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Monday, 15 June 2015

Should You Take Lessons and Practise as Much as You Play?

You often hear golfers admitting, as though it's a sin, that they don't practise enough. They also often are heard to say that they really should take a lesson, or three. Usually, they have no real inclination to do either of the two, but feel the need to confess. It's along the same lines as "I should quit smoking," or "I really should lose a few pounds." 

I'm not one to spend much time practising, and I try to make no apologies for it. I have also had only one lesson from a professional; and that was as an eleven year old. While I would never discourage someone so inclined from taking lessons, or doing some serious practicing, I am not prepared to admit that either is absolutely necessary in order to play reasonably good golf. I am also not prepared to admit that doing either will necessarily make you a better player; though it might.

I think golf changed considerably thanks to Ben Hogan. He was perhaps the first great player who practised more than he played. By successfully digging it out of the dirt, and curing a tendency to hook the ball, Mr. Hogan not only became a great player, but also inspired many of his peers and, subsequently, future generations of golfers, to embrace practice as the means to improve. He strongly advised players to spend significantly more time on the range, with the idea that the secret to the game might be found by hitting balls--hundreds, if not thousands, of balls.

Perhaps his book, Five Lessons The Modern Fundamentals of Golfdid as much as any other to convince golfers that, by following a specific set of guidelines and movements, any golfer could become a good player. These days, it seems to be pretty much mandated that better players spend lots of time hitting balls under the watchful eye of a competent professional. Not to do so is now generally viewed as being slothful, or somehow neglectful, the importance of receiving professional instruction, practising, and hitting balls having been so elevated.

The game definitely needs good golf instructors. That is undeniable. In the old days, even the top playing professionals held down club jobs and, as part of their bailiwick, taught the game. Many of them were excellent teachers, as well as great players; not really very surprising. In golf today, however, we see a proliferation of teachers who have, in some cases, become almost as prominent and wealthy as their stable of thoroughbred players despite never having played the game at the highest level with any great success themselves. I suppose these teachers must be good, or they wouldn't be as successful as they are. But, to be truthful, there are also many teachers out there who aren't worth a hoot, regardless of whether they've been "certified" or not. Furthermore, as the Hank Haney experiments with trying to improve the games of various celebrities have clearly shown, the student's willingness and ability to learn is often just as important, if not more important, as the teacher's ability to teach. And, ultimately, when it comes to golf instruction, you just can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  Very few golfers are going to become scratch players, regardless of whether they practise or get lessons.

We have all watched Tiger go from teacher to teacher, at least to some extent trying to incorporate that teacher's philosophy into his swing and his game, until he has lost the magic and finally found himself in some sort of golfing purgatory. I have likened someone like Tiger turning to and relying on a teacher to help him find his swing as being akin to Mozart taking music lessons. It doesn't make a lick of sense. But we see it happening all the time. In fact, it was recently rumoured that Lydia Ko's current loss of form may be attributable to her making swing changes after she went to David Leadbetter. 

Lee Trevino said he would never let anyone teach him who couldn't beat him. I think that's a pretty sound philosophy. Trevino did allow himself to be taught by other great players. For instance, he learned to be a better bunker player from Gary Player. Jack received short game advice from Arnie. Johnny Miller studied all the great players, and incorporated some of what he observed from all of them into his game. All the great players, to one degree or another, learned from, and were taught or mentored by, other great players. It has been the nature of the game that good players have helped others, especially the up and coming generations. We have all learned from other players, be it imitating great swings we see on the television, or the swings of those we learned the game from. We all tend to do that, imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. 

But the idea of any of these great players of old rebuilding their swing, the swing that got them on the tour in the first place, probably never occurred to most of them. Bobby Jones said his teacher, Stewart Maiden, never discussed the golf swing. In fact, Bobby said he never had a formal lesson from him until after his playing career was over. Maiden acted as a knowledgeable second set of eyes for Bobby when he was encountering problems. He didn't give him a swing philosophy, other than perhaps "hit it hard, it'll come down somewhere." Jack Grout was the same way with Jack. After giving Jack some sound fundamentals as a youngster, Jack went to Grout at the start of every season to have a Spring tune up to make sure his fundamentals were good and no insidious habits had crept into his game, and thereafter only when he was experiencing problems he couldn't figure out on his own. Jack was self reliant, having come to know his swing and understand his tendencies. All the great players were like that.

In my mind, we all have to be responsible for our own swing. If we aren't, we are in big trouble when the bell rings and we have to play the game without a teacher to guide us. We all have to find, often by trial and error, what works, and what doesn't. We can, and probably should, go to teachers, or better and more experienced players, to seek advice; especially when we are just learning the game, or when we are playing poorly. Some things might help. Other things might hurt. At the end of the day, however, we must search for the answers ourselves. Learning the fundamentals of the golf swing is essential. After that, we must take responsibility for our own game. 

There are a few, tried and true fundamentals which we really must learn in order to become competent at this game. Beyond that, there are numerous characters, be it teachers, swing gurus, or fifteen handicappers who fancy themselves as teachers, who are ready and more than willing to offer their secret to the golf swing. When dealing with any of them, it's really up to us to exercise some caution, and prudence, as we try to find our swing; the swing that best works for us. 

One has to wonder, had Tiger followed Lee Trevino's philosophy, and not allowed himself to be taught by anyone who couldn't beat him, whether he would have found himself in the mess he's now in. When he had his famous "A game," nobody could beat him when he arrived on tour in 1997. When he was on his game, he was simply the best, and the best by a significant margin. He was also incredibly consistent. But, whether seduced by the promise of even greater consistency, or a better swing than the swing that was already producing possibly the greatest golf ever witnessed, Tiger decided to make swing changes. It was his choice, and he now lives with the consequences.

Golf is a funny game, in that some golfers now spend as much or more time working at the game as they do playing it. I don't think there's any game like it in that respect. But Bobby Jones believed you truly learned the game best by playing it. This is very good news for those of us who don't have a strong Puritan work ethic, and have neither the time nor the inclination to spend time taking lessons and working at the game when we could be playing it. We shouldn't feel guilty if our inclination is not to spend hours practising instead of playing. Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur of all time, and arguably the greatest player ever, recommended you practise only when you have something specific you need to work on; after that he advised us to stop hitting balls and give our minds and our bodies a rest. 

So, no need to apologize for not practising as much as some people think or say you should, or for not taking regular lessons. It ain't no crime, and you've got plenty of company. Provided we are observant while we play, and if we can learn to recognize our tendencies, understand our strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully learn from our mental mistakes, we can definitely improve, play reasonably well, and find a great deal of enjoyment from golf. We can do this without hitting balls until our hands are blistered, taking lessons, or rebuilding our swings. And we can do this simply by playing golf, leaving the hard practising to those guys who either play the game to earn their living and feel the need to grind it out on the range, or to the guys who genuinely love practising.