Saturday, 28 March 2015

Jordan Spieth

Once again, Jordan Spieth finds himself in the hunt at the Valero Texas Open. Despite struggling home in thirty eight, Jordan is in second place, four shots back of Jimmy Walker. What is it about this kid that makes him so good?

I reviewed his stats for a clue. Unfortunately, the answer doesn't seem to be there. He's forty fourth in driving distance. He's one hundred and thirty fifth in driving accuracy. He's one hundred and fifty first in greens in regulation. In sand saves, he ranks ninety third. In ball striking he doesn't rank in the top one hundred. Not very impressive by anyone's standards.

But a closer look reveals that in the stats that really count, Spieth is doing much better. In birdie average he's eighth and in scoring average, he's sixth. And this isn't because he's a top putter. In strokes gained putting, he ranks twenty third. So how on earth does he do it?

It appears that Spieth is one of those special players who somehow gets more out of his game than he really should. He has that innate ability to cobble a round together, despite very average ball striking and good, but not great, putting. The bottom line is he's a great player. He's not a great ball striker. He plays a great game of golf. It may not be pretty, but young Mr. Spieth manages his game as well as anyone out there, and he has that ability to somehow make a putt, or get it up and down, when he really needs to. 

He may not win tomorrow, but, once again, despite a rather untidy back nine, he's in with a chance. By the way, I picked him last week to win the Masters. I'm still feeling pretty good about his chances. This kid is the real deal. He's also a living example of the fact that golf is about getting the ball in the hole. Looking pretty while doing so is not a prerequisite.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Hammer the Nail

In golf, as in life, focus is important. Most of us wish we could be more focussed when we play. However, the question is, what should we focus on? With the plethora of dos and don'ts that we receive from instructors, there are numerous positive and negative things we can choose to focus on while executing the golf swing. But we do so at our peril. The reality is there is really only one thing we should want to be focussed on as we make our swing: striking the ball. Bobby Jones felt that the strike was the thing to focus on, and made the strike the object of his intense concentration. He felt, by doing so, his swing essentially took care of itself.

While it may seem obvious that we should focus on striking the ball, the sad fact is, in the second and a half or so that it takes to make a golf swing, our mind can do some real gymnastics. I'm speaking from experience when I say we can think of, or find our focus shifting to, several things during that short period of time that comprises our swing; none of which that are likely to help the end result. I have observed myself often thinking about several things, like the direction and pace of my takeaway, whether I've completed the backswing, whether my right knee is braced, where my right elbow is at the top of the swing, and so on: all during the short time it took me to make a swing. Not to mention, sometimes experiencing the sudden "don't hit it left" voice, just at or prior to impact.

A quiet, focussed mind makes golf more fun, and definitely improves our play. But, how do you achieve a quiet, or focussed mind? And, more importantly, what do you focus your mind on? Bobby Jones indicated that he made the strike the object of his intense concentration. He knew from experience, and a knowledge of physics, how and where the ball had to be struck in order to achieve the result he was looking for. He then thought of nothing more than executing the precise strike necessary to produce the ball flight he was looking for. When he did so, he felt assured that his swing would take care of itself. For more information on how the ball must be struck, you might care to refer to my article entitled "The Wisdom of Bobby Jones: Striking the Ball," or, better still, if you have the book Golf is my Game, by Bobby Jones, refer to Chapter two. Bobby Jones felt that this information alone could literally transform your game over night.

I have found, by making my focus the driving of an imaginary nail going through the back of the ball directly down the target line, or the intended line of flight, the quality of my ball striking greatly improves. Intense focus on hammering that nail definitely helps prevent the intrusion of swing thoughts, or mechanical thoughts, or thoughts about water or out of bounds stakes. I have often suggested this tip to playing partners when they start badly thinning, topping, or fatting their shots. Their shots immediately improve, at least until they forget about focussing on hammering the nail, and get back to thinking about their shoulder turn, or trying to keep their head down, or whatever.

If you find yourself wondering what to focus on, or you find you are not striking the ball solidly, why not give the hammer the nail tip a try? It isn't guaranteed to take ten stokes off your game the next time you play, but it often seems to work. It also works very well for chipping and putting. It's all about the strike. Focus on the strike and let your swing take care of itself. If you can hammer the nail, you can be a ball striker.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Masters Picks

With the Masters just around the corner, come Sunday, who is likely to be wearing the green jacket? The reality is, it could be just about anyone in the field. It doesn't have to be a bomber. It doesn't have to be a past champion. It could be anyone. Current form, and past form at Augusta, is a good predictor, but anyone can catch lightning in a bottle for one magic week. 

For my money, however, there are five top picks this year. Naturally, all eyes are going to be on Rory McIlroy. If he plays his best, he will definitely win, because, at his best, he has demonstrated the ability to totally dominate. Furthermore, his game seems perfectly suited to Augusta National, with his ability to hit it high, long, and right to left. However, he has definitely gone off the boil of late and may just want it too much. I would love to see it, but he's not my pick this year.

The other player who, if on his game mentally, is equally as likely to win this year is Bubba Watson. In fact, Bubba must be seen as having the edge on Rory because he has done it twice, and nothing succeeds like success. Bubba knows he can win at Augusta. It will all depend on whether he gets it rolling and keeps his head in the game. If he gets in the hunt, he's the man to beat on Sunday.

I like Henrik Stenson's chances this year. He should have won last week at Arnie's place, and his game is tailor made for Augusta as well. I think he has the best swing, and he may just be the best ball striker, in the game today. He probably feels like he's got something to prove as well. If I was a betting man, I'd put a few bucks on Henrik.

Patrick Reed is in my top five this year. Nothing would surprise me with this kid. He's fearless. He's been in great form, and he has desire and self-belief in spades. But, for my money, the man who is most likely to win this year is Jordan Spieth. He's been in the hunt at Augusta. He's just had a great win, where he gutted it out, fighting a balky driver. This could just be Jordan's time to announce to the world that he's ready to challenge Rory for world dominance. He may not be a bomber, but he's got the mind and the heart of a champion. If he can hang in there, not get down on himself, and get a few breaks, he's going to be there or thereabouts on Sunday.

I just hope, whoever wins this year, that the Masters provides the Sunday drama that it tends to provide every year. There's no place, and no tournament, quite like it. I can't wait.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015


I swear, it's a compulsion. It should be listed as a personality disorder. Lots of people have this tinkering affliction. My father had it. I have it. Even great players have succumbed to it.

The tinkerer just can't seem to help himself. Hit two bad shots, and the wheels start turning, and the tinkering begins. Maybe I need to turn my shoulders more, or swing more upright, or flatten it out. Maybe I need to try to swing it like Jack Nicklaus -- I'm dating myself now-- or Rory McIlroy.

The thing is with golf, tinkering is necessary as we learn the game. We must experiment with the club and the swing to find what works, what works better, what the ball can be made to do, but eventually we have to try to pretty much worry along with what we've got. At least we need to do that while we're playing. If we must tinker with our swing, we must save it for the practice range.

Rarely can I manage to play eighteen holes of golf without making a swing change. In fact, often I make several swing changes in a round. I start every round swearing I will swing my swing. Suddenly, I hit a double cross, a fat shot, or a hook, and the tinkering starts. We need to develop a pill for it. It's making me crazy. 

But oh, those days when I can just look at the target and hit it. No thoughts of swing plane, shoulder or hip turn, just target. That's real golf. For me, that's being in the zone. I had one of those days recently. At least for most of the day. I cruised out on the front nine, three under. I used the same swing and took dead aim at the target. It was easy. It was fun. I was back to playing golf.

On the back nine, I started over-thinking it a bit. No doubt because I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was playing golf. Before I knew it, I started second guessing club selection, playing more conservatively, and before I knew it, I was making bogies. After a double on seventeen, the result of a perfectly struck approach with too much club, I made a nice birdie on eighteen. I finished one over. Old Man Par beat me again.

The good news? I played eighteen holes without thinking about, or changing my swing. Now, if I could just take dead aim for eighteen holes. If I could just get in that zone. The problem is, I get in the zone, only to suddenly realize I'm finally in the zone. Then, I start thinking. I need therapy. There must be a pill you can take for this condition. 

I'm hoping to go out again today. Afflicted or not, I can't wait to give Old Man Par a run for his money. He usually wins, but he's not afflicted like I am. He just hits fairways and greens.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Get Used to This

It was a real see saw battle to the finish at the Innisbrook resort's Copperhead course this week. On the third playoff hole, Jordan Spieth holed a thirty footer to edge past a determined Patrick Reed and, a fairly seasoned, and just happy to be back in the hunt, veteran, in Sean O'Hair.

After their Ryder Cup performances and now, this tournament, Spieth and Reed are proving that they are quickly becoming the future of American golf. Both fought balky drivers, but showed real grit and determination in getting it up and down from everywhere to make the playoff. They are true competitors. Neither of them fit, what seems to be, the current PGA tour mould in terms of having mechanically perfect swings. Neither of them appear to be gym rats, or reliant on swing coaches or sports psychologists. They just have determination and desire to win in spades.

Spieth had the edge this week, but we had best get used to seeing both Spieth and Reed vying for championships. They are winners. They are confident and determined. Their greatest asset is not their physical abilities, it's their mind. You just can't teach that stuff. They are going to be around a long time, barring injury or unforeseen occurrence. And, they are only going to get better. So, we might better get used to it.

Lord Byron

My wife has managed to turn me into a second time around fanatic. I can hardly resist stopping in and browsing any thrift stores I encounter in my travels. Almost all of my clothes, golf clubs, and books are "previously enjoyed." I just draw the line at socks and underwear.

Recently, while browsing a thrift shop in the Destin area, I found Byron Nelson's autobiography, entitled How I Played the Game. For those of you that don't already know it, Byron came from the same caddy yard as Ben Hogan, and often got the better of him as a professional. He won fifty four official PGA tournaments, along with seven more unofficial professional events, before retiring early to enjoy life on his Texas ranch.

He was a consummate ball striker. He also established a record that will surely never be equalled in 1945. In that year he won eighteen tournaments, including eleven in a row. He also finished second seven times. It took a kid named Tiger Woods to finally have a marginally lower scoring average than the 68.33 Byron had in 1945. 

However, a round I didn't know about, and one that Byron spoke fondly of was the sixty six he posted in the opening round of the 1937 Masters on his way to his first Masters win. In that round, Byron hit every green in regulation, including all the par five greens in two. He took thirty four putts for a sixty six. It remained the lowest opening round in the Masters for thirty nine years until Raymond Floyd, with a hot putter, bettered it. If there was ever a better round, from a ball striking perspective, I'm not aware of it.

We are inclined to marvel at these modern pros and how they can strike the ball. But, I'm here to tell you that there's nobody out there who strikes it any better, or more consistently, than Byron did. I guess that's why they call the machine, Iron Byron. These new kids are good, but me thinks Byron would have taught them a thing or two. In fact, Byron helped Tom Watson and Ken Venturi on their way to becoming great ball strikers and champions. 

These guys are good, but don't forget, when discussing the great ones, to give Byron his due. I only wish I could have seen him play.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Man on a Mission?

Dustin Johnson is back. He has a WGC championship and has been regularly in the hunt since his return to competition after a six month hiatus. It certainly appears that he is back with a clear head, and a game and attitude that appears ready to take him to the next level.

DJ has always had all the tools to be one of the top players in the game. Long, lean, and strong like bull, he is probably the most gifted, or natural athlete in the game, which now boasts many gifted athletes. He has always had the length to bring the longest courses to their knees. But a new and improved attitude may be the difference. He displayed a resolute calmness on his way to the victory this week. Despite a balky putter for the first three days, he kept his cool and stayed in touch with the leader until his putter began to cooperate.

You need self belief to be the top man in this game. Perhaps, with this victory, we may be witnessing the coming of age of a great champion. In Wayne Gretzky, his father in law, DJ perhaps has the means to gain the insight into just what it takes to be the best of the bunch. While Wayne was never the greatest athlete in his game, he was the smartest. If DJ, with his immense physical gifts, can find a way to tap in to that Gretzky mind, watch out folks, he'll be  tough to beat.

Maybe he's the next great American player. He's taken some time, but he's still in his prime. Good luck to him. For this week at least, he was the best of the best. He might be a guy to put a wager on to donn a green jacket and break Rory's heart.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Interesting Week in Golf

It's been an interesting week in golf. Lydia Ko won her tenth professional tournament at the tender age of seventeen. Padraig won again, despite the number of toys cluttering up his proverbial attic, and a ball in the water coming down the stretch. Amy Yang finally gets another win, and a journeyman pro gets his five minutes of fame, or infamy, by making disturbing allegations about Tiger before quickly recanting.

This Lydia gal is simply incredible. She has ten wins as a pro, a full seven years before Jack, Tiger, or Rory could accomplish the same feat. I realize women tend to peak faster in golf, so perhaps the comparison to the men may not be warranted, but she is nevertheless doing something on the golf course, the likes of which we have never quite seen before, and she is doing it in such a low key fashion it appears to be the most natural thing in the world for Lydia Ko. 

She isn't flashy. She isn't especially long. She just hits fairways and greens, and holes putts when she needs to. She makes it look easy. She swings the club effortlessly and never seems to get rattled. It remains to be seen whether Lydia will start adding majors to the list or simply go off the boil as some other world beaters have done. In this game, both are possibilities, so only time will tell. It will probably be a question of how much Lydia wants to be the most prolific winner of all time, and whether she can stay healthy, motivated, and manage to avoid the inevitable array of teachers who will surely come along offering to try to help her change her swing to make her better, or longer, or whatever.

Lydia Ko in some respects reminds me of Matteo Manaserro, whom I wrote about a month or so ago. Matteo was, like Lydia, without much fanfare doing things as a teenager that had never been done before. He wasn't long, he wasn't particularly flashy, but he became the youngest player to win on the European tour after being the youngest player to accomplish several impressive feats as an amateur. He is still just a kid, but he has made what I definitely fear will turn out to have been a mistake, changing his swing in an effort to get longer. Whether he ever gets his game back, only time will tell. But for now, he finds himself in the doldrums, fast descending the ladder of the world rankings. He apparently didn't learn from the experience of his hero, Seve, who ruined his game by making swing changes and being influenced by swing gurus who couldn't hold a candle to him as a player.

American fans were likely somewhat disappointed to see Stacy Lewis fail to get it done after looking like the winner for three days. American fans might have been similarly disappointed to see Patrick Reed falter down the stretch, allowing the compulsive tinkerer, Paddy Harrington, to hang tough despite a ball in the water on seventeen. It was great to see Padraig seal the deal with a picture perfect three quarter five iron on seventeen in the playoff, despite having watched the same shot fizzle in regulation play. This Berger kid looks to be yet another new American to watch. He'll have his chances, but, for now, Paddy is back on top.

If there is a desire to see Americans once more at the top of the world rankings, it appears unlikely to be realized any time soon. Golf can no longer be said to be dominated by Americans, especially with the cooling off of Tiger and Phil and the emergence of Rory and Lydia as the game's top players. While many Americans may lament the end of American domination, perhaps best epitomized by their dismal Ryder Cup record, the change in the landscape, in terms of the players at the top, must surely be good for the growth of the global game.

As for the latest in the Tiger saga, the character making the allegations has recanted and many believe that this should be the end of the story, which included allegations of illegal or banned drug use, a suspension, and use of a non-conforming golf ball by Tiger since 1999. I suppose these allegations are not even deemed to be allegations anymore, since the man making them has recanted. Unfortunately, once something is said, it's out there until it can be established to be pure fiction. A cynic could suggest he recanted because of pressure, not because he fabricated the story. It may not be fair to Tiger or the PGA tour, but I think it behooves one or both of them to do more than simply deny these allegations. They need to make an example of this fellow if he lied. 

I have heard it suggested that silence is golden and Tiger needn't dignify these allegations with a response. While that may be true, a simple denial, with no action taken against this guy by Tiger or the tour, could leave the impression, at least to the confirmed cynics amongst us, that they are simply pleading the Fifth and hoping that this will all just go away. As another person commented recently, we have seen the fall of Lance Armstrong, not to mention all the banned substance use in baseball, so nothing should be considered to be impossible when it comes to sports and big money. Where there is smoke, there is often fire. I for one hope and trust these allegations aren't true, but one wonders, without more being known, how this fellow could have had the audacity to make these allegations if they are totally without substance. Who is he? Is he crazy?

I don't think we've heard the last of this story.