Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What Are You Working On?

One great player--I think it was Henry Cotton--said that all you had to do was watch any top group of golfers tee off to understand that there is no "correct" golf swing. All the top players have individualized swings. Their swings are as unique to them as their signature. 

I was watching the top contenders in the FedEx playoff this past week and it really struck home. You had Leishman's upright swing. Then there was Rickie Fowler's flatter, but not as flat as it used to be, swing. And then you had Jason Day's swing. All very different; and all very effective. So which of those swings would you teach? The answer is probably none of them; or maybe all of them. 

Now there are some players out there with "cookie-cutter" swings that show that the player was likely well-coached in his or her formative years. And those swings are sound, and generally pleasing to the eye. But since the top players all seem to have easily identifiable swings, unique to them, it begs the question why so much time and energy is spent by teachers trying to teach people how to swing a golf club. 

There is, according to Bobby Jones, virtue in a sound swing from a mechanical standpoint. A player with a mechanically sound swing will play more consistently. But Bobby Jones understood that it was the strike that really mattered. The only thing the golf ball reacts to is the speed, angle and path of the clubface at impact. The golf ball is no respecter of swings. It doesn't care if your swing is short or long. It doesn't favour a slow, smooth swing over a quick one. It doesn't prefer a flat swing over an upright one. It only cares about how it is struck.

So why do we all worry so much about our swing? There are no points given for looking good in golf. All that matters is that we learn to strike the ball in such a way as to make it bend to our wishes. Now, we can start the game as kids and learn by trial and error how to strike the ball correctly; or we can learn how to properly strike a golf ball to produce the various shots by watching better players or teachers. Bobby Jones said that he learned different shots by watching other players strike the ball. He said he didn't watch their swing. He zoomed in on the strike.

Try watching the way the good players strike the ball next time, instead of watching their swing. It's really quite instructive. Bobby Jones said he never once heard his teacher, Stewart Maiden, discuss the golf swing. He said Maiden just helped a student develop a good grip, helped them get in a good position to hit the ball; and then he just told them to go ahead and hit it. 

Stewart Maiden was all business. He believed that golf was not about swinging a club. He believed it was about striking a ball from the tee towards the hole. When Bobby was worrying about his backswing, Maiden told him, "You donnae hit the ball wi' yer backswing, laddie." 

I'm amazed at how often I see people on the range, or even on the golf course, fussing over their takeaway, or their backswing. Bobby Jones aptly pointed out that the whole purpose of the backswing was to get us in a position where we feel most capable of striking the ball in the intended manner. It always boiled down to the strike for Bobby.

So, if you are tired of "working" on your swing and not seeing the improvement you are hoping for, why not try learning to strike the ball more effectively. The single most important lesson Bobby Jones ever gave was on that subject. He believed that the material he provided in that chapter could literally transform your game overnight. I've covered it in my featured article, entitled "The Wisdom of Bobby Jones: Striking the Ball."

Monday, 18 September 2017

It Could Be Worse

It's hell getting old. But, then again, it probably beats the alternative. Yesterday, I really felt my age. I played in an inter-club match play event at Trillium Wood. It wasn't a Senior event, so once again I had to test the theory that old age and treachery could sometimes beat youth and skill. 

I was in the final group. It was not a particularly comforting spot to be in given the current state of my back and my game. And it was even less comforting when our team captain greeted me before the matches, saying, "Here comes our sacrificial lamb." I'm not really sure about this guy's approach to captaincy, but it wasn't anything I wasn't already thinking, so maybe he was just trying to lessen the tension. Who knows. 

Two of my opponents were twenty-somethings that were around scratch. The other one was Joe, a well-known player closer to my age from Smugglers Glen, who I had played once before and been soundly beaten. I didn't know the young guys, but I knew Joe could really play. I figured I had about as much chance of winning a match as getting hit with a piece of SkyLab. But, if someone had to be the sacrificial lamb, I figured it might as well be me. I've long ago learned how to lose. And I've learned that it isn't fatal. In fact, it's not so bad if you figure you gave it your best shot.

I hit a few balls on the range and was hitting it pretty solid, so I teed off feeling about as positive as I could feel under the circumstances. I also felt a bit better when I heard that Joe was late and planned to catch up with the rest of us out on the course, forfeiting the holes he missed. That turned out to be only the first hole, but I figured a one up lead on Joe was better than nothing.

The young lads could really bomb it. On holes where they actually needed to use driver, they were easily fifty yards by me. I hung in there as best I could for the first nine holes, actually making the turn up in two of my three matches. I was feeling pretty good, even though I'd had to go to the morphine to deal with the pain. I even thought at that point that I might actually manage to stay alive for enough holes that I wouldn't be totally humiliated upon my return to the clubhouse. In fact, I dared think that, if I could just keep doing what I was doing, I might even win a match or two.

These days my back is so bad that I'm really only good for about twelve holes--and that's if I don't make a bad swing. My last inter-club outing a week ago, I played the first twelve holes in two under par and had two of the three guys I was playing six down. I'd made four birdies and they had struggled. Things were looking pretty good with me being dormie with two of the guys and two up on the other guy. But then I started to fade, making bogeys on four of my next five holes. I won the two matches easily with a par on fourteen, but the guy who was two down came roaring back and beat me.

Sure enough, the same thing happened yesterday. After twelve holes, I started to really fade. I started hitting short, hooky drives and pushing and hooking approaches, struggling to get through the ball and finish my swing. I managed to win my match against Joe, five and three. But this was only because Joe had back issues of his own, and played probably about as poorly as he could possibly play. He was finished after fifteen holes and headed back to the clubhouse for some liquid "painkiller." I lasted just one more hole before the two flat-bellies finished me off as well. Youth was definitely served on the day. Us old guys got pretty soundly beaten by the young guns.

It's becoming increasingly clear that my days of competing successfully are coming to an end. The prognosis for my back is not good, so I'm definitely not going to get better, and I'll likely only get worse. But it really is still fun to compete. I thoroughly enjoyed my day, as I did last week. The company was good. The matches were friendly, and somewhat competitive. And I'm still on the right side of the grass; bloodied, as they say, but not yet bowed.

It could be worse. It can always be worse.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Best Way to Putt

A buddy of mine and I were playing the other day and on one green--I think it was fifteen--he had about a twenty footer. I was in for my four and he needed the putt to win the hole. 

He rapped it about six feet past the hole, smiled, and said, "I wanted to make sure I got it to the hole." He then missed the comebacker.

There is an often-used expression about putting: "Never up, never in." And, on the face of it, it makes a great deal of sense. Yogi Berra observed that about ninety nine percent of putts left short don't go in. And those guys who run the ball past the hole can perhaps take some consolation in telling themselves they at least gave it a chance. But did they?

Bobby Jones wrote about putting, and he was not a big fan of "never up, never in." As far as he was concerned, a putt that misses long is still a miss. And he was convinced that the best way to putt was to die the ball in the hole from the high side. He was convinced that a ball dying at the hole had a better chance of going in because it would fall in no matter what part of the hole it hit. A putt hit with speed, on the other hand, had to be much closer to the center of the hole to go in. The hole, in his mind, was bigger for a ball moving slowly. That approach served him well, as it did Jack Nicklaus.

Thanks to Dave Peltz, who subjected putting to some real scientific study, we know "scientifically" that the optimum holing speed would have a putt that didn't go in finish seventeen inches past the hole. One of the problems for a dying putt approaching the hole, Peltz found, was the so-called "Donut Affect." Peltz found that on most greens, especially later in the day, the immediate area around the cup is raised and tends to reject a slow-moving ball. This Affect--or is it "Effect"--is caused in part by golfers taking care not to step right beside the hole. As a result, the area around the hole, perhaps a foot or so out, becomes depressed by foot prints that are invisible to the eye, but can affect a slow-rolling ball.

Peltz is probably correct about the optimum holing speed. I mean, you're not apparently supposed to argue with science. And, I suppose it would be great to be able to consistently produce that optimum speed. But Bobby Jones argued that, not only was the hole bigger for a dying putt, it was also very comforting if you missed to be able to walk up and tap the next one in. Putting aggressively might be great for guys with good nerves--guys who don't secretly cringe at the thought of a three-footer coming back. But, for "experienced" players like me, three-footers can really wear you out. 

In Bobby Jones' view of the world, a miss was a miss, whether short or long. There is no real consolation in saying that the putt you needed for the win at least finished past the hole. It still missed. So, if the hole really is bigger for a dying putt, I'm going to keep trying to die them in. If the odd one finishes short, I can live with being called "Nancy," or having my intestinal fortitude impuned. If you want them to finish seventeen inches past if they miss, all I can say is, to each their own. The best way to putt is ultimately the way you putt best.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Shot Misers

While pretty much everyone wants to improve, the only game we can play with is the one we bring to the course that day. Golf involves much more than learning to swing the club in a prescribed manner. Golf is, and, until they change the rules, will always be about getting the ball in the hole in the fewest possible number of strokes.

While hitting the ball farther, or straighter, can help, the test for every golfer is to find a way to save strokes; to find the best way to get from the tee to the green and into the hole in the fewest number of strokes. Looking pretty, or stylish, is nice but not necessary in this game. An ugly four still beats a stylish five.

Two of golf's greatest champions, Bobby Jones and Byron Nelson, wrote about the importance learning to treat every shot equally, from a ten inch putt to a trouble shot from the trees. They both learned that golf was about saving and not wasting strokes. Prior to his winningest year of 1945 Byron Nelson reviewed his play and realized that he was having let ups where he was losing shots because he was playing some simple-looking shots or putts carelessly. 

Bobby Jones felt that the way to avoid being careless, or letting up, was to play every shot for it's ultimate possibility. Instead of trying to get a chip close, he would try to hole it. That kind of effort on every shot really paid off.

Good players are misers when it comes to strokes. They hate to take one more shot than necessary. And they realize that golf is often more about dealing effectively with trouble than it is hitting perfect shots. It's often more about managing to save your par than making a birdie.

The more we can learn to give every shot, and especially the simple looking shots, our full, undivided attention, the better players we will be. Grinding for the best score we can possibly shoot is a bit like work. It can leave you really tired after eighteen holes. But it's worth the effort. There is nothing like being able to say you scored about as well as you could have possibly scored with the game you had that day. It's a much better feeling than realizing you shot 79 or 89 instead of 75 or 85 because you wasted a few shots by playing carelessly or impetuously. 

The best players play this game one shot at a time, just like the drunks. They are misers when it comes to strokes. They hate to waste them.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Lexi and Lydia

I watched the ladies play in Indianapolis. It shaped up to be an exciting final day with Lydia Ko going head to head with Lexi. Instead, it just fizzled. It was not exactly a nail-biter. 

Lexi is becoming a complete player. Her power game is now complimented by an excellent wedge game and finally some decent putting. She seems to be on track to threaten for the number one spot. That would certainly make our American friends happy. And, why not? Lexi is a terrific player with a great attitude to go along with her impressive game.

Lydia Ko looked like she might be finally making a comeback. But she looked mediocre at best on a day when she needed to make birdies if she was going to keep pace with Lexi. Lydia has been making changes. She's changed caddies. She's changed equipment. She's made swing changes to try to get longer, which can be the kiss of death. Just ask Matteo Manassero, another "can't miss kid" who thought he needed to get longer. 

 Lydia seems to have gone from a teenaged phenom who could seemingly do no wrong, to a slow, mechanical player. It was almost painful to watch. Even the commentators couldn't resist commenting on the snail's pace of her play. 

To a degree, the match up between Lexi and Lydia reminded me of the recent match up of Spieth and DJ, but without the drama. Lexi, like DJ, pretty much just did her thing, using power and precision. Lydia, like Spieth, could have certainly managed to lose much faster. Watching both of them play is becoming painful, with all the consulting with their caddies and the time it takes them to pull the trigger. What ever happened to that precocious kid who went about her business like it was a walk in the park? 

Bobby Jones said that golf is the only game that gets more difficult the longer you play it. It seems that Lydia is experiencing that reality now. She's making changes. I just wonder whether she ever wishes she could just go back to when things weren't quite so complicated. Everyone wants to get better in this game. But what about when you're already the best? The problem with making swing changes trying to get better, or longer, is that there is no guarantee that you won't get worse instead. It happens. 

Friday, 8 September 2017

Finding What Works

I keep writing about the golf swing. And there are many fine theories about how best to swing the club.  But, ultimately, the best way for all of us to swing the club is the way we swing it best. It's a search we all have to make. And the interesting thing is that the swing that worked like a charm yesterday sometimes doesn't work worth a hill of beans today.

For those of us who have neither the time, the energy, nor possibly the inclination to hit hundreds, if not thousands, of practice balls, we are going to struggle with grooving any sort of swing. In the end, we need to focus instead on getting a solid, consistent strike. The strike is really all that matters in the end anyway. That golf ball couldn't care less about how our swing looks. It only reacts to how it is struck.

I have been playing along happily for sometime now focussing on hitting the ball with my left hand. Today, it didn't work worth a damn. Perhaps I was exaggerating the left arm swing at the expense of my right side. I spent the last few holes focussing on swinging the clubhead and getting some punch with my right hand. My shots improved significantly. Who knows what will happen next time out.

Golf, as a wise person once said, is about finding what works, losing it, and then finding it again. That's just how this crazy game is. 

The Only Lesson

The only actual formal lesson I ever had was as a kid in England back around 1970. The young pro had me hit balls with just my left hand. That was it. At the time, I thought he was nuts. I only wish I'd understood just what a valuable lesson he was giving me at the time. But for many years I just chalked it up to time wasted.

Looking back on it, this young pro was probably a follower of Henry Cotton for whom training the left hand to strike the ball was a key teaching. I am still amazed at how much easier it is for a right-handed golfer to play with a swing controlled by the left arm. It's a shame so few people teach it nowadays. 

Below is a video of John Daly hitting a variety of shortgame shots with his left hand. He's definitely a top hand golfer.