Friday, May 3, 2013

The Powers of Observation

A few weeks back, we were paired with OU.  Our Assistant Coach, David Von Ins, walked most of the round in the same group as Chirapat Jao-Javanil.  She won the NCAA Championship last year playing for OU and is currently ranked #7 in the country.  I asked David, "What makes Jao great?"  His answer was, "She is the most observant player I've seen in awhile and she plays smart golf." 

Chirapat Jao-Javanil.  It isn't a surprise that her head is up and her posture is tall and attentive as she walks the course.

That wasn't the answer I expected, but if I may say so, it was a great observation.  David recognized that Jao was very skilled, as many college players are, but also that she was able to effectively use her skills because of her powers of observation. Are you using all of your powers when you play the game or are you only tapping into a few?

If you want to be observant, here are some things you can do to increase your awareness.  Let's start at the hole and move back to the tee.  The hole is generally cut on a slope.  When your ball is traveling its slowest, by the hole, the break of the slope will be most pronounced.  Make sure you start there when reading the putt.  What is around that influences the putt?  Are there mounds from a bunker complex?  Are there high points and low points on the green?  Is there grain?  If you have a hard time reading greens, here is a simple formula for you to help you raise your awareness and be observant:

Walking up to the green:  Look for High Point and Low Point of the green.  Look for colors.  Dark colors might mean moisture or grain.  Light colors might mean hard, dry spots or with the grain.
On the green:  Look for slopes.  Bunker mounding, tiers and high and low points effecting my putt.
Reading the putt:
From the side, check to see if it is uphill or downhill.
From the hole, check for grain and slope around the hole.
From behind the ball, get a big picture look of path the ball will roll.

To condense it even further, you should ask yourself these questions before you focus in on the line of the putt:  High spot, low spot?  Uphill or downhill?  Slope, grain?  What speed do I need?  Where will the ball enter the hole?

Stacy Lewis reads a green.  Lewis' putting has helped her achieve the #1 ranking in the world.

You see more looking uphill than downhill, so if you have a downhill putt, spend a little more time on the hole side of the putt.  Your feet tell you a lot, so being observant doesn't mean using your brain more, but using all of your senses more.  Walk around and feel the green and the slopes with your feet.  Soft eyes see more, so don't try harder to see the line.  Getting squinty with your eyes will cause you to see less, not better.  Here is a great quote about soft eyes.  This is a martial arts concept, but so useful for golf and the problem solving that is green reading.

"Attention is what we use to filter out unwanted sensory input. If your attention is too tight and concentrated (by focusing too hard on one object in front of you), then you'll end up being oblivious to your peripheral vision.
...So, to develop our peripheral vision, relax your eyes, and don't look *hard* at anything. Dilate your pupils, and keep a soft focus in the direction you're looking. ...The idea isn't that you are developing your eyes especially for peripheral vision, but rather that you stop ignoring your peripheral vision. Don't look at things, but look through them."
(Stephen Chan - Soft Eyes and Aiki Ju Jitsu)

Many players who miss a putt or two work harder to get the right line.  They focus more on the line and take in less information.   Green reading is about taking in information, visualizing how it will effect the ball's roll and committing to what you envision.  
Here is what Adam Scott had to say about his putt on the 18th hole to get into a playoff to win the Masters this year:  
ADAM SCOTT: I just told myself to go with instinct. You know, just put it out there and hit it. And show everyone how much you want it. 
I love it that Adam relied on instinct and didn't try too hard to read the putt.  Your instincts come from your awareness not from overthinking.
As you approach the putting green, you can also use your powers of observation.  Where you land your approach shot is every bit as important as how well you hit it.  A hole tucked behind a downslope will cause balls hit at the pin to bounce over the green.  A hole just over a false front will cause balls hit well to suck back and off the front of the green.  Hitting the ball well isn't the only thing you need to get a ball close to the hole.  You also need to understand how the golf course can help and hurt your shot.  A lot of this knowledge will come from being observant in your practice round.  If you are spending your practice round grinding on your swing and thinking about mechanics, you will be missing 1/2 of the equation of scoring.  Where you hit it is as important as how you hit it.  
On short game shots around the green, don't automatically look at the green as the only landing spot.  You might want to land the ball off the green to give yourself some help in getting it to stop.  Friction is sometimes the only answer to stopping a ball on a downhill slope and there is little friction in the air.  Another thing you want to look for around the green is a flat spot to land the ball.  This will help you predict how your shot will act when it hits the green.  Do you look for the color of the green to determine if there are hard spots or wet spots?  Pay attention to all the clues that can help you get your ball close to the hole.
As you plan your shot, what do you see?  Do you focus in on the flagstick or do you see the slopes that lead to the hole?  Could those same slopes lead your ball away from the hole?  What will help you and what will hurt you?  Where can you land your ball so you can easily predict the outcome of your shot? Should you play defense or offense with your shot?
As you are playing your practice round, are you noticing the slopes on the fairway?  Some can help you and some can hurt you.  Do you see the trees?  Are they blocking the wind so you have to think a bit more to judge it?  Trees and vegetation usually grow more on the wet side or low side of the ground, at least in dry Texas.  That will be the direction your ball will run on the fairway.  Where are the wide spots and narrow spots in the fairway?  Are you paying attention to the wind's direction in the practice round?  If it changes, does it change your strategy?  Your awareness of the course and the conditions as you play are important to your game plan!  This is another way that being observant will help you lower your scores.  
This is a shot from one of George Lucas' yardage books.  His arrows tell the story of the slopes. 
The final area you need to be observant of is yourself.  Are you keeping your thoughts clear and your focus on important things?  Are you pumped upIs your energy dragging?  Are you playing too quickly or too slowly?  Are you relaxing between shots?  Are you following your game plan?  Are you letting go of the deadly sins of greed, anger and pride?  Checking in with yourself as you play is important.  If you observe yourself from the outside looking in, instead of always grinding on the inside and looking out, you will help yourself adjust and play the game well.

So many players go within when they hit a bad shot.  They start to search their mind for "fixes" for their problems.  Their heads go down and their thoughts are caught up in mechanics or problems.  They lose track of the conditions, the golf course and their state of being.  All of a sudden a poor shot becomes a bad round and a bad round turns into a slump.  Where you place your attention on the golf course is an important habit to evaluate and self coach.  

One of the first steps to being an observant player is to stay attached to the "outer" world as you play and not get lost in your "inner" world.  Physically, it helps you to keep your head up, keep your eyes moving and soft and make physical gestures that reflect what you see and feel.  Mentally, it helps if you start with simple cues to keep you in the "outer" world, such as colors you see or the winds you feel.  Be an athlete!  Stay physical!  Let your eyes, your feet, your skin, your ears and your hands tell you more than your brain ever could. 
You must work very hard to become a natural golfer.
- Gary Player  

A big step when you go from a good player to a great player is consistency.  Your powers of observation are a key to consistency.  They will help you see the golf course as a partner in your attempt to score.  They will help you make putts by seeing the path to the hole more clearly.  They will help you adjust your mindset or approach to the game as you play.  They will keep you in the present.  They will help you learn!
I never played a round when I didn't learn something new about the game.
- Ben Hogan  


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