Thursday, June 12, 2008

Putting on Unfamiliar Greens

By the time you read this we will have crowned a new United States Open Champion. I write these columns a week prior to publication so I don’t know the winner, but I can tell you with certainty he had a great week putting. He will have conquered green speeds and conditions that he may only find once or twice in a season. The Masters and Memorial tournaments are the only two this season that compare to the Open.
Over the course of a summer almost all of us will have the opportunity to play a golf course we haven’t played before. The hardest part of this round or rounds will be how you handle the different greens. The following are just a few hopefully helpful hints to handle new circumstances.
To predict the direction a putt will roll on a green you have never played before is as difficult a task as there is in golf. First, don’t be too hard on yourself. Very few players are able to judge the break in a putt the first time they play a hole. The tour players don’t read greens as much as they memorize them. Practice rounds are spent learning how a ball breaks front to back and side to side. With this information in hand when we see them on TV they are not reading the green as much as verifying information.
For those of us who don’t have that luxury, we have to do what we can with the information available. Take a look at the surrounding topography. If it is generally flat then play less break than you think you see. On hilly or uneven terrain it is a good idea to play more break .
Look at the color of the grass. Lighter color is usually a sign of higher ground, brighter green a sign of where the water drains (downhill). This is especially true during the heat of the summer.
Walk around on the green as much as proper etiquette will allow. You can fell the change in undulation with your feet. This is especially true if you close your eyes, but needless to say, this is not the most practical advice. However, looking at a putt from all sides is not as much about what you see as what you feel.
Finally, don’t be afraid to be a little aggressive. With an aggressive stroke, I can play less break, making the reads easier. The straighter line also increases the chance of making a couple long ones. Finally, I can see the break of the next putt as the ball goes past the hole, making the second putts easier.

Playing an Unfamiliar Golf Course

My favorite golf tournament of the year is the men’s United States Open Championship. While I was never blessed with the opportunity to play in the event, I have been fortunate to have worked with a couple of players who were preparing to play. Many of you will have your own US Open type experience this summer. It may be as a participant of a member guest, or a charity event, or a round of golf with a person who can be of some influence on your career. All of these events usually happen at a golf course you have never played. Now I am sure that many of you are laughing right now, thinking their no comparison, but I can assure you anxiety is anxiety, at any level.
The common problem for the US Open participant and the everyday player, is dealing with unfamiliar golf course conditions. The length of the rough is a common topic when discussing the Open, but I can assure you we all face Open rough conditions every spring regardless of what golf course we frequent. So the rough is probably more of an adjustment for the Tour player than the everyday player. Another is the length of the golf courses. This year’s Open could be played at around 7600 yards. For the everyday player this seems unbelievably long, and it would be if the golf course was set up like the golf courses we play everyday. The difference is that for the Open and more exclusive resorts and clubs, the grass length in the fairways is much shorter. For the Open participant they have to adjust to the speed of the closely mown fairways. The ball bounces and rolls much farther and with that they must chose the perfect line off the tee to keep the ball in play. For the everyday player the adjustment is not so much with distance, we love the ability to hit the ball farther, our problem comes from not being accustomed to hitting the ball off a tight lie. The ball sits up nice and high on the fairways at home and when presented with a perfect lie on a fast fairway we panic, unsure of our ability to get the ball airborne. I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard how someone went to a special event, drove it great and hit the irons lousy.
So how to fix do we fix this problem? First, play the ball down or as it lies. If you always play preferred lies, how can you learn to play from a more difficult lie? Second, practice by hitting 3 woods off a bare lie, or a mat. Finally, remember that the key to hitting down on a shot from a close lie is to keep the club moving. The swing thought is down and THROUGH, not just down. Next week – putting on faster greens.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Watch your Grip

Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial tournament was this past weekend in Dublin, Ohio. One of the highlights of the event is a golf clinic put on by Mr. Nicklaus and some of the week’s participants. Last year’s winner K.J. Choi from Korea was one of the featured players at this year’s event. When asked about the weaknesses in the amateur games he observes each week in the pro-am. He was very quick to say that most amateurs do not understand the grip. As an instructor who watches golf swings everyday, I was thrilled to hear a player of his caliber focus on what is easily the most overlooked fundamental in golf. My former employer Arnold Palmer tells the story of his first lesson from his father Deke. Deke showed his 9 year old son how to hold the club, told him to never let go and swing hard. It might have been the best first lesson in history.
Almost any instruction book you read will start with, Chapter 1. The Grip. It will be a summary of how you should place your hands on the club, how each finger should fit and where. This is all great stuff except for the simple fact that everyone’s hands are shaped little different, wide, narrow, long or short. Of course, this is why we have different size gloves. So in the space of this short column, how can I help you work on your grip and find a hand position that will improve your game? The real truth is that without seeing you in person, I probably can’t, but I can give you hints to help.
1. Go to a PGA professional instructor and ask him how much he would charge for a lesson just about the grip. In 30 years I have never had a student say, “This is a basic fundamental, and I want to fully understand how the hands go on the club before I work on anything else.” If I ever have someone ask I would gladly do it for $1.00. I promise it would be the best golf dollar you ever spent.
2. One of the goals of a good grip is to have two hands work as one. To do this your hands should be as close together as they can. At least once a day I ask someone to move their bottom hand closer to the top.
3. Grip the club with your fingers. Imagine trying to throw a ball with the ball braced against your palm. It is hard to do. The same is true with a golf club. It is hard to create any speed unless you use your fingers.
4. If you haven’t changed the grips on your clubs in the past two years, it is time to do so. For the price of a lesson you basically have a new set of clubs. The harder it is to hold the club, the harder you have to work to strike the ball solidly.