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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Wisdom of Bobby Jones: Learn by Playing

How do we best learn to play golf?  I suppose there is no hard and fast answer to that question.  It probably depends on our age, our circumstances, and perhaps even our personality.  We are all, after all, individuals.  Bobby Jones, however, felt we only really learn to play golf by really playing golf.  Sounds obvious doesn't it?

One of the world's greatest ball strikers, Moe Norman, said there were only two players in history who had an extra club in their bags that gave them a leg up on everyone else. According to Moe, that extra club was five and a half inches, the distance between their ears. That extra club was their mind; their intellect, especially as it related to playing golf. Those two players were Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones. Considering what Moe Norman had to say, it comes as no surprise that Jack Nicklaus was a huge admirer of Bobby Jones and vice versa.

I have indicated that, in my view, Bobby Jones was not only golf's greatest player, with Jack Nicklaus a close second, but also golf's greatest teacher.  Because his teaching is not so readily available, I have used this blog to pass along the teaching Bobby Jones provided in the books Golf is my Game and Bobby Jones on Golf.  I try to quote Bobby extensively, trying to add, only as little as possible, my own words, or interpretation of his teaching. I fully realize that to want to add to what Bobby Jones had written might be akin to wanting to paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa. 

The first chapter of Golf is my Game is entitled "Learn by Playing." It is worth noting that this was written by Bobby after he had been afflicted with a crippling disease at the age of forty six and could no longer play. Bobby began golfing at the age of six after his parents moved from the city of Atlanta, some six miles to a small summer colony near the East Lake Golf Club. That move not only extended young Bobby's life, it changed the game of golf forever.

In his own words, Bobby writes: "I began life as a sickly child, and at the age of forty-six was stricken by a crippling ailment. Even so, to this day, golf has been the major interest of my life... I know I can thank golf for having given me forty years of active life filled with exciting experiences and warm human contacts. I know that my physical affliction was not derived in any sense from playing the game, and I doubt that without this playing I should ever have lived to see a full maturity... The game for me will always be, as it has been in the past, a consuming interest." 

Ben Hogan inspired and continues to this day to inspire others to become ardent practisers. He practised harder than anyone before or after him because he felt he needed to in order to bring his swing under control and have total confidence in his game. In an interview in later life, Hogan said that he felt he had a "terrible swing." That's why he worked longer and harder at hitting balls than all of his contemporaries.  However, for Hogan, practising wasn't onerous. He loved to practise.

Bobby Jones, however, was very much a player, not a practiser of the game. He did not see the virtue in practising or hitting balls for its own sake. He believed we learned best and most naturally by playing. When he was physically able to play Jones wrote: "I was always an ardent player of the game." Though also a student of the game, he went on to write, "whatever thoughts I had about the game were directed towards enjoyment of competition, this did not have to be formal competition, because I could throw myself as enthusiastically into a four-ball match for a dollar Nassau as into a tournament for a national championship...The proposition is thus very clear to me that golf is a game meant to be played, and played as a contest worthy of the best effort of any man alive."

Bobby felt that golf was very therapeutic, especially for those people whose "lives are filled with responsibilities for making important decisions." He went on to point out that golfers "know, and have known for a long time, that when playing golf, it is almost impossible to think of anything else. The most complete rest for the mind, and the most effective renewal of mental keenness and vigour, come not from thinking of nothing, but from putting one's mind completely upon fresh and stimulating activities. It is, therefore, the all-absorbing challenge of golf which makes it such an effective agent of mental therapy."

Notice Bobby indicated that it was the "all-absorbing challenge" of the game of golf that made it so therapeutic. He went on to write: "In this view, then, it seems to me that we are defeating or detracting from the effectiveness of the game as recreation when we urge people to relax, take it easy, or be casual and carefree on the golf course. I think we should urge them to do just the opposite - to put themselves wholeheartedly into their play. What they want and need most from the game can be had only when intense concentration upon the play helps to sweep away the problems, worries, and even troubles of everyday life."

When he wrote the book "Bobby Jones on Golf," it had been ten years since Jones had actually been able to play. However, this time had been spent thinking about golf and how best to teach or learn the game. It seemed obvious to him that "writing about the golf swing has become too technical and complicated, and even the most earnest teaching professional presents the game to his pupil as a far more difficult thing than it really is." If teaching had become too technical and complicated when Jones wrote this in 1959, imagine what Jones would think now, with video and track man and all the swing aids and contraptions teachers are using to further complicate the game.

Bobby felt that it was "equally obvious that what the game needs most if it is to continue to grow in popularity is a simplification of teaching routines which will present a less formidable aspect to the beginner, and offer the average player a rosier prospect of improvement." Clearly, these musings have largely fallen on deaf ears among the teaching professionals. 

The trouble was and still is, as Jones added, because "golf is not taught as it is learned. It is taught more as a science or as a prescribed set of calisthenic exercises, whereas it is learned as a game." Speaking of all the top players, including himself, Jones pointed out that they "learned to play golf, just as others have learned to play baseball, by playing and playing and playing because they liked the game. In most cases it has been only after gaining considerable proficiency that thoughts of method have been of much concern."

Bobby, as we all do when learning the game as kids, chose to model his swing after the best player he was able to observe. In his case, it was the East Lake club's professional, Stewart Maiden. But, Bobby wrote: "Although Stewart Maiden has quite properly been known as my first instructor and the man from whom I learned the game, it is yet true that I never had a formal lesson from him while I was in active competitive play. In fact, it was not until He had returned to Atlanta, only two years before he died, that I ever went on to a practice tee with him." Bobby Jones won thirteen major championships without having ever had a formal lesson.

Concerning Stewart Maiden, Bobby further stated: "Although neither Maiden nor I ever saw much point in spending laborious hours on a practice tee, there were many times when I required a few words from him to put my game (notice Bobby wrote game, not swing) back in the right groove." Bobby then told the story of him having gone to Maiden before a big tournament because he was hitting the ball all over the place with his long irons. Maiden accompanied him to the tee, watched him hit two shots, then told him to wait before hitting another. He rapped Bobby on the left shoulder with the handle of a club he was holding in order to move him back. He rapped him again to move him even farther back, then when Bobby asked him sarcastically what he wanted him to do now, Maiden simply replied, "Knock the hell out of it." Bobby's next two shots went right at the flag. Maiden was already heading back to the clubhouse.

By telling this story, Bobby explained: "I am trying to show how I think instruction in golf can be most useful. A good instructor can be helpful... But it is most important that the doses of instruction be simple, direct and practical. It is folly for either teacher or pupil to expect that any swing can be perfected in an afternoon, a week, or even a season. It is significant that Stewart did not try to fill my head with theories. He merely put me in position to hit the ball and then told me to go on and hit it."

When praising Stewart Maiden as a teacher, Bobby wrote: "I am sure he never once thought of trying to remake a swing or to create one from scratch precisely along copybook lines. Throughout all the years I knew Stewart he never once allowed himself to be drawn into a discussion of the golf swing. To him, the game of golf consisted entirely of knocking the ball towards the hole, or into it, and that in the simplest manner possible."

Bobby tells another story of him having read an article by the great Harry Vardon on how to hit a punch shot. Bobby went to the practice tee to try to follow the direction given by Vardon. He hit about a hundred shots, none of which were any good. Stewart Maiden had been watching from a distance and when Bobby finally gave up, he observed Maiden sitting on a bench, shaking with silent laughter. 

Bobby wrote: "Never again did I try to learn a shot or stroke from a written description, and ever after, I have been careful in writing or talking about the golf swing. Certainly, there are ways of translating from one person to another ideas which can be helpful in playing golf, but it is not feasible for the learner to follow a prescription for the entire performance. No matter how clear the complete picture may be, the mind cannot possibly think through the process from beginning to end within the time required for the accomplishment."

So, I suppose you have a choice. You can can certainly decide to follow the example and teaching of Ben Hogan, whose book Five Lessons the Modern Fundamentals of Golf has been embraced as the  quintessential source on the mechanics of the golf swing, and head to the practice tee to try to perfect your swing.  Or, you can follow the example of Bobby Jones and just go play.  Or, you can, and perhaps should, do both.  There is certainly no argument that intelligent practice improves your ability as a ball striker.  But it is also true that golf is about more than just hitting balls.  It is also a mind game.

Frankly, I suspect the Jones way, of learning by playing, will be the most fun for most of us. Hitting balls can be tedious; although there are plenty of people who just love to hit balls and, if they are having fun, should certainly continue to hit as many as they like.  Playing the game, however, is ultimately the only way to truly learn it.  That's why, as Lee Trevino so aptly put it, the longest walk in golf is from the practice tee to the first tee.  We don't learn to play by practising, we learn to play by playing. Makes perfect sense to me.