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.


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 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?