Friday, December 24, 2010

Focus

When recruiting for our team at Texas A&M, I considered focus to be one of the talents most important in a prospect.  You may think that you can't see focus, but over the years, I learned it was as easy to evaluate as distance off the tee.  Here are some signs that a player has good focus and puts it on the right things to help her score.  See how many of these things you do when you play.

The first is the bounce back score.  Mistakes will happen, especially to young players.  The question isn't whether or not a golfer will make a mistake, but will she recover?  The bounce back score tracks recovery.  Any time a golfer makes anything other than a par, the score they make on the next hole is tracked.  A birdie or par gives a +1 score, but a bogey or more gives a -1 score.  The odds for an overall positive bounce back score are very high, so in recruiting, I looked for an almost perfect bounce back and saw it quite often in a round of golf.  One of our players at Texas A&M, Ashley Knoll,  had a perfect bounce back score for an entire semester of play and almost made it through the entire year.  Either way, players who have a game plan, focus on the shot at hand and learn from mistakes on the course instead of dwelling on them, will have high bounce backs. 

That leads me off of the subject momentarily to talk about mistakes.  One difference between pros and amateur golfers is that when pros make mistakes, they learn something they can apply to their games.  When amateurs make mistakes on the golf course, they get scared that the mistake will repeat itself.  Think of the mental power you would have on the course if a mistake caused you no anger, no fear or no doubt.  Imagine if you could separate each shot you hit to be a totally unique experience.  Great players learn from their mistakes and their mistakes make them better players. 

Another way focus can be evaluated is through body language.  A great player looks like a great player on good days and bad days.  There is no slumping, no head hanging, no tantrums, no excuses, no finger pointing and no crying.  When you can see a player's attitude change by how she holds herself, that is a lack of focus on what is important.  Young players often learn this through modeling their idols.  That is one of the reasons I hated to watch Tiger throw his tantrums on the course, because whether he knows it or not, he is being modeled by hundreds of young golfers.  Some young players just get it.  They understand that every bad shot is followed by an opportunity to hit a good shot.  Instead of wondering "how did I get here" when standing in the woods, they immediately jump to, "how do I get out of here?"  Whether or not it comes naturally, body language and focus can be trained. 

Here is a great youtube video by Suzanne Woo outlining what body language can show.

The third way I evaluated focus was by watching a player's post-shot routine.  If you run a 30 footer past the cup, are you yelling "sit, sit", snapping your fingers and  walking quickly after it?  That post-shot behavior will make your next putt seem longer and add unneeded emotion to a short putt.  Instead, watch your putt roll calmly and take in what it does as it rolls.  Learn about the slope.  Continue to act on the green instead of reacting.  A great player has a calm post shot routine that keeps reactions to a minimum.

Focus on the golf course is a simple concept that is tough to master.  It is the ability to be completely into what you are doing at the moment.  That does sound simple, doesn't it?  Instead of saying what it is, I will state it in negative action terms and you will soon see the challenges.

Positive Action:  Stay in the moment and focused on what you want to do with the shot at hand.

Negative Actions:  Don't dwell about the past.  Don't worry about the future.  Don't lose your confidence.  Don't get angry.  Don't get sad.  Don't get bored.  Don't lose your patience.  Don't feel rushed.  Don't lose track of your options.  Don't worry what people will think of you.  Don't compare yourself to others.  Don't be afraid.  Don't take unnecessary risks.  Don't be resentful.  Don't be stubborn.

The positive action is the "zone" and the negative actions are clearly not the zone.  If you want to train yourself to be in the zone, the first step is that the shot at hand or even more specifically, the ball's flight or roll, is the thing that matters most to you.  If you are worried about what people think of your game, you will think about results or show temper so they understand you are better than that last shot.  If you feel entitled due to the long hours on the practice tee, your patience will wane and your game plan will fly out the window.  If you think you should be perfect, you will hold onto mistakes and fail to be in the shot at hand.  Being in the zone is choosing to place all of your focus on nothing but the shot you face.

If we go one step farther and talk about what it means to be totally into the shot, here is how that would look and sound.  I will be the caddy and you will be the player.  You have 155 to the pin, the wind will help a little.  You want to land the ball in the middle at 150 and make sure to keep it under the pin.  You pull your 145 club, check your lie, go through your routine to get your mind attached to your target and clear on what the shot will look like.  Then you execute. 

Here is a clip from the master herself, Annika, talking about her pre shot routine.  Notice its simplicity.  See it, feel it, execute it.  Here is what happens when you master the simplicity.  Annika talks about her 59.

Notice, there was little or no thought about what you would do and a lot of thought about what the ball would do.  Whatever your level of play, this mindset and approach to the game will help you.  Narrowing your focus to what you want the ball to do, visualizing it and keeping all the other unneeded thoughts out of your mind will make your golf quieter, simpler, easier and more fun.  You will no longer need to worry about what you think on each shot, because it will be now be an easy blueprint to follow.  Good luck and I will be watching for that great player body language.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Art of Putting

If there is one skill that you could choose to make yourself a great golfer, putting is the obvious choice.  Judging by how most golfers allocate their practice time, most would choose to be a great ball striker.  How you manage your practice time is a clear indication of the importance you place in each skill required to play good golf.  Two perennial club champions at Vail GC are Todd Novak and Claudia Ruoff.  Todd is a new father and laments the practice time he has lost.  However, I often see Todd sneak out for an hour on the putting green.  Of all the skills needed to play good golf, he is clear on the one he wants to keep sharp.  The same can be said for Claudia, who carries her putter in her car all summer in case she gets a free hour to roll some putts.  I would guess that club champions around the country are aware of what to focus on when given some time to practice.


What makes a great putter?  Here are the elements of a great putter:

1. Confidence
2. Vision and green reading
3. Speed control on any length putt
4. Ability to aim well
5. Athletic
6. Non-reactionary

Have you played golf with a great putter?  She knows she has a shot to make every putt she looks at and when it doesn't happen she is surprised, but unfazed.  That is confidence and it shows.

Great putters see what the ball needs to do from the putter to the hole.  They envision not just break, but speed prior to rolling the ball.  This keeps them totally into the moment and out of mechanics or result thinking.

Speed control is the basis of being a great putter.  I have seen players at the highest level who weren't experts on speed control within 15 feet of the hole.  This inability makes putting streaky, makes it tough to make putts on bumpy greens, and makes reading short putts a guessing game.  Great putters can stop the ball on a dime from any distance and that makes everything about putting so much easier.  

A crucial skill is to aim well and have the ball start where you are aimed.  If you aren't good at this, it would be a good starting point to practice.  All you need are two irons and a hole to set up aiming rails and get some repetitions. 

How can athleticism be important on the putting green?  First, an athletic posture allows for hours of practice, but a contrived, stooped set up will make your back sore in 15 minutes.  Second, athletes allow their eyes to speak to their hands.  What I mean by that is, athletes act on what they see without allowing too much analysis to creep in.  There is a freedom to their movements.  Doubt, hesitation, fear or wariness don't enter the mind of an athlete.

Non-reactionary could be used to describe all phases of a great players game, but especially putting.  Great putters act on what they know and see.  What I mean by that is, they don't react to previous misses, fellow competitors putts or severe conditions.  Poor putters will often leave one short, run one by, leave one short, run one by, etc.  Instead of acting on what they see in front of them, they instead carry around an inventory of previous putts and react to them.  Dave Stockton, who is known as a great putter, said in his book Putt to Win that he never watched his fellow competitors putt.  He trusted his own experience and ability more than what he saw from others putting.  The last condition that causes reactions is severeness on the greens.  Big slopes, extreme quickness or tiers cause players to react and lose their normal process.  Great putters pick a speed and aim point that matches what they see.  They make adjustments and continue to let their eyes talk to their hands.

(You might notice I haven't included any mechanics or how to's in this list.  Those things are for another blog or for a private lesson).
Now that you know the elements needed to be a great putter, your practice time should reflect these.  Anyone can become a great putter.  It takes a strong mindset, the ability to not become bored with practice and good eyes. In case you don't believe me, check out this video.

Getting a putter fitted to your set up is very beneficial as is a lesson to make sure your stroke is simple, efficient and repeatable.  There is no room for recovery in such a small motion, so your putting stroke needs these qualities.  Good luck and you can get started now, whether the green is open or not.  Putting on carpet is okay!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Producing Lag and Power

My plan was to do a little series on what great players do to be great, but I need to delve back into swing mechanics today.  A friend of mine is trying to figure out how to get more power by developing more lag.  He specifically asked me how he can get his right elbow to lead the down swing.  My goal today will be to explain lag and how it is formed and used in the golf swing.  To start, I would like to share the swing of a new student who has incredible power.  Check out Colorado native Pat Grady's driver swing:

The first thing that Pat does to create power is to make a very strong turn back into his right side.  Notice I didn't say a big turn, but a strong one.  What makes it strong?  First, his right knee is flexed and solid all at the same time.  By having a bit of flex, he remains athletic and has the spring necessary to swing through the ball.  By remaining solid, he stays level and strong, producing a stable base to build upon and turn into.  Many golfers have too much knee bend when they set up and that is an invitation for unneeded up and down movement in the swing.  Another common error is lock the right knee which causes the weight to stay too centered, never allowing it to move behind the ball and create momentum.  Secondly, Pat makes a good shoulder turn and his muscles are taut and ready to fire.  Once again, Pat has the right amount of movement in this swing.  Too much turn generally causes golfers to "fall" to the middle at the top and not have their balance in a spot that allows them to fire through to the target.  An insufficient shoulder turn will generally result in a swing that relies too much on the hands instead of the speed of the core. 

Now, we are in the position to answer my friend's question about producing lag.  Before you reach the top of your golf swing, your body is already making a move to the target.  I have talked about the first move in the "Fire the Hips" entry.  If you grew up skating on outdoor ice rinks like I did, you probably played a lot of crack the whip.  The best skaters dared to be at the end of the whip and when the whip cracked, they flew along the ice.  The inside skaters worked hard to hang on to the mittened hand of the girl or guy next to them and turned as tightly as possible.  They were barely moving by the time the last guy flew off.  That is how lag works in the golf swing.  Look at Pat's body as he swings down to the ball.  His chest starts the move and turns through quickly, but it doesn't have far to go.  Pat's hands will travel a lot further and faster than his body.  The club head is the end of the whip and must travel an even longer distance and therefore at a much faster speed.  At impact, Pat's body is still moving at a slow speed, but the club is flying.  He has cracked the whip. 

What makes it happen?  Just as with the ice skaters, the power starts with the inside and moves to the outside.  The most common power leak I see on the lesson tee is golfers who try to move the power to the outside.  It is as if the skater on the end is trying to pull the whole group of skaters along with him to make it all go faster.  It is futile.  Instead, the end skater learned to relax and be ready when the whip finally transferred its speed to him.  He had no control over it so he learned to wait for it just as you do when the roller coaster nears the top.  If you keep the inside, your chest, turning constantly and allow your arms to relax and wait for it, you will start to feel lag.  That lag is what creates speed. 

Now that you have lag, you have to learn to use it by controlling the angles and rotation of the golf club.  This is where my friend's elbow question comes in.  He asked, how do I get my elbow to lead the downswing and get in front of my hip.  Go back to the link one last time and check out Pat at the :12 and :13 marks of the video.  As Pat is turning through, his arms are swinging freely and quickly through the ball.  He has great timing and great patience in his swing.  Because his arms are relaxed, they look as though they drop in this video.  That is because they do drop as they swing and keep up with the chest turn.  However, the word drops seems to make people thing it is a passive move.  Remember, your hands have to move a lot farther than your chest, so the drop isn't passive.  It is propelled using both momentum and very active chest, back and shoulder muscles.  Even though you are active, everything happens in a kinetic chain and looks easy. 

If your swing doesn't look or feel easy on the down swing, your chain is broken. That is the same as one of the kids in the middle of the ice skaters losing their mitten in the hand of the girl next to him.  Skaters scatter everywhere with little control or speed.  The end of the chain turned quickly in these instances.  In golf, the club head loses control and turns quickly up in what is usually called a flick or cast.  The causes of this can be many, but the most common ones I see are stopping or slowing the chest turn, throwing the hands at the ball, tension in the arms, and loss of body balance and center. 

Remember, golf is a game of power, but the source of the power is speed, not brute strength.  Pat is not a big guy, but he hits the ball as far as most on the PGA Tour where he hopes to play one day.  His strength lies in his motion and control.  

How to Prepare

How do you prepare to play a good round of golf?

Whether your time is limited by real world responsibilities, like a job and a family, or you have a lot of time to prepare, here are some ways to make your preparation pay off and transfer to the golf course.

Complaints of not being able to take it to the course.

So many people complain of being great on the range and horrible on the course.  They hit it well during a lesson and when the pro walks away, they duff it.  Why is that so common?  I believe there are two main reasons.  The first is tension.  Tension tightens muscles, changes tempos and causes problems.  The second is the "one shot" factor.  On the course, you get one shot and only one, unless you are one of those annoying people with a constant supply of pocket mulligans.  On the range, you probably dismiss the duffs and instead remember the three in a row that soared to the flag.

How do you change these two factors?  First, you need a great pre-shot routine that allows you to be into the process of the shot instead of the outcome or the trouble surrounding the target.  Tension generally comes from a lack of focus on the right thing.  Where is your focus on the first tee?  Is it on what the new guy will think of your swing or smoothing it down the right side with a little draw?  Tension comes from unclear goals, thinking about what you don't want and placing focus on trouble or results.  In order to alleviate tension, you need to practice thinking about the right things.  How much time on the range do you spend working on your pre-shot routine?  Do you visualize what you want the shot to do when you are on the range?  Do you choose a target and pay attention to where the ball landed in relationship to the target?  One of the first questions I ask a client is "what is your target?".  You would think I asked them a calculus problem.  I get head scratching, guilty grins, excuses and explanations.  As the lesson progresses and clubs change, targets change, too.  Hopefully, along with learning about his swing, my typical client also gets the importance of having a goal for each shot.  Distance and direction are important on each and every shot, so we need to practice with that in mind.  There will be more discussions of focus on the golf course in upcoming blogs.

The second ingredient in taking your game to the course is learning to practice with a "one shot" mentality.  Kids are awesome at this without ever being taught.  They get on the range and they challenge each other to hit the highest shot, the biggest hook or the closest to the flag.  They focus on what they want the ball to do and they compete with each other or with their best ever.  Each and every shot seems hugely important to kids on the range when they prepare to hit it and means nothing the moment they decide on a new shot.  If we could all play the game with this mentality, imagine how much fun we could have on the golf course.  So, you aren't a kid and you practice by yourself for only an hour a week.  I understand.  You think it is better to grind for that hour.  You need to get your mechanics perfect and think about two or three swing thoughts for the entire hour.  If you can, you will hit two large buckets in that hour, because the next shot will be the "one".  Drag it over, hit it, barely watch the flight and drag the next one over.  Does this sound like you?  If not, you are rare, because I stand on the range all day and watch 80% of the people there practice in exactly this manner.  I am amazed at how few people watch their ball flight when hitting balls.  It is similar to the target question I wrote about.  It is torturous to my students when I make them wait and watch their ball until it quits moving.  Given the choice, I know that they are far more worried about what they are doing vs. what the balls are doing.

So the alternative is to practice like a kid and when you learn to do this, you will soon learn to take the great range shots to the course.  First, think quality not quantity.  With each shot, have an intention for the ball's flight, including both distance and direction.  Visualize the flight.  Go through a routine that allows you to see it, feel it, set up correctly and execute it.  Watch the flight and learn from it.  Now, do it again.  Challenge yourself to leave your comfort zone.  Hit a few from tough lies, see if you can curve the shot right or left, see if you can hit a low shot or a high shot.  I can hear you from here; "...but, I'm not good enough to curve the shot!"  Golf isn't about hitting perfect six irons from perfect lies to perfect distances, despite what you think.  Learn to curve the ball through trial and error and you will learn a lot about your swing, the club face and how to get out of the woods.  That would be a great practice session no matter the level of your game.

The next time you practice, remember to incorporate these ideas into your range time and I think you will more easily transfer your good swings on to the golf course.  I also think your practice time will be more enjoyable and that will lead you to want to practice more than you do currently.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Research

I am well aware that I broke the cardinal rule of blogging by taking a 3 week break, but I will defend it as a time for research.  I have been without a computer and with very little internet for the past 3 weeks and seem none the worse for it.  Perhaps it isn't an addiction. 

As for the research, I spent 8 days at LPGA final qualifying in Daytona, FL on the bag for Ashley Knoll.  She played well and entered the fifth and final round in good shape.  However, she was far enough back going into that round that she was forced to produce a low score on a day when wind gusts got up to 40 mph.  Aggression, pressure and tough conditions are a lethal combination that made a target score look tough to obtain.  Next year the plan will be to enter the final round with a bit of a cushion in case the winds are whipping and shots are going astray. 

Every time I go to a tournament I learn a lot.  As a caddy, there is a lot of time to observe as your player warms up or practices following a round.  There is also the chance for many different pairings within 5 tournament days and even though most of the focus is on Ashley and her game, you still get to pick stuff up from the players in your group.  There were many swing styles, many mental approaches, many putting strokes and a lot of players to see.  The pressure at tour school as it is called is high, which makes it very appealing as a test of a game, but not much fun to live through.  From the week, I took many notes to cultivate blog entries and to help myself as a teacher, coach and caddy.  Hopefully, what I learned will help current and future students.  Today, I will outline future blogs by way of noting what I believe makes a professional golfer great.  Some of the elements for success as a professional will most certainly help amateur golfers.  Some things though, are simply the reality for the small percentage of people who make their living controlling the flight and roll of a little white ball. 

Golf is a very unique profession.  It requires those playing it to deal with a great amount of uncertainty.  In the early stages, young pros have no idea of where they will be playing, how much money they will make, what the costs will be, or if they will advance in their profession.  Can you imagine taking a job with no knowledge of these important aspects of the job?  Few of us would sign up for that degree of uncertainty.  However, many young men and women have the dream of playing professional golf at the highest level and in order to pursue that dream, they must start out playing mini tours until they earn their LPGA, PGA or European cards.  
While dealing with this uncertainty, the pros must prepare themselves to compete at the highest level possible.  Tour school is about one week, but players can also take a season long approach and earn a card by playing well on one of the developmental tours.  However, just to get the right to play on the developmental tour is a tough task that only a small percentage of players achieve.  Achieving a Nationwide, Challenge Tour or Futures Tour card is in and of itself a big step and a mark of success.  Any and all success gained as a young professional adds up to less uncertainty and more security.  However, there is little security even when reaching the highest levels.  You are only as secure as your last year on tour.  Witness Billy Mayfair, five time winner on the PGA Tour, who spent his last two Decembers at the PGA Final Stage earning his way back to making checks.  On the woman's side this year, Nicole Hage was once again successful in earning her tour status by finishing t10th at final qualifying.  However, her earnings last year were just shy of $16,000, so even though she is living her dream of playing on the LPGA Tour, she is making little more than $8 per hour based on 40 hour weeks and a 52 week schedule.  Nicole is a very bright, dynamic young lady who, if using her Auburn degree, could earn a sizable salary in her field of study.  That is the reality of what professional golfers face.  What we see on television are the top players on Sunday.  What we don't see on television are the hundreds of mini-tour players struggling to fill the gas tank and find a roommate so they can make it to the next stop.  My question is, what does it take to erase the uncertainty and move up the ladder to playing on Sunday on television? 

There is no "perfect" combination.  Each golfer is unique, just as each person in this world is unique.  There are probably sports psychologists who will tell you exactly what it takes to be successful, but I think a great player figures out what it takes to make himself or herself successful given his or her qualities, strengths and weaknesses.  Golfers are best when they are completely themselves, not trying to fit into a mold or play a part.  That doesn't mean that golfers can't change who they are, but simply that they must be honest about who they are and decide what works and what doesn't in their pursuit of their dream.  For example, you might hear someone say, "I am not a morning person."  I myself used to say that until I started coaching and realized my morning mood was very important to the team's morning mood.  If I was grumpy, uncommunicative, or slow, the team would pick up on it and either react to it or use my mood as an excuse to adopt the same mood.  I changed into a morning person.  Before the change took place, I made sure to get up much earlier than necessary to present the right attitude when breakfast time came along.  Golfers constantly make these types of adjustments to their attitudes and routines.  Great players figure out what it is that makes them play their best golf and they turn these actions into habits.

What do the best players do to alleviate uncertainty?  They prepare.  They focus.  They make putts.  They minimize unforced errors.  They stay in shape.  They eat right and avoid vices, such as alcohol.  They get a good night's sleep.  They are good self coaches.  They have a strong support team.  They are realistic.  They are patient.  They balance their drive with a degree of contentedness.  They keep their equipment in good condition and fit it to their game.  They know the rules.  They know the course.  They build strong relationships with their caddies.  They stay in the moment.  They understand the importance of process.  They don't get caught up in process for the sake of it.  Bottom line, they score no matter how they hit it, how they feel or what the conditions may be.

Wow, what a list of what great players do to be great.  And in that list, no mention was made of swing technique, which if you listen to the weekend television commentators, is the main thing that makes a player great.  If you stand on the range at a professional event, you will quickly realize that 100 players will have 100 different swings.  There is no one way to swing the club.  At the professional level, the swing needs to be powerful, reliable under pressure, consistent over months of travel and employ a one way miss.  Pros don't need a swing that looks good, but they do need to know what their swing produces when on and when off.  If they choose to make a living playing golf, there will be as many off days as their are on days. 

The world of professional golf is definitely great for those who succeed at the highest levels.  In the next few blogs, I will go away from talking about technique and instead talk about the elements of success listed above and how you can employ them to take shots off of your score whether you play for a living or only on the weekend. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hip Action

How many times have you heard the phrase, "fire the hips"?  That phrase gets a lot of golfers in trouble.  The hips should never lead your motion in the golf swing.  If they do, you will be off balance and your rotation will be stopped.  Your motion instead is lead by your sternum or your center of gravity.  To prove this point, try this exercise:

Swing an imaginary club to the top of your back swing.  Now have someone put their hand flat on your right shoulder and chest.  From the top, with your shoulder turn restricted, fire your hips.  The only direction your hips can travel without your torso staying on top of them is out or in a lateral motion.  When that occurs, most people call it a slide.  I usually refer to it as a poor spine angle.  When your spine is tilted back when you are trying to generate speed toward the target, you will hit off of your back foot and usually flip the club through impact to avoid running into the ground.  This is a very common lesson of both beginners and good players.  It also brings up a question often heard on the lesson tee, which is, "how do you start your downswing?"

The golf swing may seem like a movement full of positions and angles due to our use of high speed cameras, but it isn't really.  It is a motion made up of rotation and swinging.  Nothing is static or stopped after the motion begins.  Something is always moving, creating flow and rhythm.  As we talked about earlier, the rotation and swinging create momentum and leverage and that is what powers the swing.  So, back to the question of how to start your down swing.  Your down swing is a part of the full swing.  Your back swing doesn't stop at a certain point and then become your through swing.  Something is always moving.   The transition from back to through happens because your weight begins moving toward the target and your body is rotating to support that movement.  This movement toward the target happens before you reach the top of your back swing and it leads your transition.  Your arms follow this change in momentum and if relaxed, swing down and through the ball.  If you believe you should swing to the top and that there is a pause or that you stop to gather energy, you will have to then create your down swing momentum with your hands.  This is a very common cause for an "over the top" move at the ball.  The inside of the wheel should always power the outside of the wheel.

When you take a step forward, you begin by leaning a bit with your chest.  That momentum is the beginning of the movement chain that allows you to walk.  When you throw a ball, you lean forward, step and turn your chest.  Both of these are motions we learn as a child and need little or no thought to perform.  Golf, however, is often learned at a later stage and many times the motions are taught incorrectly.  Now, instead of changing momentum from back to through as we would when throwing a ball, we get caught up in a good back swing and put too much thought into it, versus thinking of swinging to the target.  We get stuck.

That is one reason that we often teach beginners what a great finish looks like first.  We want beginners to get oriented to the target.  We want their movements to be "through" not only down to the ball.  We want beginners to use their natural abilities that they use when they throw.  The big difference is, this is an underhand move.  One of my favorite analogies that clicks with students is to move as though you were skipping stones.  It creates the right chain of movements, it allows freedom and rotation and it gets the arms soft and working close to the body.  Imagine learning to skip stones as a kid and having the advice of "firing the hips".  Now you understand what the hips role is in the swing.  They support you and your rotation.  They flex to provide you with strength and proper posture.  They rotate about 30-40% less than your shoulders.  They never lead your turn, whether back or through.  I hope this helps you understand the role of your hips and where momentum is created in your swing.  If not, fire me a question and I will answer it.  Remember, free advice from your buddies might cost you money in the end if you like to make a friendly wager.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Simplest Approach to the Short Game

As a coach, I always thought of a good short game as a good defense.  You can't win championships unless you play good defense.  Whenever you make a mistake on the golf course, have an off day with your ball striking, ignore course management or simply get a bad break, your short game will be your savior.  If you have a great short game, you can be a bit more liberal with your course management and go for some tough pins.  You may short side yourself, but with a good short game, you will still have an opportunity for a par. I can still remember watching Lorena Ochoa play for the first time in Miami at Doral.  She was about 15 or 16 years old and she short sided herself in deep rough with no green to work with and well below the level of the hole.  She took a big swing and threw a shot up right next to the hole.  I thought it was a fluke until I saw the same shot 9 holes later.  Her short game betrayed her imagination, hard work and determination.  It was easy to see she would one day be a champion.

My definition of the short game is any shot within 50 yards of the hole.  That includes putting, which might be the most important shot to master.  However, today we are going to talk about shots from off the green.  The simplest way to think about short game is to ask yourself, what do I want the ball to do?  The planning and visualization process is probably a key to having a great short game.  Here is what is involved:
  1. What sort of lie is your ball in?  Good lies allow for many possibilities.  Poor lies usually dictate fewer choices.
  2. Where do you want to land the ball?  If possible, you are looking for a flat spot that offers a  predictable reaction when the ball hits.  
  3. How will the ball react?  For example, if the ground is firm, the first bounce will be a big one.  If it is soft or wet, the ball will check.  
  4. Visualize the flight, landing, bouncing and roll out of the golf ball.  If you can't see it prior to hitting it, you will have a tough time producing the shot.  
  5. Finally, create a pre-shot routine that allows you to see it, feel it and execute it.  In other words, visualize the shot, take a practice swing to rehearse the shot and then aim the club and hit the ball.
Now that you know exactly what you want to do with the ball, how do you get the club to produce the shot?  Your technique is important in the short game, because the movements are very small and there is no recovery time if you get the club off balance.  Many golfers take full swing lessons, but rarely take short game lessons.  A short game lesson should teach you not just the proper techniques needed to hit shots around the green, but also how to see the shot you need to hit in different situations. 

As we go, we will talk about the techniques needed to produce any shot you want to hit around the green.  For now, think about the process of planning and executing listed above whenever you are faced with an up and down possibility.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Golfweek's Julie Williams Writes About the First Tee!

http://www.golfweek.com/news/2010/nov/17/first-tee-forum-showcases-other-side-golf/

I love that the First Tee will help us develop the game and our business by showing kids how they can work with the game they love.  This is a great article about their latest efforts.  

In Touch With Competition

It is important as a teacher to stay in touch with competition.  The way that I manage to do that is to caddy for my students.  Caddying is a job that teaches you a lot about your students and their games.  It is also a job that teaches the importance of separating playing the game from working on the game.  That is what I want to talk about today.

As a teaching pro, I spend a great deal of time helping people with their technique.  We work on swings, putting strokes, short game shots and wedges.  There is a lot of energy and thought given to the movements needed to produce shots.  Hopefully, after a lesson, there is also a lot of energy given to practicing those movements.  The practice needed to learn a shot should be thought of as the transition from learning to doing.  Remember when you learned to drive?  There was a thought process to everything, from looking in your rearview mirror to using your turn signals.  All the little things seemed like a lot to remember, but in no time at all, you were checking the mirrors, using your turn signals, changing the channel on the radio and checking out other cars for your friends.  With time, you made the transition from conscious movements to unconscious movements.  That is what we hope for in golf.

However, many people never make that transition to unconscious movements and therefore are constantly working on their game instead of playing it.  An example of a conversation a caddy might have with her player would be something like this:  "We have 158 yards to the hole.  The green is firm so you want to land the ball at about 150 yards.  You have a little wind behind you and the ball is a bit below your feet.  Do you like the 8 aimed a few yards left of the hole?"  Hopefully, your suggestion is the same as what the player has in mind and you can then talk about a specific target and perhaps the trajectory of the shot.  By the time the player is over the ball, she is completely into the target you have talked about and can clearly picture the ball's flight.

LPGA Member Amanda Blumenhurst with her caddy at Wegman's.


This is very different than the lesson tee, where the conversation for that shot might go like this:  "The ball is below your feet so you want to have a little more bend from the waist and keep your head very centered as you swing the club.  There isn't as much movement for this shot, so don't worry about making a big finish, just let your arms do the work.  The slope will cause the club face to be a bit open through impact which will make the ball fall to the right and perhaps take a little distance off of it.  It helps to get a wider stance when the ball is below your feet.  That will lower your shoulders without too much knee or waist bend.  This shot will fly a bit higher because you are coming in steeper than a regular iron shot due to your posture.

In the first conversation, the player is completely focused on what the ball will do when she hits it.  In the second conversation, the player is focused on how to stand to hit the shot, staying centered, letting the arms swing, how the club face will look and how much knee and waist bend is right.  These are all important things when learning how to hit a shot with the ball below your feet.  However, this checklist has to be the same as your driving checklist and become automatic prior to playing the game.  Otherwise, your body will not perform with freedom, but will be robotic.  Freedom is what allows the brain to visualize the shot and the muscles to perform it.  That is what we are all working toward when we learn the game of golf.  Freedom allows us to get lost in shots and have joy in the outcomes.  It also seems to take away some of the pain when shots fail, because you know in your heart that you did all that you could to hit a good shot.  When a golfer stays in the work mode on the golf course and has a lengthy checklist needed to successfully hit a shot, bad shots will always have a reason.  Something in that checklist wasn't accomplished and that was clearly the problem.
 

What should you take from this blog?  First, balance.  Your game should include lessons, practice, play and competition.  All of these actions will require a different mindset and there should be a progression from the lesson tee to competition.  Many of you are thinking that you don't compete, but if you tee it up and have a chance for your personal best, that is a competition.  If you keep score, you compete.  If you post a score in public, you are truly competing.  The angst that comes with posting a score is perhaps the most important emotion that we need to learn to handle.  

Second, you should understand that analysis on the golf course happens when planning the shot to hit, but not when thinking of how to move to produce the shot.  Analysis used in this way will tighten your muscles and slow them down.  

The next time you take a lesson, ask the pro how to practice what you learned.  Then ask how to take it to the course and finally, figure out how to use what you learned without thinking about it.  That is golf!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lots of Giving in the News


Link to Golfweek Story of Kim's Win



In-Kyung Kim won Lorena Ochoa's tournament in Guadalajara this past weekend.  She got a check for $220,00 and promptly donated half of it to Lorena's foundation that helps kids.  That alone would be a cause for a pause, but she then promised the other half of the winnings to a charity to be named in the U.S.  In the article, she remembered the help that she received when she was 16.  That help, from an unnamed man, helped her achieve her goals in the U.S.

I love it when pros "get it" and think of others.  She understands that her journey was made possible only through help from others and she is now becoming a benefactor to young people with hopes and dreams, just as she had at one time.  For every pro athlete who is running around on a spouse, getting a D.U.I, or treating someone poorly, I hope there are ten who are doing good things like this.  I think the media likes the negative stories a bit more than these stories of generosity though. 



Monday, November 15, 2010

Please Release Me, Let Me Go!

Release is the moment of truth!  It is that feeling of ease and power combined.  It is the motion that makes golf a bit like powder skiing - the word that best describes it is ahhh.  When the average player feels a great release of the golf club, it is what brings that player back to the course or the driving range for more.  So how do you do it?  What is release?  Simply stated, when you release the club, you have effectively used a lever.

Check out this footage of Iron Byron and you will get an idea of pure leverage used to hit a golf ball.
Iron Byron
This link will also take you to a pro who uses this as a method for teaching.  I get the idea, but really?  If we all had a stable fulcrum in the front of our chest, one arm that bent both ways at the elbow and someone who oiled us regularly, then I could see the reasoning behind this approach, however, I think the thing we should be taking away from this machine is simply the lever system of the back swing and release.

This machine does a great job of setting the angle between the shaft and its arm, it creates momentum by dropping the club from the top and it releases the lever and the momentum at the bottom of the swing as the club head passes the center of the machine.  Here are the things that I believe golfers should take away from watching the mechanics of a much simpler machine than the human body.

First, the arm of the machine and the shaft of the club form a straight line at impact.  That straight line gives the club maximum release and therefore maximum speed.  In golf, speed = power.  If you look at yesterday's blog, you will see that many golfers release the club too early and throw the club head or hang on to the angle too long by moving the handle of the club laterally.  They never achieve that straight line that the machine achieves.  Why?  There are so many reasons.  Lack of strength, lack of understanding, too much or too little grip tension and a fixation on hitting vs. swinging are all reasons I see daily.  Check out this video and you will see an example of a great release:
Ricky Fowler Face On
If you can stop it right at the :28 second mark, you will see the perfect straight line needed for maximum speed.  Ricky Fowler is currently 45th in driving distance stats on the PGA Tour with an average drive of 292.9 yards.  He is 5'8" and weighs just 150 lbs.  His swing is the perfect example of speed = power.

Okay, so it is one thing to talk about it or to watch, but how do you do it?  First, it is important to understand that your hands are what creates the load on the golf club to impart force.  The hands create acceleration and direction of your clubhead and therefore your ball.  If your hands are in charge, they need to have a good grip on the club.  (We will talk about what is a good grip in an upcoming blog.)  That grip pressure needs to be reactive to the forces you put on it during the swing.  Think of this example.  You are vacuuming your house with a heavy vacuum.  Your hand is firm on the handle, but not tight.  However, when you get to the maximum extension point of your sweep, your grip pressure will be much firmer.  You can use any example where you create force with your hands, such as shoveling snow or chopping wood.  In all actions, your arms are soft, but strong, which allows your hands and wrists to be firm when needed.  When you arms are too tight in any of these activities, it ruins the chain of movements and puts a lot of tension in your shoulders.  Golf is exactly the same. 

When I hear people give advice about grip pressure, I think much of it is misplaced.  Occasionally, I will see a person hanging on too tightly, but more often it is that their elbows are locked or their arms are tight, giving them loose hands and floppy wrists.   These golfers often let go of the club at the top of their swing, because something has to give.  Many of them actually let go prior to or right at impact also, thus taking away the force that creates the straight line we are looking for at impact.  If your hands are what provides the force in the leverage system of the golf swing, they should be in control at all times, not barely hanging on. 

Some people who don't release the club correctly are under the impression that your hands need to be in front of the club head at impact.  That is true, but the design of the club will take care of that for you.  If you try to make that happen instead of releasing at the ball, you will never get as much speed as you could and your power will be lacking.  Another problem, especially for new golfers, is the idea that the club is for hitting not for swinging.  When that is your intention, your hands will usually stop too soon and the club head gets thrown too early.  If we used the instincts we develop when we are kids swinging on swings, we would quickly understand that acceleration through the bottom of the arc doesn't end until we reach the end of our momentum.  That instinct used in the golf swing allows the hands to maintain their speed and deliver the club head at the bottom.

I hoped today's discussion of release helped.  The idea of allowing the club and your arms to form a straight line at impact is a great visual for you to take to the range the next time you practice.  The next blog will be about short game.  By the way, the golf course now has about a foot of snow on it.  It is winter in Vail!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Club's Rotation and Youtube!

Good morning!  I wanted to talk about two things today.  First, I wanted to mention the great array of free information that is out there on the web.  I will be using lots of youtube links today to illustrate my blog.  Youtube is a great source of learning for me and I am constantly checking out different golf swings.  I also go to some of my favorite golf teacher's sites to see what I can learn.  My very favorite is clemshaw's channel on youtube.  Check him out some day when you have some time to kill. ClemShaw explains arm and club rotation.
(Please hit the back arrow on your browser when you are finished to get back to the blog.)

The real reason I am writing today is to continue in the explanation of what the club does during the golf swing.  Today, we are going to talk about the importance of the club's rotation during the swing.  The only moment in the swing that the club doesn't have slight rotation is in the transition from back swing to forward swing.  If the rotation of the club is interrupted at any other time in the swing, the result will be an improper sequence of motion.  When the sequence of motion is off, the result is a breakdown in the basic lever system of the swing and you will lose power and/or accuracy.

When I am on the lesson tee, rotation is probably my most used word when explaining the golf swing.  The reason for that is two-fold.  First, everything rotates when you swing a golf club and most problems that I see rise from a lack of rotation.  I can hear you saying, "Everything?"  Well, maybe not everything, but close.  I will explain that statement on another day.  The second reason that I use the word rotation so much is the reason we are talking about it today and that is because the club must rotate as it swings.

As your golf club swings back and through the ball, your torso rotates, your arms rotate from your shoulders, there is a little rotation in your forearms and all of this causes the golf club to rotate.  Check out this slo mo shot of Luke Donald:
Luke Donald Slo Mo

Watch his gloved hand and you will see that it starts out with the logo facing the target.  As he swings, the logo faces the camera, then the target and very quickly after impact it faces behind him.  If you can, grab a wedge and swing it in front of a mirror, make some small half swings and watch your left hand.  Hopefully, you will see the back of it in the back swing and the knuckles in the through swing.

This is what happens in all good swings and it is simply the rotation of the arms throughout the golf swing and therefore the golf club.  When you watch a pro, it all seems pretty simple and looks easy.  How do we mess it up as amateurs?  The answer is often, we have misconceptions which lead to tension in all the wrong places. 

Many people I see on the lesson tee lose control of the handle of the club on the way down simply because they quit rotating it.  Here are two examples of poor club rotation:

An example of throwing the club head at the ball.  Often called flicking or casting.  Notice the odd position of the left arm and how it seems to have stopped moving.  Lack of rotation is causing a breakdown in the sequence of movements.
In this picture, the club has also stopped rotating, but instead of throwing the club head, the handle of the club is moved laterally through the shot.  Many people are doing exactly as they hope to do here due to misinformation on how the club works through the shot.  Not only does this move suck away power, notice the open club face. 

The first piece of advice you often get when you learn the game is to keep your left arm straight.  Look at Luke's swing again and check out his left arm at the top of his backswing.  See that slight bend?  Luke's arm is fairly straight as it swings back and through, but it is relaxed enough to allow it to bend at the top.  If you took the advice to heart and you really, really wanted to keep your arm straight, you might have locked your left elbow.  This will lead to problems.  To illustrate the proper tension for your arms, we are going to do a little interactive exercise.

Hold your left arm out straight in front of you with a closed fist.  Put your right palm on your left shoulder and turn your fist so the palm faces the sky.  Did you feel the rotation in your shoulder?  I certainly did.  Now, lock your elbow and tighten the muscles in your arm as much as possible and do the same thing.  Did you feel less rotation in your shoulder?  Okay, now grab a wedge with your left hand only and do the same exercise in golf posture with a little swing.  Don't forget to keep your right hand on your left shoulder so you can feel what happens in your shoulder joint. 

When you did this with only a straight left arm, not a locked one, did you feel as though your hand and arm worked as Luke Donald's worked?  I am guessing that when you locked your left elbow, the club felt heavier, off balance and your wrist broke down instead of cocking.  When your left arm has some freedom, your wrist feels strong and supported, but when you lock your elbow, your wrist seems to become a free agent and flips around.

*Instruction Hint:  If you are a golfer whose left arm breaks down a great deal during your back swing, you are probably failing to make a good turn away or you have experienced back pain or injury.  Instead of working on keeping your left arm straight as you swing the club, work on making a good pivot away from the ball and you will probably find that was the real culprit.  If you have had back injuries, bending your left elbow is better for you and your golf swing than putting a lot of torque on your back.  If you don't believe me, check out this video:
Calvin Peete

The second misconception or bad advice we get as golfers is to keep our heads down.  Once again, if you are an overachiever and manage to truly keep your head down, you will not rotate correctly and lose power.  The best youtube video I have ever seen that explains this well is by Tom Watson.  Watch it here:
Tom Watson
You might ask why I included this when the topic of the day is "How Does the Club Swing?".  Today's breakdown of how your club swings is about the golf club's rotation.  If your body doesn't rotate correctly, your arms won't swing freely and your club will not have any rotation.

*Instruction Hint:  Freely swinging arms will allow the golf club to rotate as it swings. 


Next time, our topic will be the release of the club.  Until then, think good thoughts about your swing and your game.




















Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How Does Your Golf Club Swing?

Today's blog is about how the golf club works in your golf swing.  So many people come to see me on the lesson tee worried about what they need to do to hit the ball, but with very little knowledge of what the golf club needs to do to hit the ball.  It will be easier to understand how you need to move if you understand what the club does throughout the swing.

We will talk about three parts of the golf club: the club head, the shaft and the handle and how each works in the swing. Your goal as a player is to learn to control each of these parts.  In order to achieve this goal, you first need to understand what each part is doing during the swing.

The handle of the club is your connection and in essence your steering wheel.  Your hands and arms will interact with the club to create leverage, momentum, rotation and release.   What your hands do with the handle is of the utmost importance to hitting good golf shots.  Whether you are learning golf or an accomplished player, this is the center of your golfing universe. 

We will start with leverage and momentum.  If you simply lifted the handle of the club in front of you and kept your arms, hands and the entire club on the same plane, you would begin to create momentum, but no leverage.

If you have a club nearby, you can try this now.  Your club and arms will feel somewhat heavy and you might be using your shoulders to help lift the club.  *Instruction Hint:  your shoulders shouldn't shrug up and down as you are swinging the golf club. 

Now, instead of lifting your arms, simply cock your wrists in front of you and raise the club head in this way.
When you make this move, you create leverage, but not much momentum.  This move goes by many names, such as creating an angle, setting the club or simply cocking your wrists.  *Instruction Hint:  if your hands move around on the club while setting this angle, we need to work on a better grip.  Time for a grip lesson?

Finally, lets put the two moves together and create both momentum and leverage.  However, I want you to do them in different orders.  First, raise your arms and then cock your wrists.  How did this feel?  Probably a bit cumbersome and I would guess that you are shrugging your shoulders once again.  Now do it in the opposite order and cock your wrists prior to raising your arms.  Do you notice how relaxed your arms stay throughout the movement?  If you look at the top picture of me lifting my club, you will see a lot more tension in my neck and shoulders than you do in the second or third pictures.  There needs to be some tension in your body in a golf swing to maintain structure and balance, but that tension shouldn't be in your shoulders or neck.



Leverage is one of your greatest friends in the golf swing and learning to create it early and correctly will put you on the path to hitting good shots.  The other important lesson to take away from this simple exercise is that the sequence of your movements matter.  Learning to swing the club from the handle will allow you to have tension free arms and shoulders while lifting the club creates tension in those areas.  Be careful of your buddies who talk to you about a "one-piece takeaway" or straight arms.  Both of these tips often create poor sequences and lots of tension.  You can make all the correct movements in the wrong order and look pretty good doing it.  However, those swings rarely have enough freedom to create great power.  If you can swing  the club in the most efficient manner, your body will learn proper movement and motion with much more ease than if you focus on how you should move your body to make the club work. 

Our next blog will cover the rotation and release of the handle of the golf club.  I welcome your questions and comments.  Hopefully, there will be too much snow outside to do these pictures tomorrow!

Beginnings

Hello to the golfers in the Vail Valley!  As I write this it is snowing at the golf course and we are thinking about the upcoming mountain opening.  However, as a golf professional with a passion for the game and teaching, I want to stay in touch with the game and my clients, no matter what the weather.  So, I will offer this blog and I hope all of you take part in it also.  It will include instruction, some tips on golf fitness, interesting news links, travel ideas and whatever you would like to see.  Just make a comment or drop me a line at the course and we will try to cover your ideas or share your news!  I would like to one day put together a book or manual on learning the game of golf so your feedback would be very helpful.  If things aren't clear I would love to know it so I can explain things better and become a better teacher. 

Awareness

Where do you place your awareness?  This is a gigantic question, because there are so many things, thoughts, people and conditions to be awa...