Monday, February 20, 2006

Essay #12 - A Paradox (And a Solution)

In their book,Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, authors Lynn Marriot and Pia Lindstrom assert that, :it's not how you score, it's how you play."

But, for most of us, we don't observe that in our practice. Here's the paradox; five times as many lessons are given on the long game compared to the short, while 80% of our shots happen from 100 yards inward. The obvious lesson: we're not paying attention.

Here's the better idea. Use your next three rounds to get a firm fix on your own personal "How." Here's how (pun intended):

Carry an extra score-card and label the six lines:

  • Driver:
  • Fairway:
  • Recovery:
  • Approach:
  • Up/Down:
  • Putts:


(Some cards may only give you five lines; in that case, eliminate the "Recovery" catagory.)

You'll use these catagories to keep track of where you've lost shots.

Driver: Use this for tee shots other than on par-three holes. You may elect to tee off with your 3-wood (or even an iron), but you'll still grade the shot on this line. What you're looking for is a shot that puts you in a position to advance the ball according to plan. Being on the short grass isn't required, but you should be around the normal distance out and with a workable lie. If you can advance the ball well down the fairway but can't reach the expected position for your third shot (on the green for a par-four hole), your shot has cost you a half-stroke (your up-coming up-down chance accounts for another half-stroke). If your tee shot puts you "in jail" such that you can only come out sideways, the shot has cost you a full stroke. An unplayable or an out-of-bounds penalty probably has cost you two strokes.

Fairway: Use this line for any shot where the assignment is to advance the ball down the fairway, but where you don't expect to reach the green. Missed shots might cost a half-stroke or a full stroke, depending on how bad the miss.

Recovery: This line is reserved for when you're in jail. Since you can't advance the ball down the fairway, you will already have penalized yourself one stroke on your last shot. Use this line to grade your strategy and execution. If your recovery attempt does not put you back on the fairway, ready to advance, you'll assess another full stroke penalty here.

Approach: This line is for full shots expected to reach the green. Failure to do so costs a half-stroke (you're left with an up/down chance) or a full stroke if you're still facing a full shot to the green.

Up/Down: This line is for all the half-shots around the gree where you hope to get the ball "up" on the green with your first shot, and "down" into the cup with your first putt. Failure to do so costs a half-stroke. But, if you don't get it "up," you again have an Up/Down chance to be graded. Hence, a stubbed pitch, a successful second pitch, and two putts would cost you a total of one stroke. Use this line both for green-side attempts and for sand-trap situations.

Putts: This one should be obvious. From outside 30 feet, three putts should cost you a half-stroke. From 10-30 feet, three putts costs a full stroke. From 3-10 feet, two putts costs a half-stroke, while from inside three feet any miss costs a full stroke.

Play three rounds, keep your records, and total up when you're done. The critical question is obvious:

Are you working on the right things? Are you paying attention?

I'll bet not!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Golfing Zen #11 — The Physics Fundamentals

With this essay, we’ve arrived at the center-point for our discussion of the swing fundamentals. Co-incidentally, we are also at our farthest point from my stated objective of addressing the mental side of golf. But, it is difficult to completely separate the physical from the mental; if your mechanics are screwed up, it’s very difficult to keep your head pure.

In previous “fundamentals” discussions I’ve talked about the mental (a practiced routine, visualization, and a belief and trust in our ability to continue to improve) and the physical (balance, a forward weight drive, and the core muscles as the power source which translates to relaxation in the arms and hands).

Today’s essay addresses the “physics” fundamentals, certainly the most important fundamental.

The guide for our physics lesson is the golf ball itself. It’s important to accept two things about the golf ball.

  • It never lies. It always tells you the exact truth about how it was struck by the golf club.
  • It is never about you. It is never personal. The golf ball doesn’t know and doesn’t care anything about who was involved. It only reacts to the club-face.

There are only three physics rules, and they’re simple to understand.

  • Contact off of the “sweet spot” shortens distance and deflects direction or trajectory
  • The initial direction of the golf ball matches the path of the clubhead on contact.
  • The curve of the ball matches where the clubface is “looking,” relative to its path.


Sweet-Spot Contact:

The first question here is where your club’s “sweet spot” actually is: not necessarily where it would appear to be. To test you clubs, hold the shaft end in two fingers, letting the club hang free like a pendulum. Tap the clubface with a golf ball, looking for the spot at which there is no torque imparted to the club. You’ll feel the resonance when you find the right spot. You may find that the sweet spot — the center of gravity — is actually off-center towards the hosel of the club. If you’re surprised by what you find, you may want to mark your clubs in some way so that you have a reference point.

If you’re contacting the ball off-center, you’ll lose in two ways. Since you’re striking a glancing blow, energy will be lost and ball flight will be deflected (high contact equals high trajectory, off-center to the right produces ball flight to the right, etc.)

When you've isolated your club's sweet spot, then go to you local golf store and buy some face tape that will give you feed-back on your contact point. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll self-correct, once you pay attention. (Small Zen lesson… no charge!)


Initial Ball Flight:

When you have face contact in relative control, the second question is the initial path of your ball flight; does it start on-target, or does it start off left or right of target?

The details of the actual physics are more complicated, but the simplification that works well enough is that the initial flight of your ball mirrors the path of the club-head. For a right-hand golfer, if your club is coming toward the target line from the inside when it contacts the ball, that ball’s initial flight will be to the right of the target. Similarly, if your club-head is moving back towards the inside on contact, then your ball flight will be to the left.


Ball Flight Curvature:

This question — the curve of the ball — is also relatively simple. If your ball curves, it is solely because, on contact, the face of your club is looking in that direction — relative to its path. If your club is moving straight at the target but is “open” — looking to the right of the target, then the ball must curve to the right (a fade or slice for a right hander). Similarly, if your club is moving to the left of the target and is looking straight down its path of travel, you’ll get a shot that starts left and goes straight.


Making Corrections:

From the above you can see that there are nine possible ball flights: your ball can start at the target or off-target left or right, and it’s flight can curve left, right, or go straight. Once you understand the rules, your golf ball tells you precisely what your club head was doing on contact. Correction is simply — again — a matter of paying attention.

Work on your corrections in the order I’ve given here:

  • Work on sweet-spot contact first, because off-center contact will give off-target ball flight which you could confuse as an off-track swing path.
  • When you’re making (mostly) center-contact, work on the initial ball direction without concern for curvature, because off-target swing paths can cause the club-face to be mis-aligned.
  • After developing some consistency with contact and initial direction, then you can worry about any remaining draw or fade.

For more details on how to do the tuning, check the companion podcast.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Golfing Zen #10: The Physical Fundamentals

In a recent essay/podcast pair, I proposed the first segment of my golf fundamentals: true laws, not preferences or tendencies. They were the mental fundamentals:

  • A practiced and ingrained routine.
  • Visualization — going to the movies — as part of that routine. This includes visualization before the shot as well as a mental (but non-judging) play-back while the ball flies and then rolls to a stop at our next test that the Golf God is assigning.
  • A belief and trust in continued growth. (Stated equally as a refusal to accept our current level as our ultimate level.)

The topic today is the physical fundamentals, the in-swing laws. As above, they will be simple and few:

Balance:

This, to me, is one of the great paradoxes of golf. How can you possibly expect to make a powerful and repeating swing, time after time, if you can’t maintain your balance? But, take a look around you, on the course or at the driving range. I think you’ll find a strong corollary: 60% of us have handicaps of 18 or higher, and that same percentage are falling over or backwards on every swing.

Hello??

Of course, I’m referring to balance throughout the entire swing, but I can reduce that to balance at two key points. If you can be in-balance at the top of the backswing and at your finish, that will insure that you are in balance throughout; hit those two anchor points and all the rest will take care of itself.

Weight Transfer:

The balance requirement leads to a truth about weight transfer. If you were in balance at the top of the backswing and also at the finish, it must follow that your weight moved forward as you swung through.

And how could it be anything else? Look at any athletic motion where something (a baseball, football, shot-put, Frisbee, etc,) is propelled forward and you’ll see clearly that the thrower’s weight moves forward in order to propel the object: the weight moves first so that the object can then move. Yet, many instructors claim that the swing stays centered, and many of your friends (I’m sure) fall backwards as they finish.

Hello??

Power Source:

Here lies a great debate. Does the body power the swing? Do the arms drive the swing with the body only responding? Hit with the hands! No, the hands are passive! On and on… you can search the literature and find any answer you want, someone that supports any position you can conceive.

Yet this question has been clearly answered, and answered many years ago. There have been any number of engineering studies that look at the amount of energy required to propel a golf ball over a competitive distance, taking into account the aerodynamics of the ball. Once you have that, it is well known how much energy a pound of pure muscle can generate. Hence, you know the pounds of muscle that must be involved in powering the ball. Answers vary a bit from study to study, but here is the range:

28 to 32 pounds of pure muscle


Think about that. We’re talking pure muscle, not bones, ligaments, skin, nor fat… only muscle. If you want a visual picture, imagine sitting at a fine restaurant and being served 30 of their biggest steaks, all in one big pile.

Hello??

It should be obvious that you won’t accumulate those 30 pounds by means of your arms and your hands. The only way to involve that amount is through the big muscles of your thighs, gluts, abs, and back.

This leads to a fundamental, and also to an opposing corollary:

  • The swing is powered by the big muscles of the torso (or in today’s popular term, the core.)

    — and —

  • The arms and hands remain relaxed and only transmit the power.

The arm/hand role as a relaxed power transmitter is a key concept. The mechanics of the swing can be simplified to a rotating core that carries a two-lever hitting device, with those two levers being the lead arm and the club shaft. The two levers move fastest when they swing free, the arm from the shoulder and the shaft from the free-swinging hinge of the wrist. It is a proven fact, by both physics formulae and by high-speed photography, that any effort to apply active force to the hinging action only causes speed at the wrong time and/or an actual slowing of the overall motion.

So, we’ve now laid down the laws of the physical swing:

  • A balanced swing throughout, but specifically at two points:

    • Point A: the top of the backswing
    • Point B: the finish position

  • Weight movement forward as the swing goes from A to B

  • Complete relaxation of arms and hands, which only transmit power provided by the legs, butt, abs, and back. The forward swing is from the ground up and from the inside out.

The only thing left unsaid might be the actual position at those two key points: A and B. I hope you want more on that, as you’ll find it on my companion podcast.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Golfing Zen #9 — Why Bother?

In the last essay/podcast pairing, I identified a faith or trust in our own ability to continue our development and growth as one of my prime golf fundamentals. I took that position because the only alternative is to accept that we are ultimately only what we are now. “I’m a 15-handicap… that’s what I’ve been, and that’s what I’m going to continue to be.”

How sad, if that is your choice! That means your real choice is to compete by means of your handicap while your day-to-day scores oscillate back and forth around your nominal average ability. My contention is, if that is your choice, then you might just as well flip a coin within the comfort of your home and mail in your result. My question: What’s the point? Why bother?

But that raises a better question. If we do hold to our faith and trust, if we don’t accept our current level as our final level, if we continue to believe… the question is equally valid: Why do we bother?

The answer lies on the other side of my beliefs about competition, and about handicaps.


Handicaps:

I think we can agree that handicaps are nothing more than an artificial crutch that allows us to participate in pseudo-competition. “You’re better than me, so let’s compare handicaps and figure out the holes where you’re going to give me extra strokes.”

That may be semi-logical in the short term, but becomes ludicrous when we take pleasure in our handicap or when we do things to artificially inflate our handicap. (Of course, it’s equally absurd to lie our way into a lower handicap, to which we can not play!) Why would we be happy that we’ve gone through a bad patch, have seen our handicap go up, and are now mopping up on our friends? In either case, handicap true or artificial, what possible real pleasure can we take in defeating someone, only because they were forced to give us extra strokes? Why do we delude ourselves when we're really only submitting to the random variations in your game and mine? What is the point?

Let me tell you how the Japanese handle the question. There, when you join a new club, you play in your first tournament without a handicap and with a member of the handicap committee. That member observes your play, consults with other committee members, and arbitrarily assigns you a handicap. “Smith-san, you will be a 12.” No questions, no debate, no complicated mathematics: you are now a 12… case closed!

Further, from that point forward, your handicap can never go up. But, at any time, the committee can observe your current level of play and lower your handicap to a new maximum. Again, no calculations and no appeal. (There is the special case of someone who has become old and has developed a physical infirmity. An appeal is technically allowed, but no one ever loses face by applying.) When I tell my Japanese friends about our complicated formulas they don’t understand the concept, and they are mystified as to why we would enjoy — or even accept — a higher handicap.


Competition:

If we reject the idea of an artificial handicap, then the next question is about competition itself. Unless you and I happen to be equally matched, what is the point? Why bother?

And there lies my exact point: when we move past the handicap crutch and shift into belief and trust in our growth, we see, with clarity, a new and better view…

Golf is not about competition: There is no aspect of competition in my round with you. I don’t attack, you don’t defend, we don’t obstruct each other in any way. In fact, the reverse is true; if I don’t allow myself to be foolishly intimidated, then the better and smoother you play, the better I’ll play.


So… Why Bother?

A good source for the answer is Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugene Herigel. It’s a little book, has been around for decades, and describes Herigel’s five-year stay in Japan where he studied archery with a Zen Master.

Within Zen study, many use common art or sport activities (flower arranging, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, archery) as a platform for break-through. Through concentrated practice they see that quieting their active and judging conscious mind then allows the great “IT” to perform the activity through them in a way that they can not do on their own. Their practice shifts from trying hard to get better (to “win”), but to instead get out of the way and allow IT to enter.

So there’s my “why bother” answer: to use my time on the course to learn, to shut up, to get out of my own way, to trust, to ask the great IT, to connect, to feel IT within me.

Read Herigel’s book. You’ll understand.

(But what am I saying? Am I suggesting you forget handicaps, not play in the club championship? You'll want to check my next podcast for much more on this important subject)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Golfing Zen #8 - First Fundamentals

With this, my eighth essay, I’ll begin to disclose my views on the true fundamentals of golf. True to the mission of the blog, you’ll find that they will be largely mental.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.” …Buddha

I accept that as true, both in the short and long term, both in life and on the golf course. (Since the course and life are the same, aren’t they?)

In the case of our long-term development, Buddha’s words mirror the Ben Hogan quote I’ve cited before: “In my experience, most golfers underestimate themselves.” If we believe that we’re a 15-handicap, then we ARE a 15-handicap and will continue to be no better than that, until eventually age pulls us upwards, towards the 20’s.

Equally, Gordon Livingston says (in Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, a book I reviewed before Christmas), “…we need to think about our mental instrument of navigation and how to correct it, so that we do not fall into the repetitive patterns of those who waste the learning that is the only consolation for our painful experience.” He is writing about relationships, but I’m sure you can see the corollary to golf. By accepting that we are a 15-handicap, we effectively deaden the pain of playing that way. We accept, we use our handicap as a crutch so that we can (sort of) compete, and we go on replicating our mistakes, living in our delusion, forever.

In contrast, if we take Hogan’s words to heart, if we believe in ourselves, if we see ourselves in full bloom, then today’s 15 is truly painful, and we can use that pain to move forward.

There’s the long-term rant, but I assume you were expecting fundamentals that you can take to the course today. (Of course, you can and must take the above to the course each and every day.)

The “today” version of Buddha’s message is “visualization.” Every top athlete uses mental visualization to prepare for or preview physical action. Jack Nicklaus called it “going to the movies,” and has said that he never hit a shot, on the range or on the course, without seeing it in his mind first. For putts, he not only “saw” the ball roll into the hole, he actually saw it pop back out and roll back to its starting point. Tiger Woods, in his clinic that has been playing on the Golf Channel recently, says the same thing, that visualization is part of his every-shot routine, and that it is a matter of repeating that routine thousands of times so that it happens — under pressure — without thinking about it.

I’ve read that people have different levels of ability to visualize, and that your ability level relates to your ultimate playing potential. The levels described were:

  • Target. Top players (Nicklaus talks this way) visualize only the target; their full focus is on where the ball is to go.
  • One level down, people “see” the ball flight.
  • One level further, people see the club motion needed to produce the ball flight that will carry the ball to the target.
  • Last, some players need to focus on the body motion needed to swing the club through a powerful arc that will send the ball on the right flight path to reach the target.

For more detail on this important subject, check out:

  • Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, Pia Lindstrom and Lynn Marriott. (Reviewed in an earlier posting.)
  • Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz. Choose the original version, not the “New” nor the “2005” editions. My first sub-80 round came immediately after I read this book.
  • My next podcast. I’ll have a lot more to say on this important fundamental.

So, I’ve committed myself to three fundamentals so far…

  • A solid pre-shot routine that you can follow, without thinking about it, on each and every shot.
  • A visualization experience that is part of that routine. (There is also a post-shot version, but you’ll have to listen to the podcast to get it.)
  • A long-term belief in your potential and a commitment to not accept but, instead, to pay attention and to grow.

I’ll have more — a lot more — in upcoming essays.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Golfing Zen #7 - Laws and Tendencies

With this essay, I’m entering a difficult and demanding world, as I’ve promised to disclose the true fundamentals of the golf swing.

I know what I’ve promised, but I’m going to draw this out… partly to tease you, to draw you in, but, moreover, I’ll be taking this slowly and carefully because it is such an important topic.

So, this essay will deal with tendencies, instead of with true fundamentals. That is, I’ll give you some things that fall in the category of generally good ideas, as opposed to fundamental and undeniable truths or laws.

And, further, I’m going to do this within the context of golf’s cornerstones, the principles with which almost every golf instructional begins: grip, stance, posture, and alignment. What I’ll be suggesting is that these hallowed subjects do not involve irrefutable laws, but are instead only relative guidelines.

Let’s take them one at a time:

The Grip:

Consider this: Most people overlap, but Nicklaus interlocks and Greg Norman uses a hybrid grip where his right-hand little finger lies between his left first and second fingers, all ten fingers on the grip. One pro from the 1970’s, Charlie Owen, even used a cross-handed grip. Trevino uses a weak grip, while Paul Azinger’s is hyper-strong. Most say the grip is in the fingers, while Moe Norman’s is in the palm.

Obviously, the grip is not a fundamental, not a law. It, like many another aspects of the swing, lies in the area of personal preference, a tendency:

  • Interlocking, overlapping, cross-handed, ten finger baseball grip… the choice is yours! But, overlapping is the tendency.

  • Weak grip or strong grip… your choice, again. The tendency… put your hands on the grip naturally, without twist towards either weak or strong. Set the club down with its leading edge square to the target line, let your arms hang freely, and put your lead hand (left, for right-handers) on the club naturally, without any twist. The off-hand then goes palm-to-palm with the lead hand.

Stance and Posture

Here again, the evidence is mixed. You can find great pros with wide and narrow stances, and you can find players that stand very upright — close to the ball — and also those who stand far away and reach out for the ball. As with the grip, all you can really see are tendencies:

  • Stand neither wide nor narrow — as it feels to you. Stand naturally, as you would if you wanted to be free to move quickly and naturally in any direction, as though you were poised to catch a ball. Also, you’ll need to anticipate your top-of-the-backswing position: weight mostly on your right (or rear leg and with your back turned to the target. An ultra-wide stance will block you from achieving that, while a too-narrow stance will be unstable and loose.

  • Stand neither erect nor bent over — as it feels to you. Flex your knees slightly, and center your weight over your arches, neither back on your heels or over on your toes. Bend forward comfortably from the hip. To keep your weight centered, your butt moves backward with the bend. Your back, however, does not "slump," but remains comfortably straight. Be ready to move gracefully.

  • Stand neither close nor far from the ball. Position yourself to the ball so your arms hang freely, with your hands under your chin.

Alignment

Once again, we’ll find no absolutes here. Most experts are aligned square to the target. That is… their feet, hips, and shoulders are parallel to the target line (which translates to aligned left of the actual target). But, Sam Snead stood slightly closed and actually came over the top to compensate, while Trevino aligned himself open and left, so that he could hit a pronounced fade. Amateurs divide into two camps: one half have their body pointed directly at the target (which means their club is facing to the right) and the other half aim left in expectation of the slice they’re sure to hit.

The “good idea” is to follow the general tendency of aligning parallel to the target line: square with the target, as that will make it easier to swing along the target line and will require fewer compensations on our part.

Please note: I’m not suggesting that you can be careless about these points. I’m only saying that you are free to find your own best answers to these questions.

For more on how to do that… check out our next podcast!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Golfing Zen #6 - The Noise of Many Teachers

About Golfing Zen: This is the sixth in a continuing series of short essays dealing with the application of Eastern spiritual philosophy to your golf game.

The surface intent is that, as you apply the ideas, your golf and your enjoyment of the game will grow. However there is also an underlying motive: as you are able to see gains on the course, you’ll then be moved to alter your approach to life as well.

Today’s Topic: The Noise of Many Teachers

In previous articles we’ve talked about Zen’s (and life’s… and golf’s) great paradox: the information we need is already known to us, but we fail to learn.

We’ve talked about some of the reasons for this: our own internal mental hang-ups (Chapter Four) and our confusion over the roles of teacher and student (Chapter Five).

In the last essay I talked about how we Westerners put too much responsibility for learning on the teacher (the failure is never within us!) and that we put our faith in the ability to convey the golf swing in words. In the East, the teacher only points, while the student is the one who learns. Moreover, Eastern learning is felt by the inner or sub-conscious mind, as opposed to being heard (in words) by our active mind.

But, all of that is compounded by the veritable avalanche of instruction — the white noise of a bazillion teachers, all talking at once.

I offer two examples:

I went to my local big-box bookstore today, checked the “Golf” section, and counted 37 pure instruction books. Of those, a few were the classics that have been on the shelves for years but most were relatively new and will be replaced in a few months by the next wave. And, most importantly, as you scan those books you’ll find wild disagreement over almost every aspect: strong or weak grips, stances, what body part leads the backswing, what triggers the downswing, etc., etc.

Also, you’ll be amused to check out www.ohpdirect.com. Click on their “Meet The Pro’s” link, and you’ll find 13 different instructors being touted. If you read the detail, each of them offers huge improvements (30-50 yards on your drives — 5-10 strokes off your handicap) that you’ll get almost instantly, with little or no practice, as they each have discovered some ‘secret’ that no one else knows. All you have to do is buy the DVD.

In either case, the books or the videos, the obvious question is how one chooses. They can’t all be right, can they?

A final example… if you made a list of the top all-time ball strikers, most would include Lee Trevino, Moe Norman, and Sam Snead on their lists. Or, consider two of today’s top stars: Tiger Woods and Retief Goosen. Could they be any more different, one from the other? Is anyone else old enough to remember Doug Sanders, who made a lot of money with a swing that would fit in a phone booth?

I would politely suggest that any thinking person can draw only one conclusion from this:

The vast majority of formal golf instruction is nothing more or less than just details — personal preferences of the teacher. And, as one attempts to follow all the minutia of precise positions, they're on a fool’s quest to be someone they are not. (I’m not Tiger Woods, and neither are you)

With that, we must also accept a second principle:

We must be our own guru… we have no other choice. It is left to us to isolate the few true fundamentals and to discover our own swing, the one that resides within our self.

Which then leads us to the next question:

Next Time: What Are The True Fundamentals?