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Thursday, 30 July 2015

Bobby Jones on Golf: Never Imitate

I saw a Golfchannel Academy clip featuring Dave Stockton on the subject of five foot putts.  Dave Stockton seems to be the go-to-guy these days for putting.  He has really helped a number of top players, including Rory McIlroy.  It was a good piece, with some good advice, even if he only made one of the two five footers he tried during the segment; in which there is a message for those of us who might erroneously think there's a way to make every five footer.

That's really the crux of golf instruction, particularly when we are dealing with putting; the reality is that there is no method that will ensure you make every five foot putt.  The vagaries of the greens, foot prints you can't even see, or the donut affect that Dave Peltz talks about, a spike mark, or some other imperfection in the green can cause even the best played stroke to miss.  That's just golf.

The other thing is, Mr. Stockton basically took us through his routine for making five foot putts, which included starting with the putter head in front of the ball.  My first thought was, I can just see a bunch of people who watched that clip going out to the course the next time and starting with their putter in front of the ball, thinking it might help.  And, the reality is it will likely not help a bit.  The other advice, about keeping in motion, keeping the putter head low, not feeling like you have to make it, is all good; but imitating Dave's set up, or mannerisms, will likely not help you one bit.  You have to be yourself.  You have to swing your swing, or make your stroke.

When I get putting poorly, I often find myself trying to imitate Jack Nicklaus.  He was my golfing hero, and the guy who made more putts when he had to than anyone I've ever seen; other than perhaps Tiger, before the fall.  My imitation Nicklaus stroke worked pretty well, but it never came close to being like the real thing.  And, it wasn't all that comfortable for me, especially with my back. The good thing about using your stroke, is that it will likely be, or at least should be, more natural and more comfortable for you.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and we see it a lot on the golf course; players copying what really are just mannerisms they see their favourite players displaying.  You see it especially in pre-shot routines; a favourite for a long time, while Tiger was the man, was the adjusting the shirt, shoulder-tug thing, he did before he set up to it. That was really big, especially with the young bucks.

Lately, I notice the opening and closing of the golf glove fastener, like Ernie Els, is very popular.  We have a guy at our club who not only does the Ernie Els golf glove thing before every shot, he also does the "will I, or won't I" stagger-step thing that Keegan Bradley likes to do.  If he could get the Tiger Woods shirt tug thing thrown in there, he'd be unbeatable.  I'm joking, of course, but the point is that just imitating a favourite player's mannerisms isn't likely to help your ball flight.

Bobby Jones, in his book Bobby Jones on Golf, advised us to never imitate.  He wrote:

"In all my writings on golf, as well as in my motion pictures, the one thing I have tried to stress most is the necessity for assuming a comfortable position before making every shot.  There are peculiarities of stance and address that tend to produce certain results; of course, these have to be watched after the player has progressed, but in the beginning I think it is safest simply to stand before the ball in a position that is so comfortable that it is easy to remain relaxed.  This, to the beginner, is far more important than any worry about the exact location of the right or left foot.

What I have said is of paramount importance in putting, and in the short game, and I think there is no one who has had a more convincing experience than have I.  Up until 1921, my putting was about as bad as one could imagine; I had experimented with it for years, but most of my experiments had taken the form of attempted imitations of some of the good putters I had seen, notable among whom were Walter Travis and Walter Hagen.  I had studied the styles of these men, particularly that of Hagen, and would always try to assume the same posture at address, and attempt to swing the putter in the same way.  The result of these efforts--and it was a result that should have been expected--was a tension throughout my whole body that would not otherwise have been present, so that however accurately I might reproduce the stroke that had been successful for the man I was imitating, the effect of it was destroyed because I could never relax.  After all these experiences, I determined to putt naturally.

The putting stroke is the simplest of all because it is the shortest; once a person has developed a fairly good sense of what it is all about, and once he has developed a rhythmic stroke that can be counted upon to strike the ball truly, the only thing he should worry about is knocking the ball into the hole.

From day to day, I found that my putting posture changed noticeably.  I always employed the same grip; I always stood with my feet fairly close together, with my knees slightly bent.  Always, too, I saw to it that my backstroke was ample; but sometimes I felt most comfortable facing directly toward the ball; at other times, perhaps a quarter turn away in either direction.  Again, there were times when my confidence was increased by gripping the club a few inches down from the end; at other times I liked to hold it at the very end of the shaft.

There are, of course, good putters among the so-called average golfers who by patience, study, and practice have developed putting methods they follow as they would a ritual; on the other hand, these instances are rare.

Anyone who hopes to reduce putting--or any other department of the game of golf for that matter--to an exact science, is in for a serious disappointment, and will only suffer from the attempt.  It is wholly a matter of touch, the ability to gauge a slope accurately, and most important of all, the ability to concentrate on the problem at hand, that of getting the ball into the hole and nothing more.  I think more potentially good putters have been ruined by attempting to duplicate another method than by any other single factor; by the time they can place themselves in a position they think resembles the attitude of the other man, they find themselves so cramped and strained that a smooth, rhythmic stroke is impossible."

As I watched Dave Stockton, I must admit I momentarily contemplated placing the putter in front of the ball before I stroked it the next time out; maybe even with a forward press--actually I already have a bit of a forward press sometimes--but I think this review of Bobby Jones' advice has prevented me from going down that road.  I would love to putt like Dave Stockton, but will have to settle for putting like John Haynes.