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Friday, 26 May 2017

Swinging the Club Head Not the Club

All you have to do is watch the top players in the game tee off at an event to appreciate the fact that there is more than one way to swing a golf club effectively. This is even more evident when you watch the Senior Tour players in action.

As someone who has experimented with just about every swing imaginable, I am finally at the place Henry Cotton ended up. It all comes down to the hands and swinging the clubhead, not the club. If you don't think there's a difference between swinging the club and swinging the clubhead, it's worth remembering what Bobby Jones said about most players viewing the shaft of the club as the means of applying force to the hit. Bobby's view was that we needed to understand that it was the clubhead we wanted to have moving fast. We needed to feel and swing the clubhead.

The problem I notice in my own game, and in that of others I play with, is that we are often in too much of a hurry to deliver the blow. We are too fast going back, and in a mad rush coming down. Often we fail to complete our backswing in our apparent rush to just get it over with. If we take our time, and get to the point in our backswing where we can feel the clubhead, we then have the opportunity to really sling it into the ball.

Modern teaching tends to focus much less on our hands, essentially having our body swing the club. And this obviously works well for those who are fit and healthy enough to use this method. It may also lead to more consistency in our striking if we have mastered the movements and are set up properly.

The problem for older golfers and those of us with physical problems, the body may not work like it did when we were young and fit. That's why I think it's a good idea to understand that the hands can be used with great affect. Look at the trick shot artists; hitting balls from their knees, or on one leg. They are the best examples of swinging the clubhead. If you can feel the weight of that clubhead and let it swing, it's quite amazing how much zip you can get on the ball.

But if you want to swing the clubhead, you've first got to feel it. That means a light grip and the patience on the backswing to wait until you can feel that clubhead ready to use. We want to think of the clubhead, as Bobby Jones said, being attached to "an imponderable medium," like a string, and sling it into the ball. When we do that we are taking advantage of the design of the club and not just swinging a stick.

With my back problems, I am now having to learn to better use my hands and the clubhead. I simply can't generate the speed with my body any more. The question now will be, can I be patient enough to wait until I feel that clubhead ready to go, and not resort to thinking of the shaft as the means to impart the hit. And the thing that I feel is helping in this regard is the tire drill. It's amazing just how much zip you can get with so little effort when you strike the tire with the clubhead instead of the shaft.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Bobby Jones on Ball Position

All golfers are in the same boat, it seems, when it comes to playing this crazy game. One day we "have it" and the shots fly true and the putts drop. On those rare days the game can seem almost easy. And the next day we can't hit the broad side of a barn door.

When we are playing poorly, the search begins. The better players--or at least the most intelligent players--know enough not to immediately start messing with their swings when the wheels come off. This is because a swing that generally produces reasonable results isn't likely to be the culprit. Often what is wrong is something simple. And this is why good players look to the basics when things go awry. They check their alignment and ball position first.

Consider what Bobby Jones had to say on this subject in his book Bobby Jones on Golf:

    "One reason golf is such an exasperating game is that a thing learned is so easily forgotten, and we find ourselves struggling year after year with faults we had discovered and corrected time and again. But no correction seems to have a permanent effect, and as soon our minds become busy with another part of the swing, the old defection pops up again to annoy us.
     This is especially true with respect to placing the ball in the position of address. Apparently of little importance, this is one of the most vital considerations in hitting a golf ball, not that one position is correct for every player, but because for each player there is one position which, with the peculiarities of his method, enables him to hit the ball most easily and most effectively.
     In my particular case, this position happens to be at a point about opposite the middle of my left foot, and this is true when using any club for almost any kind of shot. Of course, the exigencies of a peculiar situation may alter this position to some extent, but normally it remains the same. With the ball in this forward position, all of the power of the stroke can be applied behind the ball; there is no additional tension and loss of power because of a position which requires the player to hold back in order to meet the ball squarely.
     It is not difficult to see that if the swing is adjusted to strike the ball in a certain position, even a slight variation in the position of the ball, the swinging remaining the same, will cause an error in hitting. No golfer needs to be told what ruinous results may follow from even a small mistake. Taking the ball an inch too soon or an inch too late may throw it many yards off line at the end if its flight.
     Placing the ball at address should always receive minute attention. Too many times we step up confidently and carelessly to play a shot, and fall readily into a position that feels comfortable and is, we think, the accustomed attitude. Without giving the thing a thought, we hit the shot and are at a loss to explain the pull or slice that results. A tiny error is enough, and it is very easy to overlook."

Bobby goes on to relate a story about how a friend of his helped him at the US Open at Winged Foot in 1929. He was hitting everything to the right and, try as he might, he couldn't figure out what was wrong. His friend, T.N. Bradshaw observed that Bobby seemed to be playing the ball farther back in his stance than usual. Bobby moved it forward in his stance and had no more trouble. He concluded by writing:

    "A slight change of position is hard for the player himself to detect, especially if he plays for any appreciable time that way. But to move the ball interferes not at all with the swing. To try a different position endangers no e of the elements of touch, timing, or rhythm. And very often it will be found to be the exact adjustment required. It is impossible to contend that the same relative positions of ball and feet are proper for every player. But if anyone is off his game, it will do no harm to experiment-- to shift the ball nearer the left foot to correct a slice, and nearer the right foot to correct a hook. If it works, it is the simplest specific that can be given."

It is worth noting that most amateurs tend to play the ball too far back in their stance. To get the most power and accuracy from the shot, you must be behind the ball so you can drive it forward. So, if you're having trouble, perhaps you should check your ball position. As Bobby said, it can't do any harm.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Windmills and Clown Faces

Some would like to argue that the Players Championship should be considered the fifth Major. And, while it is a tournament that has a certain cache and huge money up for grabs, I tend to think it doesn't quite fit the bill. 

The reason isn't the field it assembles. Most of the top players are usually there. Although I don't know if the field is any stronger than any of the WGC events. The reason I don't think it ranks up there as a Major is because of the golf course. 

It may be entertaining to watch because if the unpredictability of the finishing holes, highlighted by that ridiculous par three seventeenth--an island green that often can't be hit with a wedge or a nine iron. I mean the only thing missing is the windmill and the clown's face.

This year we saw a leaderboard bereft of any of the top names. And, while I was thrilled to see the young South Korean win, it wasn't like watching a Major. In most Major championships you see the cream rise to the top. The winner isn't always one of the top players, but the top players are always in the hunt. Not this week, however. And why is this? It's the golf course. 

Some people love seventeen. They like the suspense and even the carnage. But to me it simply isn't great golf. Every golf hole worth its salt, according to Bobby Jones, should provide options to the player. It should offer a safer route fo the man willing to settle for a par or bogey, and a challenging route that offers an advantage to the player who takes on the challenge. The stadium course is golf on a knife's edge. I guess it's an exciting track to play. But it doesn't always allow the cream to rise.

Now Augusta National; that's a Major championship course. That's a course that separates the men from the boys. No windmills or clown faces on that track. Bobby Jones wasn't in to windmills.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

It's Dandelion Season

The dandelions are sprouting their yellow flowers all over our lawn. Some homeowners try to eliminate them. But, for me, they provide perfect golf practice.

The last couple of days I've been out clipping of the dandelion flowers with an old Scottish five iron that I also use as a cane. I have been using only my left hand to do this exercise and it is already building added muscle in my weaker left hand and forearm. The trick is to keep clipping those flowers without adjusting your grip. Henry Cotton says that this drill will prove difficult at first for even first-rate golfers. This is because most right-handed golfers are right hand dominant and under-utilize their left side in the golf swing.

Give this exercise a try. If you don't have dandelions, or clover, try just putting golf tees in the ground and clip the top of them. That was a Harvey Penick drill which he said helped his students learn to square the clubface at impact. He didn't know why it worked, just that it did.

Of course you can do this using both hands, or even just the right hand. But, after some practice, you will discover that you actually get more speed and consistency of strike using your left hand than when using your right. Try it. I think you'll like it.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Tired of Not Knowing What to Concentrate On?

What I think I like most of all about Bobby Jones' writing was his ability to get to the crux of the matter. He didn't promote any type of swing, other than his advice that it should be smooth, rhythmic and unhurried; especially when it came to the start of the downswing. In fact, Bobby realized that what was important was, not the swing, but the strike.

In Golf is my Game, Bobby devoted a chapter to "Striking the Ball." He felt that it was the most important chapter of his book for the beginner, the average player, and the expert. He wrote:

    "This will be the most important chapter of this book. It will describe the most useful learning you will ever acquire as a golfer. You may gain knowledge from the mere reading of this chapter that will help you in the playing of every golf shot you make for the rest of your life. This knowledge can make you a better golfer overnight.
     If you are a beginner, this chapter will start you off on the road to a correct understanding of the nature of golf. If you are an average golfer, it will give you the means of deciding upon the club to use and the shot to play on the basis of reasoned judgement, rather than guesswork. If you are a better than average golfer, it will broaden your perception of the possibilities in the game so that you may become a player of imagination and resourcefulness. If you are weary of being told to concentrate without having knowledge of what you should concentrate on, this is it."

That's a rather big promise from a man who didn't engage in hyperbole. That's just how confident Bobby Jones was about the fact that golf is all about striking the ball. Consider what he wrote next:

    "Golf is played by striking the ball with the head of the club. The objective of the player is not to swing the club in a specified manner, nor to execute a series of complicated movements in a prescribed sequence, nor to look pretty while he is doing it, but primarily and essentially to strike the ball with the head of the club so that the ball will perform according to his wishes.
     No one can play golf until he knows the many ways in which a ball can be expected to respond when it is struck in different ways. If you think this all should be obvious, please believe me when I assure you that I have seen many really good players attempt shots they should have known were impossible."

So, if you are presently confused, frazzled, and tired of not knowing what to concentrate on. Take it from Bobby Jones; it's the strike, not the swing. Bobby goes on to describe the various ways a ball might be struck and the resultant ball flight that strike will produce. If you can get a copy of his book, I encourage you to do so. If not, check out my article entitled, "The Wisdom of Bobby Jones: Striking the Ball." It contains Bobby's information, pretty much verbatim. 

This year, I hope to get back to just trying to be a ballstriker and forget my damned swing. It isn't easy, because generations of teachers have taught us to think swing, not strike. And, according to Bobby Jones, they've missed the proverbial boat.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Are You Swing Oriented?

Jim Barnes once told a young Bobby Jones: "Bob, you can't always be playing well when it counts. You'll never win golf tournaments until you learn to score well when you're playing badly."

With respect to this admonition, Bobby wrote in his book Golf is my Game:

    "I think this is what I learned best of all. The most acute, and yet the most satisfying recollections I have are of tournaments won by triumphs over my own mistakes and by crucial strokes played with imagination and precision when anything ordinary would not have sufficed. And I think I was able to do this because I learned so well what a golf ball could be made to do and how it had to be struck to make it perform as I wanted it to."

Notice Bobby said he "learned how it (the golf ball) had to be struck." He didn't say he learned how to swing the club in such a way as to make the ball perform as he wanted it to. There is a big difference in Bobby Jones' approach and the way golf is generally taught. Bobby focussed on the strike. Most teachers focus on the swing.

And while modern teachers may know a great deal about the golf swing, it appears that many of them have not done a very good job of conveying the message to their students about the strike. The golf ball only reacts to how it is hit. It is not impressed by the swing. And while this is, or should be, obvious, it is generally overlooked by players and teachers alike who remain "swing oriented."

I know this to be true as a result of the number of times I've asked a golfer to show me how the clubhead should strike the ball to produce a straight shot. Most of them have no idea. Or if they do, the question seems to surprise them so much they have no response. Clearly, they are not thinking about the strike when they play.

I was on the range in South Carolina this winter and there was this fellow from New York who was really struggling. He couldn't seem to stop slicing the ball. I heard him asking a young lady, who plays college golf and was hitting balls nearby, if he should be strengthening his grip. She seemed to think it might be helpful, but was clearly more concerned with working on her game than giving golf tips--and rightly so.

When he set up beside me to hit balls, we exchanged the usual pleasantries. Then he informed me about his slicing problem, asking for my opinion about his grip and whether he should strengthen it. Unable to resist, I suggested he leave his grip alone and then took his club and showed him how the clubface should be moving through impact to produce a straight shot--namely straight down the target line with the clubface pointing, or square, to the target. I suggested he just strike the ball that way.

He tried to replicate that strike and was suddenly hitting mostly straight shots, even hitting some draws instead of slices. He was thrilled. He was also amazed that without mentioning his grip, or his swing, I had managed to get him hitting the ball so well. 

Of course, it wasn't magic. It was just Bobby Jones' teaching in action. This fellow was apparently a good baseball player, so he was obviously athletic enough to hit a golf ball. He just needed to know how he wanted to hit the ball, instead of thinking about how to swing the bat. When we learn how the ball must be struck, and then just focus on striking it, really good things start happening. We may not be able to swing like Freddie Couples, but we can all figure out how to strike a golf ball properly, provided we are shown the proper strike.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Prepare for Trouble

Golf, whether played for championships or a two-dollar Nassau, can exert some real pressure. How we react to that pressure in large part determines how well we can play. Our thinking on the golf course is almost as important as our ability to hit quality golf shots.

In one of my recent articles on Bobby Jones, I quoted Bobby's three rules for mentally preparing yourself for playing the game and dealing with pressure. I think they are well worth considering in some detail. It's important to remember that these rules were made by the best player of his generation. This was a young man who dominated the Major championships, winning thirteen of them by the age of twenty-eight. The reason I mention this is because there are some who say that positive thinking is important in golf. You will see that Bobby Jones was not a power-of-positive-thinking proponent. He was a realist.

Consider Bobby's first rule: "I must be prepared for the making of mistakes." Not a very positive thought, but the reality is that golf is a game where one's ability to recover from mistakes often determines the winner. Golf is a game of mistakes, or misses. No one hits the ball perfectly every time. We are inevitably going to make mistakes. So, we might better be prepared for them.

We can't afford to have a letdown, or a meltdown, every time we hit a ball in the water. We have to be mentally prepared for these things. It isn't being negative to prepare oneself for trouble. It's being realistic. 

Bobby's second rule was in the same vein: "I must try always to select the shot to be played and the manner of playing it so as to provide the widest possible margin for error." Remember, this was from the best player in the world at the time. This was from a guy who could hit magnificent golf shots. But when it counted, even he wanted to play golf in such a way as to give himself room for error. He didn't try to bust every drive three hundred yards. He didn't fire at every pin. He played conservatively. And he learned to do this after years of trying to play every shot, as he admitted, "for its ultimate potential." He eventually learned that "the best shot possible was not always the best shot to play."

I share this excellent advice, knowing that many will nod and say, "Yeah, yeah." But will go out tomorrow and, with much less ability than Bobby Jones, still fire away at tucked pins and try to blast a drive on every par four and five. And then, they will curse their luck for making sevens and eights. An ounce of discretion can save a ton of grief in golf. Remember that Bobby said golf was not a game meant to be played impetuously. 

Bobby's final rule for playing the game was: "I must expect to have to do some scrambling and not be discouraged if the amount of it happens to be more than normal." Bobby won the Grand Slam admittedly not playing his best golf. He said he believed he won because he tried harder, was willing to take more punishment, and simply refused to give up. He fought and scrambled his way to victories that at times seemed lost. And he appreciated those hard fought victories all the more because they were won by using imagination and creativity to get the job done when nothing else would have sufficed.

So, the bottom line from Bobby Jones' perspective is that we have to prepare ourselves mentally for trouble. We must never be surprised or discouraged when we encounter troubles on the course because that is the very nature of the game. If we can't keep our cool and play our way out of trouble, we won't win many matches. We will win only on those rare occasions when we are on our game and the putts are dropping. And those days are generally few and far between for all of us. Remember, even Bobby Jones felt he would be at his best no more than half a dozen times a season. The rest of the time he had to be prepared to work hard and scramble his way to a good score.

If that was Bobby Jones' experience, how much more shouldn't it apply to mere mortals like us? It's fine to plan for success in this game so long as we accept that it won't come without some trials and tribulations.