Ease Into the Start of Your Golf Season

March 1 is only a few days away, and for those of us in the cold, wet North, that signals the start of the 2012 golf season. If you haven’t played much golf over the winter, your game might not be in mid-season form. Ease into the season by playing your first few rounds from the red tees. The shorter course has several advantages.

You won’t have to hit your driver so much, so you’ll be in the fairway more often, and you’ll be hitting shorter irons into the green. That takes pressure off your swing that it might not stand up to until you’ve been playing for a while. You should also start shooting lower scores fairly easily, scores that are near your best from the whites. Your subconscious mind is pretty literal. It only understands what happened. Qualifiers don’t register. So if you normally shoot in the high 80s and you score a legitimate 81 from the red tees, an image of yourself as a low-80s golfer starts getting built. That’s awfully good for your confidence, which is a key factor in playing your best golf.

A more subtle consequence of playing from the reds is that you will find yourself hitting shots that you don’t ordinarily hit, because the ball will be in places where you don’t normally hit it. If the designer placed the red tee boxes intelligently, you might find yourself playing a different course, avoiding obstacles that you never had to account for before. A shorter course means you might find yourself hitting 40-yard pitches into the green on a few par 5s instead of a full 9-iron.

So much for the men. Women reading this post won’t find this red tee idea too helpful, since they play from the red tees anyway. Ladies, what can you do, especially if the red tees are set too long for you to begin with? I would feel no qualms at all about walking forward enough to reduce the length of the hole by ten percent and teeing it up from there. That’s what the men are doing by playing from the reds, after all. If that’s a spot short of the closely-mown fairway grass, then keep walking up to the fairway and begin from there.

While we’re at it, everyone should use these opening rounds to find out which shots you need to concentrate on when you go to the range. What you have been working on this winter might not be the shots that trouble you on the course, especially around the green.

There’s no need to challenge your full set of golfing skills until you’re ready. Give yourself a positive start to the 2012 season that you can carry with you the entire way through.

How To Use a Belly Putter

It’s all in your posture. Stand up straight. Line up the putter to the starting line and then align your stance parallel that line. Now comes the key point. Stay your standing posture and step forward so the putter contacts your abdomen. There is no need to bend over and get small. It doesn’t matter where the putter hits you. Wherever it comes to rest is where you anchor it. Now make your stroke, being sure not to move the end of the putter that lies against your abdomen. You have established a pivot point that must be fixed. (The same goes for using a very long “broom-handle” putter. That hand the holds it against your chest must be a fixed pivot point.)

This is how you would hit short putts up to about twelve to fifteen feet. Longer putts are harder to hit because pivoting the club around a fixed point takes power out of the stroke. You must, beginning at some distance, detach the putter from your abdomen and let the putter swing freely. Such a long putter will be somewhat unwieldy when used in that manner, however, so anchor the putter in a different way by holding your upper arms gently, not locked, against your side and stroke the ball by allowing your arms to slide on your torso.

Having missed all those short putts at Pebble Beach two weeks ago, and now short-putting himself out of the WGC Match Play event, it seems to me that Tiger Woods could benefit by having a belly putter in his bag. We don’t always get to see what he is doing on the green, but at the AT&T we saw one putt looking right down the line and it was a push from the very start. Very uncharacteristic of him. You can link his putting in the past few weeks to how he putted in the Masters last year – lots of short putts missed. Just sayin’.

The Worst Golfer Ever to Win a Major

No pro wants to be known as “The Best Golfer Never to Have Won a Major.” Who that is doesn’t get mentioned lately, but who is the worst golfer ever to win a major never does. Leave it to me to bring it up.

Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who has ever won a major championship is a fantastic golfer and deserves all the credit he gets, or got. But they’re not all Ben Hogan. I’m just asking who is the farthest away from the Jones/Hogan/Nicklaus/Woods line of major winners.

First, we have to know what a major championship is. The four majors played today are not very often, but rightly, referred to as the “modern majors.” Back before the first Masters in 1934, we had the Western Open, played in Chicago, and run by the Western Golf Association, a rival to the United States Golf Association. There was also the North & South, played at Pinehurst. Both of these tournaments were considered majors well into the 1930s. Since we can only evaluate golfers in the context of their time, I’ll include the winners of these two tournaments up through 1945.

We also need to know when to start our examination. The British Open dates back to 1860. I wouldn’t know how to evaluate the 1865 winner, Andrew Strath, for example, who inserted himself in the middle of a 12-year period from 1860 to 1872 when the only winners were Tom Morris (Old and Young) and Willie Park. Strath, for whom the Strath Bunker on #11 at the Old Course is named, has to have been pretty good. The other five tournaments had later starts, but I’m going to wait until 1919, the first year following the close of WW I, to begin the study.

I could write a long essay, but since this is a blog post, I have to get right to the point. You can look up each of these tournaments on Wikipedia to look at the list of winners and draw your own conclusions. These are mine.

Post-WW II:
British Open — Ben Curtis (2003)
United States Open — Orville Moody (1969)
PGA — Shaun Micheel (2003)
The Masters — Larry Mize (1987)

All Time:
British Open — Alf Perry (1935)
United States Open — Sam Parks, Jr. (1935)
PGA — Tom Creavy (1931)
The Masters — Larry Mize (1987)
Western Open — Abe Espinosa (1928)
North & South — Pat O’Hara (1922)

Worst Golfer Ever To Win a Major — Sam Parks, Jr. The 1935 U.S. Open was his only professional victory.

A Few Odds and Ends

Lexi Thompson
We know she can play. She’s the golfer Michelle Wie was supposed to have been. What I’m reading everywhere, though, is the remarkable maturity, poise, and grace that she has. Writers always follow that up with “…for someone who’s only 17.” Well, some people have had it from birth and she’s one of them. She meets the fans, signs autographs until no one is left, and genuinely enjoys it. She has a unique combination of thriving on engaging the public and being a top-notch golfer. You’re looking at the future face of the LPGA, a future which could start this year.

West Coast Swing
This is my favorite time of the tournament year. There are three distinctly different tournaments back to back. The Humana at TPC Scottsdale is a fan-fest, the AT&T (I still want to call it the Crosby) is played on three beautiful courses, and the Northern Trust is held at another old, classic, beautiful course. If the TV cameras showed us only the 10th hole at Riviera, a 315-yard par 4 where you have to work to get your par, and bogeys and doubles are there for the taking, I would have no complaints.

Rocketballz 3-wood
This club is getting heavy advertising on the golf broadcasts. Bloggers who review it just love it and report that this truly is a different club. My son tried out all the 3-woods in the pro shop and found that this one was in a class of its own. Easy to hit off the ground, the ball going straighter and longer, this club seems like a fantasy come true. You could even use this for your driver, losing only a little distance and getting much more accuracy. For once all the talk might not be just hype.

Banning the Belly Putter/Belly Putting
No one said two words when Sergio Garcia choked away the British Open in 2007 with a belly putter. But when Webb Simpson wins twice on the PGA Tour with one, and Keenan Bradley wins a major with one, now it’s a big problem. Get this. Because of two, yes, count ’em, two, golfers, the golfing authorities are in a tizzy about belly putters. The reaction to two golfers who won tournaments they might well have won anyway is endangering the use of this club for the many thousands of amateurs who also use one.

One of the big pushes by the PGA of America is to retain active golfers and get more people started. They have a program called Golf 2.0 for this very purpose, but their partner in this effort, the USGA, is looking askance at belly putters? Maybe incoming USGA president Glen Nager’s first official act should be to say, “The belly putter is fine. We have other things to do with our time,” and move on to more important matters.

2012 is the Year of Tempo
You might not have heard that before, but it’s because I just made it up. I’m calling on all golfers to practice nothing but their rhythm and tempo this year when they hit balls at the range. Tee up everything, even your irons, to take the ground out of play, and put one smooth swing after another on the ball. Many golfers who think they have good rhythm and tempo, don’t. In their head they do, but their conception is flawed. You might even want to get a lesson to check yours. One more thing: learn to align yourself. Many times what you think is a swing flaw is only a subconscious reaction to poor alignment. Get checked out on that, too, when you have your tempo lesson.

Bomb Your Driver
I saw a golf magazine on the rack with the headline Bomb Your Driver in large caps. That sounded like a good idea to me. I have this 8.5-degree driver with a stiff shaft that I bought just to find out what hitting a driver that’s way over my head felt like. You would think two degrees of loft wouldn’t make much difference, but a shot with my my 7-iron hits the ground farther away than with this club. So I got some C4 (do not ask me where), stuck a few dabs on the shaft and one big one on the clubhead, wired it up to a few detonators left over from another project that involved gophers, hid behind the shed, and let ‘er rip. Wow! Carl Spackler’s got nothin’ on me! Left a big hole in my back lawn, though, and the neighbors weren’t too happy. Maybe I should have bought the magazine to find out how the pros do this.

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Can the Slow Play Problem Ever Be Solved?

Last night I was watching The Golf Fix, on which host Michael Breed (bless his heart) gave us his new idea on how to speed up play. He called it One In, One Out, in which you don’t put the club you just used back into the bag until you get up to the ball and are ready to take your next club out. That saves you the time you take fiddling with your bag instead of just getting in your cart and taking off. Multiply that by all the times you fiddle with your bag during the round and you’ll save some time, but he didn’t say how much.

By the way, for readers of this space who do not live in the U.S., the term “bless his/her heart” is code, spoken parenthetically, for saying someone is a complete fool, but without having to actually come out and say that, preserving a veneer of courtesy. It’s used in the southern United States in almost every other sentence.

Note: Michael Breed is not a complete fool. He’s really a pretty smart guy. But I think he’s being a bit optimistic here.

You’ve all been behind two guys in their cart who drive up to a ball, one of them crawls out of the cart, goes to his bag and inventories his clubs, takes one out, takes the clubhead cover off, looks for a place to put it (how about the same place you put it the last ten times), goes to his ball and hits it (we won’t go over the process that entails), saunters back to the bag, looks for the clubhead cover because he forgot where he put it, finds the cover, puts it on the club, pokes around looking for the slot in the bag where he can put the club back in, puts the club back in, looks around, ambles back the cart, crawls in, and moves on. His partner is the same, and these guys are going to sign up for the One In, One Out plan. Right.

The problem with slow play is slow people. They think slowly, they act slowly, they do everything slowly. There is no picking up their pace because they don’t know how to, not from a sense of not knowing the tricks, but because it is part of their constitutional makeup to be slow. Even if they adopted every tip imaginable with every intention of playing faster, they do them slowly and nothing would change. These are not bad people. It’s just who they are. It’s how their brains work. They cannot be rushed.

If the cause of slow play is the basic nature of the player, can anything be done? In tournament play there are penalties that can be assessed. In recreational golf, no. You can ask to play through a slow group ahead of you. If the group ahead is excessively slow and won’t let you play through, you can call the clubhouse and ask for help. Best not to force the issue yourself. Remember, people take this personally.

The best you can do is not be a slow player yourself, just like you don’t use your cell phone while you’re driving. It’s only other people who do that.

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Phil Mickelson Wins the AT&T

Normally I don’t write about golf tournaments. There are enough places on the web where you can read about that. I watched the final round of the AT&T yesterday, though, and I just have to have my say.

We didn’t get to see the action until the Mickelson group was on the ninth green, because the Illinois-Michigan basketball game on CBS went over the scheduled time. By then, the Mickelson-Woods pairing had sorted itself out. Mickelson began the day at -9, Woods at -11. When they walked off the eighth green, it was Mickelson -14, Woods -10. The rout was on.

Woods was putting under ten feet like a 15-handicapper, and continued to do that for the rest of the round. Mickelson, on the other hand, couldn’t miss from anywhere. Woods was hitting fairways, but hitting indifferent irons and never giving himself decent birdie chances. Woods’s moment of hope arose when, trailing by 5 with seven holes to go, he jarred a shot from the bunker for a birdie and a certain two-shot swing on Mickelson, who was facing a par putt of over 30 feet. Phil canned it. Moment of hope over. Tiger picked up only the single stroke and resigned himself to defeat.

On the day, Mickelson was eleven shots better than Woods, and if it had been match play, would have won 7&5. No one beat the old Tiger Woods like that, but the new version could be a different matter. First Robert Rock, now Phil. Tiger is good enough still to contend on Sunday; he hasn’t forgotten how to play golf. He’s not good enough to close the deal, though. Even though Woods was a front-runner, and never a chaser, this performance wasn’t even a valiant try. As for Tiger the Intimidator, Phil played like it was “Tiger Who?”

As for Phil, it seems that he needs to be inspired, and that he certainly was this week. Technically, he switched shafts on his driver and tweaked the clubhead, letting him put ball after ball in the fairway off the tee. His putting was perfect, not only holing the 30-footer mentioned above, but a 40-footer for par two holes later. His irons always found the right part of the green,and his wedge game was razor sharp. Watching him play the back nine at Pebble Beach, we saw an amazing display of one right shot after another.

There was more going on than shotmaking, though. Things in the Mickelson family have been in a bit of turmoil lately. They’re selling their house. Their eldest daughter was ill. He is suing to find the identity of a blogger who posted defaming comments about him and his family. I can only guess that there needed to be something going right, to put something positive in the family arena, and winning a golf tournament would be just the thing.

Phil was focused all day. Not too high, not too low. Once he took the lead on the front nine, there would be no giving it back. It was a good win for golf, a great win for the Mickelsons, which, considering the context, might be looked back on as important as one of his major titles.

Golf needs a star to emerge this year. One swallow does not spring make, but I’m hoping Lefty follows up this win with a tremendous year.

Jessica Korda Wins in Australia

I’ve written about this before, but on the golf course, you never give up. Never. You just don’t know that’s going to happen next. Jessica Korda stayed with it and won a major tournament (at least I think it is) on a difficult golf course.

Paula Creamer won the U.S. Women’s Open in 2010 at Oakmont. This, to me, is different from winning the same tournament on a course you’ve never heard of. Now Korda can always regard winning the Women’s Australian Open at Royal Melbourne, one of the world’s classic golf courses, as a major achievement in her career.

I watched the taped broadcast from the start on Sunday morning, but there was something odd that I couldn’t explain. With two hours of air time available, we opened with the leaders on #15. We should have been picking them up at #10. Little did I know what was coming.

Korda was playing well at -5, poised to cruise in for the win. But three straight bogeys on #14-16 dropped her to -2, two shots back of the leaders at -4, with two holes to go. Right here is where you decide whether you want to win or lose. She birdied the par-5 seventeenth to go one back. Then standing in the eighteenth fairway, she saw co-leaders So Yeon Ru and Hee Kyung Seo miss short par putts to fall back to -3.

You can’t count on getting a birdie on #18, but Korda tried and missed a long but makable birdie try to tie with the disappointed duo ahead of her. Stacy Lewis, Brittany Lincicome, and Julieta Granada had all finished at -3, too, so we had a 6-way tie for first and a playoff.

Joining Ru and Seo in the race for Most Disappointed Player had to be Lincicome, who had a three-footer on the first playoff hole for the win, but the Royal Melbourne greens being what they are, that’s not a gimmee. The announcer said the putt would break slightly right to left. Lincicome must not have seen that, because the ball broke just that way, hit the rim, circled the cup, and stayed out.

We could also mention the disappointed Stacey Lewis, who, at -7 on Friday, drove off fourteen into the primeval rough that lines Royal Melbourne fairways, had to take an unplayable lie, and ended up with a triple bogey. She had two rounds to recover those strokes, but you don’t get to do that on this course.

Yani Tseng? She finished two back in regulation, despite getting bitten twice, carding a quad on Friday and a triple Sunday morning. Good players don’t make those kinds of scores, but they do here.

Long story short, the playoff consisted of playing #18, a 398-yard par 4, as many times as it took to get a winner. All six players parred the first time, through, but you have to figure that when the hole gets played twelve times by golfers of this caliber a birdie has to crop up somewhere. So indeed, the second time through, Korda canned a 25-footer for the win.

Again. Never give up. You have to keep hitting your shots, because that makes the other players have to keep hitting theirs, too, and you never know.

Tiger Woods Weighs In On Anchored Putting

We’ve all been waiting for the shoe to drop in this issue, and yesterday, it did. Tiger Woods stated that the belly putter does not square with what he feels to be “implicit in the art of putting,” which is a “controlling the body and club and swinging the pendulum motion.” Fair enough. That’s a pretty good description of all the elements you need to hit a ball, lying on the ground, with a club, and have a reasonable idea of where the ball is going to go.

What that has to do with belly putters, though, is beyond me. The motion Woods describes is an exact description of both the way Woods putts and the way Webb Simpson putts. If you wanted to distinguish between the two styles, that description doesn’t make the distinction. I willing to let that go as him saying what he thinks, and he can certainly put in his two cents just like the next fellow.

Woods, however, does not want to solve the problem by outlawing anchoring a putter against a player’s body. He wants to eliminate belly putting by regulating the length of the club, and that is an entirely different matter.

“My idea was to have it so that the putter would be equal to or less than the shortest club in your bag,” Woods said. “And I think with that we’d be able to get away from any type of belly anchoring.”

Yes, we would, but that would at the same time take the game away from thousands of golfers who have a difficult time with short clubs. I take this personally, because one of those golfers could be me.

[Note: The Rules of Golf say: “The overall length of the club must be at least 18 inches (0.457 m) and, except for putters, must not exceed 48 inches (1.219 m).” Why woods, hybrid irons, irons, and wedges may continue to be constrained by the 48-inch limit, but a putter could not, can be discussed, but separately.]

Last week I had surgery on my spine to correct an urgent condition. In three months I am going to have another spine operation to correct something else. I have known for years that all this would would have to happen sometime, and now is the time. What I am concerned about is the future.

I am hoping to be back out on the course in July, at least chipping and putting. I would like to putt with my 48″ split-grip putter that for most golfers would be a belly putter, but since I’m 6’6″ tall, is merely a different putter. It does let me stand up straight when I putt, though, and that is a big help to me over using a putter that was built for someone a foot shorter than I am. Essentially, it lets me putt like everyone else does. This putter lets me play.

My personal concern is over where my back will take me in the coming decades. If Woods’s plan gets adopted, will I have to give up golf if the time comes that I can’t bend over enough to putt with a putter that is required to be shorter than I can manage without discomfort? Could the rules of golf be changed such that a large class of golfers might be shut out of the game?

In all the discussion of belly putters, you keep hearing, “They’re not fair.” Well, Woods’s plan is not fair. This not just his game. It’s my game too, and shutting me out, and others like me, in this way is not fair.

I have written about belly putters in previous posts, and likely will write more about them this year when two more major tournaments are won by players using them. But this plan, this one needs to be deep-sixed. If the belly putter is harmful to golf, then Woods’s club-length plan could be fatal to many of us.

My Two Golf Bags

I like to have fun with the clubs I choose for my bag. A particular makeup means that you have to play the game in a patricular way. There’s no harm in that, and it makes it more fun to mix things up every so often. It makes you create, and the rewards of doing that successfully are great.

This is my short bag: driver, 2H, 4H, 7i, PW, SW, putter. I play pretty well with just these seven clubs. If you only think before you hit, there really isn’t any shot that you can’t pull off. It’s just not automatic. Seven clubs make the bag a lot lighter to carry, too.

This is my long bag: driver, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6-9i, PW, GW, SW, LW, putter. I look at the length of the longest par 3 I will be playing today and take the 2H or 3H as appropriate, leaving the other at home. Four wedges give me lots of pitching flexibility, and make chipping formulaic.

I have felt for many years that I won’t put clubs in my bag because a manufacturer wants me to. They go in because there is a reason.

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Short Game Style

I watched almost the entire broadcast of the Waste Management Open from TPC Scottsdale this weekend. That much golf made a strong impression on me in one regard. When a player had to chip onto the green from about 5-20 yards, he would, far more often than not, get the ball in the air just enough to land it on the green for it run the rest of the way to the hole. Only in a few cases where there was no other choice did anyone fly the ball up to the hole so it could land and stop. Even Phil played chip and run.

I noticed, too, this last summer when I went to the LPGA’s Safeway Classic in Portland. Everyone was running the ball up to the hole if the option was there.

It wasn’t hard to see why, after a time. They’re not trying to get the ball close to the hole. They want it to go in. A rolling ball has a much greater chance of doing that than a ball that comes out of the sky and bounces a few times. They want their chips to approach the hole, instead, like a putt.

Now throwing the ball up there with a lofted wedge and having it land two feet away is impressive. You get lots of “Nice shot!” comments from your playing partners. The pros, even though they could stop it two feet away all day, clearly don’t think they can make a living with that shot, so they don’t use it unless they have to. Neither, I suspect, should you.

Part of the problem is that we have the idea that pros do all their chipping with a lob wedge or a sand wedge, so that’s what we want to do, too. Maybe a few of them do, but that’s not what I saw on TV. I saw them use just enough club to get the ball in the air and many times you could easily tell that they were using 7-irons, 8-irons.

If you’re a flyer, even though you’re good enough to get up and down, consider that you might be eliminating the chance of the “up” being the only stroke you need to make. There are lots of things about professional golf concerning the swing that many of us will never be able to do because of the vast differences in physical talents and abilities between them and us, but anybody can play the short game the way they do. And running the ball is how they play it.

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