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.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

2015 Masters Preview

I have to tell you right off I am not a fan of the Masters. I don't see it as a major championship. It's a good tournament played on a beautiful course. But it is surviving on hype and history right now.

My preview this year is a reprint of a post I put up last year after the tournament was over. Because of that timing, what I had to say might not have gotten the attention it deserved. So here it is again: Augusta National is obsolete.

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Augusta National is a Depression-era course built when 250 yards was a respectable professional distance off the tee. Steel shafts were just being introduced and golf ball technology was still rudimentary. For decades, Augusta was a strategic test that matched the capabilities of the day’s best golfers.

augusta

Cracks started appearing when Jack Nicklaus arrived. He played 420-yard holes with a driver and a pitching wedge, not a driver and a 6-iron.

When Tiger Woods came along thirty years later, the course had to be “Tiger-proofed,” because his length overpowered the cozy design. Now, everyone hits the ball as far as he did fifteen years ago.

The latest insult was Bubba Watson, whose length mocks August’s most difficult holes. He plays the 485-yard 13th (pictured above) with a driver and a wedge. In ten years, there will be fistfuls of players who hit the ball as long as he does. What then?

The Augusta membership is proud of its course. It's unique in the world and one of the world’s most challenging. The Masters has always been played there; it was meant to be played there. The Masters and August National are one and the same. This puts the membership in a trap. There is no other place where their Masters can be held.

The USGA is rotating its championship to newer courses built to challenge today’s golfers, Merion East in 2013 notwithstanding. That course was tricked up beyond belief in order to stand up.

The R&A is doing its best to keep its legendary courses in the Open rotation, but cracks are showing up in that strategy, too. The Old Course at St. Andrews is nearing the same fate as Augusta -- too short, and running out of room to add length for the sake for length, not for the sake of strategy.

The table has been turned on these ancient courses. Instead of challenging golfers, they are now being challenged by the golfers. Professional golfers will soon be dominating them no matter what is done.

It could easily be the case that in fifteen years Augusta National will have no more slack to give. Its only defenses would be the pin locations on its forbidding greens. The tournament could be won the by the golfer who has the fewest three-putt greens over the four days of competition. Tee to green strategy would be irrelevant. A sad fate.

At this point in the essay, I am supposed to present my proposal for a way out of this jam: how to salvage a seemingly lost situation. I don't think there is a fix. The hard fact is that Augusta National was designed to play at about 6,800 - 7,000 yards. It has been stretched beyond that about as far as it will go. When its current 7,400 yards is no longer enough, the course might have to be retired.

Retirement happens to everyone and everything. We have our heyday, we have our glory. The time comes when we are overtaken, and we must take a seat on the sideline for the next generation. The question is, will the Augusta membership be able to retire their course with dignity when the time comes, which it surely will?

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Tiger Woods announced he will play in this year's Masters. I don't expect him to be a factor, but I hope he doesn't fall on his face. There are easier courses on which to start a comeback than August National.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Swing Through to the Finish

If you get a chance to go to a professional golf tournament, men's or women's, go to the practice ground and watch the golfers warm up. You will be stuck by the apparent ease with which they swing the club.

No one is pounding the ball. Everyone is just swinging the club. There is no hint of forcing the shot in any way. You could watch this all day.

Here’s the difference between us and them in a nutshell. We think the swing ends when the ball is struck. They think the swing ends when the club stops moving at the finish. That difference makes all the difference.

Golf swing instruction in almost any book you read, instructional videos and Internet videos you see, breaks down into four areas: pre-swing fundamentals, backswing, downswing, and impact. There is little, if any, instruction on the finish.

So, I’m going to give you some. It’s in the form of a drill that focuses on the finish.

Make shortened swings with your driver, no ball, in this way. Take the club halfway back and swing smoothly and slowly (emphasis on “slowly”) to a full finish, just like you see the pros do. When you get there, hold it for a few seconds to let your mind absorb the process of your swing leading you to this place.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. This drill makes you aware, perhaps for the first time, of the finish as a coequal part of the swing. If your full swing has to change to get you to this position, then change your swing.

Now when you play, and you’re visualizing your shot, instead of thinking about how you’re going to hit the ball, think that the goal of the swing is to get to this finish you’ve been practicing.

In a sense, it feels like you’re giving up control of the shot. What you’re doing is getting more control. Try it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Long Chip Shots

Chips from twenty yards or so can be the most troublesome shots in golf. They come in four varieties, based on the ratio of distance to the green and distance from there to the pin. I’m going to tell you how to hit each one.

1. Ten yards to the green, ten yards to the pin. Here, the distance are equal, but they are long distances. You need a moderately-lofted club, like a pitching wedge, to get the ball to the edge of the green but not run out way past the hole.

2. Ten yards to the green, five yards to the pin. Use a gap wedge to get the ball to the edge of the green and sitting quickly. The stroke is specialized: hit the shot by sliding the club underneath the ball, keeping the clubhead low at all times, especially on the follow-through, to get maximum spin.

3. Five yards to the green, ten (or more) yards to the pin. Use a 7-iron to get the ball on the green and running up to the hole.

4. Fifteen yards to the green, five yards to the pin. Use a sand wedge. This another specialized stroke. Power the downswing only with gravity, using your hands to guide the club into the ball. Emphasize hitting the ground directly underneath the ball with the sole of your club. When struck properly, the ball floats up, floats down, and dies right away. This shot takes practice.

If you have a tight lie for any of these shots, odds are you have good ground all the way up to the green. If so, and there are no obstacles to hit over, use a straighter-faced club and run the ball all the way to the pin.

With tight lie and something you have to hit over, it's best to just get the ball on the green so you can start putting.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Hit Down With Your Irons - Not

Hit down on the ball. You can’t get away from this advice. It’s like bad weeds in your garden that you spray and dig up and think you’ve gotten rid of them and a month later there they are again.

Why do you keep hearing this nonsense? Because it kind of makes sense.

The club is way up there in the backswing and it has to come back down to get to the ball, so in that sense you are hitting down on the ball.

But that is not the sense that too many golfers interpret the words. They think it means to be hitting down steeply. That is the sense that leads to frustration.

It conforms with the idea that to get the ball up in the air you hit down on it.

Or maybe it’s because you want to trap the ball with an iron and hitting down is the way to to it.

I’ll admit if you hit down intentionally, you can get some pretty good shots out of the effort, at least with the short irons.

But with the lesser-lofted irons, it doesn’t work so well. Forget about it with your fairway wood, and don’t even mention your driver.

Instead of hitting down, think about the spot where the club travels level with the ground, because it does that eventually. With an iron, it’s then just a matter of addressing the ball so that it lies a little bit behind that spot, and a ball on a tee is positioned a little ahead of that spot.

That’s all there is to it.

Remember “13 clubs, 1 swing” from a few months ago? Remember about hitting the ball forward?

There’s no “hitting down” in any of that. Ditch that idea permanently.