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.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

It Ain't How...

Golf is a peculiar game. And golfers can be a funny bunch. It's kind of like life. As the old folks used to say, "There's nothing as queer as folk."

Golf is a game where you hit a ball from a teeing ground towards, and ultimately into, a hole. The one who does it in the fewest strokes wins. It's a simple enough concept. And yet, golfers seem to have a tendency to become awfully confused about it.

I read recently somewhere that most golfers seek out lessons to try to learn how to swing the club better, hit the ball more consistently; and hit the ball farther. It was suggested that most golfers taking lessons identified scoring lower as less of a priority than hitting the ball better.

It makes you wonder. Golfers, if they are being honest when identifying their goals to their teachers, are obviously not really understanding the game. Golf is a game where the only thing that matters is the score. And yet, when going for a lesson, most students are apparently not asking their teachers to help them score better. And, by all accounts, many teachers are not making better scorers out of their students.

One successful teacher on an internet site that I regularly visit admitted that the average improvement in scoring by his students, based on a review he conducted, was about one tenth of a stroke per round. He said his students continue to come to him because they like him as a friend and enjoy the lessons. Improvement--or should I say lack of improvement--in their scoring doesn't seem to deter them from parting with their money.

Golf is a game, like pretty much every other game, where the only thing that really matters is the score. That's why we have sayings like, "No pictures on the scorecard"; or "It ain't how, it's how many"; or "Drive for show and putt for dough." Most golfers know those sayings, and will even repeat them. And yet, when they go for lessons, they are more interested, it seems, in learning how to make a prettier swing, or in learning how to hit the ball farther. 

Golfers, it would seem, are a strange bunch. But then, as my old Irish grandmother would have said, "there's nothing as queer as folk."

Sunday, 24 December 2017

No More Mental Holidays for Byron

Well, it's that time of the year again; time to reflect on another year gone by. Of course, golfers will spend some time reflecting on what they did or didn't manage to accomplish in their golf season and might look forward to what they might like to accomplish in the coming year. A little honest reflection is good for you. 

Byron Nelson did this prior to his breakout season of 1945. He had been keeping notes on his rounds in 1944 and came to the conclusion that there was nothing he needed to change in his golf swing. He realized that what he needed to change was his mental approach. 

Byron realized that in almost every round he played there were relatively easy shots, especially on and around the greens, that he played, not necessarily wrecklessly, but without giving the shot his full attention. And because of this he was missing a makeable putt, or failing to get the ball up and down due to nothing more than lack of attention and focus. 

Byron came to appreciate the truth of what Bobby Jones had written about; that the hardest shots to focus on were invariably the easiest looking ones. It's not hard to give a difficult shot your full attention. But those easy-looking chips and putts can get away from you when you take them for granted. And it really hurts your psyche when you waste shots. You can forgive yourself for missing a shot. We all miss them. But when you miss a shot because you were careless, it stings.

Lord Byron entered the 1945 season knowing that he wanted to make enough money to retire to a ranch and leave the grind of the tour. He wanted to try to establish a few records if he could during that process. And what he knew, most of all, was that he wasn't going to do it unless he played every shot for all it was worth. He couldn't afford to take any more mental holidays out on the course. And Byron vowed to do exactly that--to grind over every shot for an entire season.

Byron Nelson was already a great player. He was routinely beating guys like Hogan and Snead. And his ballstriking was almost monotonous in its efficiency. But when he added the determination to grind out every shot, he nit only played great golf; he played golf the likes if which had never been seen before. He won eleven tournaments in a row, and eighteen in a single season. His scoring average of 68.33 stood as the lowest scoring average ever until a certain Tiger Woods came along more than sixty years later.

All the great players were great because of their ability to focus and concentrate. There are lots of guys who can hit great golf shots and go low from time to time. But the great ones know the importance of playing golf one shot at a time. And they are able to actually do it.

I have played this game for over fifty years. I've played some half decent golf, and shot as low as sixty five. But I don't think I've ever come even close to playing an entire round of golf where I gave every shot my all--playing one shot at a time. Oh well, there's always next year.

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.