Your Golfer’s Back

Everyone who plays golf is an athlete. Golfers make movements specific to the game which have little to do with how they move in daily life. Part of learning to play golf is learning how to make those movements to play effectively. The other part is learning to how to make those movements to avoid injury.

Golf injuries of the lower back have been extensively studied. The lower back is stressed most in making a swift and violent turn into the ball on the downswing. Current swing theory directs that the difference between the hip turn and shoulder turn on the backswing. The greater the difference, the more the lower back is loaded with unnatural pressure. The inconsistent swing which is characteristic of recreational golfers can cause a sudden, unexpected, and excessive load to be applied to the lower back. A lack of physical fitness leaves the body unable to resist these stresses which leaves the body open to injury.

My lower back is in terrible shape, yet I have played pain-free golf for years. This is how I do it. Please consider these ideas for yourself, regardless of the state of your back.

The foundation of my full swing is tempo. Tempo is the speed at which the hips turn. It must be the same swinging back and swinging down. When the tempo of the hip turn stays constant, not only do you hit the ball better, but you prevent sudden stresses from being applied.

I take my stance by bending from my hips, not from my waist. Bending from your waist throws weight onto the lower back.

On the backswing, I turn my hips so the maximum difference between my hip turn and shoulder turn is about 20 degrees. (Professional golfers have a difference of 45 degrees or more.)

My swing itself is led by a full body turn and powered by holding on to my wrist set until the momentum of the downswing naturally releases the clubhead into the ball. I see so many recreational players lurch into the ball as a way of hitting hard, that I wonder just when the shoe is going to drop, if it hasn’t already.

Your finish position can subject your back to considerable twisting. I would recommend that hold your finish position infrequently as a check, and never routinely when practicing or playing. Always release yourself to a neutral upright position with your hands in front of you as you watch the ball, just like Phil does.

In addition, you can do these things to protect your back.

Warm up carefully. Stretch and turn lightly and gently before you even pick up a club. Begin to swing by taking a driver and making long, slow, and I mean slow, swings, to gradually warm up your turning muscles.

Start going through your bucket by hitting a few pitches with a half swing. Work your way through the bag from your short clubs up to your driver.

During the round, stretch out every four holes or so. You make a full swing only every few minutes and you can stiffen up before the round is over.

Walk around the course with your clubs on a pull cart. Carrying your clubs compresses the spine. Riding in a cart can subject your spine to impact stresses when the cart goes over bumps.

Golf is our recreation, not our livelihood. Play it so it introduces joy into your life instead of pain.



Many players write down not only their score on their scorecard, but notes on the quality and quantity of different shots. They might take note of whether their drive finished in the fairway or not. Whether they hit the green in the regulation number of strokes (GIR). How many putts, and so on, and adding on whatever level of detail they can make use of.

Here is a system to try. It’s easy to mark down, easy to read and interpret. For each hole, write down three numbers: the number of full swings (FS), short shots (SS), and putts (P). Make a note of penalty shots and recovery shots, but don’t put them in any of your counts.

The number of full swings on a hole should equal par minus two, though on par 5s, your third might be a pitch. Every time you miss a green there will be a short shot. For example, 202 is a green hit in regulation, but 211 means you missed the green and made par with an up and down.

There should be only one short shot per hole. Short shots plus putts should add up to two per hole. No fours! 211, good. 212 OK, 222 bad.

Three-putt greens (213) generally mean your approach putting is weak. One-putt greens are usually the back end of a short shot and show your short putting is strong (211 or even better, 201).

For the round, if full swings add up to 40 or less, or if short shots plus putts add up to the same, that’s pretty good. If either of these totals are 45 or more, get to work! Ideally, the short shot total would be zero, but less than nine is pretty fine. 32 putts is a good goal. 38 or more is telling.

By looking at the totals (FS, SS, SS+P, P) over time, trends might emerge. The number of full swings going down indicates improvement in their overall quality. Further improvement would be indicated by a lower number of short shots. A decrease in the number of putts could mean improved putting or improved short shots. Practice everything, but spend most of your time at the range on the number that isn’t going down.

After you get home, you can write down every shot and record the particulars according to this system. Keep it simple while you’re playing.

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

What’s In My Bag

In every golfing magazine these days you can read about what clubs are in a touring pro’s bag. Here’s what’s in my recreational set.

Driver – Titleist 975D, 11.5°, regular flex shaft. Bought used for $89. Would a fitted driver do me better? Probably, but I hit this one pretty darn good and the difference in price between it and a new one costing $399 equals a lot of extra green fees.

Hybrid irons – Hogan Edge CFT, 2(19°), 3(21°), and 4(24°), and 5(27°). The 2 gives me the same distance off a tee as the fairway wood I used to carry, and I hit it much better off the fairway. The 4 is my bread and butter club. When I take it out of the bag I know something good is going to happen. Replace your long irons with hybrids. I don’t care how well you hit your long irons, hybrids are so easy to hit it’s almost cheating. I can still hit a 5-iron, but the 5-hybrid is so much easier, why not?

Irons – Hogan Apex Red Line, 6-E(PW). Blades, beautiful and responsive. The pitching wedge is labeled E. Hogan called his pitching wedge his equalizer, because, he said, if you can pitch, there is no pin they can hide from you. The shafts are plus one inch because of my height (6’6”), and the heads were bent a few degrees upright.

Wedges – Titlist Vokey Spin Milled 52°/10°, 60°/8°, and Hogan 56°/8° Sure-Out. The numbers on the Titleist wedges are the loft and bounce. These lofts give me a consistent six-degree difference throughout my wedge set. Their shafts are plus one inch. The Sure-Out has a huge hunk of metal underneath the clubface. If I have to hit out of tall grass, this clubhead will not be denied. Loft unknown; doesn’t matter, really.

Putter – Ping G2 Tess. It’s fitted with a 38” shaft, is more upright than normal, and is toe balanced. It has a simple design because I don’t want to look at something that came off a spaceship when I putt.

Ball – Bridgestone e5. Distance? My swing takes care of that. Throw this ball at the pin from 30 yards, though, and it hits the green and slams on the brakes.

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

The Fifteen-Foot Putt

Data from, published in the July 2009 issue of Golf Digest magazine, stated that the distance from which the average high 80s shooter is as likely to one-putt as to three-putt is fifteen feet. What can we make of this factoid?
Let’s look at how professionals perform from that distance. Data compiled for forty golfers playing in a 72-hole invitational tournament, and presented in the book The Search For The Perfect Swing, show that of 152 putts played from a range of twelve-eighteen feet, 35 went in the cup, and only 2 led to a three-putt green. That’s a long way from a break-even ratio. How do we explain it?
Looking further, the data for these 152 putts also show that 122 of them, which count includes the ones that went in, finished no more than eighteen inches from the hole. There we have it.
No one is good enough to make a fifteen-foot putt for the asking time after time, but someone can be good enough to give luck a chance much more often than not. Eight out of ten of the subject putts were hit well enough that one-quarter of them found their way in. Anyone who putts that well won’t leave the others far behind.
It would be silly to expect to hit a 6-iron like professional golfers do, but there’s no reason why a recreational golfer can’t learn to hit a fifteen-foot putt like they do. No reason at all.
Here’s how. Drop four balls on the practice green and putt each one with about a two-foot backswing.
Important! Do not watch the ball roll out. Keep your head down and do not look up until all the balls have been hit.
If your stroke was consistent, you will have four balls very near each other, about fifteen feet away. If they went too far, do it all over with a shorter stroke. Once you get the right stroke and memorize it, you now have a stroke that guarantees you’ll leave a fifteen-foot putt next to the hole.
You might try developing a standard stroke for twenty-five-foot putts, too.
Oh, yes. The break-even distance for professionals in the Perfect Swing study was about thirty-three feet.
My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at It will change everything about the way you play.

What Shots Should You Practice Most?

Update 2017: Your day-in, day-out scoring shots are the tee shot, the greenside chip, and the approach putt. If your swing puts the tee shot in the fairway, it will put the iron from the fairway on or near the green. Good chipping and approach putting let you close the hole in two shots, not three.

Compare two kinds of rounds – your best ones and the ones where you only flirt with your best. Even though the difference in your score might be five strokes, the difference in the way you play is like you’re different golfers.

I break 80 once or twice every year. Without fail, my irons are straight all day and my approach putting is superb. I can’t look back on any round when I hit both those shots like that in the same round and didn’t break 80.

So what do you think I practice most? Irons and approach putting! My key to lower scores, I believe, are the shots I hit well when I go low.

Of course I practice short putts, as well as chipping and pitching. Short putts and chips keep me in contention on days my irons and approach putting are having a day off. Pitching? Getting your pitch close is how a recreational golfer makes birdies on par 5s.

But the bulk of my practice is spent on the shots that turn me into a recreational scoring machine. It doesn’t make sense to do it any other way.

Slight detour to The Driver – the Evil Seducer. The more you practice with your driver, the more chances you have of ruining your swing. Just put an 8-iron swing on your driver and you’ll be fine.

Take a close look at your “career” rounds, and figure out what shots got you there. It isn’t because you played better overall. Probably one or two shot types are much better than normal, and it’s the same shot types every time.

Spend the most time practicing those shots, while not sacrificing the others completely.

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

Golf Course Maps

When I was growing up I checked out a copy of The Complete Golfer out of the library. The book, edited by Herbert Warren Wind, is a fabulous collection of articles on history, instruction, biography, humor, fiction . . . and golf courses. This book is what started me on a life-long love affair with golf courses.

The last section of the book has color fold-out maps of The Old Course at St. Andrews, The National Golf Links on Long Island, Pine Valley, Pebble Beach, Merion, Pinehurst No. 2, Augusta, and Oakland Hills. Each course is described in an essay by Robert Trent Jones. The essays didn’t do much for me, I was only 12 at the time. But oh, those maps!

They showed the fairways, bunkers, the greens, where the next tee was, how you walked your way around the course. How I would walk around the course when I had the chance – little did I know. But on a vacation in 1962 I did make it as far as the eighth hole at Pebble Beach that same year, and played the Old Course six years later.

Pine Valley has all that sand. I watched Byron Nelson and Gene Littler play a match there on TV at about that time. Scary.

Augusta. I don’t think there is a course that so many people are so familiar with. By now we know what every hole looks like, and the back nine is burned in our brain. But how many people could lay little models of each hole in the right place on a blank piece of paper? Could you do it?

The National Golf Links I didn’t get, and still don’t, Pinehurst is all about the greens, and Oakland Hills is only in there because Jones remodeled it for the 1951 National Open (as it was called in 1951).

That leaves Merion. It’s eighteen holes of golf packed into a space that would hold twelve if it were built today. Ardmore Avenue goes right through the middle of it, putting holes 2-12 on one side and the rest on the other. How do players cross the road? Is there a crossing guard? There are long holes and short holes, short because there’s no room to put in a long hole, and even then some of the short holes had to be bent to make them fit.

It’s such a tidy course, the one I would pick it if I were allowed to play on any one I wanted. So if you’re reading this post and you belong to Merion, give me a call. Same goes if you’re a member at Cypress Point. Give me a call. And I was just kidding about Pine Valley . . .

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

The ScamTec Recreational Open

Sensitive to charges of elitism, the PGA Tour played the ScamTec Recreational Open last week. ScamTec is a maker of software for home computers that supposedly makes the computer run faster and smoother, at least according to their marketing department. Developers at ScamTec are required to sign a gag order.

The SR Open is recreational golf from start to finish. The rules are simple: no caddies, no carts, no yardage books, no pin sheets. Every player gets a three-wheeler to put his bag in and away they go, to play golf the way the 40 million other people play it.

It starts at the contestant’s entrance. “Good morning, Mr. Scott, it’s nice to see you today. Oh, Mr. Williams, would you hold up for a moment? I’m afraid you’ll have to go around to the public entrance and purchase your admission ticket there. Stay behind the ropes, if you would, please, and no giving advice to the players!”

Following his drive on number four, Mr. McIlroy wheeled his cart up to his ball then went looking around for the sprinkler head. He paced off the distance from the sprinkler head to his ball and would have pulled the perfect club except he thought the red flag meant pin in back, and overshot his target by 20 yards. Disgusted, he started for the green when a foghorn from the gallery cried out, “Hey, Mr. Millionaire! For cryin’ out loud! Replace your @#!&^* divot!”

Over on the 2nd tee, a cart with a Marshall flag flying careened up the group that just arrived. Very politely, he said, “Mr. Crane, you’re about fifty minutes behind the expected pace of play. The players behind you would appreciate your stepping it up just a bit if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. Oh, and we’re noticing that some of you aren’t leaving the bunkers in the same condition you found them. If you wouldn’t mind raking them when you’ve hit out, that would be a great help to everyone else.”

Play is clogged on the 8th tee because Cart Girl is parked there. CG doesn’t know even the rudiments of salesmanship, but she doesn’t need to. She is the image of American Sweetness, and her tank top and short-shorts barely cover a figure that reduces a man’s speech to a series of random vowel sounds. Buy big and buy often seems to be the credo. Several players were seen giving excess purchases to fans behind the ropes. One report said that Mr. Williams declined a bag of chips offered by Mr. Mickelson, though the reporter refused to get involved on whether the declension was “respectful” or not. Another player kept all his purchases to himself and withdrew after 15 holes with stomach cramps.

The SR Open ended when Mr. Garcia, eleven feet from the hole on the final green, two putts away from a career round and the win, four-putted, but won anyway because the player who seemingly two-putted for the one-shot win was penalized two strokes for playing the wrong ball on his approach out of the rough. In the interview room, he said, “Well, that’s about where my drive went, and it kinda looked like my ball . . .”

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

My Natalie Gulbis Story

One of the favorite questions to ask your golfing buddies is, what is your dream foursome? For me, that’s an easy one — Natalie Gulbis and two guys who can’t make it. I know Natalie has sex appeal, but you might not have heard that she is one of the most genuine persons you will ever meet. I want to tell you this story about her because it is so out of character for the modern-day professional athlete.

My golfing buddy and I were at the LPGA’s Safeway Classic in Portland, Oregon about five years ago or so. We would pick up one group, follow them for a few holes, then wait at the green until another group of interest showed up, follow them for a while, and so on. So the group that Natalie was in showed up and that clearly struck us as a group of interest. We went to the next tee with them after they had all holed out. She hit first and went to the back of the tee box, where we were standing, to get some bottled water out of the cooler that was there for the players.

Now it was kind of hot that day, so my buddy and I had brought water with us. There were two guys standing next to us, I’d guess in their 60s, who didn’t have any. Natalie took out her water, looked at them, and said, “You guys look kind of hot. Want some water?” They said, “Sure,” so she reached in for two more bottles of chilled water and gave one to each of them. They said, “Thank you,” she smiled and said, “No problem,” and went back to the tournament.

If you’ve ever been to a professional golf tournament, you know the players are there to concentrate on their game and not on you, but my word, you can get looked at like you’re not even there. But here is a case of a player who by nature thinks enough of other people to step out of her golfing cocoon, read the situation, and perform an unexpected act of kindness.

I thought you should know.

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

Fixing The FedEx Cup

So far, it looks like the FedEx Cup is set up so that Tiger Woods will win it every year that he’s healthy, and have it won before the final event.

Can you imagine the NFL setting up the Super Bowl so that one of the teams just has to show up and play the game to win the trophy? Or if in the World Series one team would have to win six games out of seven instead of four out of seven to take the title?

Well, that’s how the FedEx Cup works. Not more than a handful of guys have a chance to win the Cup this weekend. What are the rest of them doing there?

Here’s my fix – and this assumes we even have to have a Fed Ex Cup.

The first tournament is filled with 144 guys based on the PGA Tour money list. This event is a four-round, no-cut tournament. All 144 play four rounds, and at the end the low 100 and ties move on to the next tournament.

This second tournament is also a no-cut tournament. At its end, the low 70 and ties move on to the third tournament, in which everyone plays all four rounds and the low 30 and ties play in the final tournament, the WINNER of which wins the Fed Ex Cup.

No mathematical complications. You have to play in every event and WIN the final one to win the Cup. Just like in every other sport. Except maybe NASCAR, which I heard the FedEx Cup is supposed to be modeled after, but I don’t know much about auto racing.

What do I know about anything, though? I’m just a sports fan.

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

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