Isn’t it maddening? You have a good day on the range, or a good day on the course, when your swing is just clicking away and you can’t help but hit one good shot after another in spite of yourself.
I don’t have a lot to do this week. Big Break Sandals is finally over, pro golf is over (it ends with the PGA, in my book), and I jammed my thumb (you don’t want to hear the details) so I can’t swing a golf club. Or any kind of club. Which makes me think, why is it that they say on TV, “That was an excellent golf shot.” As opposed to a hockey shot? What other kinds of shots are they expecting to see at a golf tournament?
When I don’t have a lot to do, my mind wanders. So it wandered yesterday to my wedge game. Precision. Tap-ins. That’s what I want in my wedge game. And you know how to get that? Practice. There’s no way around it.
I took my ball bag, that has about 100 balls in it, out to the back yard, and began hitting twenty-yard pitches. I have that much room. Boy, did I learn a lot about myself. I don’t think I hit the ball the same way twice in a row. Different trajectories, different distances. Without knowing, you would have thought I was pretty versatile with a wedge. But I was trying to hit the same shot every time.
Again, this morning, I went out with my bag of balls. More wedges. I have a real good target to hit to, or rather hit through. There’s a huge apple tree in the center of the back yard, this thing must be 60 years old, and it’s about twelve feet around at the base. There are big limbs that start branching off about four feet above the ground, and they make a nice little opening for me to hit golf balls through. A little opening. There’s only one way to get the ball through. Hit it straight, and hit it the right distance with the right trajectory. IOW, hit the same shot every time. After all, you can’t be versatile until you’ve become consistent.
I did much better today, but there’s still work to do. It will be time well spent, though. You know how the pros get so good? They hit ball after ball for hours, not just five or six at the range as an afterthought. They have shots like this programmed. And the only way to do that is to practice a lot. Now I have something to do this week.
Saturday at the Safeway Classic in Porltand, Oregon, Julie Inkster was waiting on the tee. A 30-minute wait. So to stay loose, she took a few practice swings with a club on which she had put a “doughnut”, a weighted training device. A TV viewer called this in and Inkster was disqualified.
There’s a rumor going around that blades are for low-handicappers only. Middle- and high-handicappers should stick with cavity-back irons. Game improvement irons. Like most rumors, this one doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Blades, or more correctly, muscleback irons, have a fairly flat back with extra weight on the bottom of the clubhead, which helps get the ball airborne. The weight distribution of a muscleback, though, lets a mis-hit be a mis-hit. A cavity-back iron, with weight distributed all around the perimeter, tends to smooth out mis-hits and keep the ball going straight. This works against the intentions of players who like to work the ball. They tend to be the better players, and they use blades. Hence the rumor.
But there are other reasons why blades have a devoted following. More weight is concentrated behind the ball because the clubhead is smaller. This means that when the ball is struck it has more authority, and the sweet spot is thus much sweeter. You also get more feedback with a blade, since you can feel exactly where on the clubface the ball was struck.
For a long time, every golfer played blades because that was the only type of club to be manufactured. Unless you have good hand-eye coordination, it is hard to hit the sweet spot, or sufficiently near it every time. Hence the introduction of game improvement (GI) irons.
But at the same time, hybrid irons were introduced. They replaced the difficult-to-hit long irons, which were the clubs that made people shy away from blades. Many golfers now carry nothing longer than a 6- or 5-iron. The longest iron in my bag is a 6-iron.
It is not that hard to hit a short iron in the center, because the swing is not that big, so blades at this end of the set are now a reasonable option. The benefits of blades listed above are now available to you.
No golfer should be reluctant to try out a set of blades and find out how it feels to hit them. True, there is a bit of snob appeal — they are the sports cars of golf. But there are serious benefits to using them and you should not be dissuaded unless you have tried them for yourself.
December 1, 2011 update:
A few days ago, I stumbled across this web page which showed that while blades have a smaller sweet spot than GI irons, the sweet spot on a blade is much sweeter than on a GI iron. There’s a lot to be said for that, especially if you have nothing longer than a 6-iron in your bag, since you will hitting the sweet spot more often than with the longer irons.
If you would like to try a set of blades, I recommend Ben Hogan Apex models. I have a set of the 1999 Apex irons, the last blade model the Hogan company put out, and a set of Apex Red Lines, built in 1988. I bought the 1999s new, but I got the Red Lines from a dealer on the web for under $200 and they were in top-notch condition. They are my everyday clubs now. The Apex Grind model (1990) is also highly thought of. At his death, Hogan himself had the 1979 Apex II (white cameo) irons in his bag.
I blogged earlier on this subject and would like to continue the thought. The basic idea is that your learning curve flattens out when you play courses on which shooting your handicap or below has become an expectation. To get better, you need a new challenge.
Find a course that takes about six to seven more strokes to get around than what you’re used to scoring on your home course, which I assume you play well on. Go play that course straight up. Confront the hazards. Hit the forced carries. Hit driver to restricted landing areas. Play the shots the architect makes someone play to shoot a good score.
What’s going to happen is that you will get eaten alive for a while. It won’t be fun, you’ll shoot high scores, you’ll lose lots of balls. But take your lumps. Keep hitting the shots that need to be hit until you can hit them without worry and with good result. Consider this to be tuition in golf school. Play that course over and over until you have a solution to every problem it gives you.
You’ll learn to be unconcerned by shots you once feared. You’ll learn to hit shots with precision. If you have to hit it right there, you’ll learn how to and be confident when you have to. You’ll learn how to play a course using the shots you want to hit, rather than the shots the architect wants to scare you into hitting.
Of course you improve by spending time at the range learning to hit shots and taking lessons. But you don’t become a player unless you play, unless you challenge yourself to hit those shots you spent so much time working on, and put trust in your skills.
That’s how you learn to shoot lower scores.
See also How Solid is Your Handicap?
There’s a chapter by this name in Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book. He says the three most important clubs are, putter, driver, and wedge, in that order. Ben Hogan, he reported, said driver, putter, and wedge.
Penick went on to give the reasons for his order, but we never heard Hogan’s reasons for his. Here they are, gathered from what I have read of Hogan’s writings.
Hitting a good drive puts you on offense. It leaves the ball in the part of the fairway where the green can be attacked, and even the pin.
You should have a plan at the outset of every hole, and getting the ball off the tee into the right place is the key to carrying out your plan.
Hogan off the tee wasn’t interested in distance. He had a spot marked out where he wanted the ball to end up and his goal was to hit it there.
The putter is next, of course. Hitting your irons close doesn’t count unless you sink that putt.
Yes, Hogan hit his irons close, but he didn’t make birdies by hitting six-irons to two feet. In his prime he was regarded and on of the tour’s best from 10 feet in, and he made his share of 12- to 15-footers, too.
We can sum it up so far from another point of view. I heard Byron Nelson, Hogan’s contemporary, say on a televised golf match from the 1950s, “If you can drive and you can putt, you can play this game.”
And the wedge. Sometimes we miss a green, or in the case of a par 5, we need a third shot to get on.
Hogan prided himself on being able to get his wedge shots close. He felt if you could, there was no way a pin could be hidden from you.
In fact, he called his pitching wedge his “equalizer”, and Hogan irons do not have a P or a PW in the set. They all have an E.
How can this inform your game? Practice your swing with your wedges. All the principles of the golf swing that you need to pay attention can be perfected in this swing.
Before you hit your driver in practice, hit a few wedges first, then with the driver with the same swing. All you have to do is stand up a little straighter.
Hit very few drivers in practice. That sounds odd if it’s such an important club, but it’s a seductive club that can ruin your swing.
Practice your putting every chance you get. Practice your stroke at home every day for ten minutes or so on 3- to 5-foot putts. Every time you go to the range, practice approach putting from 30 feet to leave the ball inside 18 inches.
Wedge? Find two distances, 30 yard and 60 yards, and practice until you can hit the ball on a dime from each one, and straight at your target. A few yards to either side isn’t good enough.
Learn to chip with your wedges, too, but make sure you’re running the ball to the hole, not flying it up there. Balls that run to the hole have a much better chance to go in.
Get good with these three clubs. Imagine what golf would be like if you routinely found the fairway off the tee, closed the deal right away on the putting green, and put those short shots one-putt close.
All the good players you play with? That’s exactly what they do.
My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at www.therecreationalgolfer.com. It will change everything about the way you play.
On the PGA Tour, the stars of the closing decade are winding down, and a new set of stars is emerging and sorting themselves out.
Seven years ago we had the Big Five. They were Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, and Retief Goosen. All of them had won multiple majors or were on their way.
But the last three haven’t won a major since 2004. Mickelson was a late bloomer and started winning them later than he should have. Yes, he won at Augusta this year, and was close at the U. S. Open, but we wonder how much gas he has left.
Tiger? He has gone 10 majors without winning one, though he had two other droughts of the same size while winning his 14. His declining performance this year also makes us wonder how much gas he has left.
There is a new set of 20-somethings who are to good to be denied. Dustin Johnson will learn how to win a major. His problem yesterday at the PGA was not in failing to read the rules sheet. It as having a swing that sent the ball that far right on the 72nd hole with a one-shot lead — the same swing that betrayed him at Pebble Beach two months earlier. He can correct that.
Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer are not flukes. Each established a serious resume prior to their major tournament victory. Louis Oosthuizen won his major before doing that, though he has marvelous potential according to two stars familiar with his game — Ernie Els and Gary Player.
Look at the Sunday leader board in yesterday’s final round. Jason Day. Nick Watney. Rory McIlroy. Bubba Watson. These are not tomorrow’s stars. They are today’s stars.
Start paying attention to this new wave of golfers now. They’re here to stay, and they will not be derailed by the old wave. The PGA Tour isn’t changing. It has already changed.
My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at www.therecreationalgolfer.com. It will change everything about the way you play.
The smartest thing I do in golf is to have a lesson. I like to read books and think I can take the directions the author gives me and do just what he says to do. Do you know how hard that actually is to do?
Two weeks ago, I had a lesson to correct my swing. I was hitting good shots, but as I stood over the ball I had no idea why I was hitting good shots. I didn’t know which part of my swing was the part that made it work well. That doesn’t instill confidence.
So that was the problem I presented to the instructor. By the way, you should always give the pro a starting point, the more specific the better.
We worked on improving my posture at address and taking the club away straighter instead of so much inside. Turning the hips to an open position at impact and getting the right knee through at impact were noted as longer-term projects.
Then I did a really smart thing. Two weeks later, I had a follow-up lesson. This was to show the instructor what I had accomplished so far and to see where I needed to go next. Some things I was getting right, but we had to put in more work on some others. We also worked on standing closer to the ball at address, which made several swing points fall in place right away.
How is it all working out on the course? The day after the follow-up lesson I played nine holes. Hit the ball mediocre to terrible for seven holes. Then on the eighth tee, I remembered, “Oh, yeah. Upright posture.” So I stretched myself up (I had been doing everything else right) and hit a beautiful drive. Then a beautiful iron into the green. Then a beautiful drive on the next tee, and a beautiful iron down the fairway. Four perfect shots.
Two weeks from now I’ll have another lesson, and I’ll keep on until I get it right. Best golf money I ever spent.
You have limited time to play golf, and even less time to practice. These are the skills you should concentrate on to get the most out of the rounds you play.
I was going to blog today about an analysis of tournament strength in this week’s Golf World magazine. I’ll write about that tomorrow. Something else came up.