Melding Rhythm and Tempo

As I search for ways to play better golf, and pass my findings on to you, I never stop looking for ways to integrate rhythm and tempo into my swing.

I have suggested ways to find the 3:1 rhythm, and ways to find your right tempo, which varies from player to player. But these cannot be learned separately and then put together. You could get very good at swinging with a 3:1 rhythm, but if you move to a new tempo, your rhythm can break down. You would have to re-learn 3:1 all over again. Rhythm and tempo must be learned simultaneously as a unified pair by using the same exercise.

About a month ago I found a copy of John Novosel’s book, Tour Tempo, at a used book sale. This book teaches you the 3:1 rhythm at different tempi. (The book should really be titled, Tour Rhythm, by the way.) By swinging along with any one of the audio files, you are learn rhythm and tempo together.

There is on problem with these files, though. Only three discrete tempi are given, and none of them might be suitable for you. The slowest one, 27/9 (3:1 ratio) is too slow for me, and the next fastest one, 24/8, is too fast. These integer-based selections are the result of Novosel playing a video of a swing frame by frame and counting frames. Yet, a tempo of 25.892/8.631 might be just the ticket. And it’s still 3:1.

You can’t solve this problem by getting a feel for the 3:1 rhythm and then modifying it in your head as you swing. It is too easy to adjust your counting to your swing instead of adjusting your swing to the correct count. Musicians practice with a metronome* to prevent that from happening with their instrument.

There is a simple solution, though. If you have Windows Media Player** on your computer, you can adjust the speed settings to almost whatever you want. Then, you could play the TT audio files, say the 27/9 one, and speed it up bit by bit until you find the tempo you like. Or, you could start with 24/8 and slow it down. Either way would work. You can write down the new speed setting that WMP shows you so you can go back to it again.

I strongly recommend you use the TT audio files to get this vital technique built into your swing. Swinging with correct, unified rhythm and tempo is one of the best golfing habits you can have. It forgives many sins.

* A metronome, though, is inadequate for this task. The metronome must be set so there is a tick at the moment you start the club down from the top, and the next tick must be when the ball is struck. This is the 1 part of 3:1. The 27/9 tempo corresponds to a metronome setting of 200. The highest setting on a metronome is 208, which yields a rhythm of 25.95/8.65. If you need to go faster, you’re stuck.

** If you have Mac, you can use VLC, but that only produces discrete, not continuous, speed adjustments.

To Be In Position

I was hitting plastic balls at my backyard driving range earlier today, and just not getting the results I wanted. Everything was a hair fat. So I moved the ball a half inch back in my stance. Bingo.

One of Ken Venturi’s basic teaching precepts is that players do not get out of swing, the get out of position. Put them back into position and the swing comes back. So many times it isn’t the swing that needs correcting, it’s the position.

This means grip, stance, posture, and ball position. Grip: where do the Vs point? How many knuckles do you see? Stance: how far apart are your feet? To where do the toes point? Posture: How much do your knees bend? How much does your back or neck bend? How far apart are your elbows? Ball position: how far from the ball do you stand? Where is the ball from front to back of your stance?

Practice these. Actually practice them. Get in and out of your setup and learn your position well enough so that you never have to find it — you get into it automatically.

This will solve so many problems before they start.

Golf Is a “Next Shot” Game

Many people play golf by hitting the ball, finding it, and figuring out what to do next. They make golf a “this shot” game. Golf is better played by thinking about the shot after this one.

An easy example to make this clear is the second shot on a par-5 hole. You can either hit the ball as far as you can to get on the green with whatever is left over, or you can figure out what shot you want to hit into the green, then play your second shot to set up that one.

The general rule is to play this shot so as to make the next shot as easy and productive as possible.

Owning Your Swing

It is said that only two golfers have ever owned their swing — Ben Hogan and Moe Norman. Actually, Lee Trevino had a pretty good idea what he was doing, as did Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Bruce Lieztke, and about a hundred other players I could name.

You can own your swing, too. A – it’s not that hard to do, and B – you need to do it to play consistent golf.

By owning your swing, I don’t mean you know what you’re doing down to the gnat’s eyelash. I do mean that when you’re not striking the ball well, you have some checkpoints you can review to get back on track.

The Six Fundamentals are my checkpoints. They don’t have to be yours, but you should know something about your swing along the order of, “I forgot to do this,” and when you get back to doing “this”, the problem is solved.

The goal is to bring the club into the ball on a path toward the target, with the clubface square to that path, on the proper trajectory, and making contact on the center of the clubface.

Everything you do contributes to all that happening, or not. So you have to investigate how to do those four things, one at a time, and also what you do that gets in the way of doing those things.

This takes careful study. It means breaking down your swing into parts that move the club correctly and learning what the feeling of those correct movements are.

Then you develop your own keys — the checkpoints you have to hit to make it all work.

Don’t expect to have this figured out in a few weeks. It might take a lot longer than that, and a few lessons along the way won’t hurt.

But it’s like this. If you hit a really good shot and you can’t explain to yourself how it happened, you have some work to do. And I know you can do it.

How the Fingers Keep the Clubface Square

Ben Hogan, in his book, Five Lessons, called the right thumb and forefinger “potential swing-wreckers.” He even recommended the average golfer practice swinging the club with these two fingers entirely off the handle.

For the advanced golfer, however, he said those fingers were “finesse fingers,” used “for touch in striking the ball.”

Unfortunately, Hogan did not tell us how these fingers could be used in the way advanced golfers use them. I guess he left that to me. So here goes.

The human brain devotes a lot of space to the use of the hands. A great deal of that space is devoted in turn to the thumb and forefinger of the dominant hand, which are used for fine manipulation of objects they hold. The brain can be taught to do amazing things with these fingers.

One of the things they can be taught to do is control the clubface during the golf swing. It works this way.

Press the thumb tip of your dominant hand lightly into the middle of the adjoining forefinger (photo). This is where the handle of the golf club fits into your grip.

Now pick up a golf club, and assume your grip, reproducing the light pressure of the thumb against the finger, but now with the handle in between. It feels to me like I am holding the club with only these two fingers, the rest of the grip being there just for support.

The trick now is to swing the club in such a way that when you return to impact, these two fingers are in the same orientation that they had at address.

You monitor this by feel. Rotate these two fingers slightly to the left. This is a different feeling in those fingers, of the clubface closing. If instead you turn these fingers lightly to the right, this is the feeling of an open clubface.

To make this concept a dynamic reality, make half swings over and over, concentrating on the feeling in the thumb and forefinger not changing at any time. Stop the club at impact periodically to make sure the clubface is staying square. Make longer swings only after you have a firm idea of what you are to do.

Very important point. All these fingers do is preserve the orientation of the clubface. If you try to do anything else with them, such as guide the club, or hit the ball, it’s curtains for that shot. You’ve fulfilled the Hogan prophecy.

There is more to hitting a straight shot than just this, such as swing plane and pivot, but this is one part that is easy to master. Practice this feeling until it becomes automatic and you don’t even notice that you’re doing it.

A Couple of Things

I didn’t post last Sunday, like I usually do, because I could’t think of anything to say. While not having anything to say doesn’t stop some people from saying it anyway, I’m not one of those.

I got out a golf book this morning and started reading through it to see if I could find some inspiration. Which I did. Here are a couple of things that crossed my mind.

1. When you start the club back away from the ball, do so slowly at first, and smoothly. Do not snatch it away. The reasons are, one, that if you take the club back too quickly, you can pull it off the desired plane. Then you have to get it back on plane sometime before you hit the ball, which complicates the swing unnecessarily. And if you aren’t aware that you’re off plane, well, good luck.

The other reason is that jerking the club away makes you reflexively tighten your grip. That puts tension in your swing from the very start which will only build as the swing progresses — something you do not want to happen.

2. Everybody has their own swing. It is based on your strength, your flexibility, your athleticism, your physique, and your basic conception of how to swing a stick to hit a ball. Because of these factors, there are things about your swing that are less than ideal but which you cannot change. These are not swing flaws, these are just you.

There are, however, mistakes you can be making that you don’t have to. They need to be corrected, and they can be. Your improvement will accelerate when you have figured out the difference between your natural tendencies and your plain old errors. Then you can fix what can be fixed and leave what cannot be fixed, alone.

Fear of the Ground

I don’t think many recreational golfers ever get over the hardest thing they had to do when they first took up the game — being able to hit the ball and only the ball.

The ball is so small, as is the tool you use to hit it. If the club meets the ball just a bit too high, you risk blading it. A bit too low and you hit the ground first.

It is this second miss that haunts us and stays with us for years. The ground is in the way and we’re afraid of hitting down there instead of the ball.

Unrecognized and unaddressed, this fear is what does the most to prevent recreational golfers from playing the good golf they are otherwise capable of.

Take this self test. At the range, take out your 6-iron and hit a ball that is sitting on a tee, maybe just a quarter inch above the mat. You’re likely thinking about how easy the ball will be to hit and how good the shot is going to be.

Now put a ball on the mat. If, when you address the ball, your thinking changes, if you think you have to hit the ball precisely right to get a good shot, you have the fear.

You’ve changed your thinking from, “Oh, boy, this is going to be a good shot,” to, “Oh, brother, I hope this works.”

To get over fear of the ground, practice without it. Tee up every ball when you practice full swings and pitches.

Don’t worry, this is not cheating. It’s teaching your unconscious mind that the ground isn’t there. Over time, you come to believe that, freeing yourself to take unfettered swings at the ball.

Swing Thoughts

When you’re standing over the ball, ready to take the club away, there’s something going through your head. What that is will either make your shot easier, or harder.

Imagine a playing partner standing beside you as you’re addressing the ball, giving you all sorts of little reminders. Swing smoothly. Let your weight shift. Swing through the ball. Nice finish.

How long would you put up with that? One time, tops. So there’s no reason to do that to yourself. The reminders you give yourself as you’re about to swing, or during your swing, are destructive. They divide your swing into parts, when it should be thought of as one whole movement.

Sometimes a technical swing thought can pay off, but unless you spend hours on the practice tee and play frequently they can be risky. Besides, that’s just not how the game is played. Cary Middlecoff quotes Ben Hogan:

Hogan was recently asked what specific thought went through his mind just before he started his swing. “All I think about is trying to knock the damn ball in the hole,” said Hogan.

“Oh,” said his questioner. “I thought maybe you used some sort of mental gimmick like starting the club back with your hands, or staying in the backswing plane, or something like that.”

“No,” said Hogan. “You have to work all that stuff out on the practice tee.”

So what do you think about? What should be going through your mind? It is the feeling of what you are about to do. Not what the technical points are, but what the swing feels like as a unified whole when all the technical points are performed correctly. That’s what to teach yourself on the practice tee.

When it’s time to play, take a practice swing that is rhythmic, graceful, flowing, and ends with a firm, stable finish, concentrating on what your swing as one movment feels like in its entirety. Then step up to the ball and duplicate that swing before your mind has a chance to go wandering off in another direction.

Your conscious mind is always looking for something to do. Make sure you give it the right task when it’s time to hit your golf ball.

Arrive

To have a chance at a par, your shot into the green has to get there. It has to arrive. Where it’s appropriate, for shots you intend to hit the green, be they approaches from the fairway or pitches from closer in, play to hit the ball past the pin. This is the scoring zone.

Most greens are deeper than you think. If you think you have a 6-iron to the pin, hit the 5. That choice guarantees you will fly the hazards around the green, which are usually in front. It allows for your average shot to get to the pin, rather than depending on your best shot. Taking the longer club corrects the tendency to under-club.

There are some greens that are so steep from back to front that hitting the ball past the hole is the last thing you want to do. Play to the pin and if you end up short, that’s all to the good.

But most of the time, don’t worry about being long. Unless you know the pin is way in the back, there’s lots of room behind it. Arrive.

Little Differences That Make a Big Difference in How Well You Play