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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."