Sunday, 10 December 2017

Putting Can Drive You Crazy

Putting is a part of the game of golf that can literally drive you crazy. For years, despite being told by others that I was a pretty decent putter, I could never quite believe it myself. I was always haunted by those three footers that got away--those putts I figured I should have made that I didn't.

I really did believe that I was a lousy short putter. And a funny thing about belief is, it often proves to be true. Add that bit of negativity and doubt to your stroke when trying to hole a three footer and you'll miss a bunch of them.

Bobby Jones addressed this issue in his book Bobby Jones on Golf. When speaking about the sort of attitude you wanted to cultivate on the greens, he wrote:

    "It is worthy of observation that nearly everyone finds it easier to stroke properly putts of twelve to fifteen feet than those from less or greater distances. There is a very good reason why this should be true. The player fears he will miss a shorter putt, and fears he may fail to lay a longer one dead, but when he is putting in the middle distances, he merely hopes he may hole out, without feeling that he must guide the ball into the hole--and he knows that he will not likely take three putts.
     We would all profit greatly if we could cultivate this attitude toward putts of all lengths; it ought to be easy, too, for we all know, or should know by this time, that worry does very little good. If we must be wrong, we may as well make our mistakes gracefully by choosing the wrong line as by allowing a nervous, overcareful stroke to pull the ball off direction."

I think this is the one thing I've actually improved upon with age. By taking this advice, and looking at every putt the same way, be it three feet or thirty, I now make more putts; and suffer less when I miss them. You are not supposed to make every putt. Even great putters miss the odd short one. There are so many things that can go wrong, even over three feet of imperfect turf. So, why not just stand up there, put your best stroke on it, and if it decides to miss just "let it go hang," as Bobby wrote. 

Putting can drive you crazy. But it doesn't have to.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Tiger Woods Greatest " By Far"?

If you were to listen to the talking heads gush over Tiger Woods this past week, you might reasonably conclude that no one who played this game before Tiger, and no one who has teed it up since, could hold a candle to Tiger in terms of golfing greatness or ability. Brandel Chamblee, who is a golf historian of sorts, went so far as to assert that Tiger was "by far" the greatest player ever to play the game.

Let me just say, Tiger Woods was one of the greatest players we've ever seen. It's undeniable. His record speaks for itself. But why all this hyperbole surrounding him? Was he really that much better than anyone we've ever seen?

Bobby Jones won 13 Majors in seven years, while essentially playing part time. He retired at 28 after winning all four in one year. He would have undoubtedly won more had he not decided he needed to retire and start earning a living.

Byron Nelson won 54 times on the PGA tour, including eleven in a row, and 18 in all in 1945. He retired the next year at the top of the game. And, before you argue that no one was playing in 1945, you might want to know that both Hogan and Snead were released early from wartime service that year. Hogan played 18 events and Snead played 26. And Byron's scoring average was 68.33. That average wasn't beaten until Tiger came along fifty odd years later. 

In terms of dramatic comebacks, Tiger has come back from well-documented injuries and personal issues. Ben Hogan came back and won Major championships after getting hit by a damned bus. They thought he'd never walk again.

Jack Nicklaus still has the most Majors. Snead still has the most victories. Byron owns the most victories in a row and the most in a season. Spieth is now the youngest to win the Masters and has equalled Tiger's scoring record at Augusta. I believe he's also the youngest to get to 10 wins on the PGA tour. These players are not chopped liver. Tiger was not better "by far" than them.

Tiger beat everyone in sight when he was in his prime. He was a phenomenal player. But the same can be said for Jones, Nelson, and Nicklaus. Tiger was so good, it initially looked like it would be inevitable that he would break every record worth breaking. He hasn't. And, barring a stunning return to competition, he won't. It won't change the fact that he was great.

This is definitely not a "hate on Tiger" exercise. Tiger was great. He was fantastic. No doubt about it. But all you sycophants, who can't stop gushing every time he hits a fairway, need to remember that there have been other truly great players, and there are some pretty damned special ones playing right now who aren't named Tiger Woods. They deserve some respect for what they have accomplished in this great game as well.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Stewart Maiden: Bobby Jones' Teacher?

Stewart Maiden is regarded as Bobby Jones' teacher. But it's interesting to note how Bobby described their relationship in his book, Down the Fairway. Bobby wrote:

    "Stewart Maiden universally is termed my teacher, and the general idea is that Stewart started teaching me as soon as I was able to fall out of a cradle. This is quite wrong. Stewart never gave me a lesson in golf, though he has spent many hours, most of them profane, coaching me when I was in a slump with one club or another. I picked up my game watching him play, unconsciously as a monkey, and as imitatively. I grew up swinging as precisely like Stewart that when I was 15 years old and a chunky kid about Stewart's size and shape--I was playing in long pants in those days, as Stewart always has played--an old friend of Stewart's mistook me for him on the Roebuck Country Club course at Birmingham. I was playing in the southern amateur championship, or rather, I was playing a practice round before that tournament, and this man, who had not seen Stewart since he left Carnoustie, was standing by Dad as I was driving off the tenth tee in the distance.
     'When did Stewart Maiden get here?' he inquired.
     Dad told him Stewart was not there at all.
     'You can't fool me,' was the rejoinder. 'I saw Stewart drive just now from the tenth tee. Think I don't know that old Carnoustie swing?'
     'Nevertheless,' Dad told him, 'that happens to be my son Rob under that swing.'
     Stewart taught Alexa Stirling at the beginning of her golf career, and she too had 'the old Carnoustie swing.' Indeed, Alexa plays a good deal more like Stewart now than I do. I have changed some points in my swing, due to increasing differences--I am heavier than Stewart and wider across the shoulders and thicker in the chest. Perhaps in the head, too, as some of my alterations seem not to have worked out advantageously. In one regard, certainly, I went back two years ago to the old original Carnoustie style and got my drive just when it seemed an attack of smothering would drive me crazy."

I get a couple of things from reading this from Bobby. First, having a fine player as a model to imitate as a kid is very important. Secondly, Maiden was not only his swing model, but his coach when something in his game was "off." But Maiden never actually gave Bobby a "lesson." So Stewart may not have been Bobby's teacher per se. But he was his model and his coach. And, after all, what's in a name anyway?

You are fortunate if you start young and have a good swing to imitate. And you might also be sorry if, later on, you decide to alter that swing. My first swing model was my father, who was a pretty decent player. I then tried to swing it more closely like Jack, which wasn't a big change from my father's swing. I could really hit it from an early age. And I might have been a pretty good player had I been somewhere where I had good competition--and maybe been a bit more intelligent--and had golf not really just been more of a sideline for me when I wasn't playing baseball, and soccer, and rugby, and especially hockey. I really loved playing hockey.

In later life I made some swing changes to conform, in my mind at least, more to the modern tour swing--if there really is such a thing. My swing became flatter and more rotational. And I actually lost distance and ultimately buggered my back. I sure wish I could go back to swinging it more like Jack. If my back allows, I'm going to try to do just that next season.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Spieth Down Under

I watched Jordan Spieth's first round "down under" at the Australian Open. He got the worst of the weather, as the wind decided to blow and the greens firmed up. The morning wave had had their way with the course and Jordan was looking up at a leader at eight under par when he teed off.

Given the luck of the draw, Jordan, like the rest of the afternoon wave, had to tell themselves that they were in a marathon and not a sprint. There was no way the course was going to yield anything close to eight under. It was a survival test to be sure. And, despite bogeys on the first two holes, Jordan was able to do just that. He was able to grind his way to one under par. And, the way he was playing, I was left, as is so often the case with Spieth, wondering how the hell he managed to break par. 

The short answer is that he rolled in yet another twenty five footer for birdie on the last hole to get into red numbers. But it was the ugliest one under par round you were ever likely to see. He drove it crooked. He found bunkers, missed greens and makeable putts. But he still found a way to stay in the hunt. In fact, of the afternoon wave, there were few who scored better. His playing partner, Cameron Smith, who lost to Spieth in a playoff at the Aussie Open last year, did him one better with a birdie of his own on eighteen to go two under. But Smith had certainly not hit it as badly as Spieth.

This is the magic of Jordan Spieth. He knows has to play golf as well or better than anyone in the game right now. He manages, by hook or by crook, to make the best score he can possibly make every time he goes out there. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see him make a score in the benign conditions tomorrow morning and be near the top of the leaderboard. 

There are no pictures on the scorecard. Spieth proves that to be the case as much as anyone ever has. He somehow knows how to win ugly. And it's a beautiful thing.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Fateful DP World Tour Championship

At Brookline prior to that famous comeback by the American Ryder Cup team Ben Crenshaw announced that he was a "great believer in fate." Many who heard that comment probably thought he was nuts. But fate intervened that day. 

Crenshaw was a student of golf history and surely knew that Bobby Jones was also a believer in fate and wrote that most other top golfers were as well. Call it fate, call it luck, call it whatever you like, but you need some good breaks to win in this game. Luck is very much a part of the game of golf and you have to accept that sometimes the golfing gods will smile on you; and sometimes they won't.

This week at the DP World Tour Championship it looked, after nine holes into the final round, that Justin Rose was going to cruise to a win. He seemed to have things on auto-pilot. But the golfing gods, it seems, had other ideas. Justin lost the magic and Jon Rahm stepped up and got the job done to send a message to the world, in case they didn't already know, that he is going to be a big star in this game.

Perhaps it wasn't necessarily fate that Rose should lose the plot and Rahm win. But it was definitely providential that it should happen this way. The European Tour had announced, prior to this week's tournament, that Jon Rahm was the rookie of the year.  There were some who were critical of this announcement, despite the fact that Rahm had cinched the award based upon the amount of cash he had made in his limited appearances in European Tour events. Money was apparently the measure to be used when determining the winner, and no other rookie, regardless of how they did this week, was in a position to catch Rahm. He'd won it fair and square. But this didn't stop some people--who can remain nameless; they know who they are--from bellyaching about Rahm being announced as the Rookie of the Year. 

So, for Rahm to go out and win the Tour Championship was, at the very least, poetic justice. If it wasn't fate, it was certainly a big "up yours" to his critics. And perhaps it was fate. I'm also a big believer in fate; and I suspect young Mr. Rahm just might be fated to be Spain's next great champion.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

You Can Never Go Back

What does the future hold for Rory McIlroy? He's been a pro now for ten years. Hard to believe it's been that long. And, by just about any standards, it's been a great career so far. 

In fact, the young Northern Irishman has done enough already to have earned more than enough money to see him through; and he's won enough big events to be assured of being in the Hall of Fame. I guess the question now is whether he's still hungry enough for more Majors and whether he's going to be healthy and motivated enough to keep competing. 

It's not been a good year for him. He has not played as well as he's able and he's had nagging injuries. He's broken up with his caddie and now he's working on a new swing. And when I watch him, I can't help but see shades of Tiger. I have always felt he has tried to copy Tiger's recipe for success--or failure, depending upon how you look at it. 

I have offered up my two cents worth in the past about his workout regime. So, no need to visit that again other than to suggest that it hasn't helped him stay healthy, nor has it increased his swing speed. Now he is apparently looking to make changes--hopefully small ones--to that beautiful, free motion of his. And I have to wonder, as someone who messed with his own swing and came to regret it, whether he will one day wish that he could just go back to his old one. Because going back is not as easy as you might think. That old saying that you can never go back seems to relate to the golf swing as well as life.

Hopefully Rory comes out guns blazing in 2018. But I fear he may be going down the path his hero, Tiger, trod. We may just have seen the best of Rory McIlroy. After ten years in the pro game, he's starting to look like he's on the downhill slide. In the meantime, Tiger is apparently bombing it. Who knows. Golf is a funny game. But you can never go back, even if you wish you could.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Take Your Pre-Shot Routine

Bobby Jones said that golf was actually a simple game that involved hitting a ball with a stick. Man, have we managed to change that. Sometimes golf is now a five-hour ordeal that involves waiting, and watching, while average golfers try, in vain, to imitate the golfers they see on TV. The simple game has become awfully damned complicated.

Moe Norman, the famous Canadian golfer, didn't have time for all the nonsense we see today. In his old age he preferred to just hit balls because playing took so damned long. Missing it quick is something that seems to be no longer part of the golfing vocabulary.

There is a great story of Moe's time on the PGA tour when, frustrated by the snail's pace of play, he putted a ball between another player's legs and into the hole as the player was retrieving his ball. Sadly, they ran Moe off the tour. He just wasn't "serious" enough.

Now, Bobby Jones believed that every player deserved to be given ample time to play his shot unmolested. And that's fair enough. But he also believed that to be an acceptable playing partner you needed to learn to keep the ball in play and to be ready to play your shot when it was your turn. Today, too many players are forcing their playing partners to endure a lot of nonsense and fooling around when playing their shots.

I would love to kick the person who first decided to teach the ore-shot routine right in the "how's your mothers." Now, thanks to the apparent virtue of a consistent pre-shot routine, we get to watch a guy who can't break ninety put on his glove before every shot; then close the flap, then undo it and close it up again as per Ernie Els. We may also get to watch him tug on his shirt like Tiger, aim the clubface like Justin Rose, and even do the "do I, or don't I," three-step into the ball like the kid, Bradley, from Vermont whose aunt was a great player. And then, after all the pre-shot routine shenanigans, we get to search for his ball in the woods. 

We really have to get back to playing golf as it was meant to be played; where we hit the ball, chase it, and keep hitting it until it's in the hole. We can do it if we stop encouraging players to imitate the pros; and if we start making the pros hurry the hell up. I know I'm venting, but I remember those days as a kid when I could play 45 holes in a day. Now, the juniors, who have all learned to have a good pre-shot routine, are some of the slowest players on the course. 

We keep hearing about people in the golf industry wanting to grow the game. We keep hearing about how it takes too long. Well, we could start by teaching people not to imitate the pros. We could teach them to just hit the damned ball and chase it until they're breaking 80, or 75. We could suggest that, should they choose to wear one, they might want to keep their damned glove on; or at least have it on when it's their turn to play. That might be a good start. 

Golf, according to Bobby Jones, isn't really that hard--at least when you first start playing it. It is just another game where you hit a ball with a stick. Take your pre-shot routines and shove'em. Sorry, I know I'm venting.