Monday, 11 June 2018

Sometimes You Have to Improvise

A good rule in golf is to save your tinkering for the range. But in my case, given my back issues, trips to the range are pretty much nonexistant, as hitting multiple shots in a short period of time leaves me crippled. Besides, my father seems to have passed on the tinkeritis gene to me, so I will likely always be prone to fiddling with my swing, both on and off the course.

I've struggled with my game this year. But I've discovered the last few years that my natural swing is the one I use to clip daisies, or the one I make with my eyes closed. It generally works quite well when I use it, instead of the four or five other swings I often resort to trying.

Yesterday was the Quinte Cup. It's a yearly matchplay event between four clubs in our area that has been held every year since the twenties. I just barely made the team this year, needing a playoff to do it. But the day before I had played using my natural swing and had shot 78. That's not normally a great score for me, but this year so far anything under 80 is good. 

So I set out to play yesterday determined to play with my natural swing. In the current format, we play all three guys at the same time in an 18 hole match. It's not an ideal format for match play. But, as Big Bob always says, it is what it is. Despite my poor play this year I was sent out in the number three spot which had me a bit nervous. I was also pitted against my old nemesis from Napanee, Rick Gerow. And I certainly didn't want to give him the satisfaction of beating me like a drum.

Well, my natural swing, after nine miserable holes, had me down six, four, and two in my matches. I was seemingly on my way to being skunked. Rick was struggling as well, so he only had me down two. But I was pretty sure Rick figured he had me in the bag, the way I was hacking it around.

Waiting to tee off on ten I decided that I was either going to have to change things, or accept being humiliated by my poor play and just quit. I know I had resolved to stick with "my swing," but today my swing just wasn't good enough. So I tried to find some sort of action that would keep me in play, and to just find a way to make a score. And I did just that. I chose a shortened swing where I just focussed on having the back of my left hand strike the ball straight down the target line. 

At the end of the day I managed to halve two matches and lost the other. This was not the result I'd hoped for. But, under the circumstances, I was happy that I chose to improvise and to keep fighting hard. As for Rick; he hit his tee shot out of bounds on eighteen and let me halve the match. 

Golf is ultimately about getting the ball in the hole. It isn't about making pretty golf swings. I'm sure the swing I used on the front nine looked much better than the abbreviated punch I used on the back nine. But in golf it's only results that matter. I will try to use my natural swing as often as possible. But I learned again yesterday that sometimes you just have to find something--anything--that works. If the game has gone off the rails, what do you have to lose? And again I learned that there is a great deal of virtue in simply refusing to give up. You won't always win. But you'll feel better for having tried as hard as you can.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Golf Rarely Goes as Planned

Golf, like life, seldom goes as planned. All you can really do, in golf as in life, is refuse to give up no matter how miserable it is.

I played in the qualifier for our club team yesterday. I didn't have particularly high expectations, since I've struggled mightily with my game this year. But I never expected to putt as abysmally as I did. I hit the ball as well as I've hit it for years, but couldn't buy a putt. I missed at least six putts inside five feet, including a couple of two footers.

In the end I was tied with Randy for the last spot on the team and we had to play off. Randy had become angry on the fifteenth hole when, after searching in vain for his ball for at least ten minutes, I said we had to move on. I advised him that five minutes was the time allotted by the rules to look for a lost ball and we had well exceeded that. He was furious. But that's the rule.

As we were about to tee off for the playoff Randy angrily stated that there wouldn't have had to be a playoff if he had found his lost ball. I replied: "Yep. And if your aunt had had nuts she'd have been your uncle." I didn't bother mentioning all the short putts I had missed.

The first hole is a short dogleg par four. I hit a perfect three wood, leaving myself sixty yards to a front pin. Randy tried to take the Tiger line over the trees to the front edge of the green, managed to clatter through the trees, and had about a forty yard pitch over the pond.

I hit it to about five feet. Randy hit a pitch just over the pond into the thick grass and his ball somehow bounced through the rough, onto the green to about two feet from the pin. Levi had driven out to watch the playoff, and I had told him I was going to look at the playiff like a new round, forgetting all the lousy putts I'd hit. I assured him I was going to just stand up and knock that putt in, with the expectation that we'd be going to a second playoff hole.

Sure enough, I stood up and knocked it in the hole. Randy was probably vexed that I was making him putt his two footer, but I'd missed a couple, and he was being a prick, so I made him putt it. Sure enough, Randy lipped it out, banged his ball off the green in disgust, and actually threw his putter at his cart. He drove away without shaking my hand.

So, the moral of my story is: don't give up, Randy is a dickhead, and, if your aunt had had nuts, she'd have been your uncle. Golf rarely goes as planned. But, if you keep trying, things sometimes work out. And sometimes they won't, but at least you'll have the consolation of knowing you tried your hardest.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Try Harder

Bobby Jones identified these two things that he felt made him able to win championships. In his wonderful book, Golf is my GameBobby wrote: 

    "I have always said that I won golf tournaments because I tried harder than anyone else and was willing to take more punishment than the others." 

Sometimes great golfers can make the game look easy. They can appear relaxed and maybe even casual as they go about their business. But the great players all try the hardest. They refuse to give up, or to take shots for granted. They realize that one shot played carelessly can cost them a tournament. 

Now, if I'm being honest, I don't think I've ever played eighteen holes of golf where I gave every shot my full attention. I've come close, but if you've ever tried it, it's hard work to concentrate that hard and maintain your intensity on every shot for 18 holes of golf. And where you tend to have the let-downs are when you have what appears to be a relatively simple shot. It's easy to focus and try hard on the tough shots. So, trying hard is a key element in becoming a good golfer. Golf, as Bobby Jones once pointed out, is not a game to be played impetuously. You've got to try on every shot; whether it's for birdie or double bogey.

And golf does punish you. The other day I played with Steve, Levi, and Justin. Justin and I were teamed up and I started with three doubles in a row. In fact, I played the first nine holes without making a single par, shooting 49. I cannot remember the last time I shot 49 for nine holes. Needless to say, Justin wasn't overly thrilled to have me as a partner. Not only that, but I had only brought one pain pill which I had taken at the start of the front nine. These days, with my back issues, I tend to require a hydromorphone every six holes to get around without being in agony. 

So, after nine holes I felt well and truly punished. If ever a man felt like quitting it was me. But, as I drove to the eleventh tee after finally making a par on ten, I told Levi that, while I really wanted to just quit, I was going to keep trying. I was bound and determined to just keep on hitting it, no matter what happened, which was Harry Vardon's advice to Bobby Jones--the best advice Bobby felt he'd ever received. Suffice it to say, not giving up worked, and I came home in 37. And, Justin and I actually came back and won the match.

Golf is a lot like life. You never know what can happen if you just keep trying and refuse to give up. So trying hard and being willing to endure the punishment--the trials and tribulations this game can put you through--is the first key to winning golf. In my next article, I'll write about what Bobby Jones felt was the second key to great golf.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Thirty for Thirty

Rickie Fowler shares the lead after two days in Scottsdale this week at the Phoenix Open. Two rounds of 66 have him in a position to perhaps win one that got away after he had that emotional loss in a playoff to Matsuyama; one that he really wanted to win for his grandpa who was in attendance.

These guys are good. That's what they say about PGA tour players; and it's true. But where they are really good is on the greens. Bobby Jones, when assessing the next generation of top players, felt that it was on the greens that they were really better than players of his generation. Part of this had to do with better agronomy that allowed them to putt on better surfaces, but part of it was simply better putting.

Consider Rickie this week. After two days he is thirty for thirty putting from 10 feet and in. Thirty for thirty: I mean that is simply crazy good. When Dave Peltz did a study of tour pros he found that they made fifty percent of their putts from six feet. Rickie is one hundred percent from ten feet. That's not putting; that's magic.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

It Isn't All About You

Recently, at the Farmers Insurance Open, we were witness to JB Holmes taking over four minutes to play his second shot into the eighteenth green in the final round. He was standing in the fairway knowing full well that he needed a three to have a chance to win. After seeming to wait forever, evidently hoping the wind might ease up some, JB changed clubs and layed up into the rough.

While this was taking place, two other players in an even better position to win the tournament were forced to wait. Alex Noren ended up changing clubs and hitting his three wood over the green. It didn't cost him the tournament right then and there, but it sure as hell didn't help him.

And, despite the number of people criticizing JB for what they deemed to be a terrible display of  poor sportsmanship, Holmes still claims he wouldn't change a thing. He claims he was trying to win the tournament and had every right to take the time he did. That he ultimately layed up tends to belie his claim about trying to win. But he's got his story and he's apparently sticking to it.

Slow play is nothing new. There have always been golfers who seemed to take interminable amounts of time to play even the most rudimentary shots. But, if anything, the problem of slow play has become even worse.  I think, as is generally the case, that Bobby Jones had the right idea when he devoted an entire chapter of his book, Bobby Jones on Golf, to Slow Play. He wrote:

    "There can be no odium attached to slow play when the motives of grandstanding and of upsetting an opponent are eliminated--and these can be entirely eliminated from this discussion; but I regard it as a mistake, considering both the player's efficiency and the welfare of the game in general. Golf depends for its growth upon public interest, and competitions are designed to stimulate public interest. Nothing can be less entertaining to the spectator than a round of golf drawn out by minute examinations of every shot."

Looking back on that final round involving JB Holmes--and particularly his second shot on 18 during that six hour round--if we give him the benefit of the doubt that he was not grandstanding, or trying to upset his opponents--his slow play in general, and specifically his four minute delay in hitting that shot on 18, did very little to endear him to the fans or his opponents, or to "grow the game," which seems to be the desire of the PGA tour.

Bobby goes on to write:

    "After all, the deliberation necessary depends entirely upon the man who is playing the game; it is his business to play the shot, and he should never be required to play until he is ready. Some situations one finds on a golf course require some amount of study before the player can determine the best way to overcome the difficulty; but these are unusual. The vast majority of shots from the fairway are but repetitions of countless hundreds played before. At least, to one familiar with the course, as all tournament contestants are, the decision should be a matter of seconds."

Getting back to Holmes, he was not faced with a particularly unusual shot. Yes, it was an important shot; but it didn't require any special deliberation. He needed to make three. The wind was blowing. He therefore had to decide whether the best way to make three was to challenge the water and go for the green, or to lay up and try to hole a wedge shot. It wasn't a tough decision. But what he was really doing--something I believe he later admitted--was not deliberating; he was really just standing around hoping the wind would ease off. It didn't and he layed up.

So, unless players are now entitled to stand around hoping the wind will change, JB Holmes delayed the game. By doing so he upset the fans, surely upset his playing partners, and discredited himself. That he said he would do the same thing again, testifies to the fact that he doesn't "get it," as it relates to slow play. And it would seem to behoove the other players, the press, the tour, and the fans to help him see the light. 

Ultimately, JB, it isn't all about you. You owe it to your playing partners, the fans, and the tour, to get on with it. And the same applies to anyone else if they are prone to taking more time than necessary to play their shots. Golf is an individual game; but it isn't all about you.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Bobby Jones on Putting Naturally

It's funny; as a kid I was a pretty good putter. In fact, I remember going to a summer hockey camp one year--it was 1967, Canada's Centennial year--where we were staying on a golf course. When not on the ice, which was my first love, we were playing golf, or putting for money on the putting green outside our rooms. As I recall, I came home with more spending money than I started with thanks to my putting.

Somewhere along the line, however, two things happened that hurt my putting. First, I started becoming mechanical about my stroke and trying to imitate the putting styles of the top players. Then, I learned how damned easy it was to miss a three-footer. Since then, I've had some stretches of really good putting; but I've never been as confident on the greens as I was as an eleven year old who wasn't worried about missing.

In some respects my experience was not dissimilar to that of Bobby Jones. He wrote about it in his book, Bobby Jones on Golf. Bobby wrote:

    "Up until 1921, my putting was about as bad as one could imagine; I had experimented with it for years, but most of my experiments had taken the form of attempted imitations of some of the good putters I had seen, notable among whom were Walter Travis and Walter Hagen. I had studied the styles of these men, particularly that of Hagen, and would always try to assume the same posture at address, and attempt to swing the putter in the same way. The result of these efforts--and it was a result that should have been expected--was a tension throughout my whole body that would not otherwise have been present, so that however accurately I might reproduce the stroke that had been successful for the man I was imitating, the effect if it was destroyed because I could never relax. After all these experiences, I determined to putt naturally."

Bobby believed that, in putting, just like every other part of the game, it was important to "stand before the ball in a position that is so comfortable that it is easy to remain relaxed." He felt that taking great pains to set yourself just so when addressing the ball led to tension. And, as far as Bobby was concerned, tension was a killer. He wrote:

    "The putting stroke is the simplest of all because it is the shortest; once a person has developed a fairly good sense of what it is all about, and once he has developed a rhythmic stroke that can be counted upon to strike the ball truly, the only thing he should worry about is knocking the ball into the hole."

Bobby wrote that his putting posture changed from day to day, sometimes setting up square, and other times preferring to stand slightly open or closed. And while he always stood with his feet fairly close together--just like he did on his full shots--and used the same grip, he sometime moved his hands up or down the grip. He noted that some putters have developed a putting ritual that they adhere closely to. But he warned:

    "Anyone who hopes to reduce putting--or any other department of the game of golf for that matter--to an exact science, is in for a serious disappointment, and will only suffer from the attempt. It is wholly a matter of touch, the ability to gauge a slope accurately, and most important of all, the ability to concentrate on the problem at hand, that of getting the ball in the hole and nothing more. I think more potentially good putters have been ruined by attempting to duplicate another method than by any other single factor; by the time they can place themselves in a position they think resembles the attitude of the other man, they find themselves so cramped and strained that a smooth, rhythmic stroke is impossible."

Bobby Jones was ever the pragmatist. He knew that putting, like the rest of the game, was all about striking the ball so that it would comply with your wishes--in this case by rolling into the hole. All the pains taken to stand, or swing, in any specified way were often only helpful in terms of adding tension and possibly taking your mind off the problem at hand; namely striking the ball just so. I love his teaching.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Most Useful Learning You Will Ever Acquire

In my opinion--which admittedly may not be worth all that much--the most important chapter ever written about how to effectively strike a golf ball was written by Bobby Jones. It was the second chapter of his book Golf is my Game, and described, according to Bobby, "the most useful learning you will ever acquire as a golfer."

Bobby was not only a phenomenal player. He was also extremely intelligent and a keen observer. He observed other great players, and he observed average players who often struggled with the game. And Bobby believed he could actually help the average player. In fact, he believed that the information he was providing on how to strike the ball could literally "make you a better golfer overnight."

Bobby Jones felt for golfers who looked so uncomfortable trying to play the game and he thought he knew the reason for their discomfort. He wrote:

    "The unskilled golfer often looks uncomfortable, strained, unsure, sometimes even unhappy, but he hardly ever presents a ludicrous aspect. And I think that a great measure of his discomfiture is derived from his conscious efforts to follow prescribed routine, to look and move like someone else, or as he has been told. I think he would present a more natural appearance if he should put his mind upon striking the ball, rather than upon swinging the club."

Consider that for a moment. Instead of thinking about swinging the club, Bobby Jones believed the average player would be much better served thinking about striking the ball. In fact, that's how Bobby himself played the game. He went on to write what I think is one of the least understood, and most profound statements about golf that I've ever read; something everyone would do well to remember:

    "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."

Bobby went on to describe the ways a golf ball would respond when struck in different ways; how to hit the ball straight, how to fade and draw it. He believed that every golfer required this knowledge in order to play good golf. In fact, he wrote:

    "No one can play golf until he knows the many ways in which a golf ball can be expected to respond when it is struck in different ways. If you think all of this should be obvious, please believe me when I assure you I have seen many good players attempt shots they should have known were impossible."

Bobby Jones gave us a great gift in his books on golf. And this information in chapter two of Golf is my Game was the best of the best. This information can transform your game. I have covered it in depth in my featured article called The Wisdom of Bobby Jones: Striking the Ball. If you haven't got a copy of Bobby's book, I invite you to check it out.

To give you a recent example of the truth of what Bobby said, I recently played with a young man in Jacksonville. He was struggling with his driver, hitting big pushes, pulls, and slices. He had power to burn, but he was all over the place. Finally, I showed him how the driver face needed to strike the ball, square to his target and moving straight down the target line. I asked him to try to feel like the club was chasing the ball down the line for sixteen inches after impact, which is what Moe Norman said he did. I didn't expect him to keep the clubface square to the target and moving straight down the line for sixteen inches; I just wanted him to feel like he was doing it. When Sam Snead wanted to hit a big one, he said he also thought about having the clubhead chasing the ball down the line.

The young man tried it and hit a drive that was a frozen rope, right down the middle of the fairway. We measured it at 310 yards. He hit several more just like it coming in. He didn't alter his swing, change his grip, which was an old-fashioned grip that featured a weak left hand and a strong right hand, or change his setup. All he did was focus on the club striking the ball in the only way that produces a straight shot. The results were immediate. 

I've seen similar results over and over again with myself and others. When you forget your swing and focus on the proper strike instead, good things happen. And yet, it's so tempting to go back to thinking about the swing. Golfers tend to be obsessed with the swing. Strange game, golf.