Sunday, May 24, 2015

The State of My Game

The posts I write are meant to help you play better. Whatever I put up here is something I tried myself and find that it works. I’m not going to tell you something I heard somewhere that sounds like it makes sense. I test it first. But it’s all about you.

Today, though is different. Today is all about me, though maybe even then you might find something in it that helps you as well.

Because of some back surgeries I underwent several years ago, I had to change the way I swing the golf club. I swing it much easier now. I haven’t measured my clubhead speed, though I know it’s slower because I have lost about twenty yards off the tee and one club from the fairway.

Distance, though, is only one part of playing golf. I have become much more accurate, because I have to be accurate. I have designed a swing, therefore, that hits the ball very straight, time after time. That’s certainly not a bad thing.

Through impact, my club hits the ground at the same spot, at the same depth, with a square clubface, consistently. The way I accomplish this is to lose all thought of hitting the ball powerfully, and instead, think of swinging the club gracefully.

To strike the ball accurately, so many things have to be lined up just right, and when this has to be done at speed it’s all more difficult. I swing as fast as I can while still keeping everything in order. If I tried to swing faster, I would only disrupt the impact alignments and start hitting the ball anywhere but where I wanted it to go. In addition, I doubt I would hit the ball that much farther to make the effort worthwhile.

I find my longest shots happen when I take care of swinging the club and let the club take care of the hitting. After all, the hit is built into your clubs. That’s why you paid so much for them. You just swing it and let the manufacturer take care of the rest.

The recreational golfer, who doesn’t have world-class talent, doesn’t have access to world-class coaching, nor hours a day to spend practicing, needs to play golf differently than the players who do. We need a swing that keeps the ball in play, first and last.

In my personal experience, and in what I see in the people I play with, the pursuit of distance, trying to hit each ball as far as possible rather than as straight as possible, is the number one reason why so many golfers play worse than they are capable of. I know it’s fun to really tag one, but if your overall game is designed around doing that, you’re costing yourself handfuls of strokes for the occasional satisfaction.

On the other hand, if you can build a swing that accomplishes the three things I mentioned earlier, you will hit the ball straighter, and you won’t lose distance, because you will be making a more solid impact. I lost distance because of a physical condition, but that’s not you.

Recreational golf is wrapped up in hitting the ball straight. Spend some time at the driving range just watching people and ask yourself, about every one of them, if their problem is that they don’t hit the ball far enough, or that they don’t hit it straight enough.

If you can change your conception of golf from hard and far to graceful and straight, and they act on it, you will be on the way to becoming the best player you can be. Well, as long as you can putt, too.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ben Hogan's Three Right Hands

There’s a guy I play golf with occasionally who is in his 50s and new to the game. He’s small, but strong. His swing is: wind up the upper body and swing through as hard as you can with your shoulders and arms. When he connects, it’s really impressive. The other ninety percent of the time, it’s not.

He told me once that he read Ben Hogan’s book (Five Lessons) and mentioned the part where Hogan said he wished he had three right hands. Having read that book so much I almost have it memorized, I agreed that Hogan did say that.

I think my friend interpreted that as a green light to hit the ball as hard as he could with his right hand. That sure looks like what he's trying to do.

What I didn’t say, because I don’t give unsolicited advice on the golf course, is my friend needed to read the whole sentence rather than just that part.
 Hogan at that point (p. 101) was talking about the left wrist. I won’t give you the entire quote, but he said,

“...the left hand will not check or interrupt the speed with which your clubhead is traveling. There’s no danger either that the right hand will overpower the left and twist the club over. It can’t. As far as applying power goes, I wish I had three right hands!”

That’s it. You can hit as hard as you want to with your right hand IF THE LEFT WRIST IS IN THE PROPER POSITION (illustration below).



Hogan was not saying to hit the ball as if you had three right hands, period. There is a catch, and the catch is the shape of the left wrist.

The right hand turning over the left was my problem exactly for many years. I solved it by changing my grip and by giving my hands less responsibility through impact.

What I have is a flat left wrist at impact. Having that wrist bend outward like Hogan showed is beyond my ability. If you can get your left wrist flat (Hogan) and facing the target (Trevino) at impact, you’re way ahead of the game.

But back to the book. Hitting hard only makes sense if you are sure you can keep the clubface aligned while you’re doing it. Hogan showed you in Five Lessons how he did it.

A shorter way of saying it is, square first, hard second.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Be Your Own Caddy

In Better Recreational Golf, I have a small essay on the chapter titled Playing the Game, called Be Your Own Caddy. The point I made was that you need to have a good reason for every shot you hit.

It has to be a shot you know you can hit, that you have confidence in, and one that leaves the ball in a good spot for the next one.

Yet, more often than not, all we think about is how to get the ball from point A to point B, without giving much thought to our selection of exactly where point B should be.

If we had a caddy with us, those two questions would be the topic of some conversation. The caddy would not be satisfied until you had good answers to both of them.

To play your best golf, you have to step into the role of your caddy and discuss things with your other self, the player self, until you both are in agreement.

Now this might not work for everyone, but I believe that if before you take a club out of the bag, you explain to yourself why you want to use this club, and what shot you’re going to hit with it, and to where, you might start thinking a little clearer about the choices you make.

You would consider the lie, the wind, the landing area, and the distance. Then you hit the shot you can hit, rather than the shot you want to hit, or would be good if it works out.

Take your salary, convert it to an hourly rate, and compute how much is costs you, at that rate, to play a round of golf. Add on a quarter of your green fees to that hourly rate, too.

Now ask yourself if you would pay a caddy that much money for the same advice you usually give to yourself. For most of us, I think we would demand a little more.

Hitting shots is only part of golf. Hitting the right shot to the right place is how you use your hard-earned skills to shoot a low score. You do that by being your own caddy.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Good Golf Takes Dedication

A few years ago, I published a blog post that was a reprint, with permission, of the best piece I have ever read about how much practice it takes to get good at golf.

The answer is essentially what Ben Hogan told Gary Player when Player said he practiced all the time. Hogan said, “Good. Now practice more than that.”

I read an obituary a few years ago of Bob Kurland, who played professional basketball in the 1950s. He was one of the first truly big men in the game. Kurland realized if he developed a hook shot from close in, no one would be able to stop it.

So the story goes that he went to the gym and started practicing. The first 100 or so shots didn’t come close. The next hundred showed promise. By about 300 shots, he started to connect.

That’s not too much for you to do, either, if you want to.

A few days ago I was cruising around Wikipedia, reading the entry for Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim. He worked his butt off to get where got to.

He said, about composing, “Well, I can do that. Because you just don't know. You think it's a talent, you think you're born with this thing. What I've found out and what I believed is that everybody is talented. It's just that some people get it developed and some don’t.”

You have the talent to be good at something in golf. Very good. Decide what you’re going to be good at, and put in the work to get there.

How much work? One more time.

I picked up this line recently, but I can’t remember from where. It goes like this: An amateur will practice until he (or she) can do it right. A professional will keep on practicing until he can’t do it wrong.

The next time you practice chipping for ten minutes and a few shots get close to the hole and you’re about to call it a day, think about how good could you be vs. how good are you allowing yourself to be.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Only Golf Stats You Need

In the mid-1980s, Bill James elevated baseball statistics to unthought-of heights and called his work sabrmetrics. The "sabr' part is an homage to the Society for American Baseball Research, of which I was a member.

Now, Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia University, is doing the same for golf, with his strokes gained concept. What he's doing has great value for professional golfers, but the jury I'm on (of which I am the only member) is still out on the value for recreational golfers.

Here's what I think. You need three numbers, just three.

1. How many full swings did you make?

2. How many shots did you make from a distance that is less than a full swing with your pitching wedge, down to just off the green?

3. How many putts (shots where the ball lies on the green) did you make?

Throw in penalty strokes and you have 'em all.

By the way, everybody thinks the 3rd one isn't worth much, but for recreational golfers it's critical.

One of my old blog posts tells you how to put this all together.

I often play with three guys who don't break 90, but who write down hieroglyphics on their scorecard after every hole. All they need for each hole is these three numbers.

That's all you need, too.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

How to Learn a Short Game Shot

There is a right way to teach yourself how to hit a new short game shot. Go through this sequence and the shot will work for you.

1. Learn to make consistent contact. The shot will behave the way you want it to only if you hit it the same way every time. It might take hundreds of tries before you become consistent with how you strike the ball. It’s worth the effort.

2. Learn to hit the shot where you’re aiming it. To get the ball close to the hole, you have to hit it straight and the right distance. Straight is easier, so start there. Again, hundreds of balls won’t be to many.

3. Learn to hit the shot the right distance. This one takes time and thought. One way to start is to get a standard-length stroke and play that stroke with different clubs, seeing what distance you get with each one. Another way is to use just a few clubs and learn how to finesse each one to the right distance. A combination of the two isn’t a bad idea, either.

You might want to start with your bread and butter short shots, the greenside chip and the standard pitch (from 50-100 yards). You can always hit them better than you’re doing now.

When you pick up a new specialty shot, go through this sequence to master it. Hitting it sort of well isn’t what I want you to do. Get good!

I once heard that Lorena Ochoa would practice a new shot for about six months before she used it in a tournament. That's good advice for all of us.

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This tip was extracted from my first book, Better Recreational Golf. There's lots more stuff just like this in there. Believe me, I won't be disappointed if you buy your own copy. Neither will you.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Leaving Approach Putts Short

I'm sure you've heard the old joke, "95% of all putts that come up short don't go into the hole," so I don't have to say it here. Oh, wait... I just said it. Sorry.

If this is you, if you have a bad case of the Shorts, let me give you a cure.

You don't leave thirty-foot putts short because you don't judge distance well. If that were the case, you would be leaving them long, short, and in the middle. But they all seem to come up short.

What is likely going on is that you fear the putt going past the hole. You feel safer sneaking up on the hole. Even though you know five feet short is the same as five feet past, you are more comfortable with five feet short. The prospect of going five feet past just gives you the willies.

That's fine. We don't need to change that feeling. All I'm going to ask you to do is change the way you stroke the putt.

Even if you have the speed perfectly judged, at the last instant you flinch and pull back, hitting the ball softer than you had planned. What I want you to do is change the point of impact to take out that flinch.

You think now that the putter hits the trailing edge of the ball, the one next to the putter when you address the ball. And that's true, it does.

What I want you to do instead is look at the leading edge of the ball, the one closest to the hole, and think about hitting that edge. Think that the ball is transparent to the putter and you will hit that edge when you hit the ball.

By doing that, you will hit the ball before you expect to. You won't flinch because by the time you mind is ready for the "hit" sensation, the ball has already been struck.

The result? The ball gets to the hole and goes in. If it misses it goes maybe a foot or two past. And you didn't hit it any harder. You might have hit it exactly as you had planned.

Give this a try. You have nothing to lose but four strokes.