Monday, 27 August 2012

Golfers are Weapons Apprentices

In the martial arts, weapons training generally begins in earnest after some milestones have been achieved, such as black belt. The logic behind this holds that once some fundamental body motions can be reliably performed they can then be further refined by demonstrating control at the range of the weapon. There is no advantage to rushing this process unless there is a war or famine and everyone is pressed into service out of necessity. Even the poorest hunter can occasionally bag a bird or hit the enemy and help the country or cause. But it’s not much fun to be forced into a pressure situation before you’re ready for it.

Consider the plight of the golfer, that is you and me. Without any significant preparation we are given the weapon, the projectile and the target and are sent out into the fray. It’s all awkward, uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Weird grip, standing astride not even facing the target, the left and right sides doing different things at the same time, new rhythm, timing and balance requirements all combine to set us adrift. It’s a lot more difficult then we think it’s going to be and when it turns out that we’re not so fabulous at the start we can even get into self esteem issues. This is a lot of downside.

It’s helpful to realize that learning golf skills is a long range process and being at odds with this reality mentally will only complicate the already difficult situation. Patience, persistence, discipline and determination are what we need to grow our game. However this does not fit into everyone’s picture of relaxation and escape. Improvement in golf is an acquired taste and it’s not for everyone. Often the more we know the more we want to know, but not always. The game can be experienced and enjoyed at a variety of accomplishment levels. It’s possible to be terrible at golf and still have fun with it. The scenery, the camaraderie, the fresh air, the occasionally well struck shot will suffice for many and what’s wrong with that? Golf does not need to be your highest priority in life for it to make sense. The problems arise when we demand skills that we are unwilling to spend the time required to achieve.

Golf is a game and games are supposed to be fun. If we demand higher skill levels of ourselves it’s critical that we realize how much time and effort will be involved. It’s hard to believe how much effort is necessary to achieve even a low level of mastery but that doesn’t change the reality. We often look at people, strangers or friends, displaying skills we want and forget or never realize how long and hard they worked to accomplish them. In our culture we have a problem with delaying gratification. We want it now! Golf, or anything else actually, does not work that way.

If we want to have fun and why shouldn’t we, it’s necessary to get the time line right. We must acknowledge that there are skills we may not have enough time to acquire. If we don’t get that right we are setting ourselves up for a very frustrating experience. For the game to be fun we have to like where we are in the process right now. That means accepting our current game right now with all its warts. Let go and smell the roses. A bad shot does not make us bad people. If you think it does or behave as if it does you have work to do and it’s not swing work.

So enjoy your weapons apprenticeship soldier, it won’t last forever.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Swinging into Twilight

golf twilight
Golf at twilight
At 9:00 PM in the middle of the summer it's starting to get dark. The first four holes at Westchester Hills, where we played as teenagers, loop back to the clubhouse. We would start at 9:00 and finish before 10:00. By the time we got to the second tee it was already quite dark. If you did not have an accurate sense of direction and distance to within say, 50 feet you were not going to find your ball. We learned pretty fast, and surprisingly, we didn't lose that many.

One evening recently I decided to go back in time and hit some balls into the dark. The gradual dimming of the light seemed to help me focus more and more on my swing. I found myself giving added attention, not so much to how my swing was supposed to be, but instead, to how it actually was. While being aware of my balance, rhythm and timing, I was really paying attention to how the ball and clubface were reacting to my swing motions without me consciously trying to control them. My objective became the experience of my swing, not the result of it. This internal shift of attention is helpful in learning to experience relaxation in the golf swing, and when we are relaxed we are most likely to produce our best efforts.

The entire orbit of a golf swing made by a driver measures approximately twenty-seven feet, yet during that swing, the ball is on the clubface for only 3/4's of an inch. Since the ball flight is a result of how the clubface and the ball dance together in that brief union through moment of impact, the more aware of ourselves we are at that point the better. There is no reason why, with a little imagination, we can't perform the essence of this twilight exercise in the middle of the day. You can swing with your eyes closed or you can swing with your focus funneled into that moment of your motion. This ability to focus will also will also save strokes in pressure situations when all of us are most in danger of losing our concentration.

Work to focus attention on what's happening thru impact and how it orients towards your imagined target in the distance. Work with a windup mode that is small enough to let you get back through the starting point (the ball), with a comfortable balance. Play with your movements and how they affect the extension of your arms and club shaft thru impact. We are looking for a 'repeatable', which is another word for balanced, accelerating motion toward the target thru impact. This motion, this 'repeatable,' is a relatively simple affair of winding behind and swinging back through the same place. Once we have a sense of how we want to move through the impact zone we can increase the size and effort of our windup knowing our movement is still oriented toward the target.

Your ability to take your swing from the dark to the light will enhance your experience of the game and lower your handicap at the same time. Enjoy the Moment.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Golf the Japanese Way

Several years ago, while traveling in Japan on business, I had the singular good fortune to be hosted to a day of golf by my honorable hosts. Notice that I said "Day" and not "Round" -- a very important distinction.

I know the large majority of my readers are only familiar with golf the American way, but let me recap briefly just to set the stage. You get to the local public course, change your shoes while sitting on the open trunk of your car, hit a few putts and maybe even a small bucket of balls, and off you go. If it's that time of day when you make the turn, maybe you'll grab a hot dog, and wolf it down as you make your way up the 10th fairway. After the round, you'll congregate with your buddies in the clubhouse (or out on the patio), quaff a few beers, settle the day's bets, and that's pretty much it. Maybe you walk, and maybe you ride a cart, but caddies are more of an exception than the rule.

Segue to Japan -- specifically the Kumomoto Country Club, near the Fukuoka Airport on the south island of Kyushu. We arrive at the club a full hour before our tee time in order to have plenty of time to loosen up, and familiarize ourselves with the greens. This particular club has two sets of greens, one for winter, one for summer (I've seen this on a few American courses too -- something about different kinds of grass).

As we made our way to the first tee box, I noticed a couple of people wearing coolie-style hats on their hands and knees trimming bushes with scissors. I take another look around at the landscaping by the clubhouse and practice green, and realize there isn't a leaf or a blade of grass that looks out of place.

We were then introduced to our caddies. Each foursome shared a caddie, a short woman of indeterminate age ("short", by the way, covers about 90% of the population). The caddy had a riding cart which held all four bags upright in front of her. She stood on a platform, and steered the cart motorcyle-style (steering with handlebars, hand throttle, etc.). I forget her name -- everyone called her "caddy-san", which basically means "Madame Caddy."

I'm used to playing in Colorado, where the air is thin and dry, instead of Fukuoka where the air is heavy and humid. So for any given distance, I needed to use at least one extra club. I was using rented clubs instead of my own, which are an inch longer to accomodate my height, so that's another adjustment I needed to make on my club selection. Then I always had to do some higher order math because Japan's golf courses are marked in meters instead of yards -- it's about a 10% adjustment, and it translates into another extra club. All of which is to say it usually took me a few moments to figure out what to hit. Caddy-san watched me make two shots, and after that, by the time I figured out what I wanted, she was always standing there holding out the correct club before I could ask her for it. And despite the fact that Caddy-san also had to supply three other golfers, it seemed like none of us ever had to wait for her, even if we were scattered all over the fairway. All the caddies wore big sunbonnets, and white outfits that looked like nurses' clothes, but baggier. They didn't show any skin except their faces (which were protected by the sunbonnets). They even wore white gloves.

The players all walked. I was told they'd be happy to supply me with a cart if I wanted one, but nobody else was riding, and Caddy-san had the bags anyway. And it turns out that there were refreshment huts every three holes. At the refreshment huts (which were very nicely constructed brick buildings, complete with air conditioning and electricity), you could get bottled water, soft drinks, beer (bieru), finger sandwiches, green tea, cold rice, and cold wet towels. It was the cold wet towels I most enjoyed!

Despite hitting some spectacularly bad shots into the woods, I never actually lost any balls. Caddy-san was uncanny in her ability to find lost balls. (I guess she knew every tree and shrub). She was also great at reading greens.

After we finished playing the front nine, we had a sit-down lunch in the clubhouse. And I'm not talking about a hot dog and potato chips either. They had a full menu of hot and cold dishes (including sushi -- yum!). We had a leisurely lunch, chatting pleasantly about business, the world economy, and Tiger Woods. Then one of my hosts checked his watch and announced our tee time was in 10 minutes. So we had a tee time in the morning for the front nine, reservations for lunch, and a tee time for the second nine in the afternoon. Seems perfectly obvious now, but it never would have occurred to me beforehand.

The back nine was much like the front -- gorgeous course, hand-manicured, hustling Caddy-san reading my mind, and the greens, cold wet towels at the refreshment huts... All too soon, the round was over. But rather than sitting around in our sweaty shirts (have I mentioned the humidity?), we retired to the locker room which has its own hot spring. There we luxuriated in the mineral baths, which were the same temperature as a hot tub, soaking our aches and pains and yips away. Then after a cold shower, and a dry shirt, we were ready for the serious business of post-round drinks and bet settling.

By the time we returned to the hotel, it was time for dinner, and sleep. Now that's a "Day" of golf!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

What is your handicap?

tiger woods scorecard
Sometimes, I get really frustrated that my handicap doesn't go down. After all, your handicap index is a direct indicator of how well you play the game of golf. If your handicap is low, you're pretty good. If it's trending down, you're getting even better. Unfortunately, mine index is kind of high (14.5), and it's not getting any better...

Other times, I get just as frustrated that my handicap doesn't go up. Have you ever caught yourself trying to console yourself after a bad round by saying, "Well, at least my handicap will go up so I'll get more strokes next time!" ? Funny thing -- it never happens.

Well, what the heck? I went to the USGA's website for a tutorial on the computation of handicaps.  The introductory paragraph of "Understanding Your Handicap" says the following:
A player can obtain a USGA Handicap Index after posting five scores, but a truer value comes when a player posts 20 scores, the 10 best of which are used in figuring the Handicap Index. The index demonstrates what a golfer would shoot on his/her best day

Well, no wonder! My 10 worst scores don't figure into my handicap at all! Also, did you notice that sentence about your best day? Here's another passage from an article in the same website:

The USGA's Handicap Research Team tells us that the average player is expected to play to his Course Handicap or better only about 25 percent of the time, average three strokes higher than his Course Handicap, and have a best score in 20, which is only two strokes better than his Course Handicap.

Some complicated mathematics follow, involving things like course ratings, slopes, 113, with some incense and magic words thrown in for good measure...

Yikes! And I've been giving strokes to people with honest faces who tell me their average score is about the same as my index!

How do you get a handicap? The best way is to go to the nearest golf course, public or private, and join the men's club, or the women's club if you're female. I think most places will let females join the men's club if they want to play from the men's tees, but the converse usually isn't true. Post five scores, and you're off and running. Having an officially sanctioned USGA handicap lends credibility to your negotiations with other golfers. But using the computer programs is better than nothing.

Conclusions? Well, if you want your handicap to go down, your ten best scores have to improve! And, as you've long suspected, nobody anywhere cares what your ten worst scores were. And if you intend to bet on golfing, don't do it on the basis of your opponents' averages!

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Best Golf Movies of All Time

bill murry caddyshack gopher
When released in July 1980, it received bad reviews. It features childish lines and risque humor. Even director Harold Ramis wasn't sure about his production because very little went according to the movie script. But 20 years later, "Caddyshack" is viewed as a classic.

"It's great to see it eventually worm its way into everybody's heart," Ramis says in an interview featured in the Special Edition version released in 1999. "I'm proud of it."

Fifty-seven percent of golf pros polled named it the best golf movie made. "Tin Cup," filmed at Houston's Kingwood Country Club and Deerwood Golf Club, received 29 percent of the vote with "Dead Solid Perfect" picking up the other 14 percent.

Other movies named among the top three choices of pros were "Follow The Sun," "Happy Gilmore," "Babe," and "The Caddy."

"It got together all these great comedians who it seemed were peaking at that time," Waldrop says. "Bill Murray was funny, Chevy Chase was funny, Ted Knight was funny and Rodney Dangerfield was on fire. In every scene, someone takes the lead and they are able to pull it off and make it funny. It's the best of all-time. I've watched it 20-25 times. "

The impressive list of comedians sent Ramis' movie in a totally different direction.

"We set out to make a movie about caddies and what it was like to be a caddie at a suburban golf course, and in the process we hired such high-powered adult talent that inevitably all our creative attention went to making those characters work," says Ramis, who also directed "National Lampoon's Vacation."

In the Special Edition documentary, Cindy Morgan, who plays the judge's beautiful nymphomaniac niece, says: "I don't think anything in the script ended up on the screen." and Chase agreed. "A lot of the movie was winged, improvised. We knew we were funny."

"Caddyshack" was Dangerfield's first movie (he was paid just $35,000 compared to a half-million paid Chase). He worried he was bombing on the set because no one was laughing at his lines. Someone had to point out that onlookers were not allowed to react because their laughter would be caught on the sound tract.

 Oddly, Chase, Dangerfield and Murray rarely turn up in the same scenes. Aware of such, producers devised a scene bringing Chase and Murray together where Murray tells Chase of his invention of a fairway grass that can be played on and then taken home and smoked.

However, the most famous scene is the swimming pool footage that includes a mass exodus from the pool upon the discovery of a large brown object bobbing around in the water. It turns out to be a Baby Ruth candy bar, but it is easy to miss the earlier flash showing the candy bar being removed from its wrapper and tossed in. The background music for the scene is what you would expect: the theme from "Jaws."

"Caddyshack is a classic," Herron says. "It's awesome and has some of the best comedian actors of all-time."

Lovers of "Caddyshack" are like the clones of Jim Rome. They can quote lines from the movie, which also has a Web site featuring a quiz page.

And who can forget the gopher that drives Murray, who plays the course groundskeeper, crazy. "They spent a bundle on a mechanical gopher and people love it and revere it," Chase says.

"Caddyshack II" came along in 1988, but it bombed despite having the gopher and special appearances by Chase and Dan Aykroyd. Directed by Allan Arkushmore, it stars Jackie Mason, Robert Stack, Dyan Cannon and Randy Quaid.

Ogrin favors "Tin Cup" for a good reason. "I'm in it, in the credits and still get royalties. Being in the movie was a tremendous experience." Ogrin is one of the pros on the practice tee when Roy McAvoy, a driving range pro played by Kevin Costner, gets the shanks before playing in the U.S. Open.
Kevin Costner: Generally the sign of a bad movie

Tin Cup, released in 1996, also stars Rene Russo, Don Johnson and Cheech Marin. Craig Stadler, Johnny Miller and Peter Jacobsen are among the pros in the movie. It also features the CBS-TV crew of Ken Venturi, Jim Nance and Gary McCord.

Randy Quaid is the star in "Dead Solid Perfect," a 1988 film based on Dan Jenkins' novel by the same name. Quaid plays Kenny Lee, a touring pro who finally gets it right - on and off the course.

"Happy Gilmore" (1996) and "The Caddy" (1953) both are slapstick comedy movies. Adam Sandler stars in "Happy Gilmore," which also features Lee Trevino. Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelsonhave cameos in "The Caddy," which stars Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

The most serious golf movies are "Follow the Sun" and "Babe." Made in 1951, "Follow the Sun" was Hollywood's first major film about golf and is the story of Ben Hogan's life.

Hogan helped draft the story and enlisted real-life competitors Snead, Jimmy Demaret and Dr. Cary Middlecoff to appear in the film. He also had twice daily practice sessions with Glenn Ford, who played Hogan, so the actor could observe his mannerisms and techniques.

Anne Baxter and June Havoc co-star in the movie, which climaxes with the tragic head-on accident with a bus that left doctors feeling Hogan might never walk again.

"I'm old enough (43) to remember it," says Sutton, who plays Hogan equipment. "I admire the movie because I was a Hogan fan and I admire what he did after coming back from an almost fatal car accident. "Caddyshack" is funny, but it's not a serious movie. "Follow the Sun" is a serious movie about a person's life."

What next? Tiger Woods the movie?

Friday, 3 August 2012

A Great Chipping Tip

Hitting a good drive close to the green is great, but failing to get on the green from less than 100 yards is extremely frustrating. Poor chipping will cost you a lot more shots than errant driving of the ball will.

Obviously the best way to get good at chipping is to practice and practice on the range until you've gotten a feel for the club and know exactly how you'll hit it in any conditions.

However, this tip should help immensely.

Make your hands lead the clubface through impact.
What does this mean? Well, imagine a normal stroke. Your hands are parallel with the ball as you strike it, or in some cases ahead or behind. With a chip, you want them to be ahead, almost as if you're wristing it.
Why is this? It means that you'll hit the ball on the downswing, rather than the upswing. Hitting on the up can result in a topped shot that has no legs.

How to achieve this:
  • At setup, move more weight onto your left foot
  • Put the ball in the back of your stance
  • Hands lead the stroke, ahead of the ball at impact
  • This will lead to a "chop" on the downswing, which will get the ball sailing high into the air#
Have fun putting this into practice on the course - at least you won't leave it short with this advice.