Sunday, 30 November 2014

A Double Eagle For The Colonel

If you are lucky enough to have had a great father who taught you to love the game of golf, and a best friend who shared a love of the game, you are fortunate indeed. I had both, and now they're gone. I lost my father six years ago. The following year I lost my best friend. We played so many enjoyable rounds of golf together, and now, unless there's golf in the hereafter, all I've got left are my memories of our time together out on the links.

When my father died, I just couldn't face teeing it up again. I just knew that returning to our club would bring the memories flooding back, and though they were good memories, I just didn't want to play there again without the old Colonel. My friends understood and didn't push me to come back, so I didn't hit a ball for at least three months after my father passed away.

Finally, my friend Steve convinced me it was time and we headed to the course. Steve, his dad, Leftie and I teed it up and made our way around the Picton course. As we played, I spent most of my time silently conversing with my father. It was okay to be back playing, but I still had mixed emotions about it.

On the sixteenth hole, which is a reasonably short par five of four hundred and sixty yards or so, I hit my drive into the left rough and had a little over two hundred yards to the green. I pulled my nine wood, which may not be very macho, but it's pretty useful from the rough. Besides, I'm a lousy long iron player, so what are you going to do? Steve was standing next to me, and as soon as I struck it, I said, "It's perfect."

We watched the ball sail towards the green, take one hop and trickle straight into the hole for a double eagle. The boys were hooting and hollering and I was crying. It was my first double eagle, and it happened the first time I played after my father's death. 

The older I get the less I know for sure. In fact, sometimes I wish I could go back to being twenty one when I knew everything. But I am not a great believer in coincidence, so I have to figure the Colonel was sending me a message. He was telling me to get back out there and just keep hitting it, even if it had to be without him. My buddies felt the same way. The old Colonel had to somehow have been involved in that double eagle.

Maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part, because I would have loved to make that shot with my old father looking on. I hope he was watching. I feel he was watching, and I hope somehow that he understands that shot was for him. 

Friday, 28 November 2014

Finding Your Swing

Golf is a strange game. It is essentially a game that involves hitting a ball with a stick. Actually, there are two quotes that I think sum it up quite nicely. Winston Churchill said that golf involved hitting a very small ball into an even smaller hole with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose. An unknown author wrote that golf involves two of America's favourite pastimes; taking long walks in the woods and hitting things with a stick.

Hitting a golf ball should be much easier than hitting a baseball, or a tennis ball, because the ball isn't moving when you hit it. How hard can it be? Hell, you should be able to train a monkey to do it.  And yet, golfers are constantly tying themselves up in knots trying to figure out how to properly and consistently hit that little white pill. Perhaps that really is the problem with golf; the ball is just sitting there. We are supposed to be in control. We get to decide when to hit it. We get to decide how we want to hit it and where we want to hit it. The ball reacts to us, rather than us reacting to it, as in baseball or tennis. So what's the problem?

Moe Norman said that you just hit this dumb thing (the ball), with that dumb thing (the club), over there(the target). He thought it was easy. And actually, when you have that sort of clarity of mind and purpose, it probably was easy for Moe. But Moe Norman didn't just have clarity of mind, he hit literally millions of golf balls with that clarity of mind. So maybe golf is only easy, if it is ever easy, after you've devoted countless hours digging it out of the dirt; finding a swing that works. There is no shortcut to golfing greatness. It involves the kind of devotion and hard work that surely most of us just aren't prepared for. Nor should we be. Unless we have dreams of playing the tour, we should be content to find a swing that gets the job done for us and then go have fun.

Today we see the best players in the world, almost without exception, thinking they need a teacher, or a coach, to keep them on track. If they, as professionals, with the time and opportunity to hit hundreds, if not thousands, of balls every week, actually really need help figuring out how to hit the ball properly, what sort of chance do we have? Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest player ever, and certainly the greatest player of his generation by a significant margin, has been going from one instructor to another searching for his swing. Hell, that's like Picasso, after becoming famous, deciding to go to art school to work on his technique. Tiger should be teaching them, not the other way around. I like Lee Trevino's philosophy on teachers. He wouldn't let anyone teach him unless they could beat him. That certainly narrowed the field as far as candidates for the job were concerned.

Bobby Jones pointed out that golf is a game that gets more difficult the longer you play it. One reason for that seems to be that golf seems to involve a lot of time spent searching for a swing, or a swing thought, that works for us, only to find that the next time out whatever seemed to work doesn't work any more. Golf is a constant search for perfection, only to then realize, at the end of the day, perfection is but a dream. 

For the average player, utility is the best we should be hoping for, forget about perfection. If you can find a way to put the club on the ball that generally results in a useable shot, stop searching and go learn how to play.

We need to go out every day and find our swing; the swing that will best allow us to gain a modicum of control over that little white ball that just sits there waiting for us to hit it. We're going to feel different every day and so we will just have to commit to every day finding something that seems to work, and then sticking with it until it stops working. The best advice is Moe's. Just hit the dumb ball, with the dumb club, over there. It is the "over there" part that is important. We aren't just trying to hit the ball. That's easy enough after a bit of practice. It is the control of the ball that is the issue. So we have to find the way that works best for us to make that ball behave and go where we want it to.

Just look at the swings of the greats. Their swings are as unique to them as their signature. They can be copied or imitated, but their swing belongs to them alone. They have the copyright. Would we teach someone to swing like Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd, Lee Trevino or Moe Norman? We actually do teach people to swing like Moe Norman, so I guess we would. But the reality is, if you didn't hear the sound of the club striking the ball and see the results, you might think Moe Norman, Lee Trevino, or Arnold Palmer were just hackers like the rest of us watching them swing the club. Their swings are not syrupy and sweet like Bobby Jones, Sam Snead or Freddie Couples. They certainly aren't textbook swings. But the results speak for themselves. As Harvey Penick said, pretty is as pretty does. It's all about the results. There are no style points in golf.

I am reminded of one of my favourite golfing buddies who is always working at making a "good swing."  When we play, he often hits it and then looks over and asks me how that swing was. My usual response is that it looks good to me, because it usually does, but of course the issue is not the swing, it's where the ball went. If you hit the ball where you were looking, it was a good swing even if you looked like you were falling off a ladder when you struck it. 

It isn't really about the swing anyway, it's the strike that's all important. We tend to get all caught up in the mechanics of the swing, when in reality it's all about the moment of truth; when the ball is struck. If your club is square to the target and moving down the target line with reasonable speed when you strike the ball, you must hit a good shot, even if you happen to look less than graceful while doing it. 

Don't fall into the trap of working too much on your swing. If you must work on something, better to work on impact; the strike. It's all about impact. In fact, all the great golfers look pretty much the same at impact. Keep in mind the story of Bobby Jones, who once asked his mentor, Stewart Maiden, about his backswing. Maiden replied, like a typical, no nonsense Scottish pro, "You don't hit the ball with your backswing, laddie." Forget the mechanics of the swing. Just hit the dumb thing over there.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Just Do It

Golf, like life, is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes you are going to be faced with a situation or a shot that scares the daylights out of you. You then have a choice to make. You can just pick the ball up and forget it. You can and probably should look for an easier way to avoid the difficult shot. But sometimes you just have to do it.

When faced with most fear provoking situations, just remind yourself that failure is not the end of the world. If you crash and burn, it won't kill you. Chances are, even if you fail miserably, your dog will still love you and you'll still get your supper. So, why not go for it. Why not take a walk on the wild side and test yourself. You might just succeed.

Kathryn isn't a golfer. But she won a trip to Florida and as part of this trip we were able to play the Copperhead course at the Innisbrook Resort near Tampa. The Copperhead course is a regular stop on the PGA tour and the course is known as one of the most difficult. Kathryn had only played nine holes of golf before teeing it up at the Copperhead.

For most of us real golfers, we would have found playing this course, especially accompanied by a stranger, rather daunting. But not Kathryn; she stood at the first tee and watched the group of men tee off. The last fellow took a mighty lash and dribbled the ball about sixty yards. Unfortunately, not understanding golfers and just how embarrassing this was for this fellow who had no doubt forked out about two hundred dollars for the opportunity to humiliate himself, Kathryn laughed and said, "I could play with you guys."

This comment was met with an icy stare and I had to explain to Kathryn the facts of life regarding golf, namely that many golfers take themselves way too seriously and are not inclined to understand that when you laugh, you are just laughing with them and not at them. In fact, we could not laugh with this fellow because he definitely wasn't laughing. He had completely failed to see the humour in his rather pathetic tee shot.

We patiently waited for the group ahead to zig zag their way out of range and began our adventure. Kathryn hits a low draw with a seven iron. It is a low draw that consistently goes between eighty and a hundred yards. From the forward tees it is enough to get her there or thereabouts in three shots on the par fours and four shots on the par fives. Fortified during the round by a steady supply of margaritas, Kathryn acquitted herself quite well.

Her swing, though never going to be described as pretty, served her well enough to actually be scoring better than the young hockey player who was accompanying us. He hit it miles, but rarely in the intended direction, a recipe for disaster on the Copperhead course.

We eventually came to a pretty little par three that required Kathryn to hit the ball over a pond. It just so happened that at this point we were being watched by a couple of men in a golf cart who looked to be important. I suspected we were being watched by the pro and the superintendent out for a drive, although they never introduced themselves.

Kathryn looked at the water, looked at me, and in earshot of our observers asked me what on earth she supposed to do. There appeared to be no option but for her to hit the ball over the water. Both she and I knew she didn't have that shot, but there appeared to be no alternate route to the green. So I just told her to hit it, that in all probability the ball would skip over the water.

She complied, took a swipe and hit that little low draw. The ball skipped two or three times over the water, ran up the bank and settled about ten feet from the pin. I smiled, Kathryn laughed and our two observers shook their heads. Kathryn learned the sheer joy of just doing it. If you just keep swinging a lot of good things can happen. Don't worry, just do it.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Difference Between Me and Jack Nicklaus

I suppose I could write a book about all the ways in which I'm different from the great Jack Nicklaus. The obvious biggest difference is LOFT (Lack of Fricken Talent), but there are many others. 

I was just a kid, living in England, when Jack won the Open at St Andrews in 1970.  I still remember that Sunday, when he drove the ball over the eighteenth green, some three hundred and sixty yards, up a bank and into some thick grass. The first time I played the Old Course, which was just five years ago, I thought about Jack as I stood on the eighteenth and swung for all I was worth.  Instead of driving the green, I was about forty yards short and had to traverse the Valley of Sin.

I stood over that shot and thought I would run the ball through the Valley of Sin using a hybrid. It was a great plan, but I never practise chipping with a hybrid. That was something Jack would never do. He would never try a shot he hadn't practised. He only hit shots he knew from experience he could hit. But I tried it anyway and, after hitting it way too hard, the ball ran through the green and up the bank into an eerily similar spot to where Jack had hit his drive in 1970.

It just so happened I had a small audience at the time, and I announced that this was the shot Jack pulled off in 1970. I said I would see if I could get it up and down. That was another difference between Jack and I.  I had a small audience and was playing for fun. Jack had the world watching and he was needing to get it up and down to give himself the chance to win the Open.

I took my sand wedge and chipped the ball three feet from the hole, just like Jack did. I was feeling pretty good and tipped my cap to the father and son who were watching nearby and had appreciated my effort. The pin was in approximately the same spot it was in when Jack made his famous chip. 

I calmly approached the ball, made a beautiful stroke, and missed it. Jack, of course, made his. Oh well, there's only one Jack Nicklaus. I'll just have to settle for being me.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Why Worry?

Fred Shoemaker wrote a really good book called, Extraordinary Golf. In it he talked about the need for us to break away from this culture of golfers and to start playing extraordinary golf instead of our usual worry-filled, anxiety-ridden game. He noted the fact that the problem with most of us when we play is that we want to look good, or more to the point, we don't want to look bad.

He talked about the first tee ritual, where, especially if we are playing with a stranger or a better player, we feel compelled to launch into our list of excuses about why we are likely not to play as well as we think we should or we think the other player or players think we should. It amounts to us saying, "I'm nervous and worried that I won't play well and you will be disappointed."  That message is couched in expressions like, "I haven't played in two weeks," or "I have a bad back," or "I've been having a helluva time with my driver lately." All of those expressions are designed to convey to the listener that you don't want to disappoint them.

Why we do this is beyond me, because the reality is that just about everyone feels the same way, so they're only worried about embarrassing themselves. They could care less about how you play. Wouldn't it be great, though, if we were to follow Fred Shoemaker's recommendation and show up hoping, if not actually expecting, that something good is about to happen. What if we got real about it all and realized that, while we were almost certain to be going to hit a few lousy shots during our round, we also had before us the opportunity to hit some terrific shots. And, instead of worrying about hitting bad shots and looking bad, what if we started every round and stood over every shot thinking here is another opportunity to hit a good shot, a shot that will make me happy and maybe even impress my playing partners, although there is no need to try to impress anyone on the golf course. It would make a big difference in how we approached the shot and would likely improve our chance to succeed if we actually gave ourselves the chance to hit a good one instead of worrying about missing it.

Walter Hagen was one of the best players of all time. He was a wizard at match play and won five PGA championships when they were match play events. He accepted that he was going to hit some bad shots every time he teed it up. In fact, he mentally gave himself seven bad shots a round. If, as one of the best players in the world, he expected to hit seven stinkers, how many bad shots should we be prepared to forgive ourselves for every round?

In golf, as in life, we are going to mess up. It's a given. So we need to be ready to accept our imperfection and deal with it. In fact, how we deal with our failures in life and on the golf course says more about our character than how we deal with success. But we need to forgive ourselves when we screw up and we need to give ourselves the chance to succeed as well.

 Your playing companions really have a right to expect or hope for one thing from you when you play; that you are good company. Whether or not you are good company has nothing to do with how well you play. Some people are lousy company even when they play well. And some people, like my buddy Gerry, were and are great company even if they can't play a lick.

I remember playing in a scramble tournament with Gerry. It was a four man scramble where all four of us hit every shot and each time we chose the best one from where to play our next shot. That day Gerry was having trouble with his game and the rest of us happened to be stronger players, so we ended up playing eighteen holes and not using one of his shots. Gerry, as usual, was the picture of composure and kept us loose with his joking and kidding.

After eighteen holes, we tied for first place and had to play off against the other team. We tied the first hole, again without using any of Gerry's shots. On the next hole, we had a ten footer to win. Three of us missed it and Gerry stood up and knocked it in. His arms raised and a big grin on his face, we rushed over to embrace him. He told me afterwards that that was about as excited as he had ever been.

Gerry could have worried about not contributing to the team for nineteen holes and got himself in a funk. But that just wasn't who he was. He celebrated our good shots, forgave himself his bad shots and enjoyed the day. He was good company and, in the end, he carried the day. He gave himself the chance to make something good happen when he willed that final putt in the hole.

I want to start every round I play from now on with the knowledge that I'm going to miss some shots but excited because I have the opportunity to play great, to shoot my best round ever, to make another hole in one, to just have a good time. That's what it's all about.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

You've Got to Pull It

Often, on the the course, you will hear a player groan and exclaim, "I pulled it!" If he or she is playing right handed, the end result is that the ball went left of target and inevitably it went farther than usual. There is actually a secret being revealed when we pull it. According to Bobby Jones, who was definitely the greatest player of his time and perhaps all time, it's really no great secret, it's just science, the simple laws of motion. If you want to hit the ball straighter and farther you must pull it, just like the power hitters in baseball.

There is a young boy, named Tommy Morrissey, who has received some coverage lately because he only has one arm and he can whack the you-know-what out of the ball despite his apparent handicap. He is a perfect example of the fact that you should pull it to really get the mustard on it. He plays with his left hand and he uses right handed clubs. Why? Because it works better that way. He is pulling the clubhead through the ball and down the target line. He is hitting through the ball towards the target rather than hitting at the ball. At three years of age he's already hitting the ball one hundred yards with one arm.

The great Canadian golfer, Moe Norman, who was reputed by many to be the best ball striker around, was left handed and played with right handed clubs. If you listen to his interviews, or watch his clinics, he definitely felt he was pulling the club down the target line with his left hand and arm.

Byron Nelson, who won eighteen times in 1945, including eleven in a row, apparently had one swing thought through the greatest sustained stretch of golf ever. He simply focussed on the back of his left hand going through impact towards his target.  He pulled the club through impact with his top hand, letting the back of his top hand flow towards his target. And he did it with every club, from the putter to the driver.

Slammin' Sam Snead spoke of slowly taking the club straight back with his left hand and beginning his downswing by pulling with his left hand and arm. Among other things, he felt this prevented him from coming over the top or casting the club from the top which is the major swing flaw of amateur players and the biggest reason why players slice the ball.

I had one formal golf lesson. I was eleven years old and living in England at the time. The young pro simply asked me to hit balls with just my left hand. I thought he was nuts. After all, I was playing right handed clubs and I'm very much right handed. So, I thought, where was the sense in all this? Unfortunately, the pro never bothered to explain just what a valuable lesson he was imparting to me. So, I promptly forgot this lesson for about forty years.

It was only after I developed tendonitis in my right elbow and could hardly grip the club with my right hand that I actually learned the value of that lesson. I was forced to play for nearly an entire year with my left hand and arm dominating the swing. My injured right arm simply went along for the ride. That summer I played as well as I had for years and won the Senior club championship and the "A" flight championship essentially playing one handed. I just pulled it.

Next time you hit balls, I suggest you give it a try. Grip the club firmly with the last three fingers of your top hand; left hand for a right handed player and right hand for a left handed player, and just try hitting a few shots one-handed. Once you've learned to make consistent contact, place your other hand on the club, but keep the sensation of letting the top hand lead and pull the club through impact towards your target. It worked for me. But more importantly, it worked for Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones...

Friday, 21 November 2014

It's All About Your Perspective

I often find myself thinking about my father, the Colonel, and Gerry, the Big Man, because they had such great perspective on life and on golf. One of my favourite memories was of the two of them playing in Picton.

It had been a long day for the Colonel. His back was aching and he'd been struggling with his game. We were all standing on the seventeenth tee waiting for the group ahead of us to get out of range and the old Colonel was more slumped and tired looking than usual. Gerry put his big arm around my father's shoulders and quietly said these words to live by: "Colonel, it just doesn't get any better than this."

My old father laughed, shook his tired old head, and said, "You're damned right."

That's what you call perspective. When I look back at my time on the links with those two wonderful guys, I realize it just didn't get any better than that.

Don't Count Your Chickens At Least Until They've Hatched

I've found myself thinking more and more about the great times I enjoyed on the links with my dear departed friend, Gerry. He was with me when golf imparted to me some rather poignant life lessons, like the one about not counting your chickens until they've hatched.

I played golf every day for a few years as a kid in Picton back in the sixties. It was a nine hole course in those days and I would ride my bike to the course in the early morning and go round and round until dark many days. When the Colonel was posted to England, I carried on playing, but certainly not with the sort of regularity I did in Picton. In fact, I didn't really start golfing regularly again until I joined the penitentiary service and became buddies with the Big Man.

Gerry and I started playing around the Kingston area and early on in that partnership we found ourselves on the 17th hole at Amherstview. I had been starting to get it back a bit and, in retrospect, rather foolishly announced to the big guy that all I needed was two bogies to shoot 76. He politely nodded and then watched me proceed to hit three in a row into the weeds; and I mean way into the weeds.

I'm sure the silence that followed this rather dismal performance was deafening. I was rather high strung, if not downright unstable, in those days so Gerry had the good sense not to remark upon this disaster. After all, I was holding a club at the time. He just sort of half smiled, half grimaced and tried to silently convey to me that he shared my pain. Actually, he was probably trying very hard not to laugh, because I was probably purple with rage and if anyone understood that it really didn't amount to a hill of beans whether I shot 76 or 86, it was Gerry.

So we finished the round rather quietly and I posted another 81 and said no more. But this rather demoralizing experience taught me something I've since had to relearn several times. The lesson was that in golf, as in life, it is better to let those damned chickens hatch before you count them. It is better not to know the score you are shooting and, if you do, it's better not to think much about it.

If you want to break eighty or a hundred, or sixty if you're a touring pro; don't think about it. Don't let yourself ponder anything more than the next shot. The kiss of death in golf is the thought, "if I can just..." When things are going well out there, just let it happen. You may find yourself silently praying that you can finish it off without choking. After all, it's hard not to know when things are going really well on the course and, interestingly enough, it is when things are going really well that many of us have trouble. Most of us just can't stand success. It makes us nervous.

The postscript to this story is that Gerry was good enough not to ask me what I shot on that dark, dark day. He just bought me a beer and reminded me in his inimitable way that it would all be better next time.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Automatic Reload

Golf is not the fastest game in the world. In fact, those without the golf bug liken watching it to watching paint dry. But some golf teachers have managed to convince many golfers to take slow play to an all time high by introducing the preshot routine.

If ever there was a curse on the game, it is this preshot routine fad. I can accept and understand someone who is playing for their livelihood taking plenty of time to make sure they are ready to hit their shot. But when Joe Blow, playing in his regular Saturday foursome, feels the need to have to subject his buddies, and the group waiting behind, to some elaborate preshot ritual on his way to shooting 100, it's a bit hard to take.

Bobby Jones was a proponent of fast play. He said that he would routinely step into his shot, take one waggle and let it go. He realized that when he took more than one waggle, trouble wasn't far away. He told the story of once being in a tournament where he was facing a particularly challenging shot. After much thought and delay, he hit the shot which failed miserably. He remarked to the gallery that in hindsight he might have missed it much quicker.

The fact is, that for most of us, the longer we take to hit the shot, the more likely we are to have doubts creep in and miss it. We need to learn to miss it quick. At least that way we won't be infuriating our playing companions and the foursome waiting behind us. I can see no evidence to suggest that, for the average golfer, three practice swings, a tug on the shirt sleeve, opening and closing the flap on the golf glove and looking at the target fourteen times before we take it back helps or improves the quality of our play.

My buddy, Gerry, invented what came to be dubbed the automatic reload. I highly recommend it to everyone who isn't playing for a National or State championship. Gerry possessed the ability to hit prodigious slices, sending the ball miles into unchartered territory. He did this with some regularity, but he also did it with alacrity. When he hit a wild one, his right hand would come off the grip, reach into his pocket and drop another ball at his feet, ready for another try, often before the first shot had even landed. There was no staring disbelievingly at the errant shot; no wailing and gnashing of teeth. Gerry just got on with it. He had the automatic reload grooved and we all greatly appreciated it.

So, let's be like Gerry. Let's have an extra ball in our pocket, at the ready. We're bound to miss some, so, while we don't want to rush, and we should commit to our shot, let's try to miss 'em quick.

Good On Ya, Kid

I played at a course just outside Hilton Head last winter and was hanging around waiting for Kathryn to pick me up. It was a cold, blustery day and I was feeling pretty good after managing to shoot 72 or 73 in really tough conditions.

There were just two of us out there practising that afternoon because of the weather. Me, because I was waiting on a ride, and this kid. I had been watching him hit balls from my vantage point on the putting green and this kid had a great swing. I figured he was hitting his drives about 200 yards, which at sea level and in the cold was pretty damn good for a kid who looked to be 90 pounds soaking wet.

He made his way from the practice tee over to the green and started chipping balls. I told him he had a great swing and he thanked me. I then said I figured he must be a pretty good player and wondered whether he had managed to shoot par yet. He looked at me, somewhat surprised, and said, "I've shot 62." He went on the tell me that he was the State champion in his age group, all very matter of fact, without a hint of conceit.

I jokingly told him I should get his autograph. He then replied that he had been asked by a gentleman to sign a golf ball after he'd won the State championship and he thought that was kind of cool. I agreed. We chipped and putted for a few more minutes before I saw Kathryn pulling in to the lot.

I said good bye to the kid and told him to keep up the great golf. He said he would. I then added, "Don't ever stop having fun."

"Yes Sir," he replied.

I looked him up later on the net and there he was standing with the other State champs. But, do you think I can remember the kid's name? I should have got his autograph. He would have thought it was cool. What a nice kid.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A Lesson My Father Taught Me

I learned a great deal about life and golf from my father, the Colonel. He was a great guy who loved life and loved golf. Crippled with a bad back and hips, in his later years he really struggled to manage to get around the course. But he kept at it until he literally just couldn't do it anymore. To the end, he couldn't wait for the next day to dawn so he could get out there again and try to figure it out.  No matter how much pain he was in, he just lived to play golf.

There are days now, particularly when my back is really bad, when I look in the mirror and it's as though my father were staring back at me.  I've come to look so much like him.  I just wish I'd inherited a bit more of his intelligence.  But the Colonel passed at least one good thing on to me: a love for the game of golf.  For that, among so many other things, I am truly grateful to him. 

Shortly before he died, my father told me I should never feel sorry for him.  He assured me that he had lived a very happy life and he had no regrets.  Imagine being able to say you had no regrets.  That's the sort of life he led.  For me, my life has been a litany of mistakes and regrets.  But, I suppose all you can do is learn from your mistakes and try to not repeat them.

I think one of the best things my father taught me was tolerance.  Not that I learned it quickly, or easily, but I eventually came to learn it from him.  He once said to me, "Most people are just trying to get through this life the best way they know how.  They're just trying to do the best they can with what they've got to work with."

At the time, when I viewed the world as being black and white, I thought this was a rather naive world view.  But, I've come realize that the old Colonel was right.  There are some evil people who really need killing.  And there are some truly saintly people.  But the majority of us are just trying to do the best we can with what we've got to work with.

I think that's about all anyone can be expected to do in life.  And, actually, I guess that's about all we can do in golf as well.  Just do the best we can with what we've got to work with.  Thanks, Pops.  You were one smart dude.  I sure miss you.

Grip It to Rip It

Having talked about how to aim, it becomes important to talk about the grip. After all, aiming the clubface is vitally important, but if you don't have a sound grip, that enables you to return the clubface to its original position at impact without requiring contortions of some sort, you have defeated the whole purpose of aiming the club. The most common grips taught today are the Vardon, or overlapping grip and the interlocking grip favoured by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Most teachers also talk about the ten finger grip, but seldom recommend it unless it is to women, seniors or juniors, whose hands are smaller and weaker.

It is interesting that the two most popular grips are popular because they were favoured by giants of the game, who effortlessly produced clubhead speed and likely had or have powerful hands from striking countless balls. Both the interlocking and overlapping grips accomplish two things that are beneficial, if not essential, to striking a golf ball. The first thing is they both weaken the bottom hand on the grip. The second thing is they help both hands work together as a unit, not permitting the bottom hand, which is generally the player's dominant hand, from taking over and ruining the shot.

What is interesting about these popular grips, however, is that, if left to their own devices, likely no one would ever think to grip a club that way in order to strike a ball. Both grips are, quite frankly, unnatural, and must be learned and then practiced in order to become comfortable for the player. Once learned, however, I would never recommend anyone stop using either grip, provided they were hitting the ball solidly and were able to hit it straight. This, of course, tends to narrow the field somewhat, as the lion's share of recreational players are neither hitting it solidly, nor straight, so perhaps trying a more natural, ten-fingered grip would be advisable for them.

I have played with all three grips and find myself returning to the Vardon grip. While I find the ten finger, or natural, grip helps me hit the ball a bit more solidly and a tad farther, it also tends to allow me to produce some screaming hooks when my stronger, right hand is permitted to take over. Also, because I favour the Top Hand approach to golf, which I will talk about in some detail later, the Vardon grip works quite nicely and facilitates the Top Hand approach. As I improve upon my ability to use the Top Hand approach, I will probably return to the natural grip which I believe will serve me better as my hands get weaker.

Harvey Penick was passionate about the importance of a sound grip and said he could talk for hours about the grip. He had a great piece of advice about how to find your grip. He suggested taking a ruler and grip it as though you were going to use it to strike a golf ball with the face of the ruler, not the edge. If you try that, you will probably find you grip it with your palms facing each other and flat against the face of the ruler. If you grip a golf club the same way you are in business. All top players have their palms facing each other when they grip the club and the palms tend to match the clubface. Actually, if you were to clap your hands together on the club, then slide the lower hand down the handle, you have the ideal grip.

In terms of grip pressure, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan all stressed the importance of the club being gripped firmly by the last two or three fingers of the top, or left, hand for a right-handed player. Doing this helps prevent, among other things, over-swinging, and losing the club and having to resort to re-gripping from the top of the swing. 

As far as the right, or lower, hand is concerned, Ben Hogan taught that pressure should be applied to the grip primarily by the third and fourth fingers of the right hand. Bobby Jones felt the right hand should essentially just be along for the ride until the moment of truth; impact. Sam Snead felt it was important that the club be held lightly and in the fingers of the right hand and that it's use also be held in reserve until impact.

Snead and Bobby Jones favoured light grip pressure, except in the last three fingers of the top hand, to ensure that the wrists, arms, and shoulders remain relaxed and flexible. Hogan favoured a firm grip. Moe Norman favoured a firm, ten-fingered grip, where the club was held more in the palms of the hand, rather than the fingers. He also stressed left, or top, hand control of the club. All these great ball strikers stressed the fact that, for a right-handed player, the left hand must lead the swing and that the right hand should not be allowed to take over, or overpower, the left hand during the swing. 

The bottom line is you want a grip where your hands are comfortable and work as a unit. If you have to twist your hands around after you've taken your grip to get comfortable, you know your grip needs work. Your grip should be such that your hands just meld together, wrapping easily and comfortably around the grip. As far as how tightly you grip the club, to each their own. But try not to strangle the life out of the grip and don't hold the club so loosely that it feels sloppy. As in life, moderation is probably best. Find what's comfortable for you and allows you to square the clubface, then grip it and rip it.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Take Dead Aim

One of golf's greatest teachers, Harvey Penick, coined the phrase "Take Dead Aim." I think it's safe to say that this was the cornerstone of his teaching. It is truly the most important advice that could be given to any golfer, in any situation. Whether you are a scratch player, or just learning the game, unless you take dead aim at your target every time you strike the ball, you will not play your best.

Golf is a target game, and accomplished players really appreciate the importance of picking a very specific target on every shot they make. There is a story told about Ben Hogan consulting with his caddy about a shot he was going to play. Since the shot was a long shot, the caddy pointed out a tree in the distance as an aiming point. Mr Hogan then apparently asked the caddy which branch on the tree he should be aiming at, and, some suggest, he even went on to ask which leaf. The story may be apocryphal, but it makes the point that Mr Hogan was very precise about his target. It was not that he expected to hit a leaf on a tree in the distance, but he understood that the more precise his target, and the more committed he was to his target, the more likely he was to hit a good shot.

It stands to reason that, if we really want to hit our target, we first have to pick the target, then aim at it, and then hit the ball dead at it with a committed strike. Yet how many times have I stood up to a shot and just hit it out there somewhere? I might have hit it in the right general direction; at the fairway, or at the green; but definitely not "dead at" a specific target. I know that one of my biggest weaknesses is not really committing to every shot. If we just hit the ball out there somewhere, it will be reflected in our results. Out there somewhere isn't good enough. Just as when we're playing darts, or target shooting, we aim at the Bulls eye if we want to hit it, we don't just aim at the whole target or the dart board. We narrow our focus. We have to do the same with golf.

A way to help convince ourselves of how this really works for us is by reflecting back on our own play. How often have you managed to hit a terrific recovery shot that had very little margin for error? We've all done it. Remember how focussed, and how committed you were to the shot; to hitting that ball through that small gap in the branches? That focus and commitment to our target is what we want to strive for. It takes practice, and it takes mental discipline to become target oriented, but it will pay big dividends. I know as I write this, that I am as guilty as the next guy of not practicing what I'm preaching in this respect.

A few years ago, I happened to be paired up with a young man from Bermuda who was planning to attend a golf college in Hilton Head. We played along for the first nine holes, several of which were in the company of one of the instructors from the school. This young fellow bravely struggled along for that first nine holes, shooting 44 or 45. The instructor was clearly less than impressed and begged off for the back nine, indicating that he had other, more pressing, business to attend to.

I decided to speak up at the tenth hole, asking the exasperated young man to tell me what his target was as he addressed his tee shot. At first, he seemed genuinely surprised by the question, but as I continued to do this for the rest of the round, he seemed to get into the process of telling me where he was going to hit the next shot. When he added up his score for the back nine, this young man had shot 37. While it is likely there was some pressure off him, with the instructor having gone, it was, nevertheless, clear to me that he had never before tried declaring his target every time he took a shot, and he seemed excited about the results.

I believe that the simple act of declaring your target helps you commit to it. I think that's probably one of the benefits of having a caddie. If discussion takes place between the caddie and the player, and a target is chosen, it only makes sense that the player is going to be more committed to the target. In the case of my young companion, declaring his target to me seemed to instantly transform his play and improve the quality and accuracy of his shots. It has worked for me as well, and I'm convinced it works for everyone.

So, next time you are out there playing, try calling your shots. Tell yourself, and anyone willing to listen, where you are going to hit it. Tell your buddies, and ask them to call their shots as well. You will be surprised how often you hit your target when you call the shot. They will be too. Golf is a target game, so, as Harvey Penick taught, let's "Take Dead Aim."