Sunday, 28 June 2015

It Ain't How, It's How Many

There's a saying in golf that "it ain't how, it's how many." That's definitely true. But there is one "how" you'd better know if you want to play this game to the best of your ability. Golf is like life. It is deceptively simple, and endlessly complicated. It can be the most captivating game there is, and it can sometimes drive you crazy. In golf you seem to have to learn the same things over and over again. There are so many things to know, and so many things that can go wrong. And yet, it really is simple; maybe too simple.

I've often had exasperated playing partners ask me to try to tell them what they're doing wrong. However, when they ask what they are doing wrong, I know they are usually expecting the answer to be something about their swing, something mechanical that they can eliminate, change, or implement  that will make the ball go where they want it to. The problem is, often what is wrong with their game, just like mine, is not to be found in their swing, but in their mind. Like me, if they are struggling, it is often because they are not focussing on what they need to focus on, or, as is often the case, they are missing a vital piece of the golf puzzle. As for me telling them what they're doing wrong; hell I've generally got enough troubles of my own to worry about. 

The secret to what someone is doing wrong is often revealed in what they are thinking about, or trying to do as they play their shot. Ask someone what they are trying to do as they stand over the ball and you will get many different answers. One guy is trying to keep his head down; not really a good idea. Another fellow is trying to "make a good turn;" a good idea, but it won't make the ball go where you want it to. Someone else is trying to hit it in the fairway, which is generally a good plan, but a little too vague. Someone else is trying not to hit it in the water. A good plan, but the brain doesn't seem to hear the word "don't;" so thinking "don't hit it in the water" tends not to result in a great shot. Rarely, unless it's a good player, do you hear a response like, I'm trying to draw it off the edge of that bunker in the distance, or to start it in the middle of the green and fade it towards the pin. 

Golf is about hitting the ball to a clearly defined target with the ultimate view of getting it from the teeing ground into the hole in the fewest possible strokes. There are no pictures on the scorecard, nor are there any style points. Thinking about mechanics, about how you want to swing the club, instead of where you want the ball to go, is the arguably the biggest problem for every class of player. Not following Harvey Penick's advice to "Take Dead Aim;" not picking a specific target and having a clear picture of the shot you are trying to play, can be a major issue for all of us.

Knowing what shot you want to hit is vital. The next obvious step is knowing how the ball must be struck to produce that shot. This is where a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. In his book Golf is my Game, Bobby Jones has a chapter entitled Striking the Ball, which contains the most essential information any golfer can ever acquire. In this chapter Bobby tells us the real science of golf, namely how a ball must be struck with the clubface to produce every type of shot. Consider what he has to say about this information:

"I am not one who enjoys heaping ridicule upon the average golfer. It seems to me that those grotesque characters we see in the cartoons are rare in real life. The unskilled golfer often looks uncomfortable, strained, unsure, sometimes even unhappy, but he hardly ever presents a ludicrous aspect. And I think that a great measure of his discomfiture is derived from his conscious efforts to follow prescribed routine, to look and move like someone else, or as he has been told. I think he would present a more natural appearance should he put his mind upon striking the ball, rather than upon swinging the club.

This will be the most important chapter of this book. It will describe the most useful learning you will ever acquire as a golfer. You may gain knowledge from a mere reading of this chapter that will help you in the playing of every golf shot you make for the rest of your life. This knowledge can make you a better golfer overnight."

Bobby Jones was not one given to hyperbole. Nor was he a snake oil salesman, or con artist anxious to make a quick dollar. He was arguably the best player to ever play the game, who also happened to be blessed with a brilliant mind. Consider what he goes on to say about the information he shared in this chapter:

"If you are a beginner, this chapter will start you off on the road to a correct understanding of the nature of golf. If you are an average golfer, it will give you the means of deciding upon the club to use and the shot to play on the basis of reasoned judgement, rather than guesswork. If you are a better than average golfer, it will broaden your perception of the possibilities in the game so that you may become a player of imagination and resourcefulness. If you are weary of being told to concentrate without having knowledge of what you should concentrate on, this is it.

Golf is played by striking the ball with the head of the club. The objective of the player is not to swing the club in a specified manner, nor to execute a series of complicated movements in a prescribed sequence, nor to look pretty while he is doing it, but primarily and essentially to strike the ball with the head of the club so that the ball will perform according to his wishes.

No one can play golf until he knows the many ways in which a golf ball can be expected to respond when it is struck in different ways. If you think that all this should be obvious, please believe me when I assure you that I have seen many really good players attempt shots they should have known were impossible."

I have reproduced most of this chapter from Bobby's book in a previous post, entitled The Wisdom of Bobby Jones: Striking the Ball. If you are interested, and don't have access to Bobby's book, Golf is my Game, I invite you to read that article. I really think it could be game-changing information from the greatest amateur ever to play this great game.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Bobby Jones on Golf: Relieving Tension

One of the things you notice about most top players is how relaxed they appear as they prepare to strike the ball, and how smooth and effortless their swings are. When you watch Fred Couples, or Ernie Els hit the ball so far, with such little effort, you appreciate that golf is not about brute force. The absence of tension in their setup and their swing is obvious with all good players, regardless of how quick their tempo might be. 

Bobby Jones set out a set of rules that can help any golfer, regardless of their ability, to relieve the one thing that ruins more golf shots than anything else; and that is tension. In his book Bobby Jones on Golf, Bobby wrote:

"Because tension is the golfer's worst enemy, and the problem of remaining completely relaxed in order to complete a rhythmic swing his most difficult task, I am going to set out a few simple rules that will be of help in loosening up, regardless of the mechanical precision of the swing. We all want to develop a swing free of imperfections, but even the most perfect swing must have rhythm, and the most imperfect one may be made fairly effective by the addition only of a sense of timing.

Here are the rules:

1.  Grip the club lightly. Hold it mainly in the fingers, so that it can at all times be controlled and kept from turning in the hands without tautening the forearm muscles. But don't squeeze it. If you begin by gripping lightly, the hands will automatically tighten their hold as the progress of the swing makes this necessary. Make certain that you can feel the club head.

2.  In addressing the ball, arrange the posture as naturally and as comfortably as possible. Avoid strain in the position as much as you can. Don't bend over too far, don't reach for the ball, don't stiffen the legs, and don't spread the feet. These seem to be a lot of "don'ts," but in reality they are merely saying, "Stand erect, let the arms hang naturally from the shoulders, and bring the ball close enough to reach comfortably."

3.  Use the legs and hips in beginning the backswing. Don't begin by picking the club up with the hands and arms. Swing the club back and give the hips a full windup. If an ample use of the important muscles in the waist and back is not made, the effort will be too great and the swing will lose its smoothness.

4.  Be sure that the backswing is long enough. This gives the downswing plenty of time to get up speed before impact. A backswing that is too short inevitably leads to hurry and tension.

5.  Start the downswing in leisurely fashion. Don't hit from the top of the swing. If the backswing has been of ample length there is no need to be in too much hurry coming down. Let the acceleration be smooth and gradual.

6.  When it comes time to hit, don't leap at the ball. Let the club head do some of the work. Think of giving it speed and then let it float against and through the ball. Remember Newton's law that a body in motion tends to continue its motion in a straight line until acted upon by outside forces. Be careful of what "outside forces" you set up in trying at the last moment for that extra distance. Keep on swinging until the ball has had a good start down the fairway.

I have seen any number of players with terrible swings who obtained good results from a sense of rhythm and timing and nothing more; it is truly amazing how far one can go if he can only keep from tightening up. The effort to hit hard, instead of increasing the power of the swing, usually finishes in a sort of shove as what should have been the propelling force is expended too soon. The more leisurely swing, conserving this energy and discharging it where it will do the most good, yields more yards with considerably less effort."

We may never be able to learn to swing the club like the Big Easy, or Freddie, but we can all learn to relax our grip, take it a little easier, and let the club do some of the work. My old father always said, "Swing easy and accept the extra distance." He must have read Bobby's book.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Patty-Caking It

With my predilection for tinkering, I find myself sometimes being consumed with my golf swing, as opposed to my golf game. I know I shouldn't worry so much about mechanics, but I seem to just be wired that way. I see this same problem with many of the guys I play with. Despite all the balls we've hit, we still can't seem to just stand up and hit it without thinking about mechanics.

Lately, I seem to have finally discovered what feels more like my old swing. I am suddenly hitting the ball farther; not as far as I once hit it; but farther. I am also hitting it higher. I have been able to stand up on the tee and not fear the hook. I've been feeling really positive about my swing, but it hasn't been translating into better scores. In fact, I've been regularly having lousy front nines, and finding myself struggling to break eighty the last few times out. Old Man Par has been still consistently kicking my butt. 

It's strange how we need to learn the same lessons over and over again in this game. It isn't about the swing. At least the swing isn't what it's all about. I had a couple of days off, and in the wee hours of the morning, as it often does, it came to me. I started to think about the times, few and far between, when the game felt easy. I realized that during those times I was swinging easily, I was focussed on where I wanted the ball to go, not how I wanted to hit it, and I wasn't worried about results. I had a sense of just letting it happen, without trying to force anything.

Some people play better hitting the ball hard, and grinding it out. In fact, I've ground out some pretty good rounds, bashing the cover off it, and trying to will every putt into the hole. But my best, and easiest rounds have all felt the same way. They've felt almost effortless. I just picked my target, took plenty of club and just patty-caked it around the course. On those days the ball flew just as far with considerably less effort and my scores were good. As my old father used to say, I was swinging easy and accepting the extra distance.

Yesterday, after thinking of those good rounds and how I felt while playing them, I arrived at the course and decided to try just patty-caking it around, not thinking about my swing, not worrying about my score, and just see what happened. I also decided to eliminate any thought of mechanics in my putting stroke by looking at the hole while I putted. The end result was the easiest even par round of 72 I've shot in ages. 

Now, the good round yesterday may have just been due. I'd not been getting anything from my game for awhile, and perhaps I'd finally just found some form. Form is fleeting in golf, with it's endless ups and downs, often the downs being more frequent than the ups. But, at least for me, swinging easy and not trying so hard seems to open the door to those rosy patches where the game is almost easy.

I guess the lesson learned is that you need to remember and think about those times when you've played your best. How did your swing feel? How were you feeling mentally? Was your approach different? You hopefully learn by your mistakes in golf. But, you should also learn from your successes. This game will never be mastered, and, just when you think you've finally figured it out, is when the wheels are most likely to come off. There is no magic system, guaranteed to work for everyone all the time. But, if you're like me, a little less effort, a little more club, and a little less concern about your score, can really help.

We'll see today whether I can do it again. In this game, it's one day at a time, like the drunks.

Monday, 22 June 2015

An Open to Remember, or Forget

If nothing else, the U.S. Open was something completely different this year. Chambers Bay looked lovely on the flyovers, but I'm not so sure it won many fans among the players or the viewers.

I tend to be of the opinion that, regardless of the conditions, the course is the same for everyone, and the best players will always find a way to shoot the lowest score. That proved true again this week. Young Mr. Spieth is the best player in the game right now, regardless of what the world rankings might say. 

Rory, despite his confidence at the beginning of the week, could never putt well enough to be a factor. His length off the tee, and his ability to hit high, spinning irons, might have given him an edge over most of the field, but, at the end of the day, the guy that makes the putts is the guy who usually wins. In this case, perhaps it was the guy who missed the fewest putts that won, but it still came down to the flatstick, as it does in most championships.

Either the  camera work by Fox, -- even if I did appreciate the frequent use of shot tracker -- or simply the course layout made it a struggle for me to follow the ball from my armchair. Apparently, it was not so easy for the patrons either. 

The greens were, quite simply, a disgrace. We saw the best players in the world struggle to convert three and four footers, not because of the pressure of the moment, but because of the green surfaces. And, at the end of the day, some would argue that the tournament was won as a result of a three putt from twelve feet by DJ, rather than a brilliant second shot by Jordan Spieth on 18; not the way anyone wants to see it end.

We have a worthy champion in Jordan Spieth. In this respect, the week has to be termed a success. But, I, like many others, was left pretty much speechless at the conclusion of the championship. I didn't know whether to be happy or sad. I didn't particularly enjoy the coverage, or the course. It was bastardized links golf, that, had the wind blown, would have been made virtually impossible by the use of elephants buried in greens that were too fast, and bumpy as hell. The course was beautiful to look at, but it certainly wasn't links golf. 

I'm sure the USGA had high hopes for Chambers Bay, and they may have actually saved the day by making the finishing holes on Sunday opportunities for birdies, rather than carnage, giving some players, including Rory, the chance to make a run and giving us some excitement. But, this was not the USGA's finest moment. It was an Open to remember, or forget, depending on your point of view.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Just Suck It Up

This week, bar none, we are witnessing the strangest US Open in my lifetime. It's monkey golf. It's pinball. Many of the players are griping about it. It's just all so unfair. 

Well, boys, no one ever said golf was fair. There has always been the element of luck involved in golf; bad shots rewarded, and great shots ending up in a bunker, or worse. It's part of the game. Chambers Bay has, to some extent, been an experiment. Let's play on a links-style course that also has huge elevation changes and dramatically undulating greens; and let's make those greens fast and, not necessarily by design, bumpy. 

It's a hard test. Short putts will be missed more than usual. But it is the same test for everyone. At the end of the week, the best player will win. Whoever wins will have to be in command of his game and his emotions. He will be on a roller coaster ride. But, if he can stay focussed and remain positive, the best man will win. Luck may be involved this week, but the man who plays the best will win. 

I like DJ's composure. He looks to be very much in control of himself, even if he may not be able to control the bounces. I like Patrick Reed's determination and toughness. I'm not sure Jordan Spieth is doing himself any favours, vocalizing his disgust with the set up, but he is definitely the best player at the top of the leader board, and, if he keeps his head, is likely to win the second leg of his slam. 

Yes, gentlemen, it's tough out there. Conditions aren't pristine. It's not necessarily fair. But, nobody ever promised you a rose garden. It's the same for everyone, so suck it up, and we will watch the best man win; just like we do every week.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Rory Looking Good

I watched Rory's interview today at Chambers Bay. He looks, and sounds, really good. I especially liked his comment about missing his last two cuts.

Rory said he would rather have three wins and three missed cuts in his last six events than six top tens. He is that kind of player. He plays to win. He also knows that he will have weeks, sometimes several weeks, when he will play poorly. He can accept that fact. I think we will have to learn to accept that as well. Rory is not concerned, nor should we be.

He says he feels good. He is apparently driving it well. He feels his game is under control. And he feels his length with the driver and his ability to hit his irons long, high, and with spin, will give him an advantage over most of the field at Chambers Bay, as it does at most venues. I'm inclined to believe him.

I'm a big fan of Jordan Spieth. I'd love to see him win this week. But I'm still a Rory fan as well. If he's on his game, and the putter cooperates, I have to believe that Mr. McIlroy is the favourite this week. There are many guys who could win this week. But, in a pressure cooker like an Open, there are probably only a few who really have a legitimate chance. 

Chambers Bay is a very different venue than what we traditionally see for a U.S. Open. It will be interesting to watch and will hopefully identify the best player. However, it also sounds like a course where luck will also be a big factor. There are definitely going to be some bad bounces, and some bounces that may reward a less than stellar shot. I sense that many players fear that things could get a bit out of hand on this fiery track.

At the end of the day, as in every Major, the test will be as much mental as it will be physical. The man who wins will be the man who best controls his nerves as well as his golf ball, because it's going to be pretty scary out there by all accounts. Rory sounds mentally prepared and extremely confident. He's got a big challenge ahead of him, along with the opportunity to prove he can handle a hard and fiery links-like course like Chambers Bay. One thing for certain, if his interview is any indication, he seems to be looking forward to the challenge.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Should You Take Lessons and Practise as Much as You Play?

You often hear golfers admitting, as though it's a sin, that they don't practise enough. They also often are heard to say that they really should take a lesson, or three. Usually, they have no real inclination to do either of the two, but feel the need to confess. It's along the same lines as "I should quit smoking," or "I really should lose a few pounds." 

I'm not one to spend much time practising, and I try to make no apologies for it. I have also had only one lesson from a professional; and that was as an eleven year old. While I would never discourage someone so inclined from taking lessons, or doing some serious practicing, I am not prepared to admit that either is absolutely necessary in order to play reasonably good golf. I am also not prepared to admit that doing either will necessarily make you a better player; though it might.

I think golf changed considerably thanks to Ben Hogan. He was perhaps the first great player who practised more than he played. By successfully digging it out of the dirt, and curing a tendency to hook the ball, Mr. Hogan not only became a great player, but also inspired many of his peers and, subsequently, future generations of golfers, to embrace practice as the means to improve. He strongly advised players to spend significantly more time on the range, with the idea that the secret to the game might be found by hitting balls--hundreds, if not thousands, of balls.

Perhaps his book, Five Lessons The Modern Fundamentals of Golfdid as much as any other to convince golfers that, by following a specific set of guidelines and movements, any golfer could become a good player. These days, it seems to be pretty much mandated that better players spend lots of time hitting balls under the watchful eye of a competent professional. Not to do so is now generally viewed as being slothful, or somehow neglectful, the importance of receiving professional instruction, practising, and hitting balls having been so elevated.

The game definitely needs good golf instructors. That is undeniable. In the old days, even the top playing professionals held down club jobs and, as part of their bailiwick, taught the game. Many of them were excellent teachers, as well as great players; not really very surprising. In golf today, however, we see a proliferation of teachers who have, in some cases, become almost as prominent and wealthy as their stable of thoroughbred players despite never having played the game at the highest level with any great success themselves. I suppose these teachers must be good, or they wouldn't be as successful as they are. But, to be truthful, there are also many teachers out there who aren't worth a hoot, regardless of whether they've been "certified" or not. Furthermore, as the Hank Haney experiments with trying to improve the games of various celebrities have clearly shown, the student's willingness and ability to learn is often just as important, if not more important, as the teacher's ability to teach. And, ultimately, when it comes to golf instruction, you just can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  Very few golfers are going to become scratch players, regardless of whether they practise or get lessons.

We have all watched Tiger go from teacher to teacher, at least to some extent trying to incorporate that teacher's philosophy into his swing and his game, until he has lost the magic and finally found himself in some sort of golfing purgatory. I have likened someone like Tiger turning to and relying on a teacher to help him find his swing as being akin to Mozart taking music lessons. It doesn't make a lick of sense. But we see it happening all the time. In fact, it was recently rumoured that Lydia Ko's current loss of form may be attributable to her making swing changes after she went to David Leadbetter. 

Lee Trevino said he would never let anyone teach him who couldn't beat him. I think that's a pretty sound philosophy. Trevino did allow himself to be taught by other great players. For instance, he learned to be a better bunker player from Gary Player. Jack received short game advice from Arnie. Johnny Miller studied all the great players, and incorporated some of what he observed from all of them into his game. All the great players, to one degree or another, learned from, and were taught or mentored by, other great players. It has been the nature of the game that good players have helped others, especially the up and coming generations. We have all learned from other players, be it imitating great swings we see on the television, or the swings of those we learned the game from. We all tend to do that, imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. 

But the idea of any of these great players of old rebuilding their swing, the swing that got them on the tour in the first place, probably never occurred to most of them. Bobby Jones said his teacher, Stewart Maiden, never discussed the golf swing. In fact, Bobby said he never had a formal lesson from him until after his playing career was over. Maiden acted as a knowledgeable second set of eyes for Bobby when he was encountering problems. He didn't give him a swing philosophy, other than perhaps "hit it hard, it'll come down somewhere." Jack Grout was the same way with Jack. After giving Jack some sound fundamentals as a youngster, Jack went to Grout at the start of every season to have a Spring tune up to make sure his fundamentals were good and no insidious habits had crept into his game, and thereafter only when he was experiencing problems he couldn't figure out on his own. Jack was self reliant, having come to know his swing and understand his tendencies. All the great players were like that.

In my mind, we all have to be responsible for our own swing. If we aren't, we are in big trouble when the bell rings and we have to play the game without a teacher to guide us. We all have to find, often by trial and error, what works, and what doesn't. We can, and probably should, go to teachers, or better and more experienced players, to seek advice; especially when we are just learning the game, or when we are playing poorly. Some things might help. Other things might hurt. At the end of the day, however, we must search for the answers ourselves. Learning the fundamentals of the golf swing is essential. After that, we must take responsibility for our own game. 

There are a few, tried and true fundamentals which we really must learn in order to become competent at this game. Beyond that, there are numerous characters, be it teachers, swing gurus, or fifteen handicappers who fancy themselves as teachers, who are ready and more than willing to offer their secret to the golf swing. When dealing with any of them, it's really up to us to exercise some caution, and prudence, as we try to find our swing; the swing that best works for us. 

One has to wonder, had Tiger followed Lee Trevino's philosophy, and not allowed himself to be taught by anyone who couldn't beat him, whether he would have found himself in the mess he's now in. When he had his famous "A game," nobody could beat him when he arrived on tour in 1997. When he was on his game, he was simply the best, and the best by a significant margin. He was also incredibly consistent. But, whether seduced by the promise of even greater consistency, or a better swing than the swing that was already producing possibly the greatest golf ever witnessed, Tiger decided to make swing changes. It was his choice, and he now lives with the consequences.

Golf is a funny game, in that some golfers now spend as much or more time working at the game as they do playing it. I don't think there's any game like it in that respect. But Bobby Jones believed you truly learned the game best by playing it. This is very good news for those of us who don't have a strong Puritan work ethic, and have neither the time nor the inclination to spend time taking lessons and working at the game when we could be playing it. We shouldn't feel guilty if our inclination is not to spend hours practising instead of playing. Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur of all time, and arguably the greatest player ever, recommended you practise only when you have something specific you need to work on; after that he advised us to stop hitting balls and give our minds and our bodies a rest. 

So, no need to apologize for not practising as much as some people think or say you should, or for not taking regular lessons. It ain't no crime, and you've got plenty of company. Provided we are observant while we play, and if we can learn to recognize our tendencies, understand our strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully learn from our mental mistakes, we can definitely improve, play reasonably well, and find a great deal of enjoyment from golf. We can do this without hitting balls until our hands are blistered, taking lessons, or rebuilding our swings. And we can do this simply by playing golf, leaving the hard practising to those guys who either play the game to earn their living and feel the need to grind it out on the range, or to the guys who genuinely love practising. 

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Carl the Grumbler

Every club has its characters. We've got Carl the Grumbler. If it wasn't for bad luck, Carl would have no luck at all. Just ask him.

Carl is a good athlete, if a bit unorthodox. He swings the club like he's falling off a ladder, but he's got a great set of hands. He once beat my father in a match play event playing with one hand, his other arm in a sling. My father never really got over it. He's won several club championships, and who knows how many local amateur tournaments. But he can't help but grumble. He fancies himself as a tragic victim of fate. The golfing gods never smile on him; at least as far as he's concerned.

Carl is eccentric. He wears sunglasses with one arm missing, a glove with a huge hole in the palm, and constantly loses his towel, which he refuses to attach to his bag. All the way round you hear him grumble about the rough being too thick, the greens being too slow, the bunkers being nothing but dirt, or mud, and how bloody unfair the pin placements are. He just seems to be having the worst time of it. According to him, he can never seem to get a break.

Carl can definitely be a distraction. You have to try to ignore him, because I'm convinced that it's all an elaborate plan; it's part of his schtick to put you off your game. The problem is, he's hard to ignore because you just never know what he's going to throw at you next. He swings like a caveman killing his lunch, scoops, stabs, or flips at his chips, pushes all his putts, and still gets the ball in the hole. It's hard not to watch. I keep playing with him because I figure if I can handle playing with Carl, I can handle just about anything.

On our last outing Carl played the first five holes poorly. He was in full grumble mode. It was all so damned unfair. On the sixth hole, a downhill par five, Carl went for the green in two and found himself in a cross bunker about thirty yards short of the green. Carl stood over the shot, grumbling about how the bunker was "nothing but mud" after the heavy overnight rain. He finally took a vicious swipe at it, hit the ball in the teeth, and sent it crashing into the flag and then into the hole for an eagle. Carl grinned sheepishly as Bill and I shook our heads. 

On seventeen, Carl hit a nice approach that kicked straight left into a thick patch of grass on the edge of the green. He stood, hands on his hips, declaring himself once more to be a terrible victim of fate. After three club changes, and a little more grumbling, Carl chipped it stone dead for his par. Exasperated, I told him I never wanted to hear him ever again whine about his lie. He just smiled, because we'd had this conversation before. 

On eighteen, a par three, Carl hit it fat and ended up on an upslope about twenty yards short of the green. The egg-sucking dog then chipped another one stone dead for his par. I had hit my tee shot about twenty five feet from the pin and was determined not to let Carl's latest escape get to me. I hit the putt too firmly, but it hit the back of the cup, hopped up in the air a couple of inches and dropped back into the hole for a birdie. I looked at Carl and smiled serenely. I didn't know it then, but I had beat him by one stroke.

Carl just can't buy a break. He's the unluckiest guy in the world. Just ask him.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Bobby Jones on Golf: Consistency

Every golfer wishes he or she could play consistently well. And yet, the most consistent thing about golf is its inconsistency. There are any number of teachers out there making a living, or a quick buck, by promising a swing, or a secret that, once learned, will take five to ten strokes off our game, or make us hit it thirty yards further, and make us play consistently well. Yet, even if we've tried their books, videos, gadgets, or even gone to them for lessons, all of us continue to struggle at one time or another; and often we find ourselves struggling more often than not. 

Bobby Jones, in his book Bobby Jones on Golf, offered some interesting insight into the problems encountered by anyone trying to play consistently well. It seems the pros are just like us when it comes to consistency. 

The following is an excerpt from Bobby Jones on Golf:

"Everyone who has played golf, however well or badly, has found how impossible it is to hold his best form, or anything like it, for any length of time. A chart of a player's golfing fortunes over an extended period would exhibit a series of peaks and depressions, with the peaks very sharp, the downward curves precipitate, and the up slopes long and arduous. There is always a long struggle, painfully won, from the bottom of each valley to the top of the hill, and then, after a brief travel along the crest, the touch or feel that was so hard to find vanishes in an instant and back we go to the bottom.

There are two real reasons why absolute consistency is so rare in golf, and an appreciation of them will show something of what the golfer's problem is and will give him a chance to tackle it with his eyes open. The only two things that will ever enable him to smooth out the curve of his game chart are, first, a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of the swing, and, second, an intimate and unprejudiced acquaintance with his own faults and tendencies to fault.

A golfer must play by feel, and I know that I am not the only person who has found that no feel, or conception, or idea, will work perfectly for very long. In other words, there is no one movement, or sequence of movements amenable to control, that being controlled, will continue indefinitely to produce satisfactory results. It is not possible to think through the entire swing when playing each shot. Sometimes by remembering to start the downstroke by shifting and turning the hips, highly satisfactory  results may be obtained. While this continues, we are enjoying one of the peaks of our chart. But soon, either because we begin to exaggerate this one thing, or forget entirely about something else, the whole thing goes wrong and we have to begin over again. Again, we set out to find another thought that will set things right. This is the time when we need our understanding of the swing, for without this we shall be groping in absolute darkness.

The other reason why it is so hard to hold form arises from the insidious nature of some of the faults that can creep into a golf swing without the player himself becoming aware of them. It has never been possible for me to think of more than two or three details of the swing and still hit the ball correctly. If more than that number have to be handled, I simply must play badly until by patient work and practice I can reduce the parts that have to be controlled. The two or three are not always the same; sometimes a man's swing will be functioning so well that he need worry about nothing; then, of course, on those rare occasions, the game is a simple thing.

But because we have not the capacity to think of everything while attention is directed elsewhere, a hundred little things can go wrong. Every year I played golf, I discovered more and more ways to miss shots, obscure and yet important mistakes I had never dreamed of making."

So, if you have been struggling with being consistently inconsistent, remember that everyone struggles with this game from time to time. Furthermore, when you see the advertisements for a secret, or a swing that will make you a consistent player; that, once learned, will work all the time; don't eat that, Arthur! Nothing works all the time. The only thing consistent about golf is its inconsistency. That's what makes it so damned fascinating. You can never totally figure it out.

The best we can hope to do is learn the fundamentals of the swing, come to understand our own swing and our tendencies to err, and, if we're lucky, find a good instructor, or unprejudiced and knowledgeable mentor, who can be another set of eyes when we are groping in the darkness. 

Friday, 12 June 2015

Bobby Jones on Golf: Golf as Recreation

I almost never practise. This is mainly due to my physical ailments, the absence of a proper practice area at our club, and probably a certain amount of laziness on my part, preferring to play, rather than practise. My failure to take time to practise, however, is doubtless responsible for some of my poor play of late. But my real problem is toys in the attic.

Yesterday, I played my worst nine holes of the year. I shot 43 on the front nine. I had arrived at the course with a plan. I knew the way I wanted to approach my round, but quickly, after missing a short par putt on the first hole and three putting the second hole for another bogey, I started to get into tinker mode. I started tinkering with my putting stroke. Then, after a poor drive on three, started tinkering with my swing.

When we were on the eighth hole, my partner, Radar, joined our threesome. He had not been informed of our tee time, so got there when he could. We waited to start our usual match against Bill and Carl until the tenth hole. In the meantime, I told Radar that I had some serious toys in the attic; that I had already tried at least four different swings today, none of which seemed to work worth a hoot. He laughed and said he felt my pain, because his attic was full as well. He was struggling with a hundred different swing thoughts; toys in the attic.

On the tenth tee, after learning just how bad the front nine had been, I announced that I was intent on just swinging easy for the rest of the round and giving my spinning head and aching back a rest. It worked reasonably well, and I cruised home with a relatively effortless, if unspectacular, 39. It was another frustrating day, ruined by my compulsive tinkering on the course. 

When I got home, I sought solace and advice from the book, Bobby Jones on Golf. I have read many instructional books about golf and never found any to compete with those by Bobby Jones. That is partly because of the man's golfing genius. It is also because he was so literate, and such a keen observer of golfers, duffer and champion alike. Despite being arguably the greatest golfer ever, he had the ability to relate to the recreational player, as well as the champion golfer. This was no doubt largely to do with his having played so many rounds with his father and his cronies, having the opportunity to closely observe what we mere mortals go through on the golf course. His common sense and practicality, as well as his empathy for those of us who struggle, really shines through in his writing. 

In the short chapter from his book "Bobby Jones on Golf," entitled "Golf as Recreation," Bobby gives some priceless advice to those of us who want to enjoy the game, may be struggling, and have not necessarily set our sights on winning championships, other than perhaps our club championship or one of the flights. Reading this chapter really reaffirmed what I already knew I was suffering from. Given that his books are not always easy to find, I intend to reproduce the chapter verbatim, because I think he has already pared his writing down to the absolute essentials and I wouldn't want to mess with perfection. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

"The golfer with a fairly good swing who never seems able to score well is a familiar figure on any course. In many respects, he is in the same boat with the tournament player who burns up the course in practice rounds, but does nothing in actual competition. Obviously, there is a great deal more to playing golf than merely swinging the club.

There is scarcely one golfer of the so-called average class who could not benefit from an effort to school himself in applying good sense, judgement, and a little intelligent thinking to his game; and this without reference to the mechanics of the swing. Merely by adopting measures that will help get a consistently high rate of performance from what ability he has, a surprising improvement can be made.

The trouble with all of us, who grumble over the game and thus spoil an otherwise pleasant afternoon with congenial friends, is that we do not understand the game, nor ourselves. In this, we could take a number of lessons from the dub. For no matter how good we may be, if we should fancy that we have mastered golf to the extent that we can go out day after day and play as we please, then we are greater fools than ought to be left at large.

A skillful golfer, who knows what he is about, can often play himself back to his game in the course of a round; but the average player, when he goes out for an afternoon, would best leave all his tinkering and theorizing behind. Too many come out eager to try some new discovery made while shaving, or lying awake in bed, and, instead of going to the practice tee to find out if the idea has any merit, they set out  hopefully to beat their record for the course. It would be difficult to think of a more infallible way of spoiling what might have been an enjoyable game.

The virtues of golf as a pastime and a means of recreation have been appropriately extolled. But no one, with more than the barest outside chance of being believed, is going to tell me, or any other golfer, that he gets any fun out of hacking around a golf course in ten or more strokes above his normal score. The ninety player does not expect to break eighty; he ought to be, and usually is, satisfied to play a game that is reasonably good for him. But when he plays a really bad round, and drags himself into the locker room, it is easy to see that he is tired and disgusted, and has done anything but enjoy himself.

It seems to me that there are two reasonable ways in which a man may take his golf. If he has the time and inclination to do so, he may set out to give the game a proper amount of serious study and effort, with a view toward elevating himself beyond the average-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 companions 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 labor of the latter.

When we come to the all-important matter of getting real enjoyment out of the playing of the game, I think we will find that all must employ the same set of rules. To find enjoyment, we must produce a round fairly close to our usual standard. To do this with a fair degree of consistency, no matter to which class we belong, we must avoid experiment, refuse to try anything new, and play the game instead of practicing it.

The best single piece of advice I could give any man starting out for a round of golf would be 'take your time,'not in studying the ground, and lining up the shot, but in swinging the club. Strive for smoothness, strive for rhythm, but unless you are something of an expert, save 'monkeying' with your hip turn, your wrist action, and the like, until you can get on a practice tee where you can miss a shot without having to play the next one out of a bunker."

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Pack a Snack

I have come to learn the virtue of taking some protein along with me when I play. I have traditionally been from the John Daly school of golf, where nicotine plus caffeine equals protein. However, I started to notice that after twelve or thirteen holes I'd suddenly lose my mind and make a couple of stupid bogeys, or worse. 

I'd seem to lose the plot a couple of hours into the round and, soon thereafter, realize I was hungry. If you wait to feel hungry, you've probably waited too long they tell me. So now I always try to remind myself to eat something by the ninth or tenth hole. It seems to help me from having those let downs.

I don't intend to give up on the nicotine, or the caffeine, because I love my coffee, and there's nothing like a good smoke. I come from a long line of smokers, and have inherited the smoking gene. Bobby Jones liked a good smoke. So did Ben Hogan. So, call me old school. But a little protein definitely goes a long way. I'd probably drink more water too. The problem is, it tastes like water.

Monday, 8 June 2015

A Hook Won't Listen

The draw seems to generally be viewed as the superior ball flight because, among other things, it usually goes farther. My preference has always been a fade. No doubt, this was due to my favourite golfers having been Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, both of whom preferred the fade, but were quite capable of playing a draw, or any other shot for that matter, when it was required.

Lee Trevino said, "You can talk to a slice, but a hook won't listen." I have always found this to be true. I've never liked to hit the draw, even though it's the way my ball tends to want to go if I square up and make my normal swing. I don't like to draw the ball because it sometimes becomes a hard draw or a hook, and a hook just won't listen. You don't have to hit many hooks before a potentially good round becomes ugly. You don't often get away with a hook. 

I played in the Quinte Cup this weekend and once again learned that hard lesson about a hook not listening. The Quinte Cup is a one day event and consists of three nine hole matches against players from three other clubs in our area. It is one of the oldest competitions still being played in Ontario and it's fun to play guys from other clubs, many of whom you see every year. 

In my first match, I found myself playing Rick, from Napanee, who has been their club champion numerous times and is certainly no slouch. We have played several times before and have enjoyed good matches. I have done reasonably well against Rick, and actually believed I was up one in our matches when we started the day. That gave me the confidence that, if I played well, I had a fair chance of beating him. After our match and over a beer, Rick assured me he had beaten me in our last match, so we may actually have been even in our matches to date. It's funny how you remember the wins and forget the losses. Actually, I guess that's positive thinking. In any case, all that positive thinking did me no good. Rick was definitely the better man this time, easily beating me four and two. This was down to his good play, my dismal short game, and a couple of hooks that refused to listen on a hard and fast golf course. 

One of those hooks was my first shot of the day and left me short-sided behind some fir trees on the steeply uphill par three of about two hundred yards. I made five after scooting a chip across the green and three putting from the fringe. Rick, who was able to win the first hole without even having to putt for his par, was off and running. I never recovered. Along with my poor putting, on another hole I hooked it just out of bounds. "Just out of bounds" is like being "a little bit pregnant." You either are or you're not. Nine hole matches are difficult if you make mistakes early because there isn't much time to recover, and Rick is not the sort to just give you a hole. You tend to have to earn it. If you are playing a nine hole match and hooking it, better you'd have just stayed in bed.

My next match was against a fellow named Gary from Roundel Glen, formerly the CFB Trenton club. I'd never played him before, and he had won his first match against Andy from the Trenton Golf Club, a nine hole course dubbed goat hills, who were hosting the event this year. I knew I was going to be up against it, and Gary played well, beating me two and one. Once again, I hooked my first tee shot behind the same trees on one, hooked the ball out of bounds on the same hole I'd hit it OB in the first match, and I almost hooked it OB on another hole, ending up under a tree but managing to escape with a half. 

In the final match, true to form, I once again hooked my tee shot on one and, stymied by a tree, clipped the branches on my second shot but eventually managed a good bogey for a half. A birdie on two put me one up, only to see the lead evaporate when Andy holed his wedge from a hundred yards for an eagle on three. I was really starting to sweat by this point, with visions of losing all my matches and contributing nothing to the cause. I was also sweating because I was now facing two holes where I'd hit hooks in the earlier matches. At least I'd finally made a putt for birdie, and I'd finally hit some decent chips, so there was at least a glimmer of hope if I could just stop missing it left.

I pictured Lee Trevino and played the rest of the round trying to imitate his push fade move. It actually didn't produce much of a fade for me, but it saw me to the house with no more hooks and a two and one victory. Sometimes, when the wheels have come off, you need to have that choke stroke. For me it's what is doubtless a rather poor imitation of the Trevino fade. It probably doesn't remind anyone seeing me swing of old Lee, but it's the best I can do, and it's turned things around for me before when I've been really gagging out there.

After this latest experience; I'm seriously considering going back to that "faux Trevino" push fade swing as my go to swing. Why should I wait until the wheels are coming off to use it? Old Lee is right; you can talk to a fade. As for a hook; forget about it!

Does Tiger Ever Wish He Could Have a Mulligan?

I keep finding myself getting caught up in the ongoing Tiger Woods saga. It's irresistible. He is such a fascinating character. Someone recently claimed that he was the smartest golfer ever. This was promptly followed by a rebuttal from Sam Adams, citing Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus as two players who were at least if not more golf smart than Tiger.

Whether Tiger is smart, or intelligent, particularly where golf is concerned, depends on your point of view. One thing for certain is that he is different. I was interested in his post round interview, after once again just making the cut on the number at the Memorial. In it he was asked whether, considering his erratic driving, he ever considered using a long iron or three wood in order to just get the ball in play off the tee. He replied, as though it was a silly question, suggesting he could revert back to his old swing and easily get the ball in play, but he didn't consider that to be "progress."  He went on to discuss release patterns and the importance of feeling and being committed to the new release pattern, even when the driver is sending the ball left, right, but rarely centre, and he is playing the worst golf of his career.

At the Players, after a particularly dismal round, he claimed that a positive thing was that he had scored as high as he could have possibly scored. How, pray tell, is that a positive? Furthermore, it wasn't even accurate. On seventeen, after barely clearing the water and nearly spinning it back into the drink, Tiger used a sand wedge to belly the ball in for a deuce. He made two when he was inches from making five and he yet he claims he couldn't have scored any higher. He also claimed that a positive thing about the week was that his warm ups were good. Since when are your warm ups even relevant? Tiger seems to have gone from judging his game by whether he wins or not, to how his warm ups are going.

Despite all the evidence that would seem to scream for a different approach, Tiger seems still to be committed to once again building a new swing that will  enable him to dominate the game again. If he succeeds, he will prove that he is truly amazing, but he will surely still have wasted so much time and energy building new swings when he could have been winning Majors with the one he already had. That is what he will have to live with. Had he not tried to fix something that was definitely not broken, Tiger would almost certainly have broken virtually every record worth breaking, shy of Byron Nelson's eleven in a row and eighteen in a season. Instead, he continues to struggle and search for perfection, and still chases Jack and Sam's records, when what he already had was more than good enough to have eclipsed them both.

You have to wonder, when he lays in his bed, alone with his thoughts, whether he ever asks himself why; whether he ever wishes he could have a Mulligan and just have that old swing and that lanky, sinewy body back. If he doesn't, he really is amazing.

Friday, 5 June 2015

It's All in Your Head

Golf has to be the ultimate head game. To what degree golf is mental, compared to physical, will always be debatable, but it's definitely a head game. There are loads of guys who can hit it great, but those who can get the ball in the hole when it counts are a different breed.

Watching Tiger Woods again this week makes me, and probably millions of others, wonder about what is happening with Tiger mentally. When Tiger was at his best, he was perhaps the most dominant, intimidating player ever to tee it up. He was physically dominant, but his mental toughness, and self belief made his opponents, men who were mentally tough in their own right, seem to fold like cheap suits. 

Once he secured the lead, Tiger expected to finish the job. It seemed inevitable. He believed he'd win, and his opponents seemed to believe it too. Just what sort of impact Y.E. Yang had on Tiger's psyche, when he went head to head with him in a Major and took him down, is also debatable. But I suspect it was almost as big a turning point in Tiger's career as his very public personal problems. Yang took him down. He wasn't invincible after all. It sent a message to Tiger and to everyone else. Tiger really was human after all. He actually coughed up a lead in a Major.

Tiger's swing changes continue to be the main subject of interest and debate. It seems to be Tiger's focus, or obsession, as well. Jack Nicklaus said yesterday that it's in Tiger's head. He was speaking more about Tiger's driving woes at the time, but I think the "it's in his head" remark runs deeper than that. We'll never know how Tiger is mentally, whether his confidence is shaken or not, because he isn't going to tell us. I'd be shaken. Most people would be shaken, but Tiger is not most people.

All the signs are there. It shows in Tiger's driving, his chipping, and especially his putting. This was a guy who could win a Major on one leg. Who can forget the putt he made to get into a playoff with Rocco Mediate? When he made it, he knew, and Rocco knew, it was game over. Tiger was that mentally dominant. 

Those days are gone. Tiger's mental edge is gone. He is visibly nervous with the driver, and he misses putts he never missed in the old days. Jack seems to think Tiger will get it back, at least in terms of figuring out how to get the driver in play and stop the two way miss, but I doubt Jack believes he will get that mental dominance back. I suspect Jack knows; the other players know; and, I fear, even Tiger knows that he will never dominate the game again.

This is, after all, as it should be. Every great player eventually loses his edge and moves over to allow the next great player his time in the limelight. It is the way of the world. Tiger's record speaks for itself. He is one of the greats of the game. His name will always be mentioned in the same breath with Jack and Bobby Jones as the greatest champions of golf's modern era. Tiger may not beat Jack's record for Major championships. He may not even beat Sam Snead's record for total victories, although I think it likely he will. He will definitely never win eleven in a row, or eighteen in a season, like Byron, but his record speaks for itself. He was great. 

We can debate about the swing changes. Should he have made them? Will his current search result in a better swing? We can argue about whether he'll win another Major, or whether he'll win twenty Majors. We don't know. What will be, will be. What Jack knows, and I'm sure Tiger knows, is that, at the end of the day, it's all in his head. Just like the rest of us. Golf is the ultimate head game.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Putting Won't Kill You

Putting can really mess with your mind. There are times when putting has just about driven me crazy. However, it may have driven me to distraction and even despair, but it hasn't killed me, or any of my playing partners. At least not yet.

I can vividly remember, after a stretch of particularly poor putting, I missed a two footer for eagle. I was absolutely livid, and took the ball and hit it like a baseball with my putter, the ball glancing off the cheek of my buddy who stood nearby. I could have killed him. It was one of my most embarrassing moments on the golf course, and I still shudder when I think about how close I came to seriously injuring, or even killing him in that moment of absolute madness. It was not my proudest moment, but it actually changed my golfing life. I will never let putting do that to me again. 

One of my golfing buddies is currently in the grip of the putting yips. It may not actually be the yips, but it's bad. He hits it great, at least until his putting woes cause him to totally lose it. If he didn't struggle on the greens, he'd be a solid four or five handicap the way he hits it. Lately, his putting is so bad it infects the rest of his game and he has trouble breaking 90. He's getting a bit long in the tooth, so he doesn't hit it as long as he once did, but he still hits it solid. However, give him a two footer to save his life and, better call the coroner, because he's gonna miss it. Then again, give me a two footer to save my life, and I'll probably miss it as well. 

That's really the problem with putting. If you've played good golf, and you've played long enough, you know just how easy it is to miss short putts. It's the short putts that really get to you, because you think you should make them all, and you don't. Everyone misses a short one now and again. That's golf. But my pal misses almost all of them when they count. He just can't shake them in to save his life. And yet, often times he'll sweep the putt back and knock it in after he's missed. 

Yesterday, he said to me, " I can make them when they don't count."

I replied, "That's just the point. You have to convince yourself that it just doesn't matter, that they don't count."

The attitude you seem to need to have when putting is that the outcome doesn't really matter. Naturally, this is difficult, because in reality it does matter. You don't want to miss short putts, but the more you want to make them, the harder they become. Give yourself a three footer to shoot your lowest round ever and see what happens. The reality is, all you can do is read the putt, pick your line, and make your best stroke. After that, it's in the lap of the golfing gods whether it goes in or not. You can hit a perfect putt and miss because of a spike mark, or a heel print, or some other imperfection in the green you couldn't even see. Greens are imperfect, so you can miss and it might not be your fault. It's just golf. Nobody ever said it would be fair, or easy.

However, if you can treat those two imposters, success and failure, just the same, and realize that neither outcome will cure or kill you, putting becomes easier. Putting may never be easy, but it will be easier if you can keep your perspective. You really can't will the ball into the hole, even though it seemed Jack Nicklaus could. You just have to make your best stroke and accept the outcome, knowing a miss won't kill you, unless of course you're playing a guy with no neck for more money than you can afford to pay if you lose.

Everybody misses a two footer at one time or another. But I've never heard of it killing anybody. These days, I try to just step up there, pick my line, try to make a good stroke, and let it be. I figure, if I do that, I've done my part. The rest is up to the golfing gods. I've missed more short putts than I care to remember, but it's never killed me, and so long as I never have to make one to save my life, I guess I'll be okay.