Tuesday, June 28, 2016

My Life in Golf So Far

My father had a canvas golf bag in the basement of our house with a few hickory-shafted clubs in it. I was 8. They fascinated me. I understood that you used them to hit a ball, but I didn’t know where you might do this, or what would happen if you did hit a ball.

A few years after that, I don’t remember which came first, lessons or TV. There was a par-3 course less than two miles from where we lived, that had a driving range and a pro. My father signed me up for a group lesson. I was a weird kid. I was there to learn, and when the pro told me to do something, that’s what I did. My reward was, it worked. I could hit the ball somewhat straight and in the air.

In those days there were shows on TV named All-Star Golf and Celebrity Golf. All-Star Golf featured two touring pros playing a match, the winner getting to play another challenger the next week. Celebrity Golf was Sam Snead playing a round with a Hollywood celebrity. I watched those shows all the time.

But all that set the hook, and I was a golfer.

I lived on the other side of the school from everyone else. There was no one to play with during summer vacation, so I hit golf-sized plastic balls in my front yard all day. There was an unused patch of ground between the front lawn and the driveway that I could chew up as much as I wanted to. The ball flew just about the length of our property.

Our telephone line came in from a pole across the street to the house at about 10-12 feet in the air, and close to where my practice station was. My favorite game was to take my wedge and see how close I could get to the wire and still hit a ball over it. All on my own, I developed this very wristy pitch that gets the ball high in a big hurry, and sits when it lands. I use that shot today, and guys I play with don’t really understand what they just saw.

I was the only kid in my grade school who played golf, so I played with my father. He could get the ball around the course, but he was out there mostly to see that I got a chance to play. He’s gone now, but I still thank him for doing that.

When I got to high school, I found out there really were other kids who played golf and some of them were pretty darn good. One of them named Ernie played at an exclusive private club in town -- if they want you to be a member, they’ll call. He was the gold standard until my junior year, when a kid named Mike Spang transferred into my high school.

Now I had been going to a tour event for the past few years and I had a very good idea what a professional golf shot looked like. During tryouts for the high school golf team (which I never made) I watched Mike hit and found myself looking at something very familiar. Mike tied for the NCAA Division II individual title in 1969. A few years later he made it through Q School in the class that included Tom Watson, Bruce Fleischer, Lanny Wadkins, Steve Melnyk, John Mahaffey, Forrest Fezler, and Gary Groh. About ten or so years ago, that class had a reunion, but Mike could not be located.

One year during team qualifying, I got serious about playing as well as I could and broke 100 for the first time -- 98. I still have the scorecard.

I spent about a month in Denver in summer the next year after that, staying with my aunt and uncle. I had my golf clubs with me and played the Willis Case golf course about every other day. You can hit the ball a long way in the thin air. I was getting on the green of a 195-yard par 3 with an iron. That made me feel pretty good. One day I went to the Wellshire course and got hot. Shot an 84. I still have that scorecard, too.

After high school, golf tailed off due to college and military service, though when stationed at NAS Jacksonville in 1971, I played on the very fine base golf course in the evenings. That was my last concentrated time on the course.

Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I went to Europe for the summer with my roommate. We got to Edinburgh for some reason, and while we were there, convinced him to indulge me with a day at St. Andrews, which we got to by hitchhiking, walking and bus.

Things were different then, 1968. I went up to the starter’s shack, paid my green fee, rented a set of clubs and bought a sleeve of Slazenger golf balls. The starter said, The first tee is over there. As soon as that group has played, you can go on. The course ate me alive, very fast greens, and I had no idea what I how to play a course like this. But I did know about the Road Hole. I got to the 17th tee and told myself I hadn’t come all this way to chicken out. So I hit a 3-wood over the corner, hit a 3-iron onto the green (Road Hole bunker? What’s that?) and sank the 20-foot putt. My claim to fame, better than a hole-in-one will ever be.

When I got out of college, I went into the service, and after that, graduate school, got work, got married, started a family, and in the next 30 years played maybe ten rounds of golf. No time.

But when the boys grew up and left home, there was time, and I began to play again. I wasn’t very good, as you can imagine, but I had foundation of having played in my formative years, so it didn’t take too long for a good swing to come around. The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to learn how to play golf is to start when you’re ten years old.

After I retired in 2004, I played much more often. I took a few lessons, and experimented endlessly with ways to get better. Along the way I wrote my two golf books and started up this blog.

I joined a men's club at a local daily fee course so I could get a USGA handicap. I wanted to be come a single-digit player. I heard one guy say once that you can't be a single-digit player if you only played once a week. Since that is all I could manage, I thought to myself, "Oh, yes you can."

Playing in the high 80s, I did two things: learned how to hit the ball straight, and got really good at approach putting and chipping. That got me to 9.5, playing only once a week.

In 2012, I had two spine surgeries which cut deeply into my playing time. Last year I started treatments for cancer, which continue to this day. One tumor is in my lumbar spine, so golf is out of the question for a while. I chip and putt, and swing few times, just enough to remember how to do it, but I haven’t played much golf since 2011.

Someone who doesn’t play once asked me what is so fascinating about golf. Rather promptly I said that golf is a puzzle to be figured out. There is a defined problem with every shot and the goal is to find a way to face any challenge the course can give you and have a solution for it. I have fun figuring out those things. Then there’s the part about having fun with friends in beautiful surroundings.

I started taking my grandson out to play when he was 8, and we went out regularly for the years I was able to play. Hopefully the hook has been set in another generation. My sons? They grew up in the Michael Jordan era and all they saw was basketball. They younger one plays now, but the older one realized his temper doesn’t tolerate bad shots, so he doesn’t.

I'm working gently on some new things that will make my swing productive, yet much easier on my back. I can't wait until 2017 to get back on the course and try them out. Of course, I'll let you know how it all goes.

That’s my life in golf so far.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

What I Learned at the Range - 12

I've been spending my time around the practice green lately. Here are a few things I reminded myself of.

1. Slow down your swing. This advice is generally stated in the context of the golf swing, but it applies with equal force to short shots. Poor contact on chip shots is too often caused (in my game) by making the stroke too brisk. Slow it down. Try practicing a few chips with a stroke that takes as long to make as your full swing does.

2. Chipping is pretty complicated. To get good at it, give yourself as many different shots as possible and figure out which club and stroke gives you the best results.

At the most basic, you can vary the distance from ball to green and green to hole. Mix and match long and short distances for both. You might be forced to hit over an obstacle. You can chip into a downhill slope or an uphill slope. You can have a cushy lie, a tight lie, or be in the rough. You can chip to a green that it elevated (common) or a green that is lower than the level of your ball.

3. From outside 10 feet, all that matters is speed. You can read the line well enough to get the ball close, but more important is to get the ball cozying up to the hole speedwise. That's how those 20-footers fall in.

4. When you address a putt, let the sole of the putter rest very lightly on the top of the grass. That way you can start the club back smoothly. If the putter rests with its weight on the ground, you have to subtly lift up the putter, then swing it back. That is enough to disrupt your stroke.

5. You get a better feel for how hard to hit a long putt by standing about 10 feet off the low side of the line, halfway between the ball and the hole, and taking practice strokes while looking at the ball when you swing back, and at the hole when you swing through. Your subconscious mind will give you the length of stroke that is right. This sounds vague, but play with it and you will see that it works.

Monday, May 30, 2016

How the Golf Swing Really Works

If you haven’t already heard of her, I would like to introduce you to Vivien Saunders, a great teacher who lives in the U.K.

In this video, she turns around everything you have heard about how to swing a golf club.

Swinging a golf club is not what happens when you do the right things with your body. It is what happens to your body when you swing the golf club correctly.

Watch this. (Unfortunately, there is no Embed option)

Swing the Clubhead

Now you don’t have to watch the Golf Channel anymore.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

How to Play Par 5s

The par 5s on your course are the holes where you can get your pars more easily than the rest. Think of them as really long par 4s that you are playing for bogey, and you have the idea.

As with a par-4 hole, the key to the par 5 is the second shot, an advancement shot which sets you up for an easy shot onto the green. Of course, your drive has to put the ball in the right spot for that second shot.

A long hole does not automatically mean a long drive is needed. I did a survey once of the par-5 holes on eight courses I normally play. The average length was 485 yards, from the white tees. The longest was 525, the shortest was 460.

Let’s go with the average, 485 yards. Say you can get 200 yards out of a hybrid iron. Tee off with it. You don’t have to hit that short off the tee, we’re just seeing what happens if you do.

That third shot into the green needs to be a gimmee. The right second shot is how you get it.

You have two shots left to cover 285 yards. Divide by two, and that’s about two 7-irons. Or you could cover the same distance with a 5-iron and a pitching wedge.

Not bad. So let’s go back and tee off with a driver. That puts the ball in the fairway at 230 or so. Now you have two 8-irons to get the ball on the green. See how this works?

There’s no need to be a manly man when you’re 240 yards away from the hole by going for it all at once unless you are VERY good from that distance.

Of course you want to get as close to the green as you can for your third shot, but the number one priority is to hit the second shot, the advancement shot, with a club you handle well.

On your third shot, resist temptation to go for the flag even if you’re close to to the green. Just get the ball on the green inside 40 feet or so, and there’s your par. That’s a big target that I’m sure you can hit. You’re likely to get closer than 40 feet, too.

The idea of a par 5 is not to be concerned about distance. They give you an extra shot to get the ball on the green, so use it. Wisely.

Get the ball in the fairway off the tee, keep the ball on the fairway with your second, and just get it on the green with your third.

Friday, May 13, 2016

How to Make a Swing Change

Making a swing change? Do it like this.

Step 1: Start by making slow-motion swings with your driver, no ball in front of you. Do this over and over until you feel the change is being integrated with the rest of your swing.

Then hit some balls, with the same slow-motion swing. If you get good shots, move on to step 2.

Step 2: Spend a week swinging your 9-iron with the slow-motion swing. Hit some balls. Hit lots of 9-irons. When you’re satisfied that you can hit a 9-iron with your new swing, move up to the 8-iron.

Keep the pace of your swing slower than normal. Resist the urge to step it up and see how far the ball will go. All you want is clean contact and straight ball flight.

Work your way through the bag one club at a time. If switching to the next club causes your swing to break down, that’s a sign you weren’t really ready to switch. Go back to the one you were swinging before for a few days.

Take your time, there’s no rush. Spending three months on the transition will pay off a lot more than spending three weeks.

Monday, May 9, 2016

How to Play Par 4s

A standard golf course has ten par 4 holes. They’re hard. Even the pros average a touch over par on them in aggregate. The key is the second shot, but the first and third shot are right behind in importance.

The tee shot needs to be in the fairway. Colin Montgomery said, “The reason people think I’m such a good iron player is that I’m always playing my second shot from here (pointing to the fairway) instead of from over there (pointing to the rough).”

If the rough is low, if fairways bunkers have shallow lips, if there are no trees to hit into, you still have a chance if your ball ends up in one of those places.

Best, though, to play for the fairway. That might mean leaving your driver in the bag occasionally. Something to consider.

The key, now, is the second shot. The big mistake is hitting short of the green. You either overestimate your how far you can hit a club, or you have the right club but don’t make good contact.

Start out choosing your club based on the distance to the pin. Then take one more club (say, a 6-iron instead of a 7-iron), and grip down about an inch. Put a normal swing on the ball.

A good shot will get you past the pin (always good), and if you don’t quite get all of the shot, you’ll be short of the pin, but still on the green.

In addition, most of the trouble around the green is in front, and you’ll be hitting over it.

When selecting your club, do not forget to consider other factors such as differences in elevation between you and the green, wind, dampness in the air, your lie, and how you’re hitting the ball today.

If you got green-high in two, odds are your third shot won’t be that close to the hole, so you’ll have a longish chip or approach putt left.

This is where chipping practice and long approach putt practice (30-40 feet) comes in. You have to get the ball to three feet or less with your third.

Having gone through all that, the advice that puts it all together is to plan the hole backwards, from green to tee.

If you know the course well, you should know where in the fairway you want to hit into the green from. Now you know where in the fairway you want to put your tee shot.

Finally, some par 4s are just to hard for you. Play those as a short par 5 to keep the double off your card.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

How to Play Par 3s

Par 3s are golf without the driver. As from the fairway, the key to a good score is choosing the right club to hit off the tee.

That means, first of all, you have the right club in your bag. I have room in my bag for either a 21-degree or a 19-degree hybrid. I look at the scorecard of the course I'm going to play and take along the one that suits the longest par 3 best.

Base your club selection on the listed yardage plus seven yards. That's the yardage to play the hole at regardless of where the pin is, unless it's a deep green. Say it's a 148-yard hole. Your 150-yard club will be short. Take one more club to get hole high.

Tee up the ball. Never hit it off the ground. The height of the tee should be no more than a half inch. Less than that is better. All you're trying to do is give yourself a good lie.

The green on some par-3 holes is surrounded by hazards - mounds, bunkers, high grass. Most of that will be in front of the hole or to the side. Forget the pin. Take enough club to land the ball on the green beyond the trouble.

Unless you hit the ball pretty straight, consider deliberately playing short and chipping on if it takes more than 5-iron to reach the green. Such a long par 3 is more likely to be a bogey hole than a par hole, and laying up like this could keep a double bogey off your card.

If the green you're hitting into has no safe place to bail out to, hit a knockdown shot. Take one more club, and swing it back three-quarters. Think of keeping the clubhead low on the follow-through and continuing straight toward the target after contact. Finish with your hands in front of you.

If there is water in front of the green, find out exactly how long that carry is and take TWO more clubs from there. Grip down halfway and swing normally.

When you miss the green, think carefully about the chip. Start by finding a spot to chip to from where you can easily two-putt, and zero in from there.

Final thought: the night before you play, spend some time with a pencil and paper and practice writing 2s. Nice, clear, florid 2s. This is mojo that will pay off the next day.