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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Bobby Jones on Addressing the Ball

Today, I was thinking about how often shots are made or missed before the club has even been swung.  When you think about it, how often have you seen someone addressing the ball and just known they were going to miss the shot?  In fact, how often have you stood over a shot yourself and just known you were going to miss it?  On the other hand, how often have you watched a good player step into the shot and just known he, or she, was going to hit it dead solid perfect?  Addressing the ball with the correct attitude, physically and mentally, is vital to playing good golf. 

I was reviewing the book, Golf is my Game, where Bobby Jones deals, surely about as well as anyone possibly could, with the subject of addressing the golf ball.  In Golf is my Game, after having first dealt with the concept of learning by playing, then how the ball must be struck, and then how the club should be gripped, Bobby turned his attention to how to approach actually playing a golf shot.  It was written before the popularization of the idea of a "pre-shot routine," but it essentially deals with this as well.  Bobby wrote:

"The act of beginning to play a golf shot is called addressing the ball.  We already know that at this point there must be in the player's mind a very clear picture of the manner and direction in which he intends to hit.  As he approaches the ball and places himself before it preparing to strike, he must, of course, arrange his posture so that he feels capable of delivering a blow along the desired path.  He must become aware of this capability before the swinging of the club can have any purpose.  But the striving for this awareness of proper positioning can be far more effective than any effort to fit the stance to a prescribed diagram.

The keynote of the address position should be ease, comfort, and relaxation.  Above all else, the first posture must be one from which the movement of the swing may be started smoothly without having to break down successive barriers of tension set up by taut or strained muscles.  To go a bit further, the player should feel himself alert, sensitive to impulses, and ready to move in either direction.

It is always better at this point to be one's own natural self than to make an effort to look like someone else.  Any posture that feels uncomfortable is certain to produce a strain somewhere that will cause the ensuing movement to be jerky.  It is well to remember that there are no forces outside the player's own body that have to be resisted or balanced.  There is no need for him to set or brace himself, for there is nothing to brace against.  If one can conceive that he is standing naturally with a golf club in his hands, and that he bends over enough to ground the club behind a ball not too far distant, the resulting posture will be quite good."

Contrast this advice from Bobby Jones with the sort of prescribed, or standardized, address positions we are taught by many golfing experts.  Bobby's emphasis is on comfort and relaxation, rather than trying to make your body conform to some prescribed position.  Once you have picked your shot, and understand how the ball must be struck to produce that shot, Bobby tells us to set ourselves in the manner that feels most natural and comfortable in order to execute the required strike.

Bobby liked Abe Mitchell's golfing phrase: "A golfer must always move freely beneath himself."  Bobby liked this phrase, as it helped the golfer appreciate that he needn't root himself firmly to the ground, as if preparing to lift a heavy object, and that he must move his body, not just swing his arms.  Bobby wrote:

"My conception of the correct golf swing is built entirely around the one thought of assuring a full backward turn or wind-up of the trunk during the backswing.  This must be accomplished by the legs; and since the trunk must be turned around the spine as an axis under a motionless head, I think the player must truly 'move freely beneath himself.'"

It is here that Bobby deals with the idea that has become popularized under the name "pre-shot routine."  Bobby writes:

"This much is about enough for the beginner; but for others, and for him after he has played a bit, I want to make the suggestion of a further preliminary which I have found to be very helpful.  It is essentially to standardize the approach to every shot, beginning even before taking the address position. 

It is far easier to maintain a complete relaxation if one keeps continually in motion, never becoming still and set.  This sounds far-fetched, I know, but I have had a few players tell me that after taking great pains in addressing the ball, they have reached the point where they simply could not take the club back. It is a manner of freezing, and is well known to tournament players as a form of the 'yips'.

Long ago, and with no remembered intention, I standardized my approach in the following way:

Having decided upon the club to use and the shot to play, I could see no reason for taking any more time than was necessary to measure my distance from the ball and to line up the shot.  The more I fiddled around arranging the position, the more I was beset by doubts which produced tension and strain.

I began then to approach every shot from behind the ball looking towards the hole.  It was easier to get a picture of the shot and to line it up properly from this angle than from any other.  Ordinarily, coming up from behind, I would stop a little short of what my final position would be, just near enough to the ball to reach it comfortably.  From there, the club was grounded, and I took one look towards the objective.  The club gave me a sense of my distance from the ball; looking down the fairway gave me the line while my left foot swung into position.  One waggle was begun while the right foot moved back to its place.  When the club returned to the ground behind the ball, there was a little forward twist of the hips, and the backswing began.  I felt most comfortable and played better golf when the entire movement was continuous.  Whenever I hesitated or took a second waggle, I could look for trouble.

The little twist of the hips I have mentioned is a valuable aid in starting the swing smoothly, because it assists in breaking up any tension which may have crept in.  Often referred to as the 'forward press,' it has been regarded by many as the result of a movement of the hands.  In actual fact, the hands have nothing to do with it.  The movement is in the legs, and its chief function is to assure a smooth start of the swing by setting the hip turn in motion.  Without it, the inclination is strong to pick the club up with the hands and arms without bringing the trunk into use.

I do not think it wise to prescribe any definite number of waggles.  This depends too much upon how long is required for the player to settle into a comfortable position and obtain a proper alignment.  But it is important to make the movement easy, smooth, and comfortable and to form the habit of getting the thing done without too much fussing and worrying."

Imagine how pleasurable it must have been to watch Bobby Jones approach his ball and let it fly; with a minimum of fussing and fidgeting.  He did not suggest we imitate his exact routine.  He suggested we instead be ourselves.  Nevertheless, as you watch the top players play, I can't think of one who doesn't approach the ball from behind, looking down the target line.  If you aren't doing that, you are making it more difficult to aim the club.

Imagine the comfort of picking your target and your shot shape, moving without undo fuss to the ball, and then letting it go.  No time to worry, or get tense; just a smooth unbroken rhythm.  No need to imitate anyone else.  No need to develop affectations, like tugging on your shirt sleeve, or opening and closing the flap of your glove; you just step up and confidently and comfortably hit the damned ball.  You might still miss it, but at least you'll have missed it quick.  Besides, most shots are missed before the swing has even started.  Don't I know it.