Can You Trust A Bad Swing?

Relaxing at Pawleys Island, SC

Readers of Bob Rotella books know that one of his favorite axioms is, “Train it, trust it.”  The idea is to practice enough so your body will naturally recall the proper swing mechanics without trying to force them.  This is truly the best way to play golf, but what if you’re out on the course and feel your swing slipping away to the point that you cannot trust it?  What do you do?  You have two options:

  1. Work on your mechanics and try to fix your swing
  2. Try to change your perspective of the shots you need to hit.  In essence, fool your mind into getting comfortable because a couple fairways in a row will do wonders for your confidence.  Tiger does this by hitting that stinger with his three wood when he loses confidence in the driver.

Try number two.  You should do it by taking any club you feel you can make an aggressive swing with to hit the fairway.  Say, you usually hit driver on a 500 yard par-5.  A good shot leaves you 260 yards in, but a bad swing might put you in the woods and looking at a big number.  Instead, hit a four or five iron off the tee.  From the fairway, you now have maybe 330 yards in.  That’s still just a short par-4 which you should be able to hit with two more shots, and presto, you are right back in the hole.

There is another approach gleaned from the great mystery of why we play great one day and awful the next.  It’s truly mind boggling and all golfers have tried to solve for this at one point in time.  I believe it has something to do with your natural bio-rhythms.  These are the brain synapses that fire and guide your central nervous system.  They control your ability to concentrate, your stress level, your hand-eye coordination, your pleasure and pain receptors, and just how you feel from day to day.   Example:  Today I was at my local muni practicing and hit the ball quite awful.  Couldn’t tell where it was going and actually thinned a couple off the hozel.  The day before, I was at another course working short game and my touch was superb.  Oddly enough, the good practice was preceded by a frustrating day at work and I didn’t feel like practicing and forced myself to.  Yet, that had no impact on my performance.  Why?  Ultimately, I think the environment you’re in and comfort level has a lot to do with your performance.

Control the environment and you control your ability to relax.  Relax and you play better.  For me, it’s the avoidance of feeling crowded and being in tight spaces.  I get tense in traffic jams, shopping malls, in long lines, and even on crowded beaches.  When I’m tense on the golf course, my game goes in the crapper.  Conversely, when I loosen up and relax, I perform much better.  The course I practiced at yesterday is much less populated than my local muni.  There’s plenty of room to spread out and work all your shots.  Nobody gets in anyone’s way.  I always seem to practice well there.  On the other hand, my muni is the popular hangout.  Today was 80 degrees and it was packed, but it’s always crowded.  My practice and play are spotty at this track.  I’m much more relaxed at the first course and therefore perform better.  Tomorrow, I play at Rattlewood, where I’ve had considerable success.  I always seem to warm up well before my round and that relaxes me.  Oddly enough, the driving range was constructed with a slight upgrade from left to right for all hitting stations.  Ding on whomever poured the foundation, but this silly little nuance forces me to start hitting the ball right to left during my warm-up, and that’s a ball flight I’m comfortable with.

Need more evidence?  Think of some courses you play regularly.  Do you routinely play well at some and hack on others?  The pros do.  I travel to Myrtle Beach every year and always play good on the same courses.  Legends-Heathland, Thistle, Oyster Bay, and True Blue come to mind.  Some of these are hard tracks, but the common factor is that I like the look of the tee shots.  They’re generally a little more open, have great sight lines, and distinct targets.  I feel relaxed and loose and can let the shaft out.  Other courses like TPC of Myrtle, Legends-Moorland, and Heritage are super tight off the tee and I struggle with every round.  I feel squeezed on the tee box and always worry about keeping it in play, and I usually don’t.

In summary, my two keys.

  1. Trust your swing. If you can’t, find a conservative shot you can trust
  2. Practice and play at venues where you feel relaxed

Got any others?  Please share and play well!

Still relaxed at Oyster Bay, Sunset Beach, NC

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The Shock of a Sudden Weather Change

Jordan Spieth / USATODAY Sports

It was exactly 5:11 p.m. on Saturday and the heavens opened up on The Masters.  Along with the downpour, a fascinating subplot was hatched on how the best pros handle sudden weather changes.  Commentator Dottie Pepper, said that you need to just play through it like nothing was happening.  Rory McIlroy was on #13 hitting his second shot into the par-5 from a perfect position, and pulled it way left into the azaleas.  They switched coverage to Patrick Reed getting dumped on behind the green at #12.  He had a straight forward chip, which he blew by the hole and missed the par putt coming back.  The weather clearly affected these guys, but what could they have done to handle it better?  How about you?

Rory McIlroy / USATODAY Sports

My last round two years ago was in late November at my local muni.  It started off sunny and 70 degrees but steadily grew colder and windier through the round.  I knew this was in the forecast, but on #18 mother nature freaked out and sleet started pouring down and blowing sideways.  I was unprepared and went into total golf shock, and my game collapsed.  Earlier in the same season we were playing at Barefoot in Myrtle Beach and remnants of Tropical Storm Bonnie were in the area.  In retrospect, I was better prepared and handled that with ease.  What is the reason for weather shock, and what can you do?

Shock clearly happens because your mind is on cruise control.  Rory had just nutted a perfect tee shot and was playing in an exquisite rhythm.  You can see when these guys are rolling that everything about their pre-shot routine is the same, from the way they take off and put on their gloves to the way they check yardage and discuss shots with their caddies.  The weather change is a sudden distraction and crushes routines.  When Rory yanked that approach way left, he was probably over the ball thinking, “Should I dry my grips?  Has my guy got the umbrella ready?  I can feel the rain hitting my back.”  Reed was getting drenched and you could tell he was thinking about it after he missed his putt.  He just wanted to quickly tap in and get dry.

I have found that physically preparing for the condition before it hits is the solution.  Get your game and routine actively into the situation.  At Barefoot, I knew we were going to get rain, but just didn’t know when.  I started the round with my waterproof rain vest on and playing with one rain glove on as well.  I had the other rain glove in my pocket.  When the deluge came, I just pulled out the other glove and carried on without breaking routine.  Now, it pays to have the proper equipment.  For example, you don’t want to be playing with a full rain jacket on in 80 degree weather and high humidity just waiting for the storm to hit.  That’s why I had the half-sleeve vest and rain gloves in play, but you get the idea.

One other point that Dottie made was critical.  You don’t want to be playing or interacting with folks who complain about the weather, especially in adverse conditions.  This will ruin your concentration.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable but if the sudden change comes, I usually try to keep a bit away from the whiners.

Got any other tips for staying on point when weather hits?  Please share and play well!

 

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2018 Masters Picks

photo from golfweek.com

As of this writing, Tiger Woods is leading the odds at 9:1 to win The Masters.  Can the four-time champion and greatest player of our generation take the green jacket?  You bet he can. All the big names are competing, everyone is healthy, most are in good form, it should be awesome.  Let’s look at Tiger and the rest of the principals to pick a winner.

Tiger.  I have loved watching his resurgence and two recent top-5 finishes.  His presence at Augusta and good form make for the juiciest pre-tournament hype.  He is great for golf and for The Masters. The gleam is back in his eye.  You saw it at Honda, Valspar, and Bay Hill.  You know the one where he squints, slightly fatigued from his powers of universal concentration.  It comes out when he gets in the hunt and he’s so close, but his driving is a bit too suspect and he’s been getting by with those stingers that keep the ball in play.  They worked at the earlier venues and are great for the US Open and PLAYERS but you gotta have the big stick at Augusta.  Prediction:  Top 10.

Phil Mickelson.  Awesome February run of top-10 finishes culminating with a win at WGC Mexico.  Is this really happening at 47 years old?  He’s playing this week in Houston but disregard any results because he’s just staying sharp.  Phil always plays Houston before The Masters as a ritual.  I’ll play the odds here and say Phil is on the wrong side of 46 to win another major, but he contends.  Prediction:  Top 10.

Last year’s champion, Sergio Garcia.  As soon as I see a guy going to the claw grip, I think “putting problems – no chance at The Masters.”  Sergio put that to rest in 2017 and brings all the other claw guys like Phil and Justin Rose into play.  I’ve never liked Garcia in this tournament because of his issues on the greens and my gut is telling me there’s a market correction coming.  Prediction:  No repeat but a top-20 finish.

Dustin Johnson.  We were denied a look at the world’s #1 last year because of a butt-busting slide down the stairs in his rental home.  He’s here, he’s healthy, but he’s in mediocre form.  I was surprised how poorly he played in the Dell Match Play and don’t know why.  I’m assuming he can right the ship and get motivated, although you can never read his desire level.  Prediction:  3rd place.

Rory McIlroy.  Awesome display of power and finesse at Bay Hill.  Has he really found it or is it another Rory streak.  When he’s on, his birdie binges are incredible to watch.  This week, he cools off a bit and plays on the fringes of contention.  Prediction:  Top 20.

Jordan Spieth.  Been in particularly bad form lately but has caught fire through two rounds at Houston.  Spieth can grab a minor tweak and leverage that better and faster than anyone.  Greatest mind in the game among the young players.  When his putter is on, always a threat to win.  Prediction:  Top 10.

Justin Thomas.  Cocky, powerful, streaky, pouty at times.  The Masters requires an even keel more than any other tournament.  When Phil learned to play with steadiness, he started winning green jackets.  Thomas still needs some seasoning.  Prediction:  Makes the cut but not much else.

Paul Casey.  What’s he doing in this list?  He’s got a couple recent top-10s in The Masters, plays a nice right-to-left ball flight, is plenty long, has his putting woes straightened out, and has his mind settled.  Love the combo and this horse for this course.  Prediction:  2nd place.

Justin Rose.  Last year’s runner up.  He’s hungry, is in top form, contends every week, is ready and will not be denied.  He is your 2018 Masters champion.

Who do you like?

photo from skysports.com

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Short Game Salvation!

On the tee at Barefoot Fazio in Myrtle Beach

Two weeks ago, I took my first golf lesson of the season.  It was on short game.  Over the many years of my golf career, I’ve had countless full swing lessons but only received a couple tips on short game from teaching professionals.  As I finished up and stacked my clubs into the trunk, I had two thoughts: I’m filled with hope and optimism, and why did I ever wait this long.

The Diagnosis:

The lesson started with me spilling my guts for five minutes on what was wrong with my short game. I enjoy this approach to teaching and learning because you need to clearly identify what you are solving for and my pro is not presumptuous in any way.  He always asks.   My laundry list:

  • My wedge game was good from 40 to 100 yards based on the full swing work that we did last year. From 40 to green side with my pitching I was clueless.  I avoided that yardage like the plague.  Inside 40, I would go back and forth on technique and approach and was thoroughly confused.
  • On my chipping, I was slightly better but have always struggled with playing too defensively. I want to attack the hole but many of my chips continually come up short and I often struggle with direction and hitting my spot.
  • I thought my chipping technique was sound, but last season I had to remove my fitted set of Cleveland wedges (50, 54, 58) for my old SW (56) and old GW (49) because of confidence problems. The previous season, I had hit a couple of s#@nks with the 54 and had that image burned in my mind.
  • I was confused and constantly changing my pre-shot routine to try and get better feel for shots but nothing worked consistently. I struggled to visualize my shots.

In short, I thought I knew how to hit all the shots but could never seem to pull them off.  I have often wondered how I maintain a low single-digit handicap with a short game as bad as mine.  In retrospect, I have probably played overly conservative into the greens to avoid as much trouble as possible.  Not necessarily a bad approach, but not conducive to going low.  I wondered how good I could get if I ever learned to attack the hole.  All this came out before I struck a single shot.

The Lesson:

Then we started.  First, he had me chip from the fringe for a distant hole and asked me what clubs I normally chip with.  I told him my 56, PW, and 8-iron, and selected the 8 for this shot.  I chipped a few.  Most were off line and my distance was long.  He told me we needed to work on three changes:  Make a swing that I controlled with my body by rotating my chest, try to hit with a consistent pace regardless of club selection, and get the ball rolling as soon as possible because roll is easier to judge than flight.  For this shot, he had me switch to the 50, move the ball position back to my right big toe, forward press the handle a bit, and shade more of my weight forward.  Then I made a smaller swing by just turning my chest and presto!  I started seeing a small divot, generating backspin, and hitting straight shots that flew considerably lower even though the 50 has more loft than the 8-iron.   We then started working in shots with the 54 and 58 based on the various distances to alternate holes, but with every shot, I hit it with the same pace and technique, and attempt to get it rolling quickly.  I noticed while hitting all these shots that I had not been using a practice swing, and had just been lining up the shots from behind and executing – interesting!  My ability to visualize the shot was returning because it was the same shot, very little change in trajectory, and just a different distance to the various targets.  It was easy to implement.  My head was clearing.  I was feeling good.

Next, we moved back to the dreaded zone.  Pitching.  His message was clear, we were going to use the same technique but make a slightly bigger swing and move the ball position up a bit (about ¾ back).  Again, we were still trying to flight the ball lower than what I was used to, control the shot with spin, and take a divot.  As we altered targets we simply adjusted the amount of carry with club selection.  Using the 50, 54, and 58, pitching became almost routine.  What the hell was so hard about this?

What’s great about a 1×1 professional lesson is that you can ask your pro all the dumb little questions you’ve always wondered about.  I inquired, “When you are green side and need to hit a high pitch, do you first grip the club normally and rotate your hands to open the blade, or open the blade first, then grip the club?”  He told me it was the latter, which I had never done.  We finished up by throwing balls all around the green into different distances and lies and having me practice selecting a club to fit the shot and simply executing on my new technique.  It was a fantastic lesson.

Going forward, we are changing my club make up.  Out are the old SW, GW, and 5WD and in are the three wedges I learned with.  I can also use my PW (46) and 8-iron for longer chips and simply need to move the ball position forward of my right toe for those two clubs.

Of course, what followed the next weekend was a small snowstorm in the DMV and I haven’t had the chance to practice any of this until today.  I’m full of hope, chomping at the bit and need to get cracking because our trip to Myrtle Beach is just two months out!

Play well!

The rest of our group at Barefoot Fazio

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Genuflecting In The Temple of Tiger (Four Truths)

Photo of Tiger at Valspar from Golf Digest

Before the believers and the doubters (myself included) overreact to what went down at Valspar, let’s take an objective look at the infallible truths about Tiger’s comeback.

Truth #1:  The smartest thing he did was fire Sean Foley.  Tiger had gone from artist to scientist under Foley’s tutelage and it was just painfully awful watching Tiger twist himself into the proverbial swing pretzel Foley was trying to create.  Tiger is now un-coached.  See any of that at Honda or Valspar?  Nope.  Vision, feel, and imagination are back; watch out!

Truth #2:  Tiger has changed his swing because of his spinal fusion repair and it’s working.  There’s less rotational movement, less torque, a more upright finish, and it’s producing plenty of length.  However, Tiger’s weak point is his surgically repaired legs.  The foundation has crumbled before on several occasions.  Is his lower body strong or a peanut brittle bar ready to snap at any moment?

Truth #3:  Tiger is smart, knows how to compete, and wants to win so badly he’ll do anything it takes, including abandoning equipment that he was previously wedded to.  Also see Truth #1.

Truth #4:  Tiger’s comeback has been brilliant but I still need to see him compete on a course that demands you hit driver consistently.  Genesis at Riviera requires superior driving and he struck it poorly.  He played brilliantly off the tee at Valspar, frequently controlling distance, direction, and trajectory with long iron stingers, but the way you conquer Augusta is to bomb it on the 4s and 5s and get wedges in from the fairways.  Can he win The Masters without consistent performance from the big dog?

I wouldn’t be surprised if he won at Bay Hill this week but The Masters is the 800 pound gorilla in the corner of the room.  You, I, and everyone else are thinking the same thing.  Can he do it?  Well, can he?  Thoughts?

 

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Is Tanking Permissible In Golf?

Tiger from nydailynews.com

Unless you live on Pluto, you can’t help but notice the recent trend of professional sports franchises “tanking” one or more consecutive seasons to improve the future prospects for their organization.  Specifically, tanking refers to the deliberate and knowing attempt to lose games or have poor seasons and lower your team’s position in the standings and thereby garner higher draft picks.  It’s commonplace in the four major sports and was most recently on display with the outhouse to penthouse success stories of the 2016 Chicago Cubs and 2017 Houston Astros.   Recently, Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, was fined $600K for outwardly proposing to his team that they tank games.  Tanking is something you do, but it’s bad form to discuss it.  Personally, I find the practice disturbing.  As a fan, and a paying customer, I’m always looking for my teams to put their best product on the field at all times.

Would tanking be permissible in golf?  Does it happen in unbeknownst ways?  What I love about professional golf is the pure meritocracy.  Nobody better exemplifies this than the greatest player in the 21st century, Tiger Woods.  Whenever asked about his goal for the week or tournament, Tiger responds with the same answer; “Win the tournament.”  I have no doubt given Tiger’s history, he may set winning as a goal every time out, but does he really believe it?  I don’t think so.  Give his recent bout with injuries, he may not think he can win, but that doesn’t mean he’s tanking.  On a few rare occasions, Tiger appears to go through the motions when he’s not playing well, but he’s still trying. He just may not be there mentally.  It’s happened to everyone who’s played the game and is not tanking.

Tanking in golf would be extremely hard because each player is an individual competitor.  You’d have very little to gain and you can’t control the actions of other players.  The most remote example I could conjure up would be a player holding down the final Ryder Cup position on either the US or European team.  If that player wasn’t playing well, and wasn’t injured, they would be expected to play for the team if they secured a spot.  What if that player “took one for the team” and deliberately played poorly enough in the final qualifying events to allow another player to overcome them in the standings.  Would this be a tank?  What would your opinion be of this practice?  I’m a little mixed on this.

For a great article on tanking, check out Dave Sheinin’s piece in the Washington Post.

Play well and no tanking!

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The Golf Gap: Connecting The Dots

Playing from a fairway bunker at Oyster Bay

 

How big is your golf gap?  Your gap is the difference between what you know is the right thing to practice and what you actually practice.  Your goal is to lower your scores through effective practice, and folks who have been playing and studying the game for a long time should have smaller gaps than beginners.  The smaller you can shrink your gap, the more rapidly you should improve.

My gap is larger than it should be.  I had a bit of an epiphany last weekend and the experience might serve a useful purpose going forward.  It started when I read the article by Dustin Johnson in the February 2018 Golf Digest on how he practices.  DJ was always an excellent ball striker but he truly became a superb player after he adopted his current routine of dedicating 80% of his range time to full and partial wedge shots.  Considering how great he is with the driver, I was surprised to learn how little he practiced with it.  Bottom line: his weakness was inside 100 yards and he addressed it.

Aligning my own game to DJ’s is like comparing a rowboat to a battleship, but his routine is instructive and should be copied.  I reviewed my 2017 season performance notes and most of my good rounds were preceded by lessons and practice with my wedges.  Like DJ, my goal last year was to get more consistent inside 100 yards.  From some mechanical changes my pro helped me with (using primarily my wedges), my proximity improved greatly inside 100 yards and I began to hit it longer.  I became enamored with the newfound length and in accordance, began hitting more practice balls with the driver.  That’s when my performance dipped.  Argh!  My gap had widened.

Last weekend I hit the range with the goal of closing the gap and connecting the dots between practice and play.  I only worked on hitting partial and full wedge shots.  The contact was excellent and transitioned nicely to the few shots I mixed in with the longer clubs.  What I would advise is that you hit the range and work on your wedges.  See your pro if you need help with your technique.  Then jot down what you are working on.  This makes it easy to recall past practice that preceded good play, and of course, any “ah ha” moments you may discover.  Finally, one caveat, if you are filming your own swing for analysis purposes, hit shots with a medium iron and a driver, as a wedge swing will often be too short and compact to reveal some critical swing flaws.

Good luck with your gap analysis and play well!

After a rainy round at TPC of Myrtle Beach

 

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Crack The Egg On The 2018 Golf Season!

As luck would have it, we’ve hit a stretch of warm weather in the DMV and I broke out the sticks yesterday and opened my season.  I hate to use the word “breakthrough” on the first day because my intention was just banging rust off the various components, but I did make a welcome discovery and was so inspired, that I reserved a tee time for next Sunday.

The day started at the range with a small bucket and some crisp pitching wedge shots.  Tell me if you’ve ever done this:  you start working on your swing in January after about five swings.  This was followed by a roulette wheel of pulls, snap hooks, and push cuts with the longer clubs.  No worries; there were no expectations other than to stretch the golf muscles and not endure any pain in my left elbow.  I’m not sure what compelled me to start swing analysis, but there were only 25 balls left.  No harm – no foul.

The excitement started when I got to the short game area.  After chipping and pitching for 15 minutes, I brought out the flat stick.  Recall at the end of last season I was in a dilemma with trying to line a putt up straight.  Nothing was working.  Change of stance, ball position, a bunch of new putters – nothing.  After a suggestion from Catherine Baker, I made the simple change of lining up my putts using the straight line on the side of my Titleist golf ball.  Bingo!  The benefit of this change is that I have confidence in my aim, and it forces me to commit to a line and not change it while I’m over the ball.  If I seriously need to change lines, I’ll need to re-mark and start my pre-shot routine all over again – at the risk of putting slower than Jim Furyk.  Thank you Catherine!

So there you have it.  Simple change, crisis averted, confidence built, new outlook on life, on the tee next weekend.  Stay tuned and play well!

 

 

 

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Careful With That Off-Season Workout!

Are you chomping at the bit to get the 2018 golf season going?  Trying to shed those last few holiday season pounds and/or build the golf muscles needed for superior performance?  I am.  A big word of caution for everybody regularly hitting the gym:  Be very careful when lifting weights!  You can do significant long lasting damage to muscle tissue if you aren’t lifting correctly or a working with too much weight.

At Tigers Eye

Here’s a picture of me during a golf trip to Myrtle Beach in 2009.  Notice the big old wrap on my left elbow?  That was an injury (tendonitis) that I incurred while lifting weights incorrectly during the preceding winter.  I paid for it on that trip and was running through Advil like John Daly downing M&Ms.  The whole issue could have been avoided if I had sought professional help with my weight lifting technique.  Slowly the injury healed, as I discontinued all workouts and limited the amount of range balls I hit.

Fast forward to 2017.  I started a workout regimen on May 1 that only consisted of floor exercises.  I was using the force of gravity to provide resistance and no weight.  Over the summer, I was very pleased with the increase in strength and muscle development that I had experienced.  In October I decided to add weights to my arm workouts.  I reviewed some technique videos on bicep and hammer curls and began with the lightest of weights.  The progress I made over the next few months was excellent and I slowly and cautiously added more weight.  As I got stronger I got more confident and a couple of weeks ago, added a significant amount of weight, but noticed that I was struggling to move the extra weight with the same amount of repetitions.  Then yesterday, I experienced the setback.  The left elbow tendonitis injury returned. 😦

Please don’t do what I did.  If you are working out for golf, it’s about building tone rather than bulk.  Get professional help from a trainer before tackling too much weight or the wrong technique.  Hopefully with some good drugs and a little time off, it’ll heal before the season starts.

Do you have any off-season workout recommendations?

Play well.

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The Grind of a Swing Change

I logged into my handicap service today and was reminded it’s been 41 days without golf.  Have I missed it?  Not in the least.  I actually practiced short game about two weeks ago, and practiced quite well, but had no desire to play.  In most years, I get antsy after not playing for a month but 2017 is different.  The grind of playing “golf swing” all year is still working its way out of my system.

2017 was tremendously successful, as I experienced a high level of satisfaction with my ball striking improvements, but it’s clear how taxing it was to continuously work on your swing and not be able to turn off mechanical mode for a whole year.  The struggle was an exercise in concentration and focus, and coming down from it is like draining the adrenaline rush you get after studying for final exams.  Remember that?  You’ve crammed all night and taken that last exam, and even though you’re totally exhausted mentally and physically, you can’t fall asleep.

Golf should be fun not painful.  But improving at any sport requires sacrifice.  The world champion Houston Astros had to suffer through consecutive 100-loss seasons as they rebuilt their organization.  Was that fun?  No, but the payoff was sweet.  I’m thinking the same thing.  To get where I want to be, I’ll need another year in 2018 like the previous.  The commitment has been made.

Nice weekends like this in the DMV are suitable for playing, but I’m not.  Maybe a little more short game practice is in order and will get the juices flowing.  Stay tuned.

Play well.

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2017 Season Wrap-Lessons Learned, Truths Revealed.

2017 was an awesome year of resurrection for my golf game.  Going into the season, my index had crept up over 6.0, my ball striking was in the crapper, and I had turned 56.  I was beginning to ask questions like, “Will I ever play good again?”  It hadn’t escaped me that on the senior tour, guys traditionally hit the wall at 56 and fail to seriously compete because of their advancing age.  Was this happening to me?

To find out, I bit the bullet and signed up for a series of golf lessons with an instructor who had given me some hope with a single lesson in the summer of 2016.  I liked his teaching style, he got results, and I had tried to DIY for the last few years without success.  The one metric I focused on was improving greens in regulation from eight to 10 per round.  I found that a single goal helped improve my focus and dedication.  After all, I was trying to break 40 years of bad habits, build some good habits, and enjoy myself during the process.  Trying to focus on too many things would confuse my pea brain.

I started lessons in April and found the first couple difficult.  Breaking the bad habits was very hard.  Playing right after lessons is even more difficult but I had committed to playing more “golf swing” than “golf” for the entire season, which helped me be patient.  In mid-series, I took my annual golf trip to Myrtle Beach.  We typically play long difficult courses and you’d better strike it well to have a chance.  With my mind still in mechanical mode, I managed to average 8.3 GIR on the trip and only had four rough rounds out of 10.  I noticed I was enjoying a significant distance add with my driver, but was still experiencing too many big misses (pull hook) with mid and long irons.  My last round was an 88 at TPC of Myrtle Beach.  TPC is a course where big misses punish you.  The course was also in my head and I never have played well there.  A funny thing happened though.  After the round, we had a quick bite and went out for a replay.  We got in nine holes before lightning terminated the round, but I started to play better and left the course filled with hope.

After the trip, the lessons started to take hold and I experienced a great stretch from July 9 through mid-October where I averaged 10.75 GIR and played better than I have in years.  On November 3, after a great 1-over round on a tough golf course (Hog Neck), my index dropped to 3.9 which was all the validation I needed that my approach had been correct.  I finished the season with a 4.0 index and while not having hit my goal of 10 GIR (actual was 9.03), couldn’t have been more satisfied.

The big takeaway:  I am not finished because of age 🙂  The guys on the senior tour slip at 56 because they’ve been playing close to the top of their ability when age hits.  In my case, I had (and still have) loads of room for improvement, and even as I age, should be able to better my technique.

We never put our clubs away here for winter in the DMV and last year we had no snow and played right through to spring, but I’m considering this season a wrap.  The year was mentally exhausting and I need a break.  In 2018, I’m signing up for another series of lessons and hope to continue the journey wherever it takes me.

Hope you had a good season too.  Play well.

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Troubling Epiphany – Need Help!

This game is often made easier when we simplify.  Purge mechanical swing thoughts.  Just “think target”.  Use only one swing key if you must think about something.  Stop worrying about your score.  Just follow your pre-shot routine and let the shot happen.  Don’t confuse results with effort.

My brain is in a mental pretzel after putter shopping yesterday.

I was in my golf retailer trying different models.  Blades, mallets, Ping, Scotty Cameron, Taylor Made, Odyssey, Ray Cook, you name it.  Everything was rolling to the right with cut spin.  The problem I’m solving for is an aiming one and this was getting discouraging.  I have no markings on my 30-year old Ping Answer and it’s awfully hard to putt consistently if you can’t line up your target.  After an hour of futility, I grabbed a Ping Sigma G Doon and lined up a 30-foot putt but decided to try my on-course pre-shot routine.  This involves lining the putt up from behind and identifying a spot 6-12″ in front of the ball to roll the putt over.  I recently started spot putting to help with my aiming problems.  So I started banging 30-footers into the cup but noticed the aiming mark on the top of the putter was lined up 8″ left.  Here was a moment of clarity.  Like Paul Newman in The Color of Money, I learned that my vision sucked.  With the putter aimed 8″ left, I tried a few more just swinging at the hole and they continued to roll straight at the target.  The cost of the putter was a little above my price point so I left the store empty handed and confused.

At home, I grabbed some masking tape and penned an alignment aid on the back of my Ping Answer and did some rug putting.  The sweet spot on my Answer is a little towards the heel but I like to hit my putts on the center of the club face.  I started to line putts up with just my dominant eye.  Needless to say, my experimentation didn’t go well.  I was NOT simplifying anything, and was adding twists to the pretzel.

What should I do before I come unglued?  I have half a mind to hit the reset button and just go buy the Doon.  Thoughts?

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The Fix Becomes The Fault

From swingstation.com

Have you ever tried to change something in your golf swing and experienced profound rapid success?  And then you tried the exact same move the next day only to have nothing work?

The following story is true. . .

On Thursday of last week, I reviewed five years of down the line swing videos of myself.  Of course, I was looking for a swing key that would carry me the next three days on my golf trip to the eastern shore.  What’s amazing is that over the five years, I worked on many parts of my swing and implemented many changes, but my move looked strikingly similar in each video.  With the slight exception of my most recent video, I tended to lift my head up about three inches on the backswing and then move about three inches backward during the downswing.  My “reverse L” was clearly causing me to lose my spine angle.  How could anyone hit the ball correctly with this much head movement?  So, to remedy, instead of one swing key, I picked two.  I would point my left shoulder at the ball on the backswing (to keep my head from rising) and sit into my left glute on the downswing (to start the swing from the ground up and maintain my posture).

During my pre-round warm up on Friday at Hog Neck, I was hitting big push cuts with this move, so I did what any reasonable fellow would do and discarded my range session swings as aberrations.  On the first tee, I blew a big push cut into the woods and was fortunate to make bogey.  I scraped a 2-over front side together on the sheer luck of great putting, all the while struggling with these two moves.  On the back side, I jettisoned the sit down move and just focused on “left shoulder down” and began pounding my driver and nutting irons dead at flags.  THE MAGIC MOVE HAD ARRIVED!!!  After finishing the inward half at 1-under, I was extremely pumped to play on day two.

Ever fill up a balloon and let it fly around the room making funny noises until empty?  Armed with “left shoulder down” on Saturday at Eagles Landing, I pumped up and nailed my first three drives, but quickly evolved into a fluttering mess of pull cuts, pop-ups, and chunked irons.  What happened?  After 18 holes, I looked and felt like that spent balloon.

At Heritage Shores on Sunday, I started with nothing but weak pull cuts off the tee and fat irons.  After one particular chunk with a gap wedge from 98 yards that threw a divot almost 45 degrees to the left, I heel spanked a driver on the next tee, and decided something was fundamentally wrong with my swing, but I couldn’t identify.  The only thing I felt was unathletic.  So, the change I made was to get in a more athletic position at address and forget left shoulder down.  I simply flexed my knees a bit more and for the last seven holes was rifling my driver and hitting the irons spot on.  What happened here?

In retrospect, when I bent my knees, I re-engaged my spine angle.  Just try this and see if you don’t feel some tension return to your lower back.  Left shoulder down had become left hip in and a reverse pivot.  GAWD this game will drive you nuts!!!

So now I am filled with hope that this latest correction is the one.  I should probably go back to my instructor for some serious correction but it’s getting late in the season.  We’ll see what happens after tomorrow evening’s range session.

Has your fix ever become the fault?

Play well.

 

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First Tee, Fast Start!

You get to your golf course early.  Hit a large bucket of balls, work on your chipping and pitching, then then putt for 20 minutes.  You’re fully warmed up, mentally comfortable and step to the first tee.  You then proceed to knock one out of bounds or cold top your tee shot.  Or worse yet, you hit the fairway and lay the sod over your approach shot.  What went wrong?  Why are you so out of kilter?  Has this ever happened to you?

A lot has been written about the first tee jitters, but this is more than combating nerves. It’s about conditioning your mind.  Most of last season, and early this year, I was plagued by these poor starts, but I’ve learned there are several tricks you can play on yourself to ease the transition from warm up to game time.

Don’t discount the need to warm-up physically, and you should experiment to learn how many swings you need.  When I was younger, I would often start my round just as the sun was coming up but without the benefit of any warm up.  I’d notice that it took about four holes until I had my golf senses fully activated and I was in rhythm.  Doing the math, I figured this came out to about 12-15 full swings.  Now, I’ll stretch, and hit a minimum of 15 balls (five sand wedges, five 7-irons, and five drivers) and that’s what I require to get loose.  Then, I’ll start work on the mental side by simulating play of the first two holes of the course using my full pre-shot routine.  I’ll sight targets with my range finder, check wind direction, pull the right club and hit.  In essence, I’m getting my brain into game mode from warm-up mode.  This is an important concept because most folks rake range ball after range ball when practicing or warming up.  When you rake, there’s little focus and no consequences.  Hit a bad shot and just pull another.  During the simulation, you pressure yourself to hit a good shot.  This is what most players struggle with on the first hole because their brains are in rake mode, not consequence mode.  Get to consequence mode and you’ll feel more relaxed.  You should feel like you played your course but reversed the nines.  You want to feel like you are hitting your tee shot on #1 with nine holes under your belt.

Next, I’ll move to the putting green and roll putts of various lengths for about five minutes.  Then I’ll take one ball and start playing holes.  The key is to make it hard on yourself.  Start with a 50-foot putt from the fringe.  Mark your ball, go through your full pre-shot routine on every putt and hole everything out.  Don’t worry if you three-putt because the goal here is not to score but to feel some pressure.  Make all the starting putts difficult.  Use big breakers, downhillers, and long uphill putts.  This is game mode.

Both the physical and mental warm-up are important.  Most courses have a practice putting green where you can do the majority of your work.  But some don’t have a driving range.  The next best thing to driving balls is hitting bunker shots.  It’s essentially a full swing and the impact of club into sand will jar your golf muscles and senses into order.  Hit 10 or 15 bunker shots and you’ll be close to warmed up.  With no bunker, try hitting pitch shots and then playing a short game of up-and-down.

The key is to trick your mind into thinking you are in game mode during warm-up.  These are the techniques I’ve successfully employed.  Give them a try and let me know if they work for you.

Play well!

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The Opportunity Cost of Playing or not Playing Sports

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why can’t I play this sport to the level that I’d like?”  Have you also observed folks very proficient in a particular sport and noticed that they have no life outside the sport?  This two-way phenomena is known as opportunity cost.  From our Economics 101 text book, opportunity cost is defined as:  “The loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”  It is the chief reason why people underachieve in recreational or competitive activities, and why some who excel in those same activities, may suffer from the failure to take care of themselves in other areas of their lives.

Opportunity cost is not good or bad, it’s just a judgement call each of us make every day about many things.  The opportunity cost of an avid football fan who watches 15 hours of games every weekend might be that he has a poor golf game.  The opportunity cost of a mom or dad shuttling their kids to youth soccer games, practices, and tournaments every hour of every week might be the inability to work, socialize, or exercise.

To get more clarity, I’m reading Dr. Bob Rotella’s “How Champions Think.” This book gets in the minds of competitors from several sports who’ve made it to the top and identifies some common recurring themes.  Single-mindedness is huge.  These folks dedicate a good portion of their lives to mastering a craft and it often comes with significant opportunity cost.  There are ruined marriages, neglected children, repetitive stress, and burnout, and they are a bit disturbing to read about.  If you’re looking to become a champion, this book provides an uncommon but necessary view.  Rotella advocates for single-mindedness, but points out it takes very special individuals to manage the competing factions that this level of dedication requires.  He cites Jack and Barbara Nicklaus as two of the best in handling them.  Unlike a lot of marriages and relationships with tour players and spouses, Jack and Barbara understood how their significant other needed to operate and made it work so that Jack enjoyed the greatest golf career ever, and mostly Barbara raised a wonderful loving and understanding family.

I also just finished Bob Ladouceur’s “Chasing Perfection”.  Ladouceur was the head football coach at De La Salle High School in California and led his teams to 12 consecutive undefeated seasons and accumulated a record of 399-25-3 during his tenure.  I wanted to know what his secret sauce was.  In one passage, he discusses the desires of other kids to transfer to De La Salle and become part of the winning tradition.  Most of these transfers washed out when they discovered the level of dedication and demands he placed on his players and coaches for single-mindedness and preparation.  These were eerily similar in effort and opportunity cost to the athletes Rotella describes.  This book is an eye-opening read.

As an avid golfer, I’ve dedicated more than my fair share of time to gaining and maintaining the skills I need to play to a certain level.  I have also suffered the opportunity costs.  Let’s face it, golf is a game that requires a lot of time.  Each of us has a level of dedication and desire that we need to apply to satisfy ourselves, and mine is more than the average player, but doesn’t come close to the extremes I’ve recently read about.  I would be very uncomfortable ignoring key factions of my life to become the best player I could be.

Have you experienced this dichotomy?  What’s your level of dedication and single-mindedness?  Suffered any significant opportunity costs?

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Good Practice Makes Great Play

Great news!  In most years, as soon as the pigskin starts to fly, my interest in golf wanes, but not this season. Maybe it’s because my college and pro football teams are supposed to suck, but I am super psyched for 2017 fall golf.  It probably has nothing to do with football and is mostly due to the success I’m experiencing during practice, and how it’s translating into better play.

Starting in April, I took four lessons with my instructor. We focused entirely on full swing for the first three and a playing lesson on the fourth. My goals were simple, average 10 greens per round for the year, try to lower my handicap which had crept up from a 5 to 6.3 over the last couple of seasons, and just have more fun.

Here are some keys; maybe you can grab a few.   The way I’ve been practicing has made a huge difference. I have re-dedicated myself to a mid-week session, and focus on ball striking and short game every Wednesday after work. Sure it’s inconvenient to get from downtown Washington to my home course in Rockville, MD, but I’ve found the following is true: You get out of this game what you put into it. I’ll do an additional practice on Saturday and play on Sunday. The three days per week provide enough reps that make the game more second nature than when I was only engaging on the weekends. Second, I’ve been able to focus on the same improvements over and over rather than searching for a swing key every time out. When you know your miss tendencies, and you understand why you miss, and you have the tools to make the fix, it’s so much easier to concentrate. Practice does not feel like a chore.  Pounding range balls and changing swing thoughts on every shot is exhausting and is like walking through the desert.

With any quest for improvement, to keep yourself honest, you should measure. The data look pretty good. After a very rough start to the year and many growing pains during the lessons, my GIR average has pulled up to 9. I’ve hit double digit GIR in my last four rounds and have been under par for a good portion of three of those. I’ve also noticed that I’ve picked up considerable distance with the driver and am more accurate with the wedges. In the past, I never put much stock in driving distance simply because I couldn’t hit it that long. But I’m finding the added distance makes a huge difference provided you are accurate with your wedges. For instance, last time out I only hit three fairways and two of them were with irons on layups, yet I still managed 13 GIR and a round of even-par because my drives were long enough to get a wedge in my hands.

Lastly, my index has dropped to 4.1 which is super encouraging, and of course, lots of fun because of the lower scores.  It’s cool to feel like you’re not trying as hard, but are playing closer to your ability.

Hope your game is coming around too.  Play well!

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Improving Ability To Concentrate

Recently, a friend forwarded an article at The Atlantic by Jean Twenge.  The title; Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?  It’s a long, disturbing eye-opening read that I highly recommend.  The gist is that screen addiction with our youngest generation is worsening their mental health.  I have seen first hand some of these effects with loved ones, and to a certain extent myself.  I suspect heavy users of devices and social media, such as myself, all are affected by the phenomena of F.O.M.O. (Fear Of Missing Out) to some degree.  This is a disorder where you feel the constant need to check your sites, and the distractions associated with the pull of your screens and devices.  Folks handle it differently, and I think I manage it reasonably well but have suspected that it’s hurting my powers of concentration.  This is not just on the golf course, but at work, at home, in the car; essentially everywhere.  I suspect it’s been the case for years and it’s getting worse.  So I’m going to run an experiment.

To reduce the effects of device induced FOMO, I will make three changes:

    1. No more checking work email during non-working hours
    2. No more daily use of social media sites (including this one)
    3. Complete elimination of any contact with Facebook for the month of August

So what am I going to do with all my spare time?  Play and practice more golf, increase my levels of physical activity, read a book.  Doesn’t sound so bad does it?

So if you don’t hear from me in a while, I’m not ignoring you.  Just in the lab experimenting with improved concentration!

Play well.

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2017 British Open Picks

https://www.theopen.com/

Picking a winner for the 146th Open / Open Championship / British Open at Royal Birkdale is even more confounding than deciphering the official name of this tournament.  Let’s just call it the world’s oldest major.

Field analysis is made difficult because of the recent trend of the world’s top players taking time off and trying to peak their performance around the majors.  That’s a by-product of the protracted year round scheduling problem on the PGA Tour (more on that coming in a future post).  With the exception of Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, and Jordan Spieth, the top contenders don’t play frequently enough.  Yes, everyone is different but you can’t just show up once per month under the heat of competition and expect to generate consistent results.  Dustin Johnson played Memorial in May and the US Open in June and missed both cuts.  He’s coming off a back injury and nobody thinks he should play as much as Vijay Singh, but can DJ seriously be in winning form?  No way.  To draw a mediocre parallel, I’m in software development.  If I practiced my trade under the most stringent of conditions once per month, I’d suck at my job.  These guys should go hard from January to August (playing every two out of four weeks) and then shut down.

So let’s get down to business:  Rory McIlroy needs a session on the putting green with Dave Stockton Sr.  It’s so bad right now, he’s not even close to contending.  Jason Day‘s ball striking is in the crapper (what happened?)  Defending champion Henrik Stenson has missed five of his last six cuts and is looking to catch lightning in a bottle – nope.  Phil missed the US Open, then broke protocol by not playing in the Scottish Open, and finally parted ways with Bones.  That may be all the change he can handle at 47 years old and I don’t think it happens for him this week.  Hideki Matsuyama threw a scare into the field at the US Open with a strong Sunday finish and is going to get one soon, but it will be on U.S. soil.

Who’s ready?  Rickie Fowler.

Photo from Golfweek

He keeps finishing top-10 in the majors and plays often enough to stay sharp.  I think his conservative strategy in the majors of sometimes taking iron off the tee will play well at Birkdale, because you must drive it straight and then battle the wind from the fairway.  Forget playing out of the rough here.  Look for a tough battle with Justin Rose, who’s a horse for this course, Spieth, who’s tough in every major, and John Rahm, but Rickie will prevail.

Who is your pick for the Claret Jug?

 

 

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Can You Handle Success?

 

Readers of this blog know that I’ve committed this season to improving my ball striking through a series of lessons and concentrated practice.  I’m giving it all year to see improvement, but sometimes I get inpatient trying to get results that don’t happen when I think they should.  But a thought came up after my last round:  When things DO break right for you, can you manage success properly?  In yesterday’s round, I did not.

The day before, I played nine holes in the morning and then went to the range to practice and gather some swings on film.  I wanted to make sure that I was correctly implementing the positions my instructor wanted me in.  After lunch, I reviewed the film and spotted a couple areas to work on and headed back out to the range.

Yesterday’s outing at Clustered Spires in Frederick, MD started off well.  I warmed up on the range and felt loose and comfortable.  At 6,200 yards, Clustered Spires is not terribly long and my game plan was to get as many sand wedge, gap wedge, and pitching wedge approach shots as possible, since I’d been practicing those the most.  That would require a good day with the driver and it started out great as I was busting it long and straight.  The changes I worked on the day before were clicking.

To make a long story short, the true measure of ball striking success is greens in regulation (GIR), and I hit the first 15.  While I didn’t see this ball striking bonanza coming, I was thrilled that the changes I had worked on were taking hold, but at the same time, I was at 3-under par and was  STARTING TO EXIT MY COMFORT ZONE!

What happened next was where you figure out how good you are at handling success (or adversity).  On the par-3 16th, I missed the green right into a bunker with a 3-iron.  The streak was over and it threw my equilibrium off – I had been thinking about it the whole day as the round progressed.  I played a nice bunker shot but misjudged the amount of fringe I had to carry and played a poor approach putt from the first cut.  I struggled to make bogey.  I knew I was choking because I hadn’t hit a short shot in 16 holes and wasn’t sure I could.  Still, it was just a bogey and I figured a physical error was bound to happen.  It was deflating, as my 18 GIR fantasy bubble was busted.

#17 is a medium length par-4 that I usually hit with a driver/8-iron, and I caught a huge break.  My drive hit the cart path on the right and catapulted forward another 50 yards shortening the hole considerably.   I was between a sand wedge and a gap wedge but got greedy and went with the gap and tried to fly it all the way to a back left sucker pin.  I went long and short-sided myself into a bad lie.  Again I choked on the chip trying to be too perfect, left it short, and made double.

#18 is a longer par-4 and my drive was solid but trickled just into the left rough, but the lie was deep in three-inch grass.  I pulled an 8-iron left into a bunker and short sided myself again.  With no green to work with, I blasted out 30 feet past the flag and three-putted for another double.  Wow!  Now that’s handling success.  Went from 3-under to 2-over in the bat of an eyelash.

I learned a hard lesson here and sometimes you need to learn it more than once.  Even when it feels like you’re on cruise control, you MUST take it one shot at a time.  Forget your score, forget your streaks, forget your fantasies, and focus on your routine.  I’m not disappointed about #16 and #18 because they were physical errors.  That happens.  But the greedy play on #17 could have been avoided by dropping a sand wedge on the middle of the green and two-putting for a routine par.

Despite the mental breakdown, I’m very excited to see the hard work starting to pay off, and for the first time in a while it felt like I was playing golf instead of golf swing.

How’s your game coming?  Handling success and adversity equally as well?

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Halfway Point Discoveries

Last weekend I played my 20th round of the year.  Tomorrow I embark on the inward half of the journey to completing 40 for the season.  The news is mostly good.

After finishing a series of four lessons with my instructor, I’ve seen payoff in three primary areas; driving distance, consistency of contact with the fairway woods, and accuracy with the wedges inside 100 yards.  The latter of which was my primary reason for seeking professional assistance.  The long iron game remains a work in progress.  Mentally, I’m more at peace around the greens after switching back to my old Cleveland Tour Action sand wedge.

What’s most encouraging is my ability to play a good round right after a bad one, and I attribute that to the conviction in my approach.  During a period of learning, your swing WILL fall off the rails, but rather than search for a band-aid, if you return to the fundamentals you are trying to correct, more often than not, you will have your fix.  Fans of Tiger Woods know that when he changed instructors to Sean Foley, he entered a perpetual state of playing golf swing instead of playing golf.  He became an engineer instead of an artist.  This is to be avoided at all costs and my goal is to move steadily away from engineering to artistry.  I’m still at some point in between but the difference is that when I hit a bad shot, I can take comfort knowing that it’s just the old habits reappearing.

Whether you’re an engineer or artist, at the end of the day, we measure improvement by score.  2016 concluded with my index rising to a recent historical high of 6.3.  It’s down to 4.9 which is super encouraging since I’ve just completed the most difficult stretch of the season (Myrtle Beach trip).  I had one goal at the beginning of the year and that was to improve to 10+ GIR.  Through the tough stretch, I’m still between eight and nine but my index is down which is telling me my proximity performance with the wedges has improved.  I also feel more confident with my short game.  Now as I distance myself from the bi-weekly instruction, it will be interesting to see how quickly I can return to thinking about shots rather than mechanics.

So the learning process has been very satisfactory.  One final note on instruction.  My last lesson included only 15 minutes on the practice tee and then we went for a four-hole playing lesson.  Get a playing lesson if you can.  The time spent on the course with my instructor watching every aspect of my game was invaluable.  I picked up information on ball position for bunker shots, course management, club selection, and a simple putting tip that made a huge difference in my round the following day (took only 27 putts).

See you on the lesson tee and play well!

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