ON GOLF–LESSON 1

A number of years ago, in the early 70’s, our little town lacked anyone of note to manage the shop at the nine hole golf course “up on the hill overlooking the town”. My wife and I were asked to take it on and so we did, a bit reluctantly at first but enthusiastically later on. We performed this task for three summers and, as both of us were busy with other things like my “day job” as a school principal and she involved with teaching some college classes, in order to keep things going we selected some of my better eighth graders to collect greens fees and cart rental fees, clean the locker rooms and environs, and present  a picture of confidence and competence to the visiting public.

Things worked out well and we received a third of the greens fees, 10% of the cart rentals, and any profits we could garner from the sale of merchandise. Mostly we merely ordered clubs for folks, charging them “cost plus 10%”; this sounds like a good deal for them but at that time, lots of people preferred to order more cheaply-made equipment from catalogs that had inflated retail prices along with beautiful, tempting photos of the gear. Wilson and Power-Bilt were popular brands at that time, and we ordered a set of each, Wilson’s for my wife and Power-Bilt Citations for myself. As a side note, that year we each won our club championship, but I had to use her clubs as my new ones hadn’t arrived and I had sold my old ones. Using those ladies’ clubs, I had to swing more slowly to counteract the flex of the shaft and as a result, shot 70-74, my best two consecutive rounds ever! (Maybe I should still use ladies’ clubs).

As things developed, there were numerous requests for someone to give lessons, so under the sponsorship of the local Adult Education program, I put together a series of group lessons and I began to really study all the literature relative to learning to play. I quickly discovered that I had a terrible swing, very flat, and one that I had developed after reading Ben Hogan’s book, Power Golf. He also had a flat swing but somehow was a lot better at it than I.

Another thing I learned is that according to several writers, the golf swing is the most complex single movement in all of sports as it demands that every part of the body move in concert with its colleagues to bring together an effort  focused on a tiny, stationary target, the ball. Almost anything can affect the swing, from a loud noise to a hangnail; for those of us who watch the pros play we know that from day to day, their swings change as do the conditions under which they function. No nice, weatherproof indoor arena. At the same time, one must recognize that even in a “golf match”, the golfer is actually not playing against human opponents, he or she is fighting against the course. The competition could be likened to saying to your human adversary, “I can get around this course better than you”, and then set about doing so. There’s no defense allowed, unless of course etiquette is ignored and you issue a loud cough or other sound in the middle of the enemy’s backswing. Or intentionally step in his putting line and leave a large heel dent in the grass around the cup.

One sees advertising that tries to lure the golfer to fantastic venues, along the oceans or in the mountains, scenery galore as well as prices. But what it comes down to is, can you hit the ball where you want it to go, and from any kind of lie, consistently? If so, then it doesn’t matter which golf course you’re playing, it all comes down to each shot you make, how you make it, and whether it’s satisfactory or not. One of my friends who was a really good player, often shooting in the upper 60’s for 18 holes, attributed his success to his knowledge of Maslow’s Theory of Self-Actualization, rooted in existential thought. Under this, each golf shot is independent of any other, either the one before or the one after. This allowed him to forget the bad shot and look forward to the next one as a happening onto itself. Of course, he also had some athletic ability having been the center on the St. Cloud State Hockey team in the 60’s. But you get the point; golf is a game of the individual against the landscape; great scenery is merely a bonus! I found though that when I’m playing at one of the more beautiful locations, I tend to ignore the surroundings and concentrate on the course itself. Thus, I’ve played at Pebble Beach and the Municipal Course in Gary, Indiana; the former in view of the Monterey Peninsula, the latter close by the steel mills belching red and yellow smoke across the fairways. Generally, I focused on trying to hit the ball, leaving the scenery for my camera while waiting to play the next hole. I don’t think I took any photos in Gary.

So, let’s look at some of the things I’ve learned from trying to teach folks to play this great game. Most of my clients have been beginners, or near beginners, and most have been women who didn’t want their husbands trying to teach them, placing a premium on marital harmony rather than discord. I always would tell my students that golf is more like chess than checkers, it demands an intellectual approach if one expects to be good at it. Yes, there are the elements of the basic swing, but each actual shot is different from the one before or the one after, varying with distance, topography, the spot where the ball sits, windage, proximity to water, etc. All of these need to be considered before selecting the club to use for the particular shot, and how to adjust the swing to match the conditions.

We’ll start with some terminology. I assume you know that the flagstick in the hole can be referred to as “the flag” or  “the pin”; the area from which you begin a hole is the teeing ground, or just, “the tee”. The closely-mowed area to the green is the fairway, and has “rough” on each side. Around the edge of the green is “the collar”, “the fringe”, or some call it “froghair”. Some areas of rough are staked with red or yellow markers; these areas are called “hazards”(yellow) or “Lateral hazards”(red) depending on whether they are to the side or they are to be crossed in hitting toward the green. Many of these contain water, such as a lake or creek.  (The 8th hole at Pebble Beach demands a nice shot over a cove of the Pacific Ocean!—that’s a Big Hazard!)

Another common ‘hazard” is a “bunker”, or “sandtrap”, or merely “trap”, These need to be identified because there are different  penalties for hitting into them as well as getting out of them.

Some shots which often deserve colorful commentary also have names: the most common one is a “slice”, in which the ball starts out toward the target and decides to curve away to the right (for a right handed golfer); its counterpart is deemed a “hook”, curving toward the left. Mild versions of these are the “fade” for the former, and the “draw” for the latter. If a player can consistently hit these, it’s a good thing; if the consistency is attached to one of the more dramatic curves, it’s bad. Most pro golfers try to hit one or the other of these curving shots; the draw has a lot of topspin and therefore will roll farther than the fade, which has backspin and generally stops fairly close to where it first lands. The decision is whether to “go for distance” or “go for accuracy”.

As we get into the actual mechanics and cautionary statements, my descriptions are for a right-handed golfer; you lefties just go back and substitute the opposite term and you should do fine!

THE GRIP

There are several ways to grip the club, but most people use either the interlocking grip or the overlapping grip. With the former, the left hand is above the right hand on the club, and the left index finger is placed between the right pinky and ring finger. This creates a “bond” with the hope that the two hands will work as one during the swing. The overlapping grip is similar except that the left index finger merely lies atop the right pinky and ring finger, on the space between them. In both, the right thumb lies loosely across the shaft, not pointing down and parallel to the shaft. This would cause problems, as the thumb would then be pushing on the shaft and move it slightly out of the correct  path back to the ball. Actually, the strength in the grip comes from the last three fingers of the left hand, and the middle two fingers of the right hand. The others are just along for the ride.

Furthermore, the “V “ formed by the thumb and index finger on each hand should both point toward the right shoulder. If the right hand “V” is pointing below the right shoulder, bad things can happen (hooks and slices, et.al.) because the right hand becomes highly dominant in the swing. MOST BAD SHOTS CAN BE LINKED TO THE RIGHT HAND GETTING INTO THE SHOT—more on this as we look at other things.

It should be mentioned that a few players new to the game use a “baseball” grip, in which the hands are not linked. I recall a player who used this grip, and who had exceptionally strong hands and wrists, bringing clubs to me for repair; having snapped the steel shaft inside the grip when his two hands were working in opposition to one another. This happened twice!

Also, these recommended grips are to be used with only slight variations for all shots except putting and perhaps very short shots near the green.

THE BACKSWING

Assuming that you have positioned the ball directly out from the inside of your left heel, that your feet are approximately shoulders’ width apart, and that your back is straight (not vertical, just straight), let your arms hang down. Where your hands are now located, that’s where you should be gripping the club, not extending your arms out away from the body. I once read that the golf swing, being vertical in nature, is an unnatural movement; the arms are more easily manipulated in a horizontal swing. However, in the vertical movement one wants them to get back to their “ most natural” position, i.e., where they are located with the arms hanging. If you watch the pros on TV, you’ll note that with most of them, their arms when viewed from behind appear to be going straight down toward the ground.

For a number of years, I had trouble slicing the ball off to the right. I decided I needed some lessons, and discovered that I shouldn’t be taking the club back with my arms; rather, I should rotate my shoulders toward the right while keeping the club head low to the ground until it wants to start up toward the “set” position at the top of the backswing. While this was going on, I needed to pay attention to my wrists, cocking them sideways but not straying from having the left wrist straight, up and down. In other words, there should be a straight line along the side of the left wrist at the top of backswing, no “cupping”(bending the left hand backward) or “drooping” (bending the left hand inward) allowed. During my beginners’ classes, I noted that women tended to “droop” their left wrist, men tended toward “cupping”. I can’t explain it.

This is a good time to mention that as in many sports, one can get closer to consistency by controlling variables. On the human body, all of the various elbow, knee, wrist, ankle, shoulder joints need to be controlled. I brag that I can teach almost anyone to be an 80% free throw shooter, even The Shaq, if they can minimize the errors introduced when the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints are not working in unison. It has struck me as strange that some of the NBA players who can hit jump shots from far away can’t hit a free throw. In looking at their shots, they “flip” the jump shot with only their forearm and wrist; they shoot their free throws by” pushing” the ball with all three joints starting at the shoulder. It’s quite difficult to have all three working exactly together.

The same principle is also in the golf swing. With the back swing, using the shoulders, keep the left elbow locked, and the arm as straight and extended as possible. Of course, one is keeping the head still, not moving the body forward or backward, just rotating the shoulders and torso. At this point, we have stabilized the left wrist and arm, thus minimizing errors. I used to play with some guys who didn’t lock their left elbow on the backswing; they would bend that arm a bit differently on each shot, and therefore the club was going to begin the downswing from a different position each time. Naturally, they were never consistent.

How far back one takes the club varies with the individual; John Daley takes it back so far that it is pointing down his left side toward the ground. The recommended “ideal” is to have the club close to horizontal at the top of the backswing, and pointing toward the target. There should be a right angle with the right arm, the upper arm horizontal and the forearm vertical. And of course, the left arm is still straight and locked. This does not mean one must take the club to that horizontal position; in fact, as you observe the pros you’ll see a wide variance among them. But how far you take the club back has a bearing on how much clubhead speed you can generate on the downswing. And remember, we’re swinging with our shoulders, not our arms. They just follow along, dragging their cocked wrists along with them. The weight of the club, in its movement, will snap the wrists for you as you swing at the ball.

Once you’ve reached the top of the swing, we introduce another step—the Pause. I’ve observed many problem golfers who don’t pause at the top of the swing, setting the stage for what comes next. Instead, they start their downswing with their arms before their shoulder turn to the right has been completed, thus having parts of their body moving in opposite directions. THIS MUST BE EMPHASIZED-LEARN TO HAVE A TINY PAUSE AT THE TOP OF THE SWING IN ORDER TO “SET” EVERYTHING BEFORE PROCEEDING ON. Also, at the top of the swing (the set position) your weight should be on your right side, shoulders and hips perpendicular to the swing path  (desired line of flight).

Finally, let’s look at the swing path. Imagine a line from the ball on the ground, to the intended target. When you take the club back, start it straight back from the ball and then somewhat “inside” that line as the hands and club come up to the set position. If you take it back “outside” that line, there’s a very good chance that you’ll get the dreaded slice, due to the fact that during the downswing the club face will not be hitting the ball squarely from behind; rather, it will “cut across” the ball and impart some clockwise spin that produces the slice.

THE DOWNSWING (next lesson: will include the weight shift using the lower body and shoulders to initiate the move, the pull with the left hand, the extension of the arms through the hitting zone, and other details. We shall also get into various problems, their causes, and how to remediate.)

Always Be Happy!

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