Sunday, 30 October 2016

Champagne Tony Lema

Tony Lema just might have become one of the greats of the game had he not been killed in a plane crash. His book, Champagne Tony's Golf Tips, lay on a bindery platform ready for shipment as he perished that Sunday in 1966. He never had a chance to hold the final product in his hands.

You just never know. The older I get, and the more I play golf, the more I am inclined to wonder about predestination, or fate, as did Bobby Jones. It may all just be a great coincidence, or accident, but you really have to wonder. But I digress.

What I picked up from Tony's book was that he was yet another top hand player, who believed the key to success was the back of the left hand, and therefore the clubface, driving straight down the target line through impact. He had plenty of company among the greats of the game in this respect--Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus...

He also stressed balance as being key. And I liked what he wrote about the stance. He suggested that, for the full shots, you place your feet as you would if you were going to do deep knee bends. That is the most balanced and stable stance for any of us. I tried it and found it to be great advice. I have been inclined to use the Hogan stance, often toeing the front foot out as much as forty five degrees, and squaring up my back foot. This effectively shortened my swing and restricted my hip turn.

It's funny how you never stop learning in this game.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

The Most Neglected Area of the Game

I've been reading Sam Snead's book, The Education of a Golfer. Sam wrote about his ailing back, a condition called spinal ostosis, which certainly made life difficult and painful for him and made him wonder whether his playing days were numbered.

Sam told the story of a trip to play in Brazil's national championship. Sam had been offered five thousand dollars plus expenses to play. However, if he won, the deal was that the first place money of two thousand dollars would not go to Sam, but be included in the guaranteed five grand. Sam, despite his bad back, shot an opening round 71, which was criticized at dinner that night by the businessman who had put up the appearance money.

Sam told the businessman that if he wanted to see him really play, he should let him have a shot at the prize money. The businessman agreed, thinking Sam was probably too far back to catch the leaders, including Roberto Di Vicenzo. Sam then went on a tear and won the tournament going away setting the course record and winning by eleven strokes. He was a money player.

What Sam relied on to win was not long hitting, but his short game. He put his drives in play and then used bump and run approaches to handle the rock-hard greens that wouldn't receive a standard approach shot. He also pitched and chipped like a demon. He wrote the following:

    "Year in and year out, a strong short-iron game--or lack of it--has decided how well I've scored as much as any other factor. The longer anyone plays golf, the more this is true. If you have a physical disability, or you're past the age where your hips turn freely, or have grown a paunch, you'll always have trouble hitting the long woods well. And when a man passes the age of forty, the odds are that his putting nerve will slip. But there's still that big shot-saving area left around the green. The heart of scoring is from 150 yards out from the pin, and the place where most matches are decided is even closer in--from 40 to 50 yards of the hole. It's also the most neglected area in the game.
     That should never be, because age, sex, size, or strength doesn't count for much when it comes to the short approaches. I know a sixty-year-old woman who can chip and pitch and run up with almost a pro's ability."

Reading this, as a guy with a chronic back problem and a paunch, I'm convinced that the only way I'm going to play well is to hone a good short game. There are no drivers, or swing changes, or exercises that are going to make me able to hit it long any more. Those days are gone. But I can still get better from 150 yards and in; and especially around the green. 

If I can forget about my long game and build up an even better repetoire around the greens, who knows, I might actually get better, rather than just older. The short game is, according to Sam, the most neglected area in the game. That may be so for most amateurs; but it certainly isn't the case for the guys who are making their living at this game.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Don't Relax

Bobby Jones wrote his book Golf is my Game some ten years after he had been afflicted with a crippling disease that had made it impossible for him to play any longer. When he wrote the book golf was still a consuming interest in his life. Even though he could no longer play, the game still fascinated him and he wanted to share his knowledge with other golfers.

Consider what he wrote about the game and how he believed it should be played in his first chapter:

    "Golf has a very great and sometimes mystifying appeal to busy men. Some of its most ardent devotees are men of affairs whose lives are filled with responsibilities for making important decisions. To thise who know little of golf, it is difficult to explain how a game so apparently frivolous could interest men such as these.
     To those who know something of the game, there is no mystery at all. Golfers know, and have known for a long time, that when playing golf, it is almost impossible to think of anything else. The most complete rest for the mind, and the most effective renewal of mental keenness and vigour, come not from thinking of nothing, but from putting one's mind completely upon fresh and stimulating activities. It is, therefore, the all-absorbing challenge of golf which makes it such an effective agent of mental therapy.
     In this view, then, it seems to me that we are defeating or detracting from the effectiveness of the game as recreation when we urge people to relax, take it easy, or be casual and carefree on the golf course. I think we should urge them to do just the opposite--to put themselves wholeheartedly into their play. What they want and need most from the game can be had only when the intense concentration upon the play helps to sweep away the problems, worries, and even troubles of everyday life."

So, there you have it. Golf is best played and enjoyed when, as Arnold Palmer once wrote, you "play it to the hilt." There is nothing wrong with taking the game seriously, even if you might not be a scratch player. It is in concentrating on playing the game to the best of your ability that you reap the greatest benefits from it. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Don't Be Worried

Some golfers, and especially new golfers, tend to be worried about playing with strangers, or golfers that play better than they do. Most golfers actually have an inferiority complex when it comes to their game. Sure there's the odd fellow who thinks he is better than he really is; but most golfers are worried about embarrassing themselves when they tee it up.

The fact is that there is no requirement to be a really good player in order to be an acceptable companion on the golf course. Bobby Jones, who regularly teed it up with average players when he wasn't trying to win championships, wrote about this subject in his book Golf is my Game. He wrote:

    "It is by no means necessary to play well to be an entirely acceptable golfing companion, but you must try. You must be able to keep the ball in play. You must not dilly-dally around. You must be ready to play your shot when your turn comes, and you must be aware of and respectful of the rights of others in your game.
     If you can fit this bill, you need have no hesitancy about playing in any company. Indeed, the better players will be delighted to help and encourage you in the game. They like golf, and they will want you to like it, too. The better your partner, the more tolerant he is likely to be."

So, don't be worried about teeing it up with better players or strangers. You don't need to play well. You just need to keep up and do your best to be an amiable and respectful companion. No golfer worth his salt looks down his nose at new players, or players less competent than himself. If you run into someone who does, avoid him. He's the one with the problem.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Best Luck Bobby Jones Ever Had

Bobby Jones came to believe in predestination or fate. He understood that in order to win big championships you had to be good; but you also needed some luck. Most golfers who have competed understand this to be true.

In order to become a champion, you don't simply need luck on the golf course, you need some luck to get to the point where you are good enough to compete with the best players of your day. You need opportunity to play and practise. You need to play against other good players. And you need good role models, mentors, and/or instructors. 

As I write this, I think of Ben Hogan who, perhaps as much as any great champion, dug it out of the dirt himself. But even Ben had Byron Nelson to compete against from the time the two of them met as caddies in Texas. Without Byron, who knows how good Ben would have been.

As for Bobby Jones, the luckiest thing that ever happened to him in golf was the arrival of Stewart Maiden at East Lake from Carnoustie to replace his brother Jimmy as the professional at East Lake. In his book, Down the Fairway, Bobby wrote:

    "I wish I could say that a strange thrill shot through my skinny little bosom when I swung at a golf ball for the first time; but it wouldn't be truthful. I do not remember the first time I hit a golf ball, or hit at one; and as I recall it the game did not make much of an impression on me, except that I used to get mad enough to dance in the road when a wild shot went under a little bridge covered with briers across the ditch which was the second hole. I liked baseball much better, and played golf, or what we called golf, be ause of a dearth of boys in the neighbourhood with whom to play baseball...
     We moved back to East Lake the next summer, in 1908, and here I ought to be able to record another sensation, because soon afterward Stewart Maiden came to be professional at the club, and that was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me in golf, which is saying a lot, because my entire career, if it may be called a career, has been lucky. There were times, during what one writer called my seven lean years, when I fancied most of the luck was bad luck; but I was wrong. Some people can learn only by having education drubbed into them; and I want to say right now that I never learned anything from a match that I won. Not jntil the seven lean years were over, at any rate... But the best luck I ever had in golf was when Stewart Maiden came from Carnoustie, Scotland, to be professional at the East Lake club... there was nothing sensational about Stewart. He said very little and I couldn't understand a single word of what he said; he was not long over from Scotland...
     No-- there wasn't any sensation, any more than when I swung the first time at a golf ball. Stewart was just another little Scot, like Jimmy, only Scotcher. But it wasn't long before I was following him about the East Lake course and watching him... When I followed Stewart, I didn't carry even one club. I just watched him. I never was conscious of studying his play, or trying to play like him. I liked golf pretty well; he was the best player at the club; and I liked watching him perform. He paid little or no attention to me, and after tagging along four or five holes I would leave the match and go back to our house -- we had moved into a cottage inside the club property, right by the thirteenth green of the old course--and get a cap full of balls and my mashie and putter and go out to the thirteenth green and pitch them all on and putt them all out, over and over again. It was pretty good practice, I suppose. I liked to pitch the ball, and as I recall I could get it close to the pin with a fair consistency... Lately I have caught myself thinking about those long, sunny afternoons, pitching balls at the pin on the old thirteenth green, and I've wished I could get the ball up there as accurately now, from proportionate distances. The short pitch is the weakest spot in my game, these last few years. Maybe I've got away from Stewart Maiden's method that was so clearly before me in thise days when I had so little else to think about...
     Now, I suppose all the time I was watching Stewart play golf the imitative faculty which seems inherent in most children was at work, and that I began hitting the ball as he did, so far as my limitations would permit. Dad says I was a natural mimic in those days, and I remember he used to amuse a veranda full of people at times by inspiring me to get out on the lawn and imitate the swing of this player or that one-- usually someone in the gathering."

Bobby Jones didn't have some sort of mystical experience when he first hit a golf ball; but he was lucky enough to have Stewart Maiden to watch and imitate, and a green by his house to hone his short game skills. 

So, when you think of Bobby Jones, don't forget Stewart Maiden. Without that quiet little Scotsman, Bobby might never have become one of golf's greatest champions.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Bobby Jones' Beginnings

Bobby Jones was a fascinating character. He began life as a sickly child--possibly one of the least likely candidates to become one of, if not the greatest champions of all time. Speaking of his beginnings, Bobby wrote in his book Down the Fairway:

    "Judging from certain photographs I must have been an odd-looking youngster. I started out with an over-sized head and a spindly body and legs with staring knees, and some serious digestive derangement which caused my parents and six or seven doctors a deal of distress. Dad says I didn't eat any real food until I was five years old, but I don't remember about that. I must have been pretty frail because I don't remember any playmates while we lived on Willow Street in Atlanta, except Camilla, our fat cook and nurse, and her fat brother, who was blacker than Camilla; and Camilla's beau. I used to enjoy the visits of Camilla's brother, who sat on the back veranda while I rode my velocipede there, and taught me to swear and call Camilla's beau all kinds of curious names. Occasionally Camilla took me to her home for a little visit and I have a distinct recollection of falling off the rear veranda of her house head first into a garbage can. It is lucky for me that I do not have to trust everything to memory, for I have no independent recollection of ever getting out of the can. I had a big black and white Collie named Judge, who caused me a lot of trouble by following people away from our house; he would follow anybody, and I had to go and bring him back. I liked the ice-man too--that was Camilla's beau--and when he came to deliver the ice I liked to hold my hands under the block as he sawed it, and catch the saw dust (I thought it was that) and eat it."

Bobby was born in the old South well before any real progress was made in terms of integration. I have often wondered what he thought about the society to which he was born and what he thought about the racial injustices that existed. I have never found any specific comments from him about these things. But what we do know is that his first friends were black folk, whom he obviously had real affection for and no doubt contributed to the wonderful person he became.

He even learned to cuss from Camilla's brother. By all accounts, he learned that lesson well; because he was famous as a teenager for his colourful outbursts on the golf course. I wonder if Camilla, her brother, and her beau ever dreamt that this funny-looking little white boy would become one of the most famous sportsmen of all time. It would have been interesting to talk to them about it.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

A Sound Stroke

What constitutes a sound stroke for a right-handed player? Bobby Jones had the following to say about it in his book Bobby Jones on Golf:

    "In a sound golf stroke, the back of the left hand is visible at the instant of impact to an observer standing in front of the player. It is important that this hand should drive straight through the impact position in an effort to direct the head of the club precisely along the line of play. The turning action, which begins to take place an appreciable space after contact, does so then because the player's muscles relax after the effort of hitting, and because his swing has then reached the limit of motion it can accommodate along the line of flight."

That is why I called my blog Top Hand Golf. In a sound swing, the top hand pulls the club down the target line, the back of that hand facing the target through impact. All good players do this whether they are aware of it or not. The correct stroke is a backhanded action with the left hand. Bobby also wrote:

    "The correct stroke causes the club head to approach the ball from inside the line of play. The factors making this possible are the forward shift of the hips during the downstroke, maintaining a bend in the right arm that keeps the right elbow close to the side of the body, and the backhand nature of the stroke dominated by a strong pull from the left side. These are the factors that make it necessary or inevitable that at the instant of impact the hands should be on a line with, or ahead, of the club head, and that the left hand should carry through the ball without beginning to turn."

If you are having trouble with slicing or hooking the ball, or you are just unhappy with the consistency of your ballstriking, look to your left hand. Keep the back of that top hand driving straight down the target line.  As Lee Trevino also taught, where the back of the left hand goes is where the club face goes. And Byron Nelson had the back of his left hand driving down the target line as his primary swing thought during his magic year in 1945 when he won eighteen times, including eleven in a row. Once he discovered the importance of the top hand, he never looked back.

How Golf Should Be Learned

There are many good golf professionals who have a passion for teaching the game. No doubt it must be a source of frustration for them that many of their pupils don't improve. The average golfer remains pretty much as average as the average golfer was fifty years ago. This despite the many advances in technology. Why is this the case? 

At the age of forty six Bobby Jones was stricken by a crippling disease. He could no longer play the game he so loved. In his book Golf is my Game, Bobby produced what I think is the best book ever written about golf. In the first chapter, entitled Learn by Playing, Bobby addresses the subject of how golf should be learned, and/or taught. Bobby wrote:

    "Since I have been unable to play for more than ten years, I have had that much more time to think. Much of my thinking has been of golf and how best to teach or to learn the game. It seems obvious to me that writing about the golf swing has become too technical and complicated, and even the most earnest teaching professional presents the game to his pupil as a far more difficult thing than it really is. It is equally obvious that what the game needs most if it is to continue to grow in popularity is a simplification of teaching routines which will present a less formidable aspect to the beginner, and offer the average player a rosier prospect of improvement.
     The trouble could be, and I think it is, that golf is not taught as it is learned. It is taught more as a science or as a prescribed set of calisthenic exercises, whereas it is learned as a game.
     Most of our successful tournament players have come up as caddy boys, like Sarazen, Hogan, and Nelson; or, like myself, as sons of members of golf clubs, turned out to pasture with a club or two and a few balls. They have learned to play golf, just as others have learned to play baseball, by playing and playing and playing because they liked the game. In most cases it has only been after gaining considerable proficiency that thoughts of method have been of much concern."

Bobby Jones wrote--and they are the Master's own words--a classic book on golf in Golf is my Game. It contains the crystalized wisdom of one of golf's greatest personalities and champions. If it isn't part of your golf library, I can only suggest that you acquire a copy. In the introduction Bobby described what he had attempted to do in writing the book. He wrote:

    "What I have attempted in this book, although less ambitious, I believe will appeal to the vast majority of people who play golf. I have suggested ways of making a mental approach to the game, of thinking through the playing of shots and of managing one's resources so as more often to enable the player to approximate the highest level of performance to which he has a right to aspire."

Bobby Jones understood that golf is a game that involves striking a ball with a club and trying to get the ball in the hole in fewer whacks than your opponent. He realized that golf was not about pretty swings, or even pretty shots, it was about the score. Bobby Jones reminds those of us who might have forgotten that golf is a game and it is best learned by playing it. It's just a shame that it generally isn't taught that way. 

So, if you are just learning the game; or just looking to improve; by all means try to gain sufficient knowledge about the golf swing in general and yours in particular. Then try to find pleasant companions to play with and throw yourself whole-heartedly into playing the game. Rather than worrying about your swing, focus instead on making the lowest score you possibly can with the swing you possess that day. That's what golf is really all about and, according to Bobby Jones, that's how it should be learned.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

No Pictures on the Scorecard

There are no pictures on the scorecard.  It isn't how, it's how many. That's essentially what Bobby Jones spoke about in the first chapter of his book Bobby Jones on Golf.  This chapter was entitled The Ultimate Object, and the fact that Bobby made this the first chapter of his book was surely no coincidence.

Bobby begins by describing a shot he played at the 1926 Open at Scioto where he was in a battle with  Joe Turnesa.  In describing the difficulty of this bunker shot on the thirteenth hole, Bobby explained why the usual options available to him were either of no use, or too dangerous to play. Instead, Bobby chose to use a four iron to scuttle the ball across the sand and up the bank onto the green. The ball came to rest four feet from the hole and Bobby holed the putt.

What was the lesson for the rest of us in this story?  Bobby wrote:

    "The general tendency, I think, is to overlook the possibilities in a shot of this nature.  i admit that it does appear unworkmanlike and amateurish to run a shot through sand and out of a bunker, but it sometimes becomes necessary to disregard appearances.  A few disasters resulting from a desire to display brilliant technique are enough to harden even the most sensitive nature. To approach the hole remains the ultimate object in the game. Once the round is underway, the business in hand becomes that of getting results. Nothing else matters."

Thursday, 13 October 2016


Congratulations to the US Ryder Cup team.  Their convincing win will hopefully end the domination of the Ryder Cup by the Europeans; and with it all the second-guessing on the part of the Americans.  The fact is the Americans won because they played better, not because of any particular genius on the part of Davis Love or the "committee."

As I found myself in Saint Maarten during the week, without working internet, I had to save my observations until now.  The best thing in my mind, over and above the great golf, was the relatively friendly spirit in which the matches were played, with the exception of a few moronic fans.  It was a great exhibition of golf, not a war.  

The final day singles match between Patrick Reed and Rory was, to me, the highlight of the week.  Both players played their hearts out, were charged up, but respected and acknowledged each other's remarkable play.  That Reed was able to defeat Rory at his best was, along with his earlier exploits, the inspiration the team needed to rise to the occasion.  

What was also interesting was the fact that Bubba Watson, who swallowed his pride and asked to be an assistant captain if he wasn't picked, was mentioned by more than one American player as having made a significant contribution to the US effort.  Bubba could have just as easily taken umbrage with not being picked and stayed home.  But he wanted to contribute in any way he could.  It speaks volumes about who he really is.

Finally, the final Captain's pick, Ryan Moore, secured what was the cup-winning point by winning his singles match.  What do these stories tell us?  Firstly, if we are to believe the reports, Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson are supposed to be two of the most disliked players in the game.  Ryan Moore was also said to be a bit of a loner, an outsider; not really one of the boys.  Nevertheless, these, supposedly unpopular, players were absolutely key to the American victory.  

This puts paid to the idea that a team, in order to be successful, must be composed of best buddies.  What matters when it comes to a team is that each team member does his part. They needn't be best friends off the field.

I hope the Ryder Cup will have caused people to have greater respect for Patrick Reed, Bubba, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Ryan Moore.  They may still not be part of the "in crowd," but they did their part and will likely be part of a much more competitive US team for years to come.  I have written a few articles in the past about Bubba and Reed--articles that extolled their abilities rather than questioned their popularity.  So, I was already a fan of both of them.  

If you were not one of their fans, perhaps it's time you give them some respect.  They may be different.  They may be outsiders.  But they were all in for their team.  And, man, can that Patrick Reed play!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Two Things That Would Help

Most golfers would like to improve.  In this case I'm talking about golfers who play the game regularly.  The 90 shooter would like to play in the 80's.  The low handicapper would love to get to scratch.  And, generally speaking, this doesn't happen.  Many golfers believe the solution to getting better is in more practice, better technique, or even better equipment--which keeps equipment manufacturers in business.  However, often the solution lies between our ears, not in our swing.

Bobby Jones once said, that it was easier to learn to use sound judgement than to swing a club like Harry Vardon.  He made a great point.  Golf is not about how; it's about how many.  And that is why we see some guys who regularly beat other fellows who may hit the ball better than they do, or have a prettier swing.

Having a sound swing is one thing--and it's important.  But more important is the ability to use good judgement with the swing you possess.  Learning to play good golf has less to do with your swing than it does your mind.  That's why Raymond Floyd was able to confidently say that were it somehow possible for he and the amateur to have the same ability, he would beat the amateur every time because he knew how to play the game better.

Golfers--myself included-- will generally nod and agree that golf is a game that is played between the ears.  But often we fail to act as though we know it.  How often don't we find ourselves making the same mental or strategic errors, even playing on our home course--missing shots in the wrong places, failing to take enough club, trying the improbable, if not impossible, shot instead of playing one more sensible or conservative?  Many of us never seem to learn.  And because we don't learn to use good judgement, we don't improve.

If we could do just two things--things that have nothing to do with our swing--we couldn't help but improve.  First, we should only hit a shot we are reasonably confident we are able to hit and we feel ready to hit.  There is nothing more discouraging than making a mess of a hole because we went ahead and hit a shot we really knew we couldn't, shouldn't, or just plain weren't ready to hit.  Those are the shots I call the "anyway shots."  We really know we aren't ready or able to hit them but we go ahead and hit them anyway.  Many shots are missed before we even take the club back.

Secondly, we should make an honest appraisal of our rounds in order to learn from our mistakes and recognize any weaknesses in our game.  For instance, if we are losing strokes by hitting poor shots with the driver, why not stop hitting the driver until we have it under control?  There were occasions when Jack Nicklaus, who was one of the longest, straightest drivers the game has ever seen, stopped hitting driver and used his three wood or one iron if he had hit one or two poor drives.  Imagine what Tiger's record might have looked like if he had done the same thing.  He might have been unbeatable.

If we really want to improve, we have to not only improve our technique; we have to improve our ability to manage our game.  (I'm writing this almost as a note to myself, because I'm as guilty as the next guy when it comes to making the same dumb mistakes.)  We will all hit some stinkers--maybe even more stinkers than good shots.  It happens to the best players some days.  But nothing can be more disheartening than hitting a stinker only because we didn't use our head, or we weren't really ready to hit the shot and went ahead and hit it anyway.  There is nothing that cheeses me off more than hitting one of those "anyway shots."  I knew I wasn't set up properly, or wasn't really comfortable with the shot, but I hit the damned thing anyway.

The best players all hit poor shots and sometimes make mental errors.  But they don't make mental errors over and over again like many amateurs--not the guys who are winning the money.