Monday, 27 March 2017

What About the Good Old Days?

We were witness to some extraordinary golf at the WGC Match Play. Consider the final between DJ and Jon Rahm, where the two literally overpowered the golf course with drives approaching, if not exceeding, 400 yards--hitting wedges on their second shots into par fives of 580 yards.

It's amazing to watch. But one wonders where it will end. How much longer will we allow distance technology in the golf game continue until enough is enough? Jack Nicklaus has long advocated for a ball that has a limit on how far it can travel. And it seems to me, for these top professionals at least, that has to be done, before the game becomes nothing more than "bomb and gouge," players hitting mammoth drives and flick wedges to every hole. 

It may be exciting for some to watch, but it almost isn't golf any more. Remember the iconic photo of Hogan hitting that one iron to the final green at the US Open at Merion? Today it would probably be a seven iron, or less. Call me old fashioned, but I miss the days when the great players had to play the game with woods that were made of wood, forged blades for irons, and balata balls. Those were the days when a four hundred yard par four was considered reasonably long. This week they were driving to the fringes on greens over 400 yards.

Oh well, old farts like me are always inclined to remember the good old days. A wise man once wrote: "Don't ask why things were so much better in the old days. It is not an intelligent question."

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Taking a Knife to a Gunfight

Granny is unfortunately starting to have some senile dementia. But, after watching the WGC Match Play yesterday, she said to me, "He's really something, isn't he?"

I said, "Who? You mean DJ?" Granny nodded. She may be losing the plot a bit, but she still knows something special when she sees it.

Watching him now playing with Tanihara you again see, even when not firing on all cylinders, just how dominant he has become. After DJ hit it in the hazard only to drain another long putt for par--I can't recall what hole--and Tanihara made an unforced bogey to lose the hole, you could see Tanihara's shoulders start to slump.

For most players, playing DJ right now is like going to a gun fight with a knife. All you can reasonably hope for is that his gun jams. And the problem is, DJ seems to be sporting a pearl-handled six- shooter. And they don't jam.

Shaping Up to be a Doozy at the World Golf Match Play

This is shaping up to be one doozy of a World Golf Match Play Championship. DJ is playing like a man possessed. Spain's Jon Rahm is demonstrating that he is definitely going to be a world-beater, barring anything unforeseen occurring. Sweet-swinging Billy Haas has found something thanks to a visit from his father, Jay, and seems to have luck on his side this week. And Japan's Hideto Tanihara, pretty much unknown outside of Asia, has managed to hang in there and find himself facing DJ in the semis.

Smart money would probably suggest that DJ and Rahm will continue to dispatch their opponents before they reach 18, and we will be watching a real heavy-weight final. But it's hard to imagine that Bill Haas will be as easy to deal with for Rahm. He's found something this week, and he has proven his mettle in match play on a big stage in the last Presidents Cup, securing the winning point in the final match. 

And this Tanihara is such an unknown quantity. He's a multiple winner in Japan and is the tour's best putter. You can never under-estimate the power of the putter. It would be a shock to see him be able to keep pace with DJ, but in eighteen holes of match play anything can happen. 

It's hard to imagine anyone beating DJ this week. He had a little stumble around the turn yesterday afternoon against Noren, looking almost human for a moment. But he was stirred--not shaken, and just dropped the hammer on the Swede. 

But you just never know in this game. There's a bit of luck involved in this game as well. So, don't be too surprised if you see Bill Haas lifting the trophy. He's been lucky as hell this week.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Bacon Park Golf Course in Savannah

If you are planning a trip to Savannah and are taking your clubs, don't miss a chance to play Bacon Park Golf Course. It's a Donald Ross design; a muni that for some years has been struggling, but is now making a comeback.

It's a wonderful course, with those devilish Ross greens that can drive you to drink. Built before golf courses were designed as much to sell real estate as to challenge golfers, this course is walkable--no route marches between holes here. While the fairways are not pristine, the greens are great. There are plenty of mature trees, including my favourites, live oaks.

I have a book on Donald Ross courses, entitled Golf As It Was Meant to be Played. Donald Ross was a great designer of courses that are very playable for the average player, while being challenging to the expert. Bacon Park is no exception. And what's even better is that it is very affordable to play as well. 

So, if you're visiting Savannah; or you hail from the area and haven't played Bacon Park, give it a try. But if you want to score, you had better bring your short game; especially your putter. Bacon Park is a course I could play every day. And there was a nice little house just across the street for sale. Who knows; maybe my ship will come in and I'll someday find myself there. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

Spieth Over DJ

I just watched an interview with Jordan Spieth during which he summed up the fact that in his next match he wanted to "make committed swings to the right targets." This comment is an indication of just why this kid is so good.

What a great way to summarize how golf is played. It isn't about hitting the ball the farthest--Spieth can't--or making the prettiest swings--Spieth doesn't--golf is as much about how well you think as it is about how well you hit the ball. And Jordan Spieth has a very high golf IQ. Without it he would never have so quickly learned to play Augusta National, for example. 

Looking at Dustin Johnson's interview as well today, he concluded by saying that all he had to do was to continue to drive and putt it well as he has been doing and he knew he will be tough to beat. DJ is clearly the man out there right now. He's absolutely brimming with confidence--and why wouldn't he be? So, golf IQ is important, as is confidence. But to be the best you must do one thing really well. That, of course, is putting.

What has kept the uber-talented and powerful Johnson from being the best, as he clearly now is, was relatively average, if not poor, putting. The fact that he has not only improved his wedge game, but now rolls his rock with a high degree of confidence and skill makes him, as he said, "Tough to beat."

Spieth, on the other hand, has not been quite as good on the greens as he was in his phenomenal Major-winning season. Unless he finds that magic on the greens again, despite his terrific golf mind, he can forget about out-duelling DJ. But there is a reason why I'm talking about these two.

I pick DJ or Spieth to win the Masters this year. Obviously, I'm not really going out on a limb here. DJ is clearly the top gun right now, and Spieth's record at Augusta is nothing short of amazing at a place where more than a few champions have more than one green jacket.

So, who wins between Spieth and DJ at the Masters? I say, Spieth. Why? Horses for courses--horses for courses, baby! 

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Should We "Double It"?

Bobby Jones was not big on practising. He believed the game was best learned by playing it. This was in part due to the fact that he was quickly bored by hitting balls from a flat lie and would find himself firing shots off at a machine gun pace and end up tired and disgusted by the whole process. He eventually only practised if he had something definite to work on or fix. Once that was done he went home and let his mind and body rest until he next teed it up.

Ben Hogan absolutely loved to practise. A day he didn't practise was a day lost to him in his desire to perfect his shotmaking. Hogan's impact can definitely be seen in golf today, where practice is viewed as being absolutely essential for a top player. Hogan famously had Gary Player, who is one of golf's hardest workers and practisers, come to him for advice. He asked Gary to describe his practice sessions, to which he responded, "Double it."

Harvey Penick taught two very different golfers in Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw. Tommy loved to practise. Ben wanted to play. Harvey had no issue with either of them. They were being true to their own personalities and both succeeded in the game they loved.

So, perhaps in golf, like life, we should avoid the word should. We need not feel guilty if we aren't spending hours hitting balls or working on some aspect of our game. We should practise if we have something to work out in our game, or if we are enjoying the process and want to practise. But if we haven't got the desire to practise, we shouldn't feel guilty. Perhaps that's just how we're wired. 

In the end, you can never, or should--there I used that word again--never knock a person for working hard on their game. But the fact still remains that the longest walk in golf is from the practice tee to the first tee; and there are lots of guys with grooved swings who can hit it perfectly on the practice tee, but struggle on the course. Golf is about much more than hitting balls. 

Still, I sometimes wonder if I'd be better if I practised harder. What if I "doubled it"? Fortunately, or unfortunately, the point is now pretty much moot because my back won't allow much practising even if I wanted to. So, I say, to thy own self be true. If you love to practise, good for you. If you don't, but love to play; no problem. Gary Player figured that the harder he practised the luckier he got. And that may be true for him, but my money would still be on Bobby Jones.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Henry Cotton on Playing With the Hands

Who knew golf could be so complicated? Or is it just the golf swing? As Bobby Jones wrote, "golf is played by striking the ball with the head of the golf club." He also said that while crafting his game as a boy, a game that was good enough by the time he was fourteen to get him into the US Amateur, he never gave any thought to the golf swing. In fact, he could not recall his teacher, Stewart Maiden, ever being drawn into a conversation about the golf swing. To Maiden, and to Bobby, the game was all about striking the ball, not swinging the club.

Harry Vardon admitted that he never thought about the golf swing until he was winning golf tournaments and was employed at a club trying to teach others. On the other hand, Henry Cotton spent much time as a youth struggling to learn the game by trying to mimic the swings of great players until he saw, what was for him, the light. What he ultimately found was that the way to play great golf was to train his hands to control the clubface and strike the ball. 

While Cotton never denied that much of the mechanical teaching, that focussed essentially on the body swinging the club, worked for some, he also believed that sort of teaching led to injury and was mostly effective when used by athletic players who would likely have been good players in spite of, rather than because of, this sort of instruction. The reality, according to Henry Cotton, and Bobby Jones for that matter, is that anyone can learn to play good golf with nothing more than a good set of hands.

This is particularly important for golfers like me, who are suffering from serious physical problems that make a swing governed by the body rather than the hands and arms a virtual impossibility. Henry Cotton, called the "ultimate hands teacher" in the book The Methods of Golf's Masters, had these things to say about playing golf with your hands:

    "Golf is a game of fingers and hands working in coordination with other parts of the body. Good hands plus balance and a swing of the clubhead in a free arc will take care of all the so-called positional basics.
     The best swing in the wirld us only as effective as the strength of the fingers to hang onto the club at impact. If your hands are weak, the shock of impact will move them on the club. Exercise your hands, overtrain them--they can't be too strong...
     A grip in which the back of the left hand ( for a right-handed player) faces the target at address allows that hand to turn more freely through the ball at impact while allowing the right hand to supply the power. (It's worth noting that this is something agreed upon from Harry Vardon, to Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus and many other great players)
     The right hand is the 'finder' hand. Think of it as being an extension of the clubface. It will naturally come from any backswing position to hit the ball squarely if it is properly trained and you allow it to do so.
     Most people's hands instinctively return to the same alignment at impact that they were in at address. If the back of the left hand and the palm of the right hand parallel the clubface at address, then they'll do so at impact if they are properly trained and if you swing freely without manipulating the club."

So, what do we learn from Henry Cotton? The grip is important. At address the back of the left hand and the palm of the right hand, for a right-handed player, should face the target, mirroring the clubface. The hands need to be trained, and they can't be too strong. Sam Snead, Harry Vardon, Henry Cotton, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Hogan, to name but a few of golf's great players, had large, powerful hands. They also had hands trained to return the club to impact correctly and with power.

That, you might say, is great for these players, and anyone else blessed with strong hands, but what about the average person wanting to learn to play better golf using their hands? Henry Cotton said we needed to exercise and train our hands hitting balls. But he also discovered, quite by coincidence, another way that was in some ways superior to even that.

Cotton arrived one day at his club and saw a tire laying on the ground near his parking space. Using the club he routinely carried, he started moving the tire by hitting it with the golf club. The light went on and he started using this exercise for all of his students. Having his students strike the tire, using just their left hand, then just their right hand, and then both hands, saw them built muscle and strength in their hands. wrists, and forearms; and they learned to return the club square to the target at impact, regardless of their backswing. It worked like magic.

Since then, of course, we have had impact bags that served the same purpose. But they don't appear to be a fixture in modern instruction or exercise, which focusses more often on other parts of the body. I guess it's up to you, but if you haven't thought about training and strengthening your hands; and you aren't having much success with just working on your swing; perhaps you should give the tire a try. It certainly couldn't hurt. And if you do, don't firget Henry Cotton, who was one of golf's all-time great players and teachers.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

No Such Thing as a Bad Golf Course

I've not been writing lately. I've been on the road, playing golf in the Saint Augustine area--and now at Murrells Inlet near Myrtle Beach. I've played some good courses, and some not-so-good courses, letting the deals on GolfNow and through my travel club pick where I might play.

say I played some not-so-good courses, but I've rarely met a golf course I didn't end up liking. While I can be a morose character at times, I seem to always see the good in golf courses as long as they are designed as any course should be--to be playable for everyone. That's why truly great courses are great. They are designed to provide options and for a way for everyone to play and enjoy them--no island greens, for example. The Old Course at St Andrews is probably the finest example of such a course. But for the Swilcan Burn, you could play it with a putter. And it demands more than just the ability to hit it far, or hit it high. So old budgies like me still have a fighting chance against the flat bellies if we play it smart.

I remember once being in Newfoundland, with nary a golf course for miles, when I was informed that a local character had made a golf course of three holes on a spit of land jutting into the ocean. It wasn't really a golf course at all, except for the fact that there were three holes dug in the ground with sticks as flags. There were really no fairways, or greens for that matter. There was really no evidence of the hand of man except for those three holes dug. But, I had a ball playing it, as I'm certain any golfer dying to play would.

I figured it must have to some extent resembled the first courses played on links land by sailors, or shepherds, or whoever devised the game. But I had the advantage of using relatively modern equipment and balls that flew true if you hit them properly. It was a great experience. And it taught me the fact that there is really no such thing as a bad golf course. It's just that some are better than others.