Myrtle Beach Trip – 2016

Myrtle BeachTomorrow we leave for Myrtle Beach on the annual golf-a-palooza journey.  The good news is that I feel more confident in my game than during any previous MB trip.  The work I’ve done to change the mechanics of my short game, along with a switch in pre-shot routine has recharged my batteries.  When combined with the new West Coast Offense visualization techniques, I’m feeling very positive, and today’s final tune up round was another good one and reinforced the correctness of the approach.  Will this translate into better scoring on the trip?  Who knows, but I can’t wait to try.

The not so good news is that our arrival at MB International coincides with the departure of Tropical Storm Bonnie from the Grand Strand area.  Our flight in could be a rough one and our round on Monday may be affected by the remnants but we are ready for anything mother nature throws our way.  The remainder of the week looks good weather-wise.  We are staying at The Legends 54-hole golf mecca and the week’s lineup is awesome:

Monday:  Legends Parkland

Tuesday:  Oyster Bay

Wednesday:  Barefoot – Norman (course review coming)

Thursday:  Legends Heathland

Friday:  Thistle (course review coming)

Saturday:  True Blue

Full trip report is coming; stay tuned.  Play well and have a great week!

Brian

 

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Golf’s West Coast Offense!

Bill WalshThis is a strange tale of improvement that I need to pass on.  It was spawned a couple weeks ago when I responded to a post by The Grateful Golfer in which Jim wrote about fighting off bouts of poor play.  In line with that, I mentioned the technique I had tried of writing your score down hole by hole for the entire round, before you play, and how it had started to work.

As readers of this space know, I’m a huge fan of mental game improvements and a big proponent of all of Dr. Bob Rotella’s books.  I’ve never seen this technique written about by Dr. Bob or anyone else, but got the idea thinking about the success Bill Walsh had with scripting the first 20 plays of a football game.  Walsh was helping his teams prepare and visualize good starts.  His teams always seemed to execute well in the first quarter and my golf game was in need of some first quarter magic.  I was getting killed by poor starts.

The specifics:  In addition to the scores, I was predicting GIRs and putts per hole.  My approach was optimistic but reasonable.  I didn’t chart any career rounds but felt it was a good idea to plan for the best ball striking possible, at least to a level that I was capable of.  In addition to plenty of GIRs, I threw in a few bogeys to keep it real, but no three-putts!  I realized that this technique might be deviating from the stay in the moment mindset associated with good mental approaches, but I had seen enough bad starts that I didn’t care.  I just wanted to try something new that might help.  After all, it was a different kind of visualization.  You write a goal down on paper to cement it in your mind’s eye, right?  Same idea.

The results:  As I mentioned, my early season ball striking was terrible, but boy has it been working after the change.  My first round out, I scripted 16 GIRs and hit 14.  The second round was in a four-man scramble and we finished 4th out of 33 teams.  I performed well in pressure situations (hitting last) which felt like a positive.  And last weekend I played in very heavy wind and managed to hit six of nine greens on the front nine on my way to a two-over 74.  I had scripted 72 strokes, 13 greens, and 31 putts even knowing that I’d be playing in difficult conditions.  I finished with 74-9-29 which was probably the best wind game I’ve ever played.

I am not sure what is going on with this technique, but I suspect it allows you to visualize success based on playing to your full potential, but turning your full potential into your comfort zone.  Is 16 greens in my comfort zone?  Heck no, but if I can fool my mind into thinking that it is, maybe I’ll get closer more often.

Admittedly, there was a physical element as well.  I haven’t been playing or practicing much, but have been working out daily and doing a lot of rotational work to rebuild flexibility in my torso.  Also, on Saturday, during The Players, I rug putted for five hours during the telecast.  Call me crazy, but I was very comfortable the next day on the greens, wind or no wind.  So there’s probably a combination of mental and physical preparation at play.

So there you have it.  Try scripting your next round down to the finest detail and see if Golf’s West Coast Offense will work for you!

Play well.

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Tips for Handling Different Green Speeds

Image from Neverthreeputt.com

Image from Neverthreeputt.com

Saturday at THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP, we saw just how difficult changing green speeds can be for the world’s best professionals.  The sudden switch from an aggressive birdie-fest mindset to a total defensive posture drove the field nuts.  Average putts per round jumped to 32!  We often see similar condition fluctuations at The Masters and the U.S. Open, when the courses typically firm up through the championships, but not as radically as what happened today.

Professionals will adjust from fast to slow greens more easily than slow to fast.  They’ve gotten to where they are by making birdies.  On the other hand, amateurs typically struggle more with fast to slow adjustments.  This happens because the amateur is more concerned about three-putt avoidance (blowing it past) than the professional who is thinking, “Make it.”

Handling change is difficult for touring professionals, so how are weekend desk jockeys supposed to cope?  When my group goes to Myrtle Beach, we often play on nine or ten different courses over six days, and are constantly presented with different green speeds.  The typical adjustment required is fast to slow, as we’re faced with slower Bermuda or Tiff Dwarf surfaces that are prevalent in South Carolina, and have been grown out a bit to handle the hot summer weather.  In the mid-Atlantic, we are used to the quicker Bentgrass surfaces.  The adjustment can be difficult and nothing frustrates my group more than knocking an iron shot stiff only to leave a well-struck birdie putt one foot short “right in the jaws.”

Here are three simple keys I use to adjust:

  1. Warm up with 10-footers before you play.  This is the length of putt that will give you the best feedback for the day’s green speeds.  Also, if you hole out your practice putts, starting with the 10-footer will get you close enough to the hole that you don’t three putt.  You never want to three putt while warming up because it’s a confidence drain right before you tee off.  Concern yourself with feeling the pace of the putt and don’t worry too much about the line.
  2. Adjust grip pressure.  Ideally, on fast surfaces, hold the putter as lightly as possible.  You may even allow for a smidgen of wrist break on the back swing so as to not get too robotic.  For slow surfaces, hold the putter a little tighter which will produce more of a pop stroke.  Picture Brandt Snedeker or Tom Watson.  Try not to alter the pace of your stroke based on the green speed.  Keep it consistent and smooth.  The grip pressure will give you more or less distance.
  3. It’s obvious, but on fast surfaces try to keep your approach shots below the hole.  It makes the game easier because putting downhill and scared are a lethal combination.

Those are my keys; I hope they work for you.  Do you have any you’d like to share?

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Supporting Adam Scott

Golf AustraliaYesterday it was reported that Adam Scott is skipping the Olympic Games this summer.  Good for him.  Fellow Australian and gold medalist swimmer Dawn Frazer basically had a meltdown and accused Scott of being unpatriotic.  Anyone who witnessed Scott’s magnificent 2013 Masters triumph and celebration of country knows better.  This has nothing to do with patriotism and everything to do with taking a principled stand against the obvious misplacement of a sport that does not belong in the Olympic Games.  Scott is a professional.  Professional golfers biggest stage is the majors.  The Olympics should be for amateurs.  I get that it’s not but there’s nothing wrong with taking a stand in what you believe in.  Thankfully, South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel quickly followed suit and I suspect the floodgates of professionals sensing a guilt free option to skip has been opened.Adam Scott

The addition of professional sports to the Olympics has cheapened an event that was once the crown jewel of amateur competition.  The Soviet basketball team first violated the spirit of amateurism at the 1972 Olympic Games which started the downhill spiral.  Now the world’s biggest professional events have been added and it’s a joke.  How bad is this?  Let’s compare a few:  World Cup vs. Olympic soccer?  No contest.  Baseball World Series vs Olympic baseball?  Already decided.  NBA Championship vs USA Dream team destroying every country by 50 points?  What a laugher.  Wimbledon vs Olympic tennis?  You get the picture.

Folks who think Olympic Golf is about growing the game globally are being mislead.  Golf is a game played largely in developed countries and will probably remain that way because of market forces.  Sure a driving range or course may pop up in Senegal or Ecuador, but those are outliers.

Sometimes you simply need to take action because it’s the right thing to do.  I stand in solidarity with Scott, Oostie, Schwartzel, and anyone else who cares to skip Olympic golf.  Good for them.

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Cramming for May events

CrammingNormally the golf season starts in late February in the DMV and I attempt to peak my game for the important events on the May calendar.  May 5 is the four-man scramble for the Jess Carson Charity Foundation at Queenstown Harbor, and May 30-June 4 is our annual Myrtle Beach 216-hole slug-fest.  This year we have a dynamite course line-up and I am pumped to travel, but the physical demands of this trip can be daunting if your fitness level is poor or you are struggling with your game.   Sometimes you can’t control game struggles, but this year I broke protocol by doing a poor job maintaining my fitness over the winter, and am playing catch up.  Also, rather than dedicating two days per weekend in the spring for practice and play, I was limited to one mostly because of bad weather.

As I noted earlier, I’ve been battling a long running case of the chip yips and last weekend appeared to have it whipped.  I managed to chip in again for the second time in four rounds and took great encouragement from the course despite my continued ball striking issues.  Fast forward to yesterday and I hit 14 greens in regulation (did not see that coming), but the chip yips were back – ugh!  I left the course a bit dejected after blowing a chance to go low by playing holes 15-18 bogey, bogey, bogey, double bogey.  What drives you nuts in this game is that you cannot solve for one thing without something else going wrong.  But my dejection quickly faded because I realized my ball striking was coming around and I finished poorly because my poor conditioning caused some loose swings late.

It’s hard to recognize that when you lay the sod over a short pitch, you are actually improving.  Improvement is not linear and you are going to have setbacks and can only hope to see overall improvement that trends up slowly.  So the push is on and I’ll continue to work on flexibility, dropping some more weight, and tailoring practice to the May 5th tournament.  The scramble is all about driving, putting, and short iron play.  I’ll practice on Saturday featuring wedges, drivers, and putting, and then play on Sunday.  Hopefully it all comes together on the 5th.  After the scramble, it will be back to the short game focus and working hard on conditioning.

When you’re a desk jockey, it’s difficult to see the forest from the trees; you want to do your best every time out, but when you only get one day per week, it sure seems hard.  How is your early season coming?

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Truly Inspired

What I absolutely love about this blogging community is my ability to rant and rave and occasionally celebrate successes, because each of you are players and you get it – no explanation required.  Trying to tell the lady stocking the fridge at work on Monday morning why I’m pulling my tee shots doesn’t illicit the same intellectual curiosity.  So thank you.

I am drawing inspiration for this piece from all the great articles you wrote this weekend, but one in particular from One Bearded Golfer.  He penned an excellent column with his Masters Hot Takes, and it got me thinking about my own struggles on Sunday.  Yes, golf is incredibly hard, as Dave has capably pointed out.  Watching Jordan Spieth implode at Augusta confirmed this, and I was off my game as well, hitting the ball poorly, but more importantly, feeling sluggish and not particularly capable of making an athletic move.  While commiserating with my playing partner, he suggested that father time was starting to play a part.  What?  I am cognizant of the double nickle non-competitive delimiter most players go through on the Champion’s Tour but could this be happening to me?  Of course nobody has the speed, flexibility, and agility at 55 than they did at 25, but there was something else at play, and I realized after watching Jordan’s crash that to play really good golf you need to be hitting on all three of your golf engine cylinders (mental, physical, and mechanical).  Jordan wasn’t hitting on his mechanical cylinder and I was off on my physical.

As players we tend to obsess about the latest weakness in our games.  As a weekend warrior, my practice time is limited and I had been focusing my entire preparation on fixing my short game.  Well, it’s fixed (for now) and oddly enough feels like a strength.  Problem was I had stopped working out and put on too much weight over the winter.  Was it any wonder I didn’t feel comfortable making a good turn?  I believe you have to have the right balance of play, practice, mental piece of mind, and physical fitness to be successful, and still nothing is guaranteed.  Jordan Spieth demonstrated that on Sunday.

So to Dave at One Bearded Golfer:  Thank you for the inspiration to get back at my TPI workouts and start eating right again.  Also know that the little one in your life is probably more of a distraction to your golf than you realize.  When I had little ones, I had to adjust expectations, rearrange ground rules, etc.

Yes, as Hogan said, “The secret is in the dirt,” so definitely keep after it but enjoy the little distractions along the way and be patient; it will come.

Thank you all and play well.

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The Augusta Bracket Buster

MizeThis year’s Masters Friday feels like a Sweet 16 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  The early upsets are out of the way, some egos have been crushed, most of our bracket’s are busted, and a refreshing reset has set in.

Bernhard Langer and Larry Mize are headlining the weekend action!  It’s amazing how some of the old timers continually deliver and the favorites disappoint.  Is Phil finally hitting the wall?  Maybe.  As soon as Jack Nicklaus (had Phil) picks you for something, it’s like the kiss of death.:)

The first hole travesty that Ernie Els suffered through shouldn’t happen to anyone.  Now this has zero comparison value, but I remember playing in a tournament 25 years ago and five-putting on a par-3 hole.  I just wanted to climb into a shell and disappear.  I cannot imagine how the Big Easy felt on the first hole of the greatest tournament on earth.  It was difficult to watch and to his credit, Ernie answered all the questions with honesty and integrity.

My David and Goliath final match-up is history with both Zach Johnson (cut) and Bubba (made it on the number) shooting themselves out of contention.  Zach was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a hazard on Friday and missed it by those two shots, but was already on the back-nine bogey train and headed for the weekend off.

So how’s this play out?  The good news is that we are in for a surreal weekend treat.  Forget about the traditional Sunday birdie barrage.  Look for a U.S. Open style battle of attrition where even par is a great score and the toughest course conditions in years force the players to grind grind grind.  I think this favors all the ex-U.S. Open champions in the field.  Obviously Spieth has to be favored.  He has the toughest demeanor in the game and the guts around the green.  If the wind continues to blow, the good ball strikers like Rory and Dustin Johnson should be right there although neither of them putt as well as Spieth.  If Justin Rose can banish any putting demons, he has a shot.  Jason Day has a good patient approach and figures to be right there on Sunday, but flights it a little high which could be a problem if the wind is a factor.  And finally, despite making a 9 in Thursday’s round on #15, look for Angel Cabrera to hang tough.  All he does is win when you don’t think he should.  He is definitely a horse for this course and has an Open trophy and a green jacket.

Enjoy the weekend slugfest!  How’s your bracket doing?

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Competitive Integrity Problem On Tour?

Phil BunkerDid anyone catch Phil Mickelson’s comments on NBC after Sunday’s final round in the Shell Houston Open?  I believe it was Jimmy Roberts who interviewed Phil and asked him how he felt since he was close but couldn’t close the deal in Houston.  He added were there any takeaways that Phil could share about his game heading into next week’s Masters?  Phil indicated that he basically mismanaged his game on purpose so he could hit some tee shots under game conditions that he would need next week at Augusta.  He added that if he were trying to win at Houston, he would have played more 3-woods instead of drivers off the tee because the fairways narrow considerably around 300 yards.  He said the reason for this was that he was preparing for the cut tee shots with the driver he’d need on several holes at The Masters, most notably on #13.  Phil was actually using this tournament as four practice rounds for Augusta.

When I first heard this I thought, “Phil is a smart guy; he knows how to prep for a major and that’s why he’s already won three Masters.”  Then while I was enjoying the aftermath of Jim Herman’s hard fought one-shot victory over Henrik Stenson, I began to think;  Herman and Stenson battled hard for this title, and so did Dustin Johnson.  Since golf is basically self-policed, with each player calling violations on themselves and attempting to protect the field and thus the integrity of the competition, shouldn’t players in the field be obligated to try their hardest to win at all times?  Not trying your hardest might skew the result in an odd way and have negative downstream effects.  For example, what if on the strength of his victory, Herman made the Ryder Cup team.  If Phil had played to win and defeated Herman, someone else may have made the team.

In organized team sports, at the end of the season, teams sometimes rest their star players; I get that.  However, I’ve never heard the players on the field in any sport admitting to not giving anything less than 100% effort to try and win.  And this was certainly not a case of easing off the gas at the end of a blow out game so as to not run up the score on an opponent.  Does this strike you as odd?  Even though it may be done by others, are you okay with a competitor admitting to not trying to win?  I wonder how Jim Herman might feel. . . I’m a huge Phil fan but am interested to know your thoughts on this.

 

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2016 The Masters – Picking a Winner

The Masters isn’t the most difficult major to win but it has become the most coveted because of what it represents.  In Michael Bamberger’s Men In Green, he describes Ken Venturi’s inability to get past his defeat in the 1958 Masters, and how it haunted him the rest of his life.  It certainly showcases the importance of winning this championship and how it can make or break a player.Magnolia Lane

The 2016 edition feels like the passing of the torch from the cadre of players in their 40s and 50s (Woods, Singh, Els, Mickelson, Couples), who competed and thrilled us for years, to the younger set that is dominating play today.  Of the previous group, only Lefty can be considered competitive enough to have a chance.  But at 45, he’s seeing the slow inevitable loss of “the edge”.  Everyone who’s ever played the game goes through the process, as the venerable Arnold Palmer has described it.

A tip of the cap goes to The King who will not be hitting his ceremonial Masters tee shot this year because of an unfortunate injury.  We wish him a speedy recovery.

Now to the business at hand, let’s break the field into three groups of contenders.

  • Group 1 (Superstars):  Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Adam Scott, and Bubba Watson. The world’s #1 ranking rotates regularly in this circle and sort of confirms the lack of importance of that title.  Whomever is hot at the moment is the World #1.
  • Group 2 (Cagey Veterans):  Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen, Zach Johnson, and Jim Furyk.  All major winners and usually in contention.
  • Group 3 (BPTNWM:  Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, and I’ll lump in Rickie Fowler, since he’s been so close with top five finishes in all the majors.  Certainly he has the talent, and now he’s got the expectations.

There are plenty of great players on the periphery like Jimmy Walker, Patrick Reed, Kevin Kistner, and Danny Willett, but the champion will come from one of the first three groups.

Picking major winners is hard so let’s use the process of elimination to arrive at a champion.  Getting started, here’s why Rory McIlroy will not win it despite all that talent.  Rory has won his four majors but also has that Masters bugaboo since he fired the final round 80 in 2011.  Becoming a first time champion at Augusta is hard work as the magnolia baggage piles up.  I’m not wild about the timing of his putting change to left hand low.  It may be working for him now but I like to see stability with the flatstick heading into a date with these slickmeisters.  Adam Scott is striping it too, but I don’t like him for the same reason.  Too soon away from the broomstick to handle the mental grind on these greens.

Now we know what the issue with defending champion Jordan Spieth is.  He overextended himself with commitments after his stellar year.  Seems reasonable, and he appears to be regaining some mojo, but is also struggling with the putter and won’t get all the way back, at least not this week.

Someone with imagination will win The Masters  Someone who’s a great putter will win.  Someone who can grind will win.  Ricky Fowler can make birdies with the best of them but can he grind?  He got ground out in Phoenix as a front-runner and that didn’t sit well.  To have a chance he needs to come from behind on Sunday.  Not likely.

Jason Day fits the bill on the requirements.  Before last year’s breakthrough in the PGA, he seemed to always have an untimely injury or bout with vertigo, or illness, or lost a little focus, or something that just prevented him from breaking through.  Nobody was closer in the majors, but he finally broke through in 2015, but not at Augusta.  He’s the hottest on the planet coming in and I like him for a top-3 but not a jacket.

If golf was played on a 15 hole course and majors were 60 holes not 72, Sergio Garcia would be challenging Jack and Tiger for all time supremacy.  Maybe Sergio needs a golf shirt with an XXXXL size collar to have a chance.  Sorry Sergio, no chance.  I’m also losing faith in Dustin (more talent than anyone) Johnson.  Seems he runs with a bit of Sergio fever at crunch time.  I’m not picking him in a major until he wins one.

So who’s left?  It’s Zach Johnson vs. Bubba Watson.  David vs Goliath.  Bubba is hitting the ball great and leads the tour in the all important GIR statistic.  But unlike normal Bubba, his putting is mediocre and his scrambling is horrible and you’ve gotta have touch and guts around these greens to win.

So your 2016 Masters Champion will be touch and guts Zach Johnson, with Jason Day finishing second and Bubba coming in third.  For those of you looking for a dark horse in your Calcutta, Charl Schwartzel is an ex-champion, has had a nice quiet but solid start to his season and will be cheap!  Look for him to contend.

Call your bookies and good luck!Zach Johnson

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Yesterday I Chipped In!

In the holeIn the long road back from the chip yips, I hit an important milestone yesterday; I chipped in.  I’m not sure if the chip yips afflict you at 50, but I’ve been struggling around the green since I turned 51 in 2012, and yesterday’s lob wedge from a gnarly lie came as a huge relief.  It’s been so long since I chipped in (years) I can’t remember the last time.  In fact, it’s felt like years since I hit a good chip.

Late in 2015, I had been contemplating taking short game lessons but then during a December practice session, I made a mental change to my pre-shot routine and a technique change.  The mechanics are weird and a little unconventional, but were born from a tip I read by Seve Ballesteros on controlling the shots with your right hand.  I do believe the closer you get to the green, the more individualized your game can become, as long as you get the ball in the hole.  So I will continue with this method and hopefully eradicate whatever had infected my short game.

Can I pronounce myself cured?  Heck no, but I can feel the confidence returning.  Yesterday, we played at Little Bennett.  The greens were fast and the pins placed in diabolical positions with several bordering on unfair.  Getting close to the hole with any club, including the putter was extremely difficult.  In short, this was an awesome test for short game.  Because of the pin placements, up-and-down stats were not a true reflection of performance so I rated my performance on chips/pitches that I hit like I wanted to.  I was 5 for 9, but more importantly, I was able to rehearse the shots and execute without angst or feeling defensive.

It’s a rare day that you shoot a bad score and come away from the golf course feeling inspired.  The rebuild is starting to work!

Play well and Happy Easter to all!

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Formula for Improvement in 2016

ImprovementBefore we start, let’s try a quick mental exercise: You are playing a par-4 hole under benign conditions, and your drive has left you 130 yards to a pin cut just four paces on the front of the green with no hazards to clear. What is your approach? Do you pick your 130-yard club and go right for the pin, knowing if you may stiff it, but if you mishit it you may be 10-15 feet short of the green and have to chip to recover, or do you take your 140-yard club and hit for the center of the green, knowing you may have a downhill 30 foot putt but probably won’t be close to the flag for a realistic birdie chance? Hold that answer for later.

In my ongoing effort to improve, I just completed a full game analysis which included a statistical review of over 200 rounds played since 2010 and a subjective self-evaluation. Combining the two, I think I’ve landed on a reasonable strategy to take a couple strokes off my game in 2016.

The subjective component was derived from assessing my strengths and weaknesses as a player, and being as honest as possible. If you try it, this will vary by your skill level.  I realize I do not have the game of a scratch player, so I rated the various components of my game in relation to what an average 5-handicap might look like. If I could calculate strokes gained or lost for various categories, that would be great but you can’t so what I came up with was letter grades. My rank against the class: Driving: B, Irons: C-minus, Putting: B, Short Game: D, Mental game: A-minus.

Next the objective component was using data for scoring average, GIR, and putts per round. It’s well known that the most highly regarded statistic on the PGA Tour as an indicator of good play is GIR but we amateurs are not playing the PGA Tour so how relevant is GIR? Let’s see. I divided up my rounds into good ball striking days (10 or more GIR), poor ball striking days (less than 10 GIR), and good putting days (30 or less putts). What I found was there was a much higher correlation to good scoring from good ball striking than good putting. The data:

Category Average GIR Average Putts Average Score
Good ball striking rounds 11.21 32.97 76.46
Poor ball striking rounds 6.78 31.62 81.34
Good putting rounds 7.27 28.97 78.32

The difference in good ball striking rounds and poor ball striking rounds is clear.  Essentially, with each additional green hit, I lowered my score by one shot.  However, notice that during the good ball striking rounds, I averaged four more putts per round than during good putting rounds.  This is because the more greens you hit, the farther you are from the hole and you will naturally take more putts, but my stroke average was nearly two shots lower per round than the good putting rounds! What does this mean? Back to our initial example: I would probably benefit from hitting the 140-yard club and playing more conservatively on my approach shots to allow me to HIT MORE GREENS. It also speaks volumes that my short game is very poor😦 and needs to improve to get me closer to the hole when I do miss.

Conclusion: I’m convinced, the main part of this plan is better course management.  During rounds, I need to discipline myself to aim for the fat part of the greens and assume that there’s nothing wrong with settling for two-putt pars. The occasional birdie is fine but I can’t force it.  I also need to focus most if not all of my practice time to improving short game and putting.  In essence, don’t be a hero, just lower my stroke average using the law of averages and common sense. Given the data, what do you think of this approach? Silly? Too conservative? About right? Please let me know!

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How Do You Play Under Pressure?

PressureThink back over the entire course of your golf career to the couple times that you were under the most pressure. How did you handle it? What were the circumstances of the situation and the true source of the pressure? Did you manage to overcome or did you choke? As long as golf and other sports are played at the professional and recreational level there will be pressure situations.Performance Under Pressure

I just finished the New York Times Bestseller Performing Under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry, and it was a fascinating look into the nature of pressure situations and what strategies we can use to combat it. Pawliw-Fry has a background of working with Olympic athletes and interjected many helpful sports analogies which were great for tying golf into the conversation.

The book is divided into three parts. First is an examination of what pressure is and how it’s different from stress. Stress is defined as a constant nagging type entity that comes in many forms and wears you down over time, but pressure is an immediate positive or negative result based on a specific action you might take. You win or lose the tournament based on a single shot or you succeed or fail at the plate with one swing of the bat. In evolutionary terms, you successfully hunted food or you starved, or worse, you were hunted by predatory animals and needed to escape to survive. These are real pressure situations. The authors align many of our present day pressure situations with our evolutionary history.  Included are fascinating data from sports studies supporting the conclusion that it’s mostly a myth that anyone excels under pressure,.  Rather, some are more capable than others to perform close to their natural abilities under pressure and are termed “clutch”.  Among the several nuggets:   clutch hitting in late inning and post-season major league baseball games is mostly a myth, with no hitters consistently able to perform better under these pressure situations. compared to regular season action.  Even Reggie Jackson (Mr. October) never hit better in the post season than the regular season, with his best post season batting average equaling only his fifth best regular season average.

Part two contains a breakdown of short-term strategies you can use to regulate and release the flow of pressure. One interesting study they did was with golfers and the concept of using word anchors compared to swing thoughts. One control group was told to think mechanical thoughts while hitting shots under pressure while another was to think the anchor thought. Anchors were non-concrete action words like “smooth” and “balanced”, and they proved that the group using the anchors performed much better than the mechanical group. This should come as no surprise.  Players who play golf swing instead of golf take note.

Part three describes developing a long term strategy of building a COTE of armor to immunize yourself against pressure. COTE stands for Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiasm. Each of these are examined in depth with strategies provided to better yourself across the board. Build up each area and you immunize yourself better to all pressure situations.

Most of these strategies will help you handle pressure in life, at work, as well as on the golf course. It’s an eye opening read and I highly recommend it. Get the book and tell me what you think. Now it’s out to practice and work on my COTE.  Play well!

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Driving The Golf Ball – Length Vs Accuracy

Long DriveWhat’s more important, length or accuracy?  Been having a couple interesting dialogs with Jim at The Grateful Golfer and Jimmy at Tiger Golf Traveler on the challenges of driving and figured it was time to take a closer look at the dichotomy.  Let’s approach from the two perspectives of the tour professional and amateur player, which are very different, and often get munged together to create great confusion.  First the pro.  The current PGA Tour driving distance average is 290.8 yards.  This has steadily increased from slightly over 260 yards in 1993 to 287 yards in 2003 and leveled off since.  The reason was three-fold:  first was the introduction of the trampoline effect on the driver face (new technology), second was the introduction of the three-piece golf ball, and finally was the muscling up and year round conditioning of today’s tour players pioneered by Tiger Woods.  As a result, the PGA Tour has steadily lengthened its venues to maintain the competitive integrity of the game.  No doubt, length has won out over accuracy on tour as the world’s best are more deadly accurate with their approaches using wedges out of the rough than short to middle irons from the fairway.

What’s fascinating is that the playing public has access to the same equipment that the best in the world have, but for some reason they expect to boom drives in the same fashion that their heroes on TV do.  How often have you seen the guy at the driving range banging bucket after bucket over the 300 yard sign with sweat dripping from his brow and a great look of satisfaction on his face?  Or maybe that person is you???  Here’s where perception and reality are out of whack because the tour pro’s misses are far less off-line than the amateur’s and what the pro can do with his game at the other end of the drive differs considerably from the amateur.   To put it differently, given a 36oz. wooden bat and a softly tossed baseball, would you be able to stand at the plate and swat home runs like Chris Davis or Jose Bautista?  Of course not.Crush

As a young amateur, I had a laminated Top Flite driver that would almost never miss the fairway.  I couldn’t drive it over 220 yards but was incredibly straight.  In my 20s I took a couple lessons with a pro who firmed up my left side during the downswing.  Part of that instruction included strengthening my left hand grip which allowed me to generate more power through better leverage.  Well that worked and the ball started flying farther but far more crooked and I have never regained the accuracy with the big stick.  Oddly enough, in last two years, I have started driving it better just focusing on making a good shoulder turn going back.  But the bottom line for this amateur: the game is far more enjoyable if you stay out of trouble off the tee, even if that means sacrificing some distance.

So my final recommendation:  Let the equipment companies continue to try and sell you a new $400 driver every year with the promise of a few more magical yards but don’t buy it.  Invest half that much and get a professional driver fitting with a reputable club maker.  He’ll make sure the driver you are playing has the correct shaft flexibility, is not too long, and lets you keep it in the short grass.

Where do you fall in the length vs accuracy spectrum?  Play well!

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What Has Experience Taught You?

Rickie Fowler LosesMichael Breed, of The Golf Channel, expressed an interesting definition of experience. He said, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” Last Sunday, Rickie Fowler got a good dose of experience. Fowler is a seasoned 27-year old professional with six wins world-wide (three on the PGA Tour) and top-5 finishes in all the majors. I’m a Rickie fan and expected him to manage his game better down the stretch, yet what happened on the 17th hole at the TPC of Scottsdale saddened me and will get added to the bone yard of golf “experiences”.Michael Breed

The lesson that has to be learned over and over is that aggressive play under pressure rarely pays off. Rickie last week, Phil Mickelson’s epic collapse at the 2006 US Open, Jean van de Velde at The Open in 1999 at Carnoustie, are just a few examples. It’s fascinating why players don’t learn from those who have gone before them. Maybe the adrenaline release under pressure affects their thinking, but almost always these experiences can be directed to poor course management. In fact, rarely in golf will you get in trouble playing overly-conservative in clutch situations. When Zach Johnson won the 2007 Masters, he laid up on every par five and played them 11-under without making a bogey. You may think that’s a whacky strategy for a professional at Augusta, but Zach clearly understood his strengths and limitations, and played to them. Rickie had hit seven drives into the water on #17 at Phoenix in previous rounds! With a two-shot lead why not hit 5-iron-sand wedge and make an easy par or birdie?

Think back to an experience you’ve had. Did you have to experience it to learn or did you learn from someone else’s misfortune? Unfortunately, I’m a hands-on learner and got a lesson on course management under pressure. I was in a club championship match about 20 years ago and standing on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead. This hole has water that stretches fully across the fairway about 320 yards off the tee. I had played the hole hundreds of times but had never hit the water. The day was hot, the wind was blowing hard from behind, and the ground was dry.  My drive trickled into the front bank of the hazard and I had to struggle to make bogey. Fortunately, my nearest competitor made par and I finished one stroke ahead but I will never forget the feeling I had looking at my ball sitting on the mud bank and thinking, “What were you thinking?”

Are you a risk taker under pressure or can you manage your game to your abilities? Please share a similar experience if you have one.

Thanks and play well!

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PGA Major Meltdown!

TigerWinsQuick question:  What’s the measure of greatness in professional golf?  Short answer:  The number of major victories one has accumulated.  We don’t consider money rankings, driving distance, Vardon Trophy (scoring average), or even FedEx Cup championships.  The sole measure of historical excellence is how many Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship victories one has.  This is not dissimilar to the NFL where Super Bowl titles are the standard, or Major League Baseball where World Series victories are king.  Tennis, the other major individual sport, measures its greats by number of Grand Slam titles won.

So why is the PGA Tour compromising the integrity of the major championships with it’s insane scheduling in 2016?  Take a look at the backside of the 2016 PGA Tour schedule and you’ll notice for the first time The Open Championship and PGA Championship are being contested only 11 days apart!  This is simply not enough time for the world’s best to recover physically and mentally, make the journey back across the Atlantic, and for excitement to rebuild in the fan base for the final major.  In a normal year, each event is generally spaced one month apart, with the exception being the two months between golf’s Masters and U.S. Open.

At first glance I attributed this to the presence of the 2016 Olympic golf event which is scheduled for August 11-14 and happens to fall right smack on the PGA Championship’s traditional window (one month from The Open).  But Olympic Golf is not the growth panacea everyone thought it was and The PGA Tour knows it.  At best it’s an inconsequential event with an unfair qualification process (only four players per country are allowed to participate eliminating many of the world’s best).  At worst, it’s a classic example of exceeding the economic law of diminishing returns with too much golf on TV.  I think after a couple tries, it probably will join baseball on the list of dropped Olympic sports.  Think otherwise?  Think Olympic golf will command the TV stage?  Think again.  The suits at PGA headquarters have scheduled the John Deere Classic to be contested simultaneously with the Olympic tournament.  And the USGA put the U.S. Senior Open in the same time slot as well.  When baseball was last played in the Olympics in 2008, Major League Baseball played right through the window and didn’t even give the Olympic tournament a sniff of concern.  I’m hoping golf plays out in a similar fashion.

Olympic golf feels like an attempt to force growth in an incorrect way.  The recent golf market contraction is due to the receding Tiger Woods wave.  As Tiger plays less, fewer folks tune in.  It’s a natural phenomenon that can’t be fought.  But cheapening the integrity around the existing major championships is absolutely the wrong approach and needs to be fixed.  The tour has the ability to shift schedules around and should flip-flop The PGA Championship with The Wyndham Championship, and move the former into the August 18-21 window.

On a global scale, the good news is that golf has a chance of re-entering a golden age with a core of young superstars take the sport by storm.  To allow natural rivalries to form between Jordan, Rory, Jason, and Rikie, the PGA needs to ensure the integrity of its competitions is on the highest level.  It should start with an adjustment to the 2016 schedule.

What do you think they should do?

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2015 Season Wrap Up

WrapAlas, it’s supposed to be 72 degrees the day after Christmas in the DMV and no doubt the season could be extended another week, but I’ll be in New England for the holidays.  Let’s call it a wrap on the 2015 golf season and analyze performance.

Usually, not much changes with my game from year to year but 2015 had a notable exception.  This was the year where I made great strides on the greens.  Late in 2014 I had made a change to my pre-shot putting routine that allowed for better speed judgment.  I leveraged that into nearly a full stroke less in putts per round.  The benefit was fully reflected in a lower scoring average and better relation to par stats.  The discovery was exciting and I’ll continue with this in 2016.

My ball striking with the driver also improved as I worked to simplify my mechanics by focusing on making a full shoulder turn.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t parlay better driving into more GIRs and the stats were virtually identical to the previous year.  In fact, every year I’m somewhere between eight and nine greens per round and can’t seem to get over that hump.  No doubt ingrained swing habits and my reluctance to try wholesale changes are playing a part, and while I’d like to ultimately get to an average of 10 GIRs, that’s a stretch goal.

The bad news was short game.  I wasn’t a basket case like Tiger before The Masters, but struggled mentally all year, and played defensively from the fringe and primary rough. TigerChunk Oddly, my sand game was good since I made a technique change early in the season, but I’ve committed to taking short game lessons in the spring to refresh my approach.

On a positive note, last Saturday I spent a couple of hours at the short game area trying to work the problem and think I may have stumbled into an “ah-ha” moment.  It’s been my hypothesis all along that I have the shots but just cannot decide what to execute and then cannot perform them for whatever reason.  In addition to playing defensively, I feel defensive when thinking of what shot to play.  So I stopped and thought about the problem and realized for the first time that my short game pre-shot routine was different from my full swing pre-shot routine.  I can’t believe that it had not occurred to me in all this time, but I started to use my full swing routine around the green and the simplicity and clarity provided immediate positive feedback.  Then I made a minor mechanical change and stood a little closer to the ball for all shots (picture Raymond Floyd) and voila!  Contact and confidence were back.

I was excited to battle test these changes the next day and went out for my final round of the year in a great mental state.  As is sometimes the case, the confidence yielded a very good ball striking day and a round of 3-over par.  I drove the ball better than I had all year and hit 12 greens.  Five of the six misses were on the fringe and every one was close enough to putt, so I never got to try out my new technique, but the change has left me with a positive mindset going into the off season.  I will set up my driving mat on the patio in the winter and will work on some light chipping technique as well as the pre-shot routine to get ready for 2016.

How did you evaluate your performance this year?  Here’s my final metrics from this year vs. last.

 Year Score To Par GIR Putts
 2015 78.83 7.40 8.54 31.26
 2014 79.97 8.47 8.47 32.25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Serious Improvement for 2016

Phil BunkerToday I should have been out cutting down a Christmas tree but the weather was too good to waste so I called my wife’s friend and scheduled the third installment of her beginner’s golf instruction.  Last time out, we covered putting and etiquette and today we hit the range at Little Bennett to work some full swing and short game.  The practice area was predictably packed but we got in a full two hours.

As is sometimes the case, when you teach or demonstrate a skill to someone else, you sometimes gain clarity on how you can better employ the same skill for yourself.  Have you found that to be the case?  I had the epiphany about my own improvement for 2016 while showing my pupil how to chip.   I NEED TO TAKE SHORT GAME LESSONS.  Actually the thought was percolating in my subconscious after my round last weekend.  I had been tinkering with the thought of implementing an early wrist hinge in hopes of improving my ball striking but abandoned that WOOD band-aid and just went out and played.  My ball striking was good but my short game was terrible.  I usually find during slow periods when I’ve had a layoff or am not actively working on my game, my full swing sustains but the short game touch is fleeting.  Sound familiar?

Anyway, I realized that my issue around the greens is always that I’m playing too defensively.  I think it’s because I don’t have confidence in my technique and as a result am indecisive on which shot to play.  Admittedly, my first thought before hitting a short shot is to “not miss it too badly” instead of “sink it,” like Phil would.  I believe I have the shots but need a pro to reinforce the proper mechanics, especially with my wedges.  Perhaps that will turn my short game into the aggressive weapon that I need.

On the full swing, I’ve come to realize that my move has been grooved over a 40-year period, and it has been extremely hard to change anything other than grip and ball position.  You truly do revert to your learned habits over such an extended duration and I’ve tried to change my swing so many times with adverse effects that it just doesn’t make sense.

So here’s hoping the good weather holds in the DMV and with luck we’ll be playing through New Years.  I’m off to find a short game guru . . . and buy a Christmas tree.

Play well!

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Early Hinge or One Piece Takeaway?

Okay, blogging community, I need some assistance.  I haven’t worked on my swing in a while but today it was nice and I hit the range for a 50-ball bucket.  My first five pitching wedges were perfect, but were followed by pure garbage (35 all over the place over the top toe hooks with an assortment of short and long irons), which were followed by 10 flawless 8-irons and partial wedge shots after I made a technique change.  I don’t know what compelled me to abandon my traditional one-piece takeaway in favor of a early wrist hinge, but the adjustment triggered the pure strikes and I can’t figure out why.

Like any internet sleuth,  I found this video by Sir Nick Faldo detailing the Pre Set Drill and how it has served him well for his ball striking.  This is very similar to what I implemented.

On the one hand, who’s to argue with Nick Faldo?  He was an awesomely consistent ball striker after he worked with David Leadbetter to change his swing.  Leadbetter advocated for Nick to use the Pre Set Drill.  On the other hand, he indicates this is very difficult to implement and must be done precisely to be effective.

My questions:  Has anyone used this drill for an extended period of time or changed their swing to an early hinge and experienced success?  I can recall only a couple of pros who had somewhat of an early hinge and were successful ball strikers (Raymond Floyd and Nancy Lopez).  Is this a WOOD band-aid I just stumbled upon or is it worth the effort to make a change in that direction?  I was hitting it pure and I’ve got all winter :)  Please advise.  Thanks!

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Your Second Set of Eyes Should Be a Trusted Set

VeteransFirst, Happy Veterans Day to all.  A heartfelt thank you to everyone that has served.

Today I golfed with my friend, Jim Rush who is a retired U.S. Marine and is a trusted second set of eyes.  Last month, Jim and I were on our annual eastern shore golf trip and we were warming up for our round at Eagles Landing and I was struggling with my putting.  Everything was going right, even on the shortest of shorties and I had Jim take a look at me.  He immediately noticed that I was lining the putts up about an inch out on the toe of my Ping Answer (with the “CORP” in KARSTEN MFG. CORP).  The Answer has no markings on the top and I thought I was completely square on the blade.  I tried to change but moving your putting alignment an inch right before the start of a round is a significant change and I struggled to get comfortable and putted poorly that day.Ping Answer

In the month between then and today’s round, I had the opportunity to reflect on my putting over the years and definitely recalled many times when I would make a good stroke, but hit the putt on the toe.  It’s quite possible that this fault has been with me in perpetuity, and I have been working to correct the oversight in the last month.  Today I’m happy to report that I was banging my shorties and mid-range putts with confidence.  What a relief.

The lesson learned is not about putting alignment, but that when you solicit advice from someone (other than a professional) you had better trust that their observations will be sound and their recommendations useful.  I recall when I used to teach a long time ago, we had a saying that went, “Amateurs teach amateurs to play like amateurs.”  You may have heard it and we certainly had our work cut out for us undoing the damage that friendly advice had done to our student’s golf games.  If you seek friendly advice, it helps if your adviser has played with you, is familiar with your game and some of the faults and fixes you have worked on, and is a good player themselves.  Jim knows my swing well and sometimes I will also ask him to take a quick look at me before a round if I’m striking it poorly.  Usually all he has to mention is a little key that registers and I’m on my way.

Do you have a trusted second set of eyes?

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Got The Teaching Bug

from wexhamparkgolfcentre.co.uk

from wexhamparkgolfcentre.co.uk

Readers of this space may have noticed I’ve been somewhat missing in action over the last couple of months.  Work has kept me extremely busy; too busy, and I hate when that happens.  Earlier this month I did manage to make my way to the beach for my annual fall mini tour of the Delmarva and played three straight days in some of the best fall weather imaginable.  A course review for Ocean City Golf (Seaside course) will be coming.  But I also wanted to bring you up to date on a very rewarding experience I’ve undertaken.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of my wife asked me if I’d show her how to play golf.  She is a pure beginner and had never touched a ball, club, or tee.  I used to teach golf for a living back in the late 1980s, and the last actual golf lesson I gave was around 20 years ago to a fellow that used to supervise me at work.  Once or twice I’ve had requests from readers (complete strangers who live in the Washington DC area) to provide lessons but I politely refused because I didn’t feel right taking money for instruction.  Receiving compensation for lessons would violate my amateur status as well as funnel income away from the local professionals who make their living giving golf lessons.

But in this instance, I decided to work pro-Bono and agreed to help her because she was a friend and wanted a simple introduction to the game before deciding if professional instruction was worth an investment.  I tried to recall the most successful lesson I ever gave to a beginner and thought back to a time where I taught a Japanese lady who spoke no English and had never played the game.  I had to demonstrate and manipulate the fundamentals and movements to get my points across.  After several lessons, she got it and I remember the feeling of satisfaction having just taught someone to hit the ball who I could not verbally communicate with.

What I discovered this time was that I was a much better equipped to teach after having accumulated several decades of knowledge and experience, then I was in the 1980s when I was an apprentice fresh out of PGA Business school and armed only with the latest teaching techniques.  Instructing beginners hasn’t changed much over the years.  If you keep it simple and limit what your student has to think about, you can be successful.  I didn’t have the latest golf clubs to teach with, had no swing monitor to measure swing speed, launch angle, and a dozen other diagnostics, and no camera to record her swing, but at the end of an hour, I had her making a competent move and hitting it consistently about 100 yards with an old ladies 5-iron.  She was thrilled.

My approach was the same after many years.  I was taught to teach Grip, Aim, Setup (GAS) first, and that’s what I focused on.  I showed her how to grip it and told her the grip was the most important thing to focus on while she learned and that I would be correcting her, sometimes before every swing to ensure she got that right.  When we got to making the swing, I focused her on her making the biggest turn possible going back and turning her hips hard to the target on the downswing to get the most possible power out of her core.  This wasn’t how I was taught, but is more of a modern day approach of teaching power first, then finesse.

So this experience was very satisfying and we are set up for another session this weekend.  I’ve clearly got the bug again and volunteered yesterday with my local First Tee chapter to mentor youngsters on golf and hopefully give back a little to my community.

Feeling real good about the prospects of helping other people and will provide an update on how things are going shortly.

Play well!

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