I've often had exasperated playing partners ask me to try to tell them what they're doing wrong. However, when they ask what they are doing wrong, I know they are usually expecting the answer to be something about their swing, something mechanical that they can eliminate, change, or implement that will make the ball go where they want it to. The problem is, often what is wrong with their game, just like mine, is not to be found in their swing, but in their mind. Like me, if they are struggling, it is often because they are not focussing on what they need to focus on, or, as is often the case, they are missing a vital piece of the golf puzzle. As for me telling them what they're doing wrong; hell I've generally got enough troubles of my own to worry about.
The secret to what someone is doing wrong is often revealed in what they are thinking about, or trying to do as they play their shot. Ask someone what they are trying to do as they stand over the ball and you will get many different answers. One guy is trying to keep his head down; not really a good idea. Another fellow is trying to "make a good turn;" a good idea, but it won't make the ball go where you want it to. Someone else is trying to hit it in the fairway, which is generally a good plan, but a little too vague. Someone else is trying not to hit it in the water. A good plan, but the brain doesn't seem to hear the word "don't;" so thinking "don't hit it in the water" tends not to result in a great shot. Rarely, unless it's a good player, do you hear a response like, I'm trying to draw it off the edge of that bunker in the distance, or to start it in the middle of the green and fade it towards the pin.
Golf is about hitting the ball to a clearly defined target with the ultimate view of getting it from the teeing ground into the hole in the fewest possible strokes. There are no pictures on the scorecard, nor are there any style points. Thinking about mechanics, about how you want to swing the club, instead of where you want the ball to go, is the arguably the biggest problem for every class of player. Not following Harvey Penick's advice to "Take Dead Aim;" not picking a specific target and having a clear picture of the shot you are trying to play, can be a major issue for all of us.
Knowing what shot you want to hit is vital. The next obvious step is knowing how the ball must be struck to produce that shot. This is where a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. In his book Golf is my Game, Bobby Jones has a chapter entitled Striking the Ball, which contains the most essential information any golfer can ever acquire. In this chapter Bobby tells us the real science of golf, namely how a ball must be struck with the clubface to produce every type of shot. Consider what he has to say about this information:
"I am not one who enjoys heaping ridicule upon the average golfer. It seems to me that those grotesque characters we see in the cartoons are rare in real life. 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 should he put his mind upon striking the ball, rather than upon swinging the club.
This will be the most important chapter of this book. It will describe the most useful learning you will ever acquire as a golfer. You may gain knowledge from a mere reading of this chapter that will help you in the playing of every golf shot you make for the rest of your life. This knowledge can make you a better golfer overnight."
Bobby Jones was not one given to hyperbole. Nor was he a snake oil salesman, or con artist anxious to make a quick dollar. He was arguably the best player to ever play the game, who also happened to be blessed with a brilliant mind. Consider what he goes on to say about the information he shared in this chapter:
"If you are a beginner, this chapter will start you off on the road to a correct understanding of the nature of golf. If you are an average golfer, it will give you the means of deciding upon the club to use and the shot to play on the basis of reasoned judgement, rather than guesswork. If you are a better than average golfer, it will broaden your perception of the possibilities in the game so that you may become a player of imagination and resourcefulness. If you are weary of being told to concentrate without having knowledge of what you should concentrate on, this is it.
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.
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 that all this should be obvious, please believe me when I assure you that I have seen many really good players attempt shots they should have known were impossible."
I have reproduced most of this chapter from Bobby's book in a previous post, entitled The Wisdom of Bobby Jones: Striking the Ball. If you are interested, and don't have access to Bobby's book, Golf is my Game, I invite you to read that article. I really think it could be game-changing information from the greatest amateur ever to play this great game.