Thursday, 30 November 2017

Stewart Maiden: Bobby Jones' Teacher?

Stewart Maiden is regarded as Bobby Jones' teacher. But it's interesting to note how Bobby described their relationship in his book, Down the Fairway. Bobby wrote:

    "Stewart Maiden universally is termed my teacher, and the general idea is that Stewart started teaching me as soon as I was able to fall out of a cradle. This is quite wrong. Stewart never gave me a lesson in golf, though he has spent many hours, most of them profane, coaching me when I was in a slump with one club or another. I picked up my game watching him play, unconsciously as a monkey, and as imitatively. I grew up swinging as precisely like Stewart that when I was 15 years old and a chunky kid about Stewart's size and shape--I was playing in long pants in those days, as Stewart always has played--an old friend of Stewart's mistook me for him on the Roebuck Country Club course at Birmingham. I was playing in the southern amateur championship, or rather, I was playing a practice round before that tournament, and this man, who had not seen Stewart since he left Carnoustie, was standing by Dad as I was driving off the tenth tee in the distance.
     'When did Stewart Maiden get here?' he inquired.
     Dad told him Stewart was not there at all.
     'You can't fool me,' was the rejoinder. 'I saw Stewart drive just now from the tenth tee. Think I don't know that old Carnoustie swing?'
     'Nevertheless,' Dad told him, 'that happens to be my son Rob under that swing.'
     Stewart taught Alexa Stirling at the beginning of her golf career, and she too had 'the old Carnoustie swing.' Indeed, Alexa plays a good deal more like Stewart now than I do. I have changed some points in my swing, due to increasing differences--I am heavier than Stewart and wider across the shoulders and thicker in the chest. Perhaps in the head, too, as some of my alterations seem not to have worked out advantageously. In one regard, certainly, I went back two years ago to the old original Carnoustie style and got my drive just when it seemed an attack of smothering would drive me crazy."

I get a couple of things from reading this from Bobby. First, having a fine player as a model to imitate as a kid is very important. Secondly, Maiden was not only his swing model, but his coach when something in his game was "off." But Maiden never actually gave Bobby a "lesson." So Stewart may not have been Bobby's teacher per se. But he was his model and his coach. And, after all, what's in a name anyway?

You are fortunate if you start young and have a good swing to imitate. And you might also be sorry if, later on, you decide to alter that swing. My first swing model was my father, who was a pretty decent player. I then tried to swing it more closely like Jack, which wasn't a big change from my father's swing. I could really hit it from an early age. And I might have been a pretty good player had I been somewhere where I had good competition--and maybe been a bit more intelligent--and had golf not really just been more of a sideline for me when I wasn't playing baseball, and soccer, and rugby, and especially hockey. I really loved playing hockey.

In later life I made some swing changes to conform, in my mind at least, more to the modern tour swing--if there really is such a thing. My swing became flatter and more rotational. And I actually lost distance and ultimately buggered my back. I sure wish I could go back to swinging it more like Jack. If my back allows, I'm going to try to do just that next season.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Spieth Down Under

I watched Jordan Spieth's first round "down under" at the Australian Open. He got the worst of the weather, as the wind decided to blow and the greens firmed up. The morning wave had had their way with the course and Jordan was looking up at a leader at eight under par when he teed off.

Given the luck of the draw, Jordan, like the rest of the afternoon wave, had to tell themselves that they were in a marathon and not a sprint. There was no way the course was going to yield anything close to eight under. It was a survival test to be sure. And, despite bogeys on the first two holes, Jordan was able to do just that. He was able to grind his way to one under par. And, the way he was playing, I was left, as is so often the case with Spieth, wondering how the hell he managed to break par. 

The short answer is that he rolled in yet another twenty five footer for birdie on the last hole to get into red numbers. But it was the ugliest one under par round you were ever likely to see. He drove it crooked. He found bunkers, missed greens and makeable putts. But he still found a way to stay in the hunt. In fact, of the afternoon wave, there were few who scored better. His playing partner, Cameron Smith, who lost to Spieth in a playoff at the Aussie Open last year, did him one better with a birdie of his own on eighteen to go two under. But Smith had certainly not hit it as badly as Spieth.

This is the magic of Jordan Spieth. He knows has to play golf as well or better than anyone in the game right now. He manages, by hook or by crook, to make the best score he can possibly make every time he goes out there. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see him make a score in the benign conditions tomorrow morning and be near the top of the leaderboard. 

There are no pictures on the scorecard. Spieth proves that to be the case as much as anyone ever has. He somehow knows how to win ugly. And it's a beautiful thing.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Fateful DP World Tour Championship

At Brookline prior to that famous comeback by the American Ryder Cup team Ben Crenshaw announced that he was a "great believer in fate." Many who heard that comment probably thought he was nuts. But fate intervened that day. 

Crenshaw was a student of golf history and surely knew that Bobby Jones was also a believer in fate and wrote that most other top golfers were as well. Call it fate, call it luck, call it whatever you like, but you need some good breaks to win in this game. Luck is very much a part of the game of golf and you have to accept that sometimes the golfing gods will smile on you; and sometimes they won't.

This week at the DP World Tour Championship it looked, after nine holes into the final round, that Justin Rose was going to cruise to a win. He seemed to have things on auto-pilot. But the golfing gods, it seems, had other ideas. Justin lost the magic and Jon Rahm stepped up and got the job done to send a message to the world, in case they didn't already know, that he is going to be a big star in this game.

Perhaps it wasn't necessarily fate that Rose should lose the plot and Rahm win. But it was definitely providential that it should happen this way. The European Tour had announced, prior to this week's tournament, that Jon Rahm was the rookie of the year.  There were some who were critical of this announcement, despite the fact that Rahm had cinched the award based upon the amount of cash he had made in his limited appearances in European Tour events. Money was apparently the measure to be used when determining the winner, and no other rookie, regardless of how they did this week, was in a position to catch Rahm. He'd won it fair and square. But this didn't stop some people--who can remain nameless; they know who they are--from bellyaching about Rahm being announced as the Rookie of the Year. 

So, for Rahm to go out and win the Tour Championship was, at the very least, poetic justice. If it wasn't fate, it was certainly a big "up yours" to his critics. And perhaps it was fate. I'm also a big believer in fate; and I suspect young Mr. Rahm just might be fated to be Spain's next great champion.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

You Can Never Go Back

What does the future hold for Rory McIlroy? He's been a pro now for ten years. Hard to believe it's been that long. And, by just about any standards, it's been a great career so far. 

In fact, the young Northern Irishman has done enough already to have earned more than enough money to see him through; and he's won enough big events to be assured of being in the Hall of Fame. I guess the question now is whether he's still hungry enough for more Majors and whether he's going to be healthy and motivated enough to keep competing. 

It's not been a good year for him. He has not played as well as he's able and he's had nagging injuries. He's broken up with his caddie and now he's working on a new swing. And when I watch him, I can't help but see shades of Tiger. I have always felt he has tried to copy Tiger's recipe for success--or failure, depending upon how you look at it. 

I have offered up my two cents worth in the past about his workout regime. So, no need to visit that again other than to suggest that it hasn't helped him stay healthy, nor has it increased his swing speed. Now he is apparently looking to make changes--hopefully small ones--to that beautiful, free motion of his. And I have to wonder, as someone who messed with his own swing and came to regret it, whether he will one day wish that he could just go back to his old one. Because going back is not as easy as you might think. That old saying that you can never go back seems to relate to the golf swing as well as life.

Hopefully Rory comes out guns blazing in 2018. But I fear he may be going down the path his hero, Tiger, trod. We may just have seen the best of Rory McIlroy. After ten years in the pro game, he's starting to look like he's on the downhill slide. In the meantime, Tiger is apparently bombing it. Who knows. Golf is a funny game. But you can never go back, even if you wish you could.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Take Your Pre-Shot Routine

Bobby Jones said that golf was actually a simple game that involved hitting a ball with a stick. Man, have we managed to change that. Sometimes golf is now a five-hour ordeal that involves waiting, and watching, while average golfers try, in vain, to imitate the golfers they see on TV. The simple game has become awfully damned complicated.

Moe Norman, the famous Canadian golfer, didn't have time for all the nonsense we see today. In his old age he preferred to just hit balls because playing took so damned long. Missing it quick is something that seems to be no longer part of the golfing vocabulary.

There is a great story of Moe's time on the PGA tour when, frustrated by the snail's pace of play, he putted a ball between another player's legs and into the hole as the player was retrieving his ball. Sadly, they ran Moe off the tour. He just wasn't "serious" enough.

Now, Bobby Jones believed that every player deserved to be given ample time to play his shot unmolested. And that's fair enough. But he also believed that to be an acceptable playing partner you needed to learn to keep the ball in play and to be ready to play your shot when it was your turn. Today, too many players are forcing their playing partners to endure a lot of nonsense and fooling around when playing their shots.

I would love to kick the person who first decided to teach the ore-shot routine right in the "how's your mothers." Now, thanks to the apparent virtue of a consistent pre-shot routine, we get to watch a guy who can't break ninety put on his glove before every shot; then close the flap, then undo it and close it up again as per Ernie Els. We may also get to watch him tug on his shirt like Tiger, aim the clubface like Justin Rose, and even do the "do I, or don't I," three-step into the ball like the kid, Bradley, from Vermont whose aunt was a great player. And then, after all the pre-shot routine shenanigans, we get to search for his ball in the woods. 

We really have to get back to playing golf as it was meant to be played; where we hit the ball, chase it, and keep hitting it until it's in the hole. We can do it if we stop encouraging players to imitate the pros; and if we start making the pros hurry the hell up. I know I'm venting, but I remember those days as a kid when I could play 45 holes in a day. Now, the juniors, who have all learned to have a good pre-shot routine, are some of the slowest players on the course. 

We keep hearing about people in the golf industry wanting to grow the game. We keep hearing about how it takes too long. Well, we could start by teaching people not to imitate the pros. We could teach them to just hit the damned ball and chase it until they're breaking 80, or 75. We could suggest that, should they choose to wear one, they might want to keep their damned glove on; or at least have it on when it's their turn to play. That might be a good start. 

Golf, according to Bobby Jones, isn't really that hard--at least when you first start playing it. It is just another game where you hit a ball with a stick. Take your pre-shot routines and shove'em. Sorry, I know I'm venting.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Bobby Jones on Learners and Teachers

In his introduction to his book Golf is my Game, Bobby Jones, in my opinion, provided about the best preface to learning the game of golf that can be found anywhere. Now I realize I am biased in my appraisal because I happen to believe that Bobby Jones was the greatest golfer of all time. I don't intend to argue that point, because it's futile anyway, and Bobby himself would not be impressed if I were to in any way tear down another great player in an effort to build him up. Suffice it to say, his record speaks quite adequately for itself.

What I think impresses me the most about Bobby Jones was that he accomplished so much in the game, so early, while essentially golfing part time. While winning thirteen Major championships by the time he was twenty eight, Bobby also earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech, a degree in literature from Harvard, and, after one year of law school, passed the Georgia State Bar to earn the right to practise law. No small feat on its own, but to do all this while taking time away from his studies to run around beating the best golfers in the world is truly remarkable, to say the least.

But back to Bobby's introduction. As might be expected, Bobby began by giving us the purpose of the book. He wrote: "I have written this book because I thought I could help golfers of all classes to play better and to get more enjoyment from their play." That was the purpose of the book, plain and simple; to help golfers of every level play better and have more fun. 

Bobby never claimed to be a golf teacher. And, therefore, dealt with that immediately. He wrote:

    "I have never tried to teach golf, having always been on the receiving end of any such exchange, but I have spent many years trying to learn something about the game. At times I have thought that I had learned pretty well, but I always found more to learn."

Bobby, like Ben Hogan, understood that we never stop learning in this game. Or at least we never should stop learning. So, Bobby preferred to consider himself a successful student of the game rather than a teacher. With respect to teaching, Bobby went on to write:

    "Teaching anything requires a great deal more than knowledge of the subject. It is one thing to possess knowledge or the ability to perform--quite another to be able to impart that knowledge or skill. I am sure that I do not even know all the qualities needed by a teacher, although I have read several treatises on the subject. It is enough for me to know that I have no right to pretend to be one.
     On the other hand, in golf at least, I can claim to have been a fairly successful learner, and I more than half suspect that any golfer may rightfully attribute more if whatever skill he may possess to his own ability to learn than to the ability of someone else to teach. At any rate, I have written my book as a learner, rather than as a teacher. I am not ambitious to teach teachers to teach, but if I can help learners to learn, I shall consider my reward sufficient."

I think this sends a very good message to those who might desire to become teachers, or who already consider themselves to be teachers. They should never forget that a successful student can attribute as much of his success to his ability to learn as you can to your ability to teach. I think that's a good, and realistic way to approach the business of trying to teach others in this game.

Bobby now goes on to discuss how difficult it is to learn the game. Once again, I think it's a good message for students and teachers alike. He wrote:

    "It is a popularly accepted notion that golf is a difficult game to teach and a difficult game to learn. It doesn't have to be either. It is all a question of the level of skill to which the learner aspires, or upon which the teacher intends to insist. Considered objectively, it is quite obviously a very simple matter to propel a ball with a stick across some specially prepared ground and into a hole which is of sufficient size to accommodate it by a good margin. Simple, that is, provided there is no limit set upon the time or the number of strokes required. The matter is further simplified by reason of the fact that many earnest people have spent a lot of time, thought, and money upon the development of clubs and balls ideally suited to the process, and of greenskeeping methods which assure that the field of play will be more than reasonably well conditioned.
     I must insist, therefore, that one who sets out with the object of learning to play golf well enough to get both pleasure and benefit from the pursuit of the game has a very good, if not one hundred per cent, chance of success, provided he sets for himself exactly this goal, and no other.
     It seems to me that there are two quite reasonable ways in which a person may take his golf. If he has the time and the inclination to do so, he may set out to give the game a proper amount of serious study and practice with a view towards elevating himself considerably beyond the average-golfer class; or if he has only a very limited amount of free time, as many have, he may be content to knock around with his regular foursome, who play about as he does, in search of a little fun. But it will not do to mix the two, especially to hang the ambitions of the first man upon the labours of the latter."

Golf is definitely a game that can and should be enjoyed by everyone. But students and teachers must decide just what the goal is. Is the goal to become a better than average player; or is it just to be able to have some fun knocking it around with your buddies? And, if the goal is to become a good player, is the student prepared to put in the time and effort required? It's a fair and necessary question that must be answered if the ultimate goal of enjoying the game is to be reached.

I remember Harvey Penick talking about teaching a woman to get the ball in the air so she could go out on the course with her husband. When she got that ball airborne she was so delighted, and Harvey had goosebumps. I had a similar experience helping some girls from work before a work tournament. It was pure joy to see them hitting the ball in the air for the first time. They weren't going to break a hundred, but they were happy as clams, and so was I.

Sadly, I see all too often, teachers promising results to students that they can't possibly deliver. We see it constantly in books, magazines,  and on the internet. Buy this training aid, or this golf club, or read this article, or take this course, and you'll be hitting it like Henrik Stenson. Not only is it false advertising, it hurts the student by setting him up to fail because of unreasonable expectations. Why does the golf industry persist in this kind of snake oil salesmanship?

We can all enjoy this game if we are realistic about what it is we hope to achieve. And, if we are realistic, we can have lots of fun for a lifetime. Chances are we'll never hit it anything remotely like Henrik. But we can still have a passion for playing this wonderful game.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Bobby Jones on Match and Medal Play

Bobby Jones figured he was better at medal, or stroke, play than he was at match play. But he learned, over time, to be a master at both forms of competition. There is definitely a difference between the two, and I tend to find that Bobby's experience was similar to my own. Medal play was, and still is, harder on my nerves.

Consider what Bobby Jones wrote on the subject in his book, Golf is my Game:

    "I was very acutely aware that my mental attitude and nervous attunement towards the two forms of competition were quite different. I was nervous before a match, but it was more an eager sort of nervousness or impatience to go out and see who could hit harder and make the most birdies. Before a medal round my nerves would be even more tightly wound, but the eagerness gave way to apprehension and caution. I always had that hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, and my concern was to get the agony over, rather than to have the conflict started. I never had any sensation of fear before a match, but more of it than anything else before a medal round."

Funny, as I read this, I realize that I have generally been the same way. In match play, my nervousness is more like it was playing other sports. It is more anxiousness about just wanting to get out there and see if I can beat the other guy. But in medal play, I am always more nervous. I know that hollow, sick feeling in the stomach that Bobby wrote about.

But the interesting thing for Bobby was that he became better at match play by learning to view it differently. He wrote:

    "I suppose I never became as good at match play as at medal, but I did make progress in the former department by the ultimate achievement of the realization that, after all, a round of golf in either form was still a complete structure to be built up hole by hole, that restraint and patience paid off in either form, and that consistent pressure would subdue an opponent just as effectively as an opening salvo of birdies.
     It was not precisely playing the card or against 'Old Man Par' hole by hole. It amounted more nearly to setting out in complete detachment from surrounding circumstances to produce a fine round of golf. An opponent might do some damage at one stage or another, but he was not likely to surpass the entire production."

For me there are some terrific things to learn from Bobby's words. First, even the great players are anxious and nervous, even fearful, before a round of golf. So, I guess it's not a sign of weakness if it happens to me. Secondly, in any form of golf, we have to be patient, and we have to be detached from the surrounding crcumstances, such as how our opponent might be playing, or a bad break we might have suffered, or how we might be hitting the ball on the first few holes. We have to learn to view every round of golf as "a complete structure to be built up hole by hole." I love that analogy. We need to set out every time we play to try to build a fine round of golf. And that round is played one shot and one hole at a time. 

Rome wasn't built in a day. And a round if golf is not completed until the last putt drops, or us conceded. A hot start can end badly, and a poor start can end well. My best round of 65 started with a shaky par on the first and a clumsy bogey on the second hole. You just have to be patient, and sometimes good things can and will happen.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Bobby Jones on How to Take Strokes Off Your Game

Bobby Jones did discuss the golf swing. In part, I guess, because the golf swing seems to be a consuming interest for most players and teachers alike. But he wasn't at all convinced that anything he said about the golf swing was going to be particularly helpful to the average golfer. 

But Bobby Jones did believe there was one area where he could definitely help; and that was with respect to the short game. Consider what he had to say in his book, Golf is my Game:

    "When I try to tell a person something about how to swing a golf club, I am never quite certain that I am really helping him a great deal. But when I am on this particular subject (the short game) I know I can give sound advice which anyone can apply, to take strokes off his score and add to his enjoyment of golf.
     The main idea in the short play is to give yourself the benefit of all percentages. Never try to be unnecessarily fancy. Wherever possible, select a club which will permit the shot to be played in a straightforward manner and which will make all use possible of the most carefully prepared part of the golf course--the putting surface itself.
     As must inevitably follow from the above, do not for one moment entertain the notion of playing all short approaches with one club. A chipper or run-up club has no place in today's limited set.
     The rule to follow is this. Aim to pitch the ball in the air by only a safe margin on to the nearest edge of the putting surface, and strike it in a manner which will insure that it will take a full, normal roll--that is, without abnormal spin.
     If your ball lies a foot or two off the putting surface on what would be called the 'apron' of the green, use a number three iron and loft it just over the bit of apron on to the putting surface. The shot becomes only a long putt. From a few feet farther back you would use a five iron, and so on, but the shot would be the same. In any case, you are playing for the best possible average of results and not trying for anything spectacular. If you can consistently leave your chips within a radius of four to six feet from the hole, you won't suffer too much in the average golf game.
     All this may sound pretty simple and obvious, but even in select company I have seen departures from it which proved costly... One other rule should be definitely made for the average golfer. Let him never take his sand wedge (or 60 degree wedge) from his bag except when his ball is in sand, or in such heavy grass that a prayerful escape is the ultimate hope. The pros do wonders pitching with the wedge, but the extreme loft and extra weight cause it to be a treacherous club in the hands of an inexpert player. It is so easy with it to leave a ball sitting or to top it into Tiger country beyond the green."

Bobby Jones believed in the virtue of simplicity and practicality when it came to golf. Perhaps that's why he is my favourite teacher, who declined to consider himself a teacher. He never forgot that golf was ultimately about shooting the lowest score. Being fancy, or looking pretty, was never something he cared much about. This advice about short game alone could save many average golfers four to five shots a round; especially if they are average golfers who like to use their 60 degree wedge around the green.

I am probably not in what Bobby would call the average class of golfer, but even in my game I have found that not just automatically reaching for my 58 degree wedge around the greens--which was something I did for years--has helped my short game. I holed out the other day from the apron to a hole about forty feet away using an 8 iron. I left a couple of other chips stone dead using the same club. A few years ago, I wouldn't have even considered that sort of shot. I preferred the fancy shots.