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. 

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...