In Golf, the Hole Is the Only Thing

I started playing golf when I was 10 years old, but I knocked a golf ball around the back yard much earlier than that. My father had some wood-shafted clubs in the basement and a few balls which he let me hit over a little course which he laid out by setting tin cans set in the lawn for holes.

I would put the ball on the ground and think of one thing only: get the ball in the hole. I was too young to think about technique, taking too many shots, anything like that. All I wanted to do was get the ball in the hole, and that’s what I thought about with a child’s singe-minded intensity.

I remember that feeling even today, when I get too caught up in how I’m hitting a shot instead of why. The purpose of what I am about to do is to get the ball in the hole. There is no other.

That’s why, when I make adjustments to my chipping stroke because of an unusual situation, and I think only of the adjustments, the shot isn’t always satisfactory. When I look at the situation and adjust my setup and stroke with the hole in mind, I come up with some pretty interesting stuff and it works a lot more often.

Golf isn’t about making good shots, or doing what we practiced last time at the range. At the moment you tee up the ball you should be thinking only about how this shot will help you get the ball in the hole, because that’s what golf is about.

I’m lucky. I have this uncluttered memory of pure golf that only a child can play to fall back on. It’s not an intellectual thing. It’s a relentless, desperate attraction to the hole with which nothing else has a chance to compete.

Don’t think that I am not in favor of technique. Good technique will get the ball in the hole quicker than bad. My grandson has taken lessons and I help him on the course with a few suggestions, but only when things aren’t going well at all.

I try my best, though, to make sure that play doesn’t get confused with practice. When we practice, technique matters. When we play, only the hole matters.

That lets you hit any shot without fear, make mistakes without remorse, and play offensive golf for the entire round. And that’s a fun way to play.


A Golf Swing Test

In an earlier post, I talked about learning how to hit your pitching wedge and building that swing throughout your set, one club at a time. This is not an idea I cooked up and just wrote about. I actually did it, and it works great.

To show you the benefit of getting on that program, try this exercise. Play eighteen holes with just your 9-iron and your putter. What you’re going to do is skip the tee shot on the par 4s and 5s and walk toward the green until you get to the distance from it that you hit your 9-iron, say, 125 yards. Drop a ball, hit on, and putt out.

The goal of the exercise is to hit as many greens as you can. Ten would be a good number. If it is significantly less than that, either practice with your 9-iron until you can hit ten, or get a lesson from a PGA professional and learn how to hit a 9-iron.

If you did get ten or more, try it again with your 8-iron. Keep progressing, out to about 175 yards, until you find the club that you can’t hit greens with. Then start working with that club.

I know, I’m asking you to go to the course and not hit your driver or all the other clubs, nor turn in a score. Consider this exercise to be tuition in the College of Golf.

On the other hand, this is also how I play golf when I go out with my grandson, and it’s kind a fun way to get around the course for a change. I think you’ll like it, too.

There is an additional benefit to the exercise. You will learn a lot about hitting greens, because that’s the only thing on your mind. You will start hitting the ball with a controlled swing that puts the ball where you want it. You might cut down your distance a bit as you raise your accuracy. That’s all right.

You can take from now until March to go through this project. There’s no hurry. There are so many shots we have to hit in golf, that it gets overwhelming trying to maintain all of them. So simplify for a while. Just work on one club at a time and give it the attention it probably never had before.


Lightning on the Golf Course

I live in a part of the country where a lightning storm is as rare as hen’s teeth. Many of you are more vulnerable to this dangerous occurrence.

A reader of this space sent me an article last week about a tragic accident on a golf course when a golfer was killed by a lighting strike. The stricken individual unfortunately failed to heed two lightning safety regulations by standing under a tree and pushing his metal golf cart. The photo below shows what was left of his golf cart and clubs.

The temperature of a lighting bolt is, according to reliable sources, over 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. You have no chance if struck.

The inside back cover of the USGA rule book contains vital advice about what to do if you are caught on the golf course when lightning is in the area.

1. A large permanent building (and get inside).
2. A fully enclosed metal vehicle (car, van, pickup truck).
3. A low elevation area (like a bunker).

1. Tall object (trees, poles).
2. Small rain and sun shelters.
3. Large open areas, wet areas, or elevated greens.
4. All metal objects (including golf clubs, golf carts, fences, electrical machinery, and power lines)

If you are caught in a lightning storm without warning, your group should spread out, get away from your clubs, squat down in a ball, tuck your head, and cover your ears (get low and get round). You cannot remain standing. When you do, you turn yourself into a lightning rod.

Do not take lightning lightly. If you can see lightning, start taking precautions. Visit the National Lightning Safety Institute for more information.


Hit the Golf Ball Forward, Not Up

Beginning golfers haven’t learned yet to trust the club to get the ball in the air. It is not unusual for them to try lifting the ball in the air as they hit it. If they learn golf the right way, that is, by taking lessons, this tendency will be eliminated quickly.

Many golfers do not take lessons, though, and have retained this insidious habit. It is called flipping, and I’ll bet you know someone who does it. This flaw leads both to topping the ball and hitting it fat in the full swing, and to dumping short chips and pitches in front of their objective when close to the pin.

The cure is to learn how to drive the ball forward. By drive, I don’t mean hit it with your driver, but impel the ball straight forward.

That’s how you hit the ball, by the way, on all but the most specialized shots. You hit it forward. The loft of the club takes care of the getting-it-in-the-air part.

If this is your habit, try this drill to fix it. Hit some medium-length chips firmly with an 8-iron. Figure on the ball landing about fifty feet away. The drill is to make sure the club shaft and your left arm are in a straight line when you hit the ball, and they stay that way in the follow-through. I chose such a short shot to make it easy to keep your left arm from wanting to fold.

This will give you the idea of driving the ball forward, which prevents the right hand from flipping under in a (pointless) attempt to get the ball in the air.

When you get this down, you can hit longer shots and include a body turn so you can follow through farther but still keep the arm-shaft line straight. As your swing lengthens, the left arm will have to start folding after the ball has been struck, but if you have done your work with the short shots, that arm will stay straight as the club goes through the ball.

Hit through the ball in this short way a lot. A whole lot. Over time, you will replace the flipping habit with a habit of keeping your wrists in the correct position at impact.


Why Ball Position is Important in Golf

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about Ball Position, in which I explained how to find the right ball position. I did not explain why you should do this.

Last week my son had a golf lesson in which the instructor corrected his ball position, which Son never paid any attention to, despite my harping on this detail almost every time we go to the range together.

So maybe I need to explain why it’s so important, and why, after you are set up to the ball, I could move it a half inch and ruin your shot just by doing that much

Your swing is an arc. The bottom of the arc needs to hit the ground at a certain point. Where that point is, is the subject of another post. Let’s just say that it would be very helpful if you could hit that spot on the ground every time. Then, if you put the ball in the right spot relative to the ground-hitting spot every time, you would get good contact every time (all other things being equal).

That is the reason why ball position is so important. When your ball is in a different place every time, you have to disrupt the swing you want to make in order find the ball. This is why I could move the ball a half inch and ruin your shot, because the ball position no longer matches the arc your swing mechanics create.

Most golfers play the ball too far forward, which means they have to reach out for the ball instead of swinging through it. Remember that golf is not a hit-the-ball game. It’s a swing-the-club game, with the ball getting in the way.

The next time you go to the range, take your alignment sticks and set up as shown in the photo. The stick between your feet always points to the ball. Your heels always go in the same place relative to the sticks. Learn (a) what the right position for your feet relative to the ball is, and (b) how to set up with the ball in that position every time.

It is true that specialty shots will find you placing the ball differently. They are all variations of the basic position, though. You need to know what your basic position is before you can vary it successfully.

For example, if I asked you to play the ball one ball back for some reason, I would mean from your standard ball position. You would need to know what that standard position is before you could make sense of my request.


Bonus Post: TRG’s Facebook Page

Now that summer is over and the golf season is winding down, I have gone to posting twice a week instead of three times. You can, however, get a daily dose of The Recreational Golfer at my new Facebook page.

Every day, at Facebook’s The Recreational Golfer page, you’ll get a tip, or a comment on the current golfing scene, in 50 words or less.

I know you wait on pins and needles for my posts in this space, but now you can start off every day with a visit to the TRG world.

So pay a visit and let’s start building a recreational golf community on Facebook. While you’re there, do me a big favor and click the Like button.

Practical Note-Taking For Golfers

I encourage you to make notes when you get home after a round of what shots worked and which didn’t, along with a suggested fix. This is how you learn to play the game, and get a book on your course.

I played nine holes two days ago on Tuesday, just chipping and putting, since it’s still far to soon for me to be swinging a club. I dropped a ball beside the green and played away. This is what I wrote down:

1. 56 from front center to pin in front middle. OK
2. Flop from left side to a tight pin too short. Work on this shot.
3. PW from the fringe beside the right side bunker to a back pin. OK
4. Bump off a left side bank with one more club than the distance would indicate.
5. 60 from the right side to a pin at bottom of slope. OK
6. 56 from left side to back pin. OK
7. Another flop too short from left side to front pin.
8. 8 from 6 yds in front to back pin OK
9. 52 from front hillside. OK

Now this might not mean much to you, and but that’s all right. They’re notes to myself which I can use next time, because I made diagram of each green in a flip notebook. All this information is now marked down on the digram of each green, along with notations made from previous rounds. When I play this course, I just have to consult my notebook and find out what to do. No guessing. Simple.


Fred’s Back, Tiger’s Back, Your Back

Several weekends ago, two prominent golfers succumbed to back pain. Fred Couples withdrew from a Senior Tour event after hitting one shot. He described the pain as nothing he had felt before. Tiger Woods minced around the course in obvious pain, finding it it hard to walk at times, and difficult to bend over so he could tee up the ball and get it out of the cup, most of the time.

With Fred, this could be the last straw. His hyper-flexible swing caught up with him years ago. The back treatments he gets in Europe aren’t working any more. The last one he had was in July before the Senior British Open when he won. The treatment carried him through about four weeks.

If he continues to play he could be setting himself up for a serious disability in his advanced years. I hope he thinks hard about his next steps. He has achieved great things in competitive golf so far. If he continues playing, he might likely pay a high price for more success that, in the end, would add little to his list of achievements.

Tiger said his back pain was due to sleeping on a bed that was too soft. That may well be the case, though with Tiger’s history of hiding his ailments, there might be more to the matter than the wrong mattress.

Even if it is only a matress, Tiger is at the age where his body is susceptible to daily life giving his back fits. He’s also at the age where the wear and tear of hitting so many golf balls can begin to have an adverse affect on his back’s health. We’ll see.

Then there’s you. Professional golfers put little strain on their back because their swing is so efficient. Their back problems come from overuse (see Tiger, above). Recreational golfers, on the other hand, injure their back because of faulty technique. The wrong muscles are put into play, which puts a strain on the spine that it cannot tolerate for long.

I would suggest these things concerning your back’s health:

1. It’s O.K. for your left heel to come off the ground. In fact, it’s a good thing, because is reduces the strain that the twisting motion of the backswing places on your lower spine.

2. Having a large X factor is a bad idea. That’s the size of the angle between your hips and your shoulders at the top of the backswing. Too great an angle sets up your spine for serious strain when you swing through the hitting area. You don’t have to swing to parallel to be effective or to hit a long ball.

3. Just like Julius Boros said, you can swing easy and hit hard. The women on the LPGA Tour, these little slips of a thing, hit the ball a lot farther than you do because of their mechanics. Their swing is efficient. If you build an efficient swing, you don’t have to swing so hard to get the distance you need. The main thing I can learn from Rory McIlroy’s swing is how to hurt myself. I’ll copy Suzann Pettersen’s swing and be just fine.

Take care of your back. Warm up well before you hit balls, either at the range or the course. Swing within yourself. Have a lesson on swinging with back safety–the pro should be able to help you. You want golf to enhance your life, not make it more difficult.

Update: Oh, my, Department: Couples described this latest incident “as a bomb going off in my back.” His business manager said it was just another flareup and “He’s got a lot more tournaments left. He’s not done for the year, not even close.” – Golfworld, September 10, 2010

Retief Goosen had back surgery recently to treat pain and will be out indefinitely. – Golfweek, September 7, 2012.