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Monday, 21 August 2017

The Match

Match play is a wonderful format for playing golf. Sometimes it is also a terrific format for viewing the game. The benefits of match play in terms of playing the game are, or should be, obvious. Without the need to hole everything out, or to finish every hole, match play is played faster. And faster is good in this era of five hour rounds.

Match play also permits you to interact with another player in a much different way than you would were you playing stroke play. In match play you are playing your opponent, not the golf course. Score is relevant only insomuch as it is low enough to halve or win the hole. And matches end up being a shared experience between you and your opponent. If played in the right spirit, matches leave you with a real appreciation for your opponent. You realize that your opponent actually can assist you in playing your best. You push each other to achieve. 

At the Solheim Cup we witnessed a wonderful match between Lexi Thompson and Anna Nordqvist. It was a thrill ride that included initially some lousy golf from Thompson, some absolutely inspired golf, also from Thompson, and a near-perfect eight iron to the last hole from Nordqvist to halve the match after it had seemingly slipped away from her. The match was also played in the true congenial atmosphere that was considered to be mandatory by the great Bobby Jones. It was probably quite fitting that there was no winner in this match. Actually, there were three winners: Anna, Lexi, and everyone who witnessed the match. Both players will remember that match for the rest of their lives. And it will have been something they shared. You can be quite certain that if they weren't already, they are now good friends.

Most of my golf now is match play. I love it; especially when it comes down to the last hole or two to decide the winner. And match play isn't just about winning. The most memorable match Bobby Jones ever played was one that he lost--I believe it was to Chick Evans. No tears or sour grapes from Bobby. It's all about the shared experience with your opponent. If you haven't tried it, why not lose your pencil the next time you play and have a match. I'm willing to bet you'll become a believer.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Long Ball

To comb the net related to golf instruction very quickly reminds us that the major focus or preoccupation of most golfers, and therefore teachers, is on how to swing the golf club. Furthermore, a central theme seems to be ways in which golfers can learn to hit the ball farther. Golfers seem to be in continued awe of "the long ball."

I recently wrote an article dealing with the amount of coverage Rory was receiving because of his long driving. In that article I pointed out that it was the end of the matter that was so much more important if it was low scores you were looking for. Rory may have been driving the ball incredibly well, but he didn't win any championships. If you want to win championships, you had better be able to chip and putt.

Steve has started playing some really decent golf. After struggling for the past couple of years, he is now regularly scoring in the high seventies, instead of the low nineties. There is a big change in his game. And he looks like a different player on the course. He is more relaxed and a lot happier. Having worried for the past couple of years that I may have helped Steve go from being a low eighties shooter to a low nineties man, something has clicked for Steve-O.

One of the changes Steve has made is the switch to using his three wood or his four iron off the tee on the par fours and fives. Playing with his TourEdge Exotics three wood--a club I found in South Carolina and passed along to him--Steve hits the ball pretty much as far as he hit his driver, but much more often in the short grass. He is so pleased with the results from this approach that he no longer even carries his driver. He has become thoroughly convinced of the benefits of hitting the ball a few yards shorter in some cases, but keeping it in play.

Steve has also made huge improvements in his short game. He pitches and chips the ball much better. And it is here that he is saving so many more pars when he misses greens, as all of us do. Steve is visibly more relaxed on the golf course. He looks so much more confident when playing. And it all boils down to two things: getting the ball in play off the tee, and scrambling. 

If golf is about shooting the lowest score you possibly can, then perhaps we can learn something from Steve. We all need to use whatever means necessary to get the ball in play off the tee, rather than simply trying to just hit it as far down the fairway as possible. And we need to develop our short games. It may not be as sexy, or exciting, an approach to playing the game as swinging from your heels and going for the long ball. But, so long as golf is about shooting the lowest score rather than hitting it the farthest, perhaps there are a lot of players out there who might do well to leave their drivers in the trunk of the car like Steve. Just a thought.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Something in the Water?

It's strange. A lot happened in golf this past weekend. And this is, after all, my golf blog. 

JT won the PGA championship, his first Major, at Quail Hollow. I played in the same group for two days in our club championship with a thirteen year old boy who ended up beating us all. And yet, none of that seems to be worth writing about in view if what transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. This has been a very strange year or two watching what has been going on in the States. 

In the case of the election of Trump, and the circus that has followed for over two hundred days now, I would have said the truth is indeed much stranger than fiction. But now, I just don't know what to say. As the Brits would say, I'm gobsmacked. 

I guess all you can do, at a time like this, is remember that there are more good folks than bad in the US of A. And, ultimately, the kinder, quieter, and gentler folks will prevail. The racists and bigots will crawl back under their rocks. Trump and his band of merry men will be gone, hopefully before they've managed to do too much harm, and the restoration will begin. Either that, or Trump will actually blow us all the hell up. I just don't know anymore.

My thoughts go out to my friends south of the border. Most Americans are good people. But, you really have to wonder sometimes whether there isn't something in the damned water down there.

Friday, 11 August 2017

The End of a Matter

Rory McIlroy has been driving the ball about as long and straight as we've ever seen anyone drive it. It's been something to behold. When the subject has been discussed it has sparked some debate about equipment, and especially the golf ball. And rightly so, in my opinion. It just isn't right. I just can't relate to these guys playing 7800 yard courses. They're playing a game with which I am simply not familiar.

But, then again, there is a saying that goes something like: "The end of a matter is more important than its beginning." And this is particularly true in golf. It is a truism that has upset many a golfer. Every golfer wants to hit the driver long and straight. Most golfers wish they could hit it longer and straighter. The equipment manufacturers have made a lot of shekels because of this preoccupation by so many golfers. But a three hundred and fifty yard drive in the middle of the fairway doesn't amount to a hill of beans if you then chunk your wedge shot into the pond. In golf, it's the final score--the end of the matter--that's important.

Ben Hogan quite rightly said that the three most important clubs in the bag were the driver, the wedge, and the putter. He believed the driver was the most important club because it set you up to attack every hole. Now, far be it for me to claim to know more than the great Ben Hogan, but in this case I have to disagree. And I've got plenty of company. 

How many winners of the long driving contests do we see on the tour? Rory put on a driving display, the likes of which we've probably never seen, last week. Who won? The driver is an important club. No doubt about it. But, until they change the rules of golf and give you points for the length or accuracy of your drives, you had better be able to putt. 

The end of a matter is more important than its beginning. Not that long ago, I made birdie on number eight after duffing my tee shot just past the ladies' tee. I also remember missing a two-footer for eagle on a par five after a three hundred plus drive and a near-perfect second shot. Believe me, I wasn't the least bit consoled by the length of that drive. A good wedge shot, or a good putt, can cover a multitude of sins. A good drive is just a good start. Golf, until they change the rules, is still about "how many," not "how far."

Thursday, 10 August 2017

You Can't Always Get What You Want

What it was obvious the talking heads at the Golfchannel were hoping to see--and so was I, if the truth be told--was a shootout between Rory and Jordan Spieth at the PGA championship at Quail Hollow this week. But, in golf as in life, you can't always get what you want. Both stars failed to shine on Thursday. But they haven't totally fizzled out either. A good round tomorrow could easily put them both right back in the hunt.

Meanwhile, Rickie Fowler, despite a miserable seven on his card, ended up two under par and sitting comfortably at two back of the leaders, Oleson and Kisner. Rickie looked awfully good playing with Rory and Rahmbo today. He wasn't at all fazed by Rory's drives; or Rahm's for that matter. He just went about his business, looking cool as a cucumber on a course, albeit somewhat changed, where he has had some success, winning head to head against Rory.

We may not see what we want; with a final round shootout between the two young guns who both lack only one Major to get their career Slam. Not that Rory and Spieth won't come roaring back tomorrow. They very well could do just that. But, even if they don't, we just might see Rickie Fowler finally get his first Major. He certainly looks ready and able.

In the end, we may not see Rory, Rickie, or Jordan lift the trophy this week. You can't always get what you want. But, one thing for certain, whoever does win this week will have to have the nerve and the touch of a safecracker on those Quail Hollow greens. Man, are they scary.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Chicken or the Egg

While I often talk about the strike being more important than the swing, there is no doubt that a sound swing, just like a good grip and a good set up, enhances your chances of making a good strike. That's why it's kind of a chicken or the egg thing when it comes to what is more important and what comes first--a good swing or a good strike.

I say this because I seem to be an expert at not practising what I preach. I suggest, based on Bobby Jones' advice, that people focus on the strike, and then find myself fiddling with my swing. In that respect, I'm a really golfing hypocrite. I say one thing and find myself regularly doing another. I wish I had never discovered just how many ways there are to swing the club--all of which can work quite well, or not work at all. 

The problem, of course, with fiddling with your swing is that you are essentially distracting yourself from the business at hand, which is to knock the ball towards the hole. The other problem with fiddling with your swing is the fact that things can always get worse instead of better as a result. For every top player who has made swing changes and actually got better, we can probably name one or more that have actually got worse by making changes. And the question is always whether or not the golfer making those changes might have improved his play anyway had he not made the swing change.

Tiger is perhaps the best example. He took the golf world by storm. He was the best at every level he played. When he went from Butch to Hank Haney, Brandel Chamblee argued recently that he actually got better. But, was there not a period of time during that swing change where he was actually worse until he got better? If I am not mistaken, when Tiger switched to Haney he didn't win a Major for at least a year and a half at a time when he was the overwhelming favourite to win every time he teed it up. 

Then, of course, Tiger made other changes under other coaches and now finds himself pretty much out of the picture. Tiger's woes on the golf course obviously have had to do with things other than just swing changes. Injuries have been a factor. Personal issues have been another, as has an obvious loss of confidence ever since he was chased down at the PGA championship by a little known Korean player, losing a lead in a Major for the first time in his career. That he's never won a Major since Yang beat him is no coincidence. Tiger found out that he wasn't invincible with a lead after all.

I think the record shows that while Tiger was making changes to his swing, even if he did eventually become a better ballstriker, at least under Haney, there was a period of time where he stopped winning while he was incorporating those changes. And I think that was because his focus during those intervals was on swinging the club instead of getting the ball in the hole and winning golf tournaments.

The obvious question that begs to be asked, but can never be answered, is what Tiger might have accomplished in the game had he not made any swing changes. I think Tiger would, could, and probably should, have smashed virtually every record in the game had he just stuck with the swing he had when he arrived on tour under Butch--had he just danced with the one he brung. That's the thing about making swing changes; we never know whether we will get better or worse. And, if we get better, we will also never be absolutely certain it was because of the swing change and not just the fact that we learned to play better.

Ultimately, golf is all about getting the ball in the hole the quickest. There are no pictures on the scorecard, and the best players don't always have the best, or prettiest, swings. Therefore, I really believe the more our focus remains upon doing just that--getting the ball in the hole--the better off we will be. I, for one, very much regret having gone down this road, experimenting with my golf swing. I wish I had just danced with the gal I had brung. Others, of course, may feel differently.

I believe that it's all about the strike. But it's the old, which came first argument--the chicken or the egg--the swing or the strike. All I know is I just wish I could practise what I preach and go out every day focussing on striking the ball in such a way as to make it behave; and putting all my mental and physical energy into just trying to get the damned ball from the teeing ground into the hole in the fewest strokes possible. That is, after all, what golf is really all about.

Running Like a...

I play with one character, name withheld to protect the guilty, who is a writer. Given my love of writing, as well as golf, we often have fun with ideas and expressions as we play.

We like to try to put just the right spin on what's happening on the golf course. I had annoyed Spiro, much to the amusement of ny writer friend, by once exclaiming that Spiros' worm-burner was "running like a Greek with a handbag." Spiro was offended by the insinuation that any self-respecting Greek would steal a handbag.

Not to be outdone, my writer friend hit a low runner the other day and exclaimed, "That's running like a lone midget at a fetish conference." Now that may not exactly be politically-correct. But you have to give him an "A" for originality.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Sam Snead

Early in his career, Sam Snead, the most prolific winner the PGA tour has ever seen was known as a choker. Like Bobby Jones, it took Sam some time to win a Major. In his book The Education of a Golfer, Sam wrote:

    "After five years as a circuit pro, I'd won close to thirty Opens, from San Diego to Miami, but not one national title. The papers called me a choke artist, a cheese champ, a 'mystery,' and a 'hex-haunted hillbilly.' One syndicated writer claimed I was the Shoeless Joe Jackson of the links--Jackson never quite able to edge Ty Cobb for the batting title.
     A hell of a comparison that was, even though it's true that I broke into golf in bare feet and in the back country, where our plumbing was a two-holer outdoors. Jackson had just Cobb and three or four others to worry about. When I was a young pro, I had Ed Dudley, Craig Wood, Vic Ghezzi, Horton Smith, Johnny Revolta, Jimmy Thomson, Lighthorse Harry Cooper, Dick Metz, Wild Bill Mehlhorn, Paul Runyan, Lawson Little, Ky Laffoon, Henry Picard, Denny Shute, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Wiffy Cox, Ray and Lloyd Mangrum, Tony Manero, Jimmy Demaret, Jug McSpaden, and Guldhahl, among others, to crack up against--maybe the greatest field ever assembled."

Sam, of course, did break through and win his share of Majors, although he was skunked in the US Open. But when we think about competition, was it any less in Sam's day than in the time of Tiger, or today? Sam Snead teed it up against some hard men--men unlikely to flinch when battling for a title. His opponents were hungry. And, as Trevino said, "A hungry dog hunts best." 

So, when you talk about great players, never forget the Slammer, who went up against perhaps the greatest fields ever assembled and became the winningest of the bunch. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Lydia Ko

I've been loving watching all the links golf we've been treated to this past month or so. Watching the ladies play Kingsbarns, a course I really love, has been a treat. I really enjoy watching the ladies play. I think, for the average golfer, they can probably teach us more than watching the flat-bellies on the PGA tour who play a game with which most of us will never be familiar.

Watching the ladies we see players play courses about the same length as most of us play and hitting about the same clubs we might use under similar circumstances. They show us what can be done with good rhythm and a good shortgame. They are amazing to watch.

I couldn't help but notice that the seemingly "can't miss kid," Lydia Ko has been struggling of late. She has seemingly gone from being an unflappable golfing savant to someone who now seems to have to "work" at the game. I don't claim to know the reason for this loss of form in Lydia's case. But she seems to be an example of what Bobby Jones said about golf. He said that golf was the only game that becomes more difficult the longer you play it. Why that is, I don't know. But it's often true.

I know that Lydia has made changes. She's made swing changes. She's changed equipment. She's changed caddies... And, unfortunately, in golf when you make changes in order to hopefully get better, you sometimes get worse; at least in the short term. There are always going to be those who suggest ways to improve. And, in golf, you experience inevitable peaks and valleys in your game. But I think any changes are made at your peril in this game. And, at least in Lydia's case, I'd have been saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

In Lydia Ko we had a golfing prodigy. She was simply crazy good at a young age. She was a genius at making a score. She wasn't a power player. She just played the game better than everyone else. Let's hope she finds a way to get back to being at or near the top of the pack and that the time being spent in golfing purgatory doesn't mess up her head. Because, ultimately, as in the case of most great champions, what separated Lydia from the pack was the five or so inches between her ears. Golf is a mind game. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Thin to Win

There's a saying, "Thin to win." I hit several thin iron approaches in our league night that looked and felt like they would be awful, but turned out nestling up reasonably close to the pin.

On four, I thinned another eight iron that landed short, skipped once and then skidded to a halt about fifteen feet left of the pin. It was not a goid strike, and I laughed and said, "Thin to win." 

George then said he'd never heard the saying. He looked at Chris, who was playing on the other team and asked, "Have you ever heard that one?"

Chris shook his head. Now, George likes to kid around, so I reckon he could have just been being facetious. But Chris looked serious as a judge when denying that he had heard the expression, thin to win. Either way, there's a lot of truth in the saying. Many thin shots turn out to be okay. Fat shots inevitably leave you deflated as they pull up woefully short of the target.

So, if you're going to miss your shots, try to miss them on the thin side. At the risk of sounding sexist or chauvanistic, I must confess that I like to see a woman with some meat on her bones. I'm not a fan of people starving themselves trying to be thin. But, when it comes to golf, thin is in. Fat is definitely not where it's at. 

Steve's ballstriking has really improved, as has mine, by trying to "clip the tee" when striking the ball. I had previously been inclined to take divots you could use to bury small mammals in. But trying to clip the imaginary tee under the ball, or as Harry Vardon said, "knocking the legs out from under it," produces a nice trajectory and very few of those nasty fat shots, if an occasional thin one.

Thin to win, folks. Thin to win. 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Bobby Jones on the Grip

I wrote yesterday about how important Henry Cotton felt the hands were to playing good golf. Bobby Jones also felt this way. I was just reading Golf is my Game, where Bobby talks about the grip and provides some interesting insight. He wrote:

    "I like to think of a golf club as a mass attached to my hands by a weightless but rigid connector, and I like to feel that I am throwing the clubhead at the ball with much the same motion I should use in cracking a whip. By this simile I mean to convey the idea of a supple, lightning-quick action of the hands.
     Stiff or wooden wrists shorten the backswing and otherwise destroy the feel of the clubhead. Without the supple connection of relaxed and active wrist joints and a delicate, sensitive grip, the golf club, which has been so carefully weighted and balanced, might just as well be a broom handle with nothing on the end. The clubhead cannot be swung unless it can be felt on the end of the shaft.
     I have seen numbers of players who take hold of the club as though it was a venomous snake and they were in imminent peril of being bitten. A tight grip necessarily tenses all the muscles and tendons of the wrists and forearm so that any degree of flexibility is impossible.
     The only way I know of achieving a relaxed grip which will at the same time retain adequate control of the club is to actuate the club and hold it mainly by the three smaller fingers of the left hand. If the control is at this point, the club can be restrained against considerable force, and yet the wrist joints retain complete flexibility.
     The great fault in the average golfer's conception of his stroke is that he considers the shaft of the club as a means of transmitting actual physical force to the ball, whereas it is in reality merely the means of imparting velocity to the clubhead. We would all do better if we could only realize that the length of the drive depends not upon brute force applied, but upon the speed of the clubhead. It is a matter of well-timed acceleration rather than physical effort of the kind that bends crow-bars and lifts heavy weights.
     My prescription is, therefore, only that the club be held mainly in the three smaller fingers of the left hand, and that the shaft should be laid across the middle joint of the index finger of this hand. The remainder of the gripping should be done as lightly as possible, exerting pressure upon the shaft only as this becomes necessary in order to move or restrain the club.
     Let it be known right here that many acceptable golf shots and drives of good length can be produced by players who have nothing more than active hands and a good sense of timing. These players will never achieve the consistency nor the extremes in length attainable by the expert with good form, but they will, nevertheless, be able to get a lot of fun out playing golf."

There are some really valuable ideas presented here by Bobby Jones. The idea of gripping the club in such a way as to be able to feel the clubhead is something so many of us miss as we put a deathgrip on the club. This, followed by the importance of understanding that the shaft of the club is the means by which we provide speed to the clubhead, rather than the means to transmit force to the ball, can't help but improve our ballstriking. How many times haven't I been guilty as charged of trying to use the shaft of the club to apply force to the ball. It's really the caveman approach to golf. Swinging the club as Lee Trevino once said, "like a caveman killing his lunch."

I remember playing with Bob on the seventeenth hole and asking him whether he could feel the clubhead when he was swinging. His answer was an emphatic "Nope." Watch a good player hold the club. Notice how relaxed his hands are, and how loose and supple his hands and wrists are. A grip like that allows them to swing that clubhead and really crack the whip. We have well-designed and weighted golf clubs. But weighting and design mean very little if we don't make use of the clubhead; if we continue to swing the shaft at the ball instead of the clubhead.

I know, as I search for ways to overcome the difficulties imposed by my back issues, that I am going to be more conscious of my hands. With nothing more than good use of my hands, I think I might just be able to still play a respectable enough game to enjoy it. And that's all most of us want to do. We want to play a reasonably good game for us, commensurate with our experience and our abilities. Most of us aren't playing for our supper. And that is probably a very good thing.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Good Hands

In his youth, Henry Cotton was a fanatical practiser. He laboured over his golf swing and his shortgame probably as much as any golfer ever has. There are stories of him, as a young man, having to be carried off the practice tee or green because he was so cramped up from hitting shots. And, after all this toiling to find the perfect golf swing, he finally came to believe that the real answer to playing good golf lies in your hands; the only thing that links you to the golf club.

Bobby Jones also believed that anyone with a decent set of hands can play good golf. They may not hit the ball prodigious distances with nothing more than a good set of hands, but they can hit it far enough to play well.

Modern teaching tends to ignore the importance of the hands in favour of swings generally based on the use of larger muscles. Many teachers have adopted the notion that, to gain consistency, it's much better to rely on a large-muscle swing than to rely on the "twitchy" muscles of the hands. It's a fine theory, but does this reliance on a swing governed by the big muscles produce the best golf for the average player? 

I have been a bit of a student of the golf swing myself. Nothing like Henry Cotton perhaps, but I have tried a variety of different swings. And what I've found is the truthfulness of the fact that the game ultimately boils down to feel and touch. And, like it or not, that feel is in our hands. Our hands ultimately control how and where the head of the club is applied to the golf ball. 

So, what's the best way to develop a good set of hands? Bob Toski believed it was by hitting short shots first. Learn to hit all sorts of solid chips, pitches, and putts, and solid full shots will likely follow. Harvey Penick said that the full swing was really just a long chip shot. I know that I've been playing much better, despite my back problems, when thinking of my full shots as simply longer chips or pitches. It helps my control; and it helps me not to over-swing. 

Most teachers want to teach a golf swing to their students. To a degree that is understandable, I suppose. Because how do you teach a golfer feel and touch? Short answer is, "You don't." Feel and touch comes only from hitting golf shots. And it's best to start to develop that feel and touch from the green back to the tee. The best players have all spent lots of time, usually beginning as kids, around the greens learning to get the ball in the hole--which is the name of the game. And the best players have always had the best hands. They are able to use their hands to manufacture shots of all sorts to deal with all sorts of situations.

So, take it from Henry Cotton, who literally wore himself out trying to develop the perfect swing. Get yourself a tire, or an impact bag, and whack it to develop strong hands and vital golf muscles. Learn to use your hands to control the clubhead and provide some zip to the hit. Your hands are your friend if you learn to use them properly. And remember, a good teacher can show you a good grip. But only you can develop the feel of a solid, crisp strike, and that feel is through your hands.

Radar and I were marvelling at Carl the Grinder the other day. At 74, he still hits it a mile, and he's deadly around the greens. When he swings, he sometimes looks more like a guy falling off a ladder than a golfer. But, as we both concluded, he's got a great pair of hands. It's all in the hands, not the shoulder turn, or a straight left arm, or a braced right knee, or...

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The First Foot

Arnie believed that, with a good grip, if you were able to take the club straight back for the first foot in one piece, in other words, without breaking your wrists, you were pretty much assured of a decent shot. I'm sure this will sound like a huge over-simplification of the golf swing, but simple is good.

Perhaps the greatest shotmaker of all time, Byron Nelson, swung the club in such a way that his club was square to the target and moving down the target line for twelve inches after impact. Playing this way, Nelson hit it so consistently that he could play entire rounds scarcely missing a shot. 

So, there you have it. The first foot going back, and the first foot going through impact are key to hitting good golf shots. The easiest way to have control over those two feet is by using your top hand. If, as a right-handed player, you push the club straight back to begin the swing using your left hand; and if you pull the club through impact straight down the target line through impact with your left hand; you won't believe how straight you can hit it. 

The straightest hitter of them all, Moe Norman, said he pulled the club down the line with his left hand and felt he kept his clubface square to the target for 22 inches after impact. Whether he actually managed to do this or not is really immaterial. The fact is he felt that he was doing this. Moe also took care of the first foot of the backswing by setting his club about a foot behind the ball for full shots. By doing this he felt he couldn't take the club outside, and he couldn't snatch it to the inside going back.

If you aren't hitting the ball square, or straight, try looking to the first two feet--the first foot going back, and the first foot going through. Arnie, Moe, and Lord Byron played that way. And they knew a little something about ballstriking.