescapable part of the job.
"You have to know that in the back of your mind," Bailey says of a gig where perfection can never be attained. "Especially if there is wind, you will say this is where I am going to hit it and hopefully it will come back and sometimes it just doesn't."
So far, Bailey has made it look easy. He was practically automatic for the Cowboys in 2012, converting on 29-of-31 field goal attempts, which included a dead-solid perfect 26-for-26 from inside 50 yards. And this season he was even better, hitting 28-of-30 field goal tries, while converting his final 21 straight, the fourth longest streak in team history.
While the conditions at AT&T Stadium, with its retractable roof and Matrix artificial turf, are ideal for a kicker, the weather and grass at other venues can be akin to playing links in a windstorm. As the schedule winds down, the elements typically become more of an issue. Most notably, Washington's FedExField faced scrutiny in the 2012 regular-season finale for its beaten-down playing surface.
"I know Washington was in the news a lot last year and we played there for our last game," Bailey says. "The field was torn up pretty bad. It's kind of damage control from there. You just try to find the best spot you can, maybe pack it down a little bit. Get a nice spot to get the best lie you can. You have to make do, and evaluate when you are out there and before the game, so nothing unexpected comes up."
Still, you can only control so much, and accepting failure might be the most important part of a kicker's success.
"Sometimes it's out of your control to an extent, once it leaves your foot, so you try to control as much as you can leading up to that point. You want to make it as consistent as possible. From there you just have to hope it works out for you."
PGA Tour golfer Phil Mickelson leans on caddy Bones MacKay, and Tiger Woods confers regularly with looper Joe LaCava. While an NFL kicker is largely alone with his thoughts when he approaches a kick, Bailey says he does have a support system within the Cowboys.
"We have Chris Boniol on our staff, so he has been there," Bailey says of the former Cowboys kicker and current assistant special teams coach. "He has literally been in those shoes before. I try to bounce ideas off him. I can talk to our punter [Chris Jones], too. It's always good to kind of brainstorm ideas and try to come up with the best conclusion. But on game days, it's kind of just go do your thing."
Bailey, who is entering his third campaign with the Cowboys, puts the clubs in the closet once football season starts, but he still plays as often as he can during the offseason. Last spring he was shooting in the high-70s and low-80s. He watches golf as well, and has a particular interest in Rickie Fowler, who attended Oklahoma State during the same period that Bailey was kicking for the school. [embedded_ad]
"Rickie lived underneath me in a dorm for a semester or so," Bailey says. "He's a great dude. He's had pretty good success on the Tour, so I am real happy for him. I always want him to do well because he is an Oklahoma State guy."
Bailey also has an unlikely interest in Jim Furyk. Bailey says there is something about Furyk's unorthodox swing that he finds appealing.
"Jim Furyk always had that kind of quirky swing," Bailey says. "He just goes out there and does his thing and doesn't really care what other people say. He has kind of struggled here recently when he has had the lead, but it's one of those things. He has been doing it a long time and I always enjoy watching him."
Fowler wasn't the only successful Cowboy Bailey met in Stillwater. Business magnate T. Boone Pickens is a high-profile alum and benefactor of the program. Bailey says Pickens' presence with the Cowboys of Stillwater is not unlike Jerry Jones' ubiquity with the Cowboys of Dallas.
Pickens was around the program on a regular basis, especially during football season. He would visit with players in the locker room and have dinner with the squad at the hotel the night before games. Jones, of course, serves as the Cowboys' president and general manager and is as engaged with his team as any owner in professional sports.
"There are a ton of similarities," Bailey says of Pickens and Jones. "You can tell both men have a lot of passion for what they do and they are both very successful. They both definitely have a lot going on."
The same could be said for Bailey, a kicker whose offseason passion for golf makes finding the perfect swing a year-round obsession.