Do You Play From the Right Set of Tees? – part 3

The Play It Forward movement began in spring 2011. The idea was to encourage golfers to play from tees suited to the length they hit the ball, which would make the game more fun, and speed up play. All fine by me.

I have always thought someone read my blog post on the subject, which came out about two months earlier, and stole my idea. But because I am an idea guy, and not a self-promoter, c’est la vie.

You might want to read that post, and this one too, before you continue here.

My idea in the original post was to divide total course length by 25. That is the length of drive suited for that set of tees. I got that figure by finding the average length of courses on the PGA Tour and dividing by the average length of drive on the Tour.

However, it occurred to me that dividing total course length by 25 isn’t quite right. That’s takes into account par 3s, on which you don’t use a driver, and par 5s, on which you do, but having three shots to get to the green puts less of a premium on driving distance.

That leaves par 4s. Judy Rankin once said, “If you can’t hit a 7-iron into some par 4s, you’re playing the wrong tees.” I turned that advice into this test: if there are more than two par 4s per side 400 yards or over, those tees are too long for me. That worked for a good number of years.

But my mind never gives up on these things (drives my wife crazy) and a few days ago I came up with this more accurate way of determining which tees to play from.

Add the length of your average drive to the carry distance of your 7-iron. Let’s call that your cut-off distance. For example, my drives go 235 yards, and my 7-iron goes ~140 yards. My cut-off distance is 375 yards.

Now look at the scorecard for the particular set of tees you want to play. There should be between four and six par-4 holes at your cut-off distance or shorter. If there are fewer than four, those tees are too long for you. More than six, and those tees are too short.

I took out the scorecard for the course I play most often with the tees I play from and arrayed the length of the par-4 holes from shortest to longest: 325, 335, 366, 372, 375, 380, 395, 400, 423, 431. You can see that 375 gives me five par 4s that are short enough. I’m playing the right tees on that course.

If I had divided overall course length, 6,402 yards, by 25, I would have come up with a driving distance of 256 yards which makes it look like those tees are way too long for me. But they’re really not.

On this course from the blue tees, one tee box back, the par 4s look like this: 358, 371, 390, 407, 420, 421, 423, 438, 439. Those are definitely too long. I would get only two 7-irons all day if I played from there. I actually did that once, just too see. I survived, and said, never again.

Now once you have figured it out, play from the right tees! Really! You’re out there to have FUN and pars and occasional birdies are more FUN than bogies or doubles. At least I think so.

My Spring Golfing Tuneups

We are starting to have sunny days in western Oregon now. It might even get warm enough to let the overnight dew dry off the course before a 10:00 a.m. tee time so we don’t have to play on a wet golf course.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my winter practice to be ready to go from the very start. Here’s what I’m doing.

As usual, I’m practicing rhythm–three beats up, one beat down. I don’t care how sound your swing is otherwise, if this part is off it’s usually three parts up and a half beat down, nothing else will save you. And rhythm is never something you can say you have once and for all. It takes continual practice.

To avoid letting my right hand take over in the forward swing, both when starting the club forward, and as it comes through th ball, I’ve taken to starting the forward swing with the left arm. More specifically, the left upper arm. The left forearm and left hand are not included. That arm stays in control through the ball.

This is something the Manuel De La Torre taught. I’m finding to be very effective, once I figured out how to do it.

This doesn’t mean I’m taking my right hand out of the swing. This move merely prevents it from making a premature contribution. The instant before impact I have a strong hitting feeling with the right hand, but it is something that is generated naturally by the momentum of the swing, not by anything I’m deliberately doing with that hand.

My right elbow has a habit of flying out instead of staying tucked in where it should be in the forward swing. This causes me to swipe across the ball and hit really bad-looking hooks. To fix that, I concentrate on keeping my elbows close together. That is, I maintain the feeling of closeness they have at address throughout the swing. Though they might not be that close all the time, as long as they feel like they are, everything is fine.

Lastly, my hand-eye coordination is pretty good. Not outstanding, but I generally hit what I aim for. This is a big problem if I aim for the back of the ball when I swing. If I am just a little bit off, I’ll hit the ground just a tiny bit behind of the ball, or just underneath it. You don’t get much out of either one of those.

The fix, I have found, is to look at a spot on the ground about an inch ahead of the ball and aim for that. Works like a charm with my irons. Even with my driver. If I look at the ball with my driver I want to HIT IT (and you know what that leads to), but looking at a spot ahead of the ball slows me to SWING THROUGH it, giving me much better results.

And, of course, there’s putting. I practiced 2-footers every night in my back room, and I never missed. Now I think putting is easy. A lot of putting is about confidence.

Hitting the Ball Hard

One of the best ways to introduce errors into your golf swing is to try to hit the ball as hard as you can. In general it is better to ease off and hit it straight than far. Your best drive in the fairway beats 30 yards farther in the rough all day.

However, just like there’s nothing wrong with being rich, there’s nothing wrong with being long off the tee. Let’s talk about how to get that done. (The second one. I haven’t figured out the first one yet.)

I have seen this idea expressed in different places, and have never seen it contradicted: swing the club as fast as you can while still being able to hit the ball on the center of the clubface. In other words, swing as fast as you can while keeping the club under control.

Two principles of hitting hard must be observed: the one just stated, and this.

You will swing as fast as you can only if you are completely relaxed during the entire swing. Tension always slows you down.

And one hint: speed only counts through the ball. It means nothing in your backswing.

Now for the lesson, which comes from Jim McLean in the April 10, 2010 edition of Golf Digest magazine.

“The late Gardner Dickinson, a terrific tour player in the 1950s and ’60s who happened to have a slight build, once asked Ben Hogan what he could do to get longer off the tee. Hogan told Dickinson to stop at the range after every round and hit 30 drivers as hard as he could. He told him not to care where the shots went, but to try to hit the ball on the center of the clubface.

“Hogan emphasized to Dickinson the importance of sheer swing speed. Thirty drives might be a lot for you; 15 might do. But a little violence in the swing is healthy and will help you develop more power. You’ll never hit it far without ripping it.”

There you have it.

Practice this with plastic golf balls at first if you can, because they go only so far no matter how hard you hit them and you won’t be seduced into overswinging.

Once you’ve got it down, work on it at the range. Once you’ve got that down, practice saying, “You’re away” in a pleasant tone of voice, so you can say on the course without upsetting anybody.

Golf Thoughts

The practice ground is where you learn to hit shots, but golf is about knowing which shots to hit. You shoot lower scores by playing more golf, not by hitting more buckets of balls.

Beware of tips you read in magazines. They may tell you to do something you’re already doing, and then you end up overdoing it.

The most important shot for a recreational golfer is the tee shot. You must put the ball in the fairway.

Straight shots begin with setting up with the clubface aimed at your target. This is not as easy as it sounds. Work on this or get a lesson, because if this is not right, nothing that comes after will make it right.

The easiest way to keep doubles and triples off your scorecard is by playing within your skills. If you are standing over the ball with a “funny feeling about this shot,” back off and try something else. False confidence is not your friend.

Rhythm is king. Good rhythm makes mediocre technique work. Lack of rhythm makes proper technique fall apart. When you try a swing tweak and it doesn’t work, odds are you forgot stay in rhythm.

Good shotmakers have a narrower range of dispersion than other golfers. To narrow your range, train yourself always aim at something when you hit a golf ball. That is not only a direction. There must also be a specific spot on the ground you want the ball to hit.

To get to 80, you must first have a decent swing. If your average score is 83, your swing gives you reasonable assurance that you can get the ball up to the green in the regulation number of strokes. From this point switch the majority of your practice time from the range to the practice green.

Flipping through impact, a common fault, is caused by the left arm slowing down through impact so the hands can take over hitting the ball. If you swing a wedge with your left arm only, and let the arm swing freely, you will understand the correct sensation of the club swinging instead of the hands hitting.

When hitting a short shot that has a certain amount of air time, make sure you hit the ball hard enough. You can turn a down in three (or two!) into a down in four by getting too finessy.

A Golf Swing Epiphany

I have a video on YouTube that talks about the straight left arm–what that term really means. It is by far the most popular of all my videos for some reason.

It’s really good advice to keep your left arm straight, because if you bend your elbow you introduce another lever into your swing. Two levers, the wrist and the shoulder, are enough. No need to add a third.

But I found out a few days ago that’s exactly what I do when I’m swinging at my best. I bend my left elbow.

For years, the major thrust of all my personal golf swing research has been to figure out how to keep the clubface square from takeaway to impact. It’s pretty hard to do, because the forearms can rotate too much or not enough, and the wrists can do almost anything. Getting these two to behave isn’t easy.

And then there’s who knows what else.

When I was playing very well, back in 2011 before things started happening (long-time readers know what they are), I always had this feeling at the tail end of my backswing that my wrists were bending a bit extra because of the momentum of the swing.

They seemed to always get back into line in the forward swing, though, because one of the hallmarks of my game was and still is that I hit the ball very straight.

But I never felt that extra bending of my wrists was the right thing to be happening, so I tried hard to eliminate it by deliberately doing things to prevent the bending feeling from coming up.

The problem was, those corrections didn’t improve matters, and they turned a free and easy swing into a lot of work.

So in the past few months I decided to go look for that swing feeling and get it back again. I found it last week, and when I did I quickly realized I had been all wrong all this time.

It wasn’t my wrists that were bending. It was my left elbow.

My left shoulder isn’t flexible enough to get my hands to where the momentum of my backswing wants to take them, so my elbow bends to get them there. The feeling in my wrists is caused by the weight of the club, not by any extraneous movement in them.

On the forward swing, the elbow straightens out again and I’m still in business with a square clubface.

I’m going on about this because it is a perfect example of what I wrote about a few weeks ago . Something so fundamental as a straight left arm is something I do NOT do, and when I try to do it, I don’t hit the ball well. That swing is not ME.

Gary Player once said something along the lines of, “Name me any swing fundamental and I’ll show you a championship golfer who doesn’t do it.”

I doubt Player had me in mind when he said that, but it’s true. Fundamentals get you in the ball park, but if they mess you up, modify them until your swing is YOU.

There is only one way for you to swing a golf club, and that is YOUR way.

Golf Isn’t Hard Work

Whenever I go to the range, which is about once every other week, there’s this guy who is always there. Always. With a big pile of balls in front of him.

I’m not sure what he’s up to. Maybe he just likes to hit golf balls. If that’s his retirement hobby (and he’s gotta be retired to be there at 10 every morning), fine with me.

But if he’s trying to improve, I don’t know how being out there all the time and hitting so many balls is going to do it.

I’ve seen what he can do. He hits the ball really well, about as well as he ever will, and as well as a recreational golfer needs to.

He knows how to swing the club. All he really needs is a reminder every so often so he doesn’t forget or start drifting.

In this month’s Golf Digest there is an article “by” Dustin Johnson on how he practices. He says he hits mostly wedge shots, then chips and putts. He’ll hit a few shots with the longer clubs, then he goes to play.

He’s keeping his swing in tune, but putting time in on what goes away fast if you let it slide–the short game. Pounding balls is not part of his practice plan.

I read once that not many pros thought all the drivers Vijay Singh used to hit did him any good at all. After a few he wasn’t adding anything.

I would say to you, if you know how your swing works*, get a small bucket of about 30 balls, hit half of them with full swings, and the rest with your wedges to different targets.

Another key point Johnson made is one my pro made to me a few years ago. You need a new perspective every so often. Staying in the same place at the range and hitting to the same target doesn’t prepare you for the course, where every shot has a different look.

Either hit to different targets, or hit to the same target but move to a new spot some distance away so the look of the shot is new. That gives you the sense of playing that should be part of your practice.

In 2014 I published my Six Fundamentals. They’re my swing keys, and I hit only enough balls to make sure I’m still doing them so I get good results.

One point in them is rather subtle, but it is that the forward swing is driven by the right side. This is from Fundamental 4, The Right Knee Moves Left. In the same issue of Golf Digest, Butch Harmon has a piece on hitting your irons. He says,

“The third piece [of being in position] is driving your right side–arm, shoulder, knee–at the target.”

Butch Harmon charges three million dollars an hour for the same advice you get here for free.

Stick with me, kid.

*Write down your own set of fundamentals, or swing keys, or whatever you want to call them, that your swing depends on so you can always refer to them when things go wrong.

Golf is Personal

Whenever you read a golf instruction book, or watch a video on YouTube, that instruction is fixed. Everyone reads, sees, and hears the same thing. But what each person needs to do to make that instruction work will be different. That’s because golf is personal.

By “personal”, I mean everyone is different in their size, strength, flexibility, conformation, and conception of athletic movement. This means everyone has to do something a little bit different to install the same bit of instruction into their swing.

I can only use myself for an example to explain what I mean.

When you take the club away, the face should rotate open to stay square to the swing path. When I bring the club back, my natural preference is for my right forearm to stay oriented toward the ball somewhat, and not rotate clockwise. I don’t try to do that, it’s just me.

The effect of this is for the clubface to close. So, I hit a lot of hooks unless…

…I begin my swing with a gentle push by the left hand. Now my left arm dominates, the right arm turns like it supposed to, and the clubface stays square.

Or when I pitch. This one absolutely drives me nuts. From out of nowhere, SHANK! It’s just a short stroke. How can you hit a hosel rocket? Well, getting back to the right hand.

If I try to control the shot with my right hand, I discovered the club pops outside a bit on takeaway. Now the swing plane is forward of its position at address. The shank is baked in and there’s nothing I can do about it.

So again, I begin the takeaway with a gentle push by the left hand, which keeps the club on plane.

Two problems, same solution, because of the same tendency.

Here’s a different one. I will see the hole to the left of where is really is when I stand up to a short putt. Needless to say, I miss to the left more than to the right.

I pointed this out during a playing lesson, and the pro noticed right away that I wasn’t standing square to the line of the putt. My feet were in place, but my hips were turned a tiny bit to the right. This had me looking around a corner to find the hole.

I don’t align my hips deliberately that way, that’s just what happens when I take my stance. So when I get into my putting stance now I always kink my hips the slightest bit counter-clockwise to get square.

These are three examples, and I could give you more if I thought about it, but you get the point.

I’m doing everything right, but by just being me I introduce tiny errors that put me off by just enough to make the difference between a good shot and a not so good one.

It will do you some good to investigate the mistakes you’re making to find out if they are errors in technique, or errors that have only your name on them.

If it’s truly the second, you can keep doing what you’re doing and build in another move to compensate, or, much easier, build in a prevention so you’re right from start to finish.

Really, I think you’re much closer to being a better golfer than you are now if you can only attend to these little details. When you figure how precise the impact geometry has to be to hit a good shot, it only takes a little detail to throw it all off. Correct the little details and you might start playing a different kind of golf.

Getting Ready For Spring

About a month ago, I posted some suggestions for your winter practice. I was following that plan at the time, but you know how my mind wanders, so I thought I would let you know what is going right now.

It’s hard to practice approach putting when it’s raining so much and the practice greens are soaked, so most of my putting practice goes on in my back room on a very short-pile carpet–perfect for the task.

I am firmly committed to the two-putter plan. That has me practicing up to ten-foot putts with my face-balanced putter, at least nightly, and whenever I’m home with nothing important to do (which is all the time when I’m home).

When I go to the the range, I bring my sand wedge and my pitching wedge. I pick out a target on the ground and try to drop a ball right on top of it. I don’t pitch to an area. I pitch to a spot. Most of the time it’s a ball lying out there somewhere.

I have been doing this for years at the range, and have developed a sense over that time of what a distance feels like and what I have to do to hit the ball there, just by looking at it. Sometimes I get the ball so close it’s scary.

Not bragging here. If you practice something often enough you get good at it.

As far as the swing goes, I am deep into a new (for me) mental approach to it.

I have written about Gabrielle Wulf’s work on the benefit of external focus (in golf, the club) rather than internal focus (the golfer) in learning, improving, and performing.

Now let’s combine that with the Ernest Jones method of “swing the clubhead.” To me, that is an early expression of external focus. By swinging the clubhead, the body will automatically do the right thing.

Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but it is on the right track.

I swing a Titleist 20.5° fairway wood (975J) in my back room. I take the club back slowly with a gentle push by the left hand. Slow is important because I want to feel the clubhead throughout the swing. If the start is too fast, that feel will not emerge.

The backswing is nothing more than feeling the clubhead move back and up. The forward swing is the same. I feel the clubhead move down, around, and through.

My mind is on nothing else than the clubhead moving. I mentally follow its movement back and forward again. I really have no concept of what my body is doing, because my mind is on something else, so getting stuck on technique is out the window.

I can’t think about hitting the ball, hitting it a long way, hoping I will hit a good shot, or any other irrelevant and destructive thought. It’s just, follow the clubhead.

The results I’m getting are very good. I’m hitting good shots easily.

If you want to try this, I suggest you begin with a sand wedge, because its weight makes the clubhead easy to feel throughout the swing. There is no need to bend way over when you swing it. Stand up in your driver stance and pretend your sand wedge is a short driver.

I have been through a lot with my health in the past six years. I am unable to play golf the way I used to, but that doesn’t mean I can no longer play good golf. It means I have to find a different way. I have growing confidence that this is the way.

My Golf Predictions for 2018

Here we are at the top of a new season. Those of you who live in sunny climates can start it right after you read this post, but the rest of us, who live in the other 80% of the country, will have to wait until about April to start playing the golf we know we are capable of.

It’s also a time for predictions for the new year. Here are mine. I guarantee they will come true.

1. Somewhere in Michigan a golfer trying to break 90 for the first time will finally leave his driver home, and shoot 88.

2. Golf writers will start worshiping Tiger as if they were 10 year-olds (actually, it’s already started, and in the golfing press it’s already all Tiger, all the time).

3. Jim Nantz will continue to be the sappiest announcer on the air. Johnny Miller will retire after the end of the year and by March 2019 everyone will miss him.

4. Golf courses across the country will start selling partial rounds, depending on the layout of the course, to serve people who do not have the time to play nine, let alone 18.

5. Gary Player will do 36,500 sit-ups.

6. One day you will play your usual game from tee to green, but putt the lights out, and beat your best-ever score by five strokes. From then on you will spend more time on the practice green than you ever have, and reap the rewards.

7. You will slow down your swing and learn to live with the extra distance you get.

8. Manufacturers will come out with new clubs that cost a LOT of money, and promise you the moon. You will decide to take half that amount of money, spend it on lessons and green fees instead, and become a better golfer with the clubs you already have.

9. The Recreational Golfer will continue to be the best unknown golf blog in America, but it’s OK if that one doesn’t come true (the unknown part).

Play well, and have fun in 2018.

Little Differences That Make a Big Difference in How Well You Play