Monday, September 1, 2014

Practicing Golf the Hard Way

Lately I’ve been reworking how I practice golf -- what to do with a bucket of balls at the range. For years I’ve been getting it all wrong. I’ve started to do it the right way, but it’s really hard. Let me explain.

After I started swinging a golf club again, nine months after my back surgeries, I knew I had to find a swing that put as little stress on my back as possible.

I also knew that it had to be a simple swing, easy to remember, because I couldn’t hit balls three or four times a week to keep the swing in tune.

After a year and a half of experimentation, I found a swing based on six fundamental principles that worked, was easy on my back, and was easy to re-create after a layoff.

The plan now is to apply those principles every time, or as nearly as a person can to that. That takes practice, but the right kind of practice.

I now start out at the range reviewing the six principles, focusing on each one through practice swings only. I don’t move on to the next principle until I’m satisfied the one I’m working on is correct.

After I have worked through all the principles, and they have melded into one unified swing feeling, I can hit a golf ball. A golf ball. One.

It might take thirty swings to get things where I like them before I hit that first golf ball, but I hit it without thinking of swing mechanics, without wondering how the shot will work out. I just swing with the swing feeling I have created for myself and I get a really good shot out of it.

Then I start over. I do the same thing again. It might not take me thirty swings until I’m ready this time, but there will still be a lot of them. And then I hit another golf ball. One. And I go through the whole thing again to get ready to hit a third golf ball. Et cetera.

I’m getting two things done here. One is lots of isolated practice with each of the six principles so I learn them well. The other is putting my mind in a place where those things I mentioned, worry, swing thoughts, never come into my mind. I just swing with my best swing and the ball goes on its way.

That’s how you have to play golf. That’s why if you flub a shot on the course, drop another ball and try again, that second shot is always better than the first -- because you don’t have those swing-wrecking thoughts any more. You just hit the ball.

So you could say that I’m teaching myself to hit my second shot first.

The title of this post is Practicing Golf the Hard Way. That’s because it takes a LOT of will power to take all those practice swings between the time you hit golf balls. But that’s the only I way I know to get it right.

Note: I’m writing up the six principles in a small pamphlet to be published in October with related YouTube videos. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Zeroing in Around the Green

If you pay attention to the way you play, no matter how good you are, you’re aware that the place where your score gets leaky is around the green.

I often say, and I’m not backing away from it here, that good scores are only made possible by good play up to the green. But once you get to the green, you have to put it away. Too often that takes one stroke too many.

The reason is chipping requires the precision of an approach putt, because, after all, that’s what the shot represents if you missed the green.

Let me give you a few suggestions to guide your chipping practice. With less work than you think you can get really good at this shot.

First, get a lesson on how to chip. While it’s an easy shot, there is a right way to do it that you will likely never figure out by yourself.

Now designate three clubs to chip with. I would suggest a pitching wedge, an 8-iron, and a 6-iron. Go the the practice green and pick a spot. Drop three balls and chip from that one spot to the same pin, with each club.

Repeat this from a variety of places around the green, different spots to different pins, to find out which club you like for which chips.

For a month, do no short game practice except this. It will be scary how good you get.

Next, it’s one thing to be good at the “up,” but you have to be good at the “down,” too, or you might as well have left your chip ten feet from the hole.

How do you practice that? Well, all those practice chips you made? Don’t pick up the balls. Leave them where they ended up and putt each one out. Every time. Three chips, three putts. Learn to deal with the putts your chipping leaves you.

This is how I got real good at chipping. I got fed up with leaving myself with putts too far from the hole. Made me get very serious about getting those chips close. Now, even three-footers I don’t like.

In other words, don’t practice chipping only. Practice getting up and down. Keep score, too. Getting down to an average of 2.1 (up and down nine out of ten times) is realistic for anybody.

I still practice like this. It’s the only way.

Don’t neglect your putter, either. If you have a lie on good grass and there isn’t too much of it between your ball and the green, just putt. But practice that, too.

Monday, August 18, 2014

How to Play Single-Digit Golf

Yes, you heard me. How to play single-digit golf, and it’s not that hard to do, or I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m not saying scratch golf, that’s another matter entirely. But coming in at nine strokes over the course rating? That’s a lot of room for error.

Let’s see. Shotmaking skills.

First of all, you need to be able to hit the ball straight, consistently. Not every shot, but seven out of ten need to go where you want them to, and the other three must be playable.

Second, you need to be good at approach putting. Three-putt greens are most often caused by leaving the first putt too far from the hole. That said, it’s OK to be very good from four feet in as well.

With your short game plus putting, you need to have a chance to get up and down from most places around the green.

Now the playing skills.

Know the yardages of your irons, and know how to hit them different distances. Say you hit your 7-iron 148 yards, and the pin is 144 yards away. You should know how to shave four yards off the shot.

While we’re at it, play to pin-high or beyond from the fairway, Always have enough club in your hand, because you don’t always make perfect contact. Your iron from the fairway is the key to making a good score possible, so play these shots conservatively.

Know what your best shots are, and hit them as often as you can. Make the course bend to your skills. Know what your weak shots are and avoid them while you’re working on them.

Always keep bogey in play. Your scorecard can handle bogeys, but doubles add up too fast.

Play from the right set of tees. If you’re hitting long irons or hybrids into half of the par 4s, those tees are too long for you.

Finally, forget your score and just play golf. Don’t ask too much out of any shot, and thereby keep the ball in play. Enjoy yourself, play one easy, controlled shot after another, and you’ll pull it off.

Here’s the formula for shooting a 79, which on most courses is single-digit golf: par all of the par 5s (20), half the par 3s (14), and half the par 4s (45). You might just stumble across a birdie or two. None of that sounds too hard, does it?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Getting the Most Out of a Visit to the Driving Range

You go to the range to learn how to play on the course better, not to hit range balls better.

That sounds obvious, but from what I see at the range, and what I catch myself doing there, range golf and course golf are two different things. They shouldn’t be.

As you stand over a range ball, remember how you hit the ball on the course, with the club you’re holding, when you have one chance, and it has to count. I’ll bet you make a careful, controlled stroke. That’s the kind to make with this range ball.

Back on the range, seeing how far you can hit it, or trying a new swing thing just this one time, all that moves you backward in your progress, not forward.

Use your golf course swing at the range. Which one is that? When I’m hitting the ball well during play, I have the feeling that I’m just chipping the ball around the course. It’s that effortless and that controlled. I get into trouble when I try to do more. More than perfect isn’t perfecter.

You’re there to perfect that controlled swing. By that I mean learn to do it over and over, the same way every time. Don’t try to keep getting more out of it. Teach yourself to get the same thing out of it every time.

Have you ever seen a good player at the range hit one great shot after another, with the same easy swing? That’s what those golfers are doing, learning how to repeat THAT swing. That’s what I want you to do.

So on the practice tee, take your time between shots. Pick a target, line up the shot, go through your pre-shot routine, every time. Then use your golf course stroke.

Around the green, whether chipping or putting, go through all the preparations you make on the course, before every chip or putt. Hit the shot like it’s on the course.

There will be more time between shots, so don’t get impatient. You’re learning how to make quality shots, and that’s the way to improvement.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Getting the Golf Ball in the Air

A golfing paradox: if you hit down on the ball it goes up, and if you hit up on the ball it goes down (or at least doesn’t get up very high). In general, that’s correct, but as playing advice, it’s not quite right.

Of course, we want to get the ball in the air. The higher the better, it seems.

I read where Gary Player, during his playing days, was commenting on Jack Nicklaus hitting a 3-wood. He said while some players hit that club farther than Nicklaus did, and some players hit it higher, no one hit it that high and that far at the same time.

And I saw it, too. At the 1973 Andy Williams Open in San Diego, Nicklaus on the 72nd tee hit the longest drive I’ve ever seen, and the highest, and it was the same shot. I’m still amazed.

My son wants to get the ball in the air. We go to the range together and I see him, time after time, lifting as he comes through impact.

Now, he does hit a high ball when he connects. Too many times, though, he doesn’t, because of the tiny room for error. The ball doesn’t get up when he misses.

I catch myself doing that on the course. I want the ball to go up and the logical way is to swing up. But that doesn’t work. Here’s what does.

You know that advice about swinging down at the ball? Please pretend you never heard that. Instead, swing level, THROUGH the ball.

Down, at: no. Level, through: yes.

Your downswing describes an arc which curves sharply downward at the start, but which is fairly flat at the bottom through the ball.

To be strictly correct, since you want your divot to be IN FRONT of the ball, the clubhead still has to be descending when it gets tthere. That descent is so slight, though, you don’t need to think about it.

Here’s what to think about instead. Whenever I remember to do this, the shots I hit are poetry.

Make sure your hands get to the ball before the clubhead does (it will be the opposite if you’re lifting) and feel like you’re dragging the clubhead through the ball. Dragging on a level path, parallel to the ground.

That’s my image, you can come up with one for yourself if you want to. Just deliver the clubhead to the ball in a brushing-through motion (there’s another image) with the hands leading the clubhead so you can use the loft built into the club to get the ball in the air.

This movement seems counter-intuitive. It it feels like you’re de-lofting the club excessively and driving the ball into the ground. You aren’t. You’re just using the club’s design to get the ball in the air for you.

You might have to slow your swing down a bit to get enough control to strike the ball this way. Don’t worry. The ball flies off the clubface, high and straight.

When you remember to do it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why You Shoot High Golf Scores

(and what to do about it)

When I watch players who don’t break 100 (notice I didn’t say "can’t"), I see two reasons. One is that they hardly ever hit the ball straight. Two is that they don’t have a good idea of how to play the ball around the green.

I see two reasons why players struggle to break 90. One is that they don’t hit the ball straight often enough, and two is that they don’t have a good idea of how to play the ball around the green.

Let’s solve the hit straight thing first. I have lots of posts on this subject, under the label, golf swing. Look them up. They get specific. I’m going to stay general today.

The number one reason why you don’t hit the ball straight, if this is a problem for you, guys, is that you try to hit it too hard. That’s not the only reason, but it is the main one, especially if you’re under 40. Do two things for me. First, slow down your swing. Slower than that. You don’t have to belt the ball for it to go straight (and far). Centered, on-line contact is the key, and you get that by slowing down to control the clubhead.

Women, many of you need to do the opposite. You need to hit the ball harder. You don’t swing hard enough, and you lack control of the clubhead because of that. You can swing too slowly. Step it up a bit. Make an athletic swing.

Now the green thing. All I can say is this takes practice. I go to the range and see the tees lined with golfers and there’s just me on the practice green. I’m not kidding. Maybe someone will come along, throw down a few balls, hit some putts for five minutes, leave, and think they practiced.

As for chipping, I see all sorts of chipping strokes around the practice green, and none of them work. People spend their time trying to make an impossible stroke start working. I want so much to go up to them and say, “This is the easiest shot in the game if you know how to do it, but what you’re doing now isn’t it. Go into the clubhouse, sign up for a lesson and have the pro show you. You won’t regret it.” I won’t say that to them, but I’ll say it to you.

A putting lesson might be a good idea, too, come to think of it.

And then practice, like I said. I spend about 90 minutes when I go to the range, and an hour of that I spend around the green. Why? I’ll never have a great swing. Takes too much time to develop. But I have a good enough swing, coupled with a dynamite green game (chipping and putting) that lets me shoot some very respectable scores.

No reason you can’t either.

Monday, July 14, 2014

2014 Open Championship Preview

We go back to Hoylake this year, formally known as Royal Liverpool. The Open Championship has been played here eleven times before, with these winners:

1897 - Harold Hilton
1902 - Sandy Herd
1907 - Arnaud Massy
1913 - J. H.Taylor
1924 - Walter Hagen
1930 - Bobby Jones
1936 - Alf Padgham
1947 - Fred Daly
1956 - Peter Thompson
1967 - Roberto De Vicenzo
2006 - Tiger Woods

The British Amateur has been played there eighteen times, most recently in 2000. Royal Liverpool hosted a British Women’s Open for the first time in 2012, won by Jiyai Shin.

The course appears flat and featureless at first glance, but subtlety is its middle name. It will seem like the wind is always coming from the wrong direction. Gentle mounds, called cops, line the fairways of several holes. They are meant to keep rolling balls from going out of bounds, but will not aid a poorly hit shot.

In the traditional course routing, hole 1 is the dogleg right that lines the driving range, which is lined by one of the cops. Going over the cops into the range is out of bounds. Golfers trying to cut the corner had better win the bet. The cop runs all the way past the green and is hard to the right of it, so hitting two balls OB on one hole is not unimaginable.

This hole will be played as number 3 for the Open, so the concluding hole can be the 551-yard 16th. The traditional 17th and 18th, being played this week as 1 and 2, are too tame to be concluding holes for an event of this caliber.

Every hole deserves its due in this blog, but of special note is the par-3 ninth (new routing), lined by a cops on the backside. Over the cops, OB.

The course winds out to the sea from 10-14, heading back inland on the short 15th (pictured). Then the test begins. Three long finishing holes, with par of 5, 4, 5, do the sorting out. Number 16 is easily reachable in two, but pot bunkers on the left front and tall grass ringing the rest of the green require a supremely accurate second to get on in two, with the wind likely to against you.


Number 17 grazes the practice ground again (OB, remember?). Number 18 runs along the practice ground, turning right just beyond the landing area. A direct line to the pin flirts with OB. This hole could induce a contending golfer to attempt a dramatic all-or-nothing gamble in a last-chance effort to make up strokes. Roberto De Vicenzo did just that in 1967 to beat Jack Nicklaus for the title.

While the USGA loves drivable par 4s, there will be none at Hoylake. Also, the course is well-watered and lush. The strategy of teeing off with a 2-iron, which Tiger Woods used to such advantage in 2006 on a dried-out course, won't work this year.

The players? Forget about Tiger. His decision to enter is questionable, both for his recovery from spine surgery, and for his re-entry into competitive golf. There is no question of him winning or even contending.

Most eyes are on Martin Kaymer, and that’s not just front-running. He has returned to the fade that worked so well for him, and his two victories in high-profile tournaments this year demonstrate his mental toughness.

But winning another big one is asking a lot from him. Consider the other golfers who have been playing well this year and are lurking around the victory stand.

Rickie Fowler has a first-class record in majors this year, finishing 5th at the Masters and 2nd at the U.S. Open. Keep an eye on Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth, and Justin Rose. Angel Cabrera just won a Tour event, and he knows how to win major titles, too.

For me, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship rank 1 and 1A. I never can decide which one is which, though. If these were the only two tournaments I was allowed to watch on television all year, I would be content.