The Late Hit

This is one of those phrases that gets amateur golfers into all sorts of trouble. They think that if they can delay the hit, whatever that means to them, and it’s almost always the wrong thing, they can hit the ball a real long way.

And more often than not, they try to achieve the late hit by hanging back their right hand as long as they can and then snapping it, and the clubhead, into the ball at the last second. Boy, does that feel good, and yes, you can hit the ball an awful long way the one out of ten times you get it right. That’s not what the late hit is, though.

The clubhead is attached to a lever that has two hinges. One hinge is the left shoulder. The other hinge is the left wrist. (The left elbow is not a hinge in the golf swing.)

If both hinges were allowed to move freely on the downswing, the energy generated by the swinging of the arm would be transferred after a point to the clubshaft, through the wrist. Like a flail, an image you read about from time to time, the energy is multiplied to the tip of the lever, the clubhead, moving it at its maximum speed.

Now here’s the thing. The flail, the threshing object, moves in a natural way that can be predicted by conservation of angular momentum.

The person swinging the flail can’t hit too soon, or the tips will reach the target after maximum speed was built up, and the tips will be slowing down. If the person tries to delay the hit too much, and the only way that can be done is to hold back the swing, maximum speed is never attained.

There is only one way of swinging the flail so that maximum angular momentum builds up and is delivered at the right time, and if you were to swing one, it wouldn’t take too many tries to find it.

When a golfer tries to hit the ball starting at the beginning of the downswing, that’s hitting too early. Power will have peaked before impact. The solution, it seems, is to hold back the right wrist as described earlier, which is just going to the other extreme. Extreme solutions have no place in golf.

The middle way is to let the momentum of the swing build up naturally without forcing it or saving it up for the right moment.

Do you ever swing the club back and forth a few times without stopping, completely relaxed, just to get loose, and let the clubhead freewheel through the bottom of the swing?

That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the swing in which the lever-as-flail is operating and in which you are getting maximum clubhead speed through the ball.

Feeling clubhead speed is tricky. You want to feel something moving fast, so you concentrate on what you easily feel, your body and your arms, but they will never move at anywhere near the speed you want the clubhead to be moving.

If you want to have a 100-mph swing speed, you don’t get it by turning your body at 100 mph (good luck with that, though I play with a few guys who look like they’re trying to do that) or by swinging your arms at 100 mph, or by flicking your right wrist at the last moment.

You get that clubhead speed by staying relaxed and letting the hinged lever work naturally. The first few times you get it right it’s scary, because the clubhead has never gone that fast before. You might think you did something wrong. Au contraire. You finally did it right.

The only reason anyone ever talks about a late hit is that so many golfers hit too early. The hit that I have described is the on-time hit, and that is the one you need.

My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at www.therecreationalgolfer.com. It will change everything about the way you play.

Notes from a practice session

My back is still giving me problems. I can’t swing a golf club, but I can chip and putt, so that’s what I went to the range to do today. This is what I learned.

1. One of my biggest problems on the green is leaving putts short. If the putt doesn’t get to the hole, it will never go in. A putt that finishes six inches in front of the hole might as well have finished two feet in front. My sense of touch leaves the ball short, and I have to live with that. There’s no changing it. What I can change is my stroke.

A few weeks ago I talked about Making Putting Easier. There are eight things I do every time I putt. What I have found is, that number 7, Keep the putter low to the ground on the follow-through, gives me the extra oomph I need to get the ball to the hole and a little ways past it. Keeping the putter low after contact helps drive the ball forward more than an arcing stroke does. Try this if leaving putts short is a problem for you. I’ll make a video on this when the weather clears up.

2. Becoming a better putter means you will have fewer three-putt greens and more one-putt greens. That much is obvious, but achieving it requires planning. Think about from where you commonly take three putts. Those are the putts you should be practicing. The extra one-putt greens come from those makable 8 to 12-footers that you never make. Those are the putts that steal a stroke when you make them, so practice those.

3. Practice short putts, too, but it isn’t your stroke that you should practice. It’s how you use your mind. The reason you miss a three-footer is that your mind clutches during the middle of the stroke. You draw the putter back, but sometime during the through-stroke the fear of missing comes into your head in some way and the putter goes off line.

To solve that problem you have to teach yourself how to keep your mind from doing that. Put down a ball nowhere near a hole, and hit the ball four feet. It doesn’t matter where the ball goes, or if it goes three feet or five feet. Just make a little putt.

Keep doing this, and pay attention to what’s going on in your mind. Since there isn’t anything at stake, probably not much. That is the feeling of mind you should have when you hit a four-foot putt for your par. Because you know what that feeling of mind is, you can train your mind to repeat that feeling anytime you want to. Then that fear reaction never comes up because your mind is occupied with something else.

You eliminate the problem of choking short putts by training your mind to stay out of the way when you hit one. I’m serious. You have complete control of this and you can teach yourself to do it. You can train your mind to anything you want it to.

4. I went into the pro shop to give my regards to the pro. He had two Ping irons that a customer had brought in, but only one of them was a Ping. The other one was a fake, and not a very good one at that. If you know what a Ping iron is supposed to look like, it’s easy to tell.

He told me that of the three leading brands of irons, if you buy them over the Internet, there is about a 50 percent chance that you’ll end up buying a set of counterfeit clubs. Moral: buy your golf clubs from a store or pro shop, not online. It’s just too big of a risk.

Or, you can buy 20-year-old clubs like I do. No one was counterfeiting Hogan Apex Red Lines back in 1988, and no one will today.

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Practice/Playing Emphasis

When I practice, I spend almost half the time with my driver or 7-iron, almost the other half with my putter, and the remainder, not as much as the first two in comparison, on my short game.

I figure it like this. The better my swing is, the fewer times I’ll need to use my short game. And, I’ll always be putting. My short game is good, not great. I just need it to be good enough to give my putting a chance.

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On The Golf Channel’s 7 Nights at the Academy shows that were broadcast last week, Raymond Floyd said the best thing about putting. It went something like, “The Tour is full of wonderful ball-strikers, but a lot of them never win anything because they’re mediocre putters.”

Byron Nelson said, on one of the old Challenge Golf shows,  “If you can drive and you can putt, you can play this game.”

See A Paean to Putting for my thoughts.

In Praise of Limitations

About a week ago, I mentioned that my back was acting up and a full swing is just not in the cards. That’s still the case, but yesterday I went out and played nine with my 6-iron, pitching wedge, sand wedge, and putter. It went really well.

There isn’t much I can do from tee to green except hit a giant chip, but if I do that, I get a much straighter shot than normal and I don’t lose as much distance as you would think. Normally the 6 goes 160 yards, and I got 140 out of it with that less-than-half swing.

All that wedge work is paying off in spades, and I get on the green and close every time. Not exactly one-putt close, but two easy putts and every now and then a makable try.

The thing that is working the best is contact. Contact is all the rage these days. Contact is what counts, and as readers of this space know, it is what I have been working on since a turning-point lesson last April. It is truly amazing what good, solid contact alone can do for you. You feel that solid thump as the ball gets pinched between the ground and the clubface, then you see the satisfying take-off as the ball shoots down the fairway. Or around the green when you think “Oh, no, I hit that one too hard,” when all you did is put untold amounts of spin on it and it lands two feet in front of the hole and comes to rest one foot in front.

The divots are things of beauty. They start in front of the ball, are about six inches long, thin, maybe a quarter inch thick at most, and as wide as the clubhead; not a chunk out of the fairway, but a slice of it, just the way it’s supposed to be.

I don’t care at all that I can’t hit the ball very far right now. When the back settles down again, . . . oh, gosh, I can’t wait.

“I’m playing 18 today, walking, I don’t need a cart. By the way what’s the course record here?”

You know, you can order Better Recreational Golf and still get your copy by Christmas.

Make Putting Easier

They say that however you putt is OK is long as it works. These points make whatever you do easier.

1. Clear your mind of mechanics and results.
2. Align your putter first, step into your stance second.
3. Hold the putter lightly.
4. Your mind begins moving the putter before your body does.
5. Throughout the stroke, the body does not move.
6. Strike the ball with the weight of the putter.
7. Keep the putter low to the ground on the follow-through.
8. Do not look up to follow the ball until a few moments after the ball has been struck. You will not see a six-foot putt go in the hole.

Click to Better Recreational Golf to find more good advice on becoming a better putter.

How Well Should You Putt?

I picked up some stats from the book, “How Well Should You Putt?” by Clyne Solley. He collected putting statistics from amateurs and pros in the 1970s and published his findings in 1977. These are the number of putts per round for a scratch golfer and a 40-handicapper:

One-putt greens:
Scratch        5.3
40-Hand.      2.4

Two-putt greens:
Scratch        11.7
40-Hand.      11.6

Three-putt greens:
Scratch        0.9
40-Hand.      3.6

This works out to a total number of putts for the scratch player of 31.3 and 36.4 for the 40H. Five strokes on the green sounds like there isn’t that much of a gap between the two talent levels, but let’s look deeper.

The one-putt greens for the scratch player are birdie putts primarily of lengths that the 40H player never makes, and the back end of a few up-and-downs. The 40H has many more up-and-down opportunities and still converts fewer of them.

The numbers of two-putt greens are the same, but they are put together in different ways. The scratch player tends to get on the green from the fairway, and is likely starting to putt from distances that would put the 40H in three-putt territory. The 40H more often than not gets on the green with a chip. A good number of the 40H’s two-putt greens represent the up-and-down that didn’t get converted.

Three-putt greens for the 40H are likely sequences that started at distances from which the scratch player routinely gets down in two. I would bet that the 5.1-stroke gap in total putts would be a lot wider if both players started putting from the same place every time.

What you can learn from this is to keep track of the distances you start putting from and practice those distances. The higher your handicap, the more important getting down in two from beyond 20 feet is, whereas the better player would do well to practice from the 6 to 15-foot range, where approaches from the fairway (occasionally) and pitches from under 100 yards (generally) should be ending up.

Visit www.therecreationalgolfer.com

Working With My Wedges

Right about now, that’s all I can do. I have a back problem that is keeping me from taking a big swing, but I can hit with my wedges. So, I’m practicing them a lot, and the ease with which I have to swing is having surprising results.

I have to have an easy, flowing swing, so I don’t hold the club too tightly. It’s just a turn to the right, and a turn to the left with soft hands, loose wrists, and loose arms. This is also a great way to practice the release that I have been working on all year.

Last Sunday I hit balls at the range with my son, and just lofted one shot after another right where I was aiming, and with pretty good distance control, too. I hope when my back heals and I can swing fully again that I’ll remember these lessons, because I am sure they apply to those shots, too.

But that isn’t why I haven’t been blogging recently. I’m hard at work to deliver my next book to the editor by the end of the month. The working title is The Golfing Attitude. The first section is about achieving complete concentration during the round and applying that to various situations during the round. The second section is full of playing tips, shotmaking pointers, and good advice for playing your best golf with the skills you have right now. It should be out by March 2012.

The Golf Chanel is in the middle of its second annual 7 Nights At the Academy. It comes on at 7 ET, 4 PT. Not bad, a bit heavy on commercials, though. Johnny Miller is his know-it-all self, but then he does pretty much know that amount, Nick Faldo is trying to tell us everything he knows in the few minutes he has on the air, but Raymond Floyd is the one to listen to. Everything he says is solid. If you haven’t read his book, The Elements of Scoring, you should get a copy right away. It’s the best book on the mental game I have ever read.

I’ll be watching a lot of college football in the next few weeks, I need a break from golf on TV.

You know, Better Recreational Golf makes a great Christmas gift, and the shipping is free. I await your clicks.

A Few Ways to Stop Wasting Strokes

If you would analyze every round you play, stroke by stroke, I would bet you give away two strokes per side for no good reason. It doesn’t have anything to with how well you hit the ball, but with how well you play the game. 

Recovery shots off the tee shot – if your course has heavy rough or lots of trees, you can waste several shots per round just chipping the ball back into the fairway. If you play a tight course, leave your driver home. What you give up in distance is more than offset by keeping the ball in play.

Trying to get it all back with one shot – Say you dumped your drive in a fairway bunker. The green is in sight, but you have to hit a clean shot to get it there. Better to hit out with a shorter club to up near the green, which is an easier shot, so a good chip can give you a par putt. Playing from a hazard as if you were playing from the fairway invites a large score unless you know the shot well.

Playing over water – Bad things happen when you play over water if you don’t have to. Figure the longest club in your bag that you’re sure you can get in the air. If you have to hit a longer club than that to clear the hazard, go around or lay up, unless the course gives you no other option. 

Hitting your driver too often – go the the range and set yourself up in a spot where there are landmarks in the distance that mark about a 40-yard-wide fairway. Get warmed up with a short iron, then hit a drive into your “fairway.” Take your time, hit one driver, and a few short irons before the next drive. If you got fewer than seven drivers inside the boundaries you picked out, your driver is costing you strokes. 

Hitting when you’re not ready – You have to feel that the shot you’re about to hit can only have the best possible outcome. The thrill of anticipation must cover you. If you feel anything about this shot that is off, like something is different, but you don’t know what it is, that’s the little voice telling you to step away because you’re not set up to hit a good shot. Listen to that little voice, for if you don’t, you will find yourself saying in about four seconds, “I knew I wasn’t ready. Why didn’t I step away?”

Playing with the distance you want, not the distance you have – It is true that golf is a distance game. The longer you can hit the ball the easier it is to play well, but you only have the distance you have. That’s the distance to play with. If 155 yards with a 6-iron is a good shot for you, and you’re 153 yards from the pin, don’t hit six! Take out the five and put a smooth swing on the ball. With the six, you’re thinking that you have to hit it just right. The extra club in your hand takes the pressure off and you’ll hit a better shot. Use the right club to get the distance you need, not your swing.

Two short shots in a row – At the professional level, the short shot takes the place of the approach putt. At the amateur level, the short shot is meant to get the ball on the green. Getting the ball close to the pin is a secondary consideration. Whatever it takes, get your first short shot on the green, two-putt close at least. That fourth shot you have to take because your first short shot didn’t get on really hurts.

Not aiming your greenside chips – When the ball is close enough to the green that you truly can give it a run at the hole, aim yourself first. Stand behind the ball to find the line on the ground from the pin to your ball. Align yourself to this line and play away. This avoids hitting your chip hole-high but four feet to the left. If you had taken the time to align the shot, you could have had a tap-in or given the ball a chance to go in.

Ignoring contours around the hole – These are the ones to pay attention to. Where will the ball go when it gets six feet from the hole? When the ball gets that near to the hole, it won’t be rolling very fast, and will thus be greatly influenced by contours. 

Visit www.therecreationalgolfer.com.

The Mathematics of Club Selection

Most golfers try to hit the ball a long way whenever they see the room to. The trouble is, that strategy leads as often as not to poor shots that wouldn’t have gained much even if they were successful. Instead, try planning the way you play a golf hole by doing the math.

There’s a hole on my home course that is 502 yards long, par 5, with a narrow fairway, and a creek that crosses the fairway about 175 yards from the tee. There is a tree on each side of the fairway, next to the creek, that frames the tee shot and tightens it up even more. There’s a lot of room to go wrong with the tee shot, but you can find a way out if you just do a few math problems.

First of all, there are only 175 yards to clear the creek, so take a club that you can hit 190 yards and use that one off the tee. Odds are you hit that club much straighter than your driver, so you will likely end up in the fairway, across the creek, with 312 yards to the green. Divide that yardage by 2. If you hit two shots that are 156 yards long, you’ll be on the green.

Say that’s two 6-irons. You would also rather not hit something as long a a 6-iron into a green if you can help it, so instead of two 6-irons, hit a 5 and a 7. Or a 4 and an 8. Do you see how this works? All this hole asks you to do is cover 502 yards in three shots. How you do that is up to you. There is more than one way to cover that distance, some of them easy ways, and they don’t all start off with a driver.

By the way, the next time you step onto the tee of a 312-yard par 4, you know now that you don’t really need to tee off with your driver, don’t you?

Here’s another example. You tee off from a 386-yard par 4 that runs uphill, and flub the drive. That happens. You’re 260 yards from the green now, so out comes the fairway wood. Think about this for a moment. You’re still two shots away from the green because you can’t hit your fairway wood that far. So divide the distance by 2 and you get two 130-yard shots — two easy 8-irons. Maybe a 7-iron and a 9-iron, or a 6 and a pitching wedge.

Do the math to take high-risk shot out of your hands, especially when there is no real payoff for hitting them well. If you’re worried about what your playing partners will think about you if you keep the longer clubs in the bag, don’t be. You’ll get more respect from them because you’ll be the lone golfer of their acquaintance who actually thinks.

My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at www.therecreationalgolfer.com. It will change everything about the way you play.