Remembering How You Played Your Best Golf

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.

Then the next time you go out, blotto. Where did that good swing go?
First of all, that good swing wasn’t just luck. If you did it time after time, it’s in your head somewhere. You can do it again if you just go to the right part of your memory. Want to know how?
If it’s the range, you might be hitting one ball after the other while the feeling lingers in your mind. That’s OK, but you’re not getting that feeling out of what is called pre-short-term memory into short-term memory. In other words, you’re not getting off the ground.
So take a break, maybe a minute. Let the feeling roll over in your mind, but don’t necessarily obsess on it. Now hit another ball. Was it the same swing? If it was, hit a few more, a FEW more, then take another break. If it wasn’t the same swing, do not try to to dig it out. Just hit a few balls and take your time to do it. The feeling will come back.
Here’s the important part. When you get home, take a few more swings. That might be twenty or so minutes since you last swung a golf club. Just the right amount of time. Swing with that same feeling a few time.
Right before you got to bed that night, swing a few more times. You’re getting that swing feeling into your short-term memory.
On the course, take lots of practice swings while you’re waiting for your partners to hit. Take only one when it’s your turn, though, but take frequent swings as reminders. After you hit that good shot, take a few more swings before you put your club back in the bag if you can do that without holding up the group.
After the round is over, hit a bucket of balls, I know it’s social time, but if you can stay at the course after social hour breaks up, it would be the best thing for your game. Try it once and see. The touring pros do it, Why shouldn’t you?
Think of learning as being on one side of a divide, and remembering on the other side. In the middle is forgetting. When you learn something, you build a bridge across that divide. But after a short time, the bridge collapses. Then you re-learn and build it again. This process repeats itself, but with dedication, the divide gets narrower and narrower. The inevitable collapse becomes less damaging and easier to repair.
To make that swing your own, you need to get it into long-term memory. That means practice every day. Just a bit. Swing the club and reach for that feeling which you’re well on your way to remembering. Keep that ball in the air. If you do this every day, and who ever got better at anything without practicing it every day, I guarantee that good swing will become your regular swing.

Practicing My Wedges

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.

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Julie Inkster’s DQ Was the Right Call

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.

Here are the rules:
Decision 14-3/10: Q: During a round, may a player make a stroke or a practice swing using a club with a weighted headcover or “doughnut” on it, or use any other device as a training aid or swing aid?
A: No
Rule 14-3: Penalty for breach of rule 14-3: Disqualification.
There you have it. She made a practice swing in violation of the Decision, hence the Rule, and the penalty is DQ.
Inkster said, “the device had no effect on my game whatsoever.” 1.- then why did you use it, and 2.- lots of rules violations might have no effect on one’s game, but they’re still violations.
On the air, commentator Judy Rankin, a former touring professional, said the penalty should have been two strokes. But that’s nowhere in the Rules, Judy. And we don’t make up rules just because something isn’t “fair,” or happens to a player we like, or we don’t like how severe the consequences are. Then there’s Rule 1-3, which Judy’s comment gets right to, which says, “Players must not agree to exclude the operation of and Rule or to waive any penalty incurred.” An unbelievable comment from someone who used to be in the mix.
Golf World magazine said, in its August 23rd Golf World Monday e-mail edition, that “players who happen to be on TV are arbitrarily being held to an unfair standard.” What standard is that? Obeying the rules? That’s unfair? Did I miss a memo?
In the sport where players are expected to call rules violations on themselves (see Brian Davis at the Verizon Heritage last April) Golf World apparently wants violations to be called only if a rules official sees it.
Golf is played on a 150-acre field with players scattered all over it. The actionable event in other sports takes place in an area about the size of your back yard and there are officials right there to make the call.
Michelle Redman got it right when said why she told a rules official about Lisa McCloskey’s caddy violating a rule concerning riding in carts during a round. “I was fulfilling my obligation to protect the field.”
That’s exactly the point.
The field has to be protected from players who violate the rules, intentionally or not. Otherwise, the integrity of the sport will plummet. The shocking thing about this incident is that people who should know better believe otherwise.

Yes, You Should Play Blades

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.

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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.

Play a Difficult Golf Course – 2

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?

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The Three Most Important Golf Clubs

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 Time of Change is Now

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.

Had a Golf Swing Lesson Today

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.

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The Golf Skills You Should Practice

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.

1. Hitting the ball straight. Get lessons. Practice what you learned. Practice a lot with short irons. They encourage good swing habits. Hit your driver maybe every tenth ball, one time, then go back to the short irons. Everybody says to practice short game and putting, but the swing’s the thing. Consider: would you rather have Tiger chip and putt your ball, or have him hit your tee shots and irons? I thought so.
2. Getting 30-foot putts close. We have three-putt greens because we leave our approach putt to short or blow it by the hole. Learn to get the approach putt within the three-foot circle — that’s three feet in diameter — so you have just a tap-in left.
3. Making the three-foot putt. Here’s the payoff for all the work you did to get the ball this close to the hole. Be confident that you can close the deal right now. Hit a dozen three-footers with the right hand only, another dozen with both hands on the club. No misses allowed.
If there’s any time left, practice the shots you’re weakest at. I would guess they are, in this order,
4. 30-yard chip (half the time it doesn’t reach the green)
5. 75-yard pitch (again, seldom lands on the green)
6. greenside chip (leaves you a putt outside makable range)
There’s no time to practice everything. 1-3 will let you play a decent game. Adding on 4-6 will let you score.

Hole-in-one

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.

I got a hole-in-one today. My first in 49 years of playing golf. I’ve sunk irons from the fairway before, but never from the tee.
Auburn Golf Course, Salem, Oregon, 6th hole, 58 yards, pitching wedge.
Yes, I know. 58 yards. But that doesn’t make it any easier. And there’s still a 1 on the scorecard.
So. Along with my birdie on the Road Hole (I’ll tell you about that sometime), I have a few things to talk about when someone asks me what my best shot ever was.