The Joy of Being Taught

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          About a year ago right now, I was just beginning a six-month stretch of what would produce the best golf of my life. Great courses. Career rounds. Shot after shot that I still see in my dreams, and putts that found the hole more often than not. I experienced it all.

          A year later? Not so much. My opportunities to golf are still great, but my ability to take advantage of them and play golf at a high level is not.

          My alibi for the state of my game is something I’ve come to term “the Golf Academy hangover.” It’s what happens when you don’t hit 100 practice balls a day and get to see yourself on video as I did for my two semesters attending the academy.

          To try to rediscover my old game, I finally called on my former mentor, Mike Flanagan, this week to look at my swing. Another instructor started the crafting of my new swing at school, but Flanagan, as he does for many, finished it.

          And, sure enough, within 15 minutes at the range on Tuesday, he had me hitting balls like my old self.

          Besides helping me recapture a little lost joy for the game, the whole experienced reminded me what I miss most about school: the lessons.

          I used to have one every week, sometimes two. Those were the moments where the magic happened. In those 20-30 minutes, you got a glimpse of what you were capable of and what your instructors knew, and you learned how good they were at relaying it. In that regard, every lesson was two lessons in one – if you were really paying attention – because this is what the school was supposed to be training you to do someday.

          I’ve written a little on the blog about some of my lesson experiences in school, but I literally could probably sit here and pound out posts for hours recalling certain great teaching moments. Those moments were what school was all about for me. They were much more fun than the tournaments or even the open rounds with friends.

          My lessons with Flanagan in particular were a joy as I not only routinely got better, but I would take it to the course that afternoon and have immediate results. As anyone who has taken lessons knows, that’s not always the case. But with Flanagan it was. And if I couldn’t play that day, I’d at least go to the range and enjoy what new gift my swing had been given that day.

          For those who don’t know him, Mike Flanagan is the senior-most instructor at the Golf Academy and a revered figure in San Diego teaching circles. He’s a bit like the Obi Wan-Kenobi/Yoda/Mr. Miyagi – chose your sage movie mentor – of the school. You know when go to see Flanagan you’re going to get one thing about your swing – the truth.

          Students at the school will tell you that if you’re not ready to hear that about your swing, you’re not ready for him to teach you. But eventually you look forward to hearing the truth – as I did Tuesday – and know it’s the fastest way to improvement. It’s like agreeing with the doctor on the diagnosis so you can move on to the treatment that will give you the cure.

          The truth with Flanagan arrives straightforward and usually quickly, after just a few swings. On Tuesday, I was describing the recent failed experiment with changing my grip and some other mechanical faults – things I never worried about, by the way, when I was playing well – when Flanagan hit me with truth.

          “I want you to forget about all that and focus on the target. You’re way too mechanical right now. I just want you to focus and swing.”

          And sure enough, within a few swings, my hook was gone and I was dropping balls next to the 150-yard mark Flanagan had told me to focus on. It wasn’t quite magic, but it was a start. The magic would come next.

          Flanagan got inside my grip and changed the two things – the placement of my left pinkie and left thumb – that had been causing me to close the club face. After a few swings to get comfortable, I was making flush contact again and flying the 150 sign with my 7 -iron as I would’ve in my prime of last year.

          He then taught me a method for “feeling” that grip every time and before every swing so I can easily replicate it. And like that, I had my old grip back.

          Of course, there was more work to be done, but that was the start. The relationship of the club face to the ball is the most important element of the golf swing.

          Praise with Flanagan is never effusive, but it’s there. And it sometimes arrives as a back-handed compliment, as it did Tuesday.

 “I don’t care that you’re over the line, past parallel and your left arm is breaking down a bit; we both know you can that club face back to square and hit good golf shots,” he said.

For the rest of the lesson, we mostly worked on tempo and regaining the pause in my backswing so I could load properly for the forward swing. And soon I was effortlessly flying balls to the back of the range. And effortless, by the way, is what the best golf feels like, and my swing had become anything but. Tortured and laborious would be just a few words to describe what I had been doing through.

The bigger gifts of my lesson on Tuesday were hope and confidence that I can play the game again the way I used to. That might take few more lessons and little more practice, but it’s worth it to experience the game that way again.

 And that’s also something that I wish more golfers could experience. For all that we’re told ails the game (cost, time, pace, etc.), the elephant in the room is that many people don’t play very well. All the evidence of that you need is a walk to your local driving range. You’ll such much more wrong that right.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. I wish the barriers (money, time, etc.) to people taking lessons were less so people would enjoy the game more. Because thinking you’ll figure this stuff out on your own, for most of us, is like trying to perform your own brain surgery or build your own car – it just isn’t happening.

The swing is too complicated and too technical and, as my experience shows, too tough to self-police to figure it all out on your own. Training aids, golf magazines, YouTube and all that can help you a little, but without a foundation in the fundaments you won’t get very far.

But beyond just playing better, lessons are fun, especially once the frustration of the struggle and the self-imposed pressure to perform are removed. And once you get to a certain stage in life, how many things are you still being taught to do? Unless you’ve signed up for a cooking class or personally training, chances are not much. And if you’re a parent, you’re likely the one doing the teaching now.

My most teachable role has been as an editor. I consider one of my abilities as a writer the ability to teach it to others. I’ve helped numerous people, especially those who didn’t think they could write or write well, do this. I think that’s a gift.

Moreover, I not only can help you write, I can help you write like you, which not everyone can do. Others can make you write like them, the equivalent of a method teacher in golf.

That’s not Flanagan. He makes you swing like you. And moreover, a better you than you maybe imagined.

We’ll start finding out today whether I can take it to the course, but I’ll at last tee it up with the belief that I can and a plan. And’s more than I had before Tuesday.

JC Golf: A Lesson About Lessons – 7 Tips for Maximizing Your Golf Lesson

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Photo courtesy of golfeneur.com

Before I left the house to interview Troy Ferguson and Paul Miernicki of Twin Oaks for this post, I did a quick Google search about this topic and it returned surprisingly little.

Could it be that for all the golf instruction information available in our connected world, the most under-taught part of a golf lesson is the lesson process itself?

For those who’ve never had a lesson, I think this information will provide insightful and highly valuable. But even if you’ve taken lessons for years, I still think there’s something to be gleaned here, especially toward the end when Troy and Paul talk about creating lasting change with your lesson.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. I know many who have reverted to old habits after a few weeks and didn’t muster the resolve for long-term change. I’ve been there myself.

Troy is the Head Golf Professional at Twin Oaks and Paul is the Director of Instruction. Paul has been an instructor for 16 years, 10 with JC Golf.

What follows are their combined thoughts on how to get the best results from lessons, meaning preparation, execution, review and, perhaps most important, post-lesson practice.

FYI: The base lesson is 30 minutes, so we’ll use that as our point of reference.

 1.   Know What You Want To Work On

It may seem obvious, but the first lesson of lessons is to know how to ask for one. Besides the general areas of full swing, short game and putting, it’s incumbent upon the player to be specific and honest about what needs to be addressed.

Mental issues that commonly come with the natural struggles of the game can even be a lesson, but a starting point has to be identified.

“The more specific the better,” Miernicki says. “And actually taking on one thing in a lesson is plenty.”

Ferguson says a good instructor will limit a lesson to one or two areas, but many players make the mistake of trying to overload the lesson.

“It’s 30 minutes and you can’t fix it all,” Ferguson says. “If alignment is your issue, for example, you need to work on a alignment for a week or two.

“If it’s your grip, you need to focus on your grip. There might be a multitude of issues that need to be addressed individually. That takes time.”

But Miernicki says there’s victory in merely striving for change, citing the mantra, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.”

That’s a change many golfers don’t ever embrace and play lesser golf because of it.

 2.   Disclose Any Health Issues or Known Physical Limitations To Your Instructor

Especially as players age, their swings are often limited by what their bodies will allow. These limitations are often obvious, but sometimes not.

To diagnose a swing properly, the instructor has to be able to diagnose the player. Being forthright about any ailments or issues assists both the player and the instructor.

“Body type often dictates swing,” Ferguson says. “Shoulder injuries in particular can be very limiting. But those also are some of the people that need the most help to be able to continue to play and enjoy the game.”

In some cases, the instructor may be able to recommend swing changes or adjustments that better protect the player’s health. Or sometimes therapies or stretching regimens can be recommended to assist with such issues as decreased flexibility.

In every case, full disclosure is best for everyone involved.

 3.   Have Realistic Expectations

A golf lesson is the start of a process, not a magic bullet.

Part of that process is realizing what can be accomplished.

“You can’t be a scratch golfer when you shoot 90 now and you have an hour a week to work on your game,” Ferguson says. “You’ve got to adjust your expectations.”

And this is where Miernicki is bluntly honest about what can be expected.

“If I’m asking you to do something really new, you’re probably going to get worse at first,” he says. “That’s just the reality. Guys seem to struggle with that idea more than women.

“Eventually you will improve. My ultimate goal is for you to leave happier than you arrived.”

Ferguson says a good set of questions to ask yourself before committing to a series of lessons are these:

1)  What do I ultimately want out of the game of golf?

2)  How much time do I have to commit to that goal?

3)  Given that time, are my expectations realistic?

“Expectations may not meet reality,” Ferguson says. “This game is hard. You don’t learn it overnight.”

 4.   Come Ready To Learn, and Trust the Process

Knowing what you want from your lesson is one thing. Telling the instructor what your lesson needs to be is another.

There’s a lot of information publicly available about the golf swing, but people sometimes misidentify or misconstrue what their source is actually telling them.

You come to an instructor to hear the truth. Now it’s time to listen and be prepared to hear it, accept it and provide feedback toward correcting it.

Trying to guide or override the lesson only hinders progress, Ferguson says.

“You need to trust what the instructor sees,” he says. “We’ll get people who think they have identified what’s wrong by reading Golf Digest or looking at a YouTube video.

“Often the issue they’ve identified, or the fix, isn’t their issue. You need to come in with an open mind.”

Ferguson likens teaching pros to other “pros” people commonly have in their lives.

“When your mechanic say it’s your radiator or your doctor tells you it’s a torn knee ligament, you don’t second guess them and say it’s something else,” Ferguson says.

“You’re welcome to a second opinion, but at the moment, this is your expert and your need to respect that.

“There’s no perfect golf swing and no perfect golf instructor, but they’re trying to find what will work best for you. Trust that.”

 5.   Relax. Lessons Are Fun. So Have Fun.

It’s normal for the first few minutes of a lesson to replicate first-tee jitters. Don’t sweat it, Miernicki says. Forget it and embrace the process. But above all, enjoy your time.

“You’re not here to be on Tour. Relax and let me entertain you. I’m in the entertain business. Let’s have some fun.”

Bad shots provide as much feedback as good one. Take the good with the bad, but Miernicki says the good shots are the ones that aren’t treasured enough.

“We all focus too much on our bad shots. Focus on success. Focus on fun.”

6.   Provide Feedback

Ideally your improved results will mostly be doing this for you, but Miernicki says perhaps the most important part of his lessons are the 5 minutes he specifically designates at the end for review.

He wants his client to verbally express what has been learned and how.

“If what I’m saying isn’t what you’re hearing, I need to know,” he says. “We might need another approach.”

Most important, proper review leads to retention, which leads to repetition and the player being able to replicate the results on their own.

“My goal isn’t for you to play golf for me,” Miernicki says. “My goal is for you to play golf for you.”

7.   Making It Stick

Ideally, what’s covered in a lesson should be repeated and practiced once or two on the range in the next week, or, as Miernicki prefers, in a nine-hole round.

Along the lines of limiting practice to a concentrated amount, Ferguson says the first practice done post lesson should be done with a small bucket – 35 balls.

Why?

“Practice is about the quality of practice, not the quantity,” he says. “You will value the shots more if you’ve got a small bucket. When people have a larger bucket, they tend to just beat balls.

“If you only got 35 balls, if you hit a bad one, you’re more likely to step back and try to self-diagnose and focus on the next one. That’s how you improve.”

Ferguson says the sure way to waste a lesson is to just “give to two minutes the next time you’re on the range.”

To that end, Miernicki says most golfers have been taught how to properly use their range time. Too many flail away with one club before just moving onto the next.

He says for most average golfers, the perfect number of range balls is 60.

“Think about it. If you shoot 100, that’s probably 40 putts. That leaves 60 shots. Practice those 60 shots, and that doesn’t mean hitting driver 10 times in a row. How often do you do that during your round? You don’t.”

Miernicki says the best practice is a simulated round, meaning replicating the sequence of shots played on the course.

Retaining learning from lessons and improving practice habits are two of the biggest keys to improving, Ferguson says, but it takes time and commitment for those things to become a habit.

“If you don’t make that commitment, you’ll just go back to doing what’s comfortable,” Ferguson says. “That’s not how you improve.”

To schedule a lesson with Paul at Twin Oaks, please call 619.368.2269.

Note: the first lesson is half price.

JC Golf – Encinitas Ranch: Slow Play? No Way

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Editor’s Note: Socalgolfblog.com will be providing weekly blog content for JC Golf and its group of courses in Southern California. Those posts will appear here and at http://www.jcgolf.com.

New pace of play initiative keeps things moving at Encinitas Ranch

On Sept. 1, Encinitas Ranch instituted a new pace of play initiative that General Manager Erik Johnson says not only has proven effective but has been supported strongly by regular patrons of the course.

“I’ve had a ton of positive responses about us carrying through on this,” Johnson says, “and, yes, we’ve seen more players coming out because of it.”

The process of encouraging proper pace begins with simple awareness of the target time of 4 hours, 30 minutes, or less, for a round. Johnson says players are made aware of this expectation at the time of reservation, check-in and again at the starter.

And the 4:30 goal actually begins after 9 a.m. Before that, it’s faster.

“We want our 8 a.m. group to play in four hours,” Johnson says. “Then until 9 a.m., the goal is 4:15.”

Pace is monitored at the fourth hole, where a players’ assistant times the groups and then assists any group that has fallen behind.

“We have someone go with that group until they’re back in position,” Johnson says. “If that means shooting yardages, raking bunkers, pulling the flagstick, we do it. If it takes several holes, then that’s what it takes.

“Our goal isn’t to scold or upset people. It’s our goal to assist them so everybody has a great day.”

Overall, Johnson says 90 percent of the course’s patrons play to pace. It’s the remaining 10 percent that the initiative targets.

“My dilemma is that the person at 8 a.m. pays the same amount as someone at 11:30. Those two people deserve the same golf experience.”

A hectic two-week holiday period, which saw increased play beyond the seasonal average due to summer-like temperatures, gave the new initiative a stern test, but Johnson says the new program produced impressive results.

“We didn’t have a round go over 4:30,” he says proudly.

In a hospitality industry, Johnson says pace can be as much a political issue as a playing issue, but the staff at Encinitas Ranch has found an approach that works on both fronts.

“We wanted to do more than set an expectation. We wanted to be assertive about reinforcing that expectation,” he says.

“Pace can be a difficult conversation to have on the golf course but we’re trying to find a positive approach to it.”

Tips to Speed Up Your Play

–       Always carry a second ball.

–       Don’t figure your scores at the green; do it at the next tee box.

–       When sharing a cart, when possible, try to park between shots and have each player walk to his/her ball.

–       Don’t honor the honor system; play ready golf, especially on the tee box. Female players should tee off as soon as it’s safe and distance to the group ahead allows.

–       No search parties, meaning the entire group doesn’t need to pursue a lost ball. Let the player and one other look. while the rest locate their balls and prepare to play. You can also spend this time figuring yardages.

–       Play the proper tees. When you play farther back than you’re capable, your game suffers and so does pace.

–       If there’s doubt about a ball being lost, play a provisional to avoid having to go back to replay the shot.

–       Keep mulligans to a minimum. They’re not allowed by the rules, but we all know they occur. Be mindful of the groups behind you before hitting a second shot. There is a time and play for a practice round, but it’s not when two groups are stacked up behind you.

–       Curb your pre-shot routine if it includes excessive practice swings. The pros don’t need eight practice swings; you don’t either.

–       On cart path-only holes, take multiple clubs.

–       Start reading your putt as soon as you walk on the green. One of the best ways to read a putt is from the lowest part of the green. Start there and work toward your ball.

 To find a JC Golf course in your area and book a tee time or a lesson, go to jcgolf.com.

Fearsome Foursome: The Demanding Par-5s of Maderas

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The view from the 18th tee at Maderas

The majority of the par-5s in Southern California are of the grip-and-rip variety that after two solid shots either result in a putt or short pitch for eagle or birdie and you usually end settling for par.

Not so at Maderas.

As a group, the par-5s at Maderas Golf Club in Poway require more precision, strategy and execution than any other group of 5s in So Cal. I’m open to other candidates, but right now this is my pick.

You don’t settle for par on Maderas’ par-5s; you savor them.

If you haven’t played Maderas, it’s a public course with country club amenities located just off the 15 past Rancho Bernardo Inn. It garnered a top 100 ranking among U.S. public courses by Golf Digest for the first time in 2013.

To quote the course’s own yardage book, “Maderas golf club is quietly tucked away amidst the rolling hills of north San Diego … (It) offers a unique combination of golf course strategy and design mastery, while taking the concept of upscale golf to exhilarating levels.”

Maderas is love at first sight to a golfers’ eyes but that design mastery can induce initial misery without a little guidance. It especially takes a few rounds to learn how to properly club the highly strategic front nine. The back nine is more open, but distance becomes the challenge as the course lengthens out considerably.

But the meat of Maderas is the par-5s, all of which incorporate a carry either off the tee or to the green. In that way, Maderas is like the Crossings, the difference being you can get away with a mistake at the Crossings more so than Maderas.

So here’s a look at a group of great par-5s that test you off the tee and then are likely to give most of your bag a workout. We’ll offer a few strategies along the way that at the least might keep you in play, which is a victory unto itself at Maderas. (Note: Yardages are given from the blue tees, fitting the 10-handicap perspective of this blog.)

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No. 3, par-5, 540 yards

The yardage book says: “Inspired by nature, this is the first of several elevated tee boxes. On the second shot, lay back of the creek safely leaving a short-iron approach.”

My take: This hole is golf’s answer to bumper bowling. As long as you don’t go extreme left or extreme right, a bowled fairway will not only keep you in play but probably bring you back to center. In that sense, this is the easiest of the par-5s. It’s also the only one that’s downhill start to finish.

Less than driver will do off the tee if that helps you hold the fairway. You’re unlikely to get home in two on your second so be smart. Going for it on your second will likely land you in the ravine that’s waiting for you about 120 yards out from the hole.

I know because that was my fate once after ripping a 3-wood. I found my ball next to a boulder and made a crazy up-and-down off the boulder that I don’t care to repeat. I’ve learned to take my 6-iron/7-iron layup and like it.

The other likely outcome is carrying the ravine but being right of the green and watching the slope run your ball off into the woods OB. I’ve done that, too.

So take the layup, cozy a wedge in and take your chances on Maderas’ slick roller coaster greens. The opening four holes might be the most score-able stretch on the course if you’ve got your game together. Take advantage by being smart.

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No. 8, par-5, 507 yards

The yardage book says: “The Sycamore and Thompson creeks merge here, so the fairway is a must. Most will use a fairway metal or long iron off the tee. A lofted club for your second shot over the tree will you leave you a short iron to an elevated and tightly guarded green.”

My take: The par-4 5th is the No. 1 handicap. My Maderas member friends think this hole’s tougher.  Either this or the tee shot on No. 16 has to be the toughest tee shot on the course.

Sliding a drive past the tree in the middle of the fairway and keeping it from going OB left is position A, but it’s also a very tight fit. Anything less brings that huge tree into play and will likely leave you to execute some sort of knockdown shot to a narrow uphill fairway to give yourself any kind of look at the green. And anything right into the lake or right of the lake is OB.

If you get your second past the tree, then comes the aforementioned tight approach, which presents OB left and a raised bunker complex on the right. (Have I mentioned yet that par is a very good score here?)

If I hadn’t experienced a par-5 at Dove Canyon that played like hitting it down a high school hallway, this would get my vote for the toughest par-5 I’ve played in SoCal. It doesn’t help that my draw does my absolutely no good off the tee here.

Take the book’s advice here. Obviously I’ve got nothing but bogeys and scars to show for my rounds on this hole.

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No. 14, par-5, 505

The yardage book says: “Blended in native hillsides and natural creek features, use caution when hitting your second shot with a fairway metal or long iron as the ravine can approach quickly. Play an extra club for your third shot as it is uphill and well guarded.”

My take: Don’t believe the yardage here. This hole plays much longer. And if you’re really want to feel what it’s like to have a lot of golf hole on your hands, try it from the 552-yard back tees.

The tee shot isn’t so much the challenge here. I’ve missed this fairway left several times and been able to get back into position. The problem is biting off enough fairway on your second to put you in reasonable position for a very difficult approach over a ball-swallowing canyon.

The green is elevated, thus the extra club, but I advocate one more. You can only afford to be short here if you find the bailout left, which I did last time after going 3-wood/rescue/7-iron.

I still made bogey as my pitch caught up short of the green.

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This is a the first of two long-distance par-5s on the back that don’t give up par, much less birdie, without a fight.

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No. 18, par-5, 555 yards

The yardage book says: “With signature oak trees and dramatic elevation changes, this fairway slopes left to right. A fairway metal or long iron second shot will clear the corner and leave players with a short iron to a well-guarded green.”

My take: What a finishing hole. First of all, the bird’s-eye view of the 18th fairway also provides a glimpse of the back nine, giving you one a stunning perspective and appreciation for the course.

The key to your tee shot is the mature oak tree sitting on the right side at the turn in the fairway. This is your aim line. You ideally want to end of left of it, leaving an ideal angle for your second. Even right of the tree, leaves with you a shot. The sand traps left aren’t crippling for your par chances, but OB left or short is.

I have a witness to testify that I’ve reached this green in two, but it took a flushed 3-wood. With a decent tee shot, a more conservative play will leave you in scoring range and not risking the green-side creek on the right.

After No. 3, I deem this to be the second easiest of the par-5s, but the caveat is the undulating oblong green. Depending on pin placement, you can get some breaks on this green that will simply defy belief. Once you experience it, you’ll know.

But all in all, this hole does what I think a great finishing should do, which is give you a last chance at glory. After stumbling through 14, 15 (tough par-3), 16 (par-4 w/tight tee shot), I’ve often salved my round on 17 (short par-3) and 18.

That’s another reason I’m partial to this hole. It’s shown me a little mercy on a course that doesn’t show you much if game isn’t spot on.

Yet, I still keep coming back hoping to be up to the multiple challenges Maderas’ par-5s throw at you. Maybe next time I will be.

The Long and Short of My Long-Putter Days

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Photo courtesy of onlyagame.wbur.org 

         We’re nearly nine months out now from the day the ruling bodies of golf decreed the ban of the anchored putting stroke, which currently takes effect on Jan. 1, 2016.

I bring this up because I recently completed some reporting on a piece you’ll see in the coming weeks about what’s transpired in equipment and teaching since then.

Among other things, Dave Pelz has a video circulating online that proposes four or five legal uses of the long putter, including anchoring it inside your forearm and using it croquet-style, which is legal because his method doesn’t straddle the line.

If I recall right, I believe Pelz claims that current long putter poster boy Adam Scott is experimenting with the forearm method to attempt to keep the long putter in his bag as long as he can. Can you blame him?

Anyway, there’s more of an equipment take in my story that I’ll leave alone for now, but when I was working on the story, I recalled me own – brief – experience using the long putter. I thought I’d share it since everyone I tell on the golf course seems curious, especially those who use the long putter and love it and will be most affected by the ban.

A couple months after starting classes at the Golf Academy, we had a putting guru from Chicago named Todd Sones in to look at our putting strokes and have us properly fit for putters (yes, there’s a process to do that).

When my stroke was evaluated, I was identified as a long-putter candidate. My speed control was good, but my path and over club control needed work. Thus, it was deemed that having something to stabilize my stroke, namely anchoring, would allow me to focus on path and a proper takeaway.

I threw a long putter in my bag and practiced with it off and one for a few weeks, in particular doing drills along the edge of a mat, which would let me know if I was taking the club inside again.

While cumbersome to get used to, I wasn’t entirely dissatisfied with it and actually pretty pleased with it from close range. The shorter stroke I used did seem to be quite effective from close range. The farther out I got, however, the worse I got, especially on long putts, where I to pick up the putter head on the take away.

The on-course putting strategy I devised was to use my long putter on short putts – say 10 feet and in – and my standard putter on the rest.

Well, besides sacrificing a club for an extra putter of all things, my plan proved fairly flawed, partly because the weight difference between the two clubs left me without touch in either.

I’d baby the long ones and crush the short ones. I had lip outs galore with the long putter and soon after my putting was a total shambles.

I tried a few rounds exclusively with the long putter and mostly just got to endure ribbing from my foresome and another parade of missed putts.

Mostly I dropped it because I never got used to the weight. It’s a lot of golf club, too much for my liking.

I use a conventional putter now, a used Cleveland I pulled out of a bargain big, and I’m the best putter I’ve ever been. I wouldn’t dream of changing.

The combination of the right club and a few sound lessons that have stayed with me have made me a very competent, and  sometimes streaky-good, putter.

I won’t get into my personal feelings about whether the club, or the stroke rather, should or shouldn’t be in the game, but this whole issue doesn’t bother me the way it seems to many other people.

I’m for anything that makes the game easier and more accessible for people (seriously, isn’t it hard enough for us non-pros?), and the long putter is keeping some of these people in the game.

I don’t scream “cheater!” and get up in arms over the anchored stroke because I don’t play the game competitively other than with myself and the course.

I don’t relish the little side bets or games that many seem to, nor do I currently play in a league. I’m a competitive person at many things, but not golf. I view it as more social and cheer anyone’s success, knowing, like running and many other sports, it’s all hard-earned if done by the rules.

Yet, I will still watch with interest as to how this all plays out, because I’m sensing the long-putter crowd is retrenching and not going quietly on this.

But for me, personally, my long-putter journey has long been over. I’ll be anchored to my conventional putter for many, many years to come.

A 2014 Golf Resolution Suggestion: Get Fit

ImageA sample photo of a club-fitting session

What are your golf goals for 2014? Have you started thinking about them yet?

If you’re a golfer in the majority of the country where they’re experiencing that unfortunate season called winter, I’m guessing the answer is no.

Well, when you do, I’m guessing thoughts will turn to bucket-list courses you want to play, possibly coveted golf purchases to be made and target scores to be shot.

To that list, I’d like to suggest you add one more: If you haven’t done so already, get fitted for your clubs.

This post was originally going to recount the fitting experiences I had in 2013 and how my game benefitted from them, but then I got a better example: my longest golf playing partner.

It was funny how it turned out, but he actually benefitted from my driver fitting more than I did by way of being introduced to a new driver shaft that put him on a path to a dramatic transformation.

Let me back up a little and explain.

I started golfing with Ted about 10 years ago when we met by chance on the first tee box of a golf course in Omaha.

For as long as I’ve known him, he’s been one of the better drivers of the golf ball I know. He’s long had that eye-level, boring ball flight that, as a former sky-baller, I’ve always envied. Then a year ago, something changed.

After I moved out to California and we resumed playing on a more regular basis, I noticed my friend wasn’t the same player off the tee. And the more I learned about the golf swing at the Golf Academy, the more baffled I became as to why.

I suspected a lingering toe injury was partly to blame and that the resulting pain was somehow hindering his weight shift. But then that cleared up and his drives were still taking nasty high and right detours into other fairways.

Finally one day when we were playing last fall, and he was hitting it worse than ever, he asked if he could hit my driver.

After being fitted at Fujikura, I was carrying a demo driver with a new shaft that had started to give me the desired trajectory he used to have.

I’ll never forget his first swing. We were playing a long, slightly uphill par-4 in Costa Mesa. He took his usual backswing and unleashed a 320-yard rope down the right side of the fairway.

Jokingly, I told him I’d need to hold his ID and a credit card if he wanted to use my driver again because I was afraid I wouldn’t get it back.

Anyway, Ted played my driver on the back nine and proceeded to hit all seven fairways and knock eight shots off his front-nine score. It’s the most dramatic turnaround I’ve ever seen on a golf course.

He come off the course ready to toss his old driver in the trash and go buy a new one. I told him it wasn’t a new driver he needed; it was a new shaft. Even after a dramatic 10-hole testimonial, he still didn’t quite get it.

I made him promise to come by and undergo a club fitting at Fujikura and let the pros weigh in before consigning his driver to the scrapheap. But before he left, I actually held his driver for the first time and realized it felt like a paper weight being swung by a piece of spaghetti.

I had him hold his driver and my demo driver simultaneously to feel the weight difference.

“Oh my God is my driver light” was his response.

For those of you that haven’t been fit before, here’s basically what happens: they put you on a swing monitor and have you hit shots that produce an array of visual and numerical feedback on everything from trajectory to swing speed/ball speed and, most import, spin.

The more you work with swing analysis equipment, the more you realize the role of spin in the golf shot and how it influences trajectory and shot shape. Usually reducing and controlling this spin is largely what a fitting aims to do through improving the relationship between the shaft and the clubhead, which sometimes means changing one or the other, as it did for me.

Before I continue, I’m going to out my friend here a bit and tell you that when I told him about how working with this equipment in the past had improved my game, he was less than interested. I especially recall telling him, “You hit a ball and get 20 readouts on what just happened.”

“I don’t want 20 readouts,” he replied.

I countered, “Here’s guessing you want at least five.”

And this is where a big knowledge gap exists in golf right now. We’ve never known more about ball flight, the swing and how the two really work together, yet most of the golfing public continues to know less.

My gauge for this is talking about it with people on the course and watching them stare blankly when I use terms like TrackMan and Flight Scope. If you don’t know those terms, get to know them because you will encounter them in your golf future if you desire to get better. (And, yes, I’m happy to do a future post explaining what they’re all about and how to understand the results.)

Anyway my skeptic friend stepped into a simulator for the first time in December and started discovering the truth about his swing gone wrong.

His old driver, as predictable as ever, replicated the exact results he was having on the course. Right, right and really right where his only swing outcomes.

Among other things, the swing monitor showed Ted’s driver was imparting incredible amounts of side spin on the ball and spin in general.

John Hovis, the fitter that day for Fujikura, processed in the results, took the specs on my friend’s driver, and then made a few insightful observations about Ted’s driving.

The one that wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years was that Ted had unusually long arms, which was making it difficult for him to get the club through.

To increase his club speed, John took an inch off Ted’s old driver and then added weight to the clubhead to give it a little more heft and feel.

The results were dramatic. We played a round that afternoon at Twin Oaks and my friend found fairway after fairway, even on the toughest driving holes on the tree-lined course. His old swing was back and actually better.

And, for my part, I’ve gained 15 yards more from the new shaft I was fitted for that reduced my driver’s trajectory, tightened my draw ball flight and gave me more roll-out.

So that’s two very positive outcomes with two very different swing solutions.

I’ve now been fitted for everything in my bag, and the results show. I just had my best golf year ever and am looking to improve on that in the new year.

So before you dump more money into rounds that will produce the same results, much less invest in new equipment, considering getting fit and discovering the real truth about your golf swing.

Better golf in 2014? That’s what I call a happy New Year.

Putting: Fast Greens 101

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How confident would you feel if this sign greeted you on the first tee?

I played Stoneridge Country Club in Poway Monday morning, and if you’ve heard anything about Stoneridge, it’s likely about their lightning-quick green speeds.

The greens on Monday were zipping along at a 13 and seemed to only get faster as the round progressed. (For comparison, Augusta National reportedly can run between 13 and 15 for The Masters.)

I used to struggle with putting fast greens, but a simple tip I received (that I’ll share later) after a nightmarish putting round in school last January during a tournament at Lomas Santa Fe CC helped me quite a bit.

What it used to be like for me is something like what happened to the player I was paired with Monday. Not having played Stoneridge before, he putted the ball OFF the first two greens and then got so skittish he three-putted inside 20 feet – three times. Painful.

He reacted the way the course wants you to react, which is to get tentative and become unsure of your stroke. When green speeds rise is when you’ve really got to buckle down on the basics of putting to be successful.

His three-putts came from decelerating, which is the death of any golf shot, including putting. Faster greens speeds make avoiding this more difficult because you’re trying not to be overaggressive, but you’ve got to maintain that acceleration through the putt or it’ll end of short, off line, or both.

A better answer is simply to shorten your stroke, cut down the takeaway and focus on the line and finishing the stroke.

This is where a guy like Dave Pelz and some of the other renowned putting gurus of golf can give you much better technical advice than you’ll get here. But faster green speeds also seem to amplify problems you have with your putting stroke in general, so if you really struggle, you might want to have your stroke looked at. I can tell you the guy I played with needed a major putting overhaul, which certainly didn’t help his situation.

The one thing I’m sure of when I step on a golf course is my putting. I may not always hole a bunch, but I keep my three-putts to a minimum and have rarely yipped my way to a bunch of extra strokes like I did on occasion in school tournaments.

The tip I got after my putting debacle at Lomas was the simplest, and possible best, putting lesson I’ve ever received. The more I learn about putting, the more I come back to this, especially when green speeds soar as they tend to do this time of year in California.

You ready for it? Here it is: Make a smooth stroke.

That’s not exactly the stuff of 30-minute infomercials much less entire books about putting, but if you think about it, there’s a lot of wisdom there.

When green speeds pick up, what to people do? They change their stroke. The often get stabby with their stroke or otherwise lose their tempo. At worst, they use that stroke that STOPS at the ball, which never works.

If anything, you want to exaggerate the finish to make sure the putter is going down the line.

The other tactic, or swing thought, I adopt when greens getting humming over 10 is this: Hit it half. For me, that means half the distance. Pick a point halfway to the hole and trust the green to carry it the rest of the way.

You might not hole a lot of putts this way, but you likely won’t be facing a bunch of those dreadful 6- and 8-foot comebackers either.

Anyway, “make a smooth stroke” paid the greatest dividends for me this year when I played Barona Creek, where the greens are quick but also role true. If you read it right and control your pace, you can make putts there. I know. I did.

So the next time you feel greens are pushing you over your speed limit, check your stroke and remember to stay a “smooth” operator under fire.

Short-Game Saturday: Take It From Phil

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For those of you who didn’t wake up to see Phil Mickelson on The Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive,” or tape it on Friday, as I did, here’s a review of the last 10 minutes, where Phil provided his insight about short-game basics.

For many of you, this will be Short Game 101 or even Golf 10, but he echoes something I see often that people don’t seem to factor into their short games: weight shift.

So, here it is, Phil telling it like it is in response to a question about one tip he’d give amateurs.

First, a little philosophical Phil:

“What’s interesting about chipping is that it’s not like putting or your golf swing. There are a million ways to swing a club or a million ways to putt (belly putter, cross-hand, etc.). But there aren’t multiple ways to chip, because everything in chipping is designed to keep the leading edge of the club down and underneath the ball.”

Phil’s first short-game commandment:

“You’ve got to have your weight on your front foot. If you chip with your weight back, the leading edge (of the club) is coming up, and most people chip with their weight level or back, which is just terrible.

“You’ve got to have 70 to 80 percent on your front foot.”

After weight shift, Phil discussed stance to bring it home.

“You either play (a chip) off your front foot or your back foot. Back foot if you want to hit it low; front if you want to hit it high. You NEVER chip with the ball between your feet, yet every amateur chips with the ball (in the middle). It’s not making a decision. How can you commit to a shot when you haven’t even decided what shot you’re hitting?”

One thing that I left the Academy with is a competence to teach the short game. They teach a system that applies to every short-game scenario and uses a universal stroke. You just change clubs to fit the shot/distance.

The one thing people seem to constantly need to be reminded of, until it’s ingrained, is the weight shift. It doesn’t work without it.

Anyway, as an ending aside, if you’ve never watched one of Phil’s short-game videos, hunt one down. It’s mesmerizing stuff, especially the trick shots, which show you the mind-bending possibilities for this wonderful game.

Nemesis Holes, Lesson One

ImageNo. 7 at Eagle Crest

         When I first started thinking about potential topics for this blog, one of the original ideas on the to-do list was to write about nemesis holes –  you know, those holes that seem to have your number time and time again, or, in the spirit of Halloween, haunt you.

          Well, that introductory post to what I hoped would be a reader-driven teachable series for all of us hasn’t been written yet, but I had a teachable moment on this topic on Thursday so I thought I’d publish this post first to kind of get things started. Consider this a prequel post, sort of like “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.”

         Anyway, nemesis holes both fascinate and frustrate me, and I had one very notable one (which I’ll write about in a later post) that dogged me for a decade that inspired me to write about this whole concept.

         When I think about nemesis holes, I break them down into two types: There are the ones that prey on a fundamental deficiency in your game (say long irons, or your ball flight off the tee), and then those that are well within your ability yet bedevil you over and over for again for reasons that are unclear and then become purely psychological.

         The hole I’m writing about today falls into that second category.

         I played Eagle Crest in Escondido on Thursday for the first time in months. It’s under new management and the new staff includes two former mentors of mine at golf school.

         I probably played Eagle Crest a dozen times in school and always enjoyed the layout and the overall length of the course. It really challenges you off the tee and then challenges you to make smart decisions on your second shots. I learned a lot about the game, and my game, by playing here.

         One hole that I never figured out, however, and became a reoccurring train wreck for me, was the par-3 7th. The hole sets up like this: 197 yards from the back tees from an elevated tee to a diagonal oblong green, with traps in front and back.

         The hole is pictured above, but what it doesn’t show – and that you can’t see from tee – is a hidden bunker on the right. I know this bunker well because my tee shot has found it over and over … and over. It’s the “Groundhog Day” of golf holes for me.

         Why this happens is beyond me. I can only figure it has something to do with wind, but I can tell you clubbing up or down one has only changed the outcome in that I come up short. I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever hit this green in regulation.

         I played this hole again on Thursday, and this time I was paired with one of my former instructors, Kevin Connole, the new director of instruction at Eagle Crest.

         As we stepped to the tee, I told Kevin of my woes with No. 7 and then, almost on cue, I proceeded to hit a 5-iron that launched low and right and, like a sand-seeking missile, found that same bunker … again to which Kevin said, “Wow, this hole really is in your head.”

         And that’s it. I’ve got such a history with this hole that it is all mental.

         At this point, Kevin switched into Bob Rotella mode and explained how you go about breaking the pre-programmed bogey funk a nemesis hole puts you in.

         “You need to do something, anything, to change your experience,” he said. “That may mean hitting a different club,  playing it from a different tee (if you’re practicing, obviously), or if it’s a par-3, layup and play for a scramble par because that sure beats another bogey.”

         Then he really got my attention.

         “Or it could mean doing something totally illogical.”

         Hmmm, I got a D in Abnormal Psychology in college, but I’m listening.

         Kevin pointed at a bunker to the far left of the green, well past the pin. “Hit it there,” he said. “Try to hit it in that bunker.”

         Part of the illogic here is that a draw is my dominant shot shape. It just never seems to show up on this hole.

         I would’ve needed another club to hit that bunker Kevin suggested, but I stuck with my 5 and swung away. The ball started at the target bunker and then did a gradual, soft fade right at the flag before landing 15 feet from the pin. I took a practice par and gained a new strategy for next time. Thanks, Kevin.

         Anyway, it’s stories and strategies like this that I hope will drive this series. I’ve had other nemesis holes successes with other strategies that I look forward to writing about. Hopefully with a little input, and professional supervision, we can put our bogeys and brains together and maybe all knock a few strokes off our cards.

 

Power Point: Setting Your Shoulder Tilt

ImageIf you don’t look like Freddy on the tee, you might need to touch your right knee

Martin Hall gave a tip on the Golf Channel’s School of Golf recently that I’ve been reminding myself of a lot lately so I thought I’d pass it along.

The episode was about driving the ball farther and went on to give a lot of good tips for gaining more distance off the tee.  (By the way, swinging harder wasn’t one of them.)

The tip I noticed that he gave, and one that has really helped me, was about setting your shoulder tilt. Shoulder tilt is critical for every swing but especially the driver swing because the optimal attack angle for a driver is one degree up. That’s hard to achieve if your shoulders are level, and impossible if you’ve dipped your front shoulder.

Where I go wrong in my setup sometimes is having my shoulders too level, and I know immediately when it has happened because my right shoulder will roll over on my follow through and I’ll hit a huge pull right.

When this has happened, I know I need to go back to a very simple drill to set myself right. All I do is reach down and touch my right knee. (Obviously, it’s your left if you’re a lefty.)

That simple act sets my shoulders at the proper angle to deliver the slightly ascending blow critical for driver distance.

Remember this the next time your drives are going awry, and especially if you’re taking a divot or striking the ground, because it might be the reason why.