Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mysteries of Putting

My first winter as the head golf professional of Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe Country Club was spent counting, cleaning and categorizing the golf clubs Mr. Palmer had collected over the years. As I sorted and researched the thousands of golf clubs , I was particularly drawn to the collection of putters. We located over 1000 putters that winter of all types, shapes and sizes. Each came with a story as many of them were either given to Mr. Palmer by a manufacturer, a fellow player or a friend. The rest came in the mail. Sent by adoring fans who thought their gift was the solution whenever they felt his putting was not up to standard. Doc Giffin, Mr. Palmer’s administrative assistant and long time friend told me they would come by the dozens if Arnold missed an important putt during a tour event, especially if that event was on television. This all seems silly until you realize that Arnold tried every one of them. Laughing on the outside, but secretly hoping there was some special magic in one of them that might help him collect one more winner’s trophy.
At the United States Golf Academy, in an attempt to separate the science from the superstition, we use an analysis system for putting, called PuttLab. This system measures 28 parameters of an individual putting stroke, accurate to 1/1000 of a second in time, a millimeter in distance, and 1/10th of a degree in rotation. We have measured over 8000 strokes in the past 3 years and what we have learned might surprise you.
There is no perfect method. We have worked with hundreds of players who are very good putters and the only thing they have in common is the task itself. What each does have is a personal strategy on how they strike the ball that they repeat exactly with every stroke. Simplicity and consistency seems to be the most common trait.
Perception is not Reality. While we all “see” the same, how each of us interprets what we see is drastically different. During my lessons I often use a laser reference line, a line on the ball and the site lines on a putter to help aid in a player’s aim and alignment. For more times than I can even count, when I ask the player to judge my success at getting everything lined up, even though they watched me measure each aspect of the process, they will swear on a stack of Bibles the lines are not aimed at the target. We call the resulting confusion, visual interference and I am convinced it is the reason for most missed putts.
Next week we will talk in more detail about what we have learned about putting at the Academy and how you can begin to create our own “putting strategy”.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fairway Clubs

There are two things you notice when you get the opportunity to watch tour level players. The first is how impressive they are off the tee and the second is how they seem to hit their approach shots just the right distance. They make a controlled swing and the ball ends up pin high.

Iron and hybrid play is not about potential, it is about predictability. What amount of effort, with the club selected, will produce the correct distance for the shot? For almost all of us this means finding the pace of swing that provides consistent contact with the ball and then learning how far you can hit each club in the bag with that tempo. This repeatable effort is always less than our maximum.

One of the most productive sessions we have at the United States Golf Academy is when we use our Trackman launch monitor to find the correct distance gaps between clubs in a set. We use this information to help our players put just the right clubs in the bag, one club at a time. When I was a young player the idea of a matched set of clubs was very important. How they performed was really up to the player. Today we take advantage of technology to “blend” each set to fit the distance and trajectory requirements of our players. We are not concerned at all with what the clubs are called. We need a club for specific distances. We have 11 clubs to fill in the yardage gap between the longest club – driver and the shortest wedge you carry. The end result for every set is a different combination of fairway woods, hybrids, irons and wedges depending on the players needs. Another goal in this fitting process is to help every player hit the long clubs higher and the short clubs lower. Controlling the trajectory is key parameter to controlling distance. This is much easier to do with all of the available options we have in today’s equipment.

Unless you have an unlimited budget and the patience to go through a trial and error process to identify each club, you are much better served by finding an experienced professional to make sure you get exactly what you need. As a word of caution beware of the fitter who attempts to fix a swing flaw with an equipment bias. Too many clubs are fit to correct and when you do that you limit your ability to improve. As your swing improves the built in bias curves the ball in the direction it was built to achieve. Good swings produce bad results. Our Academy professionals, as is the case with most PGA professionals, are trained to look at the swing and equipment together rather than separate issues.

Next week we dive into the mysteries of putting.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Driver Strategy

As the head golf professional at Latrobe Country Club, most of my Mondays were spent with my boss, Arnold Palmer, trying to help him prepare for the upcoming tournament. My main job was to observe and listen, and once in a blue moon he would ask me what I thought. We would load up a couple of bags with numerous golf clubs and head to the practice tee. He would work through each bag from wedges up to the driver. It was not unusual for him to try 5 or 6 different drivers, looking for that little bit extra. We would closely watch the trajectory of each drive, where it landed on the range, and make a judgment on whether it was worth taking to the golf course for closer inspection. These sessions were never about how to swing the club faster, only finding the best combination of driver and technique.
Today at the United States Golf Academy, we have the most accurate technology in the world to determine the actual flight of the golf ball. We actually do not need to see the ball fly, as our radar tracks the ball flight from start to landing. This detailed information, coupled with the similar experiences of all our golf professionals, allows us to confirm what we have all known for a long time. The reason that most of the players do not hit the ball as far as they would like is not because of a lack of club head speed, it is the wrong driver combined with ineffective technique. So what issues can you address today that will help you hit the ball a little farther?
Improve your smash factor. One of the advantages of technology is that we can accurately measure the speed at which the ball leaves the club. The smash factor is the comparison of club speed to the speed at which the ball leaves the club face. The theoretical limit is a smash factor of 1.5. This means at 100 mph club speed, the fastest ball speed will be 150 mph. More ball speed = more distance. In order to achieve this, you must strike the ball in center of the clubface or on the sweet spot. No matter how fast you swing the club, you can never make up for a poor hit with more club speed.
Angle of Attack. Another influence on distance is whether you hit up or hit down on the ball with the driver. Our technology shows us that an upward strike on the ball can improve your distance up to 12% without swinging the club any faster. The reason for this is the improved launch conditions (higher) and improved spin conditions (lower).
Find an Expert. One of the things that Mr. Palmer always stressed was that golf swing and the equipment used are not separate issues. If you are looking for help, look to the professionals that understand this concept. Club fitting and swing lessons should be part of the same conversation.
Next week – The fairway clubs