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How to Play Golf... Six Times a Year

1 - Introduction

Minivan Dad

1

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Yes! I’m serious! My goal is to offer a perspective on golf technique, strategy, and equipment that is focused on golfers who enjoy the game, who can’t play very often, but aren’t willing to sacrifice the expectation of playing well. In other words, golfers like me. 

 

I’ve taken some lessons, played public courses, belonged to country clubs, spent vacation time playing golf, and sparked a few other people’s golf obsessions. I’m 49 years old. I have a full time job, a balky back, and a wife and 3 kids, none of whom play golf. I don’t think I’ve ever played more than 15 rounds in a year, and that was a long time ago. I took a leave from my country club six years ago because I was only playing 6-10 times a year, and I haven’t gone back. I play 4-6 times a year now at most. 

 

You’ve probably played golf with someone like me. You might be someone like me. As a kid, I hit golf balls every once in a while on the driving range and played occasionally with my grandparents. I had some athletic ability. I could usually hit the ball, and I could usually get the ball somewhere near the hole when I was putting. I started to play a little more often in college because my roommate played, and because my college had a great golf course that I could play for $6 a day as a student. Everyone who ever played with me always told me that if could only play more, I could be “so good.” Going on 30 years now, that’s still the case! 

 

For 20 years I tried to assimilate every piece of golf information I could find, trying become a better golfer. Yes, I’m one of those guys. I could tell you what position I was trying to achieve with each individual body part during every second of the swing. I often amused my friends by completely changing my swing from one round to the next. I could mimic pro golfer’s swings. I successfully hit difficult shots that I shouldn’t have been able to hit. I also horribly missed shots that should have been easy.

 

I'm the first to admit that I used to have a horrible temper, one that reared its ugly head early and often on the golf course, and was a significant impediment to improvement. Even after I learned to (almost) control my temper problems, I still had anger issues on the golf course well into my thirties. One day my wife gave me an ultimatum. She told me that she was more than happy to have me play golf, but not if I was going to come home in a foul mood after being gone all day. 

 

I learned not to get angry on the course, but my frustration turned to resignation and depression rather than anger. I almost gave up the game after a particularly unenjoyable round about 8 years ago, when I decided that I would never be consistently good enough to justify the time it took to play 18 holes of golf. I saw no point in spending that much time doing something that made me unhappy. I put my clubs in the closet. I stopped tinkering with phantom swings in the kitchen. I didn’t care if I played anymore. 

 

I didn’t really miss playing golf at first. I just missed thinking about it. I missed the process of trying to figure out what I was going to try the next time I played. Eventually I missed being out on the course. I missed the feeling of a well-struck shot. I missed the anticipation of doing something that I enjoyed. 

 

I realized the obvious — I had spent the first 20 years of my golf life thinking that every next swing would be the epiphany, when I would find some magic move or thought that would suddenly turn me into a great golfer. Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen. This must seem incredibly stupid to people who start playing as adults, and find it difficult from the beginning, or to any reasonably sane person who has never played golf. Trust me, though. It is anything but obvious to someone who learns the sport relatively young and shows any potential at all, or to anyone who takes up golf after having played other sports at a competitive level. Some of you, I am sure, know exactly what I am talking about!

 

I realized that I needed more than just a new outlook. I knew enough about life to know that I was not suddenly going to find the time to play golf 100 days a year, and that, more than likely, I was going to play even less than I had before. I also knew enough about myself to know that I was not going to enjoy playing golf if I could only expect to play poorly. It sounds amusing to say that golf is a “good walk spoiled,” or that frustration is part of life and that’s why “golf” and “life” are both “four-letter” words. Really, though, let’s be honest -- it stinks to spend four to six hours playing bad golf. 

 

I knew that I needed a whole new approach to the game itself to be able to enjoy playing again. I started with the basics. I thought about how my clubs were designed, and how courses were constructed. I analyzed what I enjoyed about playing golf, and what it felt like when I hit one of my good shots. I thought about what was really important when I was swinging the club. Most importantly, I thought about how I could keep myself from being so frustrated that I never wanted to play again! I reevaluated the instruction that I had had over the years, the books I had read, the interviews I had seen, and the golf stories I had heard. 

 

In the process, I realized that most golf instruction just doesn’t address golfers like me. 

 

By the time I decided I didn’t care if I played anymore, if you asked me to describe my swing, this is what it would have sounded like -- Take the club away from the ball directly back as slowly as possible for the first 18 inches, then make a full shoulder turn and cock my wrists until the club reaches parallel. Keep my left arm straight. Pause slightly at the top of the backswing. Start the downswing slowly by shifting my weight to the left foot but don’t slide my hips. Let my hands drop down while I turn my shoulders forward and keep my left knee braced while I clear my left hip. Swing through the ball but don’t decelerate the club, keeping my wrists cocked until the last minute and swinging on an inside-out path. Square the clubface through impact but don’t overrotate my hands and keep my head behind the ball. Keep my head still and my eyes on the ball. Follow through toward the target and finish with my hands high and make sure to keep turning my shoulders. Finish in balance with my belt buckle facing the target. Make sure to stay in rhythm with a slow tempo.

 

Sound about right? Really, when it is put into words, it’s a miracle I could hit a golf ball at all! I realize it’s an exaggeration to assume that anyone has all of these thoughts running through their head at the same time, but even when that’s pared down to one or two swing thoughts, at least three or four others are still implied, lurking in the background, waiting to screw us up at the most inopportune moments.

 

Please understand that this is not intended to be an indictment of modern golf instruction. There are many different methods for teaching people to play golf. Almost all of them are correct. If they didn’t work, we wouldn’t know about them.  Some methods have idiosyncrasies that are based on the swing of a successful professional golfer. Some methods are fairly simple. Others are much more intricate. The fact is, though, that almost all golf instruction is based on building muscle memory through repetition on the practice range, the putting green, and the golf course. Even the psychological techniques that are taught to maximize our abilities presuppose a degree of muscle memory derived from hours of practice.

 

Ben Hogan is credited with saying, “The secret is in the dirt.” The expectation of any teacher is that the student will learn something, practice it, improve, learn something new, and repeat the cycle striving for continuous improvement. Most golf instructors are extremely dedicated professionals, but they are not going to tailor their instruction to someone who expects to play six times a year and can’t practice. Why would they? 

 

Most golf instructors teach at golf courses or facilities where golfers return for multiple lessons and practice sessions. Professionals at resort courses might teach beginners who are trying the game, golfers who want a pointer or two to help get them around the course and enjoy their vacation, or good golfers looking for a little refinement. Resort professionals are not going to take a vacationing player and completely overhaul their swing unless they are specifically asked to. No matter who the professional is or what method they use to teach, the presumption is that their students will not be able to improve unless they are able to practice with some degree of supervision and build the muscle memory to carry out the swing techniques and body positions they have learned. 

 

This is exactly what makes these methods less successful for golfers like you and me. We don’t necessarily have the time to go to the driving range, or have access to practice facilities with grass teeing areas, a putting green, or a short game range. Many instructional practice techniques recommend spare equipment or accessories that we probably don’t have. Even if we do have time to practice, we don’t necessarily develop proper muscle memory if no one is watching and helping us to practice correctly. Even video analysis is of limited use, since we may not have anyone to review it for us, and we can’t take that off of the practice range onto the course anyway.

 

We don’t have the luxury of trial and error the way frequent golfers do. When we do that, we get mostly error, and then the summer is over. We need to be able to expect to play as well as we can, each and every time we play, because we don’t know when our next round will be.

 

If I was going to resume playing golf, I knew that I had to come up with a different approach to the golf swing itself. If I didn’t have time to practice and ingrain muscle memory on the golf course under regular professional supervision, then I had to have some other way of making sure that I could make my body do what it needed to do. If I didn’t have a regular teaching pro or a caddie who could tell me what mistakes I was making on the course when I did play, or I didn’t play enough golf to be able to establish a pattern of specific mistakes that I could recognize and correct, then I had to have some way to combat my mistakes so that I wouldn’t expect them to happen regularly. 

 

I realized that to do that, I had to understand the purpose of everything I was trying to accomplish on the golf course, whether it was swinging a club, walking to my ball, or preparing to play. I had to translate that purpose into a series of simple, achievable thoughts and actions that I would be able to perform confidently and accurately without hours of on-course practice, without complex psychological constructs, and without fear. I just had no idea how I was going to do that!

 

One evening, I was watching an interview with Tom Watson while putting on my living room carpet, listening to his discussion of spine angle, which we will discuss in depth just ahead, and thinking of the “pendulum” motion that so much putting advice is based on. Just then, I had a “aha!” moment about how to approach a golf swing. 

 

I hit a few putts on the carpet and they were solid. Coincidentally, I was supposed to play an outing within the next few days, so I decided that I would put that thought into action when I played. I putted better than I had in years. Buoyed by my success, I thought about whether I could use that thought on a full golf swing, and I decided that I could. The next time I played, I hit the ball more consistently that I ever had before and shot an 84. I hadn’t hit a golf ball in 9 months before those two rounds. Later that summer, I shot an 82.

 

I didn’t always execute my plan properly, but when I did, I hit solid shots. I understood the purpose of what I was trying to do on each swing. I found that I was enjoying myself, and it wasn’t just because I was playing well. I was enjoying the process of playing golf again. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and for the first time I felt that I knew how to do it for myself instead of trying to mimic someone else. My swing didn’t require any specific position or action that I might or might not be able to repeat each time I played. I had a simple, easily executed swing action that was the same for every shot on the golf course.

 

The thing is, I understand how to play golf more now than I ever have, and I am more confident than ever on the course, even though I almost never play. Don’t get me wrong, its not like I’m turning professional any day. What’s most important for me is that I enjoy myself more consistently on the golf course now, during the few rounds I have a chance to play, than I ever did. Oh, and I’m playing better.

 

That’s the strange thing. I hit the ball longer and putt better than I ever did, despite playing less than 6 times a year without any significant practice in between rounds. I’ve even changed my swing a little to accommodate my balky back. I still miss more important putts than I would like, and I still have bad stretches during a round that prevent me from posting low scores (of course, PGA Tour professionals would say exactly the same things!), but they don’t lead me into despair that I will be incapable of ever playing well again. I enjoy myself much more than I used to. My good holes are pretty satisfying. In other words, I am playing as well as I can.

 

I decided to write this book because there is no reason that other golfers like me can’t approach golf the way I do. It’s not that I think I’ve discovered a secret to perfect golf or anything like that. I don’t think that I can turn someone who never plays into a professional golfer, but I do think that I can help infrequent players to hit the ball better and play more consistently. I think I have an approach that might help frustrated golfers — like I was — to better enjoy a day on the golf course without having to give up the hope of playing as well as we can, and might give us a platform on which to build if we ever get lucky enough to play more than we do now.

2 - Golf and Chocolate

Minivan Dad

2

 

How to Make a Chocolate Soufflé, or, Why Aren’t There More Golf Books Like Cookbooks?

 

The reason this book exists is that about a year after I changed my approach to golf, I decided to teach myself to cook. If you think there are a lot of golf books out there, take a look at how many cookbooks there are! There are cookbooks from the greatest chefs in the world, cookbooks from scientists, cookbooks by home cooks and amateurs, cookbooks from catering companies and restaurant chains, cookbooks of every regional and ethnic cuisine. Some of them are classic books of techniques, others redefine the classic techniques, and others throw classic techniques out the window. There are plenty of cookbooks out there by people who do not have formal cooking training. Heck, Julia Child didn’t even start cooking seriously until she was in her forties.

 

Even more surprising is that cookbooks “work.” Why is that? Why are there so many successful cookbooks? Why is it that with a recipe in a book and the right tools, a moderately experienced home cook can EXPECT to prepare an outstanding meal even just once a month, but athletic people with the most advanced equipment available approach an infrequent round of golf with trepidation? Even more to my point here, why are cookbooks able to make the most complicated recipes accessible to complete novices?  

 

All of these cookbooks have one thing in common, whether they are written by Thomas Keller or a cooking blogger with no professional training, and I think that it’s the reason cookbooks are so successful and proliferative. Although they are inspired by, and encourage us to strive for, a level of success that most of us will never achieve, they provide specific instructions that PROMISE a basic level of achievement for even the most inexperienced user. They all start from the basic assumption that no matter how complicated the recipes are that they present, the person reading the book and following the directions will be able to complete at least a reasonable version of the recipe.

 

Before we get to the golf, let’s use a chocolate soufflé as an example of what I’m talking about. Soon after I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook, I made a chocolate soufflé for my youngest daughter, who was 11 at the time. I chose that recipe because a soufflé represented a challenge to me. It’s a dessert that conjures images of fancy restaurants and great chefs, fraught with potential for disaster. I wanted to see if I could pull it off! I found a recipe in Julia Child’s The Way To Cook, and set to it.

 

Guess what? It came out great. Guess what else? It isn’t that hard. I have made soufflés many times since then. I don’t always follow the recipe exactly anymore, and I have come up with shortcuts and my own variations and flavors. I’m not saying that I could charge $20 for my soufflé on a Saturday night on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But they look good, and they taste great, even if I mess up a bit sometimes. If I do screw one up, I can usually figure out why, and I can expect that the next one will be fine. 

 

The basics of making a chocolate soufflé are... Separate egg yolks and whites. Make a sauce with milk, flour, sugar, the egg yolks, a pinch of salt, vanilla and melted chocolate, which you basically do my warming the milk and sugar until the sugar dissolves, adding a bit of flour, warming some more, add the salt, pour some into the egg yolks to warm them up and then mix back into the milk, throw in a dash of vanilla, stir in the chocolate. Then rub a stainless bowl with a bit of lemon juice but leave it mostly dry, beat the egg whites until they are thick but floppy, add some sugar and beat them until they are thick and stiff. Then gently mix the sauce into the egg whites, pour the mixture into small straight sided dishes (ramekins), put it in a hot oven, and bake it for about 20 minutes.

 

You have to prepare by having all the ingredients measured as you need them, having straight sided dishes with a little butter and sugar on the sides so the mixture will glide as it rises, and preheating the oven. There are things you have to do correctly, including separating the eggs, stirring the sauce, gradually mixing the egg yolks in so they don’t scramble, beating the egg whites. There are also times you have to get out of the way. Don’t burn the sauce. Don’t combine the sauce and the egg whites in a way that smashes the foamy egg whites. Even if you only have a little cooking experience, chances are you’ll end up with an awfully tasty and impressive-looking dessert.

 

Why does that work? Why can someone with a minimum amount of experience and a little basic knowledge make something that is a reasonable version of a dessert made by the best and most experienced chefs in the world? Well, as we just said, it’s a combination of doing a few things correctly and staying out of the way when you’re supposed to.

 

Egg whites consist of protein that is capable of supporting a network of air bubbles, which are introduced by beating. The acid of the lemon juice allows the protein web to unravel and expand, and the sugar coats and protects the protein web, which is why the egg whites stiffen. The sauce adds flavor, and as long as you don’t smash the bubble network too much, you have a flavored mixture of beaten egg whites containing a huge number of tiny air bubbles. Put it in the oven, and the air bubbles expand. The egg white proteins are strong enough to expand without popping, and as a result the whole thing rises using the straight-sided dish as a guide. See? A couple of steps correctly performed, and the magic happens all by itself.

 

Golf is a difficult game to master, but I don’t think playing golf infrequently has to be any different from making that chocolate soufflé. We just have to figure out what we need to do, when to do it, and accept that there are times we need to get out of the way and let the magic happen.

 

Despite all the flowery language and life metaphors, in the end, a round of golf consists of a series of consecutive individual golf swings. Really, what is the goal of a golf swing? The goal of every golf swing, at its most basic essence, is to transfer the energy of the moving clubhead into the ball in the direction of the target. If that happens on every swing, you will likely shoot a very good score. That, of course, is not so easy to do, which is why golf is not an easy game. 

 

However, even beginning golfers can hit a great shot a few times a round. This is one of the major differences between golf and almost every other sport. In golf, a beautiful shot stands there for all to see. If I hit a soaring 7-iron to a difficult hole and it stops two feet from the pin, it’s the same as if Jack Nicklaus did it. It may not be as far, or under the same conditions, but I hit a difficult shot to two feet and there is nothing that will ever change that. And, most of the time, there are witnesses to confirm my momentary greatness!

 

As infrequent golfers, we are constantly bombarded by the notion that perfection in golf is unattainable. The more skilled we become, in fact, what we perceive as perfection is held to a higher standard. I think that one of the biggest psychological obstacles we face as infrequent golfers is the incorrect notion that we should expect imperfection.

 

Ben Hogan said that he only hit one or two shots per round exactly as he envisioned them, but this statement should not be misunderstood. Yes, he is acknowledging that he almost never hit perfect shots. That doesn’t mean, however, that he ever expected to hit the ball imperfectly. I submit that he expected to hit the ball perfectly every time he took a swing. It just didn’t always work out that way according to his lofty standards.

 

I would agree that a well-struck, “perfect,” golf shot is in reality a difficult thing to achieve. I would suggest, though, that anyone who has ever played golf has hit at least one shot that was, well, perfect. Our swing was in balance and rhythmic, we barely felt the contact with the ball, the ball rocketed off our club with no effort, and went exactly where we aimed it. Most of us can recite the various times that we have hit shots like this. I know that I can.

 

Any putt that goes in the hole because it was hit with the right speed on the right line is a perfect shot, because the goal of the game is to get the ball into the hole. I might hole a blast from a bunker, or chip in from the greenside rough, or hole a shot from the fairway. I might even make a hole in one! Or, I might do something much less glamorous, like deliberately hit the ball as low as I can from under a tree branch to a specific spot in the fairway to recover from a bad tee shot, and hit the shot exactly as I need to.

 

I submit that perfection on the golf course occurs a lot more frequently than we are led to believe. My father shot an 84 at Pinehurst #2. We came to the par 4 18th hole and he had already had four birdies in his round. “Wow, Dad,” I said. “Four birdies on Pinehurst #2! That’s amazing.” He looked back at me, cocked his head, and said, “I’m not done yet!” He then proceeded to smack his drive down the middle of the fairway, finesse his second shot 20 feet from the hole, and drain his putt with a clubhouse veranda full of onlookers who cheered his 5th birdie of the day. I dare you to tell my Dad that wasn’t a perfect hole!

 

So, the problem we face at our level is NOT that perfection is unattainable. The real problem is that we cannot reliably duplicate those moments of perfection. When we do execute a “perfect” shot, the feeling is so effortless, so simple, and so memorable, that it feels like it should be easy to replicate. Our frustration arises from the fact that it isn’t easy at all. 

 

I don’t believe that the solution to our problem is to give up the notion of striving for perfection. Just as an amateur cook can use a recipe as a guide to make something like a chocolate soufflé, we need to arm ourselves with a plan to make it a little easier to achieve those moments of perfection so that they occur more frequently. What is more important, we need to trust that plan, so that if a shot is not perfect we still have confidence that the next one can be.

 

This is the plan. Hold the club correctly and start our body in a proper position. Maintain control over the momentum of the clubhead through the end of the backswing. Maintain our body posture or “spine angle” throughout the swing. Let the magic happen all by itself. Sounds simple enough, right?