Learning Golf in America – Part 1

John, a successful entrepreneur started playing golf at a company outing. He soon got hooked on the game and decided he wanted to become a good player. He had plenty of money to spend on golf lessons and ended up going to see some of the best known teachers in the game, they were all on Golf Digest’s top 100 Teachers.

His game didn’t improve. Each teacher he saw contradicted the previous one. First he stood up too tall, then his posture was too upright. After seeing those teachers, going to their 4 day workshops, he ended up more confused than ever. He would make incremental gains, then lose them as quickly as they came. He was in golf overload, and he still couldn’t break 90.

Larry, a successful feel player when he was young, was now turning 60 and decided he needed more distance to play better. After seeing a number of teachers, his head was filled with tips and swing thoughts. The new distance did not materialize, and now his body was confused. He used to be able to self diagnose and make changes on the course, but he had so much going on in his head that he couldn’t play the way he used to. It took him years to get back to playing golf the way he used to, from feel.

Although I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent, these are not unusual stories. There is more information than ever on the golf swing. There are so many websites advertising their tips. Golf magazines are filled with instruction. But is the average golfer getting any better?

Sadly the answer is no. Average golf scores have not changed in the past 20 years, even with the improvements in technology and equipment, the care of the courses, and the huge amount of information available to your average golfer.

So what is happening? Is golf just a really hard game, or are there other reasons the average score has not dropped?

A new player to the game certainly faces some challenges to begin. Where and who should I take lessons from? What equipment do I need? Should I use Stack and Tilt, One Plane or Two Plane, X Factor? Should I use Phil Mickelson’s short game technique or Stan Utley’s? Should I learn the golfing machine? Should I buy an ebook? Should I just figure it out myself with tip from magazines and the internet? Should I just use a video camera and some swing analysis? What about Leadbetter, Butch, or Haney?

In the old days golf was simpler to learn. You were a member at a golf club (the only way it was possible to even play the game) and you learned from the teaching staff at the club, which was led by a Head Pro. If you wanted to get better, you took lessons from him, and you played. You might mention something you saw Ben Hogan do, and the pro would determine whether you should incorporate it or not. There was no video analysis and it was about feel.

I think the expansion of the game, making it available for anyone, has been phenomenal. I think it’s great there are so many public courses. Because the golf equipment sector is so competitive, a new player can actually get good equipment fairly cheaply if they get last year’s model. There are so many resources to learn about the golf swing and I think all of that is good.

One problem that this wealth of information creates, interestingly enough, is uncertainty. A golfer can quickly be overloaded with choices and information. It’s no wonder the average golfer hardly improves. Too much information leads to either paralysis by analysis or making choices that end up working against each other. Hopping from swing theory to swing theory is a simple way to confuse your body. But it’s understandable why this happens. Golfers don’t see improvement, so they ditch what they are doing, for the next thing they see that promises to solve their problems.

In the next few articles from this series we will look at the different methods available, the impact of technology and equipment and what it takes to make real improvement.

How to keep breakthroughs from slipping away

So I read something interesting on a a forum last night.

The poster wrote that he often experiences breakthroughs while on the range, but they disappear as quickly as they came the next time he plays golf or practices.

I would bet almost everybody goes through this.

So how can you take a breakthrough and build on it, rather than letting it slip away?

Imagine what would happen if every breakthrough you had practicing, stayed with you?  You would quickly become an excellent golfer.  You would have a more consistent repeatable swing.  And you would have more fun on the golf course.

Here’s why breakthroughs don’t last.

  1. We don’t document what we did.
  2. If we do document, we document the wrong thing
  3. We try to extend the breakthrough
  4. If we can’t get it back quickly, we forget about it

We don’t document what we did

One of the best things you can do is keep track of your progress in some kind of written form.  A notebook, a pad, a laptop, or even a blog will do.  I hard that Annika Sorenstam kept copious notes of every practice session, every practice round and that she has notebooks filled with her insights, thoughs, and feelings.  Those are invaluable.  As golfers we go through periods when we are playing well, and periods when we’re not.  The game is filled with ups and downs.

It’s nice when you’re not playing well, to look back at times when you were, see what you were doing right, and it might spark some new enthusiasm or just get you back on track.  That is actually one of the main reasons I started this blog.  I know that any time I’m not playing well, I can just come back to this blog, see when I was playing well, and read some entries around that time.  It might lead to an a-ha moment that can set me on the right track.

If we do document, we document the wrong thing

If we do take notes of our practice sessions we tend to write about the wrong things.  We may write about some mechanical aspect of it.  Our elbow was here, or my feet were set like this…etc.  I think it’s more important to document feelings.  What felt right about the swing.  What did you feel in your body, your hands.  What was your mindset like?

These things are more important because they change how you approach your practice sessions.  By focusing on feelings you can learn to recreate those.  By recreating feelings you are more likely to get back to the results you were having that day.  If your swing has changed over time, the mechanics that you look at or remember, may no longer apply.  In fact you may be doing more damage by trying to work those mechanics back into your swing.

We try to extend the breakthrough

Ever notice that when you’re striking it particularly, there is a feeling of “wow, if I’m hitting it this far at 85%, I can really get it out there at 100%”.  These thoughts are deadly.  What happens is that you then lose the success.  The breakthrough dissipates and is not heard from again.  What happened here?

You tried to extend the breakthrough.  You tried to make it do more instead of keeping it, feeling it, and making it a part of your swing.  It’s sort of like killing the goose to get the golden eggs.

If we can’t get it back quickly, we forget about it

Ah defeat.  You’ve lost the breakthrough because you killed the goose.  Now what?  If you can’t get it back you wind up forgetting about it and hoping another breakthrough comes along.  It will, but you’ll probably lose it again unless you change what you do when you get a breakthrough.

So what should you do?

Focus on the things that are re creatable.  Mainly how things feel in your body, and your mindset.  At first it will be difficult to document how the swing feels.  Over time you will get better a describing it.  In describing it you’ll be accomplishing two things.  You’ll make the feeling more real so you’re body will remember it better, and your creating a document you can look back on to get you back on track when things are off.

It’s just as important to describe your mindset.  If you can get back to into the same mindset you will probably start to get those results back.  If you combine the mindset with the feelings, you should be able to quickly get back on track.

30 Day Challenge – Day 5

Practice in the tundra

Well not a tundra, but the driving range was covered in about 6 inches of snow, and more snow was coming down as I was hitting balls.  I turns out I was the last customer before they closed for the day.  To top it off , the heat was not working.

So what did I do?

I hit balls.  I hit one large bucket of balls and kept focusing on my hands and shot shape.  The past 4 days I was practicing with only a lob wedge, 8 iron and driver.  Today I got a little bit more variety.  I hit some 5 irons as well as a fairway wood (4w to be exact).

I find it truly amazing that what I do with my hands has so much of an effect.  I tried a very interesting little drill.  With the driver in hand, I alternated between hitting high cuts and high draws.  So I would hit one high draw, then one high cut and rinse and repeat.  It was pretty cool.  I had never had this amount of control with the driver.  Occasionally my high draw, would go straight and not really draw back, and occasionally the high fade would stay a bit left.  Still I was not disappointed by that.  I was thrilled that I could get as much consistency as I did.

The driving range really did look pretty covered in a blanket of snow.  Problem was that I couldn’t see where the balls landed.  Still I was very happy with the trajectory and shot shapes I was able to create.  Interestingly the 2 hybrid gave me the most trouble.  I’m not sure why.  But the 5i was beautiful to hit.

CONI – The key to long term improvement in golf

COnstant and Never ending Improvement.  This is a huge to key to becoming successful in golf and in anything.

Improving drives me.  If I’m hitting my chips to 6 feet, I want to hit them to 2 feet.  So I’ll set up a goal and work toward it.  As I see my chips get to 5 feet, then 4 feet, etc, it drives me to get even better.  It’s exciting, it gets me to the range, or to the putting green, and it makes the game so much more fun.

That’s not to say that every golfer should try to do this.  Weekend players, who tee it up a few times a year shouldn’t have this attitude.  They just won’t practice enough to get the benefits of it.  But for anyone serious about becoming a good golfer this attitude is a must.

If you improve just 1% each day, in a year you will have transformed your game because improvement, in my experience does not happen on a linear scale.  When you work at it everyday, it begins to happen in a way, similar to compounding interest.  Over a year, it really pays off.

What you can learn from the groove change

As we know the USGA has adopted a new groove rule that went into effect this month for the PGA Tour.  These new “v” grooves are not as sharp and have 40% less volume than box grooves.  While this change does not affect the vast majority of amateur golfers we can all learn by how PGA Tour players are adapting to the change.

Amateur players should watch how the pros approach shots from the rough especially close to the green.  Because these new grooves don’t have the same kind of bite, tour players have adapted by playing the shots differently.

How this helps amateurs

Amateur golfer typically do not have the swing speed or technique to generate the kind of spin the pros do.  The example the pros have set the past few years typically does not translate well to amateurs.  Although those shots (high spinning, stop on a dime shots) are beautiful to look at, most amateurs just aren’t going to pull them off very often.  But now we have an opportunity to watch shot making return to the game.

The new grooves are forcing the professionals to hit higher softer shots and rely less on spin.  What I saw at the Sony Open in Hawaii was a lot of shots landing short of the green and rolling on the green.  You also saw pros punished a bit more when they short sided themselves.  So what you are also seeing is that the pros are being encouraged to have their misses leave plenty of green to work with.  This is something amateur players should really pay attention to.

How the pros are adjusting:

  1. Hitting higher softer shots to stop the ball.
  2. Playing for fliers and the lower spin out of the rough by bouncing balls onto the green.
  3. Making sure their misses leave plenty of green to work with

Do these things and you should see your scores drop as you eliminate big numbers.

Use your natural autopilot to play your best golf


“Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course…the space between your ears.”

Bobby Jones

Ah, the mental game of golf.  Have you ever noticed that some of your best rounds occur when you can just get out of your own way?

When you look at the literature surrounding the mental game, whether it’s Dr. Bob Rotella, Dr. Joseph Parent, or any of the other excellent sports psychologists and mental game coaches, one of the recurring themes is getting out of our own way,

They all have their own approaches to achieving this but it is certainly not easy.  Especially not when something is riding on the line (your club championship, your best round, your first time breaking 100, 90 or 80).

One of the reasons that I kept the word Zen in this website is that I have come to believe that the Zen philosophy is completely applicable to golf.  My view of Zen is that optimal performance occurs when the thinking mind is silent, when we allow the body to do what it has learned, to simply react to the shot and situation.  But how often does that happen?

The truth is that we enter an autopilot like state nearly everyday.  If you drive a car, you do it instinctively.  Have you ever had the experience of driving, and during the drive you “zone out” for a few minutes, and you look around and recognize that you are still driving perfectly well, miles down the road?  That’s the autopilot taking over.

That can be used in golf.

However the main obstacle that gets in the way is thinking about technique.  Often when we hit a poor shot, we automatically go into diagnosis mode and technique mode.  We try to figure out what went wrong.  Did my elbow stick out?  Was my backswing too long?  Did I take the club back too far inside?

I think the first response should be “Did I pick out a good target?”  or something along those lines.  Once you are on the golf course it is too difficult to change technique.  Many of the bad shots that we do have don’t come from bad swings, but they come from bad decisions.

A bad decision can happen when we don’t inspect the lie carefully.  It can happen when we don’t take the slope or the wind into consideration.  It can happen when we don’t know our distances very well and under club.   I would imagine that the average golfer can shave 5 strokes off their game by making better decisions.

Ray Floyd in his excellent book “The Elements of Scoring” says that if he was playing against you, and he had the same physical game as you, he could beat you every time because he would make better decisions.

That’s something to think about.  Those decisions are not related to swing technique (although your options are constrained by your skill level).  They are related to your game plan and what information you take into account.

Elements to a successful mental game

  1. Carefully evaluate the situation
  2. Plan your shot
  3. Visualize the shot vividly
  4. Fully Commit to the shot
  5. Execute

The steps above can help to keep you away from entering a technique mindset.  Focusing on the target, visualizing the ball flight, and trusting your swing will usually produce excellent results.  Focusing on technique brings your conscious mind into play.  Your conscious mind is not the best swinger of the club.  Your unconscious or subconscious mind that runs your body does a far better job.  Keep your conscious mind occupied on strategy, visualization and trust and you can allow your subconscious to produce the swing you need.

Do your best to keep technique-related thoughts out of your mind while playing a round.  Changing your mental game will take practice and discipline but it should pay dividends.

Fearless Golf

I got a new book today, by Dr. Gio Valiante and Mike Stachura.

One chapter into I would considering recommending it.  When I look at the differences when I am able to pull off great shots and when I’m not there does seem to be an element of fear in it.  I think a lot of pressure comes from fear; fear of losing, fear of looking foolish, fear of slicing, fear of hooking, fear of hitting it fat, etc.

Do you ever notice when you are practicing that effortlessly a lot of shots come off great.  Your chips are closer to the hole with several going in, your putts are firm, on line and track right in, your drives are long and straight?  Then you get on the course and that ease is gone…

I think a big reason is that there are now consequences, penalty shots, lost balls (OB or in hazards), difficult lies etc.  All of these things that can go wrong creep into your thoughts unless you are determined to keep a strong mindset.  But like Dr. Valiante says, we actually get the fear response before we can even consciously recognize it.  If we don’t do anything about it when we do recognize it (hopefully before we swing), then it’s too late.

The next time I go out to play, I’m going to make a point of approaching every shot with confidence and certainty that I can pull it off.  Obviously it is unlikely that I’ll pull off every shot, but going into it confident that I can will make a big difference.

Today’s Round

I shot a 78 even though I only hit 6 greens and had 31 putts.

It was a good round though.  I hit the ball very solid.  I had a lot of good tee shots leaving me with wedges into the greens.  Most of my misses came on the approach shots.  I flew a few greens from 125 yards and in, since I’m still getting used to hitting the ball at bit further (even with the colder weather) so my distances are not totally dialed in.  I had a couple of nice birdies and just had a good round overall.  My putting can definitely improve and that’s something I’m going to work on.  I also need to get a bit more accurate with my irons, especially the short irons.  Getting into the mid and low seventies is going to be a challenge but I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time in the seventies.  I feel like I’m getting to know the game better and that I can score well even when I’m not hitting a lot of greens.  I feel like I’m becoming a better scrambler though of course I would prefer to hit more greens.  I’m confident that will happen.  My main miss is a pull when I get bit quick but I’m begining to more consistently hit nice baby draws.

Is patience the secret to breaking through?

Ever feel like you’re playing well but then you kind of get stuck on a plateau?  At some point your scores get stuck around the same number?  It’s happening right now and it’s pretty frustrating.

My last 5 18-hole scores in relation to my course handicap.

  1. +1
  2. -1
  3. -2
  4. E
  5. -1

They are not bad, in fact, I’m achieving my goal of shooting better than my course handicap.  But I’m not content.

The reason is that I feel like I’m leaving a lot of shots on the table due to short game errors.  I need to come up with a good plan for improving my short game.

What’s been especially frustrating has been the putting.  I’m hitting most of my putts on the line I want, at the speed I want, and they are just not going in.  I’m burning so many edges that it is really annoying.

I spoke with a PGA pro I know and he recommnded patience.  He said that sometimes it just goes like that with the putting.  But if you’re patient you can start making a couple of extra putts per round, then you start making a couple more, and your scores drop from 79 to 76 to 73, etc.

I know he’s right but it’s not easy to do.

Observations from today’s round

I am pretty happy with the progress I’m making.  My handicap is steadily going down, my consistency in scoring is much better, and my swing feels like it’s on solid ground.  Some things to still bug me.

I don’t get up and down enough.  I know that I have to improve my short game.  I need to leave short game shots close enough to easily one putt but it’s tricky.  This is my next challenge.  I feel like I’m plateauing around the 79-81 range.  And yet walking off the course I know where I left shots on the table.  Today I had an 81, which is one under for my course handicap so again, it was a solid round.  Although I do feel it could easily have been 4 or 5 strokes better.

I had a thought that was helpful on the golf course today. The image of the inner workings of a clock, seeing all the gears moving, synchronized, no one gear speeding up.  It seemed to keep me much more synchronized and helped with the long game.  I had a really good driving day and I had a lot of good shots.  It does get to me when I have a wonderful tee shot, and a bad approach shot.  It’s a nice drive wasted and it drives me crazy.  I had two of those, with the approach shots coming up way short (I had enough club but actually hit the ball fat).  I’m pretty sure that is just a mental game thing.

A couple of things were interesting.  I really felt comfortable driving the ball, and I also felt really comfortable with my fairway woods.  I’m not sure why that was but it was nice.  On 18 I hit my drive off the toe but still got it out with pretty good distance and in the fairway.  I had about 230 up hill and I hit a nice 4 wood, pin high, but in the rough on the left side of the green.  I ended up 1 putting for a par 5 but could easily have had a birdie if I had chipped it close.

I burned the edge on so many putts today.  Had a few of those gone in it could have been a stellar round for me.  I realized that I was reading 1″ too much break on each putt.  I didn’t correct that until the 17th hole but it made a difference once I figured that out.